ISIS, Christians, and National Identity in the Middle East

Joshua Landis

Boston, April 7, 2016

Syria Expert Sees “Zero-Sum” Threat to Religious Minorities

Professor Joshua Landis Addresses Religious Aspects of Conflict at CSI-Sponsored Lecture

BOSTON, April 8, 2016

“There are no religious minorities left in rebel-held Syria,” Dr. Joshua Landis said in a public lecture at Boston College on Thursday. “The Christians can list for you the towns that have been cleansed, the bishops that have been killed. They believe they’re finished if the rebels win. The Alawites believe the rebels will drive them into the sea if they win, and that might well come to pass.”

In his talk, “ISIS, Christians and National Identity,” Professor Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and one of the leading Syria experts in the United States, spoke of a “Great Sorting Out” occurring in the broader Middle East. As the conflict becomes increasingly defined by religious identity, huge numbers of people are forced to leave their homes and seek the protection of governments and rebel groups of the same religion. Landis pointed to the destruction of the Arab world’s Jewish communities in the 1950s and their forced flight to Israel as a historical example.

This sorting out process, Landis said, is bound to be “long and bloody,” and exacerbated by the willingness of powers like Russia and the United States to use these emerging religious blocs as proxies for their own interests. At the present, Landis noted, Russia is supporting a Shi’ite-led government trying to suppress a Sunni insurgency in Syria, while the U.S. supports a Shi’ite government trying to suppress a Sunni insurgency in neighboring Iraq. As a result, Landis said, “the Sunnis are getting hammered,” facing “near ethnic cleansing” in Iraq, and comprising “the vast majority” of Syria’s four million refugees.

For religious minorities with no government or armed force in the Middle East to call their own – like Mandaeans, Yazidis and Christians – the Great Sorting Out represents a “zero-sum struggle.” If the governments that used to protect them do not survive, they will be forced to flee or face persecution and death. In Iraq, which has been violently sorted out into Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs, Landis noted that “over a million Christians have fled since the war began,” while in Syria, the minority-led regime of President Bashar al-Assad is a protective force for Christians.

Landis identified ISIS, with its large-scale massacres of non-Sunni religious minorities, as “the extreme example” of the Great Sorting Out process in action. At the same time, Landis pointed out that “many rebel leaders in Syria have called for religious cleansing” of non-Sunnis, including Zahran Alloush, a prominent rebel commander killed in an airstrike late last year and the brother of the Syrian opposition representative in Geneva.

As an indicator of the strength of religious identifications and tensions in the region, Landis pointed to the fact that for decades, Syrian children in state-mandated religion classes have studied from textbooks that claim, “Islam accepts only two choices for pagans: that they convert to Islam or be killed” – language that is uncomfortably close to the way ISIS publications speak of their plans for another religious minority in Syria, the Druze.

“I see a very bleak future of Syrians,” Landis concluded. “The war will continue for a long time,” and the pressure on Christians and other religious minorities will only increase.

The full video of Landis’ talk will be posted online at www.middle-east-minorities.com. Landis’ talk was part of a lecture series on The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East being held at Boston College, and sponsored by Christian Solidarity International in cooperation with the Department of Slavic & Eastern Languages & Literatures, the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, and the Department of Political Science, Islamic Civilization and Societies.