F RO M T H E E D I T O R S :
M I DDLE EA ST SOCI ETY
Are the Threads Unraveling?
f the many prized articles produced in the Middle East, among the most precious and renowned are carpets. “Persian carpets” or “Oriental rugs” are not only useful, but offer artisans opportunities to create objects rich in brilliant color and complex patterns. In a way, that sums up the complicated life of Middle Eastern society: a beautiful and intricate creation, with many interwoven strands of culture and belief. It is a creation CNEWA prizes — and seeks to preserve. As an agency of the Holy See, CNEWA has worked in the Middle East for more than 80 years, supporting initiatives of the churches that not only strengthen the Christian community, but also the non-Christian majority, especially in the areas of health care and education. By supporting generations of priests and counselors, doctors and nurses, midwives and sisters, therapists and teachers, a tightly woven society would, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, lead to “positive secularism” and thriving Middle Eastern societies “concerned for the fundamental rights of the human person ... whatever his or her origins, religious convictions and political preferences.”
In recent years, however, the great carpet of Middle Eastern society has begun to unravel. There are many reasons for this, and it is at times difficult to separate cause from effect. But it is useful to look at how history led us to this point — and what may lie ahead.
or thousands of years, caravans moved through the Middle East, exchanging not only the goods of the great civilizations of Greece, Rome, India and China, but peoples, ideas and beliefs. The Middle East was no mere passive recipient; the region gave birth to three religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — whose members believe in the one God. As these Middle Eastern religions spread throughout the entire world, they transformed and adapted to the many cultures with which they came in contact. Shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632, Islam as a religious and political system grew rapidly. From its roots in Arabia, it spread through the Middle East and North Africa to as far west as Spain and as far east as China. Although Islam did win many of its converts through armed conquest, large numbers of people in the conquered lands, especially
those defined as “People of the Book” — i.e., Jews and Christians, and later, Mandaeans and Zoroastrians — retained the faith of their ancestors and did so in relative peace. The Muslim conquest did not bring homogeneity to the civilizations of the Middle East. If anything, it made them more diverse. Middle Eastern cities such as Alexandria, Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus exhibited complex racial, cultural and religious forms. Jews and Christians of all varieties flourished. Alawis, Druze, Mandaeans, Shabaks, Yazidis and Zoroastrians could be found in Syria and Mesopotamia. An array of Syriac Christians described the Plain of Nineveh, near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, as home. These nonMuslims were not isolated from the Islamic civilization of the Middle East, nor were Muslims impervious to non-Muslim culture. Islam took over many of the cultural aspects of the Christian Middle East and added a uniquely Islamic flavor to them. The Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad (750-1258) engaged Jews and Christians in respectful debates. Syriac Christian manuscripts that preserved ancient Greek learning, such as geometry, medicine and philosophy, were translated into Arabic and later were reintroduced
The official publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA)