5 June 2013
Considering the deadly sectarian violence in the Middle East, including the attack on the main cathedral in Cairo and the refugee crisis in Syria, a special issue on Middle Eastern religious minorities could not be timelier. London is home to a wide range of Middle Eastern religious minority communities, including Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians (Coptic, Armenians, Orthodox, Assyrians and Evangelical), Bahá’ís, and Shi’as (Twelvers, Ismailis, and Alevis). This issue looks at the historical and contemporary conditions of some of these groupings, and explores how their institutions and cultural practices continue to be shaped by social and political dynamics in the region.
Sami Zubaida’s Insight piece presents the complex and varied history of confessional identifications and solidarities in relation to wider political processes across the region. George Joffé, concentrating on the history of Ibadi communities of Algeria, Tunisia and Libya and North Africa’s Jewish communities, delivers a rich account of these largely unknown, and for North African Jews, virtually extinct communities. His reference to the drafting of the first Arab Constitution in Tunisia in 1860 echoes current, heated debates on the place of religion in the new constitutions in the region. Hadi Enayat’s article, focusing on Egypt and Turkey, engages with a number of thorny issues in recognising communal rights of religious minorities in constitutional reform.
Turning to London, Alyn Hine highlights the development of the Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christian community who left (and continue to flee) the Levant due to ongoing economic and political tensions. His visit to St George’s Cathedral near Regent’s Park shows how the Orthodox community, despite internal national and linguistic divides, strives to maintain a communal identity in this country. Dan Wheately’s piece on London’s Bahá’í community traces the history of Bahá’ís in the UK and introduces a few of its charitable activities in London. Fadi Dawood recounts Assyrian-British relations that date back to 1837 and the political violence in Iraq that led to the Assyrian diaspora in the UK.
Middle East religious minorities have found diverse and creative ways to remain connected to their histories and homelands while establishing a strong communal and public presence in the UK. Susan Pattie looks at the increasing exposure of Armenian art forms, such as poetry, music and dance, and their continued renewal in relation to Armenian identity discourses in the diaspora. Sarah Stewart writes on the Zoroastrian community in London and the making of an exhibition due to open in the Brunei Gallery later this year, The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. Sami Zubaida provides a historical and contemporary account of Middle Eastern Jews, and their inroads to London life. Kathryn Spellman-Poots, focusing on a campaign spearheaded by a group of young British Shi'as, takes a generational look at ways Shi'as are trying to build a public profile in the UK and beyond.
And finally, among book reviews and the listings of Middle East events in London, is the Profile piece on Dr Ruba Saleh. Ruba provides a moving account of her life in the Palestinian Diaspora and how she ‘developed an academic passion for the study of “difference” and a commitment to scholarship on justice and rights of the disenfranchised’.