Gerard Russell on religious minorities in the Middle East
With the advancing forces of the Islamic State (IS) and its targeted campaign against minority groups by killing those unwilling to convert to Islam many minority faiths have become endangered such as the Shabaks, Yazidis, the Turkmens and the Assyrian Christians. There are very few experts who can provide clarification about the current position of these minority faiths. One of the few who can do so is Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat who had widely traveled in Iraq and other regions in the Middle East and writer of the book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms. De Balie director Yoeri Albrecht speaks with him about his book. Afterwards, Petra Sijpesteijn - professor of Arabic Language and Culture at Leiden University - joins the conversation.
The Middle East has long sheltered many distinctive and strange faiths: one regards the Greek prophets as incarnations of God, another reveres Lucifer in the form of a peacock, and yet another believes that their followers are reincarnated beings who have existed in various forms for thousands of years. These religions represent the last vestiges of the magnificent civilizations in ancient history: Persia, Babylon, Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Their followers have learned how to survive foreign attacks and the perils of assimilation. But today, with the Middle East in turmoil, they face greater challenges than ever before.
Since the early 20th century we witnessed the rise of militant, extremist Islamic sects. This development, along with the rippling effects of Western invasion, now pose existential threats to these minority faiths. And as more and more of their youth flee to the West in search of greater freedoms and job prospects, these religions face the dire possibility of extinction.