We are grateful for the positive feedback from many readers to the re-launch of the Middle East File. We hope it continues to be a source of compelling information about trends and issues across the region. 

The first article featured this week was inspired by the formal recognition by Secretary Blinken of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim community in Burma. Writing for Providence Magazine, I noted how religious freedom violations often are a warning sign along the path toward genocide or other types of atrocities.

The story of Sipan Ajo, as recounted by Amberin Zaman for al-Monitor, is truly gut-wrenching and inspiring. Sipan was just 15 in August of 2014 when ISIS militants in Kocho, Iraq, abducted her. The account of her years in captivity and eventual escape is incredible. She offers a window into what thousands of fellow Yazidis and others who have survived suffered. Now, only months into newfound freedom, she has chosen to use her voice to speak out. 

The third story in this week’s Middle East File comes from Amaney A. Jamal and Michael Robbins, co-directors of the Arab Barometer project. Based on public opinion data from across the region, they look at prospects for democracy in the region and why it seems to have stalled since 2011.  

Finally, another global trend, Pew Research Center, highlights the scope of blasphemy and apostasy laws worldwide, particularly in the Middle East. These laws often become the basis for unjust prosecution of religious minorities or those who dissent from the majority religion and make individuals targets for extrajudicial violence. 

We hope these articles and the many other links to related resources provide added insight for the week. 

Also, be sure to visit the Middle East Action Team page to find more resources and follow us on Twitter.

Jeremy P. Barker
Director, Middle East Action Team
Religious Freedom Institute 
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Recognizing Warning Signs on the Path to Genocide by Jeremy Barker (Providence Magazine) 

On Monday, March 21, 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally announced that the United States has determined that members of the Burmese military committed acts of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya community in Burma. [...] These attacks did not occur in a vacuum but emerged within the particular religious, social, and political landscape of Burma. There was a deadly combination of social animus toward these communities paired with government policies that ranged from invidious discrimination to the outright denial of their fundamental rights as citizens because of their religious identity or beliefs. This combination of social hostility and government repression is the breeding ground for religion-related violence of the worst kinds.
Why it Matters: The recognition of genocide committed in Burma provides another critical opportunity to look at the factors that led to widescale violence. Ongoing religious repression from both government and society contributes to the conditions that can lead to extreme forms of violence.

Against all odds, Yazidi girl outlives her top-ranking Islamic State captors by Amberin Zaman (Al-Monitor)

They called her Baqiya, Arabic for “she who remains.” She moved in the highest echelons of the Islamic State, serving Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tea, pricking her ears as the former “caliph” and his top commanders planned attacks, playing with his children and accompanying his main wife, “Um Khaled,” to ladies’ dos. She was enslaved by Baghdadi’s most trusted lieutenant, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. The Syrian from Idlib was the Islamic State’s chief strategist and official spokesman, a brute in the bedroom as in the battlefield. He relished killing and bred Arab horses. Then, unexpectedly, he fell in love. Her real name is Sipan, after a mountain in her native Sinjar in northern Iraq. 

Sipan, however, rose from the dead. Her family had dug a symbolic grave for her alongside that of her father and her eldest brother, both killed in the Kocho massacre, believing Sipan had died in a 2017 coalition airstrike on a building in Raqqa, the erstwhile capital of the Islamic State. She almost did, one of several brushes with death. “Sipan was held by the very top leaders of the Islamic State. She showed enormous courage and managed to survive. Her story is unlike any I’ve heard, yet it’s certainly true,” Bek said. “You must tell it.” I promised I would.

Three months later, Sipan sat with quiet dignity on the living room couch, her hands folded neatly on her lap, and described her ordeal in detail to a journalist for the first time. There is no trace of self-pity. She refuses to be a victim. “I want to be the voice of all the girls and women who shared my fate, an ambassador,” she said.

Why it Matters: Sipan Ajo’s account of her captivity in Syria and Iraq by some of the most senior ISIS leaders is truly remarkable. Sipan was only aged 15 in August 2014 when she was taken from her hometown of Kocho, Iraq. Like those of other survivors such as Nadia Murad, Sipan's account gives an eye-opening look into the horrific atrocities they endured and incredible resilience. 


Middle East

Why Democracy Stalled in the Middle East by Amaney A. Jamal and Michael Robbins (Foreign Affairs)

In 2011, citizens across the Middle East took to the streets to demand more representative governments, social justice, and economic reforms. In Egypt and Tunisia, protest movements toppled dictators who had ruled for decades; authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the region were rattled as never before. The Arab Spring captured imaginations around the world and challenged long-held assumptions about the region’s political culture. [...] A little over a decade after the initial uprisings, there are fewer grounds for such optimism. Not only have authoritarians further consolidated their rule, but even more important, attitudes toward democracy and political rights have dramatically shifted.

Why it Matters: Based on the survey data from the Arab Barometer, this article looks at the current popular views toward democratic systems across the Middle East and how it has delivered on economic opportunity alongside political freedoms. The article contrasts the experiences of Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan with that of Tunisia, Lebanon, and Iraq. The findings are interesting as it concludes that appeals to abstract ideas will not be enough if it does not also connect to material needs as well.



Four-in-ten countries and territories worldwide had blasphemy laws in 2019 by Virginia Villa (Pew Research Center)

Apostasy and blasphemy may seem to many like artifacts of history. But in scores of countries around the world, laws against apostasy and blasphemy remain on the books – and many are enforced to various degrees. A new Pew Research Center analysis finds that 79 countries and territories out of the 198 studied around the world (40%) had laws or policies in 2019 banning blasphemy, which is defined as speech or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or of people or objects considered sacred. Twenty-two countries (11%) had laws against apostasy, the act of abandoning one’s faith.

Why it Matters: The abuse of blasphemy laws provides the pretext for persecution from both governments and societies. As this research from the Pew Research Center demonstrates, these laws still exist in a number of countries, with their most dramatic impacts centered in a few hot spots such as Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.  

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