Review – Russell, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms”

Gerard Russell, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East” (2014) (read aloud by Michael Page) – Readers can have a little bit of orientalism… as a treat! That’s not entirely fair, in one direction or another- either something in Said’s towering labyrinth of what is and isn’t culpable essentializing doesn’t apply to this book, or else, I should be slamming it harder. Gerard Russell is a British ex-diplomat, journalist, and currently a kind of PR/lobbying guy (apparently helping the United Arab Emirates in its PR war against rival tiny Gulf oil tyranny Qatar?). He follows – somewhat self-consciously – in a long tradition of western, especially British, official and semi-official travelers in the Middle East who want to get to know the “real” culture of the area. Often, these travelers become partisans of one or another cause, most famously T.E. Lawrence and his fight for a united Arab kingdom, liberated from the Turks in WWI. The record of such figures is mixed, both geopolitically and intellectually.

Russell, working in an era where the British still have some pull in the region but are definitely not the big fish anymore, has a couple of dogs in the fight, and they’re not awful ones, as far as it goes. He thinks people should see the people of the Middle East as responding to historical circumstances, not some essential drive to conflict, sectarianism, whatever. And he’s a sympathizer with its small religions, which is what this book is about. As he points out in the introduction, despite the Middle East’s reputation as a monolithic bloc of Muslims, there is in fact greater religious diversity in the region than in most places, and much of it comes from religious groups that well pre-date not just Islam, but Christianity and in some cases even rival Judaism’s hoary agedness. Various religious scholars and enthusiasts have scrapped and squinted the harsh soil of European monoculture to find pre-monotheistic religious holdovers in isolated parts of the continent, but in the Middle East, there are full blown remnants of such religions in plain view, simple sociological fact. 

In the grand old British orientalist tradition, Russell roots for these because they’re cool and different. Well… there’s a reason people liked (like?!) orientalism so much, and not just do put down and dehumanize “the other.” The religions Russell discusses are interesting and different! He finds opportunities to spend time with and discuss the beliefs of Mandaeans, Copts, Kalasha, Druze, Samaritans, Yazidis, and Zoroastrians. From our perspective, it is hard not to see many of these religions as “throwbacks,” though at least one, the Druze, do seem to post-date the rise of Islam in the region. All of them are either defined by, or retain features of, religious traditions that aren’t seen much today. In some cases, there is a direct, if somewhat obscurely documented, line between pre-monotheistic religion and these marginal religions of the region, such as among the Kalasha (essentially, Afghan Hindus) and the Mandaeans (who probably keep old Babylonian beliefs, especially surrounding astrology, alive). Others represent “paths not taken” by the mainstream monotheistic religions: the influences of Gnosticism and Greek philosophy (especially Pythagoras and Neo-Platonism) in the Druze and Yazidi faiths, the early draft of dualistic monotheism in Zoroastrianism, the dwindling pre-Temple-destruction Judaism of the Samaritans. The Copts of Egypt are a bit of an odd man out, being devout Christians and hence part of a large religious body, and Russell makes what seem like bigger reaches than usual in ascribing some Coptic beliefs and practices to the Pharaonic past. A Christian-dominated Egypt is enough of an anachronism for me without connecting it to people who worshiped animal-headed gods, but maybe if I knew Egypt better, it’d make more sense. 

In general, you want to be careful with claims of advanced antiquity. In a lot of cases, they reflect myth-making more than anything else. But Russell isn’t completely off-base here, and the Middle East is hardly alone in having enclaves dedicated to what seem like other historical paths. Even if these religions aren’t as old as some scholars and adherents claim, there is clearly deep, involved, and obscure history here. Given the harsh politics of the region over the centuries, many of these religious communities grew clannish and secretive, and don’t just give over their histories or holy texts to anybody, even with their communities. Russell makes no claim of being a theologian or scholar of religions- he just likes cool stuff and wants a more diverse world. 

He also admires their underdog quality. These religions have held on through many ups and downs, but are under severe threat now from multiple vectors of homogenization. The most obvious and spectacular of these is the rise of militant fundamentalist Islam. The Shia clerics who rule Iran do not love their Zoroastrian minority, but their persecutions pale next to those put on by those inspired by the oil-money funded revival of Salafist, Wahabbist, and other militant Sunni movements. ISIS nearly destroyed the Yazidi, who they regard as devil-worshippers, when they rolled through their homes in the mountains of Syria and Iraq, and less spectacular but equally discouraging persecutions of minority religious trends run throughout the Sunni world, from Sufis in North Africa to Ahmadis in Pakistan. The closest there is to a rationale for Assad’s side in the Syrian Civil War is that he slaughters based on opposition to his rule, less on the basis of sectarian identity, and Syria is home to many religious minorities that would stand to be exiled or massacred en masse if the opposition (after Assad killed what there was of a non-Salafist Arab Syrian opposition, those “moderate rebels” the CIA sought for in vain) won. Russell mostly stays out of the Syria situation, to his credit. 

There’s the push factor of persecution, but there’s also the pull factor of the world outside. Many of these religious traditions emphasize education and cooperation with secular rules (insofar as said rules aren’t too badly oppressive), so many Copts, Druze, Zoroastrians and others have found economic and social success in places where they migrated to. Russell doesn’t end “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms” in Beirut or Baghdad, but in Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest concentration of people of Middle Eastern descent in the US, and a place where people of many of the faiths Russell describes found refuge. You can find more Mandaeans in Worcester, Massachusetts, than you can in many of their traditional villages in the marsh country of Iraq these days, and my part of Massachusetts has seen chain-migration of Copts, many of whom open up pizza restaurants. People from most of these religions (Kalasha tend to stick to their valleys and Samaritans to a few towns in what’s now Israel/Palestine) have also found traction in Britain, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. In those places, they face the classic immigrant dilemma: the benefits of assimilation versus losing their culture. The blessed indifference most Westerners have towards their beliefs (also a double-edged sword, often lumping them into a generic “Middle Eastern” off-white category and assuming they’re all Muslim, hence suspect- those Coptic pizza places often have BIG displays of crosses and saint icons, and I don’t think that’s down to piety alone) can also infect their children and themselves. Russell emphasizes these aren’t easy religions- the Copts have more fasting days than normal days on their characters, and many of these faiths have difficult rules to follow, expressed in obscure holy texts and oral traditions. Especially when the faith itself, its beliefs and practices, define your community, it seems hard to try to soften or “modernize” them to make them easier… 

In any event! These religions have survived quite a lot, as Russell tells us. He also tells us a lot of interesting facts about them, and tells the stories of how he came to know these people. This is more journalism or travel writing than religious studies. Truth be told, I kind of prefer it that way, at least as far as recreational readability (well, listenability in this case) goes. Russell has both a certain amount of humility before the depth of this topic, and a willingness to speculate that might be a little “iffy” but does make for interesting reading. ****

Review – Russell, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms”

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