The Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum was pleased to host a lunch discussion with former diplomat Gerard Russell to speak about his new book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdom: Journey into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. Cristina Odone, Director of Communications at the Institute, moderated the lively conversation.
Russell explained that western diplomats had for too long approached the Middle East from a purely political and economic perspective, ignoring the impact religion has on the region.
Highlighting the beliefs and practices of some of the lesser-known religious groups of the Middle East such as the Mandaeans, Yazidis, or Samaritans, Russell described how these ancient religions have survived throughout history. Some worship the sun, others believe in reincarnation, and others yet draw on sources as diverse as paganism, Jewish tradition, or a mixture of ancient Greek philosophy and Hinduism. These religions “represent an amazing continuity between cultures from the past and the present,” Russell explained, and pointed out that their common attributes illustrate how interlinked our cultures have always been. The survival of these religious minorities in the Middle East - in contrast to Europe, for example – show Islam’s historical tolerance and open-mindedness. But perhaps even more importantly, these cults were protected by their location, generally in remote areas, far from trade centres and difficult to access. Location, however, no longer offers much protection today, and the region’s political instability threatens their survival.
Reflecting on potential policy options, Russell conceded that the West’s ability to preserve these religions was limited. He pointed out that there was a difference between what should be done and what can be done. The region certainly needs good governance, the rule of law and states that protect their citizens, but “good governance is an easy thing to say,” explained Russell - in practice, it is much more difficult to achieve. By intervening in foreign countries, the West has had a destabilizing effect and its arbitrary decisions on the ground have generally not benefitted religious minorities.
Western governments can, however, start by recognizing and acknowledging these faiths, and supporting the communities in the diaspora. The diasporas themselves will need to learn how to adapt their practices and pass their traditions and knowledge to future generations, something that can be quite a challenge when only a few members of the group know the scriptures. Western governments can also help by reflecting the region’s historical religious diversity in the narrative it uses when speaking to, or about the region. This would depend on government departments understanding religion and its history, rather than fearing it.
About the Speaker
Gerard Russell worked for 14 years as a British and United Nations diplomat, and has lived in Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Kabul, and Jeddah. He also pioneered work by the British government to address Middle Eastern audiences in Arabic, in 2001 to 2003. He was awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for this work in 2002. He speaks Arabic and Dari. He is a graduate of Oxford University, has an M.A. in philosophy from London University, and was a Research Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School from 2010 to 2011. He is a Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation’s International Security Program as well as a Senior Associate of the Foreign Policy Centre in London. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is his first book, and took him four and a half years to write, including journeys to eight different countries.
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