From a fascinating blog post at the Canadian magazine Maclean’s:
Of the various slurs and insults that opposing sides in Syria’s civil war fling at each other, there are some so archaic, they seem not to belong in a modern conflict. Among them is the Arabic and Persian term Majous, used by Sunni Muslim rebels against supporters of President Bashar al-Assad. Those familiar with the Christmas story might recognize its similarity to magi, as in the three wise men who came from the East with gifts for the baby Jesus.
The term originally referred to followers of Zoroastrianism, a now all-but-vanished religion that predates Islam. Rebels employ it today to deny the shared Islamic faith of their adversaries. Assad’s family and many of his supporters are Alawite Muslims, followers of an offshoot of Shia Islam. “It means they’re not Muslims, because they’re still these weirdo Zoroastrians,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “And they’re not even Arabs. They’re crypto-Iranians.”
“Majous,” a word used once in the Koran, is literally the Arabic version of our term “magi,” and it really is a term that’s frequently used in the propaganda of Syria’s rebels to describe the Assad regime (across the Muslim world, it’s just a pejorative for Persians).
The Gospel of Matthew uses the term (μάγοι, in Greek) for the men who visited Jesus, whether they were Persian or not, because it was the Greek term for just about any learned astrologers. Incidentally, the Iranian revolution drove many of the actual Zoroastrians out of Persia — about 20 or 30,000 remain in the country, though there are only maybe 200,000 adherents of the ancient religion worldwide.
The post, explaining the deep cultural roots of the Middle East’s current conflict, highlights at least two more bizarre ancient nicknames in vogue in the Arab world today: The al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq right now like to call the Iran-friendly Maliki government “Safavids,” after the 16th and 17th century Persian dynasty that conquered Baghdad. Earlier in the Iraqi conflict, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi referred to his Shia enemies as “Sabeans,” a pagan tribe from the southern Arabian peninsula, apparently just wanting to compare them to a group of godless warriors. On Epiphany the killing, with varying degrees of historical keenness, continues in the homelands of all these ancient peoples.