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Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East
By Habib C. Malik
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
STRAINED TO THE BREAKING POINT
That the Middle East is the cradle of the world's three monotheisms is a phrase one encounters in every high-school textbook or tourist brochure about the region. But this fact alone reveals little about present-day conditions that see two of the three great religions thriving in their geographic points of origin while the third, Christianity, appears in a state of terminal regional decline. Islam, since the days of its early and spectacular conquests from Morocco to Indonesia and beyond, has had both the overwhelming numbers and the territory to show for itself. As an essentially martial religion, Islam has achieved phenomenal success in capturing and holding its place of birth as well as wrenching lands far and wide from the sway of rival belief systems. It faces daunting challenges from modernity but no existential fears of eradication from where it started or from the wider regional circumference. Judaism, despite eschewing converts and undergoing a momentous historic scattering into a prolonged Diaspora, managed to survive in pockets and niches throughout the Middle East, withstanding often severe pressures from its two other offspring religions. Until, that is, a secular Jewish nationalism — Zionism — was born in nineteenth-century Europe and magnetically reassembled its people along with their ancient creed, language, customs, and everything else they had acquired, or honed, over two millennia into the formidable achievement that is Israel today. They may still not have the numbers, but they certainly do possess both the strength and external support to sustain themselves seemingly indefinitely in their precise place of origin: the land of milk and honey glimpsed by Moses over three millennia ago from Mount Nebo.
For its part Christianity may have surely "won the world" in the sense of being the most widespread religion in history with the largest number of adherents, but it is steadily losing ground in and around its birthplace. Why is that? Today, between 10–12 million native Christians remain in the Middle East, concentrated mainly in Egypt, the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestine territories), and Iraq. Their numbers, however, continue to dwindle due to a variety of factors, both internal and external. Most prominent among the outside sources of pressure has been the rise in recent decades of Islamic extremism, or Islam-ism, in both its Sunni and Shiite varieties. This is only the latest among potentially calamitous dangers besetting Middle Eastern Christians, not least because it tends to stir ancient antagonisms and revive atavistic rejections of the different other as the despised infidel.
Taking the longer historical view, it becomes apparent that Christianity had begun to exhaust its meager reservoir of hospitality in the Near East and Arabia toward the end of the first millennium, during the adolescent period of the new faith. This faith, which claimed that God Himself became a man so that all humans may be saved from their sins, was never able to find sustained easy acceptance nor permanent fertile soil in the Middle East where it first appeared — a mystery that is perhaps partially explained as confirmation of the familiar adage that no prophet receives honor in his place of origin among his people. For, according to the new message, the "Good News" amounted to this: In the end what counts are not divine words or laws or rituals, but that everyone is invited to have an intimate individual as well as communal relationship with the living person of the Incarnate God — Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Word, the Son of God, the Savior through whom all things were made. This is humanity's only hope and all else is trivial.
First came rejection by the Sanhedrin in ancient Jerusalem; then three centuries of brutal suppression by pagan Romans; then, after the church had triumphed over the empire, a string of heresiarchs emerged, some of whose followers retreated into the desert fringes only to return with a vengeance in the seventh century as Islamic conquerors. The Christian creed they rejected had proven too much to bear for these desert folk who were usually beyond the reach of the imperial centers of power with which the destiny of the church in the East had become fatefully intertwined. There followed a prolonged severing of the region from the dynamism of the Western church with the only, and catastrophic, contacts coming in the form of the Crusades — a delayed Western reaction to the earlier Islamic conquests that had reached southern France.
Not only were some Christians branded as fifth columnists during the Crusader period, but persecutions mounted after the Mongol invasions, especially when the Mongols embraced Islam. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the besieging armies of Ottoman Sultan Mohammad the Conqueror was a watershed in the history of eastern Christianity because the Christians of Asia Minor never recovered from that loss, and the rest of Levantine Christianity was severely weakened as a result. Massacres resumed against these Christian communities, including Armenians and Assyrians beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century and on into the 1930s. A brief respite occurred with the emergence of Arab nationalism as a unifying secular ideology during the middle decades of the twentieth century only to see the old perils return with the onset of this latest Islamist wave.
Given this toxic historical residue it is no surprise that precariously subsisting Middle Eastern Christian communities today face adverse consequences of existential proportions when militant ideologies like Jihadism begin to run amok. The Christian faith that had started out long ago as "a stumbling block for the Jews and absurdity for the Greeks" also became blasphemy for the Muslims, and it has not been too difficult for Islamist radicals to resuscitate this primordial repulsion from Christianity latent within Political Islam and adorn it with a violent disposition. If forced or gradual conversionswere the leading factors that diminished Christian numbers throughout the Middle East during the centuries following the early Islamic conquests, emigration has become the principal avenue in the last one hundred years or so through which the native Christian population is being culled, and this hemorrhaging by an exodus of individuals, families, and whole communities proceeds unabated. Suspicion of the West — prevalent in much of the Islamic world and often transformed into outright hatred because of the ravages attributed to Western colonialism and imperialism and unqualified support for Israel — has also served on occasion as a pretext to scapegoat indigenous Christians because they have been perceived as sharing the same religious beliefs with the vilified Westerners.
As this attrition of the region's Christians accelerates, the lingering impression in the outside world is that what remains of these communities amounts to nothing more than vanishing relics of the past. The relic phenomenon is an alarming one and the numbers offer sobering evidence of its impending reality. In 1948 Jerusalem was about a fifth Christian; today, it is less than 2 percent. For centuries Christians used to constitute over 80 percent of Bethlehem's population, but today they are barely a third and falling. In 1943, at the time of its independence, Lebanon was a majority-Christian country, but after thirty years of war and foreign occupation Lebanon's Christians now make up around a third of the population and the trend is demographic contraction. It is estimated that about half of Iraq's 1.4 million Christians have fled the country since the American invasion in 2003.
Accepting the relic status of Middle Eastern Christianity betrays at best a cold indifference and at worst complicity in the ongoing extinction. There are objective reasons why a Muslim-majority Middle East that nevertheless continues to exhibit pluralist acceptance of its non-Muslim indigenous communities regardless of their demographic size or geographic spread is a healthier Middle East that is less prone to extremism. As Pope Benedict XVI put it when he visited Jerusalem in May 2009, "great cultural and spiritual impoverishment" results when the Christian inhabitants of the city, and of the region as a whole, depart in significant numbers. Reversing this trend will be an awesome undertaking.
The prescription to "love your enemies" may have been too difficult for the East to stomach and with time many Christians sadly became converted to the hate and vengeance ensconced in other creeds — thus has been the way of the world most everywhere. But, on balance, Christians native to the Middle East have generally exhibited a greater docility and lack of belligerence than their coreligionists in the Christian world at large, except under specific circumstances when they did opt to defend themselves against external attack. Their story, the trials they face, their options, and their prospects are explored in the pages ahead.CHAPTER 2
President Obama's celebrated speech addressing the Muslim world and delivered in Cairo on June 4, 2009, was well received and has helped to improve America's image in the eyes of many Muslims globally. In the course of the speech there is a passing reference that is directly germane to the present discussion. The President extols "the richness of religious diversity," adding "whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt." Obviously, the president's speechwriter had good intentions in lumping together in one breath those two quite different Middle Eastern Christian communities, although mentioning the Maronites so prominently three days before Lebanon's then watershed parliamentary elections was designed to signal strong U.S. support for the pro-American stance taken by the Maronite Patriarch, the spiritual leader of Lebanon's largest Christian denomination. And mention of the Copts clearly aimed to remind the world that the President had not forgotten a religious community that in recent years had experienced repeated bouts of attacks from fanatics while the Egyptian authorities either watched from the sidelines or tacitly condoned the abuse. What seems to have been overlooked — and it is a fine yet pivotal nuance — is the slightly negative impact such a joining in a single reference of the two communities, Maronites and Copts, would have mainly on Maronites and other Christians in Lebanon. Not to mention how the conspicuous absence of any reference to Iraq's Christians, suffering grievously since America's 2003 invasion of their country, would have on their feelings of neglect and abandonment — but back to Maronites and Copts.
Understanding the deep sensitivities Maronites and other Christians from Lebanon might have to being combined unreservedly with neighboring communities in the region who share their faith, but not their history, marks the beginning of fathoming a crucial reality pertaining to Middle Eastern Christianity: that there are in fact two distinct historical experiences — two separate narratives — defining the development of these indigenous Christian communities of the Arab and Islamic East. What differentiates these two broad narratives from one another is the degree of genuine personal and collective freedom experienced over time in each. The human end products of these two very different courses of historical development for native Christians are two markedly unique types in terms of their outlooks, expectations, aspirations, and self-understanding. For those Christians who have tasted freedom and struggled hard throughout the centuries to attain and preserve it, being classified unceremoniously with others of their kind who unfortunately lack any meaningful appreciation for such free existence becomes tantamount to an insult. Thus these two disparate experiences of Christians in the Middle East can be termed respectively dhimmi and free.
The overwhelming majority of Christian Arabs — over 90 percent — live today in dhimmi communities. These include the Christians in Egypt (Copts); Iraq (Chaldeans and Assyrians); Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories (mainly Greek Orthodox and Melkites); and other scattered parts of the Gulf and North Africa. Extending the scope a little further in both place and time they would also comprise Christians in Iran and Turkey as well as the now vanished Christian communities in Arabia. The word "dhimmi" literally means in Arabic someone who lives "under the protection of" (fi dhimmat) Muslims. In fact it is more like subjugation under Muslim legal and political rule and entails a consequent reduction to second-class status. The term "dhimmitude" has been coined in English to indicate this form of subjugation.
During the early period of Islamic conquests these Christian communities were dominated and subjugated thereby being forced to give up an existence in liberty and to succumb to dhimmitude in their own ancestral lands. Both Christians and Jews are referred to in the Koran as "People of the Book" rendering them superior in the eyes of Muslims to outright pagans because they did receive some sort of divine revelation even though they later garbled their sacred texts and went astray. For this reason they are not considered as equal to Muslims and they are granted the chance to convert or to leave the territories of the expanding House of Islam. Those who choose to stay and adhere to their religious faith are therefore reduced to dhimmi status and only tolerated as such. Although the Koran exhibits a pervasive fixation on Christianity when, for example, it stresses the absolute unity of God (Allah), admonishes notions of God having been begotten or himself begetting, and rejects as a particularly odious form of idolatry any hint of shirk (introducing external associates into the One Godhead — a clear reference to the Christian Trinity), Koranic verses vary in their severity toward Christians. Side by side with verses that call for battling the unbelievers and that consign these to the fires of eternal damnation are verses of a milder and more accepting tone: "no compulsion is there in religion" and, in a characteristic expression of Islamic fatalistic resignation, "if thy Lord had willed, whoever is in the earth would have believed."
From the dawn of the Islamic period means had to be devised in the form of specific rules to accommodate the presence of these dhimmi minority communities within the House of Islam. The Caliph Omar is credited with first organizing and promulgating these rules, known henceforth as the Pact of Omar, which would govern the daily life of dhimmis and their relations with Muslims. Together these rules acted as suffocating restrictions on dhimmis underscoring their social and legal inferiority with respect to their Muslim masters. This religious apartheid was the price dhimmis had to pay to earn "protection," or the right not to be killed.
To be a dhimmi meant first for a Christian paying a special poll tax (the jizya, literally "penalty tax") for being permitted to remain an infidel under Islamic rule. He could not build new churches nor renovate dilapidated old ones. Christian houses had to be constructed lower than those of Muslims with low entrances to force the occupants to stoop when passing through them. Such measures had the purpose of keeping dhimmis in a continuous state of humiliation before Muslims. In addition, dhimmi Christians had to shave the front of their heads, don certain colored clothing, ride sideways on their donkeys or mules, salute Muslims when passing, and generally stick to the side streets and alleys where they held their funeral and other religious processions in silence. Strictly forbidden as public manifestations of kufr (infidelity) were the ringing of church bells, the display of crosses and other religious symbols, or loud singing during church services. Moreover, dhimmi Christians were not allowed to sell alcohol or carry any weapons and they were exempt from military service. They enjoyed no political rights whatsoever and usually held menial jobs or served in low-level bureaucratic posts that often required technical or linguistic expertise. Their testimony was not accepted in court in cases involving a Muslim. They were permitted their own courts for settling matters of personal status such as disputes, divorce, and inheritance. Lastly, a dhimmi man could not marry a Muslim woman, but a Muslim man could marry a dhimmi woman, who of course had to convert to Islam and raise her children in that faith.
Excerpted from Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East by Habib C. Malik. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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