The role of Christians and minorities in the Arab world’s future

 by Tarek Mitri
Last Sunday’s massacre of Coptic Christians in Cairo raises doubts about the future of Christians in the countries affected by the Arab spring. For Tarek Mitri, a Christian and a former minister in the Lebanese government, the Yasmin Revolution has rekindled the old unity between Christians and Muslims that emerged in the course of the 19th century struggle for independence. Joint political action and mutual understanding among citizens can end the isolation and exodus of Christians from the Middle East.

Rome (AsiaNews) – An international conference was held on Wednesday at the Sala della Lupa in the Italian parliament on “The promotion of human rights in support of religious minorities. The importance of social stability for economic development”. It brought together personalities and diplomats from the Middle East and North Africa as well as scholars and specialists. Organised by IPALMO (Institute for relations between Italy and the nations of Africa, Latin America, the Middle and the Far East), the meeting was also attended by Vatican officials and the editor-in-chief of AsiaNews. One of the most significant papers presented was that by Tarek Mitri, a former Lebanese Minister of Culture and Information, who has always been committed to Islamic-Christian dialogue. He courteously allowed us to publish it in its entirety.

I speak this morning with a heavy heart. The strongly deplorable loss of lives in Cairo last Sunday opens our eyes to the magnitude of difficulties and uncertainties of the Egyptian transition towards genuine democracy, rule of law and citizenship. These tragic events point to the “modest” and contested ability of the Supreme Military Council to lead the said transition.

What is at stake is not restricted to the problem of religious minority rights: the right to build, maintain and repair places of worship and the freedom of conscience, including that of converting or reverting to another religion. The grievances of the Copts pertain also, and perhaps first and foremost, to civil and political rights. They often affirm their rights as full citizens and not only as a religious minority.

Notwithstanding the gravity of what has happened in the vicinity of Maspero, with all its human cost, one should not lose sight of two significant changes in attitudes and perceptions. While the resort to some violence was harmful to the Copts’ image as victims of discrimination, the force of their protest may well indicate a shift from a passive, somewhat withdrawn, attitude to that of a more assertive and politically motivated posture. The second meaningful development is the fact that the “Coptic issues” have become closer to being “national issues”.

More broadly, and with respect to the subject of our panel this morning, affirming the indivisibility human rights is not superfluous. Nor is it only a statement of principle. It is rather a necessary condition for approaching the question of minority rights with some caution against the culturalist or juridist reductionism. In this short intervention, issues will be examined in the light of our region’s political history, focusing on the inextricable link between the aspirations of majorities and the rights of minorities.

Christian-Muslim relations, from the dhimma pact to the struggle for independence

The Christians of the Arab world have been recognized as communities in law and public conscience since the birth of Islam. The statute, or rather the pact of the dhimma, while expecting their loyalty to the Islamic state, has protected them. Also, it implied a measure of inferiorization, both civil and political. This recognition was a form of acceptance, or even legitimization, of religious plurality a time when it was deficient elsewhere. But such pluralism, in the sense of an acceptance of plurality, was in a way a hierarchical pluralism.
Under the Ottomans, the dhimma system organizing pluralism reached its highest point of codification. The millets were both nations and religious communities and enjoyed relative autonomy. During the 19th century, the picture changed. The ideologies and political and legal structures developed in Europe progressively penetrated the Arab-Muslim world. On the other hand, the European powers, tempted by the Ottoman Empire’s weaknesses, and having adopted an imperialistic attitude, developed relations with various minority communities. In fact, hierarchical pluralism was exploited in favor of the needs of external domination. The Christians were often faced with difficult choices. But overall, they aspired to a “citizenship” freed from direct or indirect domination from abroad. While their fight for political and civil equality opposed them to the moribund Ottoman Empire, it united them with the Muslims in a national struggle for independence. For the majority of Christians this combat was to continue against the European nations after they had shared the spoils of the First World War.

Thus, the stakes of the struggles for national liberation were not just the future of the majority communities, but also the relationships between majorities and minorities. Collective identities had to be proposed in a way acceptable to different communities. Thus, the nahda, or renaissance, movement largely initiated and sustained by Christians was primarily cultural as it paved the way for the emergence of political movements. The role of the emerging national states was, in fact, reinforced even though they were questioned in the name of a vision for unity of an Arab umma, an inclusive entity defined in cultural-linguistic terms rather than those of ethnicity or religion. This vision was, for its part, considerably attractive. But neither the states nor the Arab nationalist movements, which had the same ideology as some states such as modern Iraq and Syria, did succeed in achieving national integration nor could they modify radically various traditional identities.

Islamic extremism as a common enemy for Christians and Muslims

Today, the anxiety of Christians in the Arab world and their friends is evident. It arises from the effects of their dwindling numbers, the economic and political failures of the national states ruled by dictatorships, and fears in the face of the rise of Islamism.

However, recognizing the anxiety and trying to understand the reasons for it is one thing, it is another to contribute to its aggravation. We cannot help fearing that alarmism and resignation will accelerate the realization of what is feared. Thus, the supposition of an imminent and final eradication of the Christians of the Arab world is at the same time an expression of, and a cause for, anxiety.

The perception of relations between the majority and the minority is clouded by hostility towards Islamism and in particular towards its violent and radical movements. More often than not, the way many Christians look at their future is blurred by their perception of Islamism, seen as monolithic, more influential than it truly is and irresistible. Some of them risk the dangerous pitfall of considering Islamism to be the most authentic expression, even if excessive, of Islam itself. Any resurgence of Islam, they say, is retrogression and will entail the subduing of Christians to the status of dhimmis. But Islamism could be seen, as in a commonly used metaphor, as a wave and however big waves seem to be, they are appeased once they have used up their initial driving force. It may still be premature to suggest, that the “Arab spring” may augur an era where many forms of Islamism loose part of their appeal, as we see despotic regimes whose repression has hardened its positions and widened its popular base, falling or losing their grip.

This perception cannot overshadow the reality that the anxiety of Christians is lived and expressed, mutatis mutandis, by a considerable number of Muslims. A number of Muslim voices acknowledge that, while the Christians have specific worries, these reflect problems within the society as a whole. The liberation of Christians would be a necessary condition for the liberation of the Muslims. This attitude is certainly not the exclusive privilege of opponents of political Islam and the secularist detractors of communalist bigotry but it is that of all those who, whilst accepting a specific Christian concerns, recognize problems of their own. Most often, it is not the relationship between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority that is at stake but justice, political participation, human rights and national dignity.

Be that as it may, Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria Lebanon are constantly and forcefully confronted with the importance of defining the relationship between communal loyalty and national identity, not only in the realm of ideas but in their daily lives. There are situations, sometimes dramatic, and people, be they political or religious leaders, who remind them of the primacy of communal loyalties. However, the lessons of modern history and the recent, unexpected and powerful emergence of popular movements invite them to privilege civic solidarity over primordial ties.

I In the later part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth, Christians played a role in shaping a new social and political order outweighing by far what their numerical importance seemed to allow. Their contribution, more in culture than in political activity, attempted to shake loose their minority status and identity. More than a century later, it remains uncertain whether their post-milletist consciousness survived the tragedies, failures and disappointments of the twentieth century.

In the nineteenth century, secessionist tendencies grew as the local elites expanded their autonomy. It has also become evident that the non-territorial millets were not immune to foreign intervention. European support to different Christian communities modified gradually the balance of power within the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, projects of national revival and emancipation were at work among Christians. The diffusion of western education through missionary schools accentuated differences between communities. Christians were opened to a new type of culture to which Muslims had a limited access. This acculturation provided the hitherto weaker Christians with a new means of self-affirmation. For them, western influence was also frequently a source of economic prosperity and subtle forms of political power. Majority-minority relations were thus modified. New political opportunities permitted some Christian communities, or fractions of communities, to move rapidly, some would say abruptly, from passive acceptance of the millet system into a rather militant nationalist and, in certain cases, separatist strategy.

The nation-states that emerged from the empire, including modern Turkey, came as a rejection of the Ottoman past. Muslims faced a more serious problem than the Christians. A nation depends to a significant extent on the memory of great and mystified historical events or achievements attributed to it alone. Ruled by the Ottomans they shared in their history. Emerging nation states in the Middle East lacked a distinctive national experience.

A large number of Christians were opposed, to the separatist tendencies of some of their coreligionists. They opted for modern nationalist and universalist ideologies. They emphasized their common ethno-cultural identity with Muslims as the basis of independence and modern nation building. The patriotic bond cemented opposition to the Ottoman central and oppressive power and later to dominating European was established powers. Thus in the struggle for, and achievement of, independence the pact of citizenship was established, superseding the former dhimma pact. The revolution of 1919 in Egypt was a case in point. In Palestine, the pact of citizenship was affirmed as Christians and Muslims suffered together dispossession and ethnic cleansing.

But the milletist attitudes did not fade away. In the search for independence and liberation, Islamic self-awareness was intensified. A sometimes violent self-assertion gained visibility and appeal against the failure of modern, more or less secular, independent and authoritarian governments. In some instances, this has led to anti-Christian feelings. It was said, and believed, that the colonial powers, and national governments later, gave a preferential treatment to Christians and used them to benefit their domination. No matter how questionable these perceptions are, there will always be people, today like yesterday, who cannot, or do not dare, oppose those who make them angry. They look unconsciously for substitutes and often find them.

In short, the opening of the twentieth century suggested that a new society was in the making yet it was ruled by an old state. More than a hundred years later, some saw old societies in new states. Primordial ties, those of kin, ethnicity and religion seemed to command more loyalties than civic relations. I am sure some will argue that the revolts in Arab countries may change the rule. Let us see if the new constitutions, and the subsequent political dynamics, will confirm our anticipated confidence.

Political struggle and religious pluralism against homogeneity and isolation

Everywhere, and the Arab World is no exception, meaningful identities are multiple. Nevertheless, when the various needs, material or spiritual, are being met or expressed in one identity, the borders between communal loyalties are mutually enforced than mutually balanced. They create closed communities with exclusive memories activated or reinvented. Difference in community size becomes an issue of a minority threatened by a majority. Insecure communities in one place are tempted to seek protection from others elsewhere, perceived to share a common identity, in order to achieve political empowerment. External attention to, and support for, minority rights is thus invited. Not only often short of making much difference in such empowerment, stated external support runs the risk of weakening further minority communities it purports to rescue. National governments and political movements that are part of a majority community see their suspicion towards minorities justified and deepened.

Breaking this cycle is not easy. The fears of Christians could be exorcised only by a nuanced analysis of Islamism or by the dialogue of informed elites. This is even more difficult, because despotic regimes-we know it more in the era of popular uprisings- overplay fears and instrumentalize them. Their heavy-handed rule suppresses Christians, not less than Muslims. At the same time they claim to protect them against fears which they have themselves provoked. They also instigate their worries about their presumed future domination by the majority of their compatriots. Likewise, some Christian leaders exacerbate sentiments of insecurity within their communities for the purpose of homogenizing, mobilizing and dominating them while pretending to ensure their protection. These same leaders, inducing mistrust vis-à-vis the Muslim majority and decrying their supposed indifference to the Christians, make their coreligionists prisoners of an essentialist duality opposing minorities, jointly and in parallel, to majorities.

For their part, those who manifest minority-centered attitudes as well as the disappointed secularists have little taste for discernment. They hesitate less and less in rejecting political activism and react more and more to threats- real or imagined- by resignation leading to emigration or withdrawal. The latter implies internalization of marginality or, in many cases, an attempt to break its yoke through the search for success in the areas of economic activity or the mastery of science and technology. This search could provide hope that the field of economic activity remains a “secular space”.

In contrast to the paths walked by those who opt for minority-centered activism and by those who chose the silence of resignation, there is a third way. It is opened by the reinvention, through political participation, of the pact of citizenship that binds Christians and Muslims together, and the renewal of the role played during the early twentieth century nahda. To be sure, a new political and social order is in the making. The pact of citizenship that was a determining factor in various independence movements is to be re-claimed and enacted in the present longing of Arab peoples for freedom, dignity and democracy.

It is needless to say that the future of Christians in the Arab world does not only depend on the contributions they are capable of, but also on the attention that their fellow Muslim co-citizens may give to them. Christians deserve, but also need to be worthy of, an attention that is not condescending but motivated by solidarity grounded in common good and sensitivity to the wealth of a pluralism that could spare the Arab world the sad face of uniformity.

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