by Dexter Van Zile (January 2013)
By now, most people have come to accept a few obvious truths about Islamism and its negative impact on the human condition. You don’t need to be the next Hannah Arendt or George Orwell to see what is going on. You just need to read the papers, surf the internet, and connect the dots – if you dare.
The first and most obvious truth is that many Muslims harbor great hostility toward non-Muslims, Jews and Christians especially. Anti-Christian hostility has been particularly evident in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which is ending the reign of dictators who kept the lid on Islamists in the Middle East. With the departure of these dictators, Christians and other minorities have become the low-cost, no-cost targets of incitement and mob violence in these countries. This is happening in Iraq, Egypt and apparently Syria.
In these countries, churches have been bombed and set on fire, homes ransacked, children terrorized. Men are dragged through the streets and killed. Women are abducted, raped and forcibly converted to Islam. This violence is perpetrated by people who claim to be acting on behalf of a loving, compassionate, merciful and just god.
Christians in the region are now playing the role historically played by Jews in Europe, where they were nearly exterminated, and the Middle East, where they were driven from countries that they had been living in for centuries after Israel’s creation in 1948. Christians, like Jews before them, have become targets of pogroms. Given recent events in Egypt, the largest Arab country in the world and home to the intellectual center of Sunni Islam, Al Azhar University in Cairo, things are likely to get worse, not better in the coming years.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Christians targeted like this. Muslim violence against non-Muslims is not new. What we see going on today in Iraq, Egypt and Syria is merely a historical echo of what happened to Christians – Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians – with the collapse of Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. The destruction of these communities had a religious component. When these communities rebelled against their subservient status in the late 1800s, it evoked great hostility on the part of Muslims in what became the modern state of Turkey and set the stage for their destruction in the early 1900s.
One of the primary factors behind this violence is the teaching of Islamic supremacism, which has been a persistent aspect of the Muslim faith since its founding in the 7th Century. The Koran and the Hadiths, and the life of the Prophet Mohammed himself – who Muslims regard as humanity’s exemplar – enjoin his followers to subjugate and humiliate their non-Muslim neighbors who are either expected to accept this mistreatment as a fact of life or to convert to the one truth faith of Islam.
Historically, there have been times when Muslims have lacked the power to follow these teachings to the letter, but the signal sent by authoritative Islamic sources calls on Muslims to dominate their non-Muslim neighbors, and ultimately impose Sharia over the entire world. It’s unlikely they’ll achieve this goal, but we can be sure that huge numbers of people will suffer and die in the millenialist pursuit of Muslim supremacy, which is part of the built environment of the Islamic faith, just as antisemitism was for Christianity (and in some quarters remains a part of the faith even after the Holocaust).
Whether the pursuit of this supremacy is an essential aspect of the Muslim faith is an open question, but many Muslims think it is. So do their victims.
Ugandan Pastor Umar Mulinde can speak from both perspectives. A Muslim convert to Christianity who was subjected to an acid attack by Muslim extremists on Christmas Eve in 2011, Mulinde puts it succinctly: “The true teaching of Islam says that the entire world must be Muslim.” In the modern era, Mulinde reports, many Muslims “regard themselves as people who are failing to fulfill Allah’s will.”
To be sure, not every Muslim wants to oppress their non-Muslim neighbors and many want to abandon or reinterpret these teachings to allow for peace in a pluralistic, multicultural and globalized world. They do not regard Islamic supremacy as a “true” aspect of the Muslim faith. Nevertheless, these days, it appears to be a salient aspect of the religion as it is practiced by many of its adherents who consider it an essential part of the faith.
Tarek Fatah, author of The Jew is Not My Enemy: Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism, Chasing a Mirage: the Tragic Illusion of an Islamic StateThe Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular and others are trying to galvanize other reform-minded Muslims, but they have a long way to go. Many of these would be reformers, such as Irshad Manji, live in the West and risk their lives when they offer their message of modernity to audiences in Muslim-majority countries.
Would be reformers are not safe in post-Christian (or is it pre-Islamic?) Europe. In his 2010 book, The Flight of the Intellectuals: The Controversy Over Islamism and the Press, Paul Berman writes, “Salman Rushdie has metastasized into an entire social class” and that the “Muslim free thinking” wing of the European intelligentsia has survived “only because of bodyguards and police investigations and because of their own precautions.” He adds, “Fear—mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology—has become, for a significant number of intellectuals and artists, a simple fact of modern life.”
Another troubling reality is that Christian intellectuals, theologians and leaders in the Middle East, Europe and North America have done very little to confront Muslim hostility toward non-Muslims in the Middle East and the rest of the world. Aside from promoting the value of martyrdom and touting the importance of the Christian presence in the Middle East, they simply have no game on either a theological, intellectual or practical level.
No game at all.
On a theological and intellectual level, Christians have not, for example, engaged in the type of scriptural analysis pursued by Phyllis Trible in her landmark text, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Fortress Press, 1984) that deals with the impact the Hebrew Scriptures on the status of women. The Koran and the Hadiths are chock full of passages that legitimize the mistreatment of women and non-Muslims. There are many passages that promote the notion of male supremacy and contempt for women.
And aside from people like Rev. Dr. Mark Durie, an Anglican Priest from Australia, mainstream Christian intellectuals and theologians have not engaged in the type of analysis pursued by the French Jew Jules Isaac who analyzed Christian teachings regarding the Jewish people in his book The teaching of contempt: Christian roots of anti-Semitism.
And they have not applied the principles of liberation theology to the plight of Christians living under Muslim rule as they have to the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the status of African Americans in the United States.
A similar failure has been evident on a practical level as well. Christian leaders simply do not know how to respond to the departure of dictators who historically kept Christians relatively safe from their Islamist persecutors in places like Iraq, Egypt and Syria.
“We don’t have solutions. We don’t know what to do,” said Rev. Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Custos or Roman Catholic official in charge of the Church’s property in the Holy Land.
Pizzaballa made this frank admission during his talk at a consultation organized by the B’Nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem and the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel that took place in Israel in November.
During his talk, Pizzabella said that the one clear message the Church is giving to Christians in the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring is that the church prefers that they stay. Immigration, he admits is an option for many Christians, but outright opposition to the Islamists is not.
Open opposition to the Islamists who are going to be controlling countries like Syria and Egypt for the foreseeable future is out of the question, Pizzaballa said, because the “Islamic movement will kick them out” if they protest too directly.
Nevertheless, the goal for the Christians who do stay in the region should not merely be protection, but dignity, Pizzabella said.
“I don’t think there is an ideal solution. Whatever will be the solution that we adopt, it will be problematic. If you are trying to have a dialogue with moderate Islamic movements, you will be accused of co-existence with those who are persecuting Christians,” he said. There is is no doubt that Christians are persecuted in the region, he added. “Every day we see the images, but what alternative is there?”
The implications of Pizzaballa’s message are that things are likely to get worse for Christians living in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, that immigration is the likely result of the oppression they endure, and that there is no clear-cut strategy for survival – aside from a combination of hunkering down and proclaiming words of peace to their aggressors – for Christians who decide to stay.
Slow motion martyrdom, in other words.
The conclusion is inescapable: Christians who live in Muslim-majority countries in Middle East lack the power and influence necessary to advocate effectively for their safety and well-being. Effective advocacy on the behalf of religious and ethnic minorities in Muslim-majority countries throughout the world has to come from outside these countries. Christians in the West must speak up on their behalf.
There’s just one problem. Many Christians in the West are crippled. They lack the knowledge, theological understanding and confidence to speak up on behalf of their co-religionists living under Muslim rule. They cannot challenge Islamic imperialism because of their own history of imperialism. They’ve been convinced that they cannot speak about Islamist violence because of the violence done in the name of their faith. They have bought into the notion that the West has a monopoly on imperialism and genocide.
And as they obsess over the sins and of the societies to which they belong, they sinfully abandon Christians contending with Islamist violence throughout the world. If it was wrong for Christians to have done the things they did too non-Christians, it is wrong for Muslims to do what they are doing to non-Muslims.
In order to be effective advocates for Christians and other minorities enduring oppression in the Middle East and elsewhere, they need to get over themselves, their historical guilt and come to grips with the theological roots of Islamist violence and hostility toward non-Muslims, just as they have struggled to come to grips with the theological roots of Christian antisemitism.
On this score, it’s high time for Christian theologians to plumb the differences between Jesus Christ, who washed the feet of his followers, called on them to reconcile with their enemies, and asked God to forgive his killers even as he was on the cross, and Mohammed, who conquered and subjugated his enemies and called upon his followers to do the same as he lay dying.
Rather than obscuring the differences between Christianity and Islam, as many institutions and leaders, such as Miroslav Volf, have done, maybe it’s time to highlight them.
This is a hugely frightening and risky subject to address, but it is one of the most important theological issues Christians face in the 21st Century. Jesus Christ and Mohammed offered up two fundamentally different responses to the human condition.
When Christians engage in acts of violence – and they have – Christ on the Cross hovers as indicting presence. His presence is an indictment to our acts of violence.
The Holocaust presented a crisis to the Christian faith, demanding its adherents to ask with shame and guilt what type of god they had been worshipping all along. Did Christians worship the one true God or a god that hated Jews and sanctioned their destruction?
When Islamists engage in acts of violence against non-Muslims, they make a straightforward and reasonable claim that they are following an example set for them by Mohammed. Consequently, non-Muslims (and Muslims) need to ask Islamists exactly what type of god they worship. Given what is happening to Christians under Muslim rule throughout the world, it is time to ask if it is logical for Islamists to oppress non-Muslims in the name of the compassionate and merciful god they claim to worship. Do they worship God who is compassionate and merciful, or do they worship a god who hates non-Muslims and sanctions their destruction?
Analyzing the differences between the founders of Christianity and Islam will remind both Christians and non-Christians what is at stake and highlight the need for changes in how Mohammed’s life and teachings should be applied to the modern world. We need to proclaim the freedom to speak the truth about Christ and the religion he founded and Mohammed and the religion he founded. (If your response is that raising these issues will only provoke Islamists to engage in more acts of violence, you’re tacitly admitting how crucially important it is to have this conversation.)
Christians are not the only people who will benefit from this discussion. Muslims will benefit also, for they too are suffering under the lash of Islamism. Just ask the women, if you care to listen.
Secondly, it is time for Christian seminaries in the West to start teaching their students about the lived reality experienced by non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries throughout the world. It is also time for Christian seminaries to teach their students about the connection between Islamic doctrine regarding non-Muslim and the lives of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Christian seminaries have laudably educated future clergy about the connection between Christian theology regarding the Jews and the Holocaust. It is time to have a similar discussion for the benefit of our fellow Christians living under Muslim rule. This discussion should take place at church assemblies as well.
Thirdly, it is time to have honest dialogue with Muslim leaders about the theological sources of the oppression of Christians and other minorities in Muslim-majority countries. No more fake dialogue about the similarities between the two faiths. No more distracting discussions about how the Arab-Israeli conflict is the real and ultimate cause of hostility toward Christians in the Middle East and the rest of the world. Christians were oppressed for centuries before Israel’s creation. The genocides of the Anatolian Peninsula took place long before 1948.
It’s time to get real and Christian leaders who insist on maintaining this fake dialogue with Muslim interlocutors need to hear from their flocks and be told to cut it out. No dialogue at all is better than dishonest discussions.
On a practical level, Christians in the West need to start holding leaders in Muslim-majority countries to account for the mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities in their midst, just as Western intellectuals held the Soviet Union to account its human rights abuses in Eastern Europe with the founding of the Helsinki Watch Group.
The secular human rights community, as it is currently comprised, has failed miserably on this score. Instead of addressing the catastrophic impact Islamism has had on human dignity wherever it has gained a foothold, the human rights community has promoted a pornographic obsession with the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is fueled by the same notions of Muslim supremacy that have destroyed the lives of non-Muslims (and women) throughout the world.
The leaders of countries where religious and ethnic minorities are oppressed need to be shamed and held to account just as the Soviets were in the 1970s and 80s. Shaming the leaders of these countries will help bring an end to the slow-motion martyrdom endured by Christians in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
Lastly, we need to abandon any notion that Muslims are the underdog on the world stage. It is the Christians and other non-Muslims suffering under the lash of Islamist oppression who are the underdogs that need our advocacy.
If Christians in the West cannot – or will not – do these things, then we need to tell our co-religionists enduring Islamist violence in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia that like the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 40s that they are on their own and that only God can help them now.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). His opinions are his own.
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