(This post is in response to a recent comment)
One of the failures of the Arab republican regimes has been their inability to create stable societies. The fear in Syria of the outbreak of sectarian hostilities is a possibility that cannot be discounted.
But I think that to say the regime is the guarantor of civil peace in the country is incorrect. I believe that the threat of sectarian strife is actually an indictment of these so-called strong, secure and stable regimes. Saddam's Iraq, Mubarak's Egypt and Assad's Syria are all examples of regimes that have been in place for decades yet at the first sign of trouble the foundations quake and the social fabric begins to bust at the seams.
I do not envy the Christians in the Arab world today. They predate the Muslims, and the Jews predate both. But to pose a question to the question: what if Syria were somehow to be threatened with Western intervention, would the minority regime in power continue to see the Syrian Christians as an ally or would they be viewed with suspicion, a fifth column?
There is no doubt in my mind that we are witnessing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Arab world. Indeed, the calls for revisionism or modernism in Islam cannot be effected by outsiders, or prompted by liberal Muslims or secular Arabs.
If such a transformation were to take place it must be brought about by those with Islamic credentials. I believe that today in the Arab world we are on the cusp of a resurgence of the MB and eclipse of the jihadist current that shook the world with its extremism. However, having said that, I do not believe that the future belongs to the MB or Islamist groups. They are part of the transition. Rather, it is the youth of today who will determine the future of this region. And even within the Brotherhood there have been dissenting voices from within the ranks, emanating from its youth who perceive it as out of touch with modern times.
Along to shepherd this process is Turkey, led by an Islamist government that adheres, so far, to the tenets of democracy and benefits of modernity and global association, cooperation and exposure.
The Americans' tracking Usama bin Laden down to a residential area in Pakistan and not a cave in Afghanistan – indicative in itself of his not being the guerrilla leader he was widely perceived to be by his followers a la Che Guevara – seals the bin Laden chapter. So who is there to address the problem of Islamic extremism of which he was the predominant phenomenon over the past 2 decades? Answer? See above.
Bin Laden was portrayed by his supporters, and there are millions of them, make no mistake, as the standard bearer of a resurgent and defiant Islamic nation. To them he was the courageous fighter, in the face of overwhelming odds, against an unjust world filled with domineering powers where the poor got poorer and the oppressed where crushed even more. He was a prophet of victory in an era of adversity.
But Usama bin Laden was a false prophet. The Arabs are a defeated nation desperately seeking a victory. They have been tremendously let down by their leaders in the age of independence. They have suffered defeat upon defeat in military showdowns, their standards of education have plummeted. The people therefore flocked to the fake, and sometimes extremist, leadership that presented itself as an alternative to the corrupt, failed regimes.
I find it interesting that one of the most prominent Egyptian MB leaders, Abdul Munim abu al-Fotouh, has recently said that he does not oppose the candidacy of Christians or women for the post of president. Abu al-Fotouh has declared that he's running for president and that he will appoint a Coptic Christian or a women as his vice-president, so whether his declaration is out of conviction or merely a campaign statement is open to question. But, nevertheless, it is a very important position.
Which is why I was critical of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya lamenting the passing of bin Laden: "We condemn any killing of a holy warrior or of a Muslim and Arab person, and we ask God to bestow his mercy upon him." Several days later Hamas announced that Haniya's statement did not reflect the position of the Palestinian movement, but the damage had been done.
Back to Syria. I cannot declare with any certainty that the Syrian leadership's choice to employ brute force against the protesters will lead to bloody sectarianism in the country. But it is certainly creating the conditions for it. Occupying mosques on Fridays and denying access to them is very short-sighted. Coming from a minority-led regime it doesn't take a genius to figure out what the protesters, who are mainly from the ruled majority sect, think about it.
I do not necessarily want to see the regime toppled in Syria, nor do I not want to see it ejected from power. That is a matter for the Syrian people to decide. But the fact of the matter is that Syria lags far behind in terms of development and progress.
I both recognize and appreciate the importance of Syria's position at the heart of the Arab world. Many times I played the devil's advocate and defended Bashar al-Assad in heated arguments, hoping against hope that the promise would be fulfilled.
Unfortunately he let me down. And I believe he let down his people and country.
I think the regime in Damascus has lost legitimacy and has been grievously wounded. It is one thing to want it to survive, especially if the survival is deemed to be crucial to the survival of other minorities, but completely another thing to recognize it as the leading force for a better society. Will it continue to be regarded as a guarantor of regional stability, the way it was before the outbreak of dissent on March 15? That is the question being asked and issue being considered by regional and international powers. And when the President's cousin comes out and states that Syria's stability leads to Israel's stability (and vice versa) I view it as pretty desperate.
To deploy tanks and armor in one's restive cities will not gain you the sympathy of the population there. I am waiting for the stories to come out from Deraa once the siege is lifted. I promise you they won't be pretty. For a city to be cut off for so long tells me that something is not right at all.
It is only secure and prosperous states that can guarantee the well-being and voluntary acquiescence of their people. Tito was Yugoslavia's strongman for 27 years. The breakup of the country and the vicious war that tore apart its ethnic and religious fabric began 11 years after his passing. And Tito was viewed as far more benevolent than Hafez al-Assad.
In the Arab world I see dictatorships of ignorance. What they will be replaced with will come from within, the natural by-product of societies that have been repressed and oppressed for decades. But change there will be.
We are now on the cusp of a new era. Muslims will always be the majority in this region. They have ample examples of glorious Muslim empires of ages past. That grandeur was partly the result of the Muslims embracing other cultures and nurturing ethnic and religious minorities. In other words, open minds. According to today's standards it would be called human rights and Muslims need to fight for and defend those rights, not just when it comes to them but also to make sure they employ them for the well-being for all who come under their care.
In Syria, the regime may be able to hang on... for a while. The tanks do help. You may call for a dialogue and maybe some political activists cannot resist the diesel fumes of heavy armor? But what has erupted cannot be extinguished. Not by force. Not anymore. Protesters still demonstrating, week in , week out, attest to that. The longer the use of force continues the greater the animosity, even hatred. And hate is a very difficult emotion to shed.
The latest round of sectarian strife in Egypt has brought the issue of Christians in the predominantly Muslim Middle East back to the fore. I do not believe that what we have witnessed in Egypt is a sectarian confrontation. It is ignorance.
If one is interested in a game of one-upmanship then there are many resources available for proving or disproving why one religion is superior to the other, more righteous, correct, genuine, true etc. If comparing and contrasting one might as well extend the argument to the differences and subsequent advantages/disadvantages, between social classes, races, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
None of that interests me. I, for one, am grateful for the blessing of having Christians in the Middle East. It makes for a more diverse, culturally rich existence that, in my view, promotes understanding. There will always be an undercurrent of rivalry and, sadly, flashes of violent confrontation as witnessed in Egypt over the past decades.
It is important to note that Christians in the Arab world have not, in general, spent the better part of the past 14-plus centuries getting slaughtered by Muslims. I strongly recommend Zachary Karabell's People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West for an in-depth study of the subject.
When states across the centuries have been prosperous, successful and secure minorities have not had major problems. And the reverse is true. Think of the global financial crisis of the past few years and the accompanying rise of the anti-immigrant politics, sentiment, and attacks in Europe and the United States.
Thus the Armenians, for example, lived their lives for several hundred years under the Ottomans as other religious minorities did; not in line with 21st Century standards but in generally quite acceptable conditions for that time and age. It was the decay and eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire and rise of Turkish nationalism (Young Turks) that led to the terrible genocide perpetrated against the Armenians between 1915 and 1917.
It is worth recalling here the words of French philosopher Jean Bodin describing the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman in the Six Books of the Republic (1576): “The great emperor of the Turks doth with as great devotion as any prince in the world honor and observe the religion by him received from his ancestors; and yet detests he not the strange religions of others; but to the contrary permits every man to live according to his conscience... and suffers four diverse religions: that of the Jews, that of the Christians, that of the Grecians, and that of the Mahometans.”
Incidentally, while the West has almost always described Suleiman as the Magnificent, in Turkish he was kanuni Sultan Sulayman, ie Suleiman the Lawgiver. He is one of only 23 famous lawmakers whose likenesses adorn the walls of the US House of Representatives.
With the Spanish reconquest of Iberia the Jews of Spain sought and were given shelter by the Ottomans. And it was in Muslim Spain that the world witnessed the grandeur of a society that brought together Jew, Christian and Muslim.
Today the Christians in the Arab world face a stark reality. The Arabs have lived under occupation, colonization, mandate or in defeat for the better part of the past few centuries. That the Ottomans, fellow Muslims, ruled for a few hundred years large tracts of Arab lands and peoples tempers the fact but does not entirely remove the sting for they are guilty of their own transgressions. A nascent Arab nationalist movement (end of 19th-early 20th Centuries) strongly influenced by Arab Christians came to naught. At the end of World War I and with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire Western powers carved the region with scant regard for its native inhabitants. With a newly born Israel in the background, the advent of Gamal Abdul Nasser and his Free Officers movement in 1952 prompted the Arab masses to believe that salvation was at hand. Instead Nasser eventually oversaw the loss of what remained of Palestine and set the stage for copycat coups branded as “revolutions” in Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Libya.
Still Arab Christians remained influential. Michel Aflaq established, with Salah al-Bitar, the Arab Baath (Renaissance) Party. The Arab defeat in the 1967 war dealt a severe blow to Nasser but empowered the Palestinian guerrilla movement. Among its most influential characters was George Habash, a Christian. A secular current still permeated the Arab world. It all came to an end in the mid-to-late 1970s with the gradual disengagement of Egypt from the Arab world and the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975.
While the right-wing Lebanese Christians sought, and received, Israeli and then Syrian assistance, left-wing Christians fought on the other side of the conflict alongside their Muslim brethren and the PLO. And while Christian east Beirut was essentially cleansed of its Muslims inhabitants, thousands of Christians, Lebanese and Palestinian (including George Habash), continued to live and thrive in Muslim west Beirut. At the beginning of the conflict innocent civilians were murdered because of the sect indicated on their ID cards-hence “ID killings”. A couple of decades later while researching my War of Lebanon documentary I was told a joke which was presented as a true story: a fighter incensed at the slaughter of Muslims declared, “I want to slaughter a Christian,” to which his companion replied, “I have an excellent Christian for you to murder.” “Really, who?” “George Habash.” Silence...
Today, resistance in the 1980s to Israel's occupation of Lebanon is wrongly attributed to Hezbollah. In fact it was the secular parties that established the Lebanese National Resistance Front in 1982 and these parties were either led by or included Christians in their ranks. One of underground resistance commanders was Elias Atallah, a Maronite Christian.
I point this out because today Christians in the Arab world are described by either errant, extremist or fundamentalist Muslims as outsiders or even kuffar, non-believers. However, the Quran clearly establishes that Christians and Jews are people of the book with whom Muslims can freely interact and even marry.
The bankruptcy of the Arab nationalist movement gave rise in the 1970s to Islamism. The momentous assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 heralded the birth of the reputation of modern-era Muslim militants as fearless and fearsome. The stage had already been set by battle for the representation of Islam. It pitted on one side a still-shaken puritanical Wahabi Saudi Arabia, fresh out of the earth-shattering occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Juhayman al-Otaibi and his band of followers, and on the other by Ayatollah Khomeini's Shiite Iran, flush with the success of a popular revolution which the mullahs claimed as their own and set about trying to “export the revolution”.
In the face of Tehran's zeal the world (ie the West) chose the Saudis who expanded their operations, philanthropic, educational, charitable, etc throughout the world, unhindered. Nay, they were encouraged.
That influence became evident in the Afghan war (1979-1989) when thousands upon thousands of young Arabs poured into Afghanistan to join the jihad against the “Godless” Soviets. Enter Usama bin Laden.
To defeat its archrival the USSR, the United States had created the foe with which it would do battle into the 21st Century!
The rise of political Islam meant, by necessity, the eclipse of secular currents in Arab societies. While the late (and devout) Yasser Arafat surrounded himself with Palestinian Christians and never tired of repeating “our Christian and Islamic holy sites [in Palestine]” his words were lost amid the din created by Islamist Hamas which viewed things through a singularly Muslim kaleidoscope. To be labeled secular was equal to an accusation of heresy.
Inevitably that meant the Christians also suffered. Grasping at straws, Islamists saw in “resistance” the only path to victory. In Hamas-ruled Gaza Christians became a target, Hosni Mubarak's age of mediocrity in Egypt witnessed further sectarian strife, Iraqi Christians suffered terrible attacks in the post-Saddam era and French monks were gruesomely murdered in Algeria. At the same time the Muslim populations were languishing under the some of the most brutal regimes in the world.
It is hardly surprising that the end product was increasingly insular, almost xenophobic societies that clung and cling to what they perceive as their only salvation: religion.
The suffering of minorities is not restricted to Christians. The Kurds have endured great injustices and violations in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Unfortunately the current turmoil in the Arab world as a new chapter of history is being written means little time is given to address the issue of religious and ethnic minorities in the Arab world.
But it will be a shame if the exodus of Christians from the Arab world continues. We will all be the poorer for it. They are an intrinsic part of the fabric of our societies in the orient and have made great contributions. Were would we be today without the Taklas who established the Egyptian daily al-Ahram? And Gibran Khalil Gibran's sublime literature? Or the wondrous voice of Fairuz, the Lebanese diva?
What kind of an Arab world would it be without Christians to visit and celebrate with on Christmas and Easter, and to receive in Muslim homes during Eid?
For me it means emptiness and a profound sense of sorrow.
It is not Islam that should be blamed for what we are witnessing. Nor Christianity. It is ignorance, nurtured and preserved by decadent and bankrupt regimes and movements and overseen by a world more interested in a constant supply of oil and the mirage of regional stability in an area that has witnessed since 1948, on average, a war every 8 years.
This is a crucial period in the history of the Middle East. It is either a new era or a false dawn. The desire for liberty is genuine, the hope for a bright future real. Somewhere in the plans being initiated for reformed systems of government must be a place, a cornerstone, for tolerance and understanding. Religion is faith, it is belief, not a sword brandished nor a diktat imposed. The religious and the men of religion, of which I'm not, need to speak to their followers, to preach the message of peace, because that's what religion is all about. Or so I believe.
I will not comment on the bloody aftermath of the attack on the Sayidat al-Nejat church in Baghdad save to say that a church, just like a mosque, just like a synagogue, is a place of sanctity where the faithful go to be at peace with their maker. The shedding of blood in any place of worship is an act of cowardice, not valor.
That deadly onslaught was followed by a threat from al-Qaida claiming that "All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen wherever they can reach them."
Any enlightened student of history will tell you that minorities, ethnic and religious, have played over the centuries an integral part in the rise of Muslim civilization. Islamic and Arab history are dotted with illustrious examples of Christian and Jewish, Kurdish and other non-Arab luminaries who have had a tremendous impact on enriching the culture of the Middle East.
To the Christians of the Arab world I repeat the greeting of Islam, assalam-u-alaikom, peace be upon you. And I add, may no further harm befall you, for it is our good fortune to have you with us and among us.
A man on a long journey through a perpetual desert.
The opinions expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the views of any of my employers, past, present or future.