Anthony Shadid has a poignant piece up, … But There’s a Slim Hope in History, on the specter of extinction facing Arab Christianity in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is an issue which I think most of my Left-liberal friends simply seem unable to confront forthrightly: ethnic and religious cleansing are often the consequences of populist national self-determination. This isn’t a speculative proposition, the history of Europe is a testament to this, as well as what occurred in newly independent European colonies (e.g., the fate of Indians in Burma and Chinese in Vietnam). This reality is often emphasized by a sort which is very rare in the United States: cosmopolitan imperialists. To these partisans of the old regimes the Austro-Hungarian Empire is often held up as an ideal. This ‘prison house of nations’ was notoriously fractious and muddled, held together only by the history of the House of Habsburg. To illustrate this in a manner accessible to modern Westerners, Jews were often arch-imperialists because they saw themselves as likely receiving a better deal in a situation of imperial ethno-linguistic pluralism than in the possible nation-states where they would be a prominent minority overshadowed by the majority (I think the subsequent history of Jews in the inter-war states does confirm this fear as being grounded in reality). Additionally, in the mid-19th century it was reported that some military units resorted to English as their lingua franca! (the language being popularized by migrants who had returned from the United States).
This section of the Shadid piece emphasizes the broader concerns in the Arab world today:
Rare is the Arab politician today who would specifically endorse secularism; the word itself in Arabic is virtually a synonym for atheism. In an otherwise triumphant tour of North Africa, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey unleashed invective from all stripes of Islamists when he endorsed a rather tame take on secularism, namely that the state would treat all religions equally.
Across the region, the climate seems to have grown more inhospitable, more dangerous. In places like Egypt and Syria, authorities have cynically fanned fears and biases to fortify their power. In the military’s bloody response to a Christian protest in Cairo in October, Egyptian television referred to Copts as though they were foreign agitators bent on subversion, calling on “honorable citizens” to defend the army. Religious stalwarts often speak rightly of Islam’s long tolerance of minorities. But these days, the talk feels condescending; minorities are asking for equality, not benevolent protection.
There are two points which I always think are worth emphasizing: moderate Islamists in the Arab world probably occupy a position which is analogous to Christian Reconstructionists and Dominionists in the West. Any analogy between ‘Christian fundamentalists’ in the USA and ‘Muslim fundamentalists’ collapses because of the radical difference in intent and plausibility of execution of that intent. In much of the Muslim world the dominant religion has already attained the undisputed position of power and legitimacy which Christian Reconstructionists can only dream of. It is understood that non-Muslim religions and peoples exist and persist only at the suffrance of Islamic law and values. The genuine ‘moderation,’ or more accurately reconciliation with a minimum level of norms acceptable to Western liberal democracy, of Turkish Islamism has less to do with the nature of Turkish Islam than it does with the range of opinions of the general Turkish population. That range of opinion is at least analogous to a very religious Western nation, like the United States (e.g., only a marginally greater number of Turks accept Creationism than Americans). There is simply no analogy to the distribution of beliefs and orientations found in Western nations within most Arab societies. The Libyan government installed by Western military power explicitly asserts that its laws and actions will be grounded in Islam. Consider how chilling most Western liberals find a similar assertion by conservative Christian Western politicians? The anti-Jewish attitudes common across the Arab world also hearken back to an older time in the West. Whatever hostility Arabs as a whole may have toward the state of Israel, they often seem unable to separate individual Jews from that hostility, and rather manifest a very old and nasty sentiment which is reflected in parodies like Borat (in part because of the forced expulsion of Jews after World War II from many Arab nations means that very few Arabs encounter individual Jews in the flesh).
Then there’s the issue of Islam’s history of religious tolerance. This is correct, but the term tolerance here has an older meaning. It refers to the right to exist, not the right to liberty and equality. Non-Muslims in the Muslim world were subordinated explicitly, and lesser subjects in the Muslim order. They were protected by Muslim states in return for a tax and specific sets of debilities. That protection did not always hold, and expulsions and pogroms did occur on occasion. Several times I have heard Arab dissidents point to this past history of coexistence and tolerance. I suspect that like many ignorant Westerners they take this at face value, without understanding the deep inequalities which were lifted only during the era of European colonialism. But this is not a past to be proud of, and only notable because of the exclusive intolerance of European Christendom during the same period. Like the famous rights of women granted in Islam, this is only positive when graded on a strong historical curve!
Finally, there’s the issue of the future of Arab Christianity. Does it matter? Let’s hit the practical and the principle. The practical is that there aren’t many Arab Christians left in the Levant and Iraq. There are more people of Arab Christian heritage in the New World than in this region. Millions of Americans and Brazilians have Arab ancestry. The vast majority of people of Palestinian Christian heritage reside outside of Palestine. The Iraq War of the early 2000s has decimated the Christians of Iraq, many of whom have fled to Syria (the irony, the most powerful nation of Christians is responsible for the evisceration of one of the most precarious and ancient Christian communities!). Likely when the Assad regime falls they will flee again, perhaps to Lebanon, or the West. These transplanted communities persist after a fashion, but their distinctive identity as grounded in the locales of their origination and evolution do seem to decay, as they lose their peculiarities. These ancient Christian traditions are unlike American Evangelical Protestantism, in that specific place and history have deep meaning. The idea of Assyrian Christians worshiping in a strip-mall seems ridiculous on the face of it. The reality is that Arab Americans, and particularly Arab Christians, have a very weak sense of ethnic solidity and coherency in the West. They melt away as individuals, and the community loses its sense of integrity. The functional rationale for integrity necessary in a hostile Muslim environment is far less in the United States, France, or Brazil.
It seems entirely plausible that as the Fertile Crescent is cleansed of its Christians that they will resettle in the West, and evaporate into the ether of the broader cultural milieu. Their numbers are modest, probably ~5 million or so. The more pressing issue is Egypt. There are likely ~10 million or so Coptic Christians, and I do not see a feasible migration out of Egypt for most of this population. The Christians of the Levant invariably have family abroad, and so the options for migration are numerous, and the feasibility of transplantation rather high. In contrast the Copts are more solidly grounded within Egypt, and their numbers are such that it seems impractical that any one nation could embrace them in large numbers. I suspect that the next few decades will be difficult ones for the Copts, as they are brutalized by an Egyptian democracy which goes through a process of ‘maturation.’ A substantial number of Copts will embrace Islam to secure liberty in a society which grants full equality only to Muslims. This an old story, not a new one.
Finally, there’s the principle. Who cares? I don’t believe in any religion, let alone the Christian religion, so what does it matter that a particular ethno-religious group loses its coherency in the face persecution if they persist as individuals? I think this is a fair logical point, and I don’t have a fair logical defense. I’m in fact broadly skeptical of the proposition that groups have collective “rights” as opposed to individuals. Rather, let me simply observe as a descriptive matter that just as we live in the age when the Western Black Rhino goes extinct, so we live in the generation that will likely see the passing of the ~2,000 year old living Christian communities of Iraq and Palestine. Of course the scions of these communities will continue to make pilgrimages to their ancient holy sites, but without a living community to care for them they will become as the ruins of Nineveh, a testament to memories and ages forgotten. The partisans of the ‘true Islam’ are now ushering in a profoundly different world, as societies are progressively cleansed of their diversity and difference. In this way they are to a great extent the heirs of the French Revolution, and not the first decades of Islam.
Addendum: I am aware that many “Arab Christians” deny that they are Arab. I will refer to them as Arab in this space because most readers will be confused by the details of the argument, and this semantic gloss does not alter the substance of my argument here.