Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

November 20, 2011

The end of Arab Christianity

Filed under: Arab,Arab Christianity,Christians,Culture,pluralism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:08 am

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.

December 3, 2009

On insults and religion

Filed under: pluralism,Religion — Razib @ 9:59 am

When I was a younger man I recall watching a documentary on missionaries in Mississippi. They were Southern Baptists who were on a mission to “save” everyone (this included Roman Catholics and Protestants who had not had a “Born Again” experience). At one point the missionaries encountered a man from Pakistan, who was a Muslim. They confronted him aggressively as to whether he worshiped “idols.” From what I saw their tactics seemed more a way to allow these individuals to act out and be obnoxious than convert people (social science research shows that conversions usually happen through networks of friends, not from encountering the random missionary). Later that year a friend of my younger brother, who was Baptist, saw my dad praying. He asked me whether we worshiped idols. He even slipped a little doll in front of my dad’s prayer rug, an act which my brother found really offensive. At the time I wondered if conservative Baptist churches around the country were sharing literature and tactics which verged in this obnoxious direction (I also had another friend inquire if I was Hindu after there was a sermon on Hinduism. I told him I was not, at which point he still regaled me with the gist of how horrible demonic Hinduism was).

This sort of behavior is very boorish. On the other hand, it brought home to me the importance of intersubjectivity. As an atheist to me all religion was human-created, so the behavior of my Baptist friends and acquaintances when it came to other religions was boorish, but not offensive. But religion is important for most humans. Religions, and societies more generally, tend to share explicit and implicit norms and values. They allow individuals to differentiate between the acceptable and unacceptable. In a society where there is pluralism this is a more difficult task.

The importance of intersubjectivity is why I roll my eyes when Egypts grand mufti talks about an “insult to Islam”. It is important to remember that Islam by its very nature is an insult to many religions. That is, the core beliefs of Islam are an offense. There is a lot of exegesis on exactly what Islam says about the People of the Book, but there is little doubt about what it says about “idolatry.” For example, Hindus who revere idols and consider themselves polytheists are insulted by Islam constantly.* The holiest books of Islam are basically hate-texts against polytheists and those who revere idolts. Among South Asian Muslims the “idolatrous” practices of Hindus are fodder for much humor in social situations.** Even the command to convert the world is offensive to many.

At one point I was a regular participant on the comment boards of Talk Islam and Sepia Mutiny. It was interesting to contrast the two, for though Sepia Mutiny is not explicitly a religious weblog, most participants are from Hindu or Sikh religious traditions (Dharmic). On Talk Islam I repeatedly explained, and made the argument, that one could be sincerely religious, and, accept a common underlying and equivalent truth of all religions. Aziz found this an implausible or false assertion, as for him the nature of religion is such that you adhere to a faith you believe the closest to the truth, and you wish others would also adhere to the nearest approximation of the ultimate truth. By contrast, on the Sepia Mutiny it was clear that many simply could not comprehend why Christians and Muslims had to proselytize by the nature of their faith. For them, it was a given that all religions express aspects of the ultimate truth, and attempts to convert individuals to another tradition is simply cultural aggression which sows discord and is an implicit affront. From long discussions it was clear that the two groups had a very primitive or non-existent understanding of the perspective of the other. Some of the concerns of adherents of Indian religions also emerge among Jews. They perceive Christian attempts to convert them as a form of cultural genocide, but that is because their presuppositions about religion are fundamentally different from those of Evangelical Christians. Jews also have issues with Christians who “compliment” their tradition by asserting that their own religion is simply a “completion” of Judaism. Muslims often prove their pluralist bona fides by observing that they respect all prophets who have come before, and view the People of the Book of having received a true message from God. Of course, these traditions are less than flattered, because most Muslims also believe that their traditions are distortions and degenerations from Islam (Muslims view their faith as the “primal religion.” This view is shared by many conservative Christians as well), ergo, the necessity of Muhammad as the seal of prophets.

As an atheist with no strong emotional connection to any religion I view this with some curiosity and intellectual interest. But, I also think that it brings up a pragmatic issue: genuine religious pluralism has to lead toward religious segregation. The Ottoman millet model, which also existed in Europe in the relationship of Jews to the polity, is in some ways the “natural” state of religious pluralism. But what about the United States? I think we have turned Catholics and Jews into operational Protestants. To assimilate then Muslims have to cede ground on the importance of orthopraxy and Hindus have to accept the ubiquity of religious defection. In Muslim countries Christians no longer act out on the injunction in the New Testament to preach their faith, because they’ve been turned into People of the Book, who exist as religious fossils. The Parsi attitude toward conversions is probably shaped in part by their inculcation of Hindu attitudes. And so forth.***

Addendum: For many religious people I’ve found that the very avowal of atheism is somewhat offensive to them. At least judging by their negative and uncomfortable body language. A few times people have even asked if atheism is too strong of a world, and perhaps I’m just “not religious” or “secular.”

* Many Hindus reject idol reverence and consider themselves monotheists. Perhaps most in the West. But many Hindus will assert that they are polytheists, and accept the importance of the representation of gods in worship.

** When I was a child some old guy at a party where everyone was a South Asian Muslim started talking about how Hindus consumed cow feces. I really hated this stuff, since this was invariably before we ate, but people always thought this was really funny. But at this party there was a younger man who was offended by this. He asserted that in fair play Muslims should not mock other religions, even in private. I recall everyone was shocked and dumbfounded. It was clear they’d never even run into this sort of argument, and the conversation moved to other topics. I have been told by Hindus that the inverse mockery also occurs. No surprise.

*** There was always an implicit ethnic Persian aspect of Zoroastrianism. But the historical record attests to Zoroastrians among many non-ethnic Persians, from Armenians to Turks, to converts from Christianity.

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