The problems of Christians in the Middle East are often not discussed forthrightly, either in the region or in writings about it. One reason is that, in many ways, the problems of Christians are everyone’s problems — Israeli occupation hurts Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike, as does second-class citizenship for Palestinians inside the Green Line. In Egypt and Syria, Christians and Muslims alike have suffered the effects of authoritarian rule. The confessional system in Lebanon applies to everyone. And war and sanctions in Iraq respected no difference, religious or otherwise. Another reason for the reticence is the anti-Muslim hysteria that frequently attends the topic of Middle Eastern Christians in the Western media. An egregious example appeared in the February 6, 2012 issue of Newsweek, where professional Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali accused the media of ignoring a “rising genocide” killing Christians across the Muslim world.
Such melodrama should not, however, occlude the serious forms of discrimination (or worse) that do face some Christian communities in the region and the ways in which these problems are distinct.
Most Christians in the Middle East live with the legacy of the Ottoman past. For most of its history, the inter-communal relations in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire contrasted sharply with Europe’s bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants. Until the nineteenth century, the state did extract a poll tax from non-Muslim minorities, but otherwise the minorities were largely unmolested by the Muslim establishment. The millet system, by which each community of faith regulated most of its own affairs, bequeathed what one might call a dialectic of embeddedness and separation to the present.
As Sarah Shields writes in this issue, the separation was badly exacerbated by Western colonial and missionary penetration, often in the name of “protecting” Middle Eastern Christians from their Islamic surroundings. The capitulations conferred trading privileges upon select groups of Christians; meanwhile, missionary schools tended to enroll Christian students. And it has always been easier for Christians to emigrate to the West than for Muslims to do so. As a result, the question of Middle Eastern Christians is tied up with class, albeit with different meanings in different places. Christians in Lebanon, for example, differ from the Shi‘a in having no inherited narrative of being the underdog. At the same time, it is common for Muslims to believe, wrongly, that Christians are uniformly wealthy, snooty or Western-oriented.
Then came the rise of the modern nation-state, with its need to classify citizens and measure their loyalty, sometimes with reference to religious belief. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire meant dispossession and displacement for Anatolian Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians, with terrible consequences for Armenians in particular. In the Arab world, however, nationalism was associated with erasure of religious difference, either by downplaying it or by vigorously asserting the unity of Christians and Muslims in slogans and iconography. For many Arab Christians, as for others, the appeal of nationalism and other twentieth-century ideologies was precisely their secular language and their rebuke of traditional communal authorities.
Today, in the wake of the Arab uprisings, there is renewed anxiety in the West for the world’s oldest Christian communities, animated by a sense that the revolts have empowered Islamist parties whose brand of nationalism is intolerant and far from inclusive. There is indeed ample cause for concern.
Yet the flashes of sectarianism cannot be ascribed to Islamism alone and cannot be viewed separately from the broader sweep of history. Contemporary Islamism itself is partly a response to the disappointments of the twentieth century’s later decades — Arab defeats at the hands of Israel, the entrenchment of autocracy, the failures of state-led development, the generations of jobless youth. With the secular ideologies failing in their promises, Christians and Muslims alike turned to religion for answers. To an extent, Christians were caught in a double bind vis-à-vis the authoritarian state: Even as the state repressed all of its citizens equally, it posed as the defender of religious minorities from the supposedly retrograde Muslim society. The civil war in Syria offers a grim illustration of where that conceit can lead. Many Christians in Syria back the regime of Bashar al-Asad, or simply decline to embrace the opposition, for fear of the alternative. If and when the regime falls, Christians and ‘Alawis must worry that the regime’s sectarian scaremongering will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The United States, like Europe before it, is not blameless in generating sectarian dynamics. Evangelical Christian missionaries turned up in both Afghanistan and Iraq along with the US troops, after President George W. Bush infamously (though fleetingly) used the word “crusade” to describe the post-September 11 war on terror.
The Christians of the Middle East are many communities with deep and varied kinds of connection to the countries where they live. We offer this issue of Middle East Report not as a comprehensive treatment but as a window upon the diversity and complexity of their experiences.