In my last post, I briefly introduced the different communions that make up Mideast Christianity and described their historical treatment under classical Islamic law. For many centuries, Islam tolerated Christians as dhimmis, minorities subject to a notional agreement that allowed them to live in Muslim society as long as they accepted a subordinate status and did not challenge Muslim authority. Yet, as I mentioned, the dhimmi restrictions no longer apply as a formal matter in most of the Mideast, not since the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire enacted a set of reforms known as the Tanzimat, instigated by European powers, which gave Christians legal equality. In most of the Mideast today, as a formal matter, Christians and Muslims have equal rights. So what explains the violent persecution Mideast Christians now suffer—nothing short of a genocide in some places?
There are many reasons, but I’d like to highlight three. First, even though the dhimmi restrictions no longer apply as a formal matter, the attitudes they created over centuries have endured, making Christians easy targets for persecution. Whatever the law says, many Mideast Muslims (though not all) continue to see Christians as inferiors and aliens, not equal members of society. Christians routinely suffer informal but serious discrimination—the denial of permission to build or repair churches and schools; the failure of local police to investigate crimes against them; the persistence of tacit barriers to their advancement in education and professional life.
Samuel Tadros has written about anti-Christian discrimination in Egypt, but it occurs throughout the region. A few years ago in Turkey, a bureaucratic mistake revealed that authorities were secretly assigning numerical codes to identify Christians in official documents. Christians had suspected as much for years, but had no proof. The government explained that the secret identity codes were actually meant to help Christians, to single them out for special benefits under the law. Christians were unconvinced.
These attitudes affect daily life and make Mideast Christians particularly vulnerable to communal violence. And when that violence occurs, Christians can have little hope for support from their neighbors. For example, Christians in Iraq and Syria report that that their Sunni neighbors did nothing to help them when ISIS threw them out of their homes, or even collaborated with the Islamists. To be sure, the neighbors probably feared for their own lives; ISIS oppresses Muslims as well as Christians. But a sense of solidarity with Christians seems to have been conspicuously absent.
Second, as many observers have noted, the Mideast has been undergoing a serious challenge from the West– economically, culturally, and politically—for a couple of centuries now. Local Christians, whom Muslims identify strongly with the West, are easy scapegoats when things go wrong. In fact, equality for Christians is often seen as having been a Western imposition to exert control in Muslim societies—a cynical pretext for domination, which, candidly, it sometimes was. The nineteenth-century Ottoman reforms themselves eventually led to a vicious anti-Christian backlash in Turkey, in which hundreds of thousands of Christians were murdered, while Western powers did nothing to help. Two hundred years is not a long time in Mideast history; one might see the current persecution of Mideast Christians as part of the same, centuries-long episode.
Finally, there are the recent actions of the United States. The Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, coupled with the precipitous withdrawal of American troops under the Obama Administration, has been a disaster for local Christians. The invasion exposed Christians to reprisals from Islamists; the withdrawal of troops allowed the reprisals to take place on a wide scale. In Syria, the Obama Administration’s signal that it would support the overthrow of Assad—recall the red line in the summer of 2013—encouraged a rebellion; its failure to back up its words with action has led to slaughter. This is not to say the US should have intervened militarily in Syria. But it shouldn’t have encouraged a rebellion it was not prepared to back, either.
So, what should concerned Americans do to support Mideast Christians? I’ll address that matter in my next post.