World — December 10, 2011 1:06 pm

Under the Flag of Islamism

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Christian minorities in the Middle East fear new regimes

In early October of this year, 24 Egyptian demonstrators died in the country’s worst episode of violence since Mubarak’s fall in February. The clash between Coptic Christians and government forces highlights the religious diversity of region many assume to be monolithic. Copts took to the streets of Cairo to protest an attack on a Coptic church, only to be considered—mistakenly or otherwise—as a potentially aggressive force, leading to the fatal confrontation.

As many countries, newly free from decades-long authoritarian rule, begin to form new democratic systems, Christians face an uncertain role in social and political life. Many fear the emergence of political parties and movements as the prominent face of Islamism: itself a political ideology that believes the values of the state should reflect those of Islam. The increasing prominence of Islamism in the Middle East has caused alarm in some Christian communities, forcing them to evaluate their place in society and the role they hope to play in any new political system. Theirs is not misplaced apprehension; the rise of Islamism and its potential consequences for Christians remains a valid concern, given the prominent role many Islamist parties assume in the new political discourse.

Historical Legacies

Like many other aspects of sociopolitical and economic life in the Middle East, Western imperialism shaped Christians’ position in the region. Given the mission civilisatrice aspect of French and British colonialism, Christians often enjoyed certain privileges that their Muslim counterparts lacked. “There was this idea of…the obligation of the French and the British to protect the Christian minorities,” explains Harvard Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Professor William Granara. Christian support for their foreign rulers, tacit or otherwise, proved a double-edged sword. As European empires crumbled, many Christians vocally supported the cause of Arab nationalism in an effort to stave off the advances of Islamism, a movement angry at the elevation of their Christian neighbors and eager to return to a more fundamentalist approach to Islam in government.

Harvard Visiting Professor Kirk Beattie explains, “For Christians, Arab nationalism was a political ideology they could pin their hopes on, in a way they obviously wouldn’t want to do with an Islamist formula.” The secular nature of Arab nationalism provided an outlet for Christian political expression and promised equal citizenship in a way Christians felt Islamism could not. Christians recognized the potential threat of conservative Islamist movements to their standing in society, and retreated into secularism to prevent it.

The Revolutionary Fight

In Egypt, Christians participated in the February revolution just as actively as did Muslims. “Copts felt the heavy hand of the state in the same way Muslims did,” comments Beattie. Six decades worth of repression gave way to popular uprisings. As active participants in those uprisings, Christians— like the rest of the population— expected unthreatened recognition of their equality as citizens. The right to participate in government without fear of repression, religious or otherwise, proved as primary a revolutionary motivation for Christian revolutionaries as it did for Muslims.

Nonetheless, the October clash in Cairo illustrates some Christians’ wariness of their new government’s real intentions. For decades, permits to build Christian churches required special permission from the government, while building mosques proved a much simpler affair. The transitional government has promised to aid church building, but has taken no action. The military’s violent response to the Coptic protests and its perceived hesitancy in turning over power to a civilian government have led Christians—and many Muslims—to express concern over the direction of Egypt’s future. Whether this military transitional government is specifically hostile to Christian political freedom or to political freedom in general, such an arrangement would nonetheless be a setback for Christian sociopolitical life.

The Rise of Islamism

Though Christians, like others in the Middle East, support the right to freedom of political expression so advanced by the revolutions, several experts note the prevalent worry that Islamism will restrict those very rights. In particular, analysts express concern about the imposition of Islam-based laws and implicit government policies supporting. No matter how great the desire for freedom, “there is a fear in the minds of a lot of people that the beneficiaries might end up being the Islamists,” says Beattie. Islamists could in turn attempt to consolidate their power by playing to the sentiments of a majority Muslim constituency, without turning to the voices of the Christian community.

The case in Syria presents a stark example of Christians’ fears of what could happen after authoritarian regimes fall. There has been surprising reluctance among Christians to support the fight against Bashar al-Assad. “The [Syrian] Alawite government has done a lot to protect other minorities,” says Granara. Indeed, given that al-Assad comes from a minority sect himself, his Ba’ath party has proven relatively accommodating. Though they may be critical of its totalitarian aspects, many Christians still support the Assad regime, given the protections they have been afforded. Christians in Syria look to Iraq as an example of the effects of sectarian tension. After Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, large numbers of Christians left the country, fearful of the persecution ensuing from sectarian strife.

Demographic Chages

Political turmoil, the rise of political Islamism, and general concern for the future have all prompted a troubling trend: the emigration of Christians from the Middle East. Habib C. Malik, in his book Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East, describes this emigration as an “exodus of individuals, families, and communities [that] proceeds unabated,” moving to Europe and the United States. Fearful of the possibility of secondary status in countries filled with sectarian strife or strong Islamist parties, Christians are preempting their concerns simply by leaving the area. This emigration of Christians could easily affect the structure or composition of new government systems. Their paucity could skew the representative structures that were ostensibly set up to provide fair and equal governance in countries that had not enjoyed such for decades.

All of these factors have combined to sow anxiety in the Christian communities of the Middle East. It is reasonable to predict that a conservative Islamist government could lead to clear delineations between Christians and Muslims. Whether that separation is explicitly embodied in law or implicitly embodied in tacit government practices, the Christian fear of living as not-quite-equals in countries purporting equality will have been vindicated. It may be that the rise of moderate, pluralist Islamist parties, such as Ennahda in Tunisia, and liberal democratic coalitions will be the saving grace for Christians, a middle ground between the authoritarianism of the regimes of the past and the discrimination of fundamentalist Islamism. If such governments fail to emerge, however, Christians could soon look back on the Arab Spring with some regret.

Clare Duncan ’14 is a Contributing Writer.

Photo Credit: Bakar_88, Flickr

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