by Alex Schank
Violent acts against Christians in the Middle East have spurred a series of calls both regionally and internationally for the protection of a vulnerable religious minority in a Muslim-dominated part of the world. Salafist attacks on churches in Egypt, the bloody Maspero clashes between the army and Coptic demonstrators, and an apparently increasingly sectarian popular uprising in Syria have raised alarm bells in international and regional Christian networks and foreign policy circuits about the plight of Middle Eastern Christians.
The notion that Christians are threatened by a changing, revolutionary Middle East is not necessarily unfounded. The blood spilled in Cairo in recent months and the armed conflict in Syria raise real concerns about the safety of all citizens, particularly ethnic and religious minorities, and all those demonstrating for their rights. Indeed, the specters of sectarian civil war and Christian persecution from the recent historical experiences of Lebanon and Iraq, respectively, seem to loom over the region.
And yet, it would be a mistake to ignore the political context in which the popular uprisings in the region are taking place and assume an inherently “sectarian” reality hostile to Christians. Such an assumption is not only too general to be of much value, it is self-fulfilling in the sense that it helps create sectarian realities that had not existed previously. (This is arguably what occurred in Iraq in 2003, when foreign military invasion disrupted the foundations of a fairly integrated society and reintroduced politics on the basis of sectarian division – reflecting a broader historical trend of foreign intervention fueling sectarianism in the region.)
Finally, assuming an inherently sectarian Middle East ignores the emergence of a non-sectarian human rights discourse fueling much of the civic action on the streets of Syria and Egypt – a revolutionary discourse premised on religious, ethnic, and ideological inclusion.
For decades, authoritarian regimes in the region have claimed that minorities need their protection. This protection-speech has favored the political status quo, allowing regimes to divide society discursively along religious lines then assert themselves as the only ones able to provide national unity. The Egyptian and Syrian popular uprisings have challenged this authoritarian paradigm of national unity with an alternative paradigm of democratic governance and equality of citizenship, summed up in the demand for a “civil state” (dowla madaniyya). These uprisings remain works in progress, however, and Christians – like their fellow citizens of various ethnic, religious, and ideological backgrounds – seem to be split between competing impulses: Some fear the possibility of oppression under an uncertain majoritarian system, while others are inspired by the democratic promise of political equality.
One fear in particular stems from the political rise of Islamists, who supposedly view Christians as a protected, yet subordinate, religious minority. Such a protectionist view would, like authoritarian protectionism, be incompatible with the emerging revolutionary discourse on rights and equality of citizenship. Here, though, we must distinguish authoritarian regimes from Islamist movements by noting that there is no single Islamist approach to minority rights and protection. Rather, conceptions of religious minorities vary profoundly among Islamists, many of whom have helped shape the broad-based civic uprisings in the region in recent months (even as the uprisings have shaped and challenged Islamists).
Although the tension between religious inclusivity and potentially exclusivist actors has not been entirely resolved in the emerging rights discourse in the Arab world, the discourse has nonetheless moved beyond the sectarian protectionist scheme. Writing in the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, Phillip Salem argues that the notion that Christians need the protection of an authoritarian regime only perpetuates the inequality created by a sectarian majority-minority mindset and makes the quest to realize the rights of all citizens more difficult:
Talk of protection is premised on the assumption that Christians are in danger and in need of protection. This is the logic of numerical majorities and minorities. For this reason, we look to the creation of a civil state that separates religion and state and secures the freedom and rights of all citizens. In such a state there would be no majority or minority, but rather citizens. In such a state, no one will need protection from anyone else, because the state itself will guarantee everyone’s protection. [Translation my own]
In much the same vein, Naser Rabbat says that calls for mere tolerance of Christians obscures the need for a democratic state that protects the rights of all citizens and strives to replace discrimination with equal treatment:
[The present discussion of discrimination against Christians] is mostly centered on denying Islam’s responsibility for discrimination. It insists on the need for a return to the principles of authentic Islamic tolerance in dealing with Christians. All of this, even if desirable as a means to return to the humanist dimension of the Islamic religion, conceals the discussion we really need to have about the framework of the modern state, a state of true citizenship that we all seek to build on the remains of the dictatorships that are falling one after another. In the modern state, there is no room for tolerance if it is to serve as a replacement for equality under the law, a balance between rights and duties, or the state’s equal treatment of its citizens without regard for religious, ethnic, or socio-economic background. [Translation my own]
Salem and Rabbat do not suggest that the rights-based demands articulated by Christians should be ignored or silenced by the call for equality of citizenship, or that Christians should downplay their belonging to their religious groups. Rather, these authors seek to show that realizing minority rights is dependant on realizing the ultimate civic goal shared by all citizens: a democratic state in which human rights give meaning to citizens’ political existence. In such a state the discursive bonds of inequality and discrimination inherent in categories like “religious majority” and “religious minority” start to disappear, even as the law must guarantee the right of minorities to maintain their identities and practice their faith.
Interestingly, international human rights law on religious minorities seems to bear the interpretive potential to support either the protectionism/tolerance model or the equality of citizenship model. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which all Arab states but Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are party) states in Article 27 that “persons belonging to [religious] minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion.” Patrick Thornberry argues that the covenant’s plain-language emphasis on granting rights to individuals rather than collectives seems to impose only a duty of toleration of minorities on states; however, a more purposive reading of the covenant would impose positive duties on the state to move beyond non-discrimination and equality-in-law to equality-in-fact. Taking the latter view of the law, it seems that it is not enough for the right to non-discrimination to exist only on the books; rather there must be genuine political will to enforce domestic and international legal provisions guaranteeing rights for all citizens, minorities included.
In contrast to the manipulation of minorities and society at large by the authoritarian Egyptian and Syrian regimes and their remnants today, equality-in-fact for citizens of all religious backgrounds appears to be a central goal of the emerging revolutionary discourse in Egypt, Syria, and the region at large. Though in its infancy, this discourse seeks fundamentally to replace the sectarianism of declining authoritarian regimes with the broad, democratic parameters of a state rooted in civic consciousness and human rights. In light of such an inclusive discourse, the outside observer may do well to balance the liberal, universalist appetite for “Christian protection” with consideration of the complex political and social reality of Arab societies in transition.