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The Arab-Christian Predicament Before and After the Rise of the Islamic State

Elie Chalala


by Elie Chalala. Many Mideast scholars and political groups have grown increasingly concerned with the dwindling numbers and persecutions of Mideast Christians. One Lebanese scholar, Dr. Antoine Saad, wrote a book in Arabic, “The Survival of Christians in the East is a Muslim Choice,” where he advances the flawed thesis that the survival of Christians depends wholly upon the Muslim majority (his thesis attributes the survival of the Lebanese Christians to their leadership, a topic not discussed in this essay). His work exonerates Arab Christians from any responsibility for their fate by portraying Arab Christian elites and intellectuals as helpless victims, passive players unable to influence events. Christian Arab survival, according to Saad, depends upon those Arab Muslims who value diversity wanting Christians to remain in the region. While Christian demographic disadvantages inspire Saad’s thesis, I still find his claim simplistic, especially when he absolves Christians from any role in their own quandaries. In addition, an appeal asking Muslim elites to aid Christians at the precise time when moderate and centrist Muslims have been forced to retreat before extremist forces now engaged in sectarian wars with their Shiite nemeses, renders Saad’s appeal too late or, at the very least, reveals serious flaws in his approach. Furthermore, Saad falls into the trap of Baathist propaganda, embracing inaccurate historical claims that Arab Christians fared better under military regimes in Iraq and Syria.

One cannot forget that Arab Christians as far back as the interwar period had proven receptive to the appeal of totalitarian and extreme nationalist parties, some of which overtly sympathized with Nazi Germany. Fearing the potential tyranny of the Muslim majority, many Arab Christians based their choices on the idealistic belief that nationalist states would guarantee equality for minorities regardless of their sects and numbers, or the conviction that communist states would ensure them equality regardless of their faith and class. Arab Christians therefore sought salvation in regimes inspired by nationalist, Baathist, and communist parties.

In Iraq, Christians sided with Saddam Hussein, alienating the Shiite majority which he persecuted. Nor did Saddam’s appointment to foreign minister of a token Iraqi Christian, Tarik Aziz (1936-2015), foreshadow a significant political role for Iraqi Christians. Many of those nationalists who now decry the rise of the Islamic State forget that a sizable number of ISIS fighters consist of former Sunni Baathist officers turned tormentors of Iraqi Christians. Similarly, Syrian Arab Christians tread the same path of their Iraqi counterparts. They embraced nationalist ideas, even pioneering the formation of nationalist and socialist parties. Yet their ordeal goes back to the 60s, and even back to the Syrian-Egyptian union (1958-1961), times that certainly predated the rise of the Islamic State, and instead harkens to the ascendancy of supposedly secular regimes. Their gradual demographic flight from Syria largely occurred in response to socialist measures like land confiscation and the nationalization of private properties, policies followed by rampant corruption and sectarianism perpetuated by the military regimes. These developments led to continuous migration from Syria, which continues to this day, despite claims by the Syrian state of its supposed battles to protect Christians from extreme Islamists. While ISIS conducted a brutal campaign against Syrian Christians–preceded by even more brutal attacks on their Iraqi counterparts that included displacement and kidnapping of religious figures, still, ISIS alone cannot claim sole responsibility for pushing Syrian Christians out of their homes or prompting them to leave the country. Regime-sponsored militias and loyalists have made life unbearable for many in coastal towns like Lattakia and in Christian neighborhoods in Damascus. Harassment and attacks continue on Christians who either refuse to fight against the opposition or will not enlist in local militias. Syrian Christians have also watched with alarm as sectarian cleansing marches on, including population transfers, mainly between Alawites, Shiites, and Sunnis. As many scholars and historians have observed, a correlation exists between the rise of murderous fundamentalist groups like ISIS and the authoritarian policies of regimes like those in Syria and Iraq. Many Christians in Iraq and Syria can attribute the underlying causes of their suffering to repressive policies imposed by the same regimes they counted on for protection from murderous organizations like ISIS.

Adapted from “The Arab-Christian Predicament Before and After the Rise of the Islamic State” by Elie Chalala, which appears in the current issue of Al Jadid magazine (Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016) and is scheduled to appear in a book of collected essays about “Christians in the Contemporary Middle East: Religious Minorities and the Struggle for Secular Nationalism and Citizenship.”

© Copyright 2016 AL JADID MAGAZINE