It’s not just Maaloula, as Reza Aslan informs us, and not just the Arab Spring, either. The process of cleansing Christians from their oldest communities — predating the Islam, which now dominates the region — has been in motion for decades, perhaps a century. The Foreign Affairs essayist connects a lot of dots in an essay that must be read in full, but Aslan’s historical perspective is key:
Christianity was born in the Middle East and had a deep, penetrating presence in the region for hundreds of years before the rise of Islam. In the fourth and fifth centuries, when tens of thousands of heterodox Christians were forced to flee a Roman Empire that considered them heretics, the lands of the Middle East and North Africa became a haven for them. In the years thereafter, the region became the epicenter of Christian theology. In the Arabian peninsula, a large, thriving Christian population played a pivotal role in influencing the early theological and political development of Islam. During the Inquisition (the twelfth to fourteenth centuries), Christian sectarians found refuge under Islamic rule, which classed all Christians, regardless of their doctrinal differences, as “people of the Book” and accorded them protected, albeit inferior, societal status.
The situation for Middle Eastern Christians changed dramatically in the colonial era. Because the colonial experiment was also an unapologetically Christianizing mission, one that overtly privileged indigenous Christians over Muslims and framed Islam as a backward culture in need of civilization, political tensions between the two communities erupted throughout the Middle East. Muslims tended to view their Christian neighbors as complicit in colonial oppression; indigenous Christians became the target of anticolonial backlash.
With the end of colonial rule in the twentieth century, the governments of the Middle East’s newly independent nation-states actively encouraged the exodus of their Christian citizens from the region by enacting laws limiting their rights to proselytize or build places of worship. The lot of the Christians who remained in the region worsened with the rise of political Islam in the 1950s and ’60s, as groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood encouraged Middle Eastern Muslims to think of nationalism and citizenship strictly through the lens of Islamic identity. The irony was that, at the same time, the secular authoritarian regimes in the Middle East burnished their reputations in the West by presenting themselves as protecting Christian minorities from Islamist fanatics.
The ascension of transnational jihadism over the last two decades raised the campaign against Christians to a fever pitch. Jihadist groups such as al Qaeda have been remarkably successful at framing conflicts as an all-out war between Christianity and Islam. Many of the region’s Muslims, even those who do not support al Qaeda, now profess to believe that Middle Eastern Christians are firmly aligned either with the “crusading” West (as in Iraq) or the “godless” tyrants and dictators (as in Syria and Egypt).
In other words, what we have seen over the last two years isn’t really new; it’s just a lot more accelerated. The acceleration comes from the rapid collapse of dictatorial regimes that served their own ends to be sure, but also survived only by suppressing radical Islamists. The fall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Qaddafi in Libya in what is historically speaking an eyeblink just makes the problem a lot more visible. The same thing happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, for instance (which Aslan notes), where many of the perhaps millions of Christian refugees ended up in Syria, only to be refugees once again.
This doesn’t really start during the post-Ottoman colonial period, as Aslan suggests, but that is once again another acceleration point. The Ottoman Empire conducted more than one massive cleansing of Christians in the century previous to its collapse in 1920, the most famous of which was the Armenian genocide of 1915 that killed perhaps 2.5 million. Preceding that were the 1842 Assyrian massacre, and another between 1894-97 of Assyrians, Armenians, and Kurds that supported both. All of these were efforts to not only provide political cohesion but also to stamp out religious diversity from Ottoman by the pan-Islamist imperial government.
The genocidal/religious-cleansing impulse of the Islamists far predates the colonial period, but that’s not to say that the colonial period doesn’t play a role in the crisis now. The victorious West imposed a nation-state model through Versailles on the collapsed Ottoman Empire that fit neither religious sects nor ethnic/tribal patterns. (They did the same thing in eastern Europe as well.) Potentates rose to power in Saudi Arabia, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, and throughout the region on the strength of Western military and political dominance, which acted to protect the indigenous Christian populations. That created the alliances that Aslan notes in this column, but that was no accident of history, and Christians had plenty of reasons to fear the rise of another Caliphate after the genocides of the previous century and more. Those alliances deepened the hatred of the Islamists, and … well, that pretty much brings us to today.
In conclusion, Aslan makes a compelling argument that the Islamists are essentially cutting off their noses to spite their faces:
But it is important to note that the removal of the region’s Christians is a disaster for Muslims as well. They are the ones who will be left with the task of building decent societies in the aftermath of these atrocities. And that task will be made immeasurably harder by the removal of Christians from their midst. It is not just that the memory of these brutal actions will taint these societies — perpetrators and victims alike — for the indefinite future; it is also that Muslims are removing the sort of pluralism that is the foundation for any truly democratic public life. One of the refrains of the Arab Spring has been that Muslims want to put an end to tyranny. But the only lasting guarantor of political rights is the sort of social and religious diversity that Muslims in the region are in the process of extinguishing. If nothing is done to reverse the situation, the hope for peace and prosperity in the Middle East may vanish along with the region’s Christian population.
That assumes, however, that the Islamists want a “truly democratic public life.” The Muslim Brotherhood may have wanted to use democracy to create an Islamist state, but it was clear by the constitution they shoved down the throats of Egyptians that they had no desire for a pluralistic and tolerant secular republic, a la Kemal Ataturk’s vision for Turkey. The radicals in Libya and Syria have been plainly outspoken in rejecting that as an end state; for them the goal is to restore the Caliphate, not to have a United States of Pan-Arabia with religious and political diversity. It underscores the fact that there are truly no good choices on either end of the gun, but instead just a lot of people — Christians, Muslims, and Jews — stuck in between the extremes of violent, oppressive warlords … as it ever was, unfortunately.