The Decline of Christianity in the Middle East 

The Psalmist wrote,”Blessed is the Lord who has shown the wonders of his love in a besieged city.” (Psalm 31)   Indeed the Christians of the Middle East are besieged, but in gatherings such as this one begins to see what the psalmist had in mind. 

The Psalmist wrote,”Blessed is the Lord who has shown the wonders of his love in a besieged city.” (Psalm 31)   Indeed the Christians of the Middle East are besieged, but in gatherings such as this one begins to see what the psalmist had in mind.  Pastor Hans Stückelberger opened the symposium with the reminder that love is the nature of man because man bears the image of God who is love.  Presumptive of the full expression of man’s nature is freedom. I have heard on a number of occasions Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Bishop Desmond Tutu say, “ Humans are of infinite worth intrinsically because they are created in God’s image.  Apartheid, injustice, oppression, exploitation are not only wrong; they are positively blasphemous because they treat the children of God as if they are less than His.”  Daniel Pipes described most aptly the history of Christianity’s decline, loss of cultural and political vitality, and its historical identity in the Middle East.  I want to lay out the nature of that oppression which has led to that decline, its source and its remedyThe Muslim born Indian scholar and author, Anwar Shaikh identifies the historical source of the decline of minorities under Islam as being rooted in the concept of jihad.  He notes, “By declaring all Muslims as one nation and the non-Muslims as another, he (the Prophet Mohammed) created the ‘two nation theory,’ perpetually setting Muslims against non-Muslims.”(Islam – The Arab National Movement). This has been the principle motor force leading to the demise of Christians in the Middle East. This two-world doctrine of dar al-Islam, the abode of peace where Islam rules, and dar al-harb, the abode of war embraced my Islamists sets in motion religious conflict chauvinistic attitudes and supremacists relationships of Muslims toward non-Muslims.  John Esposito belittles Samuel Huntington for portraying history as the product of competing claims and resulting conflicts, but admits that Islamic revival movements have failed to come to terms with political dissent and toleration of diversity.  He notes, “The extent to which the growth of Islamic revivalism has been accompanied in some countries by attempts to restrict women’s rights, strikes fear in segments of Muslim society and challenges the credibility of those who call for Islamization or re-Islamization of state and society.”   Muslims who challenge Islamists are quickly dismissed as reflecting an illegitimate representation of Islam.  Islamists employ the language of jihad rather than pluralism; unity by submission, rather than mutual respect and co-existence.  This has had devastating results, not only politically, demographically and culturally on non-Muslim minorities, but also on the mind of the individual.  As Bat Ye’or so aptly put it dhimmi pathology of the mind is accepting oppression.  One may live as a dhimmi socially and politically under the institutions of dhimmitude as defined by the majority Islamic society, but being dhimmified is a course freely chosen by the oppressed.   Daniel Pipes argued in his key note address that the goal of the Islamist is to collapse the will to resist. As white Americans had to overcome the racist attitudes that allowed white Americans to enslave black Americans, so Muslims must confront their own racist attitudes in regards to their relationship toward non-Muslims.  White Americans experienced great discomfort and shame in accepting their own racist attitudes, but ultimately contrition led to progress in relationships between blacks and whites as evidenced by civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs to redress inequalities in society.  It is easy to avoid this critical self-examination by transferring blame for the disfranchisement of minorities on the Arab-Israeli conflict, extremist movements or poverty.  Christians have long wrestled with one embarrassing century of militant aggression of the Crusades in the Middle East.  Islamists have yet to address with the same kind of introspection and apology for the consequences of nearly 1,400 years Arab/Islamic imperialism throughout the Middle East and Africa. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his controversial history, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, posits that the deep seated collective racist attitudes of German society toward Jews contributed to the mass extermination of Jews.  In essence, he infers that this flawed culture contributed to “voluntary barbarism.”  The tacit consent of German culture formed the socio-psychological foundation for genocide.  Even if one accepts that Islam has been “hijacked” by extremism, the acts of violence, intimidation and marginalization practiced by Islamic Jihad, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and other terrorists against non-Muslims could not be successful without the silent acquiescence of the larger Muslim society.  Every successful act of terror against the “Zionists” and “Crusaders” generates more elation rather than repudiation.   The radical Islamic military cult phenomena of the last half of the twentieth century is not the root cause of the decline of Christianity in the Middle East.  It is a popular utopian movement of the moment that enshrines those principles within historical Islam that are the problem, namely jihad and Islamic hegemony.   The need to assert legitimacy by defining one’s movement against what one is not, a Kafir or unbeliever, is a powerful force that does not lend itself easily to peaceful co-existence.  Jihad, with its emphasis upon the establishment of Islamic hegemony under Shari’ah is a form of racism.   By its nature it creates a divide society.  What recourse is there for the indigenous non-minorities who find themselves on the defensive in such societies?  Edmund Burke wrote, “The concessions of the weak are the concessions of fear.”  After working in human rights for over twenty years in both the former USSR and in the Middle East, I have discovered that the greatest enemy to freedom is fear.  Acceptance of the state of one’s oppression, one’s inferiority, generates weakness; then fear.  The racist understands this pattern and is able to preserve the status quo of imbalance in his favor.   The fear of Copts, Chaldo-Assyrians, Mandaean, Zoroastrians, Jews, and others is real, based upon centuries of intimidation through terror.  But what defines a people? Fear?  It is Freedom.  Freedom begins in the mind of the individual.  It is the seed of Resistance.  Since 1900 Christianity has been reduced from approximately 20% of the population of the Middle East to 5%.   A culture must have critical mass to survive.  It does not take a statistician to see that the time where Christianity will have the critical mass to survive in the region of its origins in drawing short.  There are two courses before the Christians of the Middle East; concede to become the curators of monuments and strangers in the land of their fathers, or resistance and renaissance.  I have not come here to advocate the former.  I am advocating that the future of Christians is in resistance.  This is a provocative term that carries with it militant connotations.  However, resistance need not be violent.  Violent resistance is a consequence of despair, frustration, and futility.  True resistance begins with hope.  Its aim is not to throw off the oppressor, but to transcend oppression; to transform weakness into strength, and create the conditions where freedom, equality and security reign.  The goal of true resistance is creative not destructive.  Its goal is to change the conditions of society, to correct the imbalance between the victim and the victimizer.  It is not too late for the minorities of the Middle East.  But, it is a critical.  Time is crucial for Christians to embrace a new praxis of resistance; resilience is resistance.   The German political writer, Ludwig Boerne noted, “To want to be free is to be free.” (The Eternal Jew)   Resistance begins with a resilient heart.  It is a matter of will.  Christians may accept their plight of demise, or not.  Resistance is not complaint; it is resilient action to preserve one’s nature and rights despite their perpetual attack. Following the Civil War in the US there were attempts by white racists to reverse the liberties that black American had gained during Reconstruction.  A series of laws called “Jim Crow” were enacted to reduce black Americans to second class citizens and insure white supremacy.  The Civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s fought hard through a non-violent resistance movement to gain guarantees of equality through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Middle East Christians live in “Jim Crow” societies where social institutions deny equality.  As African Americans organized resistance to the oppression of the Jim Crow society following reconstruction by seeking strength in unity and cultural pride, Middle East Christians should devote themselves to forming alliances in solidarity with other suffering communities.  They should seek to establish a common identity as Dhimmi. Yes, dhimmi is a derogatory term when it is imposed by members of the majority Muslim society on non-Muslims with the intent to insult their cultural identity.  It is racist when used by a racist.  But, take what is negative and transform it into something positive.  He who controls language controls the debate.    The common bond between non-Muslims in Islamic societies is diminishment, humiliation and suffering.  Then let that common experience of suffering and marginalization is the thing that identifies you.  If you say I am dhimmi from Egypt with by brother or sister dhimmi from Iraq, or Indonesia, or Iran, you define yourself in a way that you control, and by a term that has a different and special meaning to you.  The word, dhimmi, is not imposed upon you by your oppressor any longer, but it is used against him by you as a word of strength.  Subvert oppression by subverting the language and institutions of oppression.  Then, together, work toward creating a resilient cultural cohesiveness that will confront the injustices of dhimmitude.  There astute persons of good will who understand that respecting the dignity of the minority is essentially good for the majority.  A society perpetually at war with itself through conflict or by the practice of inequalities does not flourish.  Bat Ye’or outlines two forms of resistance:  Active and Passive.    When active resistance has been attempted in recent times the lack of cohesiveness and support from the West doomed it to reprisals and punishment for attempting independence.  The passive form which seeks to restore human dignity and equality in society through political and diplomatic efforts has equally met with failure for largely the same reasons.  The weakness of Middle East Christians in facing discrimination and persecution in Islamic societies has been the failure to rely upon the strength of allying with other suffering communities.  There is a tremendous reservoir of strength in the unity of the larger Christian community.    Arabization and Islamization draws its strength from a common identity, but Christians have been fragmented among communities and unable to forge the same kind of cultural force.   And in the division of those communities there is weakness.    If resilience is the first step toward resisting oppression then cohesiveness is its servant.   Building bridges between suffering communities and coreligionists in other parts of the world is a tool that needs to be used much more effectively.   As a Western Christian I recognize that there has been a tremendous failure to support persecuted Christians.  All too often, progressive Christian institutions have collaborated with the oppressor for all of the wrong reasons.   The English poet and naturalist Erasmus Darwin said that “He who allows oppression shares the crime.”  I have a vision that I would like to share with you.  I propose that non-Muslim communities living under the social legacy of dhimmitude meet in a world congress.  In a sense this Dhimmi Congress, is a forum for resistance by resilience.  The first goal is to build a cohesive identity and express the resilience of those communities that face discrimination and persecution.  The second goal is to create a pan-dhimmi strategy for creating the condition of freedom, equality and security in the societies in which they exist.  The outcome will be an international civil rights movement to generate a campaign of change.  Every aspect of culture should be engaged.  Writers should meet with writers, artists with artists, economists with economists, politicians with politicians, clergy with clergy, etc.  Delegates should share their common experience of suffering and common hope for dignity.  The only basis of unity is the common experience of suffering.  This is where we should draw strength.  This should lead to the expression of a common mandate to guide future action.  Only when there is such cohesiveness and a common expression of cultural unity, will the West and, for that matter, the Arab world, take notice.  No one can give freedom and equality these are outcomes gained by the struggle of those who long for those values themselves.   Neither the US nor the EU can free the people from the degradation of dhimmitude; dhimmi must do it themselves.  That does not mean that the West does not have a role to play.  The émigré community has a vast, and as of this point, untapped resource in the West to support this movement. But, it is imperative that resistance come from within the societies; the force of change must be indigenous.  In promoting the idea of resilience-to resistance -to renaissance there is established a moral imperative that speaks to the very best nature of all human beings.  All those who embrace the aspiration for freedom, equality and security should be considered willing partners, including Muslims.  You may not see anything immediately happen as the result of this meeting.  It may seem that you have come and gone, heard words of suffering and hope, but no action seems to follow.  In reality, you have done a great deal – you have planted seeds of resistance in your hearts and within those who suffer and who long in hope.  The practice of resilience is an irresistible force for change

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