"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Eastern Christianity and Islam (I)

For those of us working to make the encounter between Eastern Christians and Muslims, both historic and current, better known today, it can be deeply frustrating to find suitable books, especially for undergraduates or others with no background or understanding in the area. Some books simply ignore Islam's treatment of religious minorities because it does not fit with ideological prejudices. Some books that do treat the encounter are now very dated or superficial. Some bury the encounter under a blizzard of undigested documentation. Some give only very general impressions that fail to acknowledge very significant differences in relations in different countries: Orthodox-Muslim relations are hugely different in Russia from what obtains in Egypt; Armenia's story of relations differs greatly from Syria's or Lebanon's; and so on.

As with Eastern Christian publications in general, so too with those treating Orthodox-Muslim relations: we are seeing a great increase in number in the past few years. I will be reviewing several in the coming weeks. Let us begin with the shortest one to date that I have just read:

Habib C. Malik, Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East (Hoover Institute Press, 2010), xvi+80pp. 

About this book, which is really very small in size and short in length, the publisher tells us:
Christianity may have “won the world,” in the sense of being the most widespread religion in history with the largest number of adherents, but it is steadily losing ground in and around its birthplace. Although Christians of the East are leaving their homelands in record numbers, the powers of the West have shown little interest in their fate. In this essay by the noted Lebanese scholar Habib Malik—himself a child of Christian Lebanon—Malik offers a sobering account of the ordeal of Christian Arabs of the Middle East in this era of Islamist radicalism.

Malik explains why the number of native Christians in the Middle East—now between ten and twelve million—continues to dwindle, one of the most prominent reasons being the rise of Islamic extremism, or Islamism, in both its Sunni and its Shiite varieties. Despite weaving a bleak tapestry, he offers hopeful suggestions on how to achieve a healthy pluralism between Muslims and Christians in the region.
Malik is a professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University. He begins by noting the enormous decline of Christians in the Middle East, a phenomenon recently analyzed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies by Prof. Stephen Need, dean of St. George's College in Jerusalem. Though the data is not always easily obtained or entirely reliable, nonetheless trends are clear and undeniable: Christians are leaving for reasons of greater economic and religious freedom; those few that remain are having few children because of those same reasons. The future, in sum, looks very bleak.

Those that remain, Malik argues, especially those Eastern Christians living in Arab countries, who number ''over 90 percent, live today in dhimmi communities. These include the Christians in Egypt (Copts); Iraq (Chaldeans and Assyrians); Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories...and other scattered parts of the Gulf and North Africa'' (12).  He briefly discusses what dhimmi means, referring to the pioneering (but not unproblematic) works of Bat Ye'or.

By the nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire and its millet system was beginning to fall apart, pressure was mounting to replace it with what Malik calls liberal European ideas of reform in which rights were supposed to be granted to minorities. Far from improving the plight of Christians, this led to ''massacres perpetrated against Christian minority communities. Examples include the Christians of Damascus in 1860; the Armenians in 1895, 1909, and 1915; the Syriac-speaking Christians of southern Anatolia in 1915 and 1918; and the Assyrians and Chaldeans in southwestern Turkey and northern Iraq in 1915 and again in 1933'' (17).

Here Malik alludes too briefly to a startling paradox: as these positive-sounding reforms were being encouraged, Muslims, far from welcoming greater freedom and rights for all, were ''outraged...through the sudden introduction of the idea of equality between them and their non-Muslim subordinates" (ibid). Reform, in other words, gave way to rage and revenge. This outrage, he claims, explains the aforementioned massacres. He does not go into detail about this and does not cite sources. I think it will be important to read this argument in light of Michelle Campos' new book, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine about which the publisher says that

Ottoman Brothers explores the development of Ottoman collective identity, tracing how Muslims, Christians, and Jews became imperial citizens together. In Palestine, even against the backdrop of the emergence of the Zionist movement and Arab nationalism, Jews and Arabs cooperated in local development and local institutions as they embraced imperial citizenship. As Michelle Campos reveals, the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine was not immanent, but rather it erupted in tension with the promises and shortcomings of "civic Ottomanism."

(We are having Campos' book expertly reviewed for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.)

But back to Malik's Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East. After having described, however briefly, this idea of dhimmitude, he is at great pains to stress that not all Christians have lived under that system. Here is where Malik's book is unique and offers us an important, and too rarely articulated, reminder of the hazards of generalizing about Eastern Christians and their encounter with Islam, to which I alluded earlier. Malik rightly notes that there are some "free Christians native to the Middle East--some 8-10 percent of the total number of Christians in the region--[who] are to be found almost exclusively in Lebanon and Cyprus" (20). He rightly notes--although, again, too briefly--that the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon is very different from just about any other country in the region. Relations here have been, in the main, more amicable and tolerant than in most places.

Parts of Malik's treatment of Lebanese Christians, alas, has a distasteful de haut en bas air to it. It seems (cf. pp. 21-24) that he regards dhimmi Christians, especially the Copts, and particularly their Pope Shenouda III, as being rather cowardly for their heavy involvement with Arabist-nationalist ideologies and movements in an attempt to prove to their Muslim overlords that they are good and loyal members of their respective countries. Malik scorns such movements--and not without good measure, for they are rife with anti-Semitism--but he never asks, let alone answers, the vexing pastoral-practical question: if the Coptic pope and Church had not gone this route, would things not be even worse than they already are today? (The same question, equally insoluble, arises during discussions of such as Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, or Patriarch Alexy I of Moscow and Stalin.) Surely the pastoral-prudential responsibility of a chief hierarch is the preservation of his flock as far as the dictates of conscience will allow. It is very easy to fight for an idealistic vision of freedom from the outside when you do not have to suffer the consequences; it is facile to recommend the path of martyrdom to others when there is no danger of your own head being hacked off and placed on Traitor's Gate pour encourager les autres.

Malik argues that ''the better off Lebanon's free Christians are, the more easily the rest of the region's Christians can breathe'' (26) This is an attractive thesis, but not one he elaborates upon or for which he supplies convincing evidence. To his credit, Malik notes, albeit in a greatly understated and overly sanguine way, that many Lebanese Christians have not ''always lived up to the required level of responsibility that the preservation of the precious freedoms of their community demands. They have wallowed in petty personal and parochial disputes over issues of prominence and power'' (27). They have failed, moreover, to help build ''any regional solidarity and unity of purpose among Christians'' across the region, and as a result, ''dhimmis and their free coreligionists eye each other with mutual unsettled incomprehension...[that] has left these communities vulnerable to the inevitable, and haphazard, blows of decay and disintegration'' (33). 

Finally, Malik repeatedly argues that ''Christians are likely to fare better under Shiite rule than in a country run by Sunni Salafis. The proof of this proposition is simple and straightforward: Christian churches and their trace communities still exist in today's Mullah-dominated Iran, but any native Christianity has long ago been eradicated from the territory that constitutes the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia'' (43).

In sum, Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East

is, as noted, a welcome reminder of the peril faced by most--but not all--Christians in the Middle East today. It helpfully reminds us of the problems of dhimmitude. But it equally helpfully reminds us that not all Christians live under the remaining vestiges of that system, and they can live in relative freedom with Muslims in one country. May it be so elsewhere, and soon.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read the book, but at least as you describe it, especially with regard to Lebanese particularism and snobbiness toward non-Lebanese Christians, it sounds like more of a re-iteration of traditional Maronite particularism than anything else. Historically, and to some degree still today, Syrian and Lebanese Orthodox have defined themselves politically against this attitude, and have tended towards advocating strongly secular pan-Arabism or pan-Syrianism...

    It's very unfortunate that we don't have in English much coming from the modern Orthodox interaction with Islam in the Middle East, especially metropolitan Georges Khodr who is as apt to quote the Qur'an as he is the Bible (his column this past week in an-Nahar was as interesting a Christian engagement with the wife-beating verse from the Qur'an as I've seen). I could also mention Fr. Georges Massouh, the professor of Islamic Studies at Balamand, who also gets a weekly column in an-Nahar to discuss Muslim-Christian relations... I think that both are more promising models of how Christians should engage Islam.


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