Dr. John Eibner
Last weekend’s scenes of anti-Christian mob violence in Cairo, against a background of churches in flames, is a powerful reminder of a grim reality: Non-Muslim communities have become endangered species throughout much of the Islamic world.
Some statesmen have begun to acknowledge the existential crisis facing non-Muslims. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Amine Gemayel warned earlier this year that Islamic extremists are waging a war of “genocide,’’ while French President Nicolas Sarkozy now refers to the region’s Christians as the victims of “a perverse program of . . . religious cleansing.’’
The most sensational acts of anti-Christian terror command headlines — for a moment. Such was the case when 41 worshippers at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church were held hostage and then massacred by Islamic extremists last October, and 23 Egyptian Christians in Alexandria were killed by a bomb blast as they left mass early this year.
Pakistan’s only Christian Cabinet member, Shahbaz Bhatti — the minister for minority affairs — was shot dead in March. He was a critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
But most acts of violent Christophobia, like the post-revolution beheading of a Catholic priest, Father Marek Rybinski, in Tunisia in February, mob assaults against churches in Egypt, or the imprisonment and subsequent killing of alleged “blasphemers’’ in Pakistan, are routinely under-reported.
These acts of terror are not isolated, senseless incidents. Instead they conform to a consistent, long-standing pattern of violence often committed in the name of an Islamic jihad against non-Muslims.
While members of shadowy terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda often pull the triggers and detonate the bombs, they operate successfully only because their political ideology of jihad finds oxygen in a culture of extremist Muslim supremacy. According to extremist Muslim norms, Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims are degraded as “kufar’’ (infidels).
The effects of religious supremacy have been devastating, especially for non-Muslims in the Islamic Middle East. In the 20th century, the persecuted Christian population of Turkey shrunk from 20 percent to less than 1 percent. In the decades immediately following World War II, the once-thriving Jewish communities of the Arab Middle East shrank, partly through emigration to the West and Israel. Nowadays, Iraqi and Palestinian Christians are disappearing fast. If present trends continue, it is conceivable that, within a generation, strong, viable Christian communities will cease to exist in the region of Christianity’s birth.
In addressing the Islamic world in Cairo in June 2009, President Obama declared: “I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.’’ The need to deconstruct the toxic culture of extremist Islamic supremacy is one of those “things’’ that requires public airing.
Failure to address this ugly reality has been widely perceived by the Middle East’s now-shaky regimes as tacit American acceptance of religious discrimination and violence against non-Muslims. The laudable goal of winning the hearts and minds of Muslims must not be pursued at the expense of the human rights of Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslim communities.
In Cairo, the President also declared, “The richness of religious diversity must be upheld. . . Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.’’ In the absence of full freedom of religion, the richness of religious diversity in Islamic majority countries is rapidly ebbing away.
To ensure progress on this front, Obama should establish a high-level interagency task force to prepare a strategy aimed at securing religious freedom and diversity in the Middle East. He should also use his enormous influence with Muslim allies to make the eradication of religious supremacy one of the principal goals of the UN’s Alliance of Civilizations initiative.
Peace, pluralism, and stability cannot be based on religious or racial bigotry. The abolition of slavery and segregation in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa, could not have been achieved without a public campaign against white supremacy. Similarly, the commendable goals articulated by Obama in Cairo cannot be achieved by turning a blind eye to religious bigotry in the Islamic world.
John Eibner is CEO of Christian Solidarity International.