This morning (1/1/11) the Dallas Morning News carried three different stories about attacks on Christian churches or Christians carried out by Muslim terrorists; one in Egypt, one in Iraq, and one in Afghanistan. These are not isolated incidents. Over the last two decades Muslims have attacked Christian churches and killed Christians in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and Afghanistan. (See http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/255861/away-manger-paul-marshall) One is tempted to balance this report with attacks in the Christian West on mosques and Muslims, but in reality there is no comparison in number, deadliness, intensity, and most importantly motivation.
In each of these different dominantly Muslim countries there are complicated layers of motivation. In all of them Christians and Muslims are competitors for political and economic power, often at a very local level. And of course Christians and Muslims can be personal rivals and harbor the usual range of individual animosity. Without a doubt these play a motivating role. Yet beyond individual and strictly local motivations these attacks on Christians have two things in common.
First: they are justified religiously by a belief (held by some Muslim puritans) that a perfect society can be created only when every person in it lives in complete conformity to their idea of Islamic law. It is an idea with some precedent in broader religious history. On both my father and mother’s side my earliest American relatives were cast out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for not adhering to a correct Christian faith (my father’s ancestor was an atheist, My mother’s was Lutheran. Jacob Hunt’s children ended up Quakers and were hounded across the continent because of their refusal to fight America’s wars.) The founding fathers gave us religious freedom because Americans realized that social purity through religious purity just meant different religious sects attacking each other. The effort to purify society and/or religion always ends in violence.
Of course Islamic puritans aren’t just interested in Christians. Indeed their real focus is on non-conformist (to them) sects of Muslims. But Christians are often an easier target and in their minds these Muslim puritans see this as a strike against what are assumed to be Christian allies in the West.
Secondly these Islamic puritan movements thrive in nations and societies where the government is partially or wholly sympathetic with them, or is so ineffective and corrupt that it cannot control them. Thus even when religious minorities are protected by law, and that isn’t always the case, there is no law enforcement.
What about seeking asylum elsewhere? Persecuted protestants in 17th century Europe could go to England, then the New World, and then to Rhode Island or Pennsylvania. But Christians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran have no place to flee. I know from first hand experience that the U.S. government presently has rules in place that make seeking religious asylum extraordinarily difficult for Iranian converts to Christianity. And of course many don’t want asylum. They want freedom in their home country.
In Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. is committed to militarily supporting governments that do not support religious freedom and have no intention of protecting their Christian populations. What can we say? We chose those governments ourselves. Pakistan is an ally whose tenuous support we will buy by looking the other way at its dreadful apostasy and blaspheme laws. And its present government is, in any case, once again in a crisis. Somalia, of course, simply has no effective government, nor does northern Nigeria or Sudan.
It might offer some emotional satisfaction to castigate the US Muslim community for not being more supportive of religious freedom. However in the cases of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Nigeria both the Council of American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America have issued strong condemnations of the persecutions of Christians, and the latter is raising money to rebuild a church in Baghdad. Similar condemnations have come from a variety of international Islamic leaders, including the rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Although these condemnations are just words, they are essentially what our own state department has offered for decades in the way of relief for persecuted Christians.
Yet we must realize that the job of the U.S. government in this regard is not easy. How do you persuade your enemies, or even friends to grant religious freedom and protect religious minorities when it isn’t in their immediate and obvious interests? If you aren’t willing to use force to stop Iran from building nuclear warheads are you really going to do anything because they kill a few hundred thousand Baha’is or a Christian pastor or two? Iran calculates quite rightly that the U.S. won’t go to war for religious freedom.
We need to be realistic. In the balancing of many conflicting interests the US government seeks the interests of its own citizens first, even if those interests mean doing little to secure the religious liberty of Christians (or Hindus or Buddhists or even Muslims) elsewhere in the world. And this, by the way, is as it should be. A government that extends its interests to protecting persons on the basis of any other affiliation than citizenship (ethnicity for example, or religion) makes those persons into objects of suspicion wherever they live and whatever their personal loyalties. If the US were to take a special interest in Christians worldwide it would only increase the suspicion of Muslims and others that all Christians are agents of US interests. And that only makes things worse.
Thus, in the end these abuses of and violence toward Christians in Muslim countries get addressed case by slow difficult case as U.S. officials and their counterparts from other nationas push here and pull there and try to rescue one person or church at a time: often failing.
And what about the role of Islam as a religion in all of this? Right now the Islamic world is going through a major power struggle between the puritans and those Muslims who oppose them. This latter group has seen that Muslim puritanism as the road to disaster for Muslims most of all. The problem for the rest of us is how to sort out the players when they all dress the same way, say many of the same things, and are locked in a giant scrum beneath which the ball is invisible. This is a problem that can be solved. Look to the upcoming issue of the Journal of Inter-religious Dialogue for my suggestions. http://irdialogue.org/.