Religious Freedom and the Arab Spring

The June 1 New York Times offers this headline: “Russian Church Is a Strong Voice Opposing Intervention in Syria” The reason is simple. “the Russian Orthodox Church, . . .  fears that Christian minorities, many of them Orthodox, will be swept away by a wave of Islamic fundamentalism unleashed by the Arab Spring.”

A view closer to that of the US and other Western government is expressed by Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “What we see now in Syria is systemic failure — it’s brutal, it’s now an insurgency — but in the end it’s just systemic failure, If the Christian population and those that support it want a long-term future in the region, they’re going to have to accept that hitching their wagon to this brutal killing machine doesn’t have a long-term future.”

The problem we need to acknowledge is that the systemic failure of Syria may simply lead to the systematic persecution of Christian, Jews and Muslim minority sects by a new Sunni Muslim government. It has already happened in Iraq, and continues daily. Indeed the systematic persecution of Christians and other religious minorities is, in some form, the policy of virtually every country in the Middle East. Of course it isn’t always brutal. Egypt’s government offers legal protection on paper (as does Iraq) while cynically allowing violence against Christians to go unpunished. Jordan practices “stealth Islamization” by squeezing Christians out of the public space. Saudi Arabia simply outlaws Christianity.

(Israel is a unique case: a democracy struggling to maintain its identity as a homeland and safe haven for Jews. It has yet to find a way to grant true equality to its religious minorities without undermining its national purpose, and thus unfortunately offers no useful example to its neighbors for their own transition to religiously plural democracies.)

But don’t think the problem is what the Orthodox are calling Christianophobia by Muslims,  or for that matter Jews. Yes, each religion in the region including Christianity has an ample tradition justifying diminished rights and even violence against those outside the cult. But no, these religions and their traditions are not necessarily oppressive. Indeed within all three there are active efforts to adopt theological perspectives that give all those of different religions full and equal rights in the public square.

In the midst of complex motivations the problem isn’t a specific religion or religious teaching. The religious problem is that all pre-modern religions cultivate a now impossible orientation toward reality. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, this is an orientation that naively accepts its understanding of reality as the only one conceivable. All others are either variations, deviations, or ridiculous. In this circumstance it is the logical duty of ruling authorities to correct or suppress deviant views since they endanger the whole purpose and order of society, and indeed the cosmos.

This naivety, this inability to imagine real options, is being challenged across the world by the whole force of modernity and the economic, social, and political power granted to various widely different world views. The traditionalist populations of the Middle East are confronted with religious difference not as a foolish and dismissible mistake, but as a viable option. This isn’t just because Christian missionaries have tried to declare it so. It is because for a century and more those living within alternative world views have visibly succeeded in attaining material, intellectual, and even spiritual success.

The excuses for this offered from within Islam have worn thin, just as those offered by Christianity to justify its hegemonic position elsewhere in the world ultimately failed. It is becoming impossible for the peoples of the Middle East to imagine only a single religious option, and the confrontation with radical choice is sufficiently dislocating as to sometimes create a violent reaction.

Some measure of freedom of religion is easy to grant to religious minorities when it’s exercise by the ruling majority to make religious choices is neither necessary nor even imaginable. When it becomes imaginable, and thus instantly necessary, the immediate reaction of a society is to try to purge itself (or alternatively hide from) the religious options that destroy naivety and demand choice. Ruling authorities are fully complicit in this since the possibility of choice instantly undermines them as well. The friend of hegemony is always a sense of inevitability. And hegemonic powers (religious and political) will fight the enemies of inevitability to the bitter end.

Across the Arab world that sense of inevitability with regard to the existing political structures has collapsed in a dramatic fashion. But the desire to maintain a naive inevitability of religion and worldview, one supported by the power of government, remains desperately strong. Indeed it is strengthened by the necessity of making so many other decisions.

Under these circumstances we can expect that authentic religious freedom will be the last thing granted by the emerging regimes of the Middle East, whatever clauses they put in their constitutions to satisfy the requirements of the international community. Christians and minority Muslim sects were safer when they represented a tolerable failure to grasp the full truth of Islam. Now they represent (quite unwillingly) an unbearable freedom of choice in religion. We can only pray that the convulsive religious purges that swept Western civilization before it finally digested the dreadful demand of religious choice be less ravishing in the Middle East.

The Russian Orthodox are justified in their fears, but must face the inevitable. Western governments are right to support change, but are too dismissive of the suffering of religious minorities. Until the inevitable convulsions of transition into modernity pass we should prepare in whatever way possible to defend the minority religious populations that are among its first victims.


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