The Need for Dialogue

It is not always easy to live under Islamic rule, or even under Islamic “influence.” Yet we share a planet, and with no other habitable planets within easy journey, we must find ways to get along.

Consider for a moment: There are more than a million Arab Muslims in Israel. There are zero Jews in Gaza now; and zero living in the West Bank, outside the barbed wire and other security fencing around a scattering of Jewish “settlements.” There may soon be no Christians either, at present rates of emigration and demographic decline, although only a couple of generations ago about one-third of the Palestinian Arabs were Christian, and towns like Bethlehem were entirely so.

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Lift the camera to satellite distance, and one sees the same — all Jews gone, more and more Christians leaving — in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan. Ditto Iraq and Egypt; and, as we back the camera off into space, it is the same story throughout the Arab world, and indeed the Muslim world. Even in the distant, still largely Catholic archipelago of the Philippines, Christians are emigrating from the south as the Muslim population is consolidating. The same in mixed districts of Nigeria, Sudan, and the Caucasus. I do not know of an exception to this trend.

I do not know of an Islamic country in which Christians (and others, including Muslim factional minorities) are not persecuted: by the state, by Islamist groups, by communal and mob violence, and usually by all three. Through regular Internet links and e-mail, I learn of specific incidents every day, and from all over. Tellingly, the number of reports is roughly proportional to the country’s size, so that Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Iran are the leading sources. Moreover, the persecution appears to be increasing, everywhere, along with greater and greater progress in the imposition of Sharia law.

Take one recent incident as exemplary.

As America received her “Christmas greeting” in the form of a failed attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner, so did Egypt’s Coptic community on their Christmas (January 7), in the form of a massacre at the Midnight Mass of St. George’s Church at Nag Hammadi. It was typical of many such violent incidents against Christians in Egypt. The church service had itself been abridged, in response to constant security threats. Police protection was obviously inadequate, and when the Islamist gunmen opened fire on the congregation, the police ran away. (There were reports that some had actually joined in the carnage.)

Apart from labeling it as an “isolated incident” — as it has done after the many hundreds, and possibly thousands, of similar incidents since the current spate began in the early 1970s — the Egyptian government has since shown little interest in finding or prosecuting the perpetrators. The church that was struck will spend years getting state permission to repair the damage. The repair of so much as a broken toilet in a Christian church requires the signature of the president of Egypt.

The Coptic Christian population of Egypt — still the majority in this formerly Christian country at the time of the Crusades, centuries after the Islamic Futuhat, or conquests — has, over the many centuries since, been reduced to 12 percent or less. The miracle is that the proportion remains so high — for each surviving native Coptic Christian in Egypt stands testimony to 60 generations of ancestors who refused to abandon their faith in exchange for every worldly advantage. Think that proposition through carefully before criticizing the Copts for “selling out” — for if only one generation relented, there could be no reconversion for any of their descendants. The punishment for apostasy from Islam has always been death.

It is quite impossible to get reliable base population figures, let alone accurate figures on religious affiliation, from anywhere in the Muslim world — where the undercounting of minorities is less a settled policy than an instinct. (While I do not doubt its sincerity, I frankly doubt the result of the recent Pew Forum estimate that the global Muslim population now exceeds 1.5 billion. The only part of it that could be reliable was the estimate of 300 million Muslims in non-Islamic polities, especially India.)

Indeed, far more can be learned from the large and growing Coptic diaspora, as Egypt’s Christians disperse to safer locations around the world. Once out of Egypt, they are able to talk with a freedom I seldom found during my own travels within Egypt, some years ago, as one Copt after another recounted stories of persecution he had personally experienced or witnessed but begged me not to write about, for fear of reprisals.

The late Samuel P. Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations — his controversial but extremely well-informed survey of world affairs, published as a book in 1996 — famously wrote, “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

It is a statement often condemned as “simplistic,” yet it does not therefore become any kinder when it is expanded. Huntington was dealing with the circumstances of our generation, not trying to account for many centuries of history. Yet he pointed to a deep history of “off-again-on-again slaughter” in relations between Muslims and subject or neighboring peoples on innumerable fronts. His concern as a contemporary historian was only to understand why these slaughters were now “on again,” on almost every one of those fronts.

We are dimly aware of the emergence of new fronts in Europe and even in America. The huge Muslim immigration to the West over the last generation has begotten ghettos, especially in and around most European cities, and in most of those there are underpublicized security issues. Attention was briefly drawn to them during the riots across France, in 2005, when almost all the Muslim banlieues rampaged, with burnings and lootings aimed at surrounding neighborhoods. It is a fire that was finally doused by massive police action, but which continues to smolder. Meanwhile, violent anti-Semitic incidents have touched the lives of almost every Jew remaining in Europe. And they, as ever, are the canaries in the mine.

That most Muslims are peaceful, that many mainstream Muslim organizations condemn violence, that there have indeed been long periods of peaceful coexistence between Muslim and neighboring communities through history — all this goes with frequent saying. That Christians have sometimes done horrible things, including to Muslims — also goes with frequent saying. By contrast, the courage to say that this is all irrelevant is quite rare.

It is a crime to own a copy of the Bible in Saudi Arabia — where, despite the presence of several million Christian “guest workers,” the practice of Christianity is itself illegal. It would have been a crime for the military police at Guantanamo to withhold a copy of the Koran from any of their terrorist inmates. And we take this as much for granted as we take the fact that Muslims may live in Israel, but not Jews in any future “Palestinian state.”

Time and time again we are told that we need a “dialogue with the Islamic world” — indeed, the current American president is quite full of this. As any sane person of Christian heritage will surely agree, dialogue is better than violence. But dialogue is meaningless unless the truth can be spoken and unless we have the assurance that real and effective action will be taken against those who interrupt it with violence and intimidation. To say “dialogue” when you mean “appeasement” is merely to tell a bald and cowardly lie.


  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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