Cross and Crescent

Christianity in the Islamic World

When I first arrived in the Middle East in 1967 to attend the American University of Beirut, I was told by a number of faculty advisers that between a course in Islam and one in Arab Communism, the course in Communism would be more beneficial. It’s hard to see the wisdom in that advice today.

In the late ’60s, Islam was seen as a religion of peasants. With the accelerating urbanization of the Middle East and the cosmopolitan culture that tends to come with it, Islam was viewed as an irrelevant force in the future of the region. Needless to say, since that time changes in the political landscape have been dramatic. More to the point, the present state of affairs is largely dictated by the resurgence of a revitalized Islamic movement that has continued for some thirty years now.

Islam and Islamism

To the people of the region, all the ism’s of the post-World War II era were Western imports that failed not only to improve the quality of their lives, but also presided over their continuing humiliation at the hands of Western powers or their perceived surrogate, Israel. Arabism failed, Marxism failed, secular-Palestinian nationalism failed, and Western democracy was seen simply as another cultural assault on the Islamic world. It was into this void of bitterness and frustration that a resurgent Islam misnamed “Islamic fundamentalism” again surfaced and quickly became the primary ideological movement in the East.

One often hears of a worldwide fundamentalist revival with Islam simply being the Middle Eastern variety complementing a revival of Christian fundamentalism in the Americas. This is not so. Although the perceived cultural invasion of the East by the West is a continuing source of genuine resentment, the driving force behind Islamism has always been political rather than religious. While the leaders of this movement parade images of a golden historical past for political reasons, in reality theirs is a conglomeration of half-baked Western ideas with an oriental packaging. The fact that various muftis and sheiks continually quote selective passages of the Qu’ran only provides the fig leaf for what is little more than the same old Middle Eastern obsession with power, and not infrequently, ethnocentric bigotry, resulting in a virulent form of racism in such places as Sudan and Mauritania.

For this ideological form of Islam, scholars use the term “Islamism” in order to differentiate it from traditional Islam. Islam and Islamism are not interchangeable terms. Neither is Islamic fundamentalism synonymous with Islamism. The fundamentalists are of many varieties, but in general they are simply devout Muslims who adhere to traditional rules of conduct.

The Islamists are a different breed altogether. Many have had Western educations, and draw upon postmodernist thinking to arrive at an ideology that approximates the Leninist emphasis on an elitist intelligentsia. They speak the Marxist language of mobilizing the masses and so attract many of the urban poor. The Hamas of Palestine and the radicals of Algeria, Sudan, and Afghanistan are all the visible creation of Islamists.

One must takes pains to separate Islam as a religion from the political ideology of the Islamists. Nonetheless there is embedded within the practice and traditions of Islam an animus toward non-Muslims in which the excesses of Islamism are nurtured. Its scriptural denigration of Christianity and Judaism, its insistence on the primacy of Islam, and its assumed intellectual and spiritual superiority create an environment amenable to demagogues with a gift for oratory and rhetoric—an ability long prized in the oral traditions of the Middle East.

But this denigrating view of Christians and Jews, evident in a number of Qu’ranic passages (Surah II: 113, 120, 135, 140, and especially Surah V:51), has been stripped of its historical context and transmitted to a politicized generation in a number of ways. It can be seen, for example, in textbooks published for use by American Muslim school children. In one high school text, Jews are depicted as treacherous: “The Muslims had asked the Jews for cooperation and peace. What they got was [sic] stabs in the back, conspiracies, and plots to kill the Prophet.” In fact it is very difficult in these presentations to draw a distinction between the seventh century Jews of Arabia and those of Israel today—Jews of Arabia were simply Arab tribes that adopted Judaism.

Another disquieting facet of such Islamic literature is a tendency not just to promote Islam, but to belittle Christianity at the same time. One has to remember that the Prophet Mohammed was given the task of redressing the “corrupted” texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. As such the “truth” of Islam rests, in part, upon a refutation of the Judaic law and the central doctrines of Christianity.

Middle East: Yesterday and Today

My years in the Middle East reaffirmed for me the political good of separating church and state: not on account of the corrupting influence of the church on the body politic, but rather because of the corrupting influence of secular power on religion. A great religion—Islam—is being corrupted by those who cynically use it as a path to power. The Hassan Turabis, with their cultivated English and French, polished manners, and classical Western education, charm the same Western intellectual class that Friedrich Hayek described as so easily moving from socialism to fascism in the 1930s. It is the all-encompassing aspects of Islam that captivate the intellectual elite—not as a spiritual religion, of course, but more as a totalitarian ideology through which man and society fit into their concept of utopia.

In the ’60s the compatibility of Islam and Marxism was fiercely debated. Some saw the two as having many common elements, not the least of which was a tendency toward absolutism and millenarianism.

Islam is a way of life: an all-pervasive moral and ethical system based on an uncompromising system of beliefs. Apologists for Islam, therefore, maintain that imbedding Islam into the written constitutions of various nations is appropriate because in Islam there can be no separation of church and state. This is true. And it is precisely for this reason that an Islamic-dominated government is institutionally prejudicial to the non-Muslims within its borders. As a Jordanian Christian friend of mine told me a few years ago, “I’m too old to leave, but my children must go because there is no life for Christians anymore.” This in one of the more enlightened Muslim nations!

In my visits to the Middle East in the past few years I have observed that while political freedom (only granted at the pleasure of the various national leaders) has expanded, social freedoms have greatly narrowed. There is a certain tension in the air. For Christians and other non-Muslims it means living one’s life in perpetual constraint. The bargain is simply that in exchange for Muslim tolerance, non-Muslims must exercise their faith in private and with due deference to easily aroused Muslim sensibilities. In fact, invisibility would be better.

The history of the Middle East is replete with massive atrocities perpetrated against non-Muslims, but more recent history seems even more ominous for its evidence of governmental or political opposition strategy. From the exodus of the Armenians from Turkey, to the massacre of the Assyrians in Iraq, to the problems in Egypt, major upheavals in the Middle East carry anti-Christian overtones throughout. Christians are seen as a fifth column of the Western world—a perception unfortunately exacerbated by the Western powers’ use of minority communities, especially Christians, as levers to maintain rule in the colonial era.

The Christian Reaction

Perhaps the saddest Christian story of our era is that of Lebanon. Once a paradise combining the best in Western sophistication and Eastern hospitality, it is fast becoming just another Middle Eastern satrapy. Despite the attempts of Western writers on the Lebanese war to reduce that savage conflict to a socio-ideological war in terms of economic class, it was at its core a religious war. Against the combined weight of the Muslim world—as the Lebanese Christians see it—without any Western support, the Christians were ground down. Now demoralized and weakened, they are pessimistic about their future. Lebanese expatriates say the Christians who remain are resigned, dispirited, and bitter about what they perceive as their abandonment by the West, particularly pointing to the Syrian takeover of the last Christian enclave following the 1991 Gulf War. They are angry about the inequities in the Western reporting of that war and refer to the torrent of press coverage given the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps by Christian militia in 1982, compared with the lack of Western media attention given the earlier but equally horrendous butchery of Christians in the port city of Damon.

For these reasons not only is stability the fervent wish of the minorities in the Middle East, but along with it they also encourage any form of government that is not Islamic. As an example, one might be puzzled by the support given a thug such as Saddam Hussein by a large percentage of the Christian population in Iraq. There is a very simple answer: The brutality of Saddam is secular. Fingernails are pulled and executions carried out without regard to religion. Most Christians prefer Saddam to a government of mullahs. If you have doubts, check with the many Iraqi Chaldean Christians who live in that country.

It is no accident that almost all the secularist ideologies and political movements of the Middle East have been initiated or sustained by minorities, particularly Christians. Even among the Palestinian guerrilla movement, the Christians comprise the most secular and Marxist elements, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by a Greek Orthodox George Habash, or another even more radical organization led by another Greek Orthodox, Nayif Hawatmeh. Despite their antipathy to one another, the tacit alliance of the Lebanese Maronite Christians and the Israelis in Lebanon against all forms of Islamist rule is only one other example of the very real fears that an Islamist government instills in non-Muslims.

Petty Persecutions

Perhaps a more pernicious sort of discrimination against Christians is the Kafka-like rules inhibiting their ability to expand, proselytize, or build new churches. This is particularly true in Egypt, where the government, in an attempt to appease the more radical Muslim element, imposes all sorts of restrictions on any new church construction.

Within Islamic tradition there is a school of thought that allows Christians to keep existing churches but forbids the building of new ones. These limitations extend to repairing churches as well. Any repair, no matter how minor, must await presidential approval—a process that can take several years. In the meantime, a church may deteriorate and require further repairs, thus entailing a whole new permission process. If in repairing a church damage is found to require more than the repairs originally authorized, it will also entail a new authorization process. These rules date back to an 1856 Ottoman decree and, despite some appeals, have not been repealed.

A particularly sad result of the increasing intolerance for non-Muslims within the Islamic Middle East is the accelerating exodus of Christians from the lands of their origin. There is an economic component to this emigration, but an increased sense of alienation from their own lands is its primary cause. A steady stream of emigrants has diminished the Christian communities of Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine. The once-Christian town of Bethlehem is now Muslim and the minority of Christians remaining may have to steer between Scylla and Charybdis in living with continued Israeli occupation or the installation of an Islamist government. With the continued erosion of support for an increasingly moribund Palestinian Liberation Organization, Islamist rule has become a distinct possibility.

When I was in Bethlehem several years ago, Christian shopkeepers were worried about an Israeli withdrawal, not because they saw the Israelis as their protectors, but because they believed that the common enmity toward the Israelis produced a welcome bond between Christians and Muslims. With an Israeli withdrawal, the Muslims might turn on them. Christians in the region give credence to a rumored Muslim slogan, “Today Saturday and tomorrow Sunday”: after the Jews are driven out, the Christians are next. But these matters are not simple. To be sure, the policies of the Israeli military government, the anti-Christian attitudes of some of the Jewish fundamentalist settlers, and the early support of the Israeli government for the radical Muslim organization Hamas all greatly exacerbated the Christian’s problems.

Wider Christian Persecution

The politicization of religion has led to a paucity of purely religious Islamic leadership in the Middle East. It has become difficult to separate the politicians from the spiritual leaders. Of course, many would say this is integral to Islam and its doctrine of the indivisibility of religion and politics, but the result has been to represent Islam as a religion lacking any moral or spiritual base. At the national and international level we hear the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood advocating the removal of Christians from the army in Egypt while reinstating the jizya—a sort of poll tax levied on non-Muslims in lieu of military service—a tax that apologists have tried to defend as a humane gift to the non-Muslim communities.

The Islamic government of Iran in earlier years demonstrated a thirst for savage brutality both in the suppression of Kurds and other minorities within Iran and in the relentless persecution of Bahais for being apostates, a transgression in traditional Islam that warrants the death penalty. The murder of several Christian ministers in recent years would seem to undercut the view of a kinder, gentler Iran. Iranians who have visited Iran in recent years tell of corruption within the clerical leadership that extends well beyond the levels tolerated in the era of the shah. The overwhelming election of a more moderate president, Mohammed Khatami (himself a cleric), was based in part on public revulsion to the rule of the mullahs.

All of this has distorted the international face of Islam. Doubtless there are thousands of village sheiks, mullahs, and Imams who lead their followers in the simple devotions of the faith, but they do not presume to speak to the world. In this era of mass communication, the demagogues have the playing field practically all to themselves.

In the face of increased Islamic militancy, the timidity of Western Christian leadership is typified by the World Council of Churches as it grovels before every third-world demand, so as long as it is presented in some suitably anti-Western rhetoric. In some sixty press releases issued in 1997 and this year, the WCC has weighed in on land mine issues, environmental issues, handguns in Great Britain, offered condolences to the Islamic world on the tragic fire in Mecca, and attacked the Shell Oil company as well as the Nigerian government for destroying the land of the Ogoni people, but not a word on the plight of the non-Muslim people of Sudan or any other Muslim nation.

This timidity is matched by national leaders who grate fully accept large cash donations originating in nations busily engaged in eliminating Christian communities—Indonesia and China especially. The Department of State, inhibited by the exigencies of national interests, seems able to manage only the most tepid criticism of Christian persecution around the world. The response to the blatant and well-documented repression of Christians in Sudan was: “U.S. Government led efforts to pass tough resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Commission.” In essence the policy is clear enough: make perfunctory complaints to low-level officials and deflect domestic demands for greater U.S. involvement.

Nothing I have written here obviates my admiration for Islam as a faith, immovable, self-confident, pervasive, and demanding of its adherents. Compared with the mush emanating from the pulpits of so many mainstream Christian churches, I find a great deal to admire in Islam and in the simple devotion of its faithful. But at some point it must be made clear that Christianity cannot accept a condition of vassalage, or defer to any Islamic practice that denigrates Christianity or its followers. We cannot remain silent in the face of Muslim intellectuals who claim that Christianity is a fraudulent religion that celebrates its two central rites by “rolling eggs down a hill and tying gifts to a fir tree.”

It is just this kind of arrogance—and Western acquiescence to it—that underscores the dangers envisioned by Samuel Huntington in Clash of Civilizations. He quotes the eminent historian Bernard Lewis in describing the traditionalist Islamic concept of a house of war (populated by non-Muslims) and a house of peace (populated by Muslims) is very much alive. What is more, the world will not have tranquility until the house of war is absorbed by the house of peace. For those who choose not to convert, this peace may carry a very heavy price.

It is a particularly sad fact that at today’s rate of Christian emigration from the Middle East, the faith will soon be nearly devoid of adherents in its birthplace. This is unlikely to change so long as Islam remains so politically charged. The demagogues of the Middle East need scapegoats, and minorities of any form are increasingly vulnerable. Further, the insecurity of Christian communities reflects a larger erosion of the social fabric of the Middle Eastern mosaic of diverse communities. The elaborate social conventions and economic interdependence that held together ethnic and religious communities have unraveled in the face of accelerating urbanization. The movement from rural to urban results in increased identification with radical religious movements.

The present leadership of the Middle East is aging, and massive changes in regime are likely in the next decade. This transition of power is not likely to be peaceful, and the resulting instability will put the Christian communities in further jeopardy. Those who advocate a more tolerant, secular society are intimidated by an all pervasive religiously correct environment in which dissent can be dangerous. Although some Muslim scholars do believe a modernized Islam and a secular state can coexist, it is hard to see how this is so. The few who advocate secularization rarely do so from a forum in the Middle East. Even Anwar Sadat, a man of vision and courage, knew that any move against the Muslim radicals required a public move against Christians, which, in my time there, usually resulted in Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Church being put in internal exile. As many Lebanese Christians will tell you, compromise and the search for a modus vivendi with the Muslim community are resulting in institutionalized inferiority.

During my travels of the past nine years in the Middle East, my observations are of a society and people in a state of near-constant tension. Despite the political upheavals of the ’60s, there was a certain love of life, a determination to live life to the fullest, despite the turmoil and danger. I do not see or feel that now. There is a grim resignation, and especially among Christians, a desire to be as unobtrusive as possible. And as the old Arab adage has it, blessed is the man with a beautiful wife and whom the sultan does not know.


  • Norvell B. De Atkine

    At the time this article was published, Col. Norvell B. De Atkiine (U.S. Army, retired) was director of Middle East studies at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School and was a veteran of eight years of assignments in the Middle East. The opinions expressed in the article are his own and do not reflect that of any U.S. government agency.

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