Faith can end Egypt’s politics of persecution
Last updated at 12:01AM, August 19 2013
By appealing to the noblest religious impulses, the West can stop violence against Christians
Two days after the ousting of President Morsi of Egypt, Emile Naseem, 41, and his nephew were running for their lives. The Christian businessman had led an anti-Morsi petition, and a mob in their village of Nagaa Hassan attacked the pair with axes and clubs as they scrambled on to a roof and jumped from building to building. As one report put it: “Finally they ran out of rooftops.” Mr Naseem was killed, his nephew badly injured. That day Islamist extremists stabbed to death three other Christians and burnt dozens of homes in the village.
The attack is now considered the prelude to last week’s violence in Cairo between Egypt’s military government and the Muslim Brotherhood. But it is more than that: it represents a larger and more ominous tide of religious persecution that is destabilising societies around the globe.
Several powerful forces are at work. The Arab Spring is unleashing the hatreds of Islamic radicalism against Christian and other religious minorities. According to a report by the Pew Research Centre, countries in the Middle East and North Africa have witnessed “pronounced increases in social hostilities involving religion” since 2011. The violence may be most graphic in Egypt and Syria, where militants are targeting religious groups deemed disloyal to Islam. Shia and Sunni Muslims are no less at risk than Coptic Christians or Bahais.
Nevertheless, human rights groups warn of an “existential crisis” facing Christians in the Muslim world. In Egypt, 16 human rights groups have signed a joint statement condemning incitement to violence against Christians. In Syria, an estimated 300,000 Christians have fled the country. In Turkey, Christians have been publicly called “an internal threat, a danger and an enemy”. Iraq’s Christian population has been devastated by persecution and flight, since the US-led invasion in 2003.
In Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea blame the globalisation of radical Islam: extremists who view Christian communities as an obstacle to a “purified” transnational Islamic state. Indonesia, for example, has maintained a relatively tolerant society — until recently. Islamists have orchestrated hundreds of attacks on churches, mostly with impunity. In Nigeria the Islamist group Boko Haram — it means “Western education is sinful” — is engaged in a “pogrom” against the nation’s 60 million Christians. A recent attack on a Pentecostal church and two other Christian communities in Kano left nearly 50 people dead.
Another factor is the expansion of laws restricting religious freedom: 64 nations, making up nearly 70 per cent of the world’s population, place high or very high restrictions on religion. Muslim-majority states, which typically criminalise “blasphemy”, or religious speech considered insulting to Islam, are the worst offenders.
Pakistan has been singled out for criticism by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which sees a direct link between blasphemy laws and a culture of religious persecution. Over 18 months, it documented 203 acts of religiously motivated violence, injuring more than 1,800 people and claiming more than 700 lives. The methods included suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, torture, beheadings and mob violence.
A final factor contributing to the rise of religious persecution is the loss of what might be called civilisational memory. Secular elites, especially in the West, tend to view all religious beliefs with indifference or suspicion. They have forgotten how religious ideals can play a crucial role in solving sectarian violence. As a result, their response has been feeble and ineffective.
Remember that in the 17th century churches in England and Europe regarded religious minorities as a criminal underclass: they faced discrimination, imprisonment or even execution. Entire populations lived in the shadows because of religious differences.
How did the West overcome its legacy of bigotry and repression?
It was only when religious leaders viewed freedom of conscience as a natural right that the politics of persecution came under sustained assault. Religious thinkers from John Locke to James Madison dared to imagine a more generous approach to Christian faith. By appealing to the noblest religious impulses, by insisting upon a political system of equal justice for all faiths, they showed antagonists how to live together.
“It is not the diversity of opinions which cannot be avoided,” wrote Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). “But the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions, which might have been granted, that has produced all the bustles and wars that have been in the Christian world, upon account of religion.”
We in the West seem dumbfounded by the revenge of religion: the remorseless acts of terror committed daily in the name of God. It need not be so. Abdurrahman Wahid, the late President of Indonesia, put it this way: “Beyond the daily headlines of chaos and violence, the vast majority of the world’s Muslims continue to express their admiration of Muhammad by seeking to emulate the peaceful and tolerant example of his life.”
There is a path through this wilderness of persecution, if we can summon the wisdom, courage and faith to take it.
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College, New York City.