Journalist Eliza Griswold offers much needed attention to the ongoing annihilation of Christian communities in the Middle East in her latest piece. Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?
Armenians/Greeks/Assyrians (Syriacs/Aramaeans/Chaldeans) suffered a brutal genocide that began in earnest 100 years ago. They were forced out of southern Turkey and other parts of the Ottoman Empire and created communities in the refugee states of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Others fled, then and in the decades since, to the West (America, Canada, Australia, and Germany have perhaps the most prominent Middle Eastern Christian communities outside of the region).
The essay is beautifully written and filled with important historical and socio-political facts. However, Griswold mistakenly asserts that Christians fled into the arms of existing dictatorships, who would protect them in exchange for support. “Others settled in Iraq and Syria, where they were protected by the military dictators who courted these often economically powerful minorities.” This isn’t entirely accurate, and leaves out a bit of history.
When the Christians left their homes they entered into mandated territories (not organic governing structures), where imperial authority consorted with conservative landowners to develop stable states that would be friendly to the foreign government. Christians, who had helped develop much of the Arab nationalist ideals and language in the heady days of the Syrian Scientific Society (1860s) and the secret societies and associations of the early 1900s, after WWI, split between coalescing with nationalist parties that became prominent, or the mandated civil and military services.
After the mandates had ended and the French and English went home from Syria and Iraq, the Christians hoped that, by being good Arab nationalists (although many weren’t ethnically Arab), they could overcome sectarian differences and be part of one greater society. The unfortunate side effect of the failure of Arab nationalism (fracturing of Ba’athist parties in Syria and Iraq and the demise of Arabism in Egypt) was that Christians had no new ideology to tether themselves to. Activists remained of course, putting themselves in danger against government and anti-establishment for the cause of liberalism and the promise of secularism and democracy, but the new ideological wave of the Middle East was Islamist, which had no place for Christians. Muslims could scorn nationalism and move to Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood (many Egyptian youth for instance did, joining the organization on their college campuses). Christians were left holding the old ideology, and were forced to align with its leaders, however disliked they were by their opposition.
so 40 years later with the fall of Ba’athism in Iraq and the war in Syria, Christians are, as Griswold rightly asserts, left without a patron to protect them, and are left hoping the status quo of the past 40 years won’t fall to a radicalism that sees them as the enemy. That hope is now clearly in the shadows of facts on the ground.
ISIS scanned the separate groups of men and women. ‘‘You’’ and ‘‘you,’’ they pointed. Some of the captives realized what ISIS was doing, survivors told me later, dividing the young and healthy from the older and weak. One, Talal Abdul Ghani, placed a final call to his family before the fighters confiscated his phone. He had been publicly whipped for refusing to convert to Islam, as his sisters, who fled from other towns, later recounted. ‘‘Let me talk to everybody,’’ he wept. ‘‘I don’t think they’re letting me go.’’ It was the last time they heard from him.
Christians had no good options when the dust of Arab nationalism settled and all that was left was authoritarian states and Islamist zealotry. The latter is prevailing, and at their expense, even more so than the governments that offer protection to them. Christians did not align themselves with these governments willingly, they aligned themselves with an ideology long before the Assad’s or the Hussein’s came to the scene. It is not strongmen they hoped for, it was a society that would connect through shared language and culture, rather than Islam.
This is as much about the failure of Arabism as it is about the failure of authority. Christians tried to play an active political role for the promotion of a tolerant, secular, robust society, but they lost to authoritarians, who then forced themselves on the Christians, who had no alternative.