The revolutions that shook the Arab world in 2011 continue to reverberate throughout the region. While each nation, with its own economic, socio-cultural, ethnic, and political realities, lends a distinctive character to the conflict there, in a deeper sense, these disparate struggles are the result of an encounter between modernity and fundamentalism in the Muslim world. Caught in the middle of this struggle are many vulnerable religious minorities, including millions of Christians.
For some in the Middle East, the West provides a model for liberalism and prosperity that merits emulation. Many Muslims, however, recoil in revulsion at any Western influence as corrosive and immoral. The former see the West a roadmap for progress; the latter believe that Islam must be purified, purged of all Western influence, and returned to fundamentals. Moderates, by definition, tend to lack a uniformity of thought and approach – a strategic weakness that fundamentalists, with their singularity of purpose, have been able to exploit to their advantage. Yet as fundamentalists look to the past as the means to reclaim greatness, they often overlook a crucial component of early and medieval Islam – namely, its capacity to absorb and incorporate diverse thought as it grew from the faith an irrelevant tribe to global significance in a matter of decades.
The Golden Age of Islam was characterized by a general tolerance for “people of the book” (Jews and Christians), and free philosophical and scientific inquiry. Early Islam encountered Greek philosophy with an open mind; the medieval philosopher Avicenna would even reconcile classical philosophy with Muslim revelation, as Aquinas would later do with Christianity. Conquered peoples were made to pay the “jizya” (a tax on non-Muslims), but many, such as the Coptic Christians of Egypt, regarded the Arabs as liberators. This new Muslim empire, which stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to North Africa and from the Levant to the borders of China, demonstrated a remarkable capacity to absorb diverse religious and cultural influences in a manner that served to strengthen, rather than weaken it.
Religious minorities would play a vital role in this robust culture from the outset. Islam’s Golden Age arguably saw its apex under the Umayyad Caliphate in Medieval Spain, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims together achieved feats in learning (philosophy) and architecture to be rivaled only by those of Constantinople. These achievements contributed to the intellectual revival that occurred in Europe later in the age of Scholastic philosophy. Despite their inferior “dhimmi” status (a form of official discrimination), the persecution of non-Muslims in Spain was rare.
Islam’s medieval moment did not last. Many observers, from Bernard Lewis to Robert Reilly to Fareed Zakaria, have attempted to diagnose this decline, citing intellectual, economic, and political causes. Whatever the source, there is consensus among Muslims and non-Muslims alike that all is not as it ought to be – nor indeed as it once was. The centuries that followed the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate saw the Christian West prosper. As modern Europe increasingly asserted itself in the Middle East, the great powers – particularly Britain, France, and Russia – advocated for the rights of religious minorities there. These efforts met with some success: the jizya was largely repealed; dhimmitude, as much an attitude as a legal status, was not so easily abrogated. In recent decades, however, the commitment of Western democracies to religious freedom has waned with the rise of an increasingly secular public culture. The preeminence of secularism in the West coincided with – and likely contributed to – the rise of fundamentalism in the Middle East. Perhaps most disconcerting for Middle Eastern Christians, generally proponents of liberalism, is how comfortable Western liberal democracies have become with political Islam and even extremism. In consequence, many feel betrayed, especially by America.
The world continues to grow smaller. Cultural encounters will become more common, and more vital. As Muslims in the West serve as a cultural bridge to the Middle East, so the Christians of the Middle East are a vital bridge to the West. The contributions of the region’s Christians – intellectual, cultural, economic – to their societies tend to be overlooked by policymakers and politicians in the formulation of Middle East policy.
Christians, the largest religious minority in the Middle East, are now departing from their ancestral homelands in record numbers. The causes are many, but are principally related to the rise of extremism, persecution and the perception that Middle Eastern Christians ought to be associated with the West – despite the fact that most Western Christians are either unaware of their existence or feel no cultural bonds with them. It is a trend that Western policymakers should find troubling. Religious uniformity is the goal of the extremists, who wish to remake the Muslim world in the image of Saudi Arabia. With each Christian who is killed or driven out, they are a step closer.
Andrew Doran has served at the Department of State and traveled widely throughout the Middle East. His views are his own.