This week, The God Vote co-hosts Jacques Berlinerblau and Sally Quinn turned their gaze abroad and discussed the religious implications of the current unrest in Syria and Egypt.
Both countries have experienced intense disorder during this “Arab Spring,” and in both nations religious minorities, particularly Christians, are gravely concerned about their future.
The usually large, jovial, and public Easter celebrations of the Syrian Christian population, which makes up a slight ten percent of the Syrian populace, were muted (see this WAPO article for further accounts). Whether done out of fear, or out of consideration for those lost in the brutal protests, the Easter silence drew even more international attention to Syria’s ongoing urgent and violent upheaval.
The Alawites, a Muslim minority in Syria, were also a subjugated people until the election of the Alawi Assad family to the presidency in 1971. Many Sunni Muslims (who make up the majority of the Syrian population) see the Alawites, who do study the Quran and recognize the five pillars of Islam but who differ in some fundamental religious beliefs from mainstream Islam, as heretics. Many Sunnis were apprehensive when an Alawi family took political leadership.
For years the Assad family has provided a source of comfort and patronage to the Syrian Christians. Syria claims to be a secular state yet Professor Berlinerblau (pointing to Syria’s constitutional recognition of Islam as the majority religion) prefers to deem it a “pseudo-secular state” in that the rhetoric of religious freedom is used as an excuse to check the majority all the while propping up a fundamentally authoritarian and anti-democratic regime.
Some of the Sunni protesters in Syria, undoubtedly, see the minority Alawi government as an obstacle to democratic representation. Some also suspect that it evinces a preference for minorities (Christians disproportionately serve a large role in Assad’s government and make up a large chunk of the country’s wealthy). If Assad’s attempts at quelling the protests fail, many fear for the safety of Syrian Christians.
Even in Egypt, a nation where the pro-democratic protests have had some success of late, violence against religious minorities persists. In March, nine Egyptian Christians were killed, over 150 were injured, and eight homes and a monastery were set on fire when a group of Copts (the enthoreligious term for Egyptian Christians) was protesting against religious discrimination near Cairo.
The Muslim Brotherhood, a political opposition party which supports the introduction of Islamic Law, has gained tremendous momentum through the Egyptian protests (in a recent survey, 7 out of ten Egyptians said they had a favorable or somewhat favorable view of the Brotherhood), and has reached out to the Coptic population. On Friday, Brotherhood member Sobhi Saleh said, “If Copts knew their rights in Islam, they would seek the application of Islamic law,” at an “Egypt post-revolution” symposium.
Coming from a party with roots in Islamic fundamentalism, which doesn’t exactly buddy up to the idea of religious pluralism, the legitimacy of these claims is uncertain. Sally Quinn expresses her confidence in the Brotherhood’s—particularly the younger, more open-minded revisionist members’—commitment to pluralism.
What is next for the Christians of the Middle East? Will a democratic turn in Egypt and Syria, paradoxically, put these religious minorities in danger? Are these “pro-democracy” protests truly democratic if their support extends to radical Islamist groups who may be intolerant of cultural minorities?
Alexa West is a sophomore in the Edmund. A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is majoring in Culture and Politics with a specialization in International Security, and is receiving a certificate in the Program for Jewish Civilization. She currently serves as a producer for The God Vote.