The cynical use of Christian suffering
The suffering of Christians in the Middle East has become a strategic asset in the confrontation with Islam. Pundits and commentators who have previously had exactly zero interest in highlighting the abuse of Christians, the desecration of Christian sites, and the expulsion of Christian populations have now discovered their plight. When the primary abusers were our allies – Israel and the oil sheikhs of the Arabian peninsula – Christians were acceptable collateral damage. Let us not kid ourselves: neither the ancient Christian communities of coastal Palestine, nor the Gulf states’ brown-skinned Christian guest workers from South Asia, were considered valuable enough to rock any of our geopolitical boats. As we speak, persecution of Christian minorities is practiced and endorsed by nationalist regimes in Central Asia, but since we need these regimes as allies and resource suppliers, we really don’t care.
Cold War intellectual warriors – like Robin Harris (author of this glib piece), whose contempt for human rights in places like Chile and South Africa is on record – are now crying rivers of crocodile tears for the human rights of vulnerable Christian populations in the Middle East. Upon closer inspection, however, the argument is not actually about the suffering of Christians, but about the suffering of Christians at the hands of Muslims, and how they are canaries in the coal mine in the larger confrontation between Islam and the West. Harris’ article is making the rounds, yet precious few seem to consider the basis of Harris’ concern, the abuses he fails to mention, the implications of his failure to differentiate between Arabs and Muslims, and the significance of his cultural assumptions.
Harris’ selectivity is very troubling, and the reason is highlighted by his own parallel between the persecution of the Christians of the Middle East today and the persecution of Jews leading up to the Holocaust. What moral weight would we ascribe to someone whose efforts to safeguard the Jews were limited to only those Jews persecuted by an enemy state? Whose interest in preventing pogroms was non-existent as long as they were carried out and endorsed by friendly governments? Whose tender concern for the Jewish people was kindled only as a side-effect of what it might mean for non-Jews at some later point?
WE SHOULD STAND UP for the rights of Christians, but not only those persecuted by Muslims, and not because it serves some additional clash of civilization-type purpose. We should do it because they suffer and because helping those in need is the right thing to do. Our Christian brothers and sisters in need should not be divided into an A team and a B team depending on who is doing the persecuting. Moreover, the tactical-strategic concerns of Harris’ and his cohorts is exactly the sort of “help” that the enemies of Christian communities are able to point to in order to brand them the tools of Western conspiracies. Using Christian communities in the Middle East as a geopolitical lever undermines the position of those communities and increases their vulnerability. Harris offers a mere repeat of Cold War Western tactical concern for human rights and democracy in countries within the Soviet orbit – which was never matched by similar concerns for countries within the Western orbit. This plays into the hands of the very forces that seek to cleanse the region of a Christian presence.
There is a grave problem with Harris’ failure to distinguish between Arabs and Muslims in that he portrays the two as a single cohesive unit to which the Christians do not really belong. In his narrative (like so many other neo-Orientalist fairy tales) persecuted Armenian Christians are referred to as “Armenian Christians,” jailed Ethiopian Christians are referred to as “Ethiopian Christians,” but Arab Christians who suffer persecution in their Arab homelands are referred to as “Middle Eastern Christians.” Never Arab; somehow foreign to their Arab-Islamic surroundings. This is precisely the view of those who would attack and persecute them, and undermines the legitimate claim of Christians to a stake and part in an Arab cultural heritage and a natural place in Arab society (I doubt very much that Harris uses this generic term in order to account for the Messianic Jews in Israel – since he never even mentions the various forms of discrimination and structural maltreatment facing them).
WE SHOULD STAND UP for human rights in the Middle East, but not only for Christians. We are called to love and serve our Christian brothers and sisters, but not to the exclusion of non-Christians. Jesus is very clear that such preferential treatment is the effect of natural inclinations, and there is nothing godly or Christian about only looking out for members of our own ingroup:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:43.48)
Turning the suffering of Christians into a weapon against a socio-cultural enemy is not only morally repulsive, it is also dangerous to the very Christian communities with which this faux solidarity is expressed. And to limit one’s concern to Christians is profoundly un-Christian.