Friday, July 25, 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Fate of Arab Christians

I've started a couple of threats on the topic of ISIL and what's going on in the Middle East.  In doing that, I wiped one out and decided not to publish it, and another I have still in the draft stage.  Post that appear here are sometimes in the draft stage for a very long time.

But that does no good if the intent is to comment on something topical, which this is.  The Sunni insurgent group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is acting to bring about the absolute end of Christianity in Iraq, and should it succeed in Syria, it will do the same there.

Christianity is one of the oldest surviving religions in the region, older than Islam in that region we so heavily identify with Islam, and even within relatively recent historical times its been fairly vibrant there, although it's always been repressed since the region came to be dominated by Islam.  In those areas where it remained strong, and they are surprisingly numerous, it was in part because populations of Christians remained relatively numerous.

And by Christians we mean Catholic and Orthodox Christians.  Not necessarily the Latin and Greek branches of those Faiths, but part of them.  Iraq, due to English influence, once had a small population of Anglicans, but by and large Christians in the region are some type of Catholic or some type of Orthodox Christian.

Americans tend to believe that all people are tolerant democrats at heart, which they are not.  One of the things that has been very difficult for Americans to accept is that large patches of the Islamic world are heavily intolerant to any other religion, and always have been. The violent suppression of other religions is a hallmark of Islam since its early days.  Now, it is true, as some will not doubt point out, that this isn't universally true, and there are plenty of contrary examples. Still, the exceptions don't make the rule, and by and large the cradle of Islam has been pretty consistently hostile to other Faiths.

In the Middle East, where this has not been true, it has tended to be the case that there remained reservoirs of significant populations of other peoples.  And where the governments in power have not acted to suppress Christianity in recent decades, its tended to be for this reason, or because the leaders and elites of those countries have been Westernized and tended to adopt some of our values, or because the governments were minority governments which themselves feared the majority.  And, finally, in some instance the governments were, whether we like it or not, secular governments that were heavily influenced by authoritarian philosophies.

This latter example is significant in that Islam really doesn't recognize a distinction between a secular and religious authority, and it its early days the two were the same.  Indeed, the entire concept of a Caliphate, which ISIL states its seeks to restore, is based on that.  For much of its history made no recognized distinction between civil and religious authority, so most early Islamic governments made some claim to having religious authority.  And the religion was spread at sword point early on. And the early part of its history resulted in a vast Islamic empire, whose titular ruler was the Caliph.

The Caliphs claimed authority by virtue of the delegation of that authority from Mohamed, and blood relationship to Mohamed, in some cases. The problem here, from that point of view, is that only two early Caliph are universally recognized by Moslems as a Caliph.  After the first two, the Sunni and Shiia split occurred, and they thereafter have a different view on who was legitimately a Caliph.  Hence the concern that Shiia Arabs in Iraq and Shiia Persians in Iran have over Sunni ISIL.

At any rate, it is definitely the case that for many long decades a Sunni Caliph held a claim of authority over a huge track of the Middle East, and even up into Spain at one point, before the Islamic tide began to recede.  Different dynasties arose and over time the claims to authority became murky.  The last person to claim any such authority was the Ottoman Abdülmecid II, who lost that position as a result of the revolt of the Young Turks and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  In the 1920s the Turkish parliament abolished the position, and it passed into history.  That established the concept of a secular government in the Islamic world, but one that was a military backed authoritarian one.  For the most part, most governments in that region that haven't somewhat followed that model haven't been successful.  And some of those that didn't follow it, but were still somewhat successful, were based on a quasi fascist model.

The net result of this is that since George Bush II we've been pretty naive about the region and we failed to recognize that if we took the lid off anywhere, the resulting mess would be very bad indeed.  In wiping out Baathist fascism in Iraq, we succeeded in unleashing rural radicalized primitive Sunnism there.

Now, I am not claiming for a second that every Sunni has murder of Christians in his heart.  That was never the case,  and it is less the case now than ever. But its less the case now than ever because the Arab world is slowly entering the globalized western world, and as it does the concept of a global theocracy appeals less and less to its base.  It's just not going to happen.  And most don't want it. For that matter, for much of its history, when there was a Caliphate, its legitimacy was open to question and its actual administration had fallen into the inevitable corruption that such things do.  The Caliphate ISIL imagines is one that didn't exist for a very long time.

But there are still a lot of poorly educated, or just desperate, Sunnis who will and are turning to the root core of their faith, and that root core has always advocated the violent evangelizing of the entire world, and the conversion of it at sword point.  Most of the time, most weren't acting that way, but there are spectacular examples to the contrary.  That's what  they are now trying to do in Iraq.  Christians are being ordered to convert or die.  Churches are being destroyed.  And there's even an order to Christians for them to give up their daughters to Islamist for marriage.

I fear that we're going to do nothing about this, even though it was our act in bringing down Saddam Hussein, who as a Baathist was a secularist, that caused this to come about.  And we're likely to watch this story repeat itself in Syria, to our shame.  We're going to ignore the situation as the hard truths of it don't fit the My Pretty Pony world we like to pretend exists.  We don't like to admit that there's a large group of people who are not democrats, and not tolerant.  We don't like to admit that those people will act lethally. And we don't like to admit that we blew it in invading Iraq in the first place, and blew it again by leaving too soon, and blew it further by thinking the the government we left there was going to work.

And we also have a hard time, or at least many Americans do, in appreciating that the Christians in the region are real Christians.  They definitely aren't evangelical protestants.  They trace their communities to the very earliest days of Christianity, and they are Arab Christians.  To many in the west, that seems very foreign and strange.

There are lessons here in great numbers, but I fear that nobody is going to bother learning them.

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