By H A Hellyer
December 31, 2015
The months of December and January are when Christians of the Arab world celebrate Christmas – not just on December 25 but also January 6 and 7, depending on their denomination. With the rise of Islamist extremism, many in the West fear for the survival of the Christian community in the region – and are suggesting policies accordingly. But how best to tackle this admittedly worrying issue?
Concerns about the continued survival of Christian communities in the Arab world are not unfounded. Indeed, next month, one of the world’s most noted Muslim religious scholars, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, will host a conference on the issue of religious minorities in Muslim lands. It is being held under the auspices of the King of Morocco – which indicates that the subject of minorities is being taken seriously by at least some, if not enough, political and religious authorities in the region.
In recent days, Hillary Clinton, a prospective presidential candidate for the United States, has declared that the issue has reached such a state that one ought to consider that a “genocide” is taking place in ISIL-controlled areas against Syrian Christians. That follows a similar declaration by Pope Francis in July this year, and a finding by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom on Christians, as well as other minority groups in ISIL-controlled areas.
Partially in response to the growingly problematic issue of religious freedom, there have been some in the United Kingdom who have called for the creation of an “ambassador for religious freedom” – a position that already exists in the US and Canada. As of yet, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems uninterested in pursuing such an appointment – but the suggestion brings up an interesting question. Should the UK and others treat issues of religious freedom in such a manner that they institute a portfolio requiring a formal diplomatic posting?
It is tempting to be positive about such a trend. After all, it is indeed the case that many religious minorities – not just Christians – the world over have serious problems that ought to be addressed. There are noteworthy issues to consider when discussing Shia populations in Saudi Arabia, as well as some Sufi communities. Christians in Syria and Iraq where ISIL has established control are rightfully the subject of much concern. This has even led some western Christians to fight alongside Christian militias to defend them against further onslaught. There are also minority Muslim communities in Myanmar and the Central African Republic that have faced bitter problems.
But the issue of religious freedom is not so neatly segmented away from the broader issue of fundamental freedoms for all. There are practical repercussions that take place when we try. In the US and Europe, several prominent politicians have called for limiting the intake of refugees from Syria to Christians – as though refugees from other faith groups are not also in dire need of protection. If such a policy were imposed, it would mean that the vast majority of deserving individuals would be unable to seek refuge. By protecting a specific few, the vast majority would be left unprotected.
There are other repercussions. In the past few years, it has been suggested that the human rights records of more than one leader in the region be ignored because they are “good to minorities” – particularly Christian minorities. Of course, that is part of the public relations strategy of such leaders – knowing that their opponents are often sectarian, they can present themselves as “pluralistic”, if in one sense of the word. (The same argument has been made about individuals such as Bashar Al Assad, for example.) But if such leaders are unable to govern their countries with a modicum of fairness and justice, then all communities will suffer.
The time has come to be more emphatic about ensuring a protection of pluralism in this region. But trying to carve out and prioritise a zone of religious freedom in a political sense leads to some very dubious policies – and, ultimately, it is not effective.
It’s not really possible to separate the fundamental rights of minorities from the rights of majorities. What will protect them all the most efficiently is to push for greater fundamental rights for all, and a reliance on a common citizenship for all. If there is going to be a new ambassador with a thematic portfolio, it ought not to be an ambassador for religious freedom, but one for fundamental freedoms.
If fundamental freedoms in the Arab world are improved, it will be good for minorities and majorities alike – and such a basis for government is the only one that is truly sustainable in the long run.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC