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Myth-Busting and Reality-Checking: Historical and Political Commentary on the Endangered Reality of Christians in the Middle East

The fact that the Christian presence—living, breathing people, and the churches, monasteries, cemeteries, schools, and libraries that were built and inhabited by those people—in the Greater Middle East is undergoing a steady process of erasure was a headline subject in several recent events along the East Coast corridor where academic, policy, and religious communities converge.  Having spilled a lot of ink, expended many hours in air travel, and returned to the safety of life as a Christian in America, I accepted invitations to speak at two events this past week that dealt with the emergency reality that Christians face each day in the Middle East. 

There’s a kind of spiritual, psychic, and emotional fatigue that creeps into the discussions about how to help the plight of an entire people facing daily threats to their survival as a community.  The exhaustion is a direct function of the failure to produce any concrete results, much less to discern any break in the general apathy regarding the horrible circumstances facing Middle East Christians.  Indeed, that was the underlying question— why are Christians being eradicated with nary a word nor much remedial support, from either the US or from fellow Christians in America—that shaped my remarks at both events that framed my lecture week.  

Given the organizers of the two events, I was especially mindful of trying to deconstruct the causes for the remarkable lack of knowledge, the general misinformation, and the shameful indifference, that surrounds the existence of Christians in countries that are usually referred to in the media, in policy circles, and in academic discussions, as “Muslim countries or Muslim societies or the Muslim world.”  The first gathering, a conference on Current Challenges Facing Christian Communities in the Middle East, was co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a leading think tank in Washington, DC, and Villanova University’s Center for Arab and Islamic Studies; the CAP organized this event, in an effort to catalyze progressive and liberal action on religious freedom matters and around the plight of Christians, issues on which this country’s progressives have been deafeningly silent.  The second event, a Consultation in Global Mission sponsored by the 10-university consortium known as the Boston Theological Institute, was hosted by the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts; the discussion on “The Middle East: The Future of Ecumenism in an Age of Strife,” culminated in a keynote address, breathtaking for its simultaneous tragedy and hope, on “Christians in Syria at the Crossroads,” by Greek Orthodox Bishop Elias Toume from the Syrian city of Homs.

What follows is a synthesis of my remarks from both events.  My reference to myth-busting and reality-checking is straightforward: only by breaking open the myths that have shaped perceptions about Middle East Christians, only by doing a reality-check of the actual conditions on the ground, will it be possible to alter the discourse and the policy responses, and hopefully, to change the trendline for Christians in the region.  By creating the conditions that can help the region’s Christians, by stopping the eradication of Christians in their lands of origin, all peoples living in the Greater Middle East will see an improvement in the overall political, economic, social, cultural and security conditions that shape their lives.

Here are five myths that need breaking and checking against empirical reality:

1. The Myth of Ottoman Pluralism.  The myth of the Ottoman Empire as an experience and experiment of religious pluralism and multiculturalism pervades the scholarship and policy discussions about Christians in the Middle East.  The myth itself has been developed initially through the Orientalist scholarship of historians such as Bernard Lewis, and therefore, has a long tradition.  However, the cultivation of this myth has occurred with the influx of enormous funding from state and private sector sources in Turkey, for research and faculty appointments in the US and Europe.  The success of this myth can be measured by the frequency with which it is has been institutionalized and perpetuated in US foreign policymaking circles.  While multiculturalism and religious pluralism may be useful as descriptors for the Ottoman Empire, in no way are they helpful, either as analytical terms or as points of departure, for thinking about the current condition of Middle East Christians.  In fact, the Ottoman Empire was organized according to the sectarian millet system, which amounted to the institutionalization of a legal, political, and cultural structure of "separate and unequal" when it came to the issue of religious differences.  It was a model of the subject, not the citizen, so it is a blueprint that should be boxed permanently in the attic.  Whether a Muslim subject or a non-Muslim subject, the millet has little to do with how we might think about social pluralism and political citizenship today.  For Christians in the Ottoman Empire, the reality was permanent, fixed, irrevocable second-class status as property of the Ottoman state, with legal inequality summarized in the second-class status of dhimmitude.  This dhimmi model has left a strong political and cultural residue that has informed the self-styled secularist and Islamist regimes in the region, reflected in genocide and other forms of violence against Christians, as well as in economic disenfranchisement, political exclusion, and cultural discrimination.  Two practices are most compelling for laying bare the lie of this myth—the devshirme, forced conscription, accompanied by forced religious conversion, of young Christian boys into the Ottoman military; and the jizya, a poll tax levied disproportionately against Christians in Ottoman times, and now, revived in its essence in the Syrian implosion by the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), jihadists demanding protection money from Syrian Christians. 

2. The Myth of the Middle East as the Muslim World.  The pervasiveness of this language and imagery of the region speaks both to the acute lack of knowledge and to the deliberate narrative misrepresentation of the place of Christians in the Middle East, and is related to the myth of Ottoman pluralism.  Most discussions about religious pluralism in the region today, and certainly about the plight of Christians in Syria and elsewhere, frame these communities as minorities in a geographic space that has always been majority-Muslim in its demography, culture, and politics.  This myth depends, of course, on reinforcing the Ottoman Empire as the historical context for analyzing Christians in the region, or at the very least, works from the narrative that the region’s Arabs were all pagans until the twin events of Mohammed’s westward conquest from the Arabian Peninsula and the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate in 7th-century Damascus and the Ottomans’ capture of Constantinople in the 15th century.  In fact, Christians have lived in the region for two millennia, since the time of Christ and the Apostles, and the kind of religious pluralism often assigned to the Ottoman Empire was actually the hallmark of the (Eastern Roman) Byzantine Empire.  The discursive formulation of Muslim Middle East or Muslim World reinforces the Orientalization of the region—thereby feeding into ugly civilizational claims that essentialize all Muslims as violent terrorists.  The same formulation has been manipulated and utilized by Muslim-majority governments to assign to Christians a place as minorities, not as citizens, but as minority groups who were supposedly latecomers, foreigners, and aliens to the region.  This myth has made it easier for local political authoritarians and religious extremists alike to take measures that discriminate against, persecute, and cleanse Christians, by disregarding and distorting Christians’ indigenous presence in the region.

3. The Myth of Christians as alien imperialists and agents of the West and Western Christian Crusaders.  This myth follows naturally from the previous myth, by building out the historical narrative of Christians that begins with the Ottoman Empire.  However, this myth and the previous one are built on the insidious narrative by which Orthodox Christians, Eastern Christians, have largely been written out of the history of Christianity—a history that has been presented as synonymous with European—read, Western European, centered in Rome—that excludes the Eastern Roman Empire and the inconvenience of the Asian (i.e. Middle Eastern) origins of Christianity.  This myth depends on an a historical narrative that skips over the Byzantine Empire and its Orthodox Christian identity (here, I will use the term as it’s come to be deployed currently by Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox and Oriental Christians); instead, this myth starts by interrogating Christians as a minority in Ottoman times and, in the nation-state era, by treating Christians as minorities in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Turkey, and as minorities in the decolonization period and Arab revolts that led to the formation of Arab states and Israel.  This falsified and distorted historical periodization has allowed Western (primarily US, but with a similar logic, European Union) policymakers and academics the convenience of ignoring the long process, and the underlying causes, of Christian decline in the Middle East and, above all, to remain indifferent to Christians’ experience on the frontlines as objects of religious cleansing in the Middle East.  By perpetuating this myth of Christians as aliens or late arrivals, Transatlantic policymakers have shied away from speaking openly about the cleansing of Christians, fearful of angering non-Christian political leaders in the Middle East, who have deliberately presented Christians as Crusaders and agents of Western imperialism.  Furthermore, an historically accurate narration of the history of Christians in the region would, of course, have to acknowledge the dominant Orthodox Christian (again, read Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian) presence in the region, as well as address the divergent and quite different experiences of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians in the region.  This would, of course, require an examination of the deliberate Orientalization of Orthodox Christians by their Western co-religionists through scholarship that has equated Christianity with Europe and, therefore, that has deliberately reduced Christianity to Western Christianity.  In fact, Christianity originated in Asia—the Near and Middle East are geographic Asia—and Christianity is a Eurasian faith, but this reality does not conform neatly to current geopolitical and ideological narratives and dichotomies.  Correcting the distorted myth of Christians as alien interlopers and invaders in the Middle East would also require attention to the causes and circumstances leading to the pluralization of the Christian presence in the region; this historical analysis requires heavy lifting and uncomfortable facts for Christian ecumenism, since the arrival of Roman Catholic Crusaders, as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries, and their actions vis-à-vis Orthodox Christians, constitute some of the uglier features of intra-Christian relations.  Finally, remedies to this myth would also require that Orthodox Christians examine their own record of resignation and passivity in the face of the very real oppression and objectification as minorities in Muslim-majority states and societies; the psychological trauma of dhimmitude is necessarily part of the building of this myth, and psycho-cultural and political-psychological research is replete with cases of traumatized populations internalizing the hegemonic narratives of their oppressors as a means of (usually, counter-productive) longterm survival.

4. Myth of Ecumenical Solidarity amongst Christians in the Middle East.  This myth is related to the previous one, and is one of the most uncomfortable for Christians, since it requires the kind of honest and uncomfortable self-criticism and reflection that is usually inconvenient and that requires ample doses of humility, repentance, and forgiveness.  The reticence about robust self-criticism is also understandable.  The clear and present danger of extinction is one that Middle East Christians have faced for the entire 20th century (Turkey, which usually gets a free pass for its cleansing of Christians, is the end-stage of what is happening to Christians in the other states of the Middle East), and Christians are now facing an immediate, and potentially fatal, threat to their survival in this 21st-century Middle East.  Simply put, as the region’s Christians’ struggle to survive in the face of religious cleansing perpetrated by secularist and Islamist regimes alike, review of the challenges to Christian ecumenical solidarity has taken a back seat to the exigencies of survival.  Nonetheless, the cracks in the ecumenical edifice exist, and require acknowledgement and repair in order for Christians to try to save themselves—much less to raise a stronger voice in asking for others’ help.  Of particular importance to the ecumenical repair-work is a corrective to the Western Christians’ long record of indifference to the plight of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, and acknowledgment of the politics of the Euro-Western-centricity of the narrative of Christian history—linked to the myth of Christians as late arrivals to the Middle East; Western Christian proselytism that has aimed more at Orthodox Christians than at Pauline evangelism is also a critical part of the repair agenda for ecumenical solidarity, particularly given more recent, aggressive proselytizing by Evangelical Protestants in the Middle East, whose knowledge about, and especially, respect for Orthodox Christians in the region has been largely null.  Also of importance in overcoming ecumenical dysfunction is Orthodox Christians’ willingness to resolve their defensiveness vis-à-vis their co-religionists’ intentions, and to reject a behavioral standard of submission to the kinds of Ottomanist second-class status that has manifested in “staying away from the red lines, not rocking the boat, hoping for the goodwill of individual state leaders.”  The approaching visit to Jerusalem by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis can go a long way to building on the spirit and capacity of ecumenism, so that solidarity becomes a resource for survival of Middle East Christians.  Likewise, some signs of encouragement are visible in Evangelical Protestants’ critical examination of their support for the ideology of Christian Zionism—the “Christ at the Checkpoint Conferences” are instructive, insofar as they have begun to explore the theological problems of Christian Zionism; to explore the sharp negative consequences for Christians in the Holy Land, in Israel and the Palestinian Territories; and to consider the corrosive effects of such theology for Jewish-Christian-Muslim peaceful co-existence.

5. Myth of Israel as Protector State for Christians.  This myth resonates in media and policy language in the United States, and has been reinforced by two factors.  It bears mention that, in comparison to the pace of decline (because of the combined forces of emigration and subjection to violence), Christians in Israel do, indeed, fare better than their co-religionists in the surrounding countries of the region, whether in Arab states or Turkey.  Yet, even this empirical record depends on a comparative, relative framework that is deceptive and reductionist, because it ignores the realities of the Christians’ position of being caught between the pincers of two kinds of rising religious fundamentalism and extremism—Islamic and Jewish—both of which are endangering Christians, both of which leave no room for Christians as equal citizens before the law and accepted members of national collectivities.  Indeed, the myth of Israel as protector state for Middle East Christians depends on constructing all Palestinians as Muslims, which also reinforces a construction of Israel as a Jewish state.  Both of these formulations leave no room for Christians, and contribute to a pernicious identity politics in the region, holding the Israeli-Palestinian problem hostage to zero-sum nationalisms that negate solutions premised on citizenship and that, most certainly, reduce Christians to second-class status in any future vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Mythology has been critical to the precipitous decline and endangered status of Middle East Christians.  It’s time to break open and break away from the above myths, and to do some serious reality checking when it comes to the operative assumptions and, especially, urgent and effective actions, to stop the erasure of the Christian presence in the lands where Christianity was born.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs Study Groups on Southeastern Europe and on Muslims and Democratic Politics.

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Rodney Petersen
It is great to see these comments that expose 5 myths about west Asia and its cultural heritage. To name the first, I fail to see how the dhimmitude model can be argued as reflecting tolerance or pluralism for all the reasons identified by the author.

Furthermore, I use the term "West Asia" to identify it as it is, not "Middle East," a colonial term; not "Islamic World," as there are many different minorities and no normative Islam; not "Near East," near to what? Perhaps we are on the verge of a 6th myth that needs busting....
Posted on 4/1/14 6:37 PM.
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