The press is full of stories this Christmas season about the negative effects on Middle Eastern Christians of the Arab upheavals of 2011. This “vale of tears” approach does profound injustice to the actual reality of the Arab Christians. The discourse of the persecution of a helpless Christian minority serves Orientalist purposes, intimating that the West has yet another hapless object of pity and reason to intervene in the Middle East, and blaming Muslims as a whole for intolerance instead of acknowledging cross-religious alliances.
The Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak, for instance, was an ecumenical affair, with many of Egypt’s 8-million-strong Coptic Christians joining their Muslim compatriots in protests (Christians are about 10 percent of the Egyptian population). Christians no less than Muslims were fed up with Mubarak’s dictatorship. They were convinced that the regime fomented sectarian tensions so as to divide and rule. They were under disabilities imposed by the Mubarak state.
While Egyptian Christians are understandably nervous about the strong showing of Muslim fundamentalists in the first two rounds of the elections for the lower house of parliament, they are not mere bystanders. They have protested courageously for their rights, incurring casualties at the hands of the army, and were among the first to call forcefully for the military to step down. They are not without resources– there are many Coptic attorneys and businesspeople, and the billionaire Sawiris family is from this community. Many Coptic Christians support the Wafd Party (in the emergence of which, as a standard-bearer of Egyptian nationalism in the teens and twenties of the last century, they played a role). Likely the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood will seek a parliamentary alliance with the Wafd Party, so that far from boycotting the Brotherhood’s party, the Copts in the Wafd may well be its partners in rule. Instead of seeing them as a helpless minority and special object of pity on the part of the Christian West, we should see them as inexorably interwoven with Egyptian society and as important social actors in their own right. They face challenges, as do others (Mubarak persecuted certain kinds of Muslims, too). But that meeting of challenges is just ongoing politics, not the end of the world.
Likewise, in Lebanon, Christians are self-confident and have formed political alliances with non-Christians. Indeed, a major Christian faction is allied with the Shiite fundamentalist group, Hizbullah, an alliance that underpins the current cabinet. Other Christians are allied with the Sunni-led March 14 coalition. In recent years, a Christian general has typically been president, and this is true at the moment. Lebanon saw impressive economic growth in the years prior to 2011 but was hurt by the upheavals in the region. Growth is expected to tick up in 2012. Lebanon is a country of about 4 million, and it is estimated that 40 percent of the voting-age population is Christian (though the over-all percentage is lower because Muslims predominate in the next, youth, population bulge).
Where Christians are in a truly difficult situation, as in Iraq, the proximate cause is actually American intervention, which was conducted in such a way as to heighten sectarian tensions. Christians were flourishing in Iraq in 2000 and 2001, and there was no al-Qaeda extremism. The instability provoked in Iraq by George W. Bush is far more important as an explanation of their difficulties than a supposed eternal and essential Muslim hostility to them (if that were the case, why are they better treated in some times, places and governmental systems?)
Chaldean Christians in northern Iraq have cancelled private Christmas celebrations this year, restricting themselves to church services. Alsumaria reports that Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako said, “the continuous targeting of Christians in Mosul, incidents of Badinan of Kurdistan in addition to other situations in Iraq led Christians to cancel Christmas celebrations…” It isn’t just Arab Muslims who have tensions with Iraqi Christians, but also the Kurds, who are largely American allies.
Likewise, continued massive rightwing Israeli land and water theft in the Palestinian West Bank, and the separation barrier built by the Israelis that crowds in on Bethlehem, have hurt the Palestinian Christians, who are for the most part in solidarity with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The some 12 million Arab Christians ( out of some 350 million Arabs) are active agents in their own fates. They make alliances with Muslim fundamentalist forces as well as with secularists, and sometimes switch alliances. They fight back against repression, as they did at Maspero in Cairo this year, risking death or injury. And the Christian West and its Jewish-nationalist allies can sometimes be their worst enemies, not sympathetic rescuers.
The death toll in Thursday’s bombings and attacks in Baghdad and environs rose to about 67 dead, with hundreds wounded.
Most of the attacks honed in on soft targets (schools and markets) in Shiite neighborhoods, though some Sunni areas, considered collaborationist by the guerrillas, were also hit. The Sunni Arab guerrilla groups believe that the Iraqi government as stood up by the United States is an unholy alliance of Shiites and Kurds against their community, and that it is fragile and can eventually be overthrown if the situation is sufficiently destabilized. They have been launching big coordinated strikes about once a season, with the last in August. This one comes as the Sunni-backed Iraqiya Party, which had been willing to cooperate with the Shiite-dominated government, has suspended its participation in the cabinet and the parliament after Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused a vice-president from Iraqiya of plotting terrorist attacks.
Al-Hayat writing in Arabic says that a security official in the Iraqi government told it that armed groups are reemerging in Sunni Arab provinces such as Mosul, Al-Anbar, and Diyala. The USG Open Source Center translated his further remarks:
“The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that “armed groups have taken advantage of the US withdrawal period to rearrange their ranks and bring more weapons and ammunition from inside and outside Iraq.” He added that “these groups have taken great advantage of the recent sectarian rallying and the feeling of marginalization among the political class and Sunni tribes to persuade some of them to provide new protection for these groups.” He stated that “the situation is to a great extent similar to the situation at the beginning of the occupation of Iraq and the formation of armed groups and militias.” He warned that “the two sides have completed their preparations, rearranged their ranks, and only need the spark that will reignite sectarian conflict once again.”
One way the US under Gen. David Petraeus had reduced violence in the Sunni Arab regions was to form pro-American militias (Awakening Councils, Sons of Iraq) wherein each fighter was paid $300 a month to fight radical cells. Some 100,000 men joined up. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, head of the Shiite Islamic Mission Party (Da’wa), vehemently disagreed with this plan. He is alleged to have ceased paying most of these salaries and to have refused to employ more than about a sixth of the fighters in local police and security positions, leaving the rest still armed but unemployed and bitter. Some were even prosecuted for previous guerrilla activity (before their turn to the US) by al-Maliki’s government, while others, having lost their units and fighting effectiveness on being demobilized, were targeted by the radicals.
In the meantime, the political soap opera unleashed this weekend when al-Maliki charged VP Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab leader of the Iraqiya Party, of plotting terrorist attacks, including al-Maliki’s own assassination, continued to unfold.
Hashimi accused al-Maliki and his Da’wa Party of colluding with Iran in smearing him. He denied that two other major Shiite parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by young cleric Ammar al-Hakim, and the Sadr Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, were involved in the effort to destroy him politically. Al-Hashimi has fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, where he has more or less sought political refuge from al-Maliki in Baghdad.
He demanded that Kurdistan officials be the ones allowed to investigate him, and threatened to go to international institutions with a complaint if he were not treated justly. Kurdistan officials maintain that Arab Iraq does not have the authority to send security forces into the Kurdistan Regional Government’s territory after Hashimi.
Is Iran a consideration in Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq’s attempt to purge high Sunni Arab officals from his government?
Al-Maliki has his own reasons for what he is doing. But it is possible that he is being pressured by Iran to do something about some Iraqi politicians.
The Iranian press, for instance, is convinced that one reason al-Maliki is trying to fire his vice premiere, Salih al-Mutlak, is that al-Mutlak supports the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK or MKO), an Islamic-Marxist political cult with several thousand members at a camp in Iran Iraq. Al-Maliki says he is determined to see the MEK out of Iraq. Saddam Hussein gave the base to the MEK and used them for espionage and terrorism against Iran. Al-Maliki originally insisted that the MEK depart by the first of the year, but has accepted a UN request to delay the expulsion until April. One problem is finding countries that will accept the MEK members, given that they are on terrorist watch lists, including that of the US State Department. But the European Union’s removal of the group from its terrorist list may help the relocation.
The Iraqi National Party or Iraqiya received some 80% of Sunni Arab votes in 2010, and most of its members of parliament and high officials support allowing the MEK Camp Ashraf to remain in Iraq.
Regarding Tariq al-Hashimi, one of two vice presidents, now under an arrest warrant, it is worth noting that he is strongly supporting the Syrian opposition and opposes al-Maliki’s recent backing of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Iran deeply depends on al-Assad for its Middle East policy and as a conduit of aid to Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.
This is the second in a series of letters written this week from Iran by University of Minnesota Professor William Beeman. Since Americans hear so little directly from that country in their media, I thought it was worth sharing, and Bill kindly agreed to let me do so.. — Juan .
Two other Americans showed up for our conference, entitled “The First International Conference on Human Rights and Cultures: Cultures in Support of Humanity.” It is being held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and heavy in attendance are the students from the Foreign Policy School run by the Ministry. Some . . . may find the subject of the conference “ironic,” but in fact the organizers, the Non Aligned Movement Center for Human Rights and Cultural Diversity, has assembled quite a large and stellar international group of scholars, NGO officers, Peace Movement functionaries and government officials for this.
The 64 presentations have been on a high level, and would meet a significant academic standard anywhere. Some titles:
“Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflicts”
“Constructing the Other”
“The Role of Cultural Diversity in Promoting a Culture of Peace”
“Establishing a Normative Framework for Evaluating Diverse Cases of Transitional Justice”
The graduate students in international relations are especially impressive. They all have impeccable English, are extremely charming, and are working on serious dissertation topics, such as: “Iran’s Developing Relations with Egypt 2000-2011,” “International Economics in non-petroleum sector in the Gulf Region,” “Iran’s prospects in West Africa” and many more. A group of them at dinner surprised me: “Do you speak Spanish?” Well I do, and so do they–quite impressively! They are all learning Spanish and plan trips to Latin America in the Near Future–even the young man posted as political officer in Sweden.
The young women graduate students have been formidable. Several are giving papers. They make up more than half of the student body. They ask great questions, don’t back down and have facts and figures at the fingertips. Forgive me for noticing sartorial details, but although they are dressed in impeccable hejab, every one of them has something that makes her dress stand out. It seems the fashion is now to turn the maqna’eh into a flattering accessory. There is the maqna’eh with a kind of rhinestone band at the forehead, one with little extensions in the front that can be wrapped in a clever loose bow, one with discreet embroidery around the edge. The women pair long skirts and jackets with front panels in white or pastel colors. They are in effect wearing the equivalent of the skirted suit. It is very smart and very professional while being distinctive.
I am sure there is a great deal of unhappiness in Tehran with the most ordinary meat at $22 a kilo and gasoline at $4 a liter, but this privileged crowd was a very happy bunch. It is always dangerous to conclude things from a few casual encounters, but I was surprised to have a cab driver tell me that gas was “still cheaper than Europe” and a shop-keeper tell me that red meat was too expensive, but there was always chicken, and vegetables were healthier anyway. “You don’t have to put a lot of meat into a khoresht.”
Several people asked me about the Wall Street movement. Their sophistication was notable. One young guy said, “it seems to me that they aren’t accomplishing much unless they can get some law passed.” Many could cite chapter and verse on the bank bailouts, the mortgage crisis and the unequal distribution of income (and taxes)–just proving what I always think coming home, and that is that Iranians know much more about America than Americans do about Iran.
In general everyone I talk to claims that their greatest concern is the economy. They are dismayed at the UK and EU cutting off dealings with the Central and other banks. “It doesn’t hurt the leaders in Tehran or the Guard,” said one, “It hurts ordinary people. We don’t understand why the Europeans and Americans want to do this to us.” So much for the fantasy that if life is made miserable enough, the people will rise up and overthrow their government.
And life is far from miserable, at least in North Tehran. Typical urban landscapes: A giant crystalline cineplex looks down on a huge shopping mall with every possible worldly good readily available. A six lane expressway winds through a gigantic landscaped urban park. The streets are jammed with young people strolling, sitting in cafes and just riding around in their cars.
The delegates to the conference are surprised–especially those who have never been here. “I thought Iran was some dark place with total police control,” said one man from India. “But it isn’t! I haven’t even seen a policeman.” A Vietnamese delegate said: “I thought I was going to be robbed, but my friends here tell me they are completely safe.” Clearly the negative press on Iran has done its job well.
Politics: One ministry official asks me point blank: “Is AIPAC really writing American laws?” Another says: “I guess we shouldn’t hope for closer relations with the U.S. now that the Republicans have Obama trapped.” A third: “Look at all the Chinese and Russians everywhere here. Do you think that is an accident?”
Informal poll: Many people think that Mr. Qalibaf has a good shot at the presidency in 2013. “He’s good looking, speaks well and he has succeeded in several administrative posts.” Some find Mr. Masha’ie intriguing but feel he has been damaged too much by bad press to be viable. People wink and hint at the idea of a revival of the Green Movement. It is clearly a dangerous topic, but it is still on peoples’ minds.
I certainly urge anyone with an interest to come to Iran. Despite ideological or political misgivings one might have, these discussions are vital and important. Without ideas and human contact nothing will ever change.
For US troops to remain in Iraq after December 31 would require a new Status of Forces agreement, approved by the Iraqi parliament. The US insisted that any new SOFA contain a guarantee that US troops would not be open to prosecution in Iraqi courts. There is always the danger that what the US considers a legitimate military operation would after the fact be construed by an Iraqi court judge as a war crime, and that GIs might be jailed or executed for the operation. No US officer would be willing to operate in a foreign country under those circumstances.
McCain suggested that Panetta is actually just a politician, and that Obama deliberately sloughed off on attempts to maintain a US force in Iraq, so as to gain points with the US electorate, which wants out of Iraq.
I only wish that what McCain said was true, since it would have been nice if Obama had stuck to his guns. But typically for him, he initially acquiesced in Pentagon requests that his administration try to get a new SOFA that would permit US troops to remain, with immunity or extraterritoriality.
The fact is that Pentagon and administration negotiations with the Iraqi government broke down on the immunity issue.
But the entire argument is surreal. What in the world makes Sen. McCain think that the Iraqi parliament would ever, ever vote to bring US troops back into Iraq on any scale once they had departed?
Can McCain even name any of the parties in the Iraqi parliament? Can he tell us why any of them would want US troops to remain?
The Iraqi press called the US military “presence” in that country the “occupation” (ihtilal), a word which has extremely negative connotations. E.g. the West Bank is under Israeli occupation. When, in June 2009, US troops ceased their routine patrols of major Iraqi cities, the Iraqis, including the military and government officials, held a huge celebration. It rather hurt the feelings of the Pentagon.
Let’s see. The Sadr II Bloc of Shiite clergyman Muqtada al-Sadr has 40 seats. Muqtada is die hard set against US troops being in Iraq, and has threatened violence over the issue. His bloc is key to the parliamentary majority of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, so if he got angry over this issue and pulled his support, the Iraqi government could fall.
Then you have the Da’wa Islamiya [Islamic Mission] Party, headed by PM al-Maliki, which leads a coalition that has 89 seats in parliament. The Da’wa is a Shiite fundamentalist party that follows the ideas of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (d. 1980) on the Islamic economy and Islamic law as a basis for society. Does McCain really think the Da’wa would vote for foreign military occupation?
Then you have the Iraqiya list, 80% of which is now Sunni Arab. US troops have fought a lot of battles with Sunni Arabs, and it seems highly unlikely that they would vote for US troops in Iraq. They have 91 seats.
There are 320 seats, and we’ve already come up with 220 “no” votes. Game over.
Sen. McCain should explain how Secretary Panetta or President Obama was supposed to change the minds of the Sadr II Bloc, the Islamic Mission Party, or the Iraqiya.
Blaming Obama for the alienation between Iraqi politicians and the US military is absurd. It was the Bush administration that created this mess, it was the Bush administration that made the US even more unpopular than before in Iraq and the Arab world by its “kinetic” military activities, and it was even the Bush administration that negotiated the withdrawal of all troops by the end of 2011.
McCain seems to want to set up the Republicans so that they can campaign next year against President Obama on a “who lost Iraq to the Iranians?” platform.
But the answer to that question is obvious. George W. Bush and the Republican Party did.
The only way for McCain to keep any substantial number of troops in Iraq would be for him to re-invade the country and occupy it all over again.
I think he’s out there in left field on that one.
And, if what he is worried about is Iraq being pushed into the arms of Iran, there is no better way to accomplish that goal than for US politicians to talk about continuing the US military occupation of Iraq. McCain is his own worst enemy here.
Weirdly, he began his attack on the 2011 protest movements in the Middle East by lamenting that the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from 1.2 million to 500,000. He observed, “This is why the current strategy in the Middle East is such a total grotesque failure…. People say, ‘Oh, isn’t this great, we’re having an Arab spring.’ Well, I don’t know, I think we may in fact be having an anti-Christian spring. I think people should take this pretty soberly.”
As anyone with a brain will note, the Bush administration invasion and occupation of Iraq, which Gingrich helped plan out while on the Defense Advisory Board, is what caused Christians to have to leave Iraq. Christians weren’t the only ones. Millions of Iraqis at one time or another fled to Jordan, Syria and elsewhere, because Gingrich’s Republican Party kicked off a civil war in that country by creating a power vacuum. In addition, anti-American guerrillas unfairly conflated Iraqi Christians with American ones, and so attacked the former. I suspect there were about 800,000 Christians in Iraq before the invasion, and that half fled, mostly to Aleppo in Syria or to Beirut.
The foreign military conquest and occupation of Iraq took place in 2003 and has nothing to do with the Arab Spring. (No one among the activists ever even mentioned Iraq, except as a negative example. “Let’s not do that, it is what the Americans did in Iraq.”)
But if one took seriously Gingrich’s implicit suggestion that US foreign policy should be about Middle Eastern Christians, what policies would that produce?
Yuhanna Ibrahim, archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo told the Beirut-based The Daily Star this summer:
“To be honest, everybody’s worried . . . We don’t want what happened in Iraq to happen in Syria. We don’t want the country to be divided. And we don’t want Christians to leave Syria.”
Christians make up about 10% of Syria’s 22 million population. The big Christian neighborhoods of Aleppo and Damascus have seen no demonstrations against the regime. This attitude comes from the Baath Party’s embrace of secular Arab nationalism. The Baath ideology was invented by Christians. In an ideal Baathist society, the important thing is that you are Arab or think of yourself as Arab, and what religion you follow is irrelevant.
A lot of Iraqi Christians had felt the same way, and the lesson they take away from the Iraq debacle is that horrible things happen when Washington decides to get rid of a Baathist government.
Many Syrian Christians are afraid that if Bashar al-Assad falls, he will be succeeded by a Muslim fundamentalist regime that will reduce them to second-class citizens or even persecute them. (To be fair, the Syrian protesters have called on the Christians to join them, so they don’t seem anti-Christian, and they say they want rights for all).
So Newt’s Middle East policy is presumably to support the Baathist government of Syria against its foes, right? Isn’t that what a Gingrich would conclude would be good for Syria’s Christians?
So I guess the Arab Spring being bad for Middle East Christians doesn’t shape Gingrich’s Syria policy? Gingrich wants to deliver the Syrian Christians into the uncertain hands of the revolutionaries? Maybe even– gasp — the Muslim Brotherhood?
Then there are significant Christian Palestinian populations. Is Newt going to support these countrymen of Jesus of Nazareth against the Israeli settlers who are stealing their land and water?
And what if it can be demonstrated that the attack on the Copts protesting in front of Cairo’s television station was orchestrated from behind the scenes by elements in the military government? Would Newt suddenly support the New Left organizations such as April 6 that are calling for the military to step down and go back to the barracks, and who have sponsored Christian-Muslim solidarity marches?
Moreover, it seems likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will do well in the forthcoming parliamentary elections and will be in a ruling coalition. Since Gingrich considers the MB little short of Satan, how would a President Newt even be able to do Egypt policy? Is he just going to blow off the most populous and important country in the Middle East?
Middle Eastern Christians deserve a decent life and human rights like everyone else. But Gingrich is being silly if he advocates putting their interests first in US Middle East policy. There aren’t that many of them The largest group is the Egyptian Copts at 8 million or so. Less than a million left in Lebanon. About a million Palestinians. Some 2 million in Syria. Less than half a million in Iraq. Maybe 200,000 in Iran. And that is just about it– their numbers everywhere else are miniscule. They aren’t even big proportions of the countries where they reside. Less than 13 million in a region of about 420 million people (the Arab world plus Turkey and Iran).
Great Powers don’t behave the way that Gingrich is suggesting. They pursue their interests. Gingrich is only even bringing up Middle Eastern Christians as a ploy to get a hearing among evangelicals, who don’t mostly much care for his two divorces (not sure if they hold his recent embrace of Catholicism against him).
And Gingrich is wallowing in such bad faith that he doesn’t even take seriously his own policy, otherwise his attitudes toward Syria and Palestine would be completely different.
The irony is that most US evangelicals have never demonstrated the slightest interest in the welfare of Middle Eastern Christians, much preferring to support the Israelis. So Gingrich’s confused and hypocritical talking point probably wouldn’t even get him anywhere with them.