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.
The 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan [pdf], drafted and passed under the rule of George W. Bush in that country, makes Islam the religion of state and forbids any law that contravenes the sharia or Muslim religious law (the official translations on the Web misleadingly render ahkam or religious laws with the word “provisions,” which hides the real intent of the constitution, so I have translated those passages more literally):
“Article One Ch. 1. Art. 1: Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, independent, unitary and indivisible state.
Article Two Ch. 1, Art. 2: The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam.
Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.
Ch. 1, Art. 3
In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and laws [ahkam] of the sacred religion of Islam.
“The Afghan Constitution and Islamic Sharia law both support polygamy, allowing men to take up to four wives. Certain conditions apply to polygamous marriages, such as the equal treatment of all wives, but these are not always observed.”
First: Islam is the official religion of the State and is the primary basis for legislation:
A. No legislation may be enacted that contradicts the established laws of Islam
B. No law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy.
C. No law may be enacted that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this Constitution.
Second: This Constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the
Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief
and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.
“As a Muslim country, we have adopted the Islamic Sharia as the main source of law. Accordingly, any law that contradicts Islamic principles with the Islamic Sharia is ineffective legally.” Jalil also urged an end to restrictions on taking more than one wife, and wanted to see Islamic banking principles instead of Western-style interest.
So far, Jalil has said nothing that was not said repeatedly by his predecessor, Qaddafi. He has said nothing that is not in the constitutions and/or legal practice of Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq. But there is no hand-wringing about those two “liberated” countries and Islamic law or sharia. I guess if secular, communist Afghanistan was made fundamentalist by Reagan and Bush, or if the relatively secular Baath Party of Iraq was overthrown by W. in favor of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Call Party and the Bloc of Ayatollah Sadr II, that is unobjectionable and not even reported on. But if there’s a Democratic president in the White House, all of a sudden it is a scandal if Muslims practice Muslim law.
3. Thousands of mostly Shiite protesters marched on the Budaiya highway outside Manama on Friday, denouncing the fixed “dialogue” process and tepid reforms offered by King Hamad Al Khalifa. The dialogue council had been heavily stacked with Sunnis and regime supporters. The Wifaq Party was marginalized. It represents the majority of Bahrain Shiites, who are roughly 60% of the population (down from 65% because of a crash program of giving citizenship to foreign Sunnis in recent years on the part of the regime). Shiite Bahrainis are disproportionately rural and poor and face employment, social and political discrimination. Wifaq seeks a constitutional monarchy, though the minority view that a republic would be even better may be gaining adherents as the monarchy uses hard line tactics to repress the majority demands. Manama is the site of the HQ of the US Fifth Fleet, and while the Obama administration has urged King Hamad to negotiate and compromise with his citizens, it has done no more than that, in the face of severe repression and violations of basic human rights. There is no evidence for the regime charge that Bahrain Shiites are cat’s paw of nearby Shiite Iran. Most Bahrain Shiites belong to a different legal school than Iranians, and, being Arabs, are skittish about the idea of Persian domination. (A minority of Bahrain Shiites, mostly in Manama, has Iranian ancestry). The demonstrations on Friday were a remarkable resurgence of the democracy movement, given how severe the crackdown against it was.
4. The Egyptian Left has been on a roll since July 8, starting back up the Tahrir protests and forcing the government to move more aggressively in trying former regime figures and out-of-control police, and in switching out about half the cabinet, replacing Establishment figures with persons more sympathetic too or even deriving from the ranks of the protesters. The Muslim fundamentalists were upset by this growing leftist influence, backed by labor activists and youth groups sympathetic to them, and so threatened to stage a big rally on July 29 in favor of implementing Islamic law. They were afraid in part that the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, the real power behind the civilian cabinet of PM Essam Sharaf, will issue “guiding principles” for the drafting of the constitution, scheduled to begin this winter after elections. These “guiding principles” could forestall any Islamization of the constitution. The Wasat Party mediated a deal to avoid a clash at Tahrir Square, and it was decided that some 30 parties and organizations would hold a joint demonstration for mutually agreed-upon goals. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents itself as the modern face of Muslim politics, largely abided by the agreement. But Salafis, who are a recognizable subculture in Egypt, did not. Salafi men tend to wear white, Saudi-style robes, checkered kaffiyas or head scarves, and large beards, often with no moustaches. The Salafis want an Islamic state and a hard line interpretation of shariah, and on Friday they said so loudly. The Salafis are a tiny group in Egypt, and they are widely seen to have behaved badly, even by other Muslim parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the Salafis put a scare into women, middle class people, Coptic Christians, and youth on Friday that almost certainly hurt the chances of the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming elections, at least in urban areas. That is, the true significance of Friday’s events is the opposite of that you see in a lot of today’s headlines in the Western press, about Muslim politics coming to the fore. More like Muslim politics behaves like a boor.
5. Some 3,000 Muslim fundamentalists protested in downtown Amman, Jordan, demanding “genuine reform.” On July 15, pro-regime crowds (or paid hands, who knows?) attacked protesters and journalists there. The fundamentalists took a joint oath to remain peaceful. Polling does not show that Muslim fundamentalism is very popular in Jordan, and as long as the protests are spearheaded by that part of the political spectrum, they are unlikely to amount to much.
The revelation by CNN that Norwegian right wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik kept a diary in which he obsessed about the dangers of cultural Marxism, multiculturalism, and the “Islamification” of Europe will remind many Americans of the tactics of our own right wing (only these themes have been taken up by people much more mainstream in the US than Breivik is in Norway!) The movement to ban the shariah, the castigation of a progressive income tax as “Marxist,” the condemnation of multiculturalism as a threat to Western values, are all themes commonly heard in the US Tea Party and in the right wing of the Israel lobbies.
It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that anyone who hits these themes is a terrorist in waiting or supports violence.
But here is the reason for which such rhetoric is dangerous and can easily lead to social violence.
It is black and white, allowing no nuance. Immigration is not a smooth process, and is attended with problems in some cases. The history of the United States, an immigrant society, suggests that whatever the problems are, they are not insuperable. But Breivik saw Muslim immigration in particular as a threat to the very identity of Europe. That is, if the immigration from the Middle East were allowed to continue, then ultimately there would be no Europe, just a big Iran on all sides of the Mediterranean. Moreover, he imagined this process of Islamification as happening very quickly.
Breivik’s thinking is not new under the sun. Protestant Nativists of the “Native American” and later “Know-Nothing” (i.e. secret society) movement in the 1830s through 1850s in the United States felt exactly the same way about Catholic immigrants to the US. America wouldn’t be America if this went on. Their values were inherently incompatible with the Constitution. Their loyalties were to an anti-modern foreign court dedicated to reinforcement of political and intellectual tyranny. The hordes of them would take over the country before too long. The combination of black-and-white thinking and a conviction that undesirable change is coming very rapidly often provokes violence. Brian Porter’s When Nationalism Learned to Hate makes the point about Poland, that peaceful democratic processes depend crucially on patience and a conviction that the future can be won. When members of a movement become impatient and believe that the situation could quickly and unalterably shift against them, they are much more likely to turn to violence.
Catholic immigrants to the US, like Muslim immigrants to Europe, cannot in fact be characterized in a black and white way. Catholics in the contemporary US are politically and socially diverse, but on the whole are more socially liberal than evangelical Protestants. That is, if the Know-Nothings were afraid of an anti-Enlightenment religious movement, it would have been to their own, Protestant ranks, that they should have looked.
Likewise, making a black-and-white division between “Christian” Europe and “Islam” is frankly silly. The European continent is itself a fiction (it is geologically contiguous with North Africa, and there is no eastern geographical feature that divides it from Afro-Asia). Islam has been the religion of millions of Europeans over the past 1400 years, whether in Umayyad Spain, Arab Sicily, or Ottoman Eastern Europe, and Muslim contributions to European advances are widely acknowledged.
As for contemporary Muslims in Europe, they are diverse. Overwhelmingly, e.g., Parisian Muslims say that they are loyal to France. About half of the Turks in Germany are from the Alevi sect, a kind of folk Shiism, and most of those are not very religious and politically are just social democrats (oh, the horror of Breivik’s nightmare– Muslim progressives in Europe!) That the few hundred thousand Muslims in Spain (pop. 45 mn.) , or the 4 million in Germany (5 percent of the population) could effect a revolution in European affairs of the sort Breivik fears is frankly absurd, especially since Muslims are not a political bloc who agree with one another about politics and society. They are from different countries and traditions. Many do not have full citizenship or voting rights, most of the rest are apolitical. But even if they became a substantial proportion of the population, they would be unlikely to change Europe’s way of doing things that much.
Breivik, of course, also exercised black-and-white thinking about the left of center currents in Europe, amalgamating them all to Marxism, presumably of a Soviet sort, and seeing them as taking over. In fact, ironically, it is parties and rhetoric that Breivik would have approved of that are making the most rapid strides in Europe. Right wing parties that would once have been pariahs have been power brokers in Sweden and Finland, and Nicolas Sarkozy has borrowed so much rhetoric from the LePens that some accuse him of legitimizing them.
Worrying about the impact of immigration is not pernicious. Opposing leftist political ideas is everyone’s right in a democracy. Disagreeing over religion is natural.
But when you hear people talking about lumping all these issues together; when you hear them obliterating distinctions and using black-and-white rhetoric; when you hear them talk of existential threats, and above all when you see that they are convinced that small movements that they hate are likely to have an immediate and revolutionary impact, then you should be afraid, be very afraid. That is when extremism learns to hate, and turns to violence.
Democracy depends on a different kind of rhetoric. Healthy politics is about specific programs, not about conspiracy theories as to what underlies someone’s commitment to a program. Most Americans don’t want people to die because of not being able to afford health care. Lambasting that sentiment as tyrannical Bolshevism is a recipe for social conflict.
Unfortunately, some unscrupulous billionaires, Rupert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers prominent among them, have honed their propaganda skills in the media and public life. The promotion of hate, panic, and fear, especially if it is tied to specific political, ethnic and religious groups, always risks violence.
The real message of Breivik is that we should all take a deep breath and step back from the precipice.
He added, “… so anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their saviour, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister…” Ironically, he was speaking for Martin Luther King Day at an African-American church, and was probably attempting to stress religious commonalities as a way of stressing that he opposes racial prejudice. Unfortunately for him, not all Alabamans are Christians.
Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Alabama, among other members of religious minorities in that state, let Gov. Bentley know that he felt that the remarks were ‘disenfranchising.’
Bentley apologized on Wednesday. His spokesperson issued a statement saying, “The Governor had intended no offense by his remarks. He is the governor of all the people, Christians, non-Christians alike…”
The controversy arose because Bentley did not understand American civil religion, which requires that in the public sphere, sectarian differences be put aside.
‘ “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,” which he sees symbolically expressed in America’s founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called “God,” an idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States.’
Civil religion discourse is the way that various kinds of Protestants, and eventually Catholics and Jews, participated in the American public sphere. It is a way of sidestepping sectarian commitments for the purpose of doing the business of the Republic. (Obviously, it somewhat disadvantages non-believers, now 14% of the population, but most of those are not atheists but agnostics and so far have not mounted a concerted challenge to this tradition of discourse).
Bentley, and new governor, tried to go on speaking his own evangelical language of difference, which is all right in the private sphere. But as a public person, he has new responsibilities, of speaking in a way that unifies.
Since 1965 in particular, large numbers of immigrants have come in from Africa and Asia who practice religions beyond the classic ‘Protestant-Catholic-Jew’ trinity. Thus, the Hindu American Foundation and the Muslims were among those who protested, along with Jews. There are about one million Hindus in the US, 2 million Buddhists, and about 5-6 million Muslims if you count children. They are clearly as committed to a public civil religion discourse as are Catholics and Jews.
It seems to me that the groups that protested Bentley’s statement have some international responsibilities. Would the governor chief minister of Gujarat in India be willing to say that Muslims are his ‘brothers and sisters’? Would Avigdor Lieberman in Israel accept Palestinian-Israelis as his ‘brothers and sisters?’ How many Pakistani Muslim politicians would speak of brotherhood and sisterhood with the country’s 3 million Hindu citizens? Maybe some letter-writing to those figures is in order, too.
Pakistani campaigners against the country’s blasphemy laws are pointing out that out of 54 Muslim-majority countries in the world, at most 5 permit capital punishment for blasphemy. They are Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and possibly Afghanistan (the new Afghan constitution incorporates human rights norms that could affect statutes treating blasphemy as a capital crime).
Note that three of these countries with harsh penalties for blasphemy are close allies of the United States.
Blasphemy laws are of course objectionable on their face, though they also exist in Christendom. (For what it is worth, there is a wikipedia survey of such laws.) As recently as 1969 a man in Finland was fined for a blasphemous piece of artwork entitled “Pig Messiah.” Some provinces of Australia, still have such laws on their books, though the last prosecution was in Victoria in 1918. Brazil, Austria, Denmark, etc. have anti-blasphemy laws, though they have not been used any time recently and the penalties are fines and jail time. It is more common nowadays in Europe for individuals to be prosecuted on charges of hate speech toward a religious community. Ironically, Germany used its anti-blasphemy law, originally designed to protect Christianity, to convict a man of defaming Islam in 2006. Israel also has a law against blasphemy, and in India it is illegal maliciously to defame someone’s religion. Blasphemy laws in many Muslim countries resemble those in Christendom in involving fines and jail time.
Muslim-haters in the US have been attempting to argue that Muslims are essentially violent, pointing to the death sentence for blasphemy as evidence. As it turns out, such laws are relatively rare in the Muslim world, and mainly come out of the Wahhabi branch, not mainstream Sunnism. (Pakistan’s law was a martial law ordinance promulgated by a pro-Saudi general).
Moreover, Islamic law or shariah expects that the state, not individuals, should prosecute and punish criminal infractions. Muslim-haters try to give the impression that all Muslims are vigilantes. Vigilanteism is a component of radical groups, but is forbidden by mainstream Muslim authorities.
In all the reporting on this typical controversy in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, centered on the question of “is it over the top?” — no one seems to have noticed that the hotel is in a conservative Muslim sheikhdom and still wants a Christmas tree. Seems like the strictures put about by some conservatives and radicals against Muslims putting up Christmas trees are not taken seriously in Abu Dhabi. Many Muslims in the West decorate Christmas trees so that their children will not feel left out, on the grounds that Muslims believe in Jesus of Nazareth as a true prophet of God and so can celebrate his birth in this way.