On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, Via Meadia reflects on one the most painful unintended consequences of that day – the decimation of Iraq’s once significant minority religious groups. Before the invasion of Iraq – which, despite the changing rhetoric used to justify it, would not have happened without the 9/11 attacks – about 1.5 million Iraqis were members of a non-Muslim faith. Mostly Christians, along with some lesser-known groups like Mandaeans and Yazidis, these unfortunates fell victim to determined campaigns of sectarian cleansing by bands of both Sunni and Shiite thugs.
This campaign of extermination and intimidation has largely worked. Large scale bombings of churches and Christian-owned liquor and video stores, assassinations of clergy and local leaders, and kidnapping and rape of young women have taken their toll, including several high profile attacks this past month. Comprising at least 5% of Iraq’s population before the 2003 invasion, well over half of these Christians and others have fled their ancestral homes. As the country has stabilized in the past few years, the toll of violence against minorities and stream of refugees has continued. Even as the Shia-dominated Iraqi government has enhanced its control, it has done little to rein in the targeting of weak Christian, Mandean, and Yazidi communities.
Since the invasion the U.S. has viewed the plight of these communities as an inconvenience. Officials seemed to feel that making an issue of widespread persecution of religious minorities would be either a propaganda victory for opponents of the Iraq War or, by making the US appear to be an advocate for Iraqi Christians, confirm Muslim suspicions about an alleged anti-Islamic or “crusader” US agenda. These considerations were less pressing once George W. Bush left the White House, but under President Obama as well the US made no concerted attempt to protect Christians and other minorities; now that we are rapidly drawing down troop levels there we will have even less ability to safeguard these most vulnerable communities.
Saint Elijah’s Monastery in Mosul, Iraq (Wikimedia)
In a truly grotesque dereliction of duty, neither administration made allowances for minority refugees to resettle in America, something we have done in past conflicts and that has benefited asylum-seekers from South Vietnam to Somalia. Historically tight-knit, these communities are now dispersed across Jordan, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere and will probably disappear in time.
This tragedy should have not been a surprise to US policymakers. For the last 150 years, the rich ethnic and religious diversity of the territories once under Ottoman rule (from the Danube south and west through the Balkans, and in Asia and Africa from Algeria through Saudi Arabia to the modern border between Iraq and Iran) has been in a process of steady (and often bloody) decline.
In some places, the destruction of diversity was initiated by Christians asserting their independence from hated Ottoman overlords. Muslims and Jews as well as ethnic minorities were driven out of wide swaths of the Balkans as the Christian Slavs, often with Russian or other Christian help, drove the armies of the Caliphs back toward Asia. The wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were the most recent examples of this kind of anti-Muslim ethnic cleansing and massacre in the Balkans. One reason Serbs (and Russians) were so furious with NATO: in the past, Christian Europe had mostly sympathized with Balkan Christians in their wars against what was seen as the illegitimate presence of Islam in southeastern Europe (a presence only made possible by Ottoman wars of conquest).
The Balkans were the largest part of the Ottoman Empire where Christians were in the majority. In Asia and Africa, Muslims were generally more numerous and there the massacres and ethno-religious cleansing tended to go the other way. Modern Turkey is built on the murder of Armenians and the expulsion of Greeks; combined massacre, expulsion and flight decimated once large and healthy Christian minority populations across the Middle East.
Once a relatively cosmopolitan part of the world, where Muslims (Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Turks, Berbers) would rub shoulders with the Jews and Christians (Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans) whose presence there began centuries before the rise of Islam, the old lands of the Ottoman Empire have become more sectarian and intolerant. The Islamic reawakening that has fitfully flowered in the past two centuries, largely in reaction to Western dominance in the region beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, has been ever more hostile and violent to religious minorities in its midst.
As the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Muslims in the Middle East (and Christians in southeastern Europe) conducted deadly pogroms against their resident minorities. With the creation of Israel in 1947-1948, the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa expelled their ancient Jewish communities. Before then, Baghdad was one-third Jewish. These Jews, now mostly Israelis, have about as good a chance of securing a “right of return” to their ancestral homes as Palestinian Arabs do to theirs. Overall, the number of Jews driven or fleeing from their homes across the Arab world was roughly equal to the number of Muslim and Christian Palestinians who fled or were driven from theirs; this is one reason the Palestinian issue cannot be solved by a “right of return” to former Palestinian lands.
Arab nationalism was intended by its intellectual pioneers (many of whom were Syrian Christians) to bridge the gap between Muslims and Christians by sinking religious differences into a common ethnic identity that would transcend religion. In Iraq up until the fall of Saddam and in Syria still under Assad, this led to better conditions for Christian minorities. They shared in the common oppression rather than suffering special persecution on their own — though in both Iraq and Syria Christians often found a place as junior allies and servants to the dictatorship. Since, under the fiction of pan-Arab nationalism, Iraq was ruled by its Sunni minority and Syria is still ruled by the Alawites, Christians were a useful ally for the ruling elites. When the dictatorship fell in Iraq, and perhaps when and if it falls in Syria, Christians were seen as allies of the hated regimes who enjoyed a relatively privileged position. With the hated dictator who protected the minorities out of the way, the firebombings and expulsions could begin.
Again, for the Bush administration not to understand and prepare for this before the invasion of Iraq was not its only blunder, but is one of the least excusable. It looks very much as if the Obama administration is being equally feckless about the likely consequences for Syrian Christians and other minorities when and if Assad goes.
The secular Arab nationalism of Gamal Nasser also provided a measure of protection for the largest remaining Christian minority in the Islamic Middle East, the Copts. As in Syria and Iraq, some Copts did well under nationalist rule in Egypt and, especially as the regime abandoned its socialist roots, well-placed Copt businessmen were able to become very wealthy. In watching Egypt’s revolution, it will be important to see how the Copts fare. It is likely that many lean toward the military rather than toward more populist forces, especially as the liberal option appears to be waning and the momentum on the revolutionary side looks more Islamic.
The Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria (Wikimedia)
The process of ethnic and religious cleansing that has been sweeping through the old multinational, multi-confessional empires of Europe and the Middle East since the 19th century has been a terrible human tragedy. It continues today in the struggles of the Kurds, Palestinians and Berbers. When the fire burns itself out, and the minorities have been murdered or driven out, successful democratic and modern states can arise: from the Czech Republic and Poland to Turkey and Israel democracies have grown up in the aftermath of vicious inter-ethnic and religious conflict. (Focusing only on Israel’s past while ignoring the wider context is one way that many “anti-Zionists” reveal the power of an unconscious but very real and strong anti-Semitism. If something that many people have done and are doing only fills you with anger and the desire to act when Jews do it, that is a strong warning sign that you are an anti-Semite and need to spend some time reflecting on the hidden power of prejudice.)
It is not entirely clear that human beings are wise or good enough to find a path to modernity that doesn’t involve wholesale slaughter and injustice. Countries that are still struggling with unresolved nationality issues often find that full democracy is incompatible with national unity. The Kurds, given a free choice, might well vote to secede from Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq and set up an independent state of their own. Ditto the Arab minority in Israel, the Berber minorities in some of the North African states and so on. Each of these countries handles its minority issues in a different way, and with greater and lesser success, but the presence of unresolved ethnic issues is a problem for democratic governance in many places.
For a very long time the modernization of the Middle East has been a tragic story precisely because the intricate patterns of coexistence that formerly existed are being ripped up by the roots. When the Egyptians expelled the Greeks and others who made cities like Alexandria cosmopolitan and rich, they made Egypt poorer and more backward. In many countries, the ethnic and religious minorities were the businessmen and traders (like many Jews and Germans in eastern and central Europe before World War Two). Getting rid of the minorities left many countries in a poor position when it came to dealing with the international economy.
In any case, it is one of history’s ironies that George W. Bush, widely attacked as an evangelical warrior for Christ, accelerated the destruction of the ancient Christian presence in the Middle East. Once again, he stands in a tradition of well-meaning American idealists in this region, whose efforts to secure the future of these communities have contributed to the virtual disappearance of Christianity from the region of its birth. That process has taken another tragic turn in the last ten years; the venerable communities of Iraq, which trace their origins to the Apostle Thomas and John the Baptist, will probably never return.
Is Syria next on the list?