When Pope Francis visited Egypt last month, he called on the leaders of the Muslim world “to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity.” This was timely: Just a few weeks before, on Palm Sunday, Egypt’s Coptic Christian community had been viciously hit by suicide bombers enlisted by the so-called Islamic State. That bloody episode was just one of many instances of violence and harassment that Middle Eastern Christians have faced recently. The latest came on Friday, when gunmen attacked a convoy of Copts in Upper Egypt, leaving at least 26 people dead.
The wave of persecution is so severe that some fear it may bring about the end of Christianity in the region where it was born two millenniums ago.
Why is this taking place? And what is to be done?
Some in the West are inclined to see the problem as “Islam’s War on Christianity.” For them, a militant faith is trying to eradicate its peaceful rival, and the best response is to fight back.
The reality is much more complex. First of all, while such atrocities come from extreme groups like the Islamic State, most other Muslims — from ordinary people to mainstream religious authorities — condemn them. Some Muslims even actively try to defend Christians, like the female police officers who lost their lives during the Palm Sunday attacks, and the men and women who rushed to mosques to donate blood for the injured. Clearly, what threatens Christians is not Islam but a strain of extremism within it.
Moreover, there is something puzzling in this extremism: Islam has been the dominant religion in the Middle East for the past 14 centuries, but this level of zealotry is new. The Christian minorities that are now targeted by the Islamic State and its ilk existed under more reasonable Islamic states — including the Abbasid and Ottoman caliphates — for many centuries. The very presence of large communities of Middle Eastern Christians is a testimony to the fact that Muslims traditionally tolerated them.
As paradoxical as it may sound, the trouble of the region’s Christians began in the modern era. First, in the deadly deportation of 1915, the Ottoman government wiped out a big portion of its Armenian population — the very Armenians who had lived and flourished under the same Ottoman rule for four centuries. Throughout the next 100 years, various waves of deportation, massacre, persecution and discrimination reduced the size of Middle Eastern Christians dramatically — from 14 percent of the region’s population in 1910 to a mere 4 percent in 2010.
A part of this modern crisis was political: The fall of the pluralist Ottoman Empire gave rise to furious nationalists and paranoid nation-states that perceived minorities as suspects, if not enemies within. Christians, some of whom were leading thinkers in developing secular Arab nationalism, often found themselves branded as the fifth column of Western colonial powers. Similarly, long-established Jewish communities in the Arab world became the collateral damage of the anger at the expansionist policies of the state of Israel.
However, a part of the modern crisis was also religious — and it was rooted in the very tolerance of classical Islam. This tolerance had been based not on equality but on hierarchy. Muslims were the superior rulers, whereas non-Muslims were protected but inferior communities called “dhimmi.” The latter had to pay an extra poll tax, their temples could not be too loud and new ones were rarely permitted, and they were subject to various social limitations. And while their conversion to Islam was encouraged, conversion from Islam to the faith of dhimmi could be a capital offense.
In the Middle Ages, this hierarchal tolerance of Islam was preferable to the alternatives at the time, such as forced conversion or mass murder. However, in the modern era, equality before law became the universal norm, and that is what the religious minorities rightly began to demand. (It is notable that the Ottoman Empire, the seat of caliphate, answered these calls with the Reform Edict of 1856, declaring Christians and Jews equal citizens of the empire.)
Yet to date, most Islamists — those who see Islam as a political system — still believe that non-Muslims must remain dhimmi. They think Christians should “know their place” as second-class citizens, and if they do not, they should pay a price. This Muslim supremacist attitude, shared sometimes even by secular yet autocratic governments in the Middle East, lies beneath many acts of persecution. It also has a “true Muslims versus the heretics” version, where the former often means Sunni.
On the brighter side, there are good Islamic initiatives toward establishing a culture of equality, such as the Marrakesh Declaration of 2016, which was signed by hundreds of Muslim scholars from more than 100 countries and which called for a new jurisprudence based on “citizenship.” But much more needs to be done. Muslim leaders should also help their societies understand that minorities are not foreigners, let alone spies, but authentic, patriotic citizens of their home countries.
Concerned Westerners must understand that the problem calls for not a battle against Islam but a struggle for religious freedom. As a recent academic initiative, Under the Caesar’s Sword: The Christian Response to Persecution, put it well, religious persecution is a global problem, and Muslims and Christians sometimes find themselves as co-victims — at the hands of Chinese Communists, for example, or Hindu supremacists. Religious freedom is a fundamental right deserved by all — and therefore it must be defended for all.
Mustafa Akyol, a contributing opinion writer, is a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College and the author, most recently, of The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.