Winds of Change in Arab World Buffet Christian Communities

Article Summary
The Arab Spring has raised concerns about the plight of Christians in the troubled Arab world after the winds of change subside, writes Lebanese political scientist Farid el-Khazen, who explores tensions between Islam and the modern state that have perplexed Arab intellectuals since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

At this time of major changes, many question marks hover over Arab states and societies. What has come to be known as the Arab Spring has raised much concern about the Christian presence in the troubled Arab world, before and after the winds of change blow through.

For decades, regional systems in the Arab world have been established within the framework of a modern state. Regimes have risen and fallen, and yet the people have not played any crucial role in their self-determination process over the past three or four decades. Following independence, highly militarized regimes came to power, subjugating the authority to their needs. They monopolized the reigns of power through the process of inheritance. For decades, the people of the region fell silent before this autocracy, including the Christians who were originally marginalized to a great extent in political life.

During the emergence of the modern state, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and before the ruling regimes took hold of power, the people were represented by political elites. These elites would come to power through elections during the era of Arab liberalism, before the emergence of radical ideologies and nationalism. Back then, Christians -- especially in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine -- played an influential role within these elite circles and in the fields of politics, culture and media. Following the phase immediately after independence, decision-making was limited to the ruling regimes, some of which separated religion from power and cracked down on religious people. In some Arab countries, Islamic parties participated to a certain extent in political life, but under restrictions delineated by the state.

In brief, before the Arab Spring, the authoritarian states enshrined stability at the expense of freedoms. And while the situation of Christians differed from one Arab country to another, they were not in a position to make or block political decisions. Despite the growing Islamization of society, the states were not Islamic. Controversial issues revolved around reforming the political system and improving economic conditions.

The Arab situation has not always been an exception in comparison with third world countries, where the military came to power and totalitarian ideologies were prominent. However, the transformation that took place at the end of the Cold War placed the Arabs in a different category. Arabs were left out of the democratic transformations witnessed by many [underdeveloped] countries in the past two decades. Many attempts to shift toward democracy were made, especially in certain monarchies like Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait, but the Arab republics managed to hang on to power through their usual carrot and stick tactics.

In spite of the stalemate that prevailed in the region, the winds of change have nevertheless blown, coming out of nowhere. The strangest thing is that Tunisia, the cradle of police control in the region and the most removed from the “vital causes” that animate regional politics, for example, the Arab-Israeli conflic, was ground zero of the revolution.

Ironically, the Arab Spring was not the result of a calamity or a setback -- not even of an international crisis or cold war. It stemmed simply from the dire straits in the nation.

The priorities and concerns of Arab peoples have changed from one generation to another. Today, the people have expressed their opinion, first in the main squares of Arab capitals, and then at the ballot box. The outcome of the recent elections that took place in Egypt and Tunisia reflected the true will of the people at all levels. However, democracy is not only limited to the electoral process and free ballot. It is rather an integrated value system based on principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is in turn based on equality and the respect for the rights of individuals and groups. Where does the Arab world stand with regard to these values, in light of the major changes that we are witnessing today?

Today, the challenges facing the Arab world no longer revolve around issues and causes which long ago lost their momentum. [These issues] include the state and its ability to endure, the revolution and its achievements, and the "common destiny," which is no longer at the forefront of the Arab arena, especially given the lack of interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The role of religion in the state and society has become the main subject of attention in the Arab world. This has raised many concerns for those who believe that religion should be separated from the state, especially given that the methods of governance are now becoming based in universal concepts, adopted by peoples of different historical, religious and cultural backgrounds.

These concerns are common among Christians and Muslims, even though Christians are more apprehensive about their existence than about any pragmatic regional concern.

It is not the first time that the role of Islam in the state and society has constituted a subject of contention in the Arab world. Many great intellectuals pondered this matter after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Islamic Caliphate. These questions did not desert the minds of intellectuals even after Arab states achieved independence. However, today, the nature of Arab states and societies has changed. Empires were transformed into States, and many organized Islamic movements have emerged within the framework of the modern state. Globalization and information technology replaced the Renaissance. Today, the West is no longer the model of development and progress, as described by Rifa’a al-Tahtawi [a renaissance Egyptian intellectual] and writers and thinkers who are his contemporaries. It is no longer an incentive for change in the Islamic context, as described by al-Kawakibi, Mohammed Abdo, al-Rafii and many other thinkers. The West has rather become a source of immediate threat to the [Islamic] nation.

The Arab and Islamic worlds are currently in the throes of turmoil, with no points of reference or limits. It is as if within each country there existed a self-contained universe [of religious and political thought]. It will be a long time before the Islamic peoples manage to find their bearings. The Islamic world is also facing new challenges, different from the challenges posed by modernism during the previous century. Today, Islam is present throughout the world -- not through conquest but globalization, within the framework of the modern state. Furthermore, the Islamic nation is taking on unprecedented challenges in terms of deep sectarian divides, notably at the level of political power within states and between them.

Moreover, certain Arab states have introduced new governing practices as a result of the Arab Spring, such as democracy. However, there are no clear rules that will define the transition periods, especially given the emergence of new political forces, notably organized Salafism. Thus, competition is likely to take a rather extremist turn within the [broad] Islamic spectrum.

Moreover, al-Azhar, [the premier Sunni Islamic institution, located in Cairo], has recently issued three documents, among which is a document on basic freedoms. This document calls for respecting “religious freedoms” and the “freedoms of opinion and expression.” This document is seen as an important step towards the renewal of Islamic concepts and an attempt to enhance the concept of [Islamic] freedoms, taking universal definitions of freedom into account. This move is a glimmer of hope that could result in positive developments on the ground. However, political influence is needed in order for it to materialize.

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the Arab world today is that their “Spring” is not like any other revolution, whether in its concerns or goals. There are no dynamics in the Arab world today that push the regimes in the direction of democracy, as was the case in Western Europe. Eastern Europe was the cradle of democracy for the countries of the former Soviet Union following its collapse.

However, religion was not the engine of the shift towards democracy – whether in Latin America [in the 80s], Asia, Africa, or all the way to Eastern Europe. Religion only contributed to ending authoritarianism without being imposed as a key component in the alternative power structures. If the Arab Spring means the liberation of the Arab peoples from the tyranny of strongmen, it cannot become a source of injustice and authoritarianism for any segment of society, whether Christians or Muslims, minority or majority. Democracy, by its 21st century definition, is the rule of the majority over the minority, in a civilized secular state where religion is set apart.

Christians did not participate in establishing the authoritarian regimes. They have helped their fellow citizens in modernity in defending national causes, from the Renaissance until this day. While their priorities are not the same in certain Arab countries, they have one common concern: the wave of change sweeping the Arab world and the new religion-based authorities managing these countries. Christians fear the unknown. They do not support authoritarian regimes and are gritting their teeth, as many risks surround them, especially in light of their demographic decline and heavy immigration.

The pertinent question is: What should Christians do to keep pace with the major changes taking place in the Arab world, without falling victim to chaos? What is required of them in order to be become equal in rights and duties with their fellow citizens? Is it their responsibility to promote political and economic stability in Egypt? Establish national unity and consolidate security in Iraq? Or even put an end to the Judaization of Jerusalem and ward off the specter of civil war in Syria?

In other words, are Christians required to give up what influence they do possess and sacrifice the possibility of self-protection in order to rectify the situation in the Arab world and be seen as good citizens? Today, they only hope is that their churches are no longer targeted in Iraq. They seek to maintain a minimum physical presence in Palestine, enjoy equality and be respected under the new Egyptian laws, and avoid suffering under the cycle of violence in Syria.

The Arab Orient is not limited to Islam alone; Christianity is also a part of this world. The Arab world is entering the phase of the “beginning of history,” where the role of political Islam will be determined in governance and the exercise of power. This matter does not fall within the responsibility of Christians but of Muslims. This fact is the ultimate test of the Arab Spring and its repercussions for Muslims and the region as a whole. All that Christians ask -- whether for themselves or for their fellow Muslim citizens and their partners in the nation, history and civilization -- is that a better future be forged for their children, guided by the principles of heavenly religions. Governance is left to the people, the sons of one God, Muslims and Christians alike.


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Found in: secularism, political islam, ottoman empire, muslim-christian relations, minorities, history, arab spring, arab christians, arab
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