The well-publicized conference titled “In Defense of Christians” (IDC) was held in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 9-11.
As Arab Christians, we are grateful for this gigantic effort. There are numerous positive aspects to this initiative.
A large proportion of the speakers were actually senior leaders of the Christian communities of the Middle East.
Many, both on the board of advisers and on the executive leadership of IDC, are Arabs living both in the U.S. and in the Arab world.
Speakers for the most part did not take an “us-and-them” approach vis-à-vis Muslims, as many of them are also active in interfaith dialogue work.
The fact that, by all accounts, President Obama was thoroughly briefed on the contents of the speeches, and that many other significant U.S. leaders were in attendance, was certainly an outstanding achievement as well.
But there are also some problems with the philosophical starting point of a conference like this one, and of many others, as well as of books and other media, that call for the “protection of Christian minorities” or that discuss the “future of Christianity in the Middle East,” or ones that highlight the “demise of Christians in the Middle East,” and so on.
Here are a few problems that come to mind:
First, such events risk representing Christians of the Middle East as some sort of intruders in the region.
The Middle East was once the cradle of Christianity. Yet in several countries of the Arab world, there are so few visible marks of Christianity that many Muslims are not even aware that their lands were once populated with Christians.
Any discourse that represents Christians as needing protection from the outside risks reinforcing the skewed notion that casts them as foreigners, as some sort of “franchise” of Western Christianity.
Second, rarely does anyone stop to ask for a definition of the word “minority” as used in this context.
The assumption seems to be that “minority status” has to do with numbers only. But then it would be better to specify that we are discussing the “numeric minority” status of Christians in the Middle East.
Philosophically speaking, I would argue that Christians of the Middle East belong to the “silent majority.”
It is this silent majority – made up of Christians and Muslims (Sunni and Shii), Druze, Jews, Yazidis, Ahmadis, Baha’is, agnostics and others – that we are a part of.
This silent majority continues to be bullied and persecuted by religious fanatics of all walks of life.
It is true that groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram have brought Sunni Islam in particular to the center of this minority/majority problem.
But religious fanaticism is also at the heart of certain expressions of Zionism – just as it can also drive waves of hate speech toward Muslims among some Christians around the world.
Third, with such a philosophical starting point, we are only reinforcing the representation of Christians of the Middle East as weak and insignificant.
But this is a false representation. It suffices to study the consistently high impact of the Christian communities of the Middle East throughout history to see that this representation is wrong.
Think of the universities, schools and hospitals that have been established by Christians and continue to be the centers of learning, healing and progress under the able leadership of Middle East Christians, and you will realize that impact and influence has nothing to do with numbers.
Fourth, such conferences as the one organized “In Defense of Christians” could reinforce the “minority complex” and “survival mentality” of Middle East Christians.
The problem is that this “complex” and “mentality” neutralizes Middle East Christians’ resolve to be a part of the Middle East’s future.
It is this feeling of being weak, of needing protection, of being persecuted (however true these may be), that drive us Middle East Christians to emigrate and barely to strive for “survival” rather than thrive and continue to lead in the region.
And finally, this “minority” approach tends to pit Christians, Muslims, Jews and others even more against each other.
By continuing to insist that Christians are a “persecuted minority” and by continuing to paint the “persecutor” generally as being simply Muslim, both Christians and Muslims of the Middle East are becoming increasingly convinced that this is the true and only picture of reality.
But Muslims have been persecuted by their own states and their security apparatuses as well as by Muslim fanatical groups of differing doctrinal beliefs for centuries.
How, then, does it help to reinforce the idea simply that “Muslims are persecuting Christians”?
As balanced as the speeches of the Middle East Christian leaders were at the “In Defense of Christians” conference, the absence of Muslim leaders, both as speakers and as organizers and leaders of the IDC, is conspicuous, and at some level it hurts the initiative’s credibility.
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.