Christians and Muslims are working hard to turn a tide in their political dialogue. The pope’s recent apostolic visits to the United Arab Emirates and Morocco both signal that many political leaders in the Middle East are prioritizing religious tolerance in their foreign policy. Even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, certainly no friend to the region’s minorities, issued his first tweet in Armenian earlier this year. The challenging question for politically engaged Christians is how they should respond to these multi-faith initiatives given that they often involve illiberal actors and challenging political contexts.
While multi-faith dialogue in policy and politics is necessary, it is difficult to frame because there are multiple tiers of dialogue that need to occur concurrently: those between different faith institutions, those between faith communities and governments, those between governments, and those between believers themselves. While there are Christians and Muslims who have made strong contributions to these discussions, the increasing politicization of religion in the US poses a challenge to these efforts, and illiberal regimes in the Middle East use themes of religious tolerance to distract the West from their own human rights violations. Although governments and political leaders advertise these efforts as groundbreaking breakthroughs in multi-faith political dialogue, they have fundamental shortcomings that point to the need for a franker and more honest discussion about questions Christians and Muslims must wrestle with together.
Today many Christians in the policy arena have divided themselves into two camps of engagement with politically active Muslims and predominantly Muslim governments: the Trump administration-backed selective engagement camp and the anti-everything Trump administration camp.
The major shortcoming about the multi-faith engagement of some socially conservative Christians with links to the White House is that the outreach is primarily targeted toward governments in the Middle East with whom the president enjoys close relations. Therefore, these efforts are better classified as religious diplomacy rather than multi-faith dialogue. The Trump administration’s strongest efforts of Christian-Muslim engagement have come in the form of high-level engagement between Christian supporters of the president and foreign governments close with the president, including those headed by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi of Egypt, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, and Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Christians passionate about religious liberty should be able to appreciate on some level that Sisi is setting a better tone of tolerance for Egypt, acknowledge that Zayed deserves credit for enacting 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance,” and take some solace of relief in acknowledging that Bin Salman at least is not propagating the hatred that many Saudi clerics espouse. However, Christians should not extract religious liberty from human rights or humanitarianism. Religious liberty is a human right, and Christians should be careful not to dichotomize it against other human rights. The deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt, the Saudi/Emirati-led war in Yemen, and the butchering of dissidents are all injustices that Christians should publicly condemn while pulling from the most basic tenants of their faith.
A key shortcoming with the anti-everything Trump approach is that it looks at Islamophobia in the West and overly apologizes to the point of glossing over challenges to human rights that are genuine issues in many predominantly Muslim countries, societies, and political movements. Consequently, some Trump opponents have developed blind spots to the plight of non-Muslims suffering in predominantly Muslim lands. Such was the theme of Mehdi Hasan’s recent article, where he states, “I am a Muslim, and I consider myself to be on the left, but I’m embarrassed to admit that in both Muslim and left circles, the issue of Christian persecution has been downplayed and even ignored for far too long.”
There are even some policy officials who oppose the vice president’s initiative to support Christians and Yazidis recovering from the Islamic State in Northern Iraq because “an increasingly direct and public emphasis on religious minorities, and Christians in particular, could fuel sectarian divisions in the country and single out already at-risk communities.” Considering the Iraqi Christian community suffered genocide and fell from 1.5 million in 2003 to less than 150,000 today, the argument that faith-based humanitarian aid is what will put a sectarian target on their backs is utterly unconvincing. The Iraqi Christian community itself has voiced that this aid is needed, and the previous US policy of engagement with this community failed to preserve it in its historical homeland.
Muslims themselves are obviously the most knowledgeable about the challenges their community faces when it comes to politics and governance. Christians and others need to better familiarize themselves with what Muslims are wrestling with regarding their own faith in order to add substance to multi-faith dialogue.
Shadi Hamid, a well-regarded scholar on Islam and foreign policy, spoke with Robert Nicholson, president of the Philos Project and an editor of this journal, warning against certain forms of multi-faith dialogue: “I don’t think anything particularly useful happens when you put a bunch of liberal Christians, liberal Jews, and liberal Muslims together in a room and get them to agree on things they already agreed on before they entered the room.”
Disagreement, even between the closest of friends, is normal. Therefore, acknowledging the fundamental disagreements between politically engaged Christians and Muslims about democracy, human rights, and pluralism in the Middle East is a vital component of dialogue.
Hamid, in the same conversation with Nicholson, also noted that “conflict over the things we hold dear is natural, and there’s no reason to think that we shouldn’t differ over foundational questions if we claim to live in pluralistic, diverse societies.”
When it comes to Middle Eastern politics, a common frustration that many Muslim thinkers, such as Hamid, express is Christian tolerance for non-democratic and “secular” regimes. Whether it be Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, or Sisi, Christians living in predominantly Muslim lands have in large numbers often expressed a strong preference for these dictators and against democratic movements. Scarred from the sectarianism that the US invasion of Iraq brought onto their co-religionists, many American Christians have consequently begun to favor an international model where the US is no longer the world’s leader and deemphasizes democracy promotion.
While the Iraqi Christian exodus is an important lesson that should be heeded (and it is an understandable cause explaining why more American Christians embrace a non-interventionist foreign policy), Muslim thinkers who challenge these Christians’ approach have a valid point: allowing these dictators to barrel bomb their own people, arrest and torture dissidents, and commit other horrific human rights violations and crimes against humanity is immoral. Christianity, they argue, must certainly expect greater of Christians than to stand by and permit injustice. These Muslim thinkers are right.
However, the response to this issue should not be to criticize the political alliances of Christians who live as second class citizens without the civil liberties Americans enjoy and who are regularly threatened by extremist groups. Their alliances with non-democratic regimes are often a survival tactic and what the community perceives as the least harmful option on the table.
In taking Hamid up on his offer of dialogue, Christians should push back on his own response to this dilemma that, due to their inherent illiberal tendencies, “Islamists are never going to be 100 percent cool with minorities.” When democracy produces an illiberal outcome, minorities have a valid reason to be fearful of democratic movements that threaten their wellbeing.
Many Western Christians themselves agree with Hamid that they should always align themselves with democratic movements, even when they produce illiberal outcomes and when many of their co-religionists in the Middle East are fearful of them. To give an example, one Christian advocate recently wrote that for “the sake of religious freedom, the prosperity of the Middle East, and our own national security, Northeast Syria’s experiment in freedom must be protected.”
While coming from a well-intentioned sentiment, this argument sidesteps the plight of the majority of Syria’s Christians, who live in territory governed by the Assad regime and not in the northeast. Dodging the burning questions about democracy and pluralism will only perpetuate violations against religious liberty and instability in the Middle East.
There are three questions that should serve as a springboard for Christian-Muslim dialogue about US policy in the Middle East:
- Why should the US support a political movement in a given country that itself has yet to gain the trust of vulnerable minority groups in the country?
- Should the US support unelected leaders at the expense of democratization in the name of preserving religious pluralism or preventing sectarian conflict?
- Is there a middle ground between supporting people’s right to elect their own leaders while also protecting minorities from any threats democratic movements may pose to their religious liberty or wellbeing?
Ignoring the democracy versus pluralism dilemma fails to address the core issue facing both communities at the onset and consequently will not yield a Middle East friendlier to human rights and religious liberty. This debate is one that governments and politicians themselves cannot lead. Civil society is where this discussion must take place, and believers themselves are the ones who should lead it.
While it is helpful for governments, politicians, and political activists to contribute toward improving the relationship between Christians and Muslims, believers should recognize those groups’ inability to address the substantive issues facing their communities and, when necessary, criticize actors who seek to use multi-faith dialogue as a distraction from human rights violations.
Steven Howard is currently an MA candidate in human rights at the Catholic University of America and the national outreach director for In Defense of Christians. He previously served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco.
Photo Credit: Assyrian Church of the East Cathedral in Ankawa, Iraq. By Levi Clancy, via Wikimedia Commons.