Christians are a ferment of modernity in the Arab world
by Fady Noun
They are source of richness for the future even if their presence is deemed at times “undesirable”. Islam is going through a phase of change, but politics must be separate from religion. Christians remain a community “thirsty for modernity”; without their presence, the Arab world “has no future”.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Have Christians “ceased to count” as Pierre Valognes’ “Vie et mort des chrétiens d'Orient” (Life and death of Eastern Christians) suggests? Are they a “race on their way to extinction” as a diplomat said privately? Alternatively, will they one day, like American Indians, end up in reserves because their civilisation has been replaced by one technologically better equipped? Everything is possible because history is one huge graveyard of civilisations. However, will it be the case?

This is not a simple question, first because today’s Arab (and Western world) has been irreversibly shaped and brought together by Christian ideas. The Arab world’s way of thinking is partly Christian in nature. They continue to shape our present and future. Of course, by Christian we do not mean Christian dogmas, but the way of being, a model of the relationship between faith and reason, between the temporal and the spiritual, the individual and the collective.

But first, we must question as a matter of principle the term “Eastern Christians”, which comes from the West and reflects a European representation. The notion of Eastern Christians has as much to do with the Christians of the Arab world as a Christmas tree made in China has to do with a Christmas tree from the Black Forest. It is form without substance, a hoax, a convention. With such conceptual tools, we shall not go very far.

Bronze wall

To measure and assess the future of Christians in the Arab world, we must, on the one hand, know the history of that world and gauge how much it has been permeated by them, whilst on the other, we must come to grips with the formidable bronze wall, epistemological, philosophical and historical that it and Islam are facing right now. We must equally consider the political and economic reality of the Arab world, and its ruling classes, to know what turmoil is permeating it. We must go beyond the brute political and military forces that are shaping the present, however tragic they may be, to dig deeper.

If we do this, we shall then be able to understand that in the universities, one of the greatest cultural achievements of Christian civilisation, the Arab world and Islam are being challenged by critical reason and its exegetic and historical tools. It is not Christianity, but Islam, which some are trying to cast in an Islamist form, that is currently undergoing the most profound mutation in its history, although Arab Christians are also going through a phase in which they are losing their religious and civic rights, including the right to work in the public sector, the right to rebuild a church wall or the right just to sit in front of their homes.

One example of the challenges Islam is facing comes from the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ali Khamenei, who has already decreed in advance that the conclusions the International Tribunal on Lebanon will reach in regards to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 are “null and void”.

This is the “bronze wall” referred to above. If it were merely political, this opposition could be undoubtedly justified. However, this is not what it is about because it comes as a political-religious judgment from the Wali el-Fakih, Iran’s highest Islamic authority. Hence, a political-religious myth undermines reality and that which is rationally self-evident. The interpenetration of the temporal and the spiritual at this level spills over into the absurd. In this specific case, the conflict between legal and religious judgment, between reason and faith, is implacably clear. In fact, how many apparently rational objective facts are in reality epistemological logjams that go unnoticed.

Creating civilisation

Syrian-born poet Adonis said that the Arab-Islamic world faces a challenge, that of “producing civilisation rather than consuming it”. Critical of religion, Adonis is even more so of Arab regimes, which, whether for political or religious reasons, impose limits beyond which thinking cannot go, thus impoverishing the spirit so that it inevitably falls into propaganda and platitudes. Why is it so? How can we break free of this? These are questions Arab regimes must ask, questions that run parallel to those raised by the Christian presence, which is sometimes seen as undesirable.

A second question that follows is about the future of an Arab world that loses its Christians and becomes exclusively Islamic.  A number of books that explain the matter have been released. One of the most recent is “Les chrétiens d’Orient, vitalité, souffrance, avenir” (Eastern Christians, vitality, suffering and future) by French journalist Jean-Michel Cadiot, distributed by Salvator (Paris).

Cadiot is the author of several essays on the Middle East, on French politics and Christian-inspired democracy. He is the vice president of the “Association française d’entraide aux minorités d’Orient (French Mutual Aid Association for Eastern Minorities). His book is full of facts and figures, making it a bit of a dry read. However, he aims to pass onto the reader everything there is to know, even if the price is a slower pace of reading. It is worth paying though because the book goes beyond the beaten path to show how Christians are a source of modernity in the Arab world.

Cadiot looks at history but also at the current situation of these “Eastern Christians,” calmly adding an unusual geopolitical analysis to a theological approach that does not hide the terrible trials they have experienced. He also reveals a vision of the future, noting that, “faithful to their traditions and their rituals, awfully touched by war and oppression, some one hundred million Eastern Christians constitute a dynamic community, thirsty of modernity and justice, but also recognition and respect.”

It is clear that the future of Eastern Christians is closely linked to that of the Arab world. At the same time, the Arab world has no future without its Christians, at least as part of the modern world, because the rise of the individual, his aspiration for freedom, his individual consciousness, and the principle that he is the bearer of inalienable rights like freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are at the core of modernity. This type of process cannot be only for a few—it will be either for all or for none at all.