09/30/2011, 00.00
MIDDLE EAST-ISLAM

Anatomy of fear. A Sunni democracy in defence of Christians

Élie Fayad
The Lebanese commentator Elie Fayad questions the political prospects of Arab spring and Christians fears of radical Islamic tendencies: "Is it not time the East give a chance to Sunni democracy?".
Beirut (AsiaNews) - Thanks to the courtesy of "L'Orient-Le Jour", a well known Lebanese newspaper, we publish this article by Elie Fayad on the Arab Spring, concerns and future prospects of the Christian minorities.

Common sense tells us that fear is a bad counsellor. Whether well founded or not, acknowledged or hidden, exaggerated or discrete, it is always a bad counsellor. At the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian era, Christians of the East are afraid. And with good reason: in 1920, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, they were a fifth of the population of the region formed by the States of the ancient fertile Crescent moon (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq). Less than a century later, there are no precise figures, but neither is there any doubt that with the exception of Lebanon, the limit of ten percent to five percent here and everywhere has been crossed, in a downward trend.

This negative development does not in itself constitute a diagnosis of the constituent elements of fear among Christians; it is only the material expression of this diagnosis, and in this sense reflects the breadth of the phenomenon leading to fear: migration to other horizons.

An unsettling constant immediately imposes itself, although it appears to have upset historians to a lesser extent, perhaps because it goes against the trend, compared to a good number of other well formed conclusions. In short that this dramatic decrease of actual Christians in the region in the century followed the disappearance of the last Sunni Islamic empire ruled by the power of the caliphate.

One should not infer from this discussion that the Christians of the East have no prospects of survival other than a return of the caliphate. The reign of the Mamluks, which lasted several centuries before the Ottomans, was also nearly fatal for Christians: According to studies carried out in France, in 1516, the year in which the region passed from the reign of the Mamluk regime to the Sublime Porte, Christians accounted for only 7% of the population. And thus over the following four centuries the proportion almost tripled.

Without wishing to in any way condone an empire that, in many respects, was directly responsible for keeping the people who depended on it in a state of backwardness and poverty, we must recognize, however, a simple historical fact: the Ottoman Empire was a period of expansion of the Christian presence in the East.

One conclusion leads to another: in Turkey itself, despite the Greek independence achieved in 1830, many large cities, including the imperial capital, Constantinople, remained predominantly Christian (Greek, Armenian, Latin, etc..) until the end of the nineteenth century. Strangely, it is with the advent of so-called "secular" nationalism, in 1908, that the tragically downhill curve of the Christian presence began. The fact that the official date of the fall of the Ottoman Empire did not happen until twelve years later continues to fool many people regarding the responsibility of the events of that period. So when, during the First World War, the Armenian genocide was decided, it was at the hands of those who held real power at the time, in short, the 'secular' nationalists, and not the regime of the Sultan who had already been reduced to the status of a dusty ornament.

Later, Nobel laureate for literature, Orhan Pamuk, would evoke Istanbul and the type of "mini-pogroms" Turkish Christians would undergo in the '50s and '60s in his wonderful book of childhood memories, and how the ‘powerful’ secular regime found nothing wrong in them. These repeated attacks virtually put an end to a multi-millennial Christian presence in what was the "Second Rome" and Anatolia. If the Islamic conquest of 1453 put an end to Christian political power, the physical existence of the Christians was not annihilated until the advent of the "secular" twentieth century.

***

Upsetting some historic prejudices, however, does not mean that we should deny the existence of a great Islamic problem that drives permanently minorities in the East, and especially Christians, to wonder about their future. It is therefore perfectly legitimate for a head of an Eastern Church to echo this question. Not unless the right to ask good questions justifies the right to give bad answers.

Alas, today in Lebanon, as elsewhere in the region, there are many Christians who cling to the worst kind of answers. And the thesis of the alliance of minorities under the cover of a tyrannical dictatorship that makes use of lies to maintain ideological and political hegemony, and its own survival is undoubtedly the worst of them.

A dozen years ago, during the "Belle Epoque" of Syrian tutelage in Lebanon, a Lebanese foreign minister known for his good relations with Damascus, affirmed quite without complex - in private, of course - that in order to last, the Assad regime had no choice but to govern with the Sunni Arabs, that is, with the continued revival of anti-Israeli nationalism. And that is, the so-called "moumanaa" ("immunity" from Western influence, ndt).

Now, one of the major characteristics that can be observed in the different expressions of the Arab Spring is precisely the loss of value of the myth of this "moumanaa". Gradually it has been laid bare, stripped of verbalization behind which it had tried to hide its true nature, which was fundamentally false and fictitious. That this vine leaf used by the theorists of the alliance of minorities fall, it only right, after all. But the real question is elsewhere, and it is a practical one: Without "moumanaa" what will the "Allied minorities" hide behind?

The Sunni world now opens to us, in its immensity and its contradictions its liberals, its conservatives and its Salafis. It is up to us to know how to deal with it differently from immediately stigmatizing it, when we realise, frightened, that we no longer have the means to harness it.

Now, at least with regard to Lebanon, one has to be completely blind not to see that for a number of years now, a Sunni Lebanese miracle has been unfolding, so far unique in the Arab world, represented by massive dominance of a liberal current in the community. The fact this current is seen to tread carefully, even to make mistakes and play the sorcerer's apprentice with the Salafis does not authorize anyone, even those who contest - as is their right - its economic and social policy, to doubt its liberal essence.

Christian democracy has known many pitfalls before becoming the dominant party that is now at the head of various European governments. Is it not time the East give a chance to Sunni democracy?

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