Popoli – 01/1994
The existence of Christians in Arab countries with a Muslim majority is becoming increasingly difficult, between the process of forced Islamization and emigration to the West. It is necessary to draw the attention of the West to these two themes: the presence and Christian and Muslim coexistence from the point of view of the Christian minority in Islamic countries; the Islamic presence in Europe from the point of view of a Middle Eastern Christian.
The two issues at first sight may seem complementary, in fact, at the second point, we will address the situation of Muslim immigrants in Italy, a country of Christian orientation, while in the first point the reality of Christians in the Middle East with a Muslim majority will be presented. In dealing with these topics it is fundamental to keep in mind two conflicting elements which are not complementary: the first is that the Muslim presence in Italy is very recent, in fact it dates back to a few decades; the second is that the presence of Christians in Middle Eastern countries dates back to the birth of Christianity, and besides being very ancient, it took place before the arrival of the Muslims. The natives of the Middle East are Christians; only around 638-641 Muslim immigrants arrived and settled thanks to the reception of Christians.
The assimilation of this historical dimension allows us to understand some Middle Eastern situations that would otherwise be incomprehensible from a European point of view. Until one understands the importance of the historical dimension for the identity of Middle Eastern peoples, nothing will be understood about the Middle East.
Immediately after the second world war the population on the northern shore of the Mediterranean basin was about twice that of the southern basin, North Africa and the Middle East; today after 50 years, the proportion has become 1: 1. The graphic demo development accompanied by a growing gap in terms of development, exposes the richest and oldest population to a “peaceful” invasion by culturally distant peoples ; a professor at the University of Cairo has quantified the gap spanning over the centuries.
Arabs or Muslims?
Our discourse on the affairs of the Arab Christian communities cannot but start from the examination of a first question of fundamental importance: what do we want to identify when using the Arabic term? This premise is made necessary above all by the fact that in the West there is a tendency to use the Arabic and Muslim terms indifferently, thus presupposing a coincidence between the meanings of the two expressions. Things are not like this. The Arabic word refers, in a conventional way, to a geographical and cultural area rather than to a specific religious confession or to a specific ethnicity. In fact, the Arab population is defined as the one present in a well-defined territorial area, consisting of three fenced areas: North Africa, the Middle East and the region of the Arabian peninsula (including the Arabian Gulf). which coincides with the political organization called the Arab League. Neither Turkey nor Iran is included in these territories.
All these geographical areas share the same language: Arabic. This does not mean, however, that the ethnic origin of these populations is the same: in fact we find ourselves in front of a very diverse universe. In this regard, Sudan is an exception, which cannot be considered strictly an Arab country.
This situation of linguistic and cultural homogeneity certainly finds its origin in the advent and development of Islam. It was in fact the spread of the Koran that led these populations to speak the same Arabic language. However, it should not be forgotten that an Arab cultural tradition was already present in these areas long before these events. Already in the third century BC there are reports of Arab kingdoms in Tripoli (in present-day Lebanon), in Petra, in Jordan, with the Nabateans. In this same period is also reported the presence of Arab tribes (Manadhira and Ghassanidi) in Syria. It was the Christians and the Jews who resided in these regions that allowed this original cultural heritage to develop and remain alive even after the penetration of Islam. The origins of the Arab lineage and culture are to be found in the historical-geographical context of Mesopotamia around 1700 BC. It is here that the story of Abraham takes place, the Patriarch who shares both Jewish and Arab references. The most recent statistics estimate that there are about eight hundred million Muslims in the world. Among these, however, only 15-20% are of Arab origin. This fact makes us understand how crude the attitude of those Westerners who confuse the two terms of Arabic and Muslim. One need only think, for example, of Muslims living in Indonesia, India and Iran who cannot for any reason be defined as Arabs. To this we must add the relevant fact that about 10% of Arabs are Christians. We must, therefore, remember that the majority of Muslims are not part of the Arab population.
Before the Muslim conquest, begun in the 7th century by Muhammad and completed by his successors, the Middle East was entirely Christian with the presence of two great cultures: the Hellenistic and the Syriac. The origin and development of a true Arab civilization can be attributed to this cultural dualism present in the Christian sphere. It is clear, therefore, that the confusion created in the West with regard to the Arabic and Muslim terms, represents a great cultural impoverishment for the Arab identity and especially for the Christians (Arabs). But what is the condition in which Christians live today in this cultural universe? In the Arab Muslim world the concepts of citizenship, country and nation are recent, the terms themselves were coined at the end of the last century and are still a source of confusion. There is talk of an Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi nation, etc., but there is also talk of an Arab nation.
Who is considered an Arab today?
There is no Arab nation, there is an Arab community, as there is a European community, but not a European nation. These confusions are the source of wars in the Middle East, because if we talk about an Islamic nation, we mix a political concept with a religious one. I think that in this case it is important to introduce the concept of ambition. The term was coined around 1880, by Yazgi, a Lebanese Christian poet, with the phrase “wake up, or Arabs”. The phrase, as a tactical strategy, called all Arab countries to unite against the Ottoman Empire. The union could not take place through Islam, because not all were Muslims; to do it at the nation level meant to divide all the countries. The coveted objective was what will unite all countries and people both Christian and Muslim. I must recognize that today Arab Christians often refuse to call themselves Arabs. The refusal is caused by a strong tendency of these last twenty years to identify all Arabs with Islam. For example, Gaddafi, the president of Libya, has difficulty conceiving that there are non-Muslim Arabs. Many Christians have thought that if Arabic means Muslim, consequently, not being Muslims, then they are not even Arabs. Arab Christians live in an Arab world that is 90% Muslim, so culturally they are Muslims, like a French or Italian atheist is culturally Christian. It is not possible to think of Italian or French culture apart from Christianity, just as it is not possible to think of Arab culture without Islam.
Flash on Islam
Islam is a religion founded by the prophet Mohamed (or Mohammed) in the 7th century AD The Islamic law or sharia draws its sources from the Koran, the book revealed by Muhammad, and from the hadith, which narrates his life. The predominant teaching and application of sharia refer to the following concepts:
– Islam is both state and religion, contains an immutable social project; the Koran has laid the foundation for civil society for all men in all times and places;
– all Muslims are part of the same nation: Umma. Despite the frontiers, the concept of nation predates the mine in Muslim philosophy;
– outside of Islam there is no salvation; the whole universe must become Muslim, even if not all the faithful are unanimous on the means to be used to reach the end;
– juridical superiority of the Muslim and tolerance towards the other monotheistic religions, the people of the book, that is Jews and Christians.
From this we can clearly understand how the religious factor cannot be neglected, if we want to seriously face any problem of the Middle East. If we go to investigate the causes of all the disagreements that exist in this region, we discover that in one way or another these relate to religious implications. Sharia is the law; his sources are: the Koran, the revealed book: ì hadith. the narrated life of Mohamed: igtihad. or the effort, which consists in the emission of a rule proclaimed by the doctors of the law based on reasoning by analogy on a new fact compared to a previous one, already the object of the existing rule. Doctors of the law stopped promulgating rules after the 9th century following abuse. In the Muslim religious legal system, Jews and Christians have the right to live in freedom and, in some cases, to practice their religious; however, they cannot have positions that are socially or politically relevant. For example, a marriage between a Muslim man and a Christian woman is accepted, because being Muslim is legally privileged ,therefore, the children will automatically be Muslim like the father, and eventually the mother will also be pressurized to convert. On the other hand, a relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman is not accepted because, in this case, it is feared that the woman will convert to the Christian religion, thus, the Umma, will be losing a faithful one. Islam has not yet evolve from the phase of discriminatory tolerance to the recognition of freedom of conscience and religion for all individuals without exception: there has been no “updating” for the effective recognition of religious pluralism.
It is unthinkable for a Muslim, convinced that he possesses the total truth, to abandon his religious faith to become a Christian. The laws of Islamic states, among other things, forbid it, under penalty of imprisonment or even more severe treatment. There are, however, Muslim converts, because of their enthusiasm. they cannot silence their faith. They are then hit by serious persecutions, so much so that they are forced to leave the country. Even the Christians who would want to help them would be suspect of proselytizing and will be at risk of incurring severe penalties. By contrast, Islamic law does not prohibit Christians from converting. There are several Christians who convert for material reasons but more often because of marriage. In this case a Christian who who wants to marry a Muslim must first convert to Islam. However, if this individual seeks to become a Christian again he becomes liable under penalties of the law. A law passed by the Egyptian Parliament under President Anwar El Sadat condemned to death the Christian who, having become a Muslim, wanted to become a Christian again. President Sadat prevented this law from becoming enforceable.
Fundamentalism or fundamentalism means the desire to change society, to reconstitute today a situation existing in the past where one believes, rightly or wrongly, that life was lived according to the true values of Islam. The awakening of Islam began in the mid-nineteenth century by peaceful philosophers and thinkers, despite colonization, in search of an identity lost after the decline of the socio-political society of the Muslim world. With the passage of time this awakening will take a political color accentuated to the extreme. Religion will become the engine of liberation and conquest movements which coincides with the rise of Arab expansionist Islam in Africa. In the Muslim world the recent re-Islamization movements have in common the break with the predominant societal order. Fundamentalists are equally opposed to a compromised Islam, which would have accommodated itself in to modernity transmitted by secularization, which is not considered Islamic. The fundamentalist aims to appropriate power and to expand outside the nation’s borders with the spirit of conquest .Some has resorted to terrorism; Iran exports this conception.
The cause of the greatest difficulty, as regards the condition of Christians in predominantly Muslim countries, is Islamic fundamentalism. This phenomenon embodies in itself the worrying tendency of an appropriation of the technological development of the Western world, separated ,however, by those cultural premises that have made it possible to arise. Behind this, it is easy to read the will to resolve, all contemporary political and social problems through religion.. A process that hinders the recognition of all those rights that in the West are prerogatives granted to minorities. Further, poverty and ignorance have favored the extension of religious extremism.
After their independence, the Arab countries favored free education and industrialization with the consequent phenomenon of urbanization. The new recruits, especially university graduates, uprooted from their rural context, with a degree and without work, are disappointed by the promises not kept by so-called socialist regimes in the Muslim world. Islamic fundamentalists then fill the ideological void and the absence of a fabric of social stabilization for the masses of young people or peasants who arrive in the city in the wake of the demographic explosion and graduation at any cost. Islamic militants are recruited from within this student universe and young graduates. Pietist groups, for their part are found in the globally less educated strata of the population and often attract the older segment of the population.
Fundamentalism has taken on the Arab Islamic masses because they have no knowledge of the basic concepts of the Christian religion. There are those who even take advantage of this situation to implement mystifying operations with the aim of denigrating Christians by proposing a false Gospel in Arabic (see the pseudo-Barnabas of the fourteenth century) which is then passed off as true, before the people .All this happens in countries where every Christian Arab studies the Koran, as it represents a fundamental matter of every school curriculum up to the final exam. Add to this the fact that in most Muslim countries, Islamization is carried out through a carpet propaganda that does not disdain the use of all modern mass media. Some examples: each newspaper has a column dedicated to the presentation of the foundations of Islam; lessons in schools and television programs are interrupted during the prayer call; a radio station is reserved for broadcasting programs on Islam, without any space being reserved for Christian minorities: moreover, the student is put under psychological pressure to wears the veil.
This situation reaches its extreme peaks in the southern region of Sudan: here out of a total of 8 million inhabitants. 4.5 million animists and 1.5 million Christians are forced to live submissive to sharia, the Islamic law that discriminates against anyone who is not Muslim (it was temporarily suspended behind international pressure in 1991). As we can see in cases like this, discrimination even has a legal basis.
For example, being a Christian becomes an obstacle for those who want to take advantage of any public service.It is evident that this type of social marginalization can be even more insidious than the armed struggle.
In this panorama the only exception in the living conditions of Christians was represented by Lebanon. In this country, in fact, the head of state, who according to the constitution must be a Christian, is in a position of balance of power with his Muslim peers in meetings between Arab heads of state. But in the drama that Lebanon is going through today, is it still true? And in the future will Christians be able to maintain their rights in this country? It is difficult today to give reassuring answers to these questions.
Yet Louis Massignon, the greatest Islamist of our times, was struck by the great Muslim mysticism, represented above all by Ibn Mansùr al-Hallaj, the soufi master who was crucified and then burned alive at the Porta dell’Arco in Baghdad in 922. “He exists a people – wrote Louis Massignon – that nobody really loves because nobody really knows, and that nobody really knows why nobody really loves, and this people is the Muslim people. I feel the duty to dedicate my whole life to make it known and loved by Christians ». He then asks that the Angelus to be recited when Muslims, five times a day, appeal to prayer. Louis Massignon had succeeded in making his friends aware of the mission of testimony of Eastern Christians in the land of Islam. This movement led many to discover the important role that could be played in interreligious dialogue by Christian Arabs. The faithful of the Churches of the Middle Eastern God could become an important bridge between the West and the East.
Giuseppe Samir Eid
Free web translation from the original in Italian
The published articles intend to provide the tools for a social inclusion of the migratory flow, shed light on human rights and the condition of life of Christians in the Islamic world from which the author come from. Knowledge of the other, of cultural and religious differences are primary ingredients to create peace in the hearts of men everywhere, a prerequisite for a peaceful coexistence and convinced citizenship in the territory.