Wassim Al-AdelBlogger and commentator
Hence it comes about that all armed Prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed Prophets have been destroyed.” – Niccolo Machiavelli
It is perhaps unfortunate that Death, that greatest of mysteries, keeps her lips tightly sealed regarding her secret. Man, in his infinite arrogance, seeks to escape the terror of the unknown that lies behind that one veil that remains impenetrable. He does so by building glorious monuments to his legacy, by writing his mighty sciences and great achievements down, by passing on his seed so that his name may live on, and by achieving the greatest of heroics that he may be remembered valiantly. Yet amidst all this greatness, with palms faced upwards in futility, an exhausted Achilles or Hector breathes a heavy sigh of despair, for each step away from death leads only back to it.
Mecca itself was once sacked, by Muslims no less; Constantinople too, by the very crusaders that had been sent to return Jerusalem to Christendom. There is nothing sacred that we all, each and every one of us, do not have the capacity to pollute. Nor is there a horror that we are all not capable of visiting upon one another. The savagery of the recent attack on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad is no exception. For if we are to point the finger at the crazed men who went and perpetrated this tragedy, are we really any better than them? The answer, for those honest enough to look at history, is no. These men, for they are only men, were not monsters, but a product of our world and the mad passions it produces. It is for this reason, and for the infuriating silence from the hereafter, that Machiavelli judges Prophets not on their promises of eternal salvation, but on the strength of their arms and the paradise that such strength brings with it.
Islam brought its own peculiar version of paradise as it swept across the collapsing world of the 7th century. Within one hundred years of this conquest any respectable Arab merchant could, relatively safely, travel and trade across the known world, from Andalucia to India, and on to the great markets of China, without so much as a travel document. But it was not only Arabs but Jews, Venetians, Greeks, Persians and countless other races of man who took advantage of this extensive trade network. Muslim society then, as it is today, was never homogenous or united singularly, but it was forged by men of titanic energies who, at various times of crisis, were able to reinvent and reshape Islamic society. In the periods when history had not yet called them forth for their parts, minorities suffered. In other words, the status of minorities in Islamic societies has, as it has ever been in all human societies, been dependent on the rising and falling fortunes of destiny and the struggle between nations. It is easy for one to be a virtuous man when life is good and her bounties plentiful, quite another when fortune has turned her face from him in even the simplest of things.
Today, we are being asked to consider whether there is something inherently within Islam or Islamic societies that makes the toleration of minorities and difference impossible. This is a fallacy and one which this author believes is politically inspired. There is far too much excellent research that can demonstrate this fact, although one need only point to Syria, where Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, is still in use as a living language. Were Islam somehow incapable of tolerating minorities, why should such a community have continued to exist till the present day?
In fact, the reality is that it is not Muslim-majority states that have been the greatest threats to the minorities that exist within them, but Western European and North American political and military interventions. The sectarian strife that afflicts Lebanon today is a direct result of a conscious effort by French mandate forces to create a Christian dominated future ally in the region. Iraq itself never had al Qaeda prior to the American invasion and occupation, and in fact al Qaeda itself would never have existed were it not for covert American funding in Afghanistan against the Russians. Furthermore, the strife of that war gave birth to the Taliban, who are today poised to wrest control of Afghanistan yet again. Also, the Ahmadi’s in Pakistan were actively encouraged and nurtured by the British, and today they and the Bahai’i community remain a pet favourite of the West, especially as a stick to beat Iran with. The centre of the Bahai’i faith was formed in what is today occupied by the state of Israel, its continued existence there allegedly incidental to that fact. The Israeli state itself, a product of European Jewish nationalism, was a catastrophe for ancient Jewish communities from Morocco to Baghdad; however, aaliyah to the newly formed Jewish state was actively encouraged regardless of the destruction of those communities. Again, Western European diplomatic manoeuvring offered the backdrop for this historical travesty.
All this, yet somehow, articles are expected by editors in journals and online media throughout the world to appear where they discuss the inherent inability and backwardness of Islam and Muslims at tolerating people of other faiths or backgrounds. Like the Hydra of ancient Greek myth, new categories of minorities, based on sexuality or gender, can be constantly created and therefore new benchmarks, which Muslim societies also fail to achieve, are set. Yet where minorities are subject to harsh treatment or scrutiny, there can always be found, although certainly not an excuse, a source of danger and apprehension that causes the state to react in a paranoid manner. So we find that in Islamic-majority societies allied to the West, such as Bahrain, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia there is the blatant discrimination and marginalisation of Shia Muslims, although this receives far less news than the whiff of an al Qaeda cell that might be a threat to the West. Even where no trouble to a minority exists, such as with the case of Egyptian Copts who think they are oppressed, we find that this is only a concern to Western media in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet in the case of countries like Iran, Iraq or Lebanon, the slightest scent of controversy is enough to send Western media into a frenzy of activity; films are made, documentaries are aired and pop-stars wear rubber bracelets or wave green flags in solidarity. The question has never been about how minorities can be protected, but about the political capital to be gained from their oppression, this is a fact that many naïve Muslim or Arab political commentators have been far too unimaginative to grasp. To concede a foreign enemies’ criticisms concerning minorities is a defeat; to ignore it, a political bombshell that could snowball. In other words, the entire discourse surrounding minorities and their treatment is heavily politicised. Whether or not minorities should be a strategic resource to be harnessed or a fifth-column to be feared, is ultimately a matter for political theory, but, we must conclude by pointing out that it is not Islam as a faith which inherently promotes or reduces the tolerance of minorities. Like the common cold, the intolerance of minorities on the scale we have just seen in Iraq is a symptom of weakened and debilitated Muslim societies. The politicised discourse surrounding minorities in Islamic-majority countries wishes that the symptoms and not the cause of the illness are treated. They wish, whether intentionally or not, to place the donkey behind the cart, thus perpetuating tragedies such as we saw at the church of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad.