As a board member of Aid to the Church in Need USA (ACNUSA), I attended a recent conference in Washington, D.C., “Under Caesar’s Sword,” dedicated to analyses of the persecution of Christians around the world. As the report upon which the conference was based puts it:
Christians around the world suffer persecution at the hands of both state and non-state actors. Among the state actors are Islamist, Communist, religious nationalist, and secular regimes, while non-state actors include violent religious extremists.
As you may well imagine, the speakers at the conference (including our TCT colleague George J. Marlin, Board Chairman of ACNUSA) had a lot to say, much of it thought provoking.
I was certainly provoked.
If we allow our minds to drift back to days before radical Islamist ideology began to take hold in the Middle East and Asia, we can rightly conjure a kind of amity among faiths in those areas of the world. Go back far enough, and you can even picture a time when anti-Semitism was not a matter of great significance. Jews, the earliest religious occupants of the Middle East (among the currently contending faiths), Christians, who came next and dominated for six centuries (until the rise of Muhammad), and, finally, Muslims coexisted in the same space.
To be sure, there was conflict, sometimes there was war, but if we think of the world as it was between the two World Wars, there were many places where Jews, Christians, Muslims and also Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Yazidis, and others could come and go, trading as they came and went, in relative peace.
It’s beyond my knowledge to say exactly when and why this changed, but it did. Probably the reasons can only be understood on a country-by-country, culture-by-culture basis.
At “Under Caesar’s Sword,” there was mostly consideration of the general question, What is to be done? about the devolution of such amity as once existed into unprecedented levels of persecution – unprecedented persecution of Christians, that is.
I’m sorry to say that in the Age of ISIS there weren’t very many good suggestions. One exception was Marlin’s advocacy of – in his phrase – a new Marshall Plan for the Middle East. But such a plan is predicated upon peace.
Peace was possible at the end of WWII, because the combatants were state actors, but this is only partly true now. In order to defeat ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and like-minded terrorist groups we may need to look back further to the methodologies by which the British defeated the Thuggee cult towards the end of the 19th century. But by nearly everybody’s assessment at “Under Caesar’s Sword,” peace may remain elusive for a very long time. Probably it will come only when their own countrymen and co-religionists defeat the persecutors.
It’s one thing, in the aftermath of 9/11, for many of us to have become inured to Islamist violence – an ancient grudge – but quite another to witness violence by Buddhist monks in Myanmar against Muslims or Hindus against Christians in India. Why does religious sectarianism seem to be flaring up everywhere?
The beginning of an answer may be coaxed out of a related global phenomenon: the rise of sectarian nationalism.
By “sectarian nationalism” I mean a nationalism that, at its worst, is restrictive in much the way Nazism once restricted German nationalism. It’s a nationalism that rejects what we Americans have always seen as an essential part of our nationalism and national identity: the so-called melting pot.
Islamists and other groups, private and public, seek a kind of cultural purity, which leads to the scapegoating of any person or group deemed to be polluting the traditional culture.
Again, at its worst, this is what’s behind the goal of a global Caliphate that drives ISIS. But there’s also a sense in which sectarian nationalism may not only not be evil but may be good. Three possible examples (“possible” in that history is ongoing, and we don’t yet know all the ramifications): the rejection of the centralizing influence of the EU represented by Brexit; the rejection of the centralizing and distant indifference of Washington, D.C. in America’s most recent presidential election; and the success of nationalist candidates in the French presidential election.
In this last case, the outcome won’t be clear until the runoff, but even if right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen loses to the center-left Emmanuel Macron on May 7, nationalism and, to a lesser extent, traditional Catholicism, are on the rise in France. At its best, what is this but a version of subsidiarity?
People everywhere appear to be rejecting what they perceive – rightly or wrongly – as elites out to impose upon the people ideas not in conformity with traditional beliefs. The elites are confident they know what’s best; growing numbers of people are certain the elites are wrong.
Of course, it’s one thing for the Brits to want back the pound and the French the franc, and quite another for Muslims and Hindus to want to expel or murder Christians or Buddhists to eradicate Muslims in the nations where those faiths are dominant. And there are doubtless many in Britain and France (and the U.S.) who would prefer fewer Muslim immigrants and, perhaps, would even advocate expulsion of Muslims already resident. It’s a mess.
What is to be done? There are diplomatic and military options, of course, although rife with potential for unintended consequences. Prayer would help.
Mostly, I think, we need diplomatic tough love. Want to stop Pakistan’s persecution of Christians and scuttle its blasphemy laws? Cut off the billions in U.S. military aid. Do that and Asia Bibi will be freed in a heartbeat.
Update on Asia Bibi here.