WASHINGTON – A Middle East scholar from Lebanon spoke Thursday about the decline of non-Muslim minorities in the Arab Middle East and the significance of preserving religious minorities in the region.
Habib Malik, professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, began his talk by explaining the importance of religion in the Middle East.
“A fact about the Middle East that is inconvenient, if not embarrassing to the western secular mind is the ultimate identity in the Middle East is religious and remains so to this day,” said Malik during a discussion at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “This is true of all the various groups there. Aside from Sunni Muslims, every other religious group is a minority in the Middle East and the Islamic world as a whole.”
Malik informed attendants at the discussion on “New Religious Culture in the Arab Middle East” that Christians are the largest native non-Muslim religious group in the region with a population of about 10-15 million. However, Christians and other communities in the Arab Middle East are rapidly declining in number and influence due to a variety of reasons including lower birth rates among Christians compared to Muslims, persecution, poor socioeconomic prospect, and political instability.
The professor, whose father Charles Malik was instrumental in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, focused on three “compelling and practical” points on why the decline of these communities negatively affects U.S. political interest in the Middle East. His three reasons are moderation, mediation, and mutuality/reciprocity.
Malik pointed out that a “secure, free, and reasonably prosperous” Christian community tends to “encourage” Islamic moderation. Malik gave as an example the belief system of Christianity which does not condone suicide bombings, generally respects woman’s right, does not seek religious domination or subjugation, and adheres to religious pluralism among other qualities. The characteristics of Christianity, according to Malik, would facilitate Islamic moderation over time as the two groups co-exist in the region.
“There is a new breed of Muslims that emerges after this interaction with a generally relax, secure, and stable non-Muslim, indigenous community,” said Malik.
Next, the professor explained that Christians have been at the forefront of mediating western ideas to the region or ideas from the east to the west serving as a “cultural ferment.” In this way, religious minorities and Christianity in particular serve the important role of exchanging ideas and bringing western ideas to an otherwise closed country.
Lastly, religious minorities are necessary in order for mutuality/reciprocity to take place. The United States, given its tolerance of Muslim communities, need religious minority communities to exist in order to ask for reciprocity or equal treatment of these minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.
“Why is it that in predominantly Muslim context, non-Muslim communities seem to be dwindling – specifically Christian and Jewish community – whereas in predominantly non-Muslim context – Christians or secular in the West – Muslims seem to be thriving? This obviously poses a question – reciprocity.”
R. James Woolsey, chairman of the advisory board of the Center for Religious Freedom and former U.S. director of Central Intelligence provided comments on U.S. policy and the Middle East following Malik’s presentation. Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom, was the conference moderator.