Loss of Mideast Christians Adversely Affects Islamic Moderation, Says Expert

WASHINGTON – A Middle East Scholar living and teaching in Lebanon made an appearance at a senate office Tuesday to inform religious freedom experts, human rights advocates, and people interested in the Middle East situation about the accelerating population decline of Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims and the adverse affect of the lost on Islamic moderation.

Dr. Habib Malik, professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, shared his expertise about the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East during a briefing hosted by Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom and the Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom.

Using terms such as “local punching bag” and “vulnerable,” the son of the internationally known Lebanese diplomat who was instrumental in the drafting of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights described the precarious condition of Christians in the Middle East.

“The point is that Christians are vulnerable to these types of outbursts across the board in the Middle East,” said Malik after he listed recent examples of when Christians are blamed and attacked by militant Muslims including the Muhammad cartoon uproar earlier this year.

“There is a feeling, all over, that Christians are vulnerable and essentially sitting ducks for reprisals against all sorts of things, even if they happen thousands of miles away and they have nothing to do with them. So they are a convenient and easy pretext for attack.”

Malik, a Christian himself, spoke about the Sudanese government which has for years been attempting to impose Sharia (Islamic) laws on Christians and animists in the south and contrasted the general Islamic attitude in the Middle East with the more religiously accepting attitude of Christians in the region.

“What the Christians bring in is the dimension of universality – openness towards other cultural experience,” said the scholar. “Also, living alongside relatively free and relatively secure Christians over time has an osmotic effect and the net result is that you have the emergence of enlightened Muslims who are much more accepting of the different others.

“That is what I meant when I said that the loss of the Christian community will actually adversely affect Islamic moderation and it will also affect the status of women.”

The Harvard graduate recommended federalism as a feasible government structure for the region. Malik used terms such as “power sharing” and “balance” to describe the system.

“The interesting thing about federalism is that it is a very elastic, flexible, and creative formula. It does not necessarily have to be territorial – you don’t need to segregate people,” explained Malik. “It can be constitutional and you can almost tailor the federal concept to fit the peculiar given of any situation – it just needs a little bit of creativity.

“[However], in the Middle East [federalism] has a negative meaning…from my experience ‘federalism’ is a code word for separatism, breaking away from a state,” responded the scholar when questioned why he mentioned the term has a “negative ring” in the region. “[I want to] emphasize [that] no real federalism is a recipe for fragmentation and separatism [but] it is a formula for co-existence in a way where people’s rights both as individual and groups are respected and upheld as much as possible.”

Furthermore, Malik explained his views on what democracy in the Middle East should look like, emphasizing minority rights over majority rule.

“I think if democracy is to hold in a place like the Middle East it is very important how it is packaged, how it is presented,” he said. “I think if we simply think and say on one level democracy is majority rule [then] on the other side of the coin democracy is minority rights.

“I think it is the minority right side that needs to be very much emphasized for a region like the Middle East rather than majority rule. Because if you talk a lot about majority rule you are almost giving the gratuitous green light for what [Alexis de] Tocqueville calls the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Because the terrain is prepared in that direction so what needs to be done as a corrective, if you will, is to emphasize minority rights.”

Malik, who is currently writing a book for Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, concluded on a philosophical note.

“Free existence must always precede any concept of positive growth. In other words, before I can perform a certain role or act in a certain way I have to exist freely. That is the condition – free existence is the condition for positive action in history.”