Canaries in the Coal Mine: What the “End of Christianity in Iraq” Tells Us About the State of Governance in the Arab World

Assyrians and Armenians attend the celebration of Corpus Christi in Baghdad, 1920. Via wikimedia.

By Allison Beth Hodgkins

Assyrians and Armenians attend the celebration of Corpus Christi in Baghdad, 1920. Via wikimedia.
Assyrians and Armenians attend the celebration of Corpus Christi in Baghdad, 1920. Via wikimedia.

Last month there was a depressing article in the Washington Post entitled “Christianity in Iraq is finished.” In that piece, the author rightly pointed out that the persecution of Iraq’s Christians started well before the advent of the Islamic State. It was the US invasion in 2003 that unleashed the demons of sectarianism on the vulnerable non-Moslem minorities, including the ancient Assyrian and Chaldean Christians. It is now too late to carve out a place for these communities in their ancestral lands. The good intentions of the West should instead be focused on saving the Christians themselves.

He has a point.

By all metrics, the Christians have been hit particularly hard by the Iraqi civil war. As many as 14% of the 4 million Iraqi refugees displaced between 2003 and 2008  are believed to have been Christians; possibly half the community. The stories he cites of murder, kidnapping and extortion are well known. However, the not so subtle subtext of this article, that the current plight of the Christians is an affirmation of the futility of religious coexistence in Muslim-majority countries, is not just off base; it misses the point.

The Christians are fleeing because things in Iraq are lousy, have been lousy for a while and by all indicators are going to get lousier. While ISIS and their earlier incarnations have certainly victimized the Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and Assyrians for extermination, they certainly aren’t the only ones being targeted or running in fear. Our desire to see the Christians as our compatriots in the struggle against extremism should not blind us to the fact that ISIS’s ascension and the Christian exodus are both dependent variables in this grisly equation.

The plight of Iraq’s Christians is because governance in Iraq has collapsed. And when governance collapses, as it has in most of Syria, Libya, and Yemen — or is fractured as it is in Lebanon, or strained, as it is in the rest of the Arab world — people revert to whatever pre-existing societal structures exist and fall in behind entrepreneurial elites who construct a stark choice between fighting for kin, clan, or creed and dying.

While inciting violence against the Christians may be a convenient way for Baghdadi and his ilk to to propel their rise, there is nothing in this strategy of manipulating fear for power that is unique to Islamist movements. Hutus incited against the Tutsis in Rwanda, Serbs incited against Muslims in Bosnia. Why is everyone so surprised its happening in Iraq and Syria?

In truth, the place of Christians in the Arab world is more about shrewd coalition building than religion. In much of the Arab world, Christians have traditionally been around 8-10% of the population (Lebanon being the exception). 8-10% is hardly a number with which to mount a direct challenge to any ruling regime. But its a good number to have on your side, particularly as you are struggling to consolidate control.

When the Ba’ath party asserted its dominance over Iraq the principle challenge was seen as subsuming the different national identities into the Arab identity. Thus, Christians were welcome in the Ba’ath party as fellow Arab nationalists, just not as Assyrians or communists. Remember Tarik Aziz?

By the same token, when the Iraqi Ba’ath party collapsed in 2003, many Iraqi Christians saw Syria as their preferred destination. The rival Ba’athist regime in Syria had also courted Christians in their coalition building strategy. However, there it was a coalition of minorities and urban elites against reactionary forces in the rural hinterlands.

Similarly, Jordan’s reputation as a bastion of tolerance is rooted in coalition bargains made in the 1930s. Alliances between the Hashemites and the Christian tribes around Kerak and Madaba were instrumental in the ability of the first King Abduallah to consolidate control over his newly formed Kingdom. It is not by accident that Jordan has had three Christian foreign ministers, one Christian prime minister, at least one Christian in almost every cabinet and a nine-seat quota in parliament.

It is also important to remember that while the Christians are being presented as our natural allies in the struggle against Islamist extremism, they have long played a formative role in many of the revolutionary and liberation movements that challenged British, French and American interests in the region. The Arab Awakening, considered the charter of Arab nationalism was penned by George Antonius; a Lebanese, Egyptian Christian who lived in Jerusalem and focused his ire on British perfidy after the first world war. Antonious’ writings were, in turn, given political shape by another Christian; Michel Aflaq, a Syrian, Greek Orthodox, and founder of the Ba’ath party.

Christians were also instrumental in the adaptation of Marxism to meet the needs of the local struggles during the late 60s and 70s. There is certain irony in Arab Christians being described as long “serving as a bulwark against fanaticism” in the region given the strong association between names like George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, and the Popular Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine, with the dawning of the age of transnational terrorism.

In truth, I find these episodic discoveries of the plight of Arab Christians in majority Muslim states amusing because they speak, not only to the profound misconceptions about the existence and role of these communities, but an utter misunderstanding of the crux of the problem in this part of the world. Yes, Christians are fleeing in droves. They are fleeing, however, because the ideologies they helped shape have utterly failed to protect the lands in which they live or support the nations they sought to build. ISIS, as this piece by Heshem Melhem so accurately but tragically points out, has risen from the “rotting hulk” of these failed experiments. Its not just the Christians who are threatened by the collapse of governance from Libya to Lebanon: its everyone.

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