Monday, July 30, 2012

Bat Ye'or: The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam

“Renowned Western scholars of Islam such as Sir Hamilton Gibb, William Montgomery Watt, Jacques Augustin Berque, Maxime Rodinson, Marshall Hodgson, Rev. Kenneth Cragg, and the Georgetown duo John L. Esposito and John O. Voll – to name just a few – have all either peddled the myth of dhimmitude as tolerance, or downplayed its destructive effects on its victims.  Refreshing deconstructions of such appeasement views have come recently from Bat Ye’or, Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer, George Weigel, and Ibn Warraq.”

-          Habib Malik, Associate Professor of History, American Lebanese University, Islamism and the Future of Christianity in the Middle East, p. 61

On my third day in Egypt, I asked my professor if Christians in Egypt could be considered “persecuted.” He thought about it, and said, “Not overtly.  A rough analogy of Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt would be to white-black relations in America.”

Oh, I thought.  That’s not so bad.

In the intervening four years, my views on both the Middle East and on race relations in America have shifted considerably.  In short, I think my professor is right – and that is pretty bad.

Needless to say, things in the Middle East have shifted considerably as well in the past four years, and not to the advantage of the region’s minorities.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a book on Middle Eastern history by Albert Hourani that I was reading, which posed the question of why Christians living under Muslim rule declined from 90% of the population to around 10%.  His answer contained this phrase:  “Even in the best circumstances the position of a minority is uneasy.” If you’re keeping track at home, that makes no sense.

The actual answer to this question is the subject of some debate.

A recent New York Times Review of Books piece about an exhibition of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York sums up the position of one side of this debate quite nicely:

"This exhibition—along with the groundbreaking scholarship that has gone into its catalog—has banished the melodramatic tone with which the rise of Islam has usually been presented in standard accounts of the period. We can now say with confidence that the Arab armies did not leave a trail of desolation across the Middle East. Local populations did not sink into poverty. Far from retreating into the status of timorous minorities, vigorous Christian and Jewish communities continued to maintain their own traditions largely unmolested. ...Muslims talked their way into the Middle East quite as much as they fought their way across it."

(The same piece contains this remarkable passage: "In [one] room...we notice the discreet censoring of the representation of a living creature on the floor of a Christian church, out of respect for Muslim attitudes toward art." Censoring art in a church out of respect for Muslim attitudes.  Sounds like a peaceful relationship between equals!)

Bat Ye'or represents the other side of this debate.

I recently finished Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam.  Bat Ye'or is an Egyptian Jew who was forced to flee Egypt in 1957 during the anti-Jewish pogroms following the 1956 Egypt-Israel war.  She has no academic degree and has never taught in a university.

Ye'or's books carry fawning blurbs from Sir Martin Gilbert, Daniel Pipes, and Niall Ferguson, all well-recognized scholars of the Middle East.  Bernard Lewis uses her research as a resource for his own writings.

Robert Benton Bretts accuses her of "selective scholarship," Johann Hari of The Independent calls her a "conspiracy theorist," Craig Smith of the New York Times calls her one "of the most extreme voices on the new Jewish right," and Israeli peace activist Adam Keller calls her "racist and inflammatory."

All of these quotes came from her page on a website called "Loonwatch."

So her work is somewhat contentious, and I approached it with a great deal of trepidation.

(continued after the break)

Saturday, July 28, 2012


If you're concerned about the social justice positions of the fast food establishments you frequent (and, really, who isn't?), here is the single most important thing you need to know about Chick-fil-A.

They are closed on Sundays.

The tradition of the Sabbath is sacred in all three Abrahamic religions, and possibly some eastern ones I'm not aware of.  It mostly held its own in western society until the industrial revolution came along and rode roughshod over every non-capital institution.  It took decades for the organized labor movement to recover the right to a weekend - a right that had its beginnings as a gift from God to his people three thousand years before.

Unfortunately, most restaurants, retailers and service industries in the U.S. do not respect the Sabbath.  They are required by law to observe the 40-hour workweek, but the profit motive leads them to stay open all weekend, and we, as consumers, are only too happy to reward them for it.  As a result, people trying to find jobs at these businesses often have no choice but to accept working on Sundays.  I had to turn down a job at Target as a teenager because I couldn't sign on to working three Sundays a month.  If I hadn't had supportive parents, and if the economy hadn't been flush with part-time jobs, I might not have had the luxury of saying no.

By remaining closed on the Sabbath, Chick-fil-A must surely forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars in potential sales - all so that their employees can rest from being employees, and their customers can rest from being consumers.  No union had to fight to force them to do that.  No government regulation asks them to.  They do it solely because they believe that life is a sacred undertaking, and that they have responsibility to respect its sanctity.

If the rest of the country's fast food enterprises, big box stores and grocery chains did the same, we would all have a lot more space in our lives for rest, fellowship and worship.  Only Chick-fil-A is willing to go there.  And for that, we should all be grateful.

On the other hand, their CEO's beliefs about same-sex marriage are identical to what our president's views were two months ago.  So there's that.

August 1, 2012 - everyone eat at Chick-fil-A!  For justice!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Opening Pandora's Box in Damascus

A few weeks ago, I blogged that the international media was searching in vain for turning points in the Syrian revolution.

Last week, we may have finally seen one, when an apparent suicide attack killed Bashar al-Assad's defense minister, his brother-in-law, his deputy vice president, his interior minister, and his national security chief.

For purposes of comparison, imagine what would happen to the Obama administration if, in one day, Leon Panetta, Janet Napolitano, Joe Biden, Eric Holder and David Petraeus were all murdered.

This mass assassination followed four straight days of rebel attacks in Damascus, previously a stronghold of the regime. I think it's safe to say Syria is no longer a police state.

Following the attack, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, who defected to the opposition the week before, had this to say:


 "Today is a day of happiness in every Syrian person's home. Today every mother grieving for her child, every child who has lost his father, every father who has lost his child, breathes a sigh of relief."

On Friday, my roommate Matt and I were discussing the massacre at Century 16 theater over beers and fish and chips. We talked about how he surrendered to police without resistance, then reportedly bragged to them that, "I'm the Joker." And suddenly, I was overcome with a bloodlust that surprised me. "If you were one of the police officers who arrested that guy," I asked poor, unsuspecting Matt, "how would you restrain yourself? How would you keep yourself from breaking his nose? Kicking his teeth in?" Just imagining it made me feel better.

Matt looked at me warily. "I feel more sad than angry," he ventured cautiously. Praise the Lord for that.

So yeah, I'm a huge hypocrite. I understand rejoicing when the wicked are cut down. I understand wanting revenge.

But this mass murder of senior government officials in Syria does not give me a sense of relief. Not at all.

Because if your goal is to replace a lawless tyranny with a just, pluralistic society, then sending young men to explode themselves to kill political leaders is about the worst idea possible. Having realized their most important goals through terror and murder, are Syria's fractured opposition groups going to suddenly start respecting political process once Assad walks?

All the trend lines in the Syrian Civil War are going the wrong way.

Christians have been ethnically cleansed from Homs, Qusayr, and other cities.

Alawite Muslims are being targeted for kidnapping, torture and death.

Palestinians who refuse to support the revolution are experiencing a similar fate.

Assad may go soon. But whether he does or not, there is no peace at the end of this, and no justice.

Please keep the people of Syria in your prayers. سوريا الله حاميها.

On my most recent trip to South Sudan, I took this video.

I am very blessed to have the job that I do.