Politics, religion and the Middle East

Harry Hagopian


In this essay, the author gives an overview of some entrenched problems infecting religion and politics in the contemporary Middle East. His chief concerns include the plight and status of historic Christian communities, the treatment of minorities, violence and oppression sanctioned by corrupt regimes and totalitarian religious ideologies, the incohence of strategies towards Israel-Palestine, and the damaging failure of many Western policies and prescriptions. But while being tough-minded about the complex and interrelated factors which entrench these problems, Politics, Religion and the Middle East is also hopeful. The seeds of change are also to be found amidst confusion and terror. Popular movements to challenge top-down political rule and concerted efforts by faith communities to educate their peoples to accept and respect the other, rather than kill or ostracise, are both vital, he says. Above all, the true diversity of the Middle East region needs to be acknowledged, celebrated and protected by law.

"Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest" - Enough Words,by M J Rumi (1207-1273).


Imagine for one fleeting moment that you and your family are attending mass in your local church when a suicide bomber blows himself or herself up in front of you and in the process kills and maims members of your family as well as friends and acquaintances. Or that you are sitting at home when an anonymous message is surreptitiously dropped into the mailbox accusing you and your family of being 'infidels' who should pack your bags and leave the country - your native country incidentally - or else face certain death.

How would you react to those two nightmarish situations or to other variations of those perils? How should the authorities of the country whose citizenship you enjoy also react in the face of such threats?

Alas, both those scenarios are not figments of an overactive imagination. They are sober realities - the former in Egypt and the latter in Iraq - that are occurring with frightening constancy in the Middle East today. The outcome is a pervasive fear amongst some Middle Eastern Christians about their own physical safety, or else an ulcerating unease over their sense of belonging to their own homelands or societies. Yet, simply by surfing the Internet, watching the news on television or listening to the radio, one can spot a rising tide of Christian-unfriendly militancy in regions as far apart as Pakistan and Iraq that is as much baffling as it is sinister. But why is this phenomenon rearing its ugly head these days; becoming, dare I say, a fashionable concern among many parties and leading to the disempowerment and emigration of vast numbers of indigenous Christians?

Seeds of destruction

Many of us also get asked why such phenomena occur much more in some Middle Eastern and North African countries than in others. Are they the product of war, conflict and chaos when the control of the state is weakened to the point where it compromises the rule of law? Or is it that some regimes manage to impose their rigorous laws much more successfully than others and co-opt Christians or other minorities as window-dressing in front of a supposedly enlightened and purportedly anxious West? Has it more to do with the political autism of the leaders in the region or even the mutating realignment of political forces? Is diversity a richness or a curse these days, and should it be nurtured and upheld or denigrated and even cleansed ethnically and politically?

There are no facile answers to those questions but rather numerous and often complex or even paradoxical reasons as to why such shrill incidents appear to have become more frequent. And whilst it is well nigh impossible to go beyond the tip of the iceberg here, I would suggest that such cases are at times reminiscent of a dhimmitude (a French neologism that denoted initially an attitude of concession, surrender and appeasement towards Islamic demands but that can also be summarised as the status of Jews and Christians as People of the Book under Islamic rule) that had dissipated from the region but that might now be whispering its timid return.

So let us try to identify a few of the culprits - contradictory culprits even - as they divert the course of any rational discourse that is steeped in the realities of the region and affect willy-nilly its peoples, politics and faiths. Eight interrelated factors suggest themselves:

[1] The abject absence of a real sense of Arab secular nationalism today that had long enriched Arab societies in the past and to which Arab Christians had contributed significantly. This nationalism was a lodestar as much as a catalyst for cohesion in past decades until it was abused by the political regimes and powers-to-be within the Arab World or outside it and extinguished - though not necessarily expunged - from daily political realities. But this deletion created another vacuum in the world of isms that has of late been replaced in part by the rigorous application of a Salafist-inspired and Wahabi-fed school of political Islam whose ethos is a submissiveness that is exclusive of the other and propagates the principles of fire and brimstone rather than those of inclusiveness or commonality. This is the uncompromising mindset of many movements today, ranging from Yemen to Iraq and from Somalia to Afghanistan.

[2] The brutal repression of fundamental freedoms as much as the oppression of dissent in many Middle Eastern countries - whether by power-hungry regimes, corrupt wheelers and dealers or big financial and corporate interests - that have inexorably emasculated the Arab masses and pushed them into a dark corner. In the past, those regimes had combated the creative ideas and freedom-seeking efforts of the intelligentsia within their societies by fomenting political Islamism as a diversionary and tactical counter-force to distract the masses and then snuff out those tendencies seeking freedom, democracy and ultimately good governance. But what happened is that those religious movements then turned against the very dictators, autocrats and despots who were their original supporters. So today, we are witnessing the confrontation and repression of ordinary peoples by secular politicians as much as by religious ones.

[3] A parallel regression toward a brand of religious radicalism that is not only exclusive and insular but one that also blames the other for all the ills of society. This is at times perceptible within Islamist political movements such as Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood that often use the double language of professing solidarity with those targeted Christians whilst also being susceptible to the anti-Christian aversion of their own populist bases that is grounded on ignorance and even prejudice.

[4] The skewed and hegemonic practices of some Western countries whose own political and economic interests have led them to deal with those Arab countries and their masses as their serfs or as expendable commodities whose rights and resources can be used and abused for the higher interest of the colonisers. Despite all the expostulations of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Chilcot inquiry last week, the invasion of Iraq is one appalling example of an ill-conceived policy that was not only illegal under international law, but that also created chaos and made the local Christians appear as a fifth column in their own countries simply because of their links with a universal - and mostly Western - Christian fellowship. In fact, the deep irony is that the West had previously often exploited those indigenous Christian communities and marginalised their importance. In all truth, it would even be useful to the foreign policy directions of some of our EU leaders and their allies if Arab Christians no longer stay in the region today so that the regional sectarian cleavages and confessional polarities that are at the very core of the conflicts in the Middle East become stark and consequently more manageable.

[5] The lack of cogency in much of the Western argument which predicates that supporting Israel as well as oppressive secular regimes in the Arab and North African regions protects the West from the rise of a militant political Islam. True, political Islam can be limiting of many universal freedoms, but surely it is the very lack of fundamental freedoms and social opportunities going hand-in-hand with any oppression that eventually become the surrogate wombs procreating radicalism and even suicide bombers.

[6] An inhospitable environment that alienates many Arab Christians from parts of the region and contributes at times toward blurring the sense of their identity - torn as they are between their deep sense of belonging, allegiance let alone love, to the country of their birth and their legitimate desire to seek security as well as freedom, prosperity, welfare and happiness abroad - unaware that those promises of greener pastures often prove illusory and are not readily available elsewhere either.

[7] The sorry waste of potential together with the mismanagement, corruption, contradictions or power-driven tugs-of-war within some churches, mosques or religious institutions that have failed to better defend their communities and have therefore diluted - rather than strengthened - the bonds between the religious leaders or institutions and their peoples or even amongst communities within diverse societies. After all, much as numbers matter, is it not the quality of witness in any faith that helps distinguish it from sheer ideology?

[8] The goal of movements such as al-Qa’eda in provoking a confrontation between the Arab world and the West. Such individuals, connected as they are through an idea or network rather than any Bin Laden-type central command, attack inter alia Arab Christians in order to stoke hatred and dissension, while also constantly radicalising their own base against all those Muslims and Christians who disagree with their neo-political beliefs or with their warped drive to control all others through terror, fear and subjugation. In contrast, I would argue, compulsion by any religion is antithetical to the ethos of true faith.

Seeds of change

Sadly enough, the Middle East today is struggling once more to re-mobilise a sense of nahda (renaissance) - whether intellectual, political or economic - across its ranks that can effectively challenge and inhabit such emptiness and listlessness. A recent book by Dr Elizabeth Kassab (1) is erudite testimony to the fact that an enormous simmering potential of hadatha (modernisation) and tanwir (enlightenment) can be found amongst many Arab intellectuals today but that it is being held back by those whose vested interests prefer oppression to democracy.

As such, instead of a revivalism in Arab thinking that would celebrate democracy, liberate society and then also - indirectly - incorporate, let alone empower, the Arab Christian communities, one lamentable outcome of such weighing factors is that many Middle Eastern and Arab-Muslim societies are now facing black holes that are being colonised by self-obsessed or self-important impostors who are seizing power, contributing toward a clash of religious or political ideologies and coercing the region into further intolerance and domination. Add the elements of poverty, unemployment and corruption to this lethal maelstrom and the Middle East becomes an angry tinderbox whose scapegoats also include those irenic but disposable Christian communities.

What is striking about the overthrow of the Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 and the ongoing struggle against his Constitutional Democratic Party (a party, incidentally, that was neither constitutional nor democratic) is not so much the fact that an “Arab Gdansk” or “Jasmine Revolution” has at long last taken root on the shores of an Arab-North African state. Rather, it is that this revolution is not commanded by political parties or central hubs but is a vibrant testimony to nascent Facebook and Twitter ‘leaderless’ generations who impelled Tunisians across all ages to go out and recover the dignity that they had been robbed of for over five decades. This is precisely why it might spread to other equally cobwebby states – as we are already seeing in Egypt and Yemen.

But contrary to Tunisia, where the vox populi has impelled dramatic and hopefully lasting changes, there is also the obverse case of the rigged elections of 2009 in Iran where repression held sway. Between Tunisia, Iran and the rest of the region, one can detect instances of religious totalitarianism no less nefarious than secular totalitarianism handcuffing progress, crushing dissent, muzzling the press and deriving their staying power from persecution.

Seeds of hope

Within those configurations, Middle East Christians remain an indispensable alloy in the fabric of Arab societies. Historically predating Islam, they have as much claim to the region as any other religion, ethnicity or belief. They are co-equal citizens with their Muslim compatriots - and with Jews in Israel and those in the occupied Palestinian lands - and it is high time that all the authorities in all those countries assume their responsibilities and celebrate such diversity by building them up rather than down as well as protecting those communities with the instruments of the law.

Is the scenario being painted here a doomsday one? Yes and no. Yes, because the region as a whole stands on shifting sands. But also no, because many of us remain convinced that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Arab men and women of all persuasions - Christians, Sunnis, Shi’is, Kurds, Druze, Baha’is and others - are inherently decent people who simply wish to earn their daily bread - securely and peacefully - and are eager to co-exist with their neighbours. They are not genetic pariahs. Rather, it is the regimes themselves that muzzle and polarise their peoples and often aid and abet religious groupings into unhealthy trade-offs. Did Lord Acton not express his opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 by writing that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?

In this mix, it is a shame that ordinary citizens region-wide have not yet managed to find their voices in order to rise against such unfaithful practices. It is even a bigger shame that a minority of patriarchal men are exerting every effort to muddy the waters and make the region unliveable for those who contest their agendas. And those violent men - be they from the Middle East or the West - are propelled by hatred, self-interest, ignorance and misogyny and are patently antithetical to moderation, conviviality and ultimately ijtihad and modernity.

This is why religious leaders in the Middle East should not shirk away from exerting every effort to educate their peoples to accept and respect the other, rather than kill him or ostracise her. They should have the raw courage - as did many ordinary Egyptian Muslims after the vicious attack on the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria on 31st December - to stand up in solidarity with fellow Christians. But parallel to such a process of local education, our own religious leaders here in the West who often glibly bask in the dubious exercises of inter-religious fora should also discern more astutely the tractions on the ground and stop pandering to those negative elements within society in the errant belief that everyone can become an inter-religious partner. Simply put, everyone cannot be a partner, and top-down dialogue or ecumenical and inter-faith handshakes are at times political ploys that do not deliver their intent. Is this what Jesus meant when he admonished his followers to turn the other cheek? No. His was an exercise in shaming the abuse of power, not legitimising it. (2)

Much needs to be done to unpack the realities of the Middle East in terms of the interconnected and powerful matrices of politics and religion. Like the black widow spider devouring its host, politics and religion often feed upon each other in a relationship of mutually rewarding narcissisms. But one sign of hope for the future abides in decoupling those matrices and ensuring that future policies - or in some cases the lack of coherent policies - does not lead toward the inevitable displacement (by commission through encouragement, or by omission through compliance) of wholesale communities as witnessed across the region today. Otherwise, the recent incidents in Egypt and Iraq, let alone the unreported myriad incidents occurring elsewhere with unnoticeable regularity, will continue to metastasise and stealthily creep into other relatively more peaceful countries in the region too.

Do we wish for such a heady blend of politics and religion in the Middle East that produces an incurably toxic hangover? Are we as a silent majority able and willing to stand up and be counted against the apocalyptic delusions and eschatological designs of the few? Or do we choose to run for cover? Our choices today could well determine not only our own futures but also the legacy we leave behind long after we have turned into dust … again.



(1) Elizabeth Kassab, Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective (Columbia University Press, 2010).

(2) Walter Wink, How 'turning the other cheek' defies oppression, Ekklesia (4 May 2009).


Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris, and he is a regular Ekklesia contributor. Formerly, he was Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches. He is a member of, and adviser to, the Armenian Orthodox Church, a Knight of the Order of St Gregory, a consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net


Articles and blogs on the Middle East and related topics by Harry Hagopian: http://www.ekklesia.co.ukHarryHagopian

‘How life can commemorate death: the Armenian Genocide’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/essay_ArmenianGenocide).


* John Heathershaw, Analysing the Arab 'democratic revolutions', 24 February 2011.
* Shatha Almutawa, Secular revolutions, religious landscapes, 24 February 2011.
* Nadim Shehadi, The Arab revolt: transformation to transition, 24 February 2011.
* Malika Zeghal, Al-Azhar and the narrative of resistance to oppression, 24 February 2011.
* Harry Hagopian, Struggling for the Arab Soul?, 22 February 2011.
* _____________, Politics, Religion and the Middle East, 31 January 2011.
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