A Rant in Exasperation

On 20 October Tyler Roylance took issue with a piece by Ross Douthat on the effects of ‘democracy’ and ‘popular sovereignty’ on Copts in Egypt in the wake of the Maspero events. Roylance’s rebuttal is worth reading as it tackles Mr. Douthat’s contradictions and errors very clearly. As readers may know, this blogger has taken issue with Mr. Douthat’s writing about Islam and Muslims and the Middle East before — especially his indulgence and promotion of Eurabian conspiracy theories. This blogger would like to write a diatribe against Mr. Douthat; and he intends to at some point in the near future, though this will likely prove a waste of time. This post is a rant on his column from last week, which demonstrates his inability to comprehend problems facing minorities in any nuanced or clear way, or his tendency to force-fit complex issues into a sectarian and partisan narrative built on a questionable understanding of the facts involved.

In his 15 October column Mr. Douthat writes Egypt’s Copts “may not survive the Arab Spring”, for

Apart from Hosni Mubarak and his intimates, no group has suffered more from Egypt’s revolution than the country’s eight million Copts. Last week two dozen people were killed in clashes between the Coptic Christians and the Egyptian Army, a grim milestone in a year in which the Coptic community has faced escalating terrorist and mob violence. A recent Vatican estimate suggests that 100,000 Copts may have fled the country since Mubarak’s fall. If Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood consolidates political power, that figure could grow exponentially.

Here the reader is set up for a dosage of an increasingly popular narrative one finds among many western writers and Arab and Middle Eastern Christians themselves: that the Arab uprisings have let loose passions and vipers which put Christians at the mercy of unsympathetic and sectarian parties and factions. And there should be no doubt: this is partly true. In an environment of increasing uncertainty and volatility minorities have every reason to feel uneasy. Mr. Douthat’s take on this, like so much of his writing on things Muslim and things Christian is inspired by his own view of a ‘Christendom’ under threat by sweaty and aggressively breeding ‘Islam’. It is a world in two divisions of Christian believers and unbelievers (these are mostly in the west, its universities for sure) and disbelievers (Muslims, in Africa and Asia and Europe) which are essentially beyond reconciliation. His take here takes a line also seen in a recent PBS summary on Arab and Middle Eastern Christians: that these peoples were subject to special treatment (‘protection’) under the old dictatorships; this as emerged especially in reference to Egypt and Syria where there is some support for this (especially as Syria is concerned) but on long examination one finds that this is not only a vast and dangerous distortion of the historical record but it is also extremely dangerous in misidentifying the real risks to Christians in the Arab countries.

Copts, like Egyptian Muslims, participated in the organized opposition throughout the Sadat-Mubarak period; they were especially involved in the January uprising. To view the Egyptian uprising as an event in which Copts are passive victims ignores their continuing participation in the uprising and the way in which the Sadat-Mubarak regime promoted religious intolerance for tactical reasons before the uprising and how the current military government, itself drawn from the same lot as the old regime, has done the same far more blatantly and aggressively since taking power. To view the ‘revolution’ or the uprising or even the Muslim Brotherhood as the cause of the pressures now coming down on the Copts ignores what has actually taken place in Egypt: an uprising and a coup which has yielded a junta which uses mob sentiments to stave off pressures from liberal and Islamist tendencies (one might put the Coptic demands in the former category or into yet another; or perhaps more usefully abandon such complicating categories altogether). It is true that Copts often fear the Muslim Brothers and other Islamist groups and that a certain sort of Copt saw the Mubarak regime — selectively secular as it was — as a sort of bulwark against fanaticism and direct persecution. It also true that the Mubarak regime practiced outright discrimination against Copts in government jobs, especially the military and security services where cynicism and prejudice often meant that Copts were the targets of scapegoating and even abuse. This was on display at Maspero where the Army and state media mobilized sectarian feelings against the Copts in what can only be called a deliberate and deadly way. It is also true that Egyptians (Muslim and Christian) outside the SCAF mobs have made rather aggressive efforts to condemn and stave off sectarianism, and that these Egyptians marched in the days after the Maspero events in solidarity with the Copts, though these efforts tend not to impress writers whose narratives such things disrupt.

Mr. Douthat thinks deeply on the impact of ‘people power’ on Middle Eastern minorities:

This is a familiar story in the Middle East, where any sort of popular sovereignty has tended to unleash the furies and drive minorities into exile. From Lebanon to North Africa, the Arab world’s Christian enclaves have been shrinking steadily since decolonization. More than half of Iraq’s 1.5 million Christians have fled the country since the American invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

The notion that ‘any sort of popular sovereignty’ has compelled the flight of Middle Eastern Christians is a nonsensical one which relates only scantily to any known reality. It is true, Christians have left the Arab region in large numbers since decolonization; they also left in large numbers in the pre-colonial and colonial eras. Christians have fled direct and deliberate sectarian or racial persecution (recall the Armenian and Assyrian genocides, the sectarian disturbances in late Ottoman Lebanon, the Simele massacres in Iraq, the too often forgotten expulsion of the Arabs (and others) from Iskanderun/Hatay in 1938 (as a little boy your blogger learned to read and swear in Arabic from a bitter Arab Orthodox Christian born in and forced out from Iskanderoun) and the 1948 exile of the Palestinians), for economic opportunity (remember the coastal famine in Syria/Lebanon under Ottoman rule; and that brain drain has often been heavier among Christians than Muslims because of differences in levels of education and entrepreneurship and its impact deeper in Christian communities because of their size) and war — perhaps the most significant push factor for Arab Christians since World War II whether in Lebanon or Iraq or Palestine (different Christians will describe these things differntly). Egyptian Christians were known to leave Mubarak’s Egypt as economic and sometimes political migrants. It is telling that Douthat boils both long term and more recent Christian migration to a religious or sectarian question as opposed to voluntary economic migration or upheaval brought on by ‘democracy’ and ‘popular sovereignty’; a great many Christian emigrants from the Arab countries are voluntary economic migrants or refugees fleeing armed conflicts, not revolutions or democratic elections (where in the Arab world has there been a democratic election which led to the erosion or destruction of Christians or other minorities?). And all these trends are more complex, layered, painful and nuanced than can be laid out here.

Mr. Douthat links this to how European borders were ‘rationalized’ after the world wars ‘replacing the old multi-ethnic empires with homogeneous nation-states, and eliminating — often all too literally — minority populations and polyglot regions.’ Mr. Douthat is making an old point as a partial counter point to Steven Pinker’s fashionable new book Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined which this blogger finds unsatisfactory on many levels unrelated to this particular subject (many anti-nationalists and historians have made this point at length before). Mr. Douthat argues that the transition to democracy is formerly authoritarian Arab states will likely come at the expense of Christians and other minorities. In Europe, the collapse of old empires produced nation-states often with brutal ethnic cleansing in the interim period. Political transitions, it is true are often bloody and sad affairs, even if excesses are later romanticized and rationalized by partisan historians and journalists. Minorities are often the first to suffer in times of panic, when leadership is thin-skinned, trepidatious, of questionable legitimacy and opportunistic, often inspired by (or capitalizing on) such tendencies in society at large or itself ginning up these tendencies in the mass of the people. Roylance:

But was the turmoil caused by the mere existence of minority populations, or by the aggressive, antidemocratic systems to which they fell victim? And again, one is hard pressed to harmonize this argument—that ethnic cleansing is a precondition for democracy and peace—with the initial, opposite idea that more democracy leads to more ethnic cleansing.

It is not wholly unreasonable to suspect that Egyptian and Syrian Christians will see their numbers decline in the months and years ahead though one might expect the Copts to stay longer and in larger numbers than Syrians might for reasons of socio-economics and demography (here Copts and Syrian Christians differ significantly). This is not inevitable in either direction. Yet one can easily call into doubt that what one has seen happening to Middle Eastern Christians in the last several decades is the result of democracy or ‘popular sovereignty’ (and as Roylance notes, none of Mr. Douthat’s examples of ‘third world’ boderlands where minorities have suffered as a result of what he calls ‘popular sovereignty’ and ‘rationalized’ borders, all of them being ‘distinguished by the presence of a nondemocratic government on at least one side.’)

But Mr. Douthat’s column would appear utterly uninterested in how this might be avoided. Like so many writers he seems to take such things as a given, as if in a mostly ethnically homogenous place like Egypt it is impossible or highly improbable that Copts and Muslims to find common ground. Mr. Douthat’s previous writing on Islam and on Islam and Christianity would suggest he might take the line that the presence of Islam in Egypt is the blockage toward harmony. Yet one should not put words in his mouth. Here Mr. Douthat is calling into doubt the optimism many observers had and have for the Arab uprisings (a fair thing to do when done right); it has become hip in conservative American circles to view the ‘Arab Spring’ as a catastrophe for American power and values in a stressful and overwrought manner, and the Maspero events have allowed Mr. Douthat (and other luminaries) and the Congressman Allen West to dress their parochial sectarian and partisan positions in concern for Coptic Christians (it was Mr. West who instructed Americans to ‘ask the Copts’ about whether the Arab Spring is a ‘good’ thing or not; evidently not seeing the severe danger in putting words into other peoples’ mouths). It is well known that such men have little interest in the fate of Arab or Egyptian Christians except as it might provide them partisan ammunition against the current administration or kudos with sectarian voters in America.

The realities of life for minorities is not of interest to Mr. Douthat, instead he relies on a macro-narrative which has them as passive and even inert at the hands of some predetermined routine (this is a trend: he writes quite a bit about Muslim minorities in Europe, for example, accepting intellectualized versions of their supposed intentions and inappropriateness without investigating their lived experience, giving no regard to the practical implications of conspiracies about religious minorities living within borders which are no longer quite ‘rationalized’). Something about this makes any hope of toleration pitiful and forlorn, giving up to a drab acceptance of mob mentalities and expressions of politicized bigotry. This detachment from reality is what makes it possible for Mr. Douthat to write that the violence inherent in Anders Breivik’s ideology of Eurabia and its ‘pedigree’ in so-called mainstream Eurabian panic theory  ‘doesn’t mean that conservatives need to surrender their convictions’ when it comes to the ‘realities’ of Europe’s supposed Muslim problem. These are things which can only be written by a man who has never seen his property set upon by haters or been humiliated in a time of moral panic or who could not be bothered to explore the experiences of those who have; the sort of aloofness which makes minority communities objects of theory (Arab Christians and European Muslims appear in Mr. Douthat’s columns rather like folkloric Melians or Canaanites each assigned some weird and essential moral quality) rather than collections of individuals who are both in possession of agency and the objects of the agency and tendencies of forces larger than themselves (this is the realm of the extremes where minorities are either solely responsible for the troubles they encounter and ought to shut up for blaming members of the majority or sad victims for whom excuses and defenses must be made or represented by enlightened ‘outsiders’). This is a pathetic fatalism which contributes little of value to anyone’s understanding of the challenges facing Middle Eastern minorities (of which there so many). One cannot finish Mr. Douthat’s column and conclude he has just read something about the history of political violence or the ‘Christian’ predicament in the Middle East (whatever that is). How circumspect and surreptitious is this thing arguing ever so slightly in favor of dictatorship in the Arab and Muslim countries — and making minorities the scapegoat on behalf of would-be persecutors.