Tag Archives: Fares al-Khoury

Non-Muslim Significance? The Danger of Oversimplification

It is true that Muslims are today a demographic majority in every country of the Middle East except Israel.  (Even there, however, Muslims would be nearly a majority, if Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories had the same citizenship rights as the Israeli settlers.)  But such a blanket statement obscures more than it reveals.  There is a vast difference between Iran, which is almost 100% Muslim, and Lebanon, where Muslims are less than two thirds of the population and the government is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians (with the requirement that the president be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, among various other requirements).  Granted, the population of Iran is many times that of Lebanon, but the point is that the other countries in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, all very populous) are between these two extremes.

Nor are all Muslims alike.  Differences between Sunni Muslims and Shiʿites are only the tip of the iceberg: at least four “legal schools” of Sunnis and several branches of Shiʿa Islam all have different requirements and regulations.  Fellow feeling between Sunnis and Shiʿites is a very recent development, and has not overcome sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq nor the regional rivalry between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shiʿite) Iran.  These differences are independent of the gradations between secularist and devout Muslims or between modernist and Salafi Islam.  Intra-Muslim diversity means that Muslims may feel more fellow feeling with certain non-Muslims than with other Muslims, and the demographic strength of Islam is more attenuated.  This also leads to greater differences between countries: Egypt has more Coptic Christians than Shiʿites, while Iraq is about two-thirds Shiʿites and one third Sunnis.

When the historical perspective is taken, the present overwhelming demographic dominance of Islam is seen as a relatively recent development in some parts of the Middle East.  The Middle East has been mostly ruled by Muslims since the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire continued to rule most of what is today Turkey until the eleventh century, the Crusaders ruled parts of eastern Turkey, western Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel for a couple centuries, and most broadly but most briefly the non-Muslim Mongols under Hulegu and his successors conquered all of Iran, Iraq, most of Turkey, and (repeatedly but ephemerally) Syria. The religion of the rulers is frequently taken as characteristic of the religion of the land, and so the Middle East is often called the “land of Islam,” in Arabic dar al-Islam, or the “central Islamic lands.”  That this term doesn’t simply mean that Islam came from the Middle East is shown by the fact that the Middle East is never called, by parallel, the “land of Judaism” or the “land of Christianity,” though both also came from that region.  In French, the confusion between religion of the ruler and religion of the land is even starker: areas under Islamic ruler are simply labeled l’Islam.

But the religion of Muslim rulers should not be taken as determinative for the population as a whole.  Muslim rulers frequently employed non-Muslims to carry out bureaucratic work, at least into the fifteenth century in much of the Middle East, and later in Ottoman Constantinople.  With rising European interest in the Middle East, local Christians and Jews were often the translators and intermediaries between the newly arrived foreigners and the local Muslim rulers and populace.  Middle Eastern non-Muslims did not only attain prominence through European intervention, however: Faris al-Khoury was already in government before the French claimed Syria in 1920, and went on to become Prime Minister of Syria twice, though a (Greek Orthodox turned Presbyterian) Christian.  Tariq ʿAziz was the deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Chaldean Catholic (a group of native Iraqi Christians who, beginning in the 16th C, started entering communion with the Roman papacy).  George Sabra, an active voice in the Syrian Civil War, has been president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition (the opposition group favored by the USA and Western Europe).  The history of the Middle East, even in the last century, cannot be told accurately without naming certain key non-Muslims.

Although these individuals are exceptional, they are not unique.  They are rare because they are at the highest echelons of government, where they were not selected because of but despite their non-Muslim religious affiliation.  Many more non-Muslims have been employed by Middle Eastern governments, both pre-modern and modern, at lower ranks.  And the broader population of non-Muslims, not employed by government, was a significant portion of many Middle Eastern countries into the twentieth century.  Before 1915 in eastern Anatolia and 1923 in western Anatolia, Christians were almost a fifth of the population (mostly Armenians and Syriac Christians in the east, Greeks in the west) in what would become the Republic of Turkey.  Such a proportion means that, depending on levels of integration, every Muslim would know not merely one but several Christians, and may need to do business with them.  Christianity in Iraq has dipped from 10% around the middle of the 20th C to less than 2% today.  We do not know when Muslims became even a bare majority of the population in Egypt or Syria, but it was certainly not before 1250.  That may seem like ancient history to many modern readers, but that means Islam spent at least six centuries as a ruling minority religion, almost half of the history of the “Islamic” Middle East to date, and both countries still have Christian minorities around 10% of the population, absent from parts of the countryside but certainly visible in all cities.

Today a higher proportion of Middle Easterners are Muslim than at any point in the past, but the proportion has changed significantly even within the last century.  Nevertheless, Christians have continued to play a prominent, if subordinate, role in government.  And the divisions between different Christian and Muslim groups reduce the sense, within the Middle East, that “basically everyone agrees with me.”  People from the Middle East know there is religious diversity.  For westerners to regard the Middle East as “Islam + Israel” is negligently over-simplistic.

Advertisements

Who is George Sabra? (part 2)

The second installment of the Qatari al-Watan‘s series on George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition, was published on November 14, 2012 (Arabic here).  I thought it would be useful, even seven months later, to make this available to an English-speaking audience, in order to hear George Sabra in his own words.  Here is my translation:

Tales of George Sabra (2)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra finishes the story of his escape from Syria across the border with Jordan, saying, “The crossing of the raised earthen embankment at the border, which represents the final stage of the journey of escape, was the divider between life and death.  It is possible that someone will die by a sniper’s bullet while he is crossing the embankment where he is exposed, and it is possible that he will pass it to the other side, so that life is ordained for him and he comes out into freedom.  And this is what tens of thousands of Syrians have done, among them women, children, the elderly, and whole families.  I clutched the end of my son’s clothes and hurried behind him, and I was counting my breaths.  And I felt that we were running with super-human energy to escape from death, and our leap to the other side of the earthen embankment was a new life for us.  I felt my body and my son’s body and said to him, ‘Are we still alive?’  Yes, we were still alive.

“This was the first time I left Syria since 1979, and I am sorry that I left it in this manner, fleeing from the hell of the regime, when I had been arrested twice since the outbreak of the revolution.  The first was after I participated in the first demonstration which broke out in Qatana, on April 10, 2011, and I was arrested right after it with dozens of the people of Qatana.  Fourteen other Christians were arrested with me who had participated in the demonstrations.

“I wish here to allude to the historical bond between Muslims and Christians in Syria.  So for us Christians, our culture is the Arabic Islamic one.  John of Damascus was the keeper of the treasury in the time of ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan and al-Walid bin ‘Abd al-Malik, and he was a Christian.  Similarly, the poet al-Akhtal al-Taghlibi was a Christian, and he was one of the companions of ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan also, and dozens of others.  And in the modern period Fares al-Khoury was the prime minister of Syria.  Just as there were Christian ministers here in Istanbul, and the Muslims appointed Fares al-Khoury the minister of endowments (wazir al-awqaf) in the process of independence. 

“I remember, when I was pursued by the regime in the period between 1984 and 1987 I was hidden in the houses of acquaintances and friends from among the Muslims.  And when I was sentenced to eight years in prison by the Supreme State Security Court in 1987 on the accusation of undermining the regime, I spent the time in Saydnaya Prison, including four years in solitary confinement when my relatives didn’t know anything about me.  And when they transferred me to the wards, I found in the prison some prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood whose relatives didn’t know anything about them for fifteen years, and their relatives believed them to be among the dead!  When my wife was permitted to come to visit me after four years, I sent messages to their houses to let their relatives know that they were still living and well.  Some of the families were afraid and worried, and families sought for signs to prove that their sons were among the living and in the prison.  So we were sending them to them. 

“Some of the opposition at that time had the view of the Muslim Brotherhood that they were beasts with fangs and claws, and the Brotherhood was looking at the opposition, both Communists and others, as if they were immoral beasts!  When some of the Brotherhood were transferred from other prisons to us in Saydnaya Prison, they came half naked.  We were dividing our clothes and food with him, and we drew closer together to each other as humans, and we discovered that we are sons of one nation.  We are one, even if each of us has his opinions in the search for how to get out of the nation’s crisis.  But it was our human drawing near to each other at this stage which had a role in the mutual understanding which happened in what came afterward.  The Brotherhood discovered that we have values and that we do not resemble the image which was circulating about us.  And from our viewpoint we discovered the human and national aspects in them.

“And here I will mention one of the oddities which I will not forget, that when I was arrested for the second time after the revolution, in July 2011 in Qatana, and I passed two months in prison before they released me after pressures both internal and external, when I was prosecuted before the judges there were two charges of the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana.  I said to them, ‘Have the Muslims died in Syria and not one of them is left, so that a Christian must lead them in the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana?’  Indeed, this reflects the magnitude of the farce that this regime practices and the current corruption of the judiciary system that it arrests a Christian and prosecutes him on the charge of establishing an Islamic emirate in Qatana!”

He will finish tomorrow.

Again, “tomorrow” for the original may be next week before I get the translation done, but this account already reveals additional details of Sabra’s periods in prison.  He particularly credits the time in Saydnaya Military Prison with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, for enabling the cooperation between Islamists and secularists in the current revolution.  This is an important point and bears further examination.

The historical narrative is also interesting, especially the combination of ancient figures (John of Damascus, al-Akhtal) and the modern Fares al-Khoury.  As a minor detail, it was not the famous Christian theologian John of Damascus but his father who served the Umayyad caliphs as a civil servant in Damascus.  But this slip does not change the force of Sabra’s argument for historical cooperation between Muslims and Christians in Syria.  This is an argument he needs to make both to encourage Christian support for the Sunni rebels as opposed to the regime and to attempt to ensure a tolerable state for Christians in post-war Syria if the rebels win.