Anti-Christian violence in the Middle East: the answer is more secularism, not multiculturalism

Christians and Muslims pray together for the return of nuns kidnapped by rebels (PA)

Following Baroness Warsi and Prince Charles, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has become the latest high-profile figure to speak up about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. He wrote in the Sunday Telegraph of:

…a growing concern that Christians are being deliberately targeted and attacked because of their faith. But why, when popes and princes are speaking up, have so many politicians here in the UK forsaken speaking out?

Across the Middle East, Christians have lived for almost two millennia in the place their faith was born, and since thrived within communities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere.

Indeed, the Ottoman Empire, which spanned much of today’s modern Middle East, was a multicultural state, with Christians cohabiting alongside Shia, Sunni, Jews, Alawites and Druze.

Yet today, the conflicts raging across the region – in Syria most acutely – are taking on an increasingly sectarian character. Since the start of the conflict in March 2011, more than 450,000 Christians have fled the country.

It’s certainly true that the Ottoman Empire was multicultural, but in a different sense to how we might use that word now; Christians and other minorities were tolerated, but they were certainly not equal. They were second class citizens in every way, and their protection relied on not crossing certain lines, one of which was attempting to convert Muslims; exactly the sort of religious “tolerance” that many Middle Eastern countries agree with today.

The situation of Christians under the Ottomans began to improve in the 19th century partly because of pressure from the French and British (including pressure to act against the anti-Christian massacre in Damascus in 1860); and partly because some far-sighted rulers, including the likes of Muhammad Ali in Egypt, realised that their system of sectarian-based law and official discrimination was holding the region back, both economically and culturally.

But “multiculturalism” is still very much the appropriate term for the millet system, under which different communities had their own laws and leaders. It was, in fact, rather similar to the policy adopted by Britain in the 1980s, in order to rule its new communities by proxy; that this has been a failure is precisely because it discourages integration, as “community leaders” have a vested interested in maintaining the cohesion of their group, including its common identity and sense of grievance.

Such multiculturalism is incompatible with the idea of democracy, because such a system depends on people feeling a sense of solidarity with fellow voters, rather than “their community”. Indeed, as Daniel Hannan points out in his excellent new book, How We Invented Freedom, it is no coincidence that liberal institutions and the rule of law emerged in fairly homogenous societies such as England, Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands. In Ottoman Turkey, as in Austria-Hungary and Russia, inter-ethnic and inter-religious rivalries kept back reform, and the fear of such violence haunted those who wished to liberalise their societies; as it is, the pessimists were pretty much right.

The arrival of democracy meant that minorities were at the mercy of majorities. Can anyone seriously suggest that the answer to Syria’s problems is to become a democracy right now? Are we really to tell the Alawites and Christians that they should put themselves at the mercy of the majority Sunni Muslims? Why, they might ask, should they invite repression and massacre because of the abstract idea of democracy?

Democracy is the least bad system of government but far more important is the rule of law, and therefore secularism. But what do we mean by this word? Alexander writes:

In the UK today, perhaps through a misplaced sense of political correctness, or some sense of embarrassment at “doing God” in an age when secularism is more common, too many politicians seem to fear discussing any matters related to faith.

So the growing persecution of Christians around the world remains a story that goes largely untold, as does proper discussion of its complex roots and causes.

In some countries, this persecution is perpetrated in the name of a secular ideology, while in others it has its roots in religious intolerance.

So the perpetrators’ motivation is not the primary issue of concern, nor can it be a reason for ignoring the consequences; our neighbours are being attacked for their faith, and that can never be acceptable or justified, whatever the reason given.

Secularism seems to be one of those words that is often used pejoratively, or, in Alexander’s article to mean atheism, and I can’t help but feel that is unhelpful when secularism is the one thing the Middle East needs.

Secularism is like liberalism. The overwhelming majority of Britons are liberals in the wider sense, but the Left/Right debate is about what variation they follow, whether Left-liberalism or classical liberalism. Likewise secularism, to me, simply means that the rule of law applies to all, and that no religious law should be above the law of the land. I have a fairly different vision of what secularism means to, say, the National Secular Society; I am broadly in favour of public life being decorated with Christianity, and I would oppose most discrimination laws that target Christians, partly because they make people’s identity sacred in a way that is un-secular, and partly because they go against the liberal tradition of English law.

Likewise you can oppose radical French laicite while believing in secularism, and still support religious-based campaigns, since religion has always inspired political movements (look at Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, the opponents of East German Communism, to name just three examples randomly selected to make my side look better). I don’t even agree with my own Church on many of its more overtly political campaigns, but it is impossible for a religion not to hold moral views that have some bearing on politics, and the existence of a Church at odds with the state is itself a healthy thing.

So the “secularism” that we normally talk about in the West is, in my mind, just a radical form of secularism that takes a good thing to absurd lengths; but the point is that both readers of the Catholic Herald and supporters of the National Secular Society would broadly share some ideas about secularism that we should be encouraging in the Middle East – namely the rule of secular law. While this does not happen it is impossible to resist the exodus of Christians.

At the moment Egypt and Iraq have elements of sharia written into their constitution, a legal system that by definition treats non-Muslims differently, and which really is a threat to secularism in a way that Church of England schools, prayers in council chambers and Thought for the Day aren’t. But both these states are relatively moderate compared to our Gulf “”allies”” (I think that requires two sets of inverted commas to emphasise the sarcasm called for) Saudi Arabia and Qatar. No one could say about their leaders that they “don’t do God”.

Still, good on the shadow foreign secretary for raising the subject – over to William Hague and David Cameron…

Ed West is the author of The Silence of Our Friends: The Extinction of Christianity in the Middle East