Sunni isolation harms Eastern Christians

As the violence in Syria escalates and spills over into Lebanon, there are increasing sectarian tensions as evidenced by a Sunni-Christian rift over the so-called Orthodox election proposal.

While the Phalange Party and the Lebanese Forces have drifted away from the predominantly Sunni Future movement, Michel Aoun has embarked on a concentrated effort to attack Sunni politicians and actions by targeting Prime Minister Najib Mikati, exploiting the recent incident in Arsal, when two Lebanese Army personnel were killed, evoking the 2006 attack against the Danish Embassy in Beirut, and demonizing Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states.

Of singular note is the not so tacit support provided by at least three Christian patriarchs for Bashar Assad’s regime and their muted response to gross human right violations by its armed forces. Sunni isolation in Lebanon, similar to the political isolation of Christians in 1975, constitutes a threat to communal coexistence as a number of influential Christians leaders are risking the future of Eastern Christianity by wagering on the success of a dying Syrian leadership.

Two years after Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, what started as a quest for freedom and democracy in the Arab world has evolved into a Sunni revival. The Shiite revival, which in the late 1970s in Iran was initiated by leftist and liberal elements and was usurped by the clergy, quickly spread to galvanize Shiites throughout the Middle East. Similarly the Sunni revival dimension of the Arab Spring has become a dominant factor in North Africa and the Levant.

While some feel that fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon cultivated by Western powers, Islamic fundamentalism has been dormant for more than a century, artificially suppressed through draconian measures, as in Tunisia and Turkey or Syria and Egypt. Once unleashed, its forces have spread with fury and a vengeance. In North Africa, they prevailed against secular and tribal forces.

Although Iran was initially jubilant with the triumph of Islamists against pro-Western dictators, it now sees the conflict in Syria as a Sunni revival and a clear and present danger to Shiite domination. The Sunni crescent from the west has collided with the Shiite crescent from the east. Turkey, which had its own Sunni revival, has been drawn into the fray, as has Hezbollah, which has reverted to its primordial form.

This Sunni revival, like the Shiite one, is not a transient phenomenon and may well define the decades to come. Whereas Christians in Egypt are under pressure from Islamization, the Christians of the eastern part of the Arab world have suffered massive depopulation in Iraq and in some parts of Syria. The prevailing attitude among many of them has been to support a coalition of religious and ethnic minorities, through a broader alliance with Iran, Russia and China. Their belief is that the Christian presence is not compatible with Sunni fundamentalism and that this alliance to resist it will ultimately prevail.

Playing on fears of Salafist rule and centuries of Ottoman oppression, Christian and secular intellectuals have propagated conspiracy theories laced with anti-Western sentiment. Should their assumptions prove unfounded, as is very probable, the consequences would be disastrous for the scattered and diverse Christians across Syria.

Already, the clergy lamenting the Arab Spring as an Arab winter has compromised Christian communities in Sunni-dominated districts such as Aleppo. Christian politicians have adopted an increasingly hostile attitude toward the West in an attempt to appease their Shiite allies. Salafism represents a serious challenge not only to Christian communities but also to moderate Muslims. But poor alliances and anti-Western rhetoric hardly seems to be the remedy. The Sunni revival, like the Shiite one before it, is here to stay. Time is running out for Eastern Christianity, which can ill afford another strategic blunder. Blaming the West will bring little consolation to the irreversibly displaced. Nor will an opportunistic espousal of the Palestinian cause and the courting of marginalized left-wing secular elements reverse the tide of the Sunni revival.

Eastern Christianity did not fare well with the Shiite revival. Lebanese Christians endured relentless persecution under Syrian domination. Iraqi Christians have all but disappeared from southern Iraq; their only safe haven remains in those areas under Kurdish control in the north of the country.

Anti-Sunni rhetoric, disguised as secular and opposed to the anti-Arab Spring, entails false assumptions and grave miscalculations. Equally mistaken is the anti-Western sentiment among many Christians. One need only look to Egypt where Christian factions are engaging the government and Islamists in earnest dialogue. Free of the mirage of an alliance with other minorities, Egypt’s Copts may manage better than their brethren in the Levant. The well-being of Christian communities hinges on constructive engagement with the Sunni factions. It seams absurd to callously abandon organic ties with the West at a time when only Western powers can influence Sunni factions directly or by proxy. Christians should not be faced with the choices of uneasy survival or assured destruction.

Basem Shabb is a Lebanese parliamentarian. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 01, 2013, on page 7.




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