The murderous bomb attacks against Christian communities in Egypt and Iraq have been roundly condemned by most political and religious leaders, commentators and public opinion in the Arab world. They have also been met with an outpouring of passionate condemnation by ordinary people who have taken to the streets to express anger and demand justice. People have sensed the danger to their whole society inherent in such atrocities. The Alexandria church massacre could be a wake-up call to reverse dangerous trends, or it may be the beginning of unraveling of the bonds that keep people of different faiths and backgrounds together as citizens.
However, the effort to place the blame solely on outsiders or extremists for these attacks glosses over a much deeper and more troubling context. While there is little sympathy for the outrageous crimes of the fanatic extremists outside of their own ranks, these murderous radicals are in fact taking some prevalent societal attitudes to a cold bloodied and logical, albeit extreme, conclusion. Emerging out of a pervasive reality of powerlessness and inequity, political trends in the Arab world have given rise to a belligerent chauvinistic sensibility that has increasingly valorized the Islamic identity and regarded the rest of the world, especially the West, with deep suspicion and hostility.
These attitudes are promoted from the top down, through government-sponsored media, educational and religious institutions, and from the bottom up, in the home at the dinner table and online through a social media echo-chamber featuring a radical chic discourse aimed at restless young people. The worst ideas generally come from Islamist religious institutions, leaders and political opposition groups, which frequently argue that there is not only a conspiracy against the Arabs to prevent their development, but a global campaign to destroy Islam itself. Moderate voices who view the world in political rather than religious terms are outnumbered and function outside the parameters and comfort of political correctness. They try valiantly to stand for universal values while having to contend with constant intimidation because of their principled opposition to extremism.
The hegemonic narrative of relentless victimization at the hands of an all-powerful West frequently focuses on the theme of double standards, to which Arabs certainly have been subjected. However, this same ideal of a single standard is rarely applied in an introspective or self-critical manner. The contribution of Arabs and Muslims to their own failures, powerlessness, socio-economic inequities and dysfunctional systems are mentioned without any serious pursuit of corrective measures. The real blame for the failure, however, is consistently laid at the door of a hostile and manipulative West, led by America, and their regional amorphous client elite.
The question of religious minorities is an ideal place to begin examining the double standard argument. When given the opportunity, Muslims keep flocking to the West, where Muslim communities are growing and thriving, although they also face an increasing threat of discrimination and cultural hostility.
Christian and other religious minorities in the Arab world, however, are generally shrinking and withering, and are now facing a murderous campaign of attacks that seem consciously designed to try to drive them out of the region, or at least certain countries, once and for all. The fact that the vast majority of the victims of Islamist terror have been Muslims must not belittle the distinctive brutality of these attacks on Christians. These people were killed simply because they were Christians, with the evident aim of scaring them away from the country and possibly the region. Muslims have generally been killed because they happened to be in the way of those who use terror to achieve power and political objectives, including significant intra-Muslim sectarian violence in Iraq that intended to force communities to relocate.
It can’t be enough for Arab and Muslim governments, and some media and organizations, to simply condemn obviously unacceptable outrages such as the recent massacres. In several Muslim countries religious minorities face discrimination, restriction of rights, laws against blasphemy, apostasy and “insults to religion,” prohibitive constraints against building and reconstructing houses of worship, and the aggressive state-sponsored promotion of not only Islam, but certain narrow versions of it. All these realities need to be opposed in a consistent manner by those who would credibly defend Muslim rights in the West without engaging in double standards of their own.
Without even addressing circular arguments about who is defending themselves against whose aggression, the work that must be done to counteract narratives of intolerance and exclusion everywhere must be performed officially and legally, as well as at the social and community level both here and in the Middle East. It would be almost impossible to find explicit support from Arab or Muslim Americans for wanton acts of violence against civilians, but easy to find echoes of the sentiments of victimization and self-righteousness from which they ultimately derive. Even among Arab and Arab-American Christians and other minorities it is readily possible to encounter such views.
Of course, others have a great deal of work to do as well. The problems of Islamophobia spreading in the West, and growing blatant anti-Arab racism in Israel, need to be confronted at every level, without fear or favor. Marauding lawless bands of Israeli settlers, and American religious and ideological fanatics who advocate racism, must be held accountable. It is vital that communities, identity groups and societies take more responsibility to proactively define boundaries regarding what will be accepted as “respectable” discourse or conduct and what clearly crosses the line and has to be confronted as socially and politically dangerous even, and perhaps especially, if that means breaching expectations of ethnic, cultural or religious solidarity.
Critics will complain that we are conflating apples and oranges, casting the net of blame too widely or being unfair. What we are in fact doing is the unavoidable task of drawing connections between words that begin with hypocrisy and chauvinistic bluster, continue on into the promotion of intolerance, fear and hatred, and finally, in the hands of the most extreme, erupt into unconscionable acts of violence. This progression needs to be addressed as much at its source as its outcome if the trend is to be reversed.
Too few voices and organizations in Arab and Muslim societies, and the Arab-American community for that matter, repudiate much of the rhetoric that ultimately, when taken to its logical conclusion by demented murderers, leads to this kind of appalling violence. Their default position is to cite various injustices and to ask others to understand the motives for violence by pointing to a double standard argument or other rationalizations. This approach means that most of Arab societies, and many in the Arab and Muslim American communities, are in effect opting for silence. This doesn’t mean that this silent or ambivalent majority condones murderous acts by extremist fanatics, far from it. But these massacres in Egypt and Iraq demonstrate that everyone has a responsibility to be more vigilant and to recognize that the language of hate and intolerance can ultimately lead to unspeakable violence and should not be tolerated and countered by responsible choices.
In our own country, the most vociferous proponents of the Arab and Muslim victimization narrative, those who blame the West, especially America or “the white man,” for all the ills that befall the Arabs and Muslims, and those who most loudly advocate against the legal and societal harassment of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, take full advantage, as they are entitled to, of the American system and find shelter in the comfort and security of its freedoms. The damage they do in being the loudest and most anti-American voices emanating from the vulnerable Arab and Muslim immigrant communities, who already feel besieged, is to provide ammunition to the demagogues and profiteers of racism and peddlers of hate and fear of Arab and American Muslims, and to empower and encourage the worst racist and chauvinistic tendencies in this country. Minorities in this country have achieved their communal and collective objectives by working the system as they redefine it, and gaining support and power by courageous but peaceful confrontation with injustices, by use of the law and the political system, and not by rejecting the system as inherently corrupt and uncorrectable. And certainly not by murdering unarmed military personnel or civilians, or by plotting to blow up planes or public squares.
For Arab and Muslim Americans silence is not a safe option. No group is more vulnerable to the consequences of the next terror attack, or to policies based on fear and exclusion. What happens, and does not happen, in the Arab and Muslim world matters here at home. This assertion needs no explanation after September 11, 2001. The relentless wars against minorities, and not just Christians in the Middle East, whether official, societal or even just criminal, waged by those who aim to divide the world into large, mutually-exclusive and warring religious and ethnic blocks is not just a threat to America and its values. It is a specific and imminent danger to Arab and Muslim Americans, who must, for their own urgent necessity, oppose such politics and rhetoric. They need to develop a higher degree of honesty in their discourse and demand that a more elevated sense of responsibility be conveyed and articulated by their elites and leaderships.
The present tragic course of events, with mal-distribution of power and resources in the Arab and Muslim world, and a deepening sense of victimization that is increasingly directed at the West, especially America, and its friends and allies, will eventually break through the coercive measures that have thus far maintained the intrinsically unstable status quo. If serious change is not effected in short order, this dam will burst and after that comes the deluge. Ideas, deeds, programs and a modicum of peace in Palestine are urgently needed to give a fighting chance to forces of moderation and sanity everywhere.
To survive, and to compete globally, Arab and Muslim societies need to embrace their cultural, religious and ethnic mosaics, and view their diversity as strength rather than weakness. They need to embrace a culture that values not only individual rights and foregrounds the role of the citizen in political and social life, but minority rights as well. The values of pluralism, peaceful resolution of disputes and inclusivity are the only effective antidote to the poison of extremism and extremist violence. Embracing these values will require a change in social and political culture, and for that, every Arab, and Arab and Muslim American, must take up their share of the responsibility. They must speak publicly and courageously for these values here and in the Middle East. The price of silence is prohibitive. The forces of fanaticism, violence and exclusion must not be allowed to prevail.