The appalling attacks against Christians in Egypt and Iraq signal a disturbing new campaign on the part of the most extreme Islamists in the Arab world to massacre, and presumably attempt to drive out, Christian communities. It is important to understand the linkage between these two apparently unconnected events, because they fit broader patterns in both their own societies but also, and more ominously, a broader pattern sweeping the Arab world and other parts of the Islamic world.
It’s perfectly true that the attacks on Christians in Iraq are a subset of the widespread sectarian violence that has accompanied the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the difficulty of creating a new order in that country. Most sectarian violence has focused on Sunni-Shia tensions and a kind of ethnic cleansing in neighborhoods of Baghdad and other parts of the country, creating sectarian zones. But this intra-Muslim violence in Iraq has been mainly in the context of a battle for power in the post-Saddam era, with sectarian communities feeling vulnerable and seeking protection in relatively homogenous enclaves policed by militias.
The violence against Christians is of a different order. A church massacre in Baghdad last October was followed this Christmas by bomb attacks against Christian homes, leaving at least two more dead and 16 injured. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are conducting a campaign to try to drive the remaining Christians out of Iraq, and at least 6,000 have fled to northern Iraq or neighboring countries. Perhaps half of the community has fled since the American invasion. There is no way to read this violence as anything other than sectarian cleansing through murder and terrorism.
In Egypt, the context is both very different and distressingly similar. Tensions between the majority Muslim community and the large and heavily-discriminated-against Coptic Christian minority have been increasing, particularly in and around Alexandria, in recent months. The Alexandria church bombing has to be seen in that context, and more broadly in the way many Islamists view Christians as a toehold of the West in what otherwise ought to be a purely “Islamic” society in the making.
The most direct link is that the lunatics of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq,” which is what the self-described Salafist-Jihadists or Al-Qaeda elements in Iraq are calling themselves these days, are justifying their attacks on Iraqi Christians by pointing to alleged persecution by Coptic Christians of converts to Islam in Egypt. It’s a preposterous excuse, of course, but it certainly provides a context for connecting the anti-Christian rampage in the two countries.
The Christian communities in the Arab world are simply soft targets – relatively undefended, unloved, and regarded by far too many Muslim compatriots as suspicious, unwelcome and possibly disloyal. The days in which Arab identity could trump sectarian animosities are waning fast, though there remain huge segments of Muslim society in both Egypt and Iraq, as well as elsewhere in the Arab world, that cling to a more inclusive sensibility.
In Iraq, the extremists see an easy opportunity in attacking Christians in an era when attacks against other Sunnis, Shia or Western forces have become, for many complicated reasons, much more difficult. In Egypt too, the relatively undefended character of the Coptic community has made it a distressingly inviting target.
In Egypt, this problem has been underlined by the fact that while large segments of Egyptian society have reacted with outrage, the government’s response so far has included unconvincingly blaming outside elements, followed by violent attacks by security forces against Coptic protesters and their allies. Just because there is an obvious link between anti-Christian violence in Egypt and Iraq doesn’t mean the Alexandria massacre was the work of “outside agitators” – Egypt has plenty of Islamist and indeed “Salafist-jihadist” fanatics of its own. That the same anti-Christian agenda is manifesting itself in separate Arab countries simultaneously makes the problem worse and more widespread, not simpler and more isolated as governments would probably like to pretend.
All of this anti-Christian violence, however, comes in the context of rising rhetoric throughout the Arab world and other parts of the Muslim world that is paranoid and chauvinistic, and which sees all religious minorities as unacceptably heterogeneous and dangerous. Christians, of course, are particularly suspect since they are alleged or presumed to have particular ties to or sympathy with the West, which is cast as the eternal and implacable enemy.
Though the immediate contexts for the attacks in Egypt and Iraq are quite different, the Arab Muslim cultural context is exactly the same: an increasing desire to impose a false religious and cultural homogeneity on a heterogeneous Arab world and to repress or drive out disparate elements, including Christians, Shia, smaller Muslim sects like the Ahmadiyya or various Sufi groups, and secularists and other liberals. Parts of Arab political and Muslim religious culture that would repudiate violence nonetheless promote the thinking that ultimately rationalizes it by embracing a paranoid and chauvinist worldview.
The real blame lies with the killers themselves, but the ultimate responsibility for this carnage must be placed disturbingly far and wide throughout contemporary Arab political and religious attitudes, in an all-too-common delusional perspective that sees enemies and traitors in every corner and is convinced that the world is out to get us.