Arab world must do more for Arab Christians
by Ray Hanania
This week marks the traditional Easter celebration and May 5 marks the Orthodox Easter. Although Christians are a minority in the Arab world, both mainstream and Orthodox Christian groups are important Arab constituencies. So it is a good time to bring up this very sensitive topic, the challenges that Christians face in the Arab and Muslim world.
Although the vast majority of Muslims respect and support Christians and Christian Arabs, a growing minority do not. There have been many incidents including acts of violence against Christians in the Arab world.
Christians in Egypt face terrible hardships and increasing violence by extremists provoked last year by an American Coptic Christian fanatic who produced a video that insulted the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The video was wrong and disgraceful.
But Christians in many other Arab countries also face discrimination, bullying and even violence.
In the Gaza Strip, Christians and secular Muslims who dress more liberally are bullied and threatened. Christian festivals which feature dancing and other public celebrations, have come under attack. Even in the United States, where the voice of Arab extremism is loudest and a greater threat than in the Middle East, Christian Arabs are intimidated. The extremists disguise their racism by claiming it is based on political differences but in fact it is driven by anti-Christian hatred.
These anti-Christian extremists marginalize, bully, and in some cases use physical violence to silence Arab Christians in America and throughout the Middle East. The problem is aggravated because the majority of Muslims dislikes the topic and discourage Christians from complaining.
Silence in the face of intolerance
The failure of moderate, mainstream Muslims to speak out against these acts of intolerance makes the extremists feel as if they have support for their discriminatory actions. We need to openly discuss these problems in order to strengthen the Arab voice.
Still worse is that in America, we have seen a move away from Arab secularism and an increasing growth in the number of Muslim activist groups that identify themselves as Muslim but embrace the same secular issues such as the liberation of Palestine. This selfish activism is undermining Arab nationalism and fueling the new waves of anti-Christian attacks in America and in the Middle East.
Failing to defend Christian Arabs only ends up harming the larger Arab cause which is a Christian and Muslim cause. Ignoring the problem feeds the misunderstanding that many in America, a predominantly Christian country, have toward Arabs.
Remember, most Americans do not recognize the two Arab religions. They see Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs as being one “un-American” entity. This is reinforced when American Christians hear stories, promoted by the extremist American far right, of Muslim incidents against Christian Arabs.
It’s a quandary, when you think about it. On one hand, Americans don’t recognize Christian Arabs as being different than Muslims Arabs. On the other hand, stories of Christian persecution in Arab countries feed their racist views of the Arab world. That’s why it is so important for Muslims to rethink their own attitudes about Christians from the Middle East. Christian Arabs are a strategic resource for the Arab and Palestinian cause.
Recently, when I argued that the Arab world should use “Christian Arabs” in their strategic messaging to Christian Americans, I was denounced by Muslim activists. They said, “There is no difference between Muslims and Christians. American Christians should not only be concerned about Christian Arabs, they should be concerned about Muslim Arabs, too.”
Logically, that sounds reasoned. But it is not strategic. The most effective communication creates an affinity with the audience you are trying to lobby. The American people, who are majority Christian, are the single most influential voice in the world when it comes to the fate of Palestine. What Americans believe about Palestine directly reinforces Israel’s misconduct.
Why shouldn’t Arabs tell Christian Americans that Israel discriminates against Christians? That’s not to say Christian Arabs are more important than Muslim Arabs. But the power of “affinity” or “message association” is the most effective way to change public attitudes.
Christian Americans might change their minds about supporting Israel if they understood that their own people, Christians, are being brutalized and victimized by Israel. The Israelis have spent millions in public relations campaigns to target American Christians to win over their support. Israel wants Americans to believe that they treat Christians better than the Muslim and Arab world treats Christians.
Hypocritically, while Muslims complain Christians are segregating themselves, American Muslim organizations deliver a Muslim-exclusive message that focuses only on the victimization of Muslims by Israel.
The failure of the Arab and Muslim world to understand this important point, and to speak out against increasing anti-Christian incidents in the Arab and Muslim world, only undermines the just cause of the Arab people, a cause that is important to both Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs who suffer equally.
This was first published in the Saudi Gazette on March, 31 2013. Ray Hanania’s columns in various media can be found here.
Ray Hanania is an Arab-American Palestinian Christian journalist, professional communicator, media consultant, author, standup comedian, satirist, filmmaker, radio talk show host. He covered Chicago City Hall for 16 years from 1976 through 1992, including every Chicago Mayor “from Daley to Daley.” He is a two-time winner of Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick-O-Type Award. In 1990 he was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times as Pulitzer Prize candidate.