Last year’s inaugural In Defense of Christians (IDC) conference indicated to this author a “strategic confusion among beleaguered Middle Eastern Christian minorities,” a situation that lamentably remained unchanged this year. The recently completed September 9-11, 2015, IDC conference exhibited strange ideological crosscurrents, as panelists often sharply differed over the connection between Islam and religious persecution of Christians and others.
A moment of controversy at IDC’s initial panel, “ISIS, Genocide, and the International Response” at Washington, DC’s National Press Club (video excerpts here), set an ambiguous tone for the conference. Panelists like United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Commissioner Katrina Lantos-Swett focused on the “intrinsically evil” atrocities of groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Beyond politico-military responses, “ultimately, ISIS and like-minded groups must be defeated in the realm of ideas.”
Along with panelist Robert Destro, a Catholic University law professor and IDC advisory board member, Lantos-Swett emphasized “building a broad coalition” against ISIS, yet noted its “very, very terrifying and uncomfortable realities.” As in the past, she cited Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on ISIS, noting that it has a “historic understanding” and “theological argument that has some basis in some doctrines” in Islam. Yet she qualified that ISIS’ “primary victims” are often the “persecuted, untold majority of Muslims” along with minorities like Christians and Yezidis. Genocide Watch President Gregory Stanton agreed that “true Muslims” should join with others against ISIS’ “demonic interpretation of Islam taken to its ultimate extreme.”
Destro, however, denied ISIS members any canonical Islamic basis, stating that “whatever they say they are doing is not sharia law.” Many audience members, including Middle East Christians, vociferously registered their dissent, saying “not true.” He added that Islam’s prophet Muhammad had concluded a covenant (Achtiname) with the Sinai Peninsula’s St. Catherine’s monastery Christians.
Interviewed briefly after the panel, Destro provided little support for his benign view of Islamic law or sharia, stating, for example, “I’m not an expert” in response to considerable concerns that the Achtiname is a forgery. Contrary to specific Quran verses, he stated that “last time I checked it was un-Islamic to cut peoples’ heads off, period” and that sorcery, punished by beheading in Saudi Arabia, “is a BS crime.” Like Saudi Arabia’s “very fundamentalist way of looking at Islam,” ISIS members implementing sharia supposedly “are making it up as they go along.” Concerning proselytization of Christianity in opposition to Islam, he stated that “under the Quran and under sharia that is not a crime” and “I don’t buy this dhimmi stuff,” a reference to classical sharia’s subjugated status for various non-Muslims.
Admitting a lack of personal expertise, Destro claimed to “talk to sharia law experts all the time” who “understand Islamic law at a really in-depth level,” including his “friends in Iran…These are not crazy people.” His writing down the name of Azizah al-Hibri, with whom he has collaborated, was hardly reassuring. This Lebanese-American law professor has worked with subsequently convicted terrorism financiers and whitewashed Islam. An al-Hibri law school protégé, Qasim Rashid, once astonished this author with a presentation approved by her ludicrously claiming that American law could ban Quran burning.
Starkly contrasting with Destro, activist Nahren Anweya described repeatedly at the conference centuries-long Islamic oppression of her Assyrian Christian ancestors in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain. An emotional Anweya described during the genocide panel’s audience comments how this region’s “indigenous people” suffered 750,000 dead during the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 anti-Christian genocides. As the Armenian National Committee of America executive director Aram Hamparanian had noted on the panel, ISIS brutality “reminds us in the most profound ways of the experiences of our own families” in 1915. Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson would later describe during his IDC conference gala dinner address how the Ottoman Empire’s Christians in 1915 “endured a genocidal year of the sword.” Thus contemporary ISIS horror “is not surprising, because it is not new.”
“This is just the cherry on top with ISIS” following successive waves of Assyrian suffering under Islam, Anweya stated during her September 11 panel presentation (video excerpts here and here). Muslim neighbors of Assyrians for 30-40 years “turned us in to ISIS” during its advance into the Nineveh Plain, a shocking betrayal showing her that Assyrians “need an internationally protected safe haven.” Fellow panelist Bashar Hameed Ahmed from the Nineveh Provincial Council “is like a rare diamond, unfortunately,” among Muslims in his concern for non-Muslims.
Interviewed later, Anweya rejected Destro’s understanding of ISIS as mere renegades lacking an Islamic doctrinal basis. People who do not realize that ISIS is “in their words following the true Islam the way Islam actually started originally when it was extremely barbaric” are “extremely misinformed,” she said. “We have always tried to work and ally with anyone who believes in democracy and peace” in the Assyrians’ historic homeland “since the rise of Islam,” including “moderate Muslims” whom Assyrians “can get to somewhat ally with us.” Yet surrounding Muslim communities of Arabs and Kurds have used Assyrians as a “punching bag” during persistent historical repression.
Anweya considered ISIS merely an especially brutal proponent of Islamic law, while other Muslim groups used nonviolent, political techniques to establish other forms of Islamic supremacy. Thus ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in its Egyptian homeland and elsewhere “are definitely working jointly together” for “their master plan.” Considering sharia influences entering Western countries via Islamic immigration, she stated that “anytime there is involvement with sharia law, it’s alarming…It’s the law of death.”
By contrast, Anweya’s fellow panelist, Melkite Greek Catholic priest Nabil Haddad, emphasized Muslims as the “best allies” for Middle East Christians. The Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC) founder praised a “model in Jordan where Muslims and Christians work together” and “live the commandment of love.” They needed an “alliance of moderation.”
Subsequently interviewed, Haddad was not completely convincing in his argument that Christians in Jordan’s region have “coexisted for 1,400 years with Muslims.” Referencing the Jordanian constitution, he said that “all Jordanians are equal before the law” but overlooked other constitutional references to Islam, the “religion of the State.” He pleaded ignorance of the State Department’s citing Jordan for religious freedom infringements (i.e. through sharia family law), yet ultimately conceded that some religious freedom restrictions exist in Jordan and “especially in our region.”
Haddad’s claimed ignorance also extended to the Christian aid organization Open Doors placing Jordan (number 30) on the 2015 World Watch List of the world’s top 50 persecutor’s of Christians. Although “Jordan has been one of the most liberal countries of the region in terms of freedom of religion,” Open Doors notes, the “number of Christians in the country has been declining for half a century.” The only Middle East country not on the World Watch List is Israel, where the Christian population has exhibited growth unique in the region, something Haddad also denied knowing.
Yet Haddad was not ignorant of various Muslim threats to Christians in the region. Asked about Jordanian King Abdullah’s strong opposition to the MB, Haddad stated that similar sentiments guide “my fellow moderate Muslims who show respect to humanity.” While many in the West called the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s MB government a “military coup, we thought that it was a revolution.”
“Dhimmi, of course, I refuse to be,” Haddad responded when asked about this. “I completely refuse any status for a citizen, whether it’s Muslim or non-Muslim, based on persecution or based on classification of the citizen, first-class and second-less or third-class citizen.” Despite dhimmitude’s origins in at least the ninth century, he unconvincingly claimed that dhimmitude is a “sort of system that was created by the Ottoman regime.” The “People of the Book…the Christians and the Jews, are respected” in the “root of the teaching of Islam.”
Syriac Catholic Church Patriarch Yousef III Younan spoke about “political Islam” in even starker terms during his gala dinner address, asking “what is the difference” between the MB, ISIS, and other organizations. As dhimmis, Christians and others “must beg the permission to live in their own land” from Muslims who often cite Quran 2:256 (“no compulsion in religion”), but “their understanding is different” from what others think. He rejected common perceptions of the “so-called Arab Spring” as a “popular upheaval of enchanting promise” and called Obama Administration hopes of arming “moderate” Syrian rebels “simply a fantasy.”
Syria, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein noted at the gala dinner, was “marked by tolerance and coexistence” before the current civil war, yet this was under a dictatorship. He thereby contradicted again another IDC panelist, Georgetown University professor Paul Heck, who declared on September 11 that Middle East Christians “are not their by the grace of the state.” While Middle East dictatorships use protecting Christians “as a pawn” for legitimacy, he argued that “Christians are deeply embedded with their Muslim neighbors and colleagues and friends in a single culture” shaped by Islam. He thereby ignored Middle East Christians who have referred to Syria’s Assad family dictatorship as a “Golden Age” of tolerance and are also increasingly critical of their centuries-long Arabization under Islam.
“Part of what is important right now is naming things properly,” Representative Peter Roskam stated during the September 10 congressional panel, a lesson IDC itself should take to heart. While Roskam invoked President Ronald Reagan’s unequivocal condemnation of Communism’s evil during the Cold War, the IDC conference sent mixed messages about Islamic ideological threats to Christians and others. Not only did Destro and Heck contrast with other panelists, but Representative Jeff Fortenberry attributed current Middle East Christian genocide to vague “unjust structures” and not any specific ideology. Father Haddad’s suspicious knowledge gaps, meanwhile, suggested a fear of offending a Muslim majority, part of a volatile Middle East noted by IDC senior advisor Andrew Doran at the gala dinner.
Although understandable, IDC’s concerns for coalition building and Muslim sensitivities around hot button religious issues cannot exclude proper examination of ideological foes. The conference’s lack of direct examination of themes such as sharia and Islamic holy war (jihad), for example, left unexplained the origins of constantly discussed Christian suffering. Such knowledge gaps ill serve policymakers and the public, as Representative Mick Mulvany indicated at the congressional panel. Far from naming things properly, he struggled to recall sharia’s humiliating dhimmi poll tax before several audience members shouted out “jizya.”