A story of segregation: the rise of factitious Christian Europe and Islamic Middle East

The ongoing plummet of Christians living in the Middle East backed by European leader’s preferential treatment of non-Muslim refugees seeking asylum, reinforces the narrative that Europe is unequivocally Christian and the Middle East, a home reserved for Muslims only. Consequently, breeding the already existing estrangement between these two regions of the world, known for some time as the ‘East-West divide’.

The 20% of Christians that comprised the Middle East a century ago has dwindled to 5% in recent years, leaving many towns of significant Christian value in the region deprived of contact. This comes after the imposition of years of restrictions on the religious expression of Arab Christian communities which has heightened in the face of wars and conflicts, triggering hostility towards Middle Eastern minorities of the like. A report commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year indicates that 80% of persecuted religious believers in the Middle East are Christians who experience systemic discrimination in education, employment, and social life, sometimes also falling victim to direct violence. This has led to a vast departure of Christians from the region, altering the demographics of countries like Iraq, Syria, and, Iran, that have previously been the home to sizable Christian populations.

In Iraq for example, the number of Christian inhabitants has fallen by approximately 83% in the past 16 years; home to one of the oldest Churches in the world which the Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda has claimed to be dangerously close to extinction. Prior to 2011, 44% of 250,000 registered Iraqi refugees in Syria were of Christian belief which since the war, have been hit heavily alongside Syrian Christians themselves of which half of its population is estimated to have left the country with evidence suggesting no expectation or intention to return. In some of Syria’s larger cities however, the proportion of Christians and Muslims escaping the civil war is of equal number, highlighting the inevitable struggle that touches all in the face of political turmoil.

Yet, not all are able to recognise this however, as many European countries, in the battle to preserve the so called ‘Christian culture of Europe’, have been welcoming Christian refugees over Muslim, with justifications given that are potentially similar in scope to those provided for the treatment of Christians in the Middle East. The reason for Hungary’s preferential treatment was iterated by prime minister Viktor Orban as the desire for Europe to continue ‘belonging to Europeans’. Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Czech Republic, and recently Sweden have held similar positions on the matter, by voicing a responsibility in helping Christians or using the Islamic terrorist wildcard as an excuse for their discriminatory practices, which violates EU law.

A spokesman from Operation Safe Havens, Andrew Carey has defended the practices of such countries, drawing upon the vulnerability faced by Christian minorities outside of Europe, who he believes should be given priority as a result. European countries with dwindling Christian significance are more likely to accept Muslim refugees, yet grievances can still be expressed in the form of demonstration about a perceived ‘Islamisation of Europe’ in these states. An example of this was a movement called Pegida in Germany which involved protesters carrying a large illuminated cross, painted in the colours of the German flag to portray their role in enshrining the Christian spirit of Europe, following Angela Merkel’s announcement that Germany would welcome all refugees from the Middle East regardless of their religious beliefs. Such backlash has caused some Muslim refugees to convert to Christianity or falsely identify themselves as so, in a bit to gain legal residency in places like Germany, which raises concerns elsewhere about the legitimacy of those claiming to be of Christian belief from the Middle East.

The growing homogeneity of these two regions of the world comes as a shame rather than a source of pride, when remembering the integral part Islam has played in Europe historically, and the strong foundations of Christianity which are embedded nowhere else but in the Middle East. The situation at hand epitomes our failure to co-exist as two religions nested in the same Abrahamic tradition, in contrast to our ancestors of pre-modern times in Medieval Andalusia, Arabia, and Ottoman Palestine and Syria. Let us hope that the Pope’s visit to Iraq next March will help secure Christianity’s rightful place in the region whilst inspiring European leaders to act more benevolently towards Muslims seeking residency in Europe.

Neil Partrick on the UAE’s normalisation deal with Israel

Dr. Neil Partrick, Senior Fellow at the Next Century Foundation, has written about the UAE’s normalisation with Israel, and what this may mean for outside interests vested in Jerusalem’s famous Islamic sites. His perspective is that the UAE had strategic calculations in mind when they made the deal. It wanted to be an example for other Arab states who are unwilling to normalise their relations with Israel because of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and thereby to dampen Turkey’s domineering interests in Jerusalem, as they strive to take center stage as leader of the Sunni Muslim world.

By contrast to the ‘sound of silence’ that has ensued from many Arab states following the normalisation deal, Palestinians have been vocal about the UAE’s stance particularly in relation to Jerusalem, all the more so after a UAE delegation visited Al-Aqsa Mosque under the protection of an Israeli guard. After co-signing the ‘joint agreement’ with Israel and the USA, the UAE paid no attention to the attitude of the local Islamic authorities in the form of the Awqaf that operates in Jerusalem under the leadership of the Mufti. Neil Partrick argues that this move by the UAE may be motivated by the desire to compete with Turkey’s presence in Haram Al-Shareef, regardless of how it undermines key Palestinian and Jordanian interests (Haram Al-Shareef meaning the “Noble Sanctuary” is the Arabic name for the sacred shrine known as the Dome of the Rock next to which the Al-Aqsa Mosque is built – the complex being under Jordan’s custodianship).  

At this year’s Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate organised by Emirates Policy Center last month, there was no word spoken about the implications of the normalisation deal for Jerusalem, but rather, the emphasis was on Turkey’s role in the region. Ömer Taşpınar argued that Turkey had taken on the role of defending the Palestinians that Arab states are no longer willing to. He added that this resurgence of Turkey’s involvement in the Palestinian issue is due to its declining economy and loss of primacy in Europe, a stance that Taşpınar envisages will outlast Turkey’s President Erdogan. Consequences of the deal for Iran were elaborated on by Alex Vatanka at the conference, who views it as a partial loss for Iran’s interests. However he perceived the possibility that the UAE would sanction any significant Israeli action against Iran from Emirati soil as negligible.

To read Dr. Partrick’s commentary in full, please click here: https://neilpartrick.com/blog/the-uae-s-normalisation-with-israeli-sovereignty-over-jerusalem

Picture shows Palestinians demonstrating in Ramallah against the UAE’s ‘normalisation’ with Israel, © Anadolu Agency, 2020

Muslim leaders still put self interest above the lives of the Uighurs

Notoriously, and arguably quite shamefully, last year, over thirty Muslim-majority countries signed a letter commending China on its human rights record, whilst innocent Uighurs in the Xinjiang region were being detained in modern day concentration camps for engaging in anything that was deemed Islamic: whether that is mandatory acts of worship, bearing the name ‘Muhammad’, or owning a compass (to determine the direction of prayer). Global Muslim leaders have turned their back on the Muslim minority that they should be caring about most right now, in a bid to preserve their economic interests with China.

Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, were among the first to step forward to sign the 2019 letter of support for China’s behaviour towards the Uighurs. Since then their ranks have been joined by the Government of Palestine who all applaud China’s ‘counter terrorism and anti-extremism’ measures. A phrase which has been used by China to justify its maltreatment of some one and a half million Muslims, including upwards of one million Uighurs who are being subjugated by enslavement as forced labour, and the systematic sterilization of their female population.

The region of Xinjiang where the Uighurs reside was briefly independent between 1944 and 1949 until its re-annexation led by Mao Zedong. In 1955 the People’s Republic of China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region as a concession to the non-Han population and in parallel with similar arrangements for Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Since then, the communist government has been trying to shape the Uighur culture to reflect their own by infiltrating more and more Han people into the territory. This policy has been only intensifying over the years, with its biggest impact being felt in the early 2000s, whilst the world was distracted by the international ‘war on terror’ led by President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The legitimisation of events in Xinjiang by the world’s Muslim political leaders is not just harmful for Uighurs, but potentially for other Muslim minorities around the world. It sends a sign of approval to other global leaders that it is lawful to exercise similar anti-Muslim policies in their respective countries under the banner of dealing with ‘Islamic terrorism’. The likes of such can already be seen in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi who introduced a citizenship law last year allowing non-Muslims who entered the country before 2015 to become legal citizens – and by default denying Muslims the same privilege. Research shows that terror attacks carried out by people of a Muslim background already receive on average 357 percent more media coverage than acts committed by any other group. To remain silent in the face of blatant discriminatory practices against Muslim minorities is to perpetuate the dangerous concept that Muslims pose a security threat everywhere and that they deserve to be repressed.

The complacency that global Muslim leaders have shown on this issue does not align with Islamic principles. These are leaders who proudly defend Islam within their own borders but have nothing to show for it in the international arena by limiting their own agency in response to the Uighur cause. The recent boycott of French products within the Middle East gives a glimpse of the action that could be taken against Chinese imported goods if Muslims were to mobilise on the issue. However, this depends on momentum garnered by Muslim leaders in response to China’s activities, which has failed to materialise. Economic insecurity coupled with weak diplomatic relations of most Muslim-majority countries means they are wilfully succumbing to global powers like China for investment and foreign aid, rendering them powerless, overly dependent, and in denial of the Uighur issue. The Western countries that have condemned China’s policies at the UN this year have once again shown themselves to be more considerate of human rights, and ironically, more in line with true Islamic values than an overwhelming number of Muslim leaders.

Perhaps, this isn’t a question of benevolence on behalf of global leaders, but rather a question of who has the capacity to challenge China, a country that is growing in wealth every year and has expanded its outreach in the world by investing in places like the Western Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East, regions that all share a degree of economic instability. Western economies can be crowned the champions in this regard. But it also serves as a gloomy reminder that one’s material conditions are to be put first before much needed action is taken in solving issues elsewhere. One thing is for sure: global Muslim leaders must be reminded of the duty specified in the Qur’an upon all Muslims to be upholders of justice even if it may entail going against their own self-interests and those of their kinsmen. This includes economic and political gain; a reminder that now holds stronger than ever for Muslim leaders in response to China’s treatment of the Uighurs.

Image above from Ürümqi (Chinese: 乌市, Wūshì), formerly known as Tihwa, the capital of the Xinjiang is by andy chung from Pixabay

Bosnia and Herzegovina divided over Biden’s victory

On the night of Joe Biden’s presidential success in the United States, Bosniaks drove through Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, honking horns and waving intertwined US and Bosnian flags through car windows. In the background, a picture of a young Biden engaging in conversation with Bosnia’s first president, Alija Izetbegović in 1993 reflected off the face of the Vijećnica; the momentous city hall that had been heavily bombed a year prior.

Biden’s victory over the incumbent Trump has sparked hope for Muslims within Bosnia and Herzegovina, who remember Biden’s involvement in stirring American politicians from their slumber in response to the war that took place in the country from 1992 to 1995. Throughout this time, Biden as a U.S. senator had advocated the bombing of Belgrade and the lifting of the embargo that had been introduced before the war on the whole of Yugoslavia, which was perceived by Bosniaks as a hindrance to their advancement a few years later.

During Biden’s election campaign this year, he vowed to help Bosnia and Herzegovina enter NATO, and do something to resolve the issue of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbia’s (Republika Srpska) refusal to comply with policies emerging from the political capital, Sarajevo. These potential developments are not regarded favourably by most Bosnian Serbs however, who argue that they received the tail end of Biden’s benevolence towards Bosnia and Herzegovina in its war years. Due to Biden’s opposition to Serbia’s government in the past and to the activities of current anti-state representatives like Milorad Dodik who sit on the United States’ blacklist, this may cause extra tensions to mount between the two largest ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina and their constituent territories. Both sides had rooted for opposing candidates in the run up to the elections; namely Muslims for Biden and Serbians for Trump. However, irrespective of the differences, the unifying factor at play for both ethnicities is the decisive role that the U.S. holds in ensuring a stable, functioning democracy in the country, since the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995.

With every new U.S. presidential term that comes, the question arises as to how much effort the U.S. administration will invest to save the country whose constitution they once drafted for peace, but that has in the post-war years caused more division than unity. Biden’s inauguration in January will provide a change to Trump’s inattentiveness towards the delicate situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans on a whole. To what extent? This remains largely unknown, but it is acknowledged that in many respects, the fate of this country 25 years ago and today is still very much reliant on the involvement of the international community. We can only hope that the United States – irrespective of its own domestic issues – will be inclined, if only for the sake of its own reputation, to act to help resolve this issue in the foreseeable future.