Amid Middle East revolutions, an extremist threat

Will the rise of Islamists lead more Christians and moderate Muslims to flee the Middle East?

February 22, 2011|By Ben Barber

When the anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic cleric Sheikh Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi preached openly for the first time in 50 years in Cairo on Friday — to a crowd estimated by some at 1 million people — it was an early sign that the Islamist chickens have begun to come home to roost.

Mr. Qaradawi has spent decades in exile in Qatar, hosting a popular television show that encourages suicide bombings against Israel and Western forces in Iraq. In a 2009 sermon broadcast on Al-Jazeera, he prayed (as translated by MEMRI): "Oh Allah, take your enemies, the enemies of Islam. Oh Allah, take the Jews, the treacherous aggressors. … Lie in wait for them. Oh Allah ... do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers and kill them, down to the very last one."

Yet, some foolishly find the sheik not so extreme. After all, he also said that: "There is no enmity between Muslims and Jews. … Jews who believe in the authentic Torah are very close to Muslims." However, this is a canard because fundamentalist Muslim scholars have told me that today's Jews and Christians are not "real Jews and Christians" because our texts are adulterated.

I was reminded of the real nature of the Islamist movement — which takes on a benign appearance to avoid crackdowns — when I came across an article I wrote for The Sun from Morocco some 15 years ago.

"The West does not understand that Islam is not like Christianity," I was told by Abdel-lah Baha, secretary general of Arraya, then a leading Islamic fundamentalist organization. "Christ says to give God what is his. But according to Islam, everything is God's."

Mr. Baha told me that his movement supports the violent Islamic fundamentalists who left 200,000 dead in the 1990s in Algeria, and he hopes to institute in Morocco Islamic law or Sharia. "I would apply stoning to death as penalty for adultery," he said.

When Mr. Qaradawi spoke Friday, much was made of the fact that he addressed Egypt's 8 million Christian Copts as well as Egypt's 70 million Muslims. Souvenir cups showed the cross as well as the crescent.

But souvenir cups will do little to calm the fears of the 12 million Christians who live among 300 million Muslims in Arab countries and are increasingly fleeing the Middle East. They feel they are under attack by militant Muslims who charge them with blasphemy, apostasy, idolatry and refusal to convert to Islam.

In November, 58 Iraqi Christians were killed when an al-Qaida group attacked a Baghdad church, sending many Christians into exile. In January, a group killed 28 Coptic Christians in Alexandria, Egypt. Attacks on Christians in Egypt are regular and seemingly unstoppable.

Christians are fleeing lately from ancient communities in Iraq, Bethlehem, Egypt and Lebanon. The Islamist revival has led to a return of medieval ideas among small, dedicated groups who appear to believe that anyone who refuses to accept Islam deserves death. One Christian Iraqi man was quoted at the time of the church bombing there as saying that "soon we will all be gone — like the Jews before us."

While overshadowed by the plight of 700,000 Palestinian refugees who fled as Israel was created in 1948, an equal number of Jewish refugees fled Arab lands as well since 1948. The refugees from Arab lands included: 117,000 from Iraq; 130,000 from Algeria; 105,000 from Tunisia; 50,000 from Egypt; 300,000 from Morocco (despite efforts by King Hassan II to protect them from mobs); 20,000 from Lebanon; 15,000 from Syria; and 50,000 from Yemen. Most left without their property.

Ironically, Iran, where Jews first settled in 722 BC, has one of the last large Jewish communities in the Middle East — 20,000, down from 100,000 under the Shah. I have met many of them, and they are decidedly nervous, treading the awkward political line of being Jews but not being allowed to say anything favorable about Israel.

The worst thing about the flight of both Jews and Christians from Arab lands is the ensuing loss of personal contact, which teaches us that people of other cultures and faiths are not so different from ourselves. It has left all three groups worse off.

New leaders emerging in the Arab lands must do all they can to increase contacts among the three Abrahamic faiths and reverse the 60-year trend towards religious isolation, suspicion and — for moderate Muslims — coercion to wear the veil and circumcise girls.

Senior Muslim, Jewish and Christian clerics and secular leaders must get together to probe how to defuse tensions and replace suspicion with respect. The hallmark of democracy is that the majority cannot abridge the right of the minority to religious freedom. Tolerance must become the new nationalism.

Ben Barber is a journalist who covered international affairs for 30 years for many newspapers and magazines. His e-mail is benbarber2@hotmail.com.

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