Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an atheist. Many people think this defines her, but it is only part of her story. Ali is also an intelligent and textured individual, with a distinct and rich set of experiences and identities that shape her and her attitudes. Too often, atheists like Ali are viewed as one-dimensional. And even though she likely deals with people who do not recognize the complexity of her identity (including that she formerly identified as Muslim), she nonetheless fails to bring any depth to her Feb. 6 Newsweek article, "The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World."
In her article, Ali does identify a worrisome reality -- violence against Christians occurring in some Muslim-majority nations. This phenomenon needs to be named, publicized more widely than it has been and stopped. Unfortunately, the way she addresses the issue fuels identity-based division and, potentially, conflict. This is particularly troublesome because Ali's piece received substantial support in social and online media. People began picking sides, ignoring complex realities and facts.
Ali's analysis of the conflicts in Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia is brief, simple and borders on manipulative. Each of these countries is experiencing conflicts that have a range of contributing social, political, economic and cultural factors. Christians are being targeted, as are other groups, including diverse followers of Islam and indigenous peoples. There is nothing new here. Throughout history, members of minority groups, whether religious, racial, economic or otherwise, have been targeted during times of social and political instability.
To focus exclusively on one dimension -- violence against Christians -- misses the nuances and complexities at play, few of which are due to religious difference alone. However, it is only by providing a one-dimensional analysis that Ali can justify her thesis that there is a global war against Christians. Of the many lamentable armed conflicts around the world, she handpicks instances of violence against Christians and emphasizes factors that buttress her argument.
Ali blends this selective research with menacing generalizations and language. She argues, for example, that anti-Christian violence is, "a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities." Her inference? That the collective unconscious of the Muslim world is driving conflict against Christians. But, of course, we know this is not true. Similarly, her use of the word "Christophobia" is divisive, as is its predecessor "Islamaphobia." Phobias are an irrational and extreme fear of something. Hatred and violence based on a person's religious identity is qualitatively different. Indeed, anti-Christian violence and anti-Muslim hatred are more akin to anti-Semitism. Let's name the problem properly and then focus on solutions.
Concededly, Ali ends her piece with a few paragraphs that call for mutual respect and affirms that "tolerance is for everyone." However, this flies in the face of the rest of the article, which presents a "Them vs. Us" false binary. "Instead of falling for overblown tales of Western Islamophobia," she writes, "let's take a real stand against the Christophobia infecting the Muslim world." The paths to combating these prejudices are not mutually exclusive. We can -- and we should -- guard against hatred and discrimination in Western countries, and equally find ways to reduce marginalization and violence occurring in some Muslim-majority countries. We should condemn and combat religious prejudice wherever it is occurs.
People of all faiths and non-faiths experience religion-based hatred and violence across the globe. The issue at hand is not that Muslims are suddenly targeting Christians, but that majority groups in all regions must be educated to conduct themselves with respect for the rights of minority groups, particularly during times of stress.
Rather than paint the entire Muslim world with the broad brush of hate and as perpetrators of violence, we are better served by recognizing and supporting those in Muslim-majority countries and elsewhere, who draw on their faith to heal rifts in their societies. Multiple examples exist in Tanenbaum's own work. In Nigeria, Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa once led religious militias and tried to kill each other. Through personal transformation and trust building, these two former combatants became a team of peace builders that works in Nigeria and across Africa. Their Interfaith Mediation Centre is based in a hotspot of Muslim-Christian (mutual) violence -- Kaduna, Nigeria. Significantly, these men, two of my personal heroes, work for peace because of their religious convictions, not in spite of them.
In Iraq, the Rev. Canon Andrew White is an Anglican Priest working outside the Green Zone and under constant threat, as are his parishioners. However, Canon White works intimately with Muslim leaders in Iraq -- both Sunni and Shiite -- to stem violence that hurts both Muslim and Christian Iraqis. Last year, Canon White worked with senior Sunni Clerics, who issued a fatwa condemning violence against minority communities (i.e., Christians and Shiites in Iraq). According to Canon White, "After the fatwa, the killings stopped. It's crucial to remember that the vast majority of Muslims we work with, they are our friends. We can only do what we do with their help."
Indeed, in Pakistan, where Christians face state and societal discrimination, solutions to violence can come from within Islam. The International Center for Peace and Diplomacy and Pakistani-American peacemaker Azhar Hussain, for example, engage madrasa leaders in discussions about principles of Islam (like the Golden Rule), moving them to reflect on teaching curricula that values love and respect for the neighbor. The program has been effective in bringing interreligious understanding and human rights into formerly hostile classrooms.
I believe that one solution to violence that involves religious identity is to support and empower the work of religiously motivated peacemakers. Think of what our foreign aid dollars could achieve, if only they were used to scale up effective projects of committed religious individuals across the world. Isn't it time to heed Canon White's reminder that the vast majority of humanity are our friends, be they Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Taoist, Jain, animist, atheist or others?
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