People and their motives are always more complicated than history's broad strokes suggest. Nothing proves this more persuasively than two very different (but equally compelling) books I've recently read.
In From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (Henry Holt and Company, 1997), I learned how, in the year 587, the Byzantine monk John Moschos set off with a companion to gather the wisdom of the Desert Fathers. His journey took him in an arc around the eastern Mediterranean, the birthplace of Christianity and at that time a Christian lake surrounded by provinces teeming with monasteries, churches and centers of Christian learning and culture.
Unfortunately, his life coincided with the aftermath of Justinian the Great's failed attempt at imperial revival. The world Moschos knew had begun to unravel. A century after his travels, much of what he observed had already been overrun by Muslim invaders. The power of his account, however, endured. And 1,400 years after Moschos first set out, his words drew another writer, William Dalrymple, to retrace his steps in From the Holy Mountain.
Dalrymple has an eye for the human ironies that underlie the dilemmas of the Middle East. Surveying the human landscape from Turkey, to Syria, to Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, he captures the daily life of Christians living in the embers of a dying culture. But he never pities them. On the contrary, what he finds again and again are people determined to hang onto their identity, hope, courage and humor and even their friendships with Muslims. In the words of a Coptic monk in Upper Egypt, where some of the region's worst anti-Christian violence has occurred: "What is Christianity without the cross?"
Anxious 'People of the Book'
As Dalrymple discovers, the current condition of Christians under Islam can vary greatly from country to country and century to century. Under Syria's late President Hafiz Assad, criticized in the West as a sponsor of terrorism, Christians did remarkably well, accounting for perhaps 20% of Syria's total population. In fact, at various times, five of Assad's seven closest advisers were Christians. In Lebanon, too, a large Christian population enjoys significant influence, even after the civil war.
By contrast, Muslim Turkey, officially a "secular" state and a NATO ally of the United States, has systematically strangled its Greek and Armenian Christian minorities for 80 years. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople (Istanbul) one of the most revered Sees in Christendom is now on the brink of extinction. Barely 2,000 faithful remain in its jurisdiction.
Dalrymple shows that tolerance between Christians and Muslims even something approaching affection is possible. In fact, at the personal level, the level of daily life, it is not uncommon. At the Shrine of Our Lady of Seidnaya in Syria, he watches Christians and Muslims pray side by side to a miraculous icon of Mary. He also captures the cost of Islamic fundamentalism for Muslims themselves. In Egypt he interviews an academic couple happily married, both with doctorates, both professors at Cairo University and both practicing Muslims who are forced to divorce by outsiders who regard the husband as an apostate. When extremists attack and burn an Egyptian church, the pastor receives numerous calls of support from his shocked Muslim neighbors. But, thanks to fear, nobody visits in person.
Unfortunately, what we in the West perceive as "fundamentalism" a kind of mental virus that periodically sweeps the Islamic world may be more inherent to Islam than anyone wants to admit. At least, so say Islam's critics. And that anxiety won't be relieved by a reading of Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996).
Unlike the easy travelogue style of Dalrymple, Ye'or, an Egyptian émigré turned British citizen, approaches her material as an academic. Her focus is historical scholarship. Specifically, she documents, in extraordinary detail, the experience of dhimmitude from the seventh through the 20th centuries.
For Muslims, the dhimmis are the "people of the Book" the Jews and Christians of conquered territories whose religious practice was tolerated if they paid a special tax. In the early centuries of armed Islamic jihad, subjugated pagans had a choice between conversion to Islam or execution. But "the people of the Book," in theory and often in fact, had a third choice: political disenfranchisement and economic penalties, in return for the right to exist as religious communities.
Today's secular scholars like to contrast this perceived Islamic tolerance with the allegedly bigoted record of the Christian West. But, as with so much about the past, people see what they want to see. In the case of many secular scholars, their work implies an instinct against Christianity that traces itself back to the Enlightenment. In any event, the sins of Christians throughout history are well-documented. Repentance for those sins played a big role in the theology of the Great Jubilee. Unfortunately, few other religious communities have had the courage to review their own histories with equal honesty. Ye'or shows that Islam urgently needs the same examination of conscience.
While respect for the "people of the Book" was indeed official policy in most Muslim-dominated societies, its practical application inevitably sought to marginalize and humiliate the dhimmis. Political power was reserved for Muslims. Direct persecution of Christians and Jews did occur. More frequently, however, the law worked to make life for these communities less and less bearable in effect, a slow strangulation.
Nonetheless, as Ye'or shows clearly by quoting entire Muslim documents, Muslim treatment of Christians over the centuries often included enslavement, harassment, seizure of lands and the abduction of children. (In the case of Turkey's large Armenian Christian minority in the early years of the 20th century, it also included genocide.)
Moreover, the impulse to aggressive jihad has no real parallel in Christianity (the Crusades, whatever their sins, were a reaction to jihad) and, as the great French thinker Jacques Ellul suggests in his foreword, the recourse to armed expansion is arguably part of Islam's basic thought structure.
So where do these two books leave us? Just here: Memory has power. Pope John Paul II has an unusually keen understanding of how history our memory of the past can shape both the present and future. This is why he has asked us again and again to seek a "purification of memory."
As the International Theological Commission said in its statement "Memory and Reconciliation" in 1999: "[The purification of memory] aims at liberating personal and communal conscience from all forms of resentment and violence that are the legacy of past faults, through a renewed historical and theological evaluation of such events."
In other words, by looking at the past our own past and the common history we share with Islam and other religious traditions and by judging it honestly and rigorously, but without fear or rancor, we serve the truth that makes us free. We "contribute to the path of reconciliation," however difficult that might be.
Christians and Muslims have traveled a rough road together over the centuries. It does no good to ignore that. But history is made by people, and people have the capacity to learn from history without being imprisoned by it.
People can change. People can forgive. People can love. In reading and reflecting on these two extraordinary books, we may find a way to learn the lessons of the past … without being limited by its mistakes.
Francis X. Maier. "The Cross and the Crescent." National Catholic Register. (February, 2002).
This article is reprinted with permission of the author Francis X. Maier.
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Francis X. Maier writes from Denver.
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