In perhaps the only sign of action from the West to the increased intensity of Christian persecution, France has opened itself up to refugees from Iraq, who are being driven out under pain of death by ISIS. This is a welcome reversion to form for France, which ever since the Middle Ages has periodically found ways to protect Christian minorities abroad. This is a great beginning — but it is such a small response to the magnitude of Christian persecution, happening not just in Iraq and Syria, but in Nigeria and Egypt as well.
Why hasn't there been a greater response from the once-Christian West to the plight of Christians? It's not for lack of outrageous events. The International Society for Human Rights estimates that 80 percent of acts of religious discrimination in the world have Christians as their victims. And these are starting to poke through the headlines. The purge in Mosul attracted some attention, the kidnapping and threatened murder of mostly Christian girls by Boko Haram even more. But much less is said about the fate of Syrian Christians or Copts. Still less is said about even more obscure religious minorities like Yazidi and Druze who face discrimination from ISIS.
One reason for our silence, suggested by John Allen Jr. in his book The Global War on Christians, is that the modern humanitarian West has difficulty seeing Christians as "native" to third-world nations. Their imagination of "global" Christianity is one of a religion implanted by Europeans and Americans through a violent, racist, and discredited colonialism. Of course this isn't true in these cases, as there were Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt long before there were any in Britannia or Biloxi. Allen also cited French philosopher Regis Debray's view that in Christian persecution the victims are "'too Christian' to excite the Left, and 'too foreign' to excite the Right."
But Ernesto Galli della Loggia, the lead editorial writer for Corriere Della Sera, offered one provocative suggestion for Europe's unwillingness to get involved: fear of Islam. In an editorial titled "The Indifference That Kills," he writes (translated here) that Europe fears what he calls "Arab Islam" and its ability to commit economic blackmail. He writes:
At the same time, and above all, it fears the ruthless terrorism, the many guerrillas that claim to be inspired by Islam, their cruel barbarity, as well as the movements of revolt that periodically deeply stir the masses of that world, always permeated by a sensibility that is extremely easy to light up and to break loose in violent xenophobia. [Corriere Della Sera]
There is something to this. Consider: When Pope Benedict XVI, in an academic setting, merely quoted a medieval critique of Islam, the result was riots across the Islamic world, including the murder of Christian nuns. There was similar rioting and threats over satirical cartoons in a Danish newspaper that if made about Christianity would elicit almost no reaction beyond a letter or a few digital comments.
Europe has seen debates about hate-speech laws passed under the banner of diversity that would function in ways barely distinguishable from anti-blasphemy laws in the Islamic world, singling out Islam and Muslims for special protections from critique and insult. America's own State Department pleads with a yokel who plans on burning the Koran. Try pissing on some rosary beads and see if John Kerry denounces you in public for tearing at our fragile relations with Malta and the Vatican. (Though Rudy Giuliani might get involved.)
As comedian Penn Jillette elegantly pointed out, the way people avoid giving offense to Islam amounts to a damning condemnation in itself. It is perhaps the worst Western insult offered to Islamic people in the Middle East that we almost universally assume there's not much point in asking them to recognize the human rights of Christians.
We don't even expect polite reciprocity. Italy is expected to welcome one of the largest mosques in the world, funded by Saudi Arabia. But no one can build even a modest church in Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, Christians can't even repair a wall in a church without explicit permission from the sovereign. Qatar has laws that punish people who convert from Islam to Christianity with death, but there's no planned boycott of their upcoming World Cup because of it. We watch ISIS blow up what many consider the tomb of the prophet Jonah and just sigh, helplessly.
If silence permits Islamist persecution to grow and criticism only enflames its violent zeal, France's gesture of solidarity with Iraq's Christians has to be joined by many more countries in the West. It might as well start with the United States, which has played such a large role across this region over the last three decades while taking so little responsibility for the results.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Dick Cheney's America is an ugly place
- The liberation of Barack Obama
- The Hobbit: A disappointing set of movies, but a worthy set of prequels
- America is building a Sunni army in Iraq to take on the Islamic State
- The age of miracles is over — even for the religious
- How to make the ultimate grilled cheese
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
Subscribe to the Week