Multiculturalism: A blasphemy or a blessing?
Multiculturalism is a Western ideal, amounting to a secular faith. Every Western government at least mouths its mantras – that a mix of peoples in one nation is a social good, that it enriches what had been a tediously monolithic culture, that it improves (especially for the Anglo-Saxons) our cuisine, our dress sense and our love lives. Besides, we need these immigrants: In Europe at least, where demographic decline is still the order of the day in most states, where else will the labor come from? Who else replenishes the state pension fund? Even where leaders criticize multiculturalism’s tendency to shield communities from justified criticism – Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of the UK have both spoken out on this – they touch only on its more obvious failings. As a process, they agree it is welcome.
Forgotten, or at least suppressed, in this narrative is religion and the animating force it still gives to many groups. Animating – and also divisive. To believe deeply in a religion had been, in the West as well as elsewhere, to believe deeply in the error of those not of the same faith, and to shun them. It has been one of the remarkable transformations of the past century that in the West, those of religious faith, or none, should accommodate the faiths of others. Indeed, they should even honor them. Those societies where that did not happen — say, until very recently, Ireland — the culture was seen as aberrant.
The reverse is true in many strongly Islamic societies. And that’s causing a problem for the Christians still living in them.
In Pakistan, the Christians number around 2.5 million. At 1.5 percent of the population, it is the largest minority in an otherwise wholly Muslim country, its origin as a community stemming entirely from the missionary activities of the British colonialists and the small number of Christians who stayed on after independence came in 1947. Promised complete equality, the progressive Islamization of the state has put increasing pressure on Christians, who face both official discrimination and periodic popular violence. The latter increased in the past decade: Last year claimed two prominent victims.
Shahbaz Bhatti, 42 years old, was the federal minister for minority affairs, a Catholic and a strong opponent of the country’s blasphemy laws: In March, his car was sprayed with bullets. By the time he got to the hospital, he was dead on arrival. The group Tehrik-i-Taliban claimed responsibility, citing Bhatti as a “known blasphemer.” The murder came two months after another, of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Although not a Christian, Taseer had also strongly opposed the blasphemy law and offered support to those caught in it. He was shot in January by one of his bodyguards, Malik Qadri, reportedly associated with the Dawat-e-Islami group.
There also isn’t much multicultural harmony in countries where Christianity and Islam are both strong. In Nigeria, where the two religions each make up about half the population, tension and violence has tended to increase. Over the Christmas and New Year’s period, the Islamist group Boko Haram (the name means “Western education is a sin”) attacked Christian worshippers, culminating (so far) in a Jan. 20 gun and bomb attack in Kano, a mainly Muslim city in the north of the country: The attack, on police as well as Christians, claimed 185 lives. The aftermath has seen Muslims and Christians come together in the capital, Lagos, to pray for peace. The present reality is increased fear and distance.
It’s in Christianity’s former heartland – the Middle East – that the religion faces its most poignant fate. The reasons why Christianity is now quite rapidly disappearing are contentious. Some, like the late Edward Said (himself from a Christian tradition), saw Western imperialism, support for Israel and aggressive intervention as the culprits. Others point to a millennium-long Islamic pressure on a faith regarded as a blasphemy. More recently a much more violent pressure has appeared from Islamist fundamentalism, stirring — as the Lebanese scholar Habib Malik put it in an essay for the Hoover Institution — “ancient antagonisms and reviv(ing) atavistic rejections of the different other as a despised infidel.” Christians were some 20 percent of the Middle Eastern population a century ago. Now, they are estimated to account for about 5 percent.
Thus throughout the Middle Eastern Muslim states, Christians retreat. In Gaza and the West Bank, Christians make up only about 2 percent of the population. Even the relatively large community in Bethlehem is declining. In Iraq, the slow drop in Christian numbers was much accelerated after the invasion let loose sectarian violence: Some half of the community has left. In Iran, traditional Christian groups are recognized in the constitution and given parliamentary seats – but face informal discrimination and leave. In Saudi Arabia, both public and private expressions of Christianity are banned (though the latter is rarely enforced). The only Christians are foreign workers or visitors, who must keep their blasphemy to themselves.
Until relatively recently, the largest single Christian community, the Egyptian Copts, had been relatively secure. The 19th century brought them not just toleration but recognition, especially of their religious and political rights. But the 20th century, with the growth of the view that Egypt should not be for Egyptians but for Muslims, saw pressure bear down on the Copts, moderated only by the suppression of Islamism from above — especially during the period of rule by Gamal Abdel Nasser, from 1956 until his death in 1970. Anti-Copt riots and murders continued through the seventies and eighties: their position improved in the nineties, when former President Hosni Mubarak, under international pressure, returned land and property taken from the Copts years before and improved security. Sporadic attacks, however, continued: They are underrepresented in the administration and in politics, and media attacks on them persist.
The greater fear now, in Egypt as elsewhere, is that the Arab Spring has a dark side. Anti-Copt riots were a feature of last year: A Coptic demonstration against the burning of one of their churches in October saw more than 20 dead as the army charged the demonstrators. The irony that the Christian tradition is older in the area than Islam’s (and once dominant in it) is ignored in the zeal for purification.
In December, the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the world’s Anglicans, told the House of Lords in London that “the position of Christians in (the Middle East) is more vulnerable than it has been for centuries … of late, the Coptic community has seen levels of emigration rise to unprecedented heights, and in a way that would have been unthinkable even a very few years ago, it is anxious about sharing the fate of other Christian communities that once seemed securely embedded in their setting.”
Christians, now, cannot look for security in any setting where Islam makes a monopolistic claim on the hearts and minds of the people. Fervent faith in one part of the world; a secular trust in the benign effects of cultural mixing in another. The two are not, for the moment, meeting.
PHOTO: An injured Christian protester holds a statue of Christ and shows off a bullet during clashes with soldiers and riot police in Cairo, October 9, 2011. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh