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John L. Esposito: A Global War on Christians in the Muslim World?

18 March 2012 Huffington Post 20 Comments Email This Post Email This Post
John Esposito

John Esposito

A Global War on Christians in the Muslim World?

Religious minorities in the Muslim world today, constitutionally entitled in many countries to equality of citizenship and religious freedom, increasingly fear the erosion of those rights — and with good reason. Inter-religious and inter-communal tensions and conflicts from Nigeria and Egypt and Sudan, to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia have raised major concerns about deteriorating rights and security for religious minorities in Muslim countries. Conflicts have varied, from acts of discrimination, to forms of violence escalating to murder, and the destruction of villages, churches and mosques.

In the 21st century, Muslims are strongly challenged to move beyond older notions of “tolerance” or “co-existence” to a higher level of religious pluralism based on mutual understanding and respect. Regrettably, a significant number of Muslims, like many ultra conservative and fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Hindus are not pluralistic but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes toward other faiths and even co-believers with whom they disagree.

Reform will not, however, result from exaggerated claims and alarmist and incendiary language such as that of Ayan Hirsi Ali in in a recent a Newsweek cover story, reprinted in The Daily Beast.

Hirsi Ali warns of a “global war” and “rising genocide,” “a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities” and thus “the fate of Christianity — and ultimately of all religious minorities — in the Islamic world is at stake.”

Hirsi Ali’s account, for surely it is not an analysis, mixes facts with fiction, distorting the nature and magnitude of the problem. It fails to distinguish between the acts of a dangerous and deadly minority of religious extremists or fanatics and mainstream society. The relevant data is readily available. Nigeria is not a “majority-Muslim” country of 160 million people with a 40 percent Christian minority” as she claims (and as do militant Islamists). Experts have long described the population as roughly equal and a recent Pew Forum study reports that Christians hold a slight majority with 50.8 percent of the population.

Boko Haram, is indeed a group of religious fanatics who have terrorized and slaughtered Christians and burned down their churches, but they remain an extremist minority and do not represent the majority of Nigerians who reject their actions and anti-Western rhetoric. Gallup data finds that a majority of Nigerians (60 percent) “reject the anti-Western rhetoric” of Boko Haram.

Curiously, Hirsi Ali chooses not to mention that in the Jos Central plateau area both Christian and Muslim militias have attacked each other and destroyed mosques and churches.

Another example of failing to provide the full facts and context is the Maspero massacre. Coptic Christians have a real set of grievances that have to be addressed: attacks on churches, resulting in church destruction and death and injuries, the failure of police to respond to attacks, and a history of discrimination when it comes to building new churches and in employment.

Hirsi Ali rightly attributes the genesis for the assault against Christians to the Egyptian security forces. Although some militant Egyptian Muslims did in fact join the violence against Christians, she overlooks the fact that increasingly Christians have been joined by many Muslim Egyptians in calling for this discrimination and backlash to be addressed. Thus, she fails to mention the many Muslims marched in solidarity with the Christians against the security forces and were also injured as a Reuters article dated Oct. 14, 2011 reported: “At least 2,000 people rallied in Cairo on Friday in a show of unity between Muslims and Christians and to express anger at the ruling military council after 25 people died when a protest by Coptic Christians led to clashes with the army.”

She also fails to recognize the continuing state violence in Egypt against activists and protestors regardless of their faith.

Thousands of Muslims turned up in droves outside churches around the country for the Coptic Christmas Eve mass, in solidarity with a beleaguered Coptic community offering their bodies, and lives, as “human shields,” making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and build an Egypt free from sectarian strife: “Egypt’s Muslims attend Coptic Christmas mass, serving as “human shields.”

Ali also points to the “flight” of Christians from the Middle East as proof of widespread persecution. According to Gallup surveys in Lebanon, however, Muslims are slightly more likely than their Christian counterparts to want to flee the country permanently and for Muslim and Christian alike the reason they give is primarily economic.

More problematic and deceptive is Hirsi Ali’s charge that: “What has often been described as a civil war is in practice the Sudanese government’s sustained persecution of religious minorities. This persecution culminated in the infamous genocide in Darfur that began in 2003.” Sudan has certainly been a battleground for decades, but to say that Darfur is an example of the Muslim-Christian genocide is flat out wrong. The black African victims in Darfur were almost exclusively Muslim. The killers were Arab Sudanese Muslims (janjaweed) who murdered black Sudanese Muslims.

Addressing the issue of religious freedom requires greater global awareness and a concerted effort by governments, religious leaders, academics and human rights organizations, as well as curricula reform in many seminary and university religion courses (particularly comparative religion courses), to counter religious exclusivism by instilling more pluralistic and tolerant visions and values in the next generation of imams, priests, scholars and the general public. However, when lives are at stake and the safety and security of all citizens threatened, accurate and data driven analysis is crucial. Inflammatory statements and unsubstantiated generalizations exacerbate the problem, risk more strife or even violence and do little to contribute to finding a solution.


  1. Every once in a while one of these learned asses actually addresses this problem, to my amazement.

    If you believe polls, 60% reject the Boko boys. 40% support them. Almost half. So about half in society supports, passively or materially, a set of violent madmen to murder minorities – racial, religious, tribal –

    Sounds about right.

  2. I was completely against the right wing when they said that Muslims couldn’t build a mosque in New York and Tennessee. However I wish that more people would be aware that Christians can’t build churches in Saudi Arabia, or even repair current ones in Egypt.

  3. Birds of a feather…

  4. Thanks for the info, Reza. I’m from Pakistan and there Christians build Churches and some are really beautiful and historical too. I was unaware about the situation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Islam, Religious minorities under Islamic rule have full freedom of religion.

  5. All the more reason to insist on building the mosque in NY and Tennessee……… We are not Saudi Arabia or Egypt and should not follow their examples!

  6. Well my mom’s side of the family are Christians and they live in a Muslim country. I used to live there to and went to Catholic school….and across from my school is the Islamic schoo, Madrasa. We get along just fine. They don’t care if there’s a Catholic school and church, and priests and nuns walking around right in front of their Islamic school.

    And even if there are majority deaths among Christians, it’s because the government were killing everyone. (3rd World Country). And the gvt officials would say that a group of Muslim extremists/seperatists did it. But it’s not true because there were Muslims, Buddhists, Animists that died too.

  7. I don’t know why any Christian or religious minority would even want to LIVE in KSA, let alone build a church there. Plenty of Muslims don’t want to live there. Reza, which Christians can’t repair their churches in Egypt? I know plenty of Coptics who don’t feel at all badgered there.

  8. Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be the representative of Muslin world. Not all Muslim countries are like Saudi Arabia.

    In most Muslim countries, even Hindu and Buddhist temples are being build. Or even look in Iran…in Tehran alone there are 25 Jewish Synagogues.

  9. People forget that just because a nation or a individual claims to be Islamic does not mean that they truely are. Religious minorities are given full freedoms under Islam.

  10. Christians are constantly being harassed by Israel and prevented from expanding current churches or building new ones in Israeli towns, so why all the attention to what Muslims do?

  11. Western media greatly exaggerates (lies) about the Middle East — but Muslims must loudly object to the oppression of religious minorities, especially those of us who are blessed to live in places where we are free to voice our opinions publicly. I was so proud of the Egyptian Christians who surrounded the Muslims to provide them with a safe place to pray during the protests — and so proud of the Egyptian Muslims who protected the Christians while they attended services. Beautiful examples for all of us to follow.

  12. Don’t judge an entire nation on the basis of the actions of a few….I don’t have anything against Christians or Jews……We are all humans first…..Prejudice and religious intolerance is alive all around the globe….And that’s what we have to combat….

  13. Yeah Western Media never want to tell the whole story:

    For ex. In 3rd World Muslim country may not have the same technology as the scientists and police here in the US. So just because a Muslim killed a Christian and the police never caught that Muslim (or prove him guilty) it doesn’t mean that “ooh those Muslims would never stand up against injustice for the Christians!” It just that in 3rd World countries, the police are corrupt, and they don’t have an advance technology to check for DNA properly. There are also incidents where Muslim killed another Muslim and the case just got thrown out of the window. Or the suspect is out freely because there’s not enough evidence.

  14. Also Jacki Campbell, unfortunately in most of the Muslim countries, we have a case of dictatorial regimes, who couldn’t care less about their Muslim citizens, let alone minorities. And I also want to remind, however is that those dictatorial regimes are very much supported by U.S or are thriving under its blessings. So for Muslims to protest, they do when they can, but unfortunately selective media reporting doesn’t help the case.

  15. Ayaan Hirsi ali annoys me. Not because shes critical…but because she tends to generalize a lot.

  16. @anon

    Supports them why?

    Most [Muslim] Nigerians don’t hate Christians, they Hate America [and their government]. If you were starving and your Corrupt American backed Government refused to help you, you would hate America [and your government] also.

    Thats not even mentioning the fact that all the oil revenue goes into the politician’s pockets instead of the people.

  17. So for hating US they drive into a church with a bomb laden car? Muslims ethnic cleanse all over the world – they are killing Kurds, Amadis, Christians etc.

    Murdering minorities is par for the course is some muslim places.

  18. Make no mistake, Christians are facing hardship in the Mid-East; and there is a reason why Syrian Christians quietly back the Assad Regime (because they fear the rebels might be led by extremists who will show little tolerance towards them), and church burnings happen in Egypt, and some Copts, Maronites and Chaldeans communities may be targets…but that doesn’t mean Muslims in general go after Christians, but there is a very small, bigoted majority of Muslim extremists (some of whom ironically the US clandestinely supports) that do carry out acts against them.

  19. That said, Ayan Hirsi Ali’s piece in Newsweek is just another Islam-bashing piece that you’d likely see on “Atlasshrugs2000” or “Jihadwatch”, in which she accurately focuses on a small population of extremists that do carry out violence against Christian minorities, but then she inaccurately expands the scope of their actions to Islam and Muslims in general, in order to make all of us Muslims guilty of the actions of a few extremists, it also entices readership.

  20. Harrison did you read the article? he says 60% are against the Boko, the other 40% are for it or at least not speaking against it. Some of the 60 may have lied.

    It is a small bunch of vicious extremists supported by almost half of the population. That’s why it goes on.

    Sometimes the authorities are afraid to arrest these kinds of gangs, they have too much support and firepower.

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