As you know, I have been strenuously arguing against American entry into Syria’s civil war on behalf of the rebels, in part — in part — because a rebel victory would almost certainly mean genocide for Syria’s ancient and large Christian community, at the hands of victorious Islamists. I would be against military intervention even if there were no Christians involved, but the fact that there are millions of Christians whose lives and culture are at stake in this conflict gives added impetus to me, as a Christian, to prevent America taking sides in this civil war.
Alone in Washington, Sen. Rand Paul has stood up, and stood tall, for the interests of Syria’s Christians, pointing out to the rest of us Americans something we never think about, and rarely hear about in coverage of the Middle East: the fate of Arab Christians, who have lived there continuously since the time of Jesus, and whose presence predates the founding of Islam by six centuries. The rise of Islamism in the 20th century has put these Christian communities, as well as other religious minorities (Jews, Baha’is, etc.) in increasing danger. The United States of America is not a confessional nation, but the fact that a country in which nearly 80 percent of the people identify as Christian never considers the lives and interests of the Arab Christian minority when it makes regional policy is not only shocking, but disgraceful.
As someone who strongly believes that Israel has a right to exist, it nevertheless offends me that so many of my fellow American Christians spend so much time and effort defending the interests of Israeli Jews — as we should, given how friendless they are, and how important Israel is morally and strategically — but treat their fellow Christians in the Middle East as an afterthought, if they think of them at all.
The great British travel writer William Dalrymple took a long journey among Christians of the Middle East in the 1990s, and wrote a terrific book about what he found there, From The Holy Mountain. From the part of the book concerning Syria:
The only problem with all of this, as far as the Christians are concerned, is the creeping realisation that they are likely to expect another, perhaps far more savage, backlash when [Hafez, the late father of Bashar] Asad dies or when his regime crumbles. The Christians of Syria have watched with concern the Islamic movements which are gaining strength all over the Middle East, and the richer Christians have all invested in two passports (or so the gossip goes), just in case Syria turns nasty at some stage in the future.
“Fundamentalism is building up among the Muslims,” said a pessimistic Armenian businessman I met while wandering in the Aleppo bazaars. “Just look at the girls: now they all wear the hijab: only five years ago they were all uncovered. After Asad’s death or resignation no one knows what will happen. As long as the bottle is closed with a firm cork all is well. But eventually the cork will come out. And then no one knows what will happen to us.”
Dalrymple visits the 6th century monastery of Our Lady of Seidnaya, north of Damascus, where he finds many Muslims praying before a miraculous icon of the Virgin. The nun there tells him this is normal; both Muslims and Christians pray together there, and have since forever. Dalrymple goes on to say that there has been a remarkable tolerance and relative peace between Muslims and Christians in Syria over the centuries, but that all that is under intense threat from rising Islamic fundamentalism. He wrote this in the 1990s, remember. Now the forces the Syrian Christians feared back then have been fully unleashed. And they are about to have American cruise missiles in their armory, despite what Americans like Barack Obama and John McCain tell themselves.
As everybody knows, Sen. Rand Paul is no recent convert to the non-interventionist cause. It’s part of his philosophical make-up, and he’s leading the charge on the Right for a more realistic foreign policy, versus what has become the GOP mainstream approach. Where he has drawn the ire of some liberals is his highlighting a fact that is ignored in the American discussion: the fate of Middle East Christians. For this, Julia Ioffe at The New Republic calls Paul a “Bible-thumper,” a liberal term of abuse for any Christian who speaks about public policy as a Christian defending Christian interests. (To be fair, Ioffe may not have written the headline, but it’s a fair summation of the view expressed in her column.) Watch how she handles this in these excerpts from her piece:
To be fair, the concern for Syria’s Christians, is, as I’ve said, a legitimate one. Christians, Alawites, and Shiites have largely lined up with Assad not for any love for the man, but for fear of those who might replace him. The concern that the armed opposition to Assad is increasingly dominated by jihadis, who are better fighters than your random engineer or taxi driver picking up a Kalashnikov, is a legitimate one. The concern that a prolonged civil war in Syria is making a solution of any kind, political or military, more difficult, and that the two sides are becoming only different shades of repugnant, is a legitimate one. As is the concern that military strikes do not always go smoothly or simply.
The problem is that the right is increasingly inflating these concerns—for example, equating the opposition to Assad with al-Qaida—simply because President Obama supports striking Assad.
The other, much more problematic issue is that Rand Paul’s brotherly, at times obsessive concern for Syrian Christians, is becoming interwoven, whether he wants this or not, with the right’s increasingly revolting, jaw-slackening Islamophobia. …
Paul’s emphasis on Syrian Christians is more than a simple reminder of a neglected aspect of an already complicated situation. It sounds distinctly like the garbage about America being a Christian nation, like the unnerving evangelical support of Israel, like the not-too-subtle hum on the right that some lives, Christian lives, are simply more important than other, Muslim ones.
Got that? Ioffe says that yes, the Syria Christians are in mortal danger from the Islamist rebels, and yes, Rand Paul is not an advocate for the Assad regime, but … well, the wrong kind of Americans are standing up for the Christians of Syria. Paul may not mean to, says Ioffe, but he is giving aid and comfort to the domestic political and culture forces that liberals despise: the Religious Right, and “Islamophobes” — this, even though Ioffe concedes that Syrian Christians have every right to be afraid of the Muslim rebels!
Ioffe apparently sees the plight of Syria’s Christians through the lens of American cultural politics: If it’s good for the Religious Right, then it must be opposed. After all, when it gets right down to it, inside the heart of every Syrian Christian is a Pat Robertson just waiting to get out.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. Ioffe says in her essay:
Paul raises a fair question. The only problem is that it seems it’s all he’s talking about.
Well, so what? She knows perfectly well that Paul is an anti-interventionist. What she ought to understand is that Paul is a Republican politician trying to explain to a big part of the GOP base — conservative Christians — why they should pay particular attention to the Syria situation, and oppose the US government’s plans to enter the war on behalf of the Islamist rebels. I very much doubt Ioffe would complain about Jewish politicians speaking to American Jews to rally them behind an American foreign policy proposal that protected the interests of their co-religionists in Israel, or US Muslim politicians like Keith Ellison doing the same when talking to American Muslims about his co-religionists in the Mideast, and American foreign policy. And she should not! Why must Christian politicians only speak about US foreign policy in universalist terms? Why do people like Ioffe consider it immoral for a Christian politician to speak up for Christians?
I would remind Ioffe, whose parents came to America as Soviet Jewish refugees, that one of the great moral triumphs of US foreign policy was the central role the fate of persecuted Soviet Jewry took in Soviet-American relations under Ronald Reagan, who was, alas for poor Ioffe, supported heavily by the same Evangelicals who, in her view, shame Israel with their support.
As far as I can tell from reading Ioffe’s piece, she interprets the world by the standard bigotry of her media class, which holds that anything the Religious Right endorses must be wrong. I am reminded of the Dallas Morning News assistant editor who, on the morning of the London subway bombing, argued vehemently against my suggestion in a news meeting that the bombers were likely British Muslim fundamentalists (as indeed they turned out to be), and that we at the paper should be looking into the role of homegrown fundamentalism in UK terror. His knee jerked hard, and he said something to the effect of, “Why are we always thinking about Muslim fundamentalists? What about Jerry Falwell?” Etc. For some American liberals, any fact or policy proposal that might give aid and comfort to some redneck Baptist must be opposed. The culture war in America is more important that the actual war in places like Syria; Syria’s Christians, like Iraq’s Christians and Egypt’s Christians, are just collateral damage.
Besides which, there is absolutely nothing wrong with politicians like Rand Paul speaking out for the plight of Christians around the world, who are among the most persecuted people on the planet. Jonathan Sacks, the recently retired Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, had this to say last month:
However the cause which he discusses with the deepest concern of all is the persecution of Christians in the Middle East – a plight, he argues, which is getting virtually no attention in public life.
“I think this is a human tragedy that is going almost unremarked. I don’t know what the name for this is, it is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.
“We are seeing Christians in Syria in great danger, we are seeing the burning of Coptic churches in Egypt. There is a large Coptic population in Egypt and for some years now it has been living in fear. Two years ago the last church in Afghanistan was destroyed, certainly closed. There are no churches left in Afghanistan.
“Between half a million and a million Christians have left Iraq. At the beginning of the 19th century Christians represented 20 per cent of the population of the Arab world, today two per cent. This is a story that is crying out for a public voice, and I have not heard an adequate public voice.”
It is striking that this is an issue which does not directly involve Jews at all.
But being Jewish, “you cannot but feel this very deeply and personally”, he says. “I think sometimes Jews feel very puzzled that Christians do not protest this more vociferously.”
Amen to that, and God bless Rabbi Sacks for saying so. It is a scandal that we American Christians are so ignorant of and indifferent to the suffering of our fellow Christians around the world, and it is especially shameful that we do not know or care about the role US foreign policy plays in making that suffering worse. On the matter of Syria, Rand Paul is trying to change that. Seventy-five percent of the US population identifies as Christian, and almost 90 percent of the US Congress does. Yet there is only one voice in official Washington advocating for the interests of Syria’s Christians right now.
The real question is not, as Ioffe would have it, Why is Rand Paul speaking out so much for Syrian Christians? but rather Why is Rand Paul so alone?