Radical Islam and its Invisible Victims

From Syria and Iraq to Iran and Pakistan, Christians and other minorities are being persecuted by Islamists. Can they be stopped?

Features Islam
The black flag: Middle-Eastern minorities are facing genocide (illustration by Michael Daley)

How we read the news is important. As far as the Middle East is concerned, the news is often slanted towards Western interests, whether commercial, military or security-related. It is not, of course, wrong to report and to interpret events in this way but, in doing so, we can miss something crucial that is going on in a nation or a region. It is even possible to say that what is missed could become crucial to international security or trade. That is not my primary concern here which is, rather, to ask what the events mean for the people living in these parts of the world, especially the minorities and the disadvantaged. That is to say, the “invisible” people.

Take Syria, for instance. Under Hafez al-Assad and then his son, Bashar, there was a trade-off: a modicum of social and religious freedom in return for acceptance of restrictions on political freedom. In the minds of the Ba’athist Assad regime this certainly had to do with a fear of radical Islamism but it was also rooted in the authoritarianism of Ba’athism itself. So what has been achieved by upsetting this particular applecart? Western, Saudi and Qatari support for a Sunni-inspired revolt against the Assad regime has led to greater and greater radicalisation, indeed to the birth of ISIS, a movement more extreme even than al-Qaeda. If the intervention was intended to reduce the influence of Iran in the region, it has failed spectacularly because Iranian support is now crucial to the stabilisation of Iraq after the significant gains made there by ISIS.

Perhaps more than any other country in the region, Syria has been a colourful patchwork of religious, ethnic and linguistic communities: the presence of Alawites and Druze, Eastern-rite Catholics and Orthodox, both Oriental and Chalcedonian, Sephardic Jews and Yazidis reveals the diversity of religions. As well as Arabic, Kurdish, Aramaic, Turkoman and Armenian are spoken there. Was it not possible to continue to engage with the regime of such a country and to encourage a process of reform, even if that involved setbacks and frustrations? Was it really necessary to support a movement for the overthrow of Assad, a movement which is now known to contain not only the most dubious but the most dangerous Islamists from all over the world? Is the only answer to Ba’athist dictatorship the creation of a monolithic Wahhabi-Salafi state next door to Israel?

And what can we say of Syria’s neighbour to the East? Iraq is home to ancient religious and ethnic communities. There are a number of religions that survive only in Iraq and countries nearby. Many different languages are spoken, reflecting the population’s ethnic variety. Under Saddam Hussein, the mutual animosities and hatreds of these communities were kept under strict control on pain of suffering genocide, no less, in order to maintain a unified Iraq. After the American and British-led invasion and Saddam Hussein’s fall, the occupying powers dramatically failed to secure civil order and to find a system of governance that would suit Iraq. Given that it is a Western-inspired construct, cobbled together from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, it is doubtful whether Iraq can ever function as a unitary state. The only workable plan seems to be a loose confederation. With the Kurds already effectively independent, some modus vivendi needs urgently to be established between Shia and Sunni. Without formal power-sharing agreements, we are likely to see regular eruptions of violence continue and for there to be tactical alliances with unsavoury extremists like ISIS.

In all of this mayhem, religious minorities have been the most vulnerable. The Christian communities, being the largest of these, exhibit the scars of a campaign against them matched only by the violence in Syria. Their churches have been attacked and destroyed, congregations bombed and machine-gunned while at worship, clergy kidnapped and murdered and now expelled by ISIS from their ancient homelands. If any or all of this had happened to any other ethno-religious community, there would have been an international outcry long ago. Western-based human rights organisations would have been organising relief and campaigning for international action to protect these communities and their very survival. All credit to the Kurds and to a number of European countries that are accepting refugees, but this is precisely what the extremists intended: to drive these people from land needed for a caliphate centred on Iraq. What is required, rather, is a concerted international effort to secure the future of these and other communities in Iraq. The terrible plight of the Yazidis, who were trapped in the mountains, shows us that those not deemed to be Ahl al-Kitab, or people of the book, are especially vulnerable to genocide. Their future needs securing and should be part of the comprehensive agreement between Shia and Sunni needed to hold Iraq together. 

Relief supplies, while meeting the most urgent requirements,are simply not enough. Nor even is arming the Kurds, necessary though that might be. What is also needed is a UN-sponsored and implemented arrangement, with an international and independent force to back it up,to provide safe havens for Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and other minorities. This time it is not “no-fly” zones but “no-go” zones for extremists that are needed. Such arrangements should be an aspect of any power-sharing agreement between the Sunni and the Shia and should go hand in hand with a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria, without preconditions such as Assad’s departure.

Iran has a crucial role in securing such an agreement, but it has its own internal problems. Its treatment of its own citizens, especially of minorities, hardly gives room for any confidence that it can mentor a situation of greater tolerance in Iraq. President Rouhani was elected by Iranians who wanted greater freedom, as the most suitable candidate of those the mullahs allowed to stand. On election, he stated his commitment to human rights and freed a few political and religious prisoners. The hope was that more, much more, would follow. After years of repression, following the brief “spring” under President Khatami, it seemed that we were on the threshold of another “spring”.

These hopes have not been fulfilled. Activists such as Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel laureate, remain deeply worried about the situation and there has, recently, been a marked rise in the arrest of dissidents, members of religious groups and public executions. The hardliners are giving a credible impression that they are in charge after all. Although all Christian churches are closely monitored, with informers outside even the Armenian Cathedral in Tehran, it is the Farsi-speaking Christians of the Anglican and evangelical churches who have been singled out for attention. They are told who can attend services and when they can be held, if at all. Their clergy are forbidden to visit parishioners in their homes and are sometimes accused of trying to convert Muslims. The so-called “house churches” are even worse off. The ideologues of the Islamic Revolution regard these small groups of Christians as one of the great dangers to the Islamic state and have done everything they can to eliminate them. More than 30 Christian leaders are behind bars, mostly for the crime of holding a Christian meeting in a home or giving someone a Bible to read.

Among them is Farshid Fathi, who has been sentenced to six years in jail and held in solitary confinement for long periods. Last Easter his foot was fractured when a guard stepped on it. So far, he has been denied the treatment doctors say he needs for its proper healing. He remains an inspiration to his fellow prisoners. Other prisoners include Maryam Zargaran, who is serving four years. Youth groups have been forcibly broken up and women and men are regularly detained as a “warning”. Apart from the tightly-controlled situation in four Anglican congregations, all public Christian worship in Farsi is simply forbidden.

The Zoroastrians, followers of the indigenous faith of Iran, are a shadow of their former selves (there are now more of them in India and Pakistan than in Iran) and the ancient Jewish community is a fraction of what it was before the revolution. Non-Shia Muslims also face discrimination, with restrictions on building mosques and other activities.

The plight of the Bahá’í community is, by all independent accounts, even worse than that of the Zoroastrians, the Jews or the Christians. More than 200 Bahá’ís were executed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today, more than 120 Bahá’ís are in prison on trumped-up charges — including seven former leaders of the community serving 20-year prison sentences. Their children are often harassed at school, their young people usually barred from university, and adults denied business licences and jobs. Not even their dead are sacrosanct. The ongoing desecration of an historically important cemetery in Shiraz where 950 Bahá’í are buried has caused moral outrage all over the world. The Bahá’í question reveals some of Iran’s internal tensions. News from the country suggests that public opinion may not be entirely in line with the regime’s negative views about the Bahá’ís. A prominent Ayatollah has received praise from around the world in recent weeks for giving the Bahá’í community a work of calligraphy featuring its own sacred writings. Numerous other public figures have made their own gestures in support of the rights of this community but the hardliners remain adamant and firmly in control.

It is sometimes said that the persecution of religious minorities in Iran reflects the struggle between hardliners and progressives within the regime. Radical Islamists recently attempted to censor the president’s own speech about freedom of expression on the internet after some young people had been severely admonished for making a widely-circulated tribute film to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy”. It is clear that some people don’t like the president. This may be so but Rouhani was elected with the blessing of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and must be allowed to fulfil the pledges that brought him to office. Iranian leaders cannot continually plead that they have no power over other parts of the state. If Iran is to rejoin the civilised nations of the world, all parts of government need to act together.

For the West, the question is whether a regime which does not treat its own people with respect and represses their fundamental freedoms, can be trusted to deliver on the nuclear issue. If the West wants enduring good relations with Iran, it must pursue the cause of freedom for all the people of Iran with as much rigour as the matter of its own safety, and that of Israel, in seeking to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. A signal that good international relations and domestic respect for freedom are inextricably linked is badly needed. Will the West give such a signal? Among other things, clear support for even the small steps Rouhani is taking would be very welcome and show the hardliners that he is not alone in his desire for more freedom for the Iranian people.

There have been periods in Iran’s long history, such as those of the biblical Cyrus the Great and the Emperor Yazdigard, when it was a beacon of freedom. Will it reclaim this heritage or continue down a totalitarian path? Will Rouhani just prove to be the good cop to Tehran’s numerous bad cops, or will he assume the mantle of Cyrus? Much hangs on the answer to this question for Iran’s minorities.

Continuing our eastward journey: what can we say of the paradox of Pakistan? On the one hand, we have a parliamentary democracy, flawed certainly but also real, with a reasonably free press, an independent (too independent?) judiciary and a fecund civil society. On the other, terrorists have free rein over the length and breadth of the country. Some groups, like the Taliban and their allies, such as the notorious Haqqani group, arose during the West’s attempt, with Pakistani assistance, to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. That plan succeeded not only in its immediate mission but in the eventual unravelling of the Soviet Union itself. Pakistan has seen it as in its interests not to destroy, completely at least, the Afghan Taliban (though it is difficult to know how to separate the Pakistani Taliban from their fellow-extremists). Pakistan’s logic is that they serve as an “insurance policy” should an unfriendly regime emerge in Kabul. One definition of “unfriendly” in this context means friendly towards India.

There are other groups that were created by the Pakistan army itself mainly to infiltrate Indian-held Kashmir. Now that is becoming more difficult, such groups are concentrating on a domestic agenda, i.e. to convert Pakistan into a Wahhabi-Salafi state with no room for Shia, Sufis, Ahmadiyya, Christians or Hindus — in short, anyone other than themselves. 

The only institution capable of tackling both of these groups is the army. No civilian government, whatever its intentions, can manage on its own. Until recently, the army refused to take decisive action on the grounds that there was “no political consensus” on the issue. Commentators have taken this to mean that some significant politicians support these radical movements. More recently, the army was forced to act after militants “executed” a number of captive soldiers and attacked Karachi airport. Whether such action will be decisive in ridding the country of the scourge of extremism remains to be seen.

Compared to totalitarian regimes in the area, Pakistan feels relatively free, even if sometimes journalists pay a heavy price for their activities. Christians and people of other faiths have freedom to worship, to run their own educational and health institutions and to manifest their faith in public. And yet, there have been numerous attacks on churches, temples and other places of worship. Christian villages have been torched and members of the Ahmadiyya community (a heterodox sect) live in fear of their lives. The government always disowns and condemns these acts. Many Muslims have also been shocked by them and some have gone so far as to themselves provide protection for non-Muslim places of worship. This is all very laudable but the blasphemy laws, with mandatory death sentences, remain on the statute books and are a dead hand on freedom of speech, as well as being the means of entrapping numerous Christians and others who then face years in prison (often in solitary confinement for their own protection) before being acquitted by a higher court.

I have made numerous suggestions to successive governments both to ameliorate the force of these laws and to replace them with something more humane. No government, so far, has had the courage to do anything. This is partly because of the fear of extremists but it is also because there has been, as a senior minister once told me, a change in the mindset of a large segment of the population which has been brought up on the teaching of hatred in textbooks and on ultra-fundamentalist notions about Islam, its Prophet and its laws.

Like other countries, Pakistan has a choice: to sink more and more into an obscurantist Islamism, with all that means for women, religious minorities and even Muslims of traditions different from Wahhabism and Salafism, or to return to the vision of its founders. They did not want to create a theocratic state but one where Islam would inspire the creation of a free, just and compassionate society. As someone who, along with many others, resisted the wrong turn taken 40 years ago, I can only pray that even now the nation will turn back from the brink to which this turning has led it and embark again on the path laid out for it by those who brought it into existence. 

To the west, the new regime in Egypt has certainly acted disproportionately in its suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and in its treatment of a number of journalists. We cannot, however, underestimate the peril that Egypt was facing from an extremist Islamism being imposed on an unwilling population. The massive demonstrations in favour of change have been confirmed by the recent presidential elections. I was in the country at the time they were held and it seemed to me that, in spite of reservations, Egypt was now more settled in terms of its future direction. 

In an interview on Sky Arabia, President Sisi emphasised a nationalist vision which saw religion as important for society but understood it in an inclusive way. Christians, the media and the intelligentsia are euphoric about what has happened. Some of them are looking forward to one law for all, common citizenship and equality before the law. In some respects, they will have to come down to earth. No government can fail to take note of a strong Islamist element in the population and this will continue to influence policy on, for example, the building of churches, the treatment of converts and the freedom of the press. For instance, although the government has eased restrictions on the building of churches, extremists still try and prevent them being built or extended with the threat of violence.

Egypt has, however, taken a turn which countries like Pakistan need to note and, if not to emulate, at least one from which they can learn valuable lessons for themselves.

Turkey and Tunisia present examples where Islamism itself can become “moderate” and make room for plurality, democracy and some freedom. Will this continue to be the case in each of these countries and will other Islamist movements learn from their example? There seems little sign of it at present, and the Egyptian example shows us that the Turkish and Tunisian experience is not easily transferable.

The region has many endemic social, political and economic problems, but the one question that stands head and shoulders above the others is that of extremist Islamism. What is preventing the emergence of a modern, plural and confederal Iraq? It is Islamism of different kinds. What is the ultimate hindrance in the achievement of a just peace in the Holy Land? It is Islamism again, with its refusal even to acknowledge the existence of Israel. Although Christians have been under pressure because of Israeli policies, more recent emigration has been caused by Islamist pressure on Christian businesses, houses and worship, not only in Gaza and the West Bank but in Israel itself. What has led to the horrendous atrocities against communities like the Bahá’í and the Ahmadiyya or turned Afghanistan into a near-failed state? What is preventing the Kashmir issue from being resolved in a pragmatic way so that both Pakistan and India can get on with the task of providing a decent life for their people?

Islamists are fond of saying that “Islam is the solution.” In fact, radical Islamism is at the root of the most pressing problems in the Middle East and beyond. I have tried to indicate what can be done about this and what some countries are doing about it. Lessons can and should be learned.

In the end, the question is: does the logic of Islam lead ineluctably to Islamism, with closed, regressive and monolithic societies, as the radicals desire, or can it also lead to open, free and plural societies? Much of the future of the region, and of areas well beyond it, hinges on how this question is answered by peoples, governments and religious leaders. The world is waiting to hear the answers.