Events in the Arab world have precipitated a debate between foreign policy realists and idealists. The former worry that the overthrow of authoritarian states will bring to power governments hostile to the West. The latter think, like David Cameron, that there is no conflict between democracy and security, and that we should therefore welcome whatever the present upheavals bring. On one point, though, realists and idealists should agree. This is that protection of the rights of the Christian minority in Middle Eastern states ought to be a declared aim of Western policy.
Though crushed and squeezed over the centuries, perhaps 12 million or so Christians still inhabit the region. Half live in Egypt, where the Copts are about 10 per cent of the population, while the strongest Christian concentration is in Lebanon, where they were until recently a relative majority. Within the Holy Land the proportion of Christians has fallen over the last 40 years from 20 per cent to just over 1 per cent. The reasons for the general decline are partly economic and demographic. But they are also the direct result of high and low-level persecution.
Middle Eastern Christians have learned that accepting submission, while receiving protection, is usually the best deal on offer from Muslim rulers. The worst experiences have flowed from war — as in Iraq after 2003, where half the country’s one million Christians have fled bloody and systematic violence. They took refuge in authoritarian secular Arab states, especially Syria — which is also now in flames. The overthrow of Mubarak has since prompted a wave of killings and church burnings by Islamists, which the new authorities are unwilling or unable to stop.
This matters. Allowing it is unjust, but overlooking it is stupid. Experience shows that, by some mysterious but ineluctable law, greater concentrations of Muslims feed the more extreme and violent forms of Islam. Such is the story throughout the Middle East. The expulsion of the Jews after independence paved the way. The expulsion of the Christians now goes far further along it. Whether in Britain’s Muslim ghettoes, or in burning Cairo or in cleansed Baghdad, the process of pressuring — or, in the Middle East, killing — Christians is the means by which, at the same time, the predominance of the Islamic Umma is asserted and, within it, the role of extreme Salafists is strengthened.
So there should be no aid to Arab regimes that fail to protect their Christian and other religious minorities. And there should be no welcome for majority rule that merely enthrones persecution. It is a rare occasion when moral absolutism makes absolute sense.