For hundreds of years, members of many religions lived side by side in the Middle East, usually with a spirit of mutual tolerance and acceptance of the Other. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, Alawites, Zoroastrians, Sabais, Mandaeans, Ahmadis and Bahais minimized the differences between their groups and conducted themselves in the public domain in a reasonable way. Christians, who had connections to European culture, were even the harbingers of modern Arab nationalism in the late 19th century, and they contributed greatly to the spread of modern ideologies in the area, principally Socialism, specifically the Ba’ath party, and liberalism. These modern European ideologies were to provide the residents of the Middle East with a modern substitute for the traditional religious, sectarian, ethnic and tribal identity, thereby creating a new egalitarian consciousness, upon which could be built a new, modern society where the members of all religions would be equal to each other, and a modern civil state such as those in Europe, where all of its residents would have equal rights and responsibilities.
The problem with these modern ideologies that were imported from the West is that they are contrary to the spirit of Islam which holds that “Islam is supreme and there is nothing above it,” so Jews and Christians can live under its protection, but as dhimmis, with fewer rights than the Muslims. Modern states, mainly those which have undergone revolution in the past (Syria, Iraq, Egypt, South Yemen, Libya), have tried to create a system of law which treats Muslims and Christians equally, and in the process have angered the Islamic zealots, who kept a low profile in order not to give the authoritarian power of the state an excuse to strike them with its iron fist.
Naturally, the egalitarian ideologies attracted the religious minorities, because this gave them the “certificate of kashrut” that allowed them to enter – as equals to the Muslims – into the circles of society, government, management, culture, education and livelihood. Christians became ministers of the government, mayors, ambassadors and managers, as well as officers in the Arab armies. The first minister of the treasury of the modern state of Iraq was a Jew, in Syria Alawites ran the state beginning in 1966, and Druze filled senior positions. During the second half of the twentieth century it seemed that the egalitarian national consciousness had permanently removed the traditional differences from the public consciousness.
However, in parallel, during the last twenty years, the idea of the modern Arab state has been losing its power, while social consciousness is being reinforced, such that the various sectors and their traditional leadership are increasingly the focus of public attention. Two main factors have contributed to this process: one is the discussion about human rights that has penetrated into the public consciousness, and one is the media – mainly the satellite TV channels – which focus on the individual: his difficulties, misery, desires and hopes. The focus of the public has changed from noble ideology to bitter reality, from the dictatorial state to social consciousness, which centers on human rights. The egalitarian ideologies decreased in importance after it became clear to the public that they are no more than hollow slogans that are intended to justify the existence of the dictatorship, which has failed to provide reasonable living conditions, a stable economy, personal security, work, education, welfare and health to a majority of its population.
The rout that the Arab states suffered at the hands of Israel, especially regarding the Six Day War (1967), contributed to the general feeling of disillusionment with Arab nationalism and with the failure to achieve the principal tasks that it had set for itself – to destroy the “Zionist Entity” and to achieve Arab unity. With the decline of the modern ideologies imported from Europe, the traditional, original, ideologies of the Middle East – tribalism and Islam – were restored to their prior importance, and with them the particularistic, separatist concepts, based on images, stereotypes and Islamic Shari’a. In keeping with these traditional trends, they sought where to place the blame for the terrible situation in the Middle East, and the tendency to see the different one, the Other, as guilty, immediately caused the Christians to be placed on the defendant’s seat.
About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.
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