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Preserving Religious Pluralism in the Middle East: An Option or an Imperative?




Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and colleagues, good evening. Before proceeding to the substance of my remarks, I would first like to offer heartfelt thanks to my good and dear friend, Dr. John Eibner.

Under his distinguished leadership, Christian Solidarity International has worked tirelessly—often under the most challenging of circumstances—to help construct societies, and a broader international environment, defined by religious freedom and human rights.

For those of us experiencing first-hand what I have called the Middle East’s “crisis of pluralism,” we draw strength and reassurance from having steadfast allies like Dr. Eibner and his colleagues at CSI.

And on another personal note, I would like to express my distinct pleasure that we are meeting here today in Switzerland, a land with a long tradition of upholding two vital systems that thrive on pluralism and tolerance: democracy and diplomacy.

During my tenure as president of Lebanon—a country that, as you know, was once called “the Switzerland of the Middle East”—my administration periodically called on the good offices of Swiss diplomacy, most prominently during the two National Dialogue conferences convened in Geneva and Lausanne in 1983 and 1984.

Those gatherings sought to use the principles and techniques of diplomacy to restore the best Lebanese traditions of political democracy and social pluralism.

Regrettably, three decades later both my country, Lebanon, as well as several countries of the MENA Region are in dire need of democracy and pluralism.

In light of this harsh but undeniable diagnosis, in my remarks I would like to explore two related themes. First, amid the Arab world’s crisis of pluralism, why religious pluralism matters. And second, how religions pluralism can be preserved and, over the long-term, enhanced.

In short, I hope to explain why preserving religious pluralism in the Middle East is not an option, but rather a vital imperative.

As I speak, please keep in mind that “religious pluralism” as the term is used here does not refer to the mere fact of religious diversity. Rather, religious pluralism is a mindset under which members of distinct religious communities uphold a shared duty not only to tolerate but also to respect each other’s fundamental rights, both as citizens and as human beings.

Simply put, religious pluralism means that none are socially or politically privileged due to religious belief or affiliation and, by the same token, none are discriminated against.

The Arab World’s “Crisis of Pluralism”

In a moment, I will offer some alarming observations about the status of Christians in the Arab world, but before doing so I must emphasize—and in the strongest terms—that the crisis of pluralism we are living through is not about any one religious tradition or community.

Rather, we must begin our analysis by stating that, generally speaking, the Middle East is an unforgiving place for any community that does not constitute the majority within its figurative “neighborhood.” This holds true for religiously, ethnically, politically, and culturally distinct groups.

And so let us acknowledge that religious communities not part of the neighborhood majority are victimized by the region’s lack of democracy and pluralism. To cite some of the numerous examples that come to mind, we can look to the status of Druze, Chiites, Hawthi, Alawites, and Bahá’is.

Likewise, Shiites living in Sunni-dominated areas and Sunnis living in Shiite-dominated areas typically experience conditions ranging from mild social discrimination and to severe governmental persecution.

In the diverse but interconnected Arab world, the prevailing pattern of mutually assured discrimination might, at least, provide an opening for advocates of democracy and pluralism. After all, every religious community, no matter how secure in its own zone of majority, is in close touch with co-religionists elsewhere who face discrimination.

For their part, Christians in the Arab world have for decades experienced a worsening environment, and in the last ten years or so longstanding negative trends have intensified.

Reasons for this include wars, occupations, political turmoil, economic disruption, and the rise of religious extremists—always threatening and often violent—who target anyone and everyone who refuses to bow before their perverse and retrograde worldview.

And so in recent years we have witnessed an exodus approaching biblical proportions as Arab Christians have fled their ancient homelands.

For example, in Egypt—in so many ways the leading Arab nation—the Coptic community has been subjected to church burnings, physical assaults, and even killings. In Iraq, Christians face a similar onslaught of murder and church desecrations.

As for Syria, this audience is well aware of the wholesale destruction that the war is inflicting on all Syrians, regardless of faith. Compounding their particular difficulties, Syrian Christians have been under sustained attack by extremists, as demonstrated by the separate, high-profile kidnappings of two Syrian bishops and a group of nuns.

Equally disturbing, in regions of Syria where they have imposed their “rule”—better described as a bloody-minded reign of terror—ultra-radical Islamists such as the Al-Nusra Front have implemented extremely harsh Sharia law, including a draconian injunction that Christians must either convert to Islam or else pay a ruinous “tax”.

In response to intensifying persecution, the state department declared in early March that the “United States deplores continued threats against Christians and other minorities in Syria, who are increasingly targeted by extremists.” “These outrageous conditions,” continued the statement, “violate universal human rights.” [Department of State, “Christians Under Threat in Syria,” 3 March 2014]

I gratefully acknowledge the U.S. Government’s eloquent words, but also call for urgent actions to back them up.

In my own country, Lebanon, a long-established precedent of Christian emigration has increased in recent years, driven by assassinations, political upheaval, and the deliberate incapacitation of state institutions by certain political elements.

Taking a region-wide and historical view of the Arab world’s crisis of pluralism, from a Christian perspective we can offer the following grim summation:

According to estimates, at the beginning of the twentieth century Christians constituted about 20 percent of the total population of the Middle East; today, that figure has dwindled to just 5 percent. Projecting population trends foreword, the Middle East’s remaining 12 million Christians may be reduced by 50 percent in less than a decade.

This bleak picture demonstrates that the region is buffeted by a crisis of pluralism and that Christians are, perhaps, its primary victims.

Why Religious Pluralism in the Arab World Matters

At this point, some might pose the question: “Why, amid a world beset with conflict, turbulence, and challenges, does preserving religious pluralism in the Arab world and wider Middle East matter?” In response, regional, global, and religious factors can be cited.

Regionally speaking, we must remember the historic contributions made by Christians to the various Arab states and to the Arabic civilization as a whole.

Here we can recall the conclusion offered last year by His Royal Highness King Abdullah II of Jordan: “The protection of the rights of Christians is a duty rather than a favor. Christians have always played a key role in building our societies and defending our nations.” [Christian Science Monitor, 22 December 2013]

Globally, the Christian communities that constitute an essential element of the mosaic of the Arab world are a natural “bridge” between the East and the West; in fact, no other group is better positioned to explain the two sides to each other.

By way of historical example, we can reflect on the cross-cultural role played by a great generation of Christian Lebanese-Americans who, in the early twentieth century, made significant and lasting contributions to the dialogue of civilizations.

Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy enriched the life of the mind and spirit through English and Arabic works that still inspire countless readers worldwide. Each in his own way blended advanced Western learning and traditional Eastern wisdom and helped inspire the greatest renaissance of Arabic literature in modern times.

Finally, religiously it is impossible to envision the existence of a vibrant, world-embracing Christian community if its historic “anchor,” namely Middle East Christians, disappears.

Now, having described the problem and sketched its importance, I would like to offer some thoughts on possible solutions to the Arab world’s crisis of pluralism.

Regional Precondition: Restoring Stability

The first and most obvious point to be made is that religious communities cannot enjoy the blessings of pluralism unless they live in stable societies. In terms of the Middle East today, then, creating a positive form of stability is the most urgent priority.

Today, creating stability entails reaching negotiated settlements in a string of politically volatile countries, most especially Syria. Therefore, all responsible parties within and outside that country should focus on creating a power-sharing agreement that preserves core state institutions while also dismantling the pervasive machinery of repression

Despite, and even because of, the failure of last month’s Geneva II conference on Syria, diplomatic and peacemaking efforts must be redoubled.

National Solutions: Building Democracy to Promote Pluralism

Prospects for preserving religious pluralism in the Middle East will receive a tremendous boost when the war in Syria ends, but efforts to preserve pluralism must proceed even as a Syrian peace is fitfully negotiated.

Here, it must be stated with conviction that the best option for preserving religious pluralism is not a return to the old, discredited model of social peace through political dictatorship.

Instead, allow me to make what some may consider to be a bold declaration: despite negative trends that cannot be denied and should not be ignored, three years on the Arab Awakening remains one of the great, hope-inspiring developments of early twenty-first century history.

Yes, it must be conceded that some formerly promising countries, such as Libya and Yemen, have not yet transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. But this was never going to be a swift or straightforward process, and indeed the “in-between” stages have been quite messy.

But there are reasons to be optimistic that Arab democracies can emerge and that they will guarantee political, social, and religious pluralism.

In the case of Egypt, no matter who wins the upcoming presidential election, the new government will have no choice but to negotiate and compromise with those youthful forces of change that so recently inspired the world by launching a peaceful Revolution.

And let us recall that during the initial phase of the anti-Mubarak protests, a cadre of young Egyptian revolutionaries called for democracy and pluralism under the slogan, quote, “the Cross and Qur’an together.”

Personally, I am confident that the youth of Egypt will do everything within their not inconsiderable power to ensure that their country emerges as an Arab democracy, a development that would have wide-ranging repercussions not only regionally, but also globally.

Beyond Egypt, perhaps the greatest hope for Arab democracy is Tunisia, fittingly the birthplace of the Arab Awakening.

The constitution recently promulgated by Tunisia’s broadly representative National Constituent Assembly was the result of a long, deliberative process, one guided by a spirit of common enterprise and rational compromise.

The resulting charter describes decisive measures, such as creating a civil state, guaranteeing gender parity in elected bodies, and enshrining universal human rights—including, significantly, religious freedom.

With this progressive constitution, Tunisia takes its place alongside Lebanon as the Arab world’s second internally created democracy. The consequence of this achievement as an inspiration and model for the region cannot be overstated.

Other Pathways to Pluralism

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to conclude by reviewing a few other short- and long-term pathways to pluralism.

Writing in the pages of a leading American newspaper in 2011, our host Dr. Eibner offered a wise proposal that is even more necessary today. He urged President Obama to, and I quote, “establish a high-level interagency task force [within the U.S. Government] to prepare a strategy aimed at securing religious freedom and diversity in the Middle East.” [Boston Globe, 11 May 2011]

Allow me to expand on this astute advice by urging not only European governments, but also the European Union structure in Brussels, to establish such working groups. Fittingly, the Catholic Church has already taken the lead and provided an example that secular institutions can replicate.

According to a recent media report from Beirut, quote, “[t]he Vatican has already formed a crisis committee on the subject [of Christians in the Middle East] and has commissioned a group of bishops to prepare a report detailing the reality facing Christians in the region and their reasons for emigrating, as well as identifying possible solutions.” [Daily Star, 14 February 2014]

At the very least, the Vatican’s committee can ensure that greater governmental and public attention is focused on the Arab world’s crisis of pluralism. Regrettably, in this regard the conclusion offered by the prominent American journalist Jeffery Goldberg a year ago remains valid. The persecution of Arab Christians, said Goldberg, is (and I quote,) “one of the most undercovered stories in international news.” [USA Today, 2 April 2013]

Of course, it is obvious that any effort to preserve and enhance religious pluralism in the Middle East must be led by the region’s Christians along with representatives of the moderate Muslim majority. International partners also need to provide assistance.

Fortunately, in recent years, influential voices from within the Muslim community have spoken out in favor of pluralism and interfaith dialogue. For example, great symbolism was on display in late 2007 when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia met with Pope Benedict at the Vatican.

And the spirit of those talks found institutional expression in October 2011 when King Abdullah founded his International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna.

Also in 2011, an important pro-democracy statement was issued by Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, sheikh of the prestigious Al-Azhar in Cairo—the world’s leading center of Sunni Muslim thought. In Lebanon, a major sunni leader, Saad Hariri, former prime minister, pleaded strongly the moderation and the dialogue.

Today, if Tunisia is not to be the sole success story of the Arab Awakening, then Arab reformers need to focus on the vital issue of education. To inspire Arab youth to support universal values of freedom, democracy, and pluralism, access to primary and higher education must be enhanced.

Above all, new curricula at all educational levels must emphasize the teaching of tolerance, togetherness, and partnership.

Beyond educational reform, to consolidate the Arab Awakening countries must create those classic institutions that brace the frame of democracy, namely: parliaments, executives, and courts with independent identities and constitutionally guaranteed powers.

The challenge for Arabs of all faiths at this crucial moment is to demonstrate that the Middle East is capable of achieving pluralism, freedom, and modernity. Now is the time for this troubled region to transcend sectarianism and define a concept of citizenship based on universal values of democracy and tolerance, including religious freedom.

In this regard, I would like to share that I recently drafted a concept paper, or charter, for achieving Arab democracy, the text of which can be found at the following link:

The charter discusses key democratic provisions that must be strengthened in the Arab world, including human rights, civil rights, religious rights, media rights and, perhaps must crucially, the protection of pluralism.

Conclusion: The Arab Marshall Plan

Furthermore, late last year, at a Washington, DC, event jointly organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Maison du Futur in Beirut, I suggested that the time has come to launch an “Arab Marshall Plan.”

As envisioned, the Arab Marshall Plan would be led by Arabs, supported by the established democracies of the Atlantic community, and dedicated to forging partnerships with—and among—the emerging community of Arab democrats.

Just as the historical Marshall Plan was an accelerator of economic development, political moderation, and international cooperation, I firmly believe that an Arab Marshall Plan could help transform the troubled Middle East.

In terms of freedom and pluralism, the proposed Arab Marshall Plan could give priority to education and dialogue to promote solutions of togetherness and respect for pluralism. These and related education measures can be bundled under the theme, “evolution of minds while maintaining identities.”

In terms of governance, the “Arab Marshall Plan” could focus on issues of openness, transparency, and the rotation of power. We can call this approach, “reform of institutions.”

Above all, the Arab Marshall Plan must emphasize the promise of partnership as something separate and distinct from the old paternalism. The historical Marshall Plan succeeded because it encouraged Europeans to cooperate with each other and—based on that cooperation—to build enduring partnerships.

Likewise, the Arab Marshall Plan must encourage talented Arabs in key sectors of state and society—especially the youth—to cooperate with each other across sectarian, ethnic, and national boundaries, and then to build lasting relationships with international partners, especially in Europe and North America.

I am pleased that discussions between the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Maison du Futur about their collaborative efforts are ongoing, and for its part the MdF anticipates that the Arab Marshall Plan will play a major part in this emerging partnership.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Arab world and the global community are faced with a great opportunity; I urge members of this distinguished audience to contribute to the historic task of preserving and enhancing religious pluralism in the Middle East.

Thank you.