Our neighbourhood in East Jerusalem housed Christian as well as Muslim families. To our right lived Armenians and Arab Christians, and to our left were three Muslim neighbours. And although my mum and dad were evidently sensitive to their backgrounds – Armenian, Palestinian Christian or Palestinian Muslim – what truly mattered to them in the end was the person rather than the religion, confession or ethnicity.
Those early memories remain precious, so much so that I still find it hard to fast forward my life by some four decades and fathom fully that we are living in a world where so much distrust – and such raw fear – has been sown into the hearts of many peoples in the MENA region. It is perhaps less so in Palestine where Muslims and Christians are together struggling against an occupation that has disempowered them all irrespective of their religious affiliation as it appears on their differently-coloured identity cards.
Over a number of years, something has become broken and I have not yet succeeded in identifying it fully. Mind you, this began taking root well before ISIL emerged on the scene, but if I look at the fate of minorities in places like Iraq and Syria, to mention only two key countries, it becomes abundantly clear to me that the feral attacks, murders, abductions and humiliation against Christians and other minorities by groups that claim to be speaking in the name of Islam has now reached frightening zeniths.
Outer religious identity
What seems to matter these days is not so much the inner person as an aggregate of different qualities. Instead, it is the outer religious identity. I have heard – and we have all seen – horrific incidents in Mosul, Deir el-Zor and other parts of Iraq and Syria, about the maltreatment of Christians and this tempts me to cross-examine the vehement degree of change in those societies over the past two decades. I am frankly afraid as I had never felt so much unrefined distrust let alone fear and hatred as I do today when travelling in the region or speaking with different communities.
Why is it that there is a rampage against the minority communities of Iraq since the downfall of Saddam Hussein whereby one million Iraqi Christians have witnessed their numbers dwindle to less than 350,000? Or why are other communities such as Shabaks, Sabaeans or even Yazidis facing extinction?
How can I even resolutely castigate those Arab Christian hierarchs who pretend ... that the salvation of their communities can solely be secured by those bloodied dictators and power-hungry despots who have been in part responsible for the wholesale oppression, repression and indoctrination of their own 'citizens'?
How can anyone who believes in a higher Almighty commit the barbarities of ISIL or destroy artefacts and monuments (in Nimrud, Harta or Khorasabad) that are a token of our ancient history and earlier civilisations? How can I justify the heinous crimes of those individuals who give themselves a God-inspired right to kill individuals of other faiths with such impunity?
How can I even resolutely castigate those Arab Christian hierarchs who pretend – wrongly in my opinion – that the salvation of their communities can solely be secured by those bloodied dictators and power-hungry despots who have been in part responsible for the wholesale oppression, repression and indoctrination of their own “citizens”?
I suppose I could harvest some answers – justifications even – for the state of our world today. After all, I could argue that Islam is roughly 700 years younger than Christianity and that Muslims would learn from the error of their ways just as Christians did after the barbarous excesses of the Crusades or the Inquisition. Why stop with those events, though, and not dredge up the colonial period that rode roughshod over the local Arabs across a whole region?
Or I could even segue that what is occurring today is not the real teaching of Islam or the work of the huge majority of Muslims but that of a tiny radicalised minority across the faith who are reacting against western hegemony and global emasculation. Better still, I could posit my own theory that parts of the Muslim ummah have become so traumatised by their ostracism from society that they have regressed into a frame of mind which finds safety in a religious entitlement to establish a caliphate where everybody who does not belong to their rigorously exclusive interpretation becomes a second-class subject.
Alas, something has indeed broken no matter the learned pundits or rabble rousers who claim otherwise. I would also argue it is our responsibility as Muslims and Christians to tackle the causes of this downward spiral together to enable us to address their symptoms too. The crux of the matter is that we should speak out against such atrocities, and the imams and religious leaders within the Muslim faith should lead the way in raising our collective and unqualified voices.
This year marks the fourth anniversary of the uprisings across the MENA region. This includes the Syrian uprisings that started off peacefully in Daraa in mid-March 2011 by Syrians seeking their dignity and bread. So faced with the pain of Raqqa and Aleppo, let alone of Mosul, Sirte, Derna or Falluja, let me return to the beginnings of Islam.
Was it not in 628 CE that a Christian delegation from St Catherine’s monastery in Egypt met with the Prophet Mohammad and requested his protection? Did he not then give them a charter that protected the right to property, freedom of religion and employment as well as security for the person? Do the first and last sentences of the charter not promise that it was eternal and universal so nobody could revoke the inalienable privileges it granted to those Christians?
Was it not also in 631 CE that the Prophet Muhammad received a delegation of 60 Christians from Najran in his mosque in Medina where he allowed them to pray and then concluded the “covenant to the Christians of Najran” as a treaty granting them religious and administrative autonomy as citizens of the Islamic State?
Today, 14 centuries later, I understand the fear of others but I do not internalise it. Rather, I pause to raise relevant questions about issues of disempowerment, marginalisation, repression or destitution of large masses across the MENA region that aided and abetted the process of such radicalism. After all, we should not overlook the demographic and polarising impact of top-bottom corruption, cronyism, nepotism and abuse that festers in many MENA societies today.
So could it be that those factors contributed in fomenting anger and hatred to such a high degree that they also percolated extremism and even terrorism in our midst? Equally importantly, and once this wave of radicalised extremism has – ineluctably – receded, will it spawn new forms of radicalism? If so, will we succeed in reclaiming our universal God? Or will those battered communities with their wounded beliefs now become the disfigured realities of a new MENA region?
Dr Harry Hagopian is a London-based international lawyer, political adviser and ecumenical consultant on the MENA region. He is also a second-track negotiator and works closely with European institutions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.