Wealthy Kenyans and Westerners bustled about Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi on Saturday. Families ate lunch in the food court. A radio station targeting Kenyan Asians was hosting a children’s event on the roof of the parking lot.
Around noon, armed gunmen stormed the mall and exploded grenades. Thousands of terrified people dropped to the floor, fled out of exits and hid in stores. The gunmen began lining people up and shooting some of the five dozen people they would slaughter and 240 people, ages 2 to 78, that they would wound.
Al-Shabaab, which is claiming credit for the attack, is reported to have singled out non-Muslims. “A witness to the attacks at Nairobi’s upscale mall says that gunmen told Muslims to stand up and leave and that non-Muslims would be targeted,” according to the Associated Press.
To weed out the infidels, according to news reports, the terrorists asked people for the name of Muhammad’s mother or to recite a verse from the Quran.
The Washington Post reported that one British mother and her young children survived when captors who shot her allowed her to leave on the condition she immediately convert to Islam. The siege of the mall, which included the taking of hostages, lasted four days. Three floors of the mall collapsed and bodies were buried in the rubble.
And that wasn’t even the worst terrorist attack of the weekend.
The next day, two suicide bombs went off as Christians were leaving Sunday services at All Saints Anglican Church in Peshawar, Pakistan.
“There were blasts and there was hell for all of us,” Nazir John, who was at the church with at least 400 other worshipers, told the Associated Press. “When I got my senses back, I found nothing but smoke, dust, blood and screaming people. I saw severed body parts and blood all around.”
Some 85 Christians were slaughtered and 120 injured, the bloodiest attack on Christians in Pakistan in history. The hospital ran out of beds for the injured and there weren’t enough caskets for the dead.
The situation for Christians in Egypt has also gone from bad to worse. August saw the worst anti-Christian violence in seven centuries. Sam Tadros, a Coptic Christian and author of Motherland Lost, says that there has been nothing like this year’s Muslim Brotherhood anti-Christian pogrom since 1321, when a similar wave of church burnings and persecution caused the decline of the Christian community in Egypt from nearly half of Egypt’s population to its current ten percent.
The violence of just three days in mid-August was staggering. Thirty-eight churches were destroyed, 23 vandalized; 58 homes were burned and looted and 85 shops, 16 pharmacies and 3 hotels were demolished. It was so bad that the Coptic Pope was in hiding, many Sunday services were canceled, and Christians stayed indoors, fearing for their lives. Six Christians were killed in the violence. Seven were kidnapped.
Maalula, Syria, is an ancient Christian town that has been so sheltered for 2,000 years that it’s one of only three villages where people still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Until September 7, when Islamist rebels attacked as part of the civil war ripping through the country.
An eyewitness to the murder of three Christians in Maalula—Mikhael Taalab, his cousin Antoun Taalab, and his grandson Sarkis el Zakhm—reported that the Islamists warned everyone present to convert to Islam. Sarkis answered clearly, Vatican news agency Fides reported: “I am a Christian and if you want to kill me because I am a Christian, do it.”
Sister Carmel, one of the Christians in Damascus who assist Maalula’s many displaced Christians, told Fides, “What Sarkis did is true martyrdom, a death in odium fidei.”
In recent weeks, we have Muslims killing Christians in Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan and Syria. Again.
It’s time to ask an important question that many of us have successfully avoided for far too long:
Can we finally start talking about the global persecution of Christians and other non-Muslims?
A case study in reaction
As Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea write in Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, “Christians are the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today. This is confirmed in studies by sources as diverse as the Vatican, Open Doors, the Pew Research Center, Commentary, Newsweek and the Economist. According to one estimate, by the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, 75 percent of acts of religious intolerance are directed against Christians.”
How well does the media tell that story? And how did they cover this weekend’s events? As Anglicans and other Christians worldwide grieved the brutal attack in Pakistan, the media… did not. The worst attack on Pakistani Christians in history didn’t make the front page of the New York Times. The Washington Post buried the story on page A7 of Monday’s paper. On the front page of the BBC web site, a small headline “Pakistan church blast kills dozens” was below stories on Angela Merkel and the Emmys. By the next day, the story was nowhere to be found.
British blogger Archbishop Cranmer noted, “Without media coverage we in the West cannot smell the fear of those Christians who are persecuted by Muslims all over the world.”
Even when the media do cover violence against Christians, the religion angle tends to be buried or given short shrift. Part of this is because politicians, who are the primary sources for many of these news stories, don’t have a strong incentive to confront the reality of Muslim violence against non-Muslims (or, to be honest, many other complicated problems). Imran Khan, whose party leads the government in Peshawar, suggested that the church bombing attack wasn’t about religion but, rather, an effort to scuttle peace talks. He also blamed U.S. drone strikes for provoking militants. That’s all all well and good, but violence against Christians goes back even before 2001, when Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles began to be used in Pakistan to assassinate terrorist leaders and their companions. By about 1300 years.
The Christian Science Monitor asked the promising question, “Why did militants attack Pakistani Christians?” and discovered that, well, it was really just a case of militants of unspecified religion looking for a “controversial” target and “more spectacular, attention-grabbing attacks.” Why the church? Certainly not because of any particular animosity towards Christians—it was just that the Christians were “vulnerable.”
Trying to explain the attack in Kenya, Think Progress published an interesting piece headlined “What The Deadly Attack On A Kenya Mall Was Really About.” It talks about the weakness of al Shabaab and the terror group’s efforts to provoke conflict in Kenya. The words Muslim and Islam do not appear in the article. Another article is headlined “Five Things The Kenya Mall Attack Tells Us About Global Terrorism.” Spoiler alert: The Kenya mall attack doesn’t tell us anything about religious violence.
And what about Egypt? Well, as the persecution of Christians has heated up, the press tends to portray the violence against Christians as “sectarian skirmishes” or “clashes” between religious groups. This is about as accurate as describing the Armenian genocide as “clashes” between Turks and Armenians.
“Islam is peace.”
Right after the worst terrorist attack on American soil on September 11, 2001, American leaders from George W. Bush on down rushed to portray Islam as peaceful. While it’s simplistic to characterize any religion or other belief system as being strictly about “violence” or “peace,” the Bush Administration had a compelling political interest in marginalizing Islamist terrorists and assuring Muslims throughout the world that American reprisals weren’t going to be indiscriminately applied to all practitioners of the religion.
Sure, the terrorists clearly and explicitly claimed they were fighting for Islam. But if Americans responded in agreement, the duty of Muslims to fight for their religion could have quickly led to a global conflagration.
On September 17, 2001, President George W. Bush stopped by the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., and said, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
Twelve years ago in the heat of the moment, this may have made sense, however ill-advised it is for politicians to be taken seriously as theologians (even those who claim Jesus as their favorite political philosopher). But politicians are still doing it. After two Islamist terrorists beheaded a British soldier in the street in front of an elementary school, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg quoted from the Quran and assured everyone that Islam had been “perverted” by soldier Lee Rigby’s murderers, who claimed they were beheading the soldier in the name of Islam.
“Terrorism has no religion because there is no religious conviction that can justify the kind of arbitrary, savage random violence that we saw on the streets of Woolwich,” said Clegg.
That’s very similar to what Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in his statement this weekend: “The terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions.”
Well it’s all settled then! If we could just somehow convey to the Islamist terrorists that they, in fact, have no relationship whatsoever to Islam, we could all just get back to the business of watching Emmys.
One problem with this approach, and I’m not even talking about the 1300 years of history that speaks to the use of violence in pursuit of the spread of Islam, is that the politicians claiming Islam is nothing more than a peaceful religion usually aren’t exegetical experts.
For example, Clegg cited chapter 5, verse 32 of the Quran as “If anyone kills a human being it shall be as though he killed all mankind whereas if anyone saves a life it shall be as though he saved the whole of mankind.”
This is a favorite verse of politicians. (It’s also been used by Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama.) The only problem with using this verse is that people always fail to quote the entire verse, which in this case changes the meaning a bit. And even worse, the verse is excerpted completely out of context. With the caveat that any time you put 12 Muslims, Mormons or Methodists in a room, you might get 12 different explanations for what a verse means, let’s just say that even a reading of the following verse suggests that we’re not exactly in the peaceful section of the Quran:
Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment.
One could understand that some Muslims might interpret this in a manner differently than Deputy Prime Minister Clegg. To constantly harp on the fact that most Muslims are not violent obscures the reality that, well, a good number are.
Is 47 million al Qaeda sympathizers a low number, really?
It’s like those Pew polls that come out every two years showing that most Muslims do not, in fact, support al Qaeda. Last year’s release began:
A year after the death of its leader, al Qaeda is widely unpopular among Muslim publics. A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, conducted March 19 to April 13, 2012, finds majorities – and mostly large majorities – expressing negative views of the terrorist group in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and Lebanon.
The media went along with the press release. The Los Angeles Times headline was “Muslims in Middle East, Asia think poorly of Al Qaeda, poll finds.” U.S. News & World Report went with “After bin Laden’s Death, al Qaeda’s Popularity Wanes.” CNN’s story was “Poll: Many Muslims in Mideast, Pakistan have poor view of al Qaeda,” which included this paragraph:
In Pakistan, where U.S. Navy SEALs killed the al Qaeda leader during a raid on a compound a year ago, 55% of the Muslims surveyed had a negative opinion of the terrorist group, according to the poll. Only 13% had a favorable view.
It’s wonderful and important news that the percentage of Muslims in five countries who don’t like al Qaeda is as low as it is. But I think we forgot to notice that it’s still alarmingly high!
Yes, “only” 21 percent of Egyptian Muslims, 15 percent of Jordanian Muslims, 13 percent of Pakistani Muslims, 6 percent of Turkish Muslims and 2 percent of Lebanese Muslims express favorable views toward one particular terrorist group.
But when you think about how those percentages represent 47,284,049 Muslims in only five of the 50 countries in which a majority of the population is Muslim, it becomes a bit more alarming. The poll doesn’t mention support for al Qaeda-linked terrorists in, for example, Indonesia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
Saturday people, Sunday people
We’re talking about Christian persecution by Muslims because of a particularly macabre issue: Jews have already largely been driven out of many Muslim countries.
Lela Gilbert, a journalist who writes about Jewish and Christian persecution, tells of encountering jihadi graffiti in Jerusalem that read “First comes Saturday, then comes Sunday.” She didn’t get the meaning at first. A friend explained that it referred to Jews worshiping on Saturday and Christians on Sunday and, more subtly, about the order that non-Muslims would be targeted.
Gilbert notes that in 1948 there were about 135,000 Jews in Iraq. Now there are fewer than a dozen. In 2003, Iraq had a fairly strong Christian population. Since 2003, more than half of the 800,000 Christians have fled church bombings, rapes, torture, kidnapping, beheading and house eviction.
Or take Egypt. In 1947 there were about 100,000 Jews there. Today there are less than 50, Gilbert says. And Egypt’s Copts — numbering about 8 million — are experiencing the worst anti-Christian pogrom in 700 years. The 30,000 Jews in 1948 Syria are down to less than a dozen. It’s the Christians’ turn.
Preparation before the conversation
Before we can have an actual conversation about the persecution of Christians and others at the hands of Muslims, we have to lay some groundwork. Here are some quick thoughts for journalists, politicians and the Christian Church.
Journalists: Many journalists act as if they can’t report that acts of violence appear to have some kind of Muslim faith behind them because it might inflame anti-Muslim feelings. This reportorial approach is paired with an odd desire to hype any act of “violence” by Christians. This is why the American media will highlight a tiny Florida church burning some Quran while not mentioning that, say, the entire Kingdom of Saudia Arabia confiscates all Bibles at customs and destroys them.
When and where violence occurs involving Muslims and Christians, as it did in Pakistan, Kenya, Syria and Egypt, it is framed as a political conflict, with no examination of the religious details. Not only is this grievously unfair to the Christians who continue to be slaughtered while the rest of the world is busy watching Dancing With The Stars, it’s also a disservice to Islam, whose followers are not monolithic in their persecution of non-Muslims. Many Muslims themselves are persecuted in the name of Muslim violence. To take the most recent example, at least 96 people in Iraq were killed this past weekend when a string of bombs detonated in short order, targeting Shiite funeral-goers. Muslims who defend Christians are a bold lot. Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor, was a vocal opponent of anti-blasphemy laws that target Christians and other religious minorities. For this, he was assassinated in 2011 by his security guard.
It’s not journalists’ job to protect the public from these facts. And if it were, it would be impossible. While the media may think they’ve done a good job of obscuring part of this reality, most people have figured out that a lot of Muslims do support violence as a part of the way of Islam. And they’ve figured out as well that a lot of Muslims don’t. Both groups can appeal to long traditions within Islam for their defense.
It is the job of journalists to convey information about local and world events in all their complexity and nuance. While most media outlets privilege politics over other cultural factors, journalists really need to be cognizant about how ignorance of the role of religion harms news gathering. They should make sure their sources aren’t just politicians. They should make sure their understanding of religion is respectful of the importance it plays in most people’s lives.
Politicians: Politicians need to stop giving speeches that claim to know the heart of Muslims or the true meaning of Islam. It’s offensive and it’s not helping. And if politicians are going to give scolding speeches about religious beliefs, here’s a thought: Less of condemnation of “those who slander the prophet of Islam” and more condemnation of “those who slaughter Pakistani Christians coming out of worship.” Without even getting into whether there is a foreign policy role to play in the persecution of Christians, the American bully pulpit and diplomacy corps could stand to speak more clearly about religious violence. The current model of apologizing for American freedoms is indefensible.
The Christian Church: Whether journalists stop downplaying the facts of the persecution of Christians, Christians need to stay informed. Even if American politicians respond to Islamist violence by apologizing for the freedom of speech and of religion, the church must remain vigilant. And many are. The media didn’t quite pick up on the significance of the event, but Pope Benedict XVI announced the canonization of the Martyrs of Otranto in the same consistory in which he announced his intention to resign the papacy. In May, Pope Francis canonized the 800 Christians, who were beheaded for their faith after Turkish Muslims invaded their city in 1480. In his words, “They had refused to renounce their faith and died confessing the risen Christ.” Most church bodies have prayer guides to help members pray for the persecuted church. And many religious human rights groups work hard to get word out about persecution worldwide. Christians and others interested in stopping religious persecution should ask media outlets to cover news such as the forced conversions, blasphemy persecutions and bombings of Christians.
However much we may wish Muslim violence against Christians would resolve itself or go away, being in denial serves no purpose. To combat the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, we must first acknowledge its existence. And we need to be clear about exactly who is perpetrating violence against Christians and what is motivating them.