As fundamentalist Islam continues to spread throughout the Middle East, religious minorities encounter increasing difficulties in their struggle to survive.
Churches bombed. Clerics kidnapped. Missionaries murdered. Though the Western mind might be conditioned to recoil from such acts of brutality, they have become a part of everyday life throughout the Islamic world. The Middle East is the land that gave birth to the three great monotheistic religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Apart from being a place of pilgrimage for these faiths, the Middle East is also home to many native (“home grown,” in the truest sense of the word) non-Muslims, including Christians and Jews, but also Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Mandeans, Yizidis, Sikhs, and Hindus. Even within Islam itself, there exist a number of sects: Ahmadis, Shi’as, Sufis, and the vastly predominant Sunnis.
The nations of the Middle East experienced a collective transformation over the latter half of the 20th century, during which Islamic fundamentalism took hold – a movement that continued to be nourished by a hatred of the West, and moreover, of anything non-Muslim. In a panel discussion at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute, three experts on the sociopolitical conditions currently boiling in the Middle East gave their accounts of what is happening now, particularly with regard to religious minorities.
Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of the Pakistani Parliament (2008-12), gave an overview of the historical developments in her own country. Pakistan gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, but maintained its ties to the mother country by remaining a part of the British Commonwealth and by instituting a parliamentary system in the tradition of Western democracy. While both of these remain true today, Pakistan has veered toward fundamentalism in the same way that its neighbors have.
According to Ispahani, Pakistan’s first government was composed of members of the various faiths and Islamic sects present within the country. “At the time of Pakistan’s independence, 30 percent of the population was non-Muslim. Today, that figure stands at 5 percent.” Ispahani pointed to the recent assassinations of two Pakistani political figures – Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and Shahbaz Bhatti in March 2011 – as evidence of the sectarian violence plaguing her home country. Bhutto, who had served as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, was reviled by fundamentalists for promoting what they perceived to be an impure, Western-influenced ideology. Bhatti, on the other hand, was murdered for serving as the country’s Minister for Minorities’ Affairs (and, even more notably, for being Catholic). Ispahani laments the sort of vigilantism that has taken hold in her home country, and while these examples provide two very prominent scenarios of the sort of violence that occurs in Pakistan, they are also representative of the turmoil that is experienced on a daily basis within that nation’s borders.
But Pakistan is not alone in experiencing this surge of Islamist fundamentalism. Dr. Jamsheed K. Choksy, Professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian, and Islamic Studies at Indiana University, offered his take on what is happening in Iran: “There is an absolute hatred and intolerance of anything non-Muslim, and it is codified in law. The predominant belief is that anything that is not Islamic is ‘unclean.’” Choksy stated that, contrary to Pakistan’s rogue persecution of religious minorities, the Iranian situation is a matter of oppression under the law. “Charges against religious minorities are often framed as a matter of ‘national security,’” said Choksy, “and those found guilty of ‘treason’ are either imprisoned or executed.” He also highlighted the country’s double-standard vis-à-vis blasphemy: “Iran has a strict policy of protection against anti-Islamic blasphemy, but no such protections are afforded to religious minorities.”
According to Choksy, one of the key reasons for the perpetuation of fundamentalist rule in Iran is the country’s constitutionally prescribed governmental structure. Since 1979, Iran has been primarily ruled not by its President, but by a Supreme Leader, who acts as both the nation’s highest political and religious authority. The Supreme Leader, who is appointed for life, ultimately has the greatest influence over Iranian society, and it is under his influence that Sharia remains the law of the land. Said Choksy, “President Ahmadinejad will be out, and another will replace him. But Khamenei [the present Supreme Leader] – and the role of the Ayatollah – will remain.”
Stephen Schwartz – Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism and a convert to Sufi Islam – agrees with Choksy’s assessment, further stating that “traditional Islamic teaching holds that clerics are not to rule. It is heresy; clerics advise rulers.” The theocratic nature of most modern Islamic states is a perpetuation of this heresy and a corruption of a truly Islamic society, in Schwartz’s view. Schwartz also laments the loss of the influence that classical (Greek) philosophy once had in historic Islamic societies – an intellectual and cultural tradition that disappeared with the rise of fundamentalist Islam.
“Pakistan is indeed the worst in terms of bloodshed, and Iran in terms of legal repression, but the crisis is not contained to these nations alone,” Schwartz adds. He points to the situation in Syria, and Damascus in particular, where Sunnism was established. There, insurgents have destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Elijah, who is revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. It has come to the point where anything that might even be held in common by these faiths is looked upon with disdain as fundamentalists wage a jihad against the ‘impurities’ of anything that stands outside of Islam.
The situation is a grim one, indeed: “If there is to be true respect for religious minorities,” says Schwartz, “there must be a collapse of the radical Islamist theocracies that rule today.” And until this comes to pass, religious minorities will continue to be caught in the crossfire, if not the targets themselves.