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Putting Christians in the Middle East Picture

January 27, 2012

Though their presence in the Middle East predates Islam, Christians are "curiously absent" from the scholarly literature on that part of the world.

“Christians in the Middle East have been curiously absent from Western and Middle Eastern scholarship,” write Julia Droeber and Fiona McCallum in a special issue of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. It’s a special issue because all the articles are selected as attempts to change this curious absence by focusing on the presence of Christians at crucial junctures of Middle Eastern social and political life.

Among the more interesting articles are:

“The ‘mediation’ of Muslim–Christian relations in Egypt: the strategies and discourses of the official Egyptian press during Mubarak’s presidency” by Elizabeth Iskander.

This article analyses the representation of Muslim–Coptic relations in the Al-Ahrām newspaper between 2005 and 2010. The primary goal is to assess the strategies and discourses used by this newspaper to represent sectarianism. As scholars note, negative representations of the ‘other’ in the media can contribute to shaping and prolonging conflict. Therefore, Al-Ahrām‘s representation of sectarian incidents is significant for the analysis both of the dynamics of Muslim–Christian relations in Egypt, and of state and church policies towards communal violence. Three are three central discourses. (1) The use of selective narratives of history to construct a collective understanding of national unity as a natural state of relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. (2) Displacement of blame, which means constructing inter-religious conflict as alien and external through the use of an ‘us versus them’ paradigm in order to shift responsibility for Egypt’s sectarian incidents to ‘outsiders’. (3) The control of extreme religious views through a discourse of ‘extremists versus moderates’.

Then there’s “The Arab shaykh: authority in Christian and Muslim communities, and questions of social–political reform” by David Grafton.

Democratic reform in the Middle East has been prominent on the public agenda of several American administrations since the 1990s. The lack of progress on this agenda and the rise of what has been labeled ‘Islamo-fascism’ has led to arguments that Islam is incompatible with democracy and individual rights. Utilizing recent Middle East development reports and sociological studies on the Arab family, this article argues that the traditional authority of the Arab shaykh, as an either benevolent or authoritarian leader, is imbedded deep within Arab culture. The article shows that Arab Christian communities, even those that pride themselves on modern egalitarian views, share cultural modalities of authority with their Muslim compatriots. Consequently, Western democratic ideals based upon individualism do not function naturally within the current Middle Eastern Arab cultural social framework. Any form of national legislative power sharing must take into account the Arab social structure and the common cultural leadership models inherent in both Muslim and Christian communities.

Finally, there’s Fiona McCallum’s “Christian political participation in the Arab world”

The political participation of Christians in the Arab world highlights the difficulties of reconciling the principles of equality and full rights based on citizenship with maintaining the public role of the religion of the majority of the population – Islam. Christian strategies have focused upon both Arab and state nationalism as well as pursuing individual ambition. The political context of these efforts is also significant. First, Christians are not immune to the political environment in the region, which has been characterized by a tradition of authoritarianism and limited political opportunity. Second, the Islamic environment provides the framework for discussing the political role of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority states. Christian political participation has also been shaped by the strategies pursued by the ruling regimes. These are: the treatment of Christians as the same or indistinct, the notion of ‘loyal’ citizens, and the institutionalization of differences through quotas. Yet irrespective of what strategy is employed, religious identity continues to be the crucial factor in determining the type of political participation accessed by Christians in the region, thus challenging the notion of national unity.

Taken together, “the articles illustrate that Middle Eastern Christians are faced with the same issues that affect all in the region, such as democritization, citizenship, political participation and gender rights. Yet their religious identity still serves to accentuate ‘difference,’ which becomes entwined into discourse concerning their presence and activities in the Middle East” Droeber and McCallum write.

One Comment leave one →
  1. iskanders permalink
    March 26, 2012 6:37 pm

    Reblogged this on The Iskanders Review.

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