Among my regular self-imposed reading assignments, there’s little I look forward to more than the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, published by the Council on Foreign Relations. For my money, it’s the best regular collection of smart, deeply informed and basically non-ideological commentary on global affairs out there.
Whenever I have to prepare an article on the Vatican and some global hotspot, I’ll usually start by checking back issues of Foreign Affairs for its latest think piece on the subject, and then gleefully pillage it for smart-sounding background and insight.
That said, regular reading of Foreign Affairs is also an object lesson in the blind spot from which America’s foreign policy elite often suffer when it comes to religion.
The November/December 2017 issue is a classic case in point. It’s devoted to “America’s Forgotten Wars,” and carries lead pieces on Iraq and Syria, the former by Emma Sky, who served as governorate coordinator in Kirkuk and an aide to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and the latter by Robert S. Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria.
Both pieces are terrific in many ways.
Sky makes a powerful argument for why the United States needs to remain engaged in Iraq even after ISIS has been dislodged from Mosul, its last major stronghold in the country, while Ford concludes there’s very little for the U.S. to do in Syria right now and we ought to concentrate on assisting Syrian refugees in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.
What’s revealing, however, is that neither Sky nor Ford address the fate of the Christian community in either Iraq or Syria – as a matter of fact, the word “Christian” appears only once in either essay, in the context of Sky discussing the pre-war makeup of Mosul. Ford makes two passing mentions of “religious minorities” in Syria, but that’s it.
Consider that in the eyes of the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria have been the victims of a full-blown genocide. Solely on humanitarian grounds, any survey of U.S. obligations in the region surely must take their situation into consideration – especially, of course, because it was the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that inadvertently helped trigger that genocide.
Beyond that, what’s perhaps even more puzzling for foreign policy experts is the failure to recognize the fate of Christianity in the Middle East for what it obviously is – a towering, urgent global security concern.
To begin with, every bit of empirical data we have confirms that religious freedom is a bellwether for overall stability. Countries that score well for respect of religious freedom generally score high on other indices of progress, such as levels of democracy, transparency and good governance, economic development, security, and so on.
If we want a Middle East that’s anything other than a perennial powder-keg, therefore, promoting religious freedom is essential. One good test for whether religious freedom is real is how the Christian minority is faring – and right now, the news is not good.
Further, Christians contribute several badly needed assets to the Middle East. They build schools and hospitals that serve everyone; they tend to be proportionately better-educated, which translates into more young professionals prepared to build functioning societies; they run successful businesses, priming the economic pump; and because they have ties to fellow believers around the world, they serve as a natural bridge between the Arab world and the West.
Realistic Arab leaders certainly recognize all this, from King Abdullah II in Jordan to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, making it all the more inexplicable that supposed American gurus on the Middle East so often don’t.
Granted, those gurus are keenly aware that whenever the U.S. or other Western powers act in the Middle East, they’re too often seen in the Muslim “street” as doing so on behalf of Christendom, and the situation is read as another chapter in a more than millennium-long religious conflict. Undoubtedly, they’re anxious not to add fuel to that fire.
However, the right response isn’t to ignore the fact that ensuring the stability of the Christian minority is clearly in everyone’s interests, except the extremists. It’s to reach out to mainstream Muslim leadership, both political and clerical, who can make the case from within a traditionally Islamic frame of reference.
Here’s a real-time example of what’s at stake.
Over the last few months in Iraq, more than 100,000 Christians dislodged from the northern Nineveh Plains in 2014 by the ISIS onslaught have been trying to rebuild their homes, assisted by organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need, a global papal foundation assisting persecuted Christians.
At the moment, that rebuilding is largely stalled due to tensions between Iraq and Kurdistan, after the Kurds voted to declare independence. If the area turns into a conflict zone again, those Christians probably will give up and move on, and another piece of the Middle East that once was a model of pluralism will have been “religiously cleansed.”
How otherwise well-informed observers of global affairs could survey the landscape and fail to recognize such threats to long-term stability is … well, to call it “disappointing” doesn’t quite seem to cover it, but it’s the best I’ve got.
* * *
Of late, some readers have asked what it means when you see a story with the byline “Crux Staff,” which is fairly frequent here.
In response, we’ve added the following note to the “About Crux” page on our site: “From time to time, you’ll see ‘Crux Staff’ listed as the author of a piece. That’s standard practice at most news organizations to designate when one reporter wasn’t the primary author of a given news story, but rather that it represents a collective effort. That’s also the sense in which it’s used here.”
Hope that clears it up.