A new year beckons. We need a special spiritual move in the Muslim world. May majority Muslim societies adopt the spirit of Christmas in their treatment of Christians and other religious minorities in their midst. May the pervasive persecution and violence against the most helpless and vulnerable in their midst end.
Christmas is the holiest Christian holiday. But it also is an international celebration, marked by many people with little interest in its religious roots. The flood of gift-giving makes it the perfect symbol of a consumer society, with Santa rather than Jesus the dominant figure.
Even though many adherents of other faiths focus on the holiday's secular attributes, some non-Christians treat the holiday as a challenge. Muslim nations as varied as Brunei and Saudi Arabia ban Christmas. Yet Turkish writer Mustafa Aykol, author of the very fine Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, argues that the holiday is consistent with Islam given its veneration of Jesus: "Even if this is not a Muslim holiday, we don't need to object to Christmas. The miraculous birth of Jesus — the prophet, the Messiah and the 'Word' of God — should not offend any Muslim."
However, the status of Christmas is a minor issue for the Islamist radicals committing murder and mayhem in the Middle East. If they only wanted to outlaw Christmas the harm would be modest. Alas, they want to eliminate Christians (and other non-Muslims) as well as Christianity's cultural manifestations. Hence murdering male believers and selling women into sexual slavery. Of course, despite the headlines routinely set by jihadist killers — most recently including the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey and truck assault at the Berlin Christmas Market — the vast majority of Muslims do not advocate such tactics. The West will lose if it allows its response to Islamist terrorists to appear to devolve into a war with Islam.
Yet the mantra that Islam is a religion of peace obviously doesn't reflect reality. Most Muslims are peaceful. (Those in America are particularly well assimilated.) But a still disturbing number use their faith to justify the most hideous violence against truly peaceful and often helpless members of other religions, as well as Muslims who believe differently. Some Muslims obviously interpret their historic faith in a way that threatens the lives and liberties of anyone different than themselves.
Other religions are not innocent. Violence is a tool of some Hindus in India and Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka. Yet the brutal episodes are limited and opportunistic if sometimes intense. And religious identification often seems subordinate to ethnic, cultural, and national identities.
Violence by Christians and Jews for religious purposes is essentially ancient history, other than sporadic communal outbreaks in a couple of countries. (Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians reflects its operation as a nation state, not a religious faith.) There are no marauding bands of Christians and Jews kidnapping, shooting, or bombing Muslims (or others) at worship, school, leisure, or elsewhere. Were Christian terrorists to arise and kill Muslims in the West the reaction would be utter shock — which is not the response to Islamist attacks.
Islamists typically are killing and brutalizing because of their faith. While the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, or even violent, Islam has a unique problem in that it motivates some of its adherents to use violence and engage in terrorism.
The most victimized believers are Christians and Jews. The former, as the largest religious group, have the most members persecuted. The latter, as the traditional scapegoat, including for too long by Christians as well, are the most intensely persecuted.
Still, only a small percentage of the faithful are engaged in violence. And many Islamist attacks on the West can be explained as hideously misdirected retaliation for a violent and repressive foreign policy directed against Muslim peoples and nations. Bomb, invade, and occupy other countries, and blowback occurs. That is an explanation, not justification, and should surprise no one.
Less explicable and thus perhaps even more disturbing is widespread acceptance of if not demand for religious repression by many more Muslims. For all of the claims of "Islamophobia" in the West, no nominally Christian nation, other than ones distorted by Communism past or present (Russia and Cuba, for instance) actively punish believers of any sort, let alone non-Christians for being non-Christians. Some inhibit religious practices — donning the hijab, for instance — thereby restricting religious freedom, but they tend to do the same to Christians and Jews. In any case, Muslims in those nations remain freer than Christians in the most liberal Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Turkey, and the (non-Saudi) Gulf States.
The difference between Muslim and Christian nations is dramatic. The 9/11 attacks created fear in America, sparking sometimes ugly physical assaults, religious profiling, and personal discrimination. A few European nations, reeling from terrorist attacks committed by their own Muslim residents or refugees, have legislated against some of Islam's highly symbolic manifestations, such as dress and mosque architecture. Still, religiously-based discrimination and violence against Muslims is minimal.
In contrast, majority Muslim nations usually employ pervasive discrimination and persistent persecution, and sometimes demonstrate almost genocidal brutality. No Muslim-majority state, except perhaps the old secular dictatorships of Saddam Hussein and Hafez/Bashar al-Assad, much respects religious liberty. And a disturbing number of Islamic nations actively persecute: governments threaten members of other faiths with prison and execution or stand by as mobs act in the state's stead.
For instance, the group Open Doors publishes its World Watch list of the worst 50 offenders against freedom of religious conscience and practice. Thirty countries are majority Muslim. Communist/former Communist states constitute another nine, and five of them have majority Muslim populations. Only five nations are majority Christian, and in some of them, such as Kenya and Mexico, most of the violence and other forms of persecution are directed against Christians. (Of the remainder, three are mixed, two are majority Buddhist, and one is majority Hindu.) Of the top ten persecutors, eight are Muslim. The correlation is certain. Causation also is clear.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom targets serious religious liberty offenders as well. Ten countries have been designated as Countries of Particular Concern. Three are Muslim: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Five are Communist/former Communist: China, North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (the latter three also are Muslim). Burma (Buddhist) and Eritrea (mixed faith, independent totalitarian) round out the group.
The USCIRF recommends that another seven nations be designated as CPCs. Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria are Muslim. Vietnam is Communist. Nigeria is mixed, but most of the violence is Muslim on Christian. Only one is majority Christian, the Central African Republic.
Of ten "tier 2" countries cited by the Commission, four are Muslim: Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey. Five are Communist/former Communist: Azerbaijan, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Laos, and Russia (the first and third also are majority Muslim). India is majority Hindu. Finally, the USCIRF is monitoring six other countries/regions. Two are Muslim, Bahrain and Bangladesh. Two are former Communist, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan (also majority Muslim). One is mixed, Horn of Africa. One is Christian, Western Europe.
Some in the West have argued that Islam needs a Reformation or Vatican II. The inner workings of the faith, of course, are up to its believers, not others. But in treating outsiders Islam needs a doctrine of tolerance and respect. Non-Muslims both near and far should be treated as creatures made in the image of God.
On this past Christmas we knew members of different faiths will behave differently. We could state with reasonable certainty that the number of Muslims harmed for their faith by Christians will be close to zero. Incidents of terrorist bombings, mob attacks, demands to convert, sex-based kidnappings, and interference with worship even in majority Christian societies also would be essentially zero. Most Christians, outside of those involved in communal violence that often is as much ethnic as religious, accept if not embrace religious liberty.
Alas, we knew with equal certainty this past Christmas that in majority Islamic nations some Christians would be beaten and probably killed. Other Christians would see their homes or businesses wrecked, their daughters seized and forced into marriage, their churches attacked, desecrated, and destroyed, and their worship services disrupted. Such violence does no honor to God, however conceived. There is no excuse for failing to respect the basic freedom of conscience of other people.
As we enter a new year, we need a special religious awakening.
We should have celebrated the last Christmas when people are punished because of their faith. Religious violence and persecution have no legitimate place in the world today, irrespective of who believes what. Let 2017 be when people stop harming other people because of their most deeply held beliefs about humanity and its relation to the transcendent. Let 2017 be when religious people respect and accept even those with whom they disagree. Let 2017 be when believers of all faiths practice peace and good will to all.