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The Immigrant Mind: How Do Middle Eastern Immigrants Feel About the Situation in Syria and the Coptic Church Bombing?

By Monday, April 10, 2017

According to a recent New York Times piece, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly used the nerve agent Sarin in a chemical attack on his own people last week. The western world immediately went into an uproar at the news. But most Middle Eastern Christian immigrants are wary of such stories. We tend to come at these events from a different point of view.

But how do we share our ideas and opinions in a country that sees only in the binary of liberal and conservative? How can we be heard in a nation that listens to only foreign policy experts from those two political persuasions? How do we explain to Americans that many of their foreign policy issues – especially in the Middle East – are due to their fundamental misunderstanding of the region’s people and culture?

One of my main goals for “The Immigrant Mind” column is to give a voice to immigrant thought and life, especially that of Middle Eastern Christians.

We have been told that Assad is a bad dictator and a war criminal; a man who is terrible to his people and who should be opposed. We are told that aid and support should be given to those who would topple him. We are told that some – though not all – who oppose him are throwing off the chains of authoritarianism and are seeking freedom and democracy; ergo, we should assist those fighting for their liberty against an oppressive dictator. Some of this may be true. The same reasoning was used to justify removing previous dictators, notably Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. But the regimes (or lack of) that follow tend to be less protective of minority rights, and the vulnerable Christians often end up worse off.

To recognize this is not to have suddenly become a lover of dictators. I want us Americans to learn from our past mistakes, gain deeper insight into the dynamics within the very complex Arab world, and respond with greater equity and foresight.

Foreign policy needs to be conducted with an eye on history; untether that and each act – especially in the Middle East, where memory runs long and the heat of Arab blood does not abate – looks like an isolated and unrefined power play. To many Americans, Assad is a typical dictator oppressing his people.

But what do Middle Eastern Christians think about the problems in Syria? And what do Syrian Christians think about Assad? And how is that tied to the recent Coptic church bombing in Egypt?

First, those Middle Eastern Christians remember the history: Syria protected the Christians from the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Muslim factions in Lebanon. Syrians numbered in the majority of those peacekeeping troops sent in with the approval of the Arab League during Lebanon’s civil war. Their job was to protect the Christians, and they did it. This was back under Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

Second, they remember that Islamists are the ones who want to take down secular governments like Bashar al-Assad’s. They attempted it when his father was president, and they are attempting it again against him now. There is no greater threat to Middle Eastern Christians than Islamists. For an example of what happens to Christians under these regimes, take a look at Iraq or read about what happened yesterday morning to Coptic Christians in Egypt while they were celebrating Palm Sunday. ISIS bombed the church and killed Christians while they were singing and worshiping.

Third, Middle Eastern Christians like Assad; he has protected them for years against Islamists of all types. Assad made it legally possible for Christians to build churches, even next door to mosques. Although Islamic law does not allow a woman to inherit equally with a man, Assad exempted Christian women from this degrading rule. He also made it possible for Christians to be treated equally under the law. He paved the way for them to practice their religion without punishment, penalty or persecution. Should one ascribe the label “authoritarian” to the Assads – father and son? Of course. No one could establish such minority protections or a creed-blind economy in the Islamic, pan-Arab nationalist climate of the last half-century without being authoritarian.

I’m not sure if Americans understand that the only thing standing in the way of Syria’s becoming another Iraq is Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian version of Leninism is bad, to be sure, but political Islam is more feared in the eyes of Middle Easterners.

I think experts who advocate for the removal of Assad know this risk. They know that Christians support Assad, even if it is mostly out of self-interest. This leaves me perplexed. Why do some of the foreign policy advisors continue to advance policy ideas that they know will inevitably hurt this particular minority? Why is this information not part of the equation when they push for the removal of dictators? Why, the question is asked in some Arab Christian circles, does America care so little about Middle Eastern Christians?

As a conservative, I am particularly concerned about the lack of diverse thinking about the Middle East on the conservative side. Experts who have advocated for the removal of dictators in order to make room for the opposition (who supposedly want a democratic state) have consistently wagered that something better – someone “moderate” – would come after the dictator. Surely, the argument goes, people longing to be free will voluntarily and enthusiastically build themselves a republic based on the ideas of the American founding documents. Every time, these experts have overestimated their ability to predict. Past experience shows that each time a dictator has been toppled, the power vacuum was filled with unspeakable horrors – many brought on by popular, if reactionary, demand.

Given the track record of the foreign policy community in Washington, D.C., I plead for some humility from these experts. I applaud their desire to bring democracy to the Middle East (and maybe one day the Arab world will get there), but please heed the warnings of Middle Eastern immigrants.

Iraqis have told me that a more just and prosperous Christian presence in the region could actually be promoted by a particular brand of strong leadership – Muslim or not; democratic or not. The conservative American me does not want this to be true. But the Iraqi me knows full well why this is true.

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