I lived in Egypt for three years. It was a key experience in my life. I developed an interpretation of Islam and of the Middle East that I have been drawing on now for some 30 years. I learned Arabic; I had some wonderful experiences with members of the Coptic community in Egypt and so I am particularly pleased to be here today. This meeting is important. Mr Adley Youssef is to be congratulated on taking this inspired initiative; the Coalition for the Defence of Human Rights, Christian Solidarity International, and the Jubilee Campaign are all path-breaking in their work to protect Human Rights around the world, with a particular focus on Christians in Muslim countries.
It is particularly telling that the voice of the Copts is coming from outside Egypt. As you have already heard today and will no doubt hear again, the Copts who live in Egypt do not have the freedom to speak and, moreover, don't have a history of speaking out. In the West they can develop an understanding that there are goals that can be achieved if one speaks up, that there are friends who are ready to come to one's assistance, that there are principles that can be applied and then transferred back to Egypt. I will not deal in detail with the situation in Egypt, as the rest of the conference looks at the specifics of the Coptic condition. My topic is something of a background briefing on the larger question: the issue that stands behind so much of the Coptic problem today. That is the question of Islamism or militant Islam.
A Striking Contrast
I would like to begin by noting a striking contrast that exists in the world today. There are some 30 million Christians who live in countries with Muslim majorities. The largest number live in Indonesia: some 15 million, followed by the Egyptian Christians: somewhere between 6 and 12 million. 3 million Christians live in Pakistan, and at the other end of the scale there are a few dozen individuals in Mauritius. These are by and large ancient Christian communities. Christianity came to Egypt in the first century. And yet Egyptian Christians have increasingly found themselves an embattled minority with dwindling rights; trapped in poverty and uncertainty; despised and distrusted as second class citizens; facing discrimination in education, jobs and from police and the courts. Often they are the victims of brutality. This is not a condition unique to the Christians of Egypt, it applies in many countries with a Muslim majority. As circumstances steadily worsen, Christians are packing and leaving their ancestral lands, to find a more hospitable environment in the West. The remaining Christian population in the Middle East is increasingly aged, poor and marginalized.
In striking contrast to this dismal picture, consider the Muslim minority living in the West, in historic Christian countries where they number about 22 million. This population, largely consisting of first generation immigrants, increasingly is established with growing affluence and protections, and acceptance as citizens with full rights. It is winning new prerogatives, in schools, the work place and the legal systems. Some Muslims in the West openly advocate implementing Islamic Law and transforming the West into a Muslim majority area. Others engage in terrorism towards this end.
Put in symbolic and religious terms: as churches are coming down in the Muslim countries, mosques are going up in the Christian ones. I personally watched when the Anglican cathedral in Cairo which was on the Nile corniche was torn down to make way for the 6 October Bridge. The bridge couldn't be anywhere else, it had to be right where the Anglican cathedral was, and the church is now no longer. In contrast I have noticed how government agencies in the West from Buenos Aires to Boston have sold land at discount prices specifically for mosques to be erected. And on similar lines observe how the bells in churches in majority Muslim countries are silenced, but permission for the "adhan" the call to prayer from the mosques is now given in such towns as Hamtramck, Michigan or Oslo, Norway.
This contrast between the dying Christian communities in Muslim countries and the assertive Muslim communities in Christian countries has many causes, including demography, and what one might call traditional versus post-modern understandings of religion.
I would like to focus on the angle that I think has particular importance for us here: namely the role of Islamism in both traditional Muslim countries and traditional Christian countries. My talk is entitled "The Challenge of Islamism in Europe & the Middle East." The challenge in those two regions is similar, but opposite. In the Muslim world Islamism leads to profound intolerance of Muslims who disagree with its approach to Islam. Think of the hundred or more thousand deaths in Algeria. And of course it leads to a lack of tolerance towards non-Muslims. Their presence is no longer welcome. In the West, in contrast, Islamism leads to an assertiveness and an attempt to dominate.
I shall dwell here on three topics: The nature of Islamism; its role in the Middle East, especially vis-à-vis the Christian minorities; and its role in Europe .
The Nature of Islamism
Islamism is called by many names. In English it's called militant Islam, radical Islam, fundamentalist Islam or political Islam, but they all refer to the same thing. Islamism is a particular interpretation of Islam and I believe it a mistake either to see the religion per se as a problem or to use a euphemism. It is not terrorism, which is a tactic, that is our problem. It is not Islam, a personal faith, that is our problem. It is Islamism, an ideology, that is our problem.
This ideology is in many ways familiar to us because we in the West have encountered two prior, similar manifestations of radical utopian ideology: fascism and communism. These 20th century ideologies use foundational books or writings as a basis to take over states. In the process of taking over states they are brutal in their methodology, totally intolerant of those who disagree. Once they take over the state they acquire total power over their subjects and immediately try to export the ideology so they can achieve a global hegemony.
Islamism is also a totalitarian movement. The details are very different from fascism or communism, but the strategy is similar: using all available means to acquire power in the hopes of world hegemony. In the Islamic case the mechanism by which the Islamist ideology attracts adherents and fulfils its mandate is by emphasising Islamic law. Islamic law is a massive legal system that the Islamists have extended to areas that it had not touched before. The classic Islamic legal code dealt with a limited number of issues. The Islamists have extended it so that for example there is an economic philosophy, there are details for governance, there are details concerning education. All of life falls under the Islamists' control. The most perfect example of this could be seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban, where every aspect of life from education to sexuality; from raising children to economics and foreign policy was interpreted in the light of how they understood the Koran and Islamic Law. It is an ideological version of Islam. It is a transformation of a personal faith into a system for ordering power and wealth.
It does not derive from medieval sources. It dates back to the 1920s when simultaneously in India and in Egypt various thinkers and activists like Hassan al-Banna began to respond to the totalitarian moments in the West. It was in the 1920s when the Nazis were growing in power, the fascists were coming to power in Italy, in Japan, and the Soviet model was at its peak. And so it was a time when many intelligent people thought that the totalitarian way was the way forward. They didn't know the horrors that would come. They weren't even aware of the horrors that were taking place then. Muslim thinkers and activists responded by developing their own totalitarian ideal over the subsequent decades. Finally, 50 years later, they came to power in Iran in 1979, the first example of an Islamist-controlled government. And immediately they tried to expand. There have subsequently been other Islamist successes, in Sudan since 1989 and Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. One can argue that there are also strong Islamist tendencies in many other countries, though none of them quite match the revolutionary totalitarianism of those three.
It is important to understand that this is a modern phenomenon. And it is an answer to modern problems. And by and large it is modern people who people who pursue it. Hassan al-Banna, for example, was a schoolteacher living in a modern part of Egypt . It is not peasants in the countryside but modern people who are attracted to this approach. It is striking to see how many of the leaders of the Islamist parties are engineers educated in the West, are successful businesspeople. The principle of this ideology is: "Islam is the solution" (al-Islam huwwa al-hall). Whatever the question, Islam is the answer. It is an Islamic-flavoured totalitarianism. It resembles communism and fascism more than it resembles other strains of religious expression. It divides the world into two parts: those who accept this program and those who don't. In some ways the Muslims who reject Islamism are considered even worse than non-Muslims, and occasion an even more vicious response, because they should know the truth and don't. There is an attempt to reject the outside world as much as possible, with the important exceptions of military and medical technology. There is intolerance towards those who do not accept this program, and Muslims are the first victims. I mentioned Algeria before. What is happening in Darfur is another example of brutality by Islamists against non-Islamist Muslims.
There is a hatred of the West and most especially the United States because, as in the cases of fascism and communism, it is the United States predominantly that stands between them and the achievement of their goals. If the United States can be sidelined or drawn onto the Islamist side then things look pretty smooth for the achievement of their goals. Their cosmic ambitions towards the West - and here is another similarity with fascism and communism - is not an attempt to carve out a piece of territory as a safe haven as one might find in other religions. It is an attempt to go into direct combat with the West, to defeat the West and achieve worldwide hegemony. It is a cosmic confrontation between the Islamists and the West.
Islamism derives from Islam but is a misanthropic, misogynist, triumphalist, millenarian, anti-modern, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, terrorist, jihadistic and suicidal version of it. The consequences of Islamist success have been systematically clear. Wherever they take over government, the government is tyrannical and brutal towards its subjects, it leads to economic contraction, repression of women and non-Muslims, and ethnic cleansing. Military aggression soon follows.
This is not a single phenomenon. There are different strains: the Muslim Brothers of Egypt, the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, the Khomeinists in Iran, the Deobandis from India . These are different versions, with different personnel, of the same general phenomenon.
The causes of this phenomenon and why it has become so important in the last generation are much debated. The most common explanations given have to do with either American foreign policy or the economic and other failures of the Muslim world. I disagree with these. If American policy were to change or the economies of the Muslim world to improve, this powerful ideological force would not simply disappear. I don't deny that American foreign policy and economic travails play some role in this. But Islamism is really a manifestation of a deep identity issue.
To put it briefly: to be a Muslim historically was to be on a winning team. The prophet Mohammed fled Mecca in 622 and returned 8 years later, in 630, as the ruler. Within a century the Muslim army had conquered territories from India to Spain. In the medieval period the Muslim world was the area where there was the greatest health, wealth, power and technological advancement. It grew to be an assumed sense among many Muslims that being Muslim meant to be favoured by God both in a theological sense and in a mundane way. And that was in fact roughly the case for six centuries. Finally by 1800 came the power, the crushing power, of Europe as symbolised by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, and the Muslim world became aware of how far it had fallen behind in military, economic, cultural and other terms.
The great trauma for the past two centuries has been the question of what went wrong and how to fix it. In this light the turn towards Islamism is one form of a solution. To put it in very general terms, from 1800 to 1920 the answer to the question of how to fix things was to emulate the liberal Europeans, the French and the British. From 1920 to 1980, the basic reply was to emulate the ethic of Europeans: the fascists and the communists. Since 1970 the answer has been "Let's come up with our own anti-liberal solution". Economics has a role but it goes much deeper and that is shown by the fact that very many of the Islamists are well off. Take as a sample the 19 suicide hijackers of 9/11; they were distinguished by their privilege, affluence and education. These were not poor people in despair. They were ideologues who believed that by carrying out this action they were furthering their cause.
Islamism in the Middle East
Because the bulk of the discussion at this conference concerns the Christians of Egypt, I'd like to take a little detour and look at a very timely issue, namely the Christians of Iraq. Saddam Hussein's foul regime, no matter how horrible his totalitarian rule was, had some saving graces. And among those saving graces in the case of Iraq was that the Christian minorities were not persecuted more than anyone else by the government and were quite safe from other possible foes.
With the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime and the uncertain circumstances at the moment, Islamists have grown in power and one of their first actions has been to target the Christians. There have been many episodes, many attacks on Christian installations of various sorts. According to the Barnabas Fund, at the end of 2003 there was a missile attack on a convent in Mosul, bombs placed but defused in two Christian schools in Baghdad and Mosul, a bomb explosion at a Baghdad church on Christmas eve, and a bomb placed but again defused at a monastery in Mosul. And finally the last major attack on August 1 of this year between 6 and 7 pm in the evening when Christians of Iraq go to church, there was a series of coordinated explosions in Baghdad and Mosul that killed 11 people and injured 55.
The bombings in Iraq are part of a larger pattern of persecution of Christians that has taken the form of attacks on liquor stores, music stores, fashion stores and beauty salons. The Islamists make clear that these establishments are unwelcome. Christian women have been threatened unless they cover their heads. Christians have been randomly assassinated. These assaults have prompted Iraqi Christians, one of the oldest Christian bodies in the world, to leave the country in record numbers. An Iraqi deacon observed a month ago that on a recent night the church had to spend more time filling out baptismal forms needed for leaving the country than it did on the worship service itself. Iraq's minister for displacement and migration, (an interesting title), who is a Christian himself, estimated that 40,000 Christians left Iraq in the 2 weeks following the August 1 bombings. Whereas Christians make up 3 percent of the country's population, the proportion of its refugee flow into Syria is estimated somewhere between 20 and 95 percent. One estimate finds 40 percent of the community has left since 1987. Although Muslim leaders uniformly condemn these attacks as criminal actions this process appears to be unstoppable and is leading to the decline and possible disappearance of Iraqi Christianity.
This seems all the more likely given that this is part of a more general trend in the Middle East. Bethlehem and Nazareth, the most identifiable of all Christian towns, enjoyed Christian majorities for nearly two millennia. But no more: they are now majority Muslim towns. In Jerusalem, Christians outnumbered Muslims in 1922; today the Christian population of Jerusalem is a mere 2 percent. The same applies in other parts of Israel. A Christian store owner from the Galilee town of Turan sums it up saying: "Most Christians leave as soon as we can sell our houses and shops. We can't live among the Muslims anymore." There are more Palestinians living in Bayt Jala, Chile, than in Bayt Jala on the West Bank (Bayt Jala being a Christian town). Prince El-Hassan of Jordan has noted that today more Christians from Jerusalem live in Sydney, Australia than in Jerusalem .
In Turkey, the Christian population numbered 2 million in 1920, but now numbers a few thousand. In Syria Christians represented about one third of the population at the beginning of the last century, today they count for less than 10 percent. In Lebanon the number went from about 55 percent 70 years ago to under 30 percent today. So the Coptic predicament is by no means unique. At present rates in the Middle East , the 12 to 15 million Christians will in a decade have been substantially reduced to the point that they will have lost their cultural vitality and political significance.
It bears noting that in this disappearance Christians are recapitulating an earlier exodus some 50 years ago, namely the Jewish exodus from the Arab Middle East. The Jews in the Middle East numbered about a million in 1948 and today there are only 60,000 outside of Israel. In combination, these ethnic cleansings of two ancient minorities mark the end of an era. The multiplicity of Middle Eastern life is being reduced to the flat monotony of a single religion and a handful of minorities. The entire region, not just the affected minorities, is impoverished by this.
For many years the plight of Middle Eastern Christians attracted little attention from the outside world. The early protectors of their interests: the British, French, Russian and Greek governments as well as the Vatican, have turned away from them and their current problems. Recently however, a number of organisations have sprung up, including the sponsors of this conference, to take up the cause of persecuted Christians around the world and primarily in Muslim and Communist countries. The signs are clear in the United States for example, where the Senate has conducted hearings on this topic and the State Department has, since 1999, released a regular survey on religious persecution worldwide. There are many other examples that suggest the problem is becoming of interest and this conference is among those healthy signs.
Islamism in Europe
Oriana Fallaci declared in her new book, The Force of Reason, that Europe is becoming more and more a province of Islam, a colony of Islam. She said "Christianity's ancient stronghold is giving away rapidly to Islam". Bernhard Lewis told Die Welt this month: "Europa wird am Ende des Jahrhunderts islamisch sein". (Europe will be Islamic by the end of this century).
Two factors primarily contribute to this world-shaking development. First is the hollowing out of Christianity. Europe is increasingly a post-Christian society; one with a diminishing connection to its tradition and its historic values. The numbers of believing, observant Christians in Europe has collapsed to the point that some observers call it the new Dark Continent . Already, analysts estimate that Britain 's mosques host more worshippers each week than does the Church of England. There are other factors beside the decline in Christianity, one being the birth rate. The indigenous European population is dying out. Sustaining a population requires that each woman bear an average of 2.1 children. In the European Union the overall rate is 1.4 per woman, and it is falling. One study concludes that should current demographic trends continue, today's indigenous European population of 375 million will decline to 275 million within 7 years. To keep the working population stable the EU needs 1.6 million immigrants every year. To sustain its present ratio of workers to pensioners it requires an astonishing 13.9 million immigrants annually. The void created by declining Christianity and European birth rates is being filled by Islam and Muslims.
As Christianity falters, Islam is robust, assertive and ambitious. As Europeans under-reproduce, Muslims reproduce and do so in large numbers while young. Some 5 percent of the EU population or nearly 20 million persons presently identify themselves as Muslims. Should current trends continue, that number will reach 10 percent by 2020. If non-Muslims flee the new Islamic order, as seems likely, the continent should be majority Muslim within decades. When that happens it is interesting to speculate what will follow. Great cathedrals will appear as vestiges of an earlier civilization and will be there so long as the Saudi style regime does not transform them into mosques, or a Taliban like regime blow them up. The great cultures: Italian, French, English and others, will likely be replaced by a new transnational Muslim identity with North African, Turkish, sub-continental and other elements.
This prediction is hardly new. I'm saying this in 2004. But in 1968 the British politician Enoch Powell gave a very famous statement, the so-called "Rivers of Blood" speech, in which he warned that in encouraging mass immigration the United Kingdom was heaping up its own funeral pile. Because of this speech his promised career as a government minister never materialized. In 1973 the French writer Jean Raspail published Le Camp des Saints, a novel that portrays Europe falling to massive, uncontrolled immigration from the Indian subcontinent. The peacetime transformation of a region from one major civilization to another, which is now underway in this very area, has no precedent in human history, making it easy to ignore the fact that it is underway.
Islamism has become one of the central issues in world politics. It is the force behind the violence. It is the force behind the transformation in the Middle East from what it was a generation ago to what it is today and in particular behind the decline of the Christian population in the region. It is the force that is moving into Europe and taking advantage of Europe 's failures. Unfortunately Islamism is also the new global enemy of civilization. It is the barbarism that must be fought by all civilised people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is at the core of the problem that the Christians in Egypt face. It is at the core of the problem that we all face.