Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Tale of Christophobia

David L. Johnston has just written an article in response to last week's Newsweek cover article, “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World,” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Below is a summary of his response. His full article can be found here

Last week I happened to see Newsweek’s cover article, “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World,” and read it immediately. My reaction was that, like Ayaan Hirsi’s other writings, it is less than truthful. In short...

  • She is pointing to a real problem that Muslim leaders need to address more than they have up to now.
  • The growing attacks on Christian minorities by Muslims is a much more complicated issue than she makes it out to be.
  • The tone and word choice, and Newsweek’s publishing it (on the cover, no less), are all sensational and likely to fan even further the flames of fear and rancor.


Now for the long version

Hirsi Ali is right about one important fact. Christians in many Muslim-majority countries today live in fear. That is a deplorable situation that indeed needs to be discussed at the highest levels – but not in these terms. I’ll come back to her “war” discourse, but let me say here that the causes are multiple and that they vary from setting to setting. Let me add too, for the record, that this is not the case everywhere.

Nigeria’s poisonous brew of postcolonial woes

Ali starts with Nigeria and all the dastardly attacks by Boko Haram. This is a home-grown jihadi organization that recently has linked up with al-Qaeda, according to their spokesman, Abu Qaqa, in a recent interview. Indeed, their goal is nothing short of bringing the government to its knees and replacing it with one that follows “the dictates of Allah.” But Nigeria’s tensions between its Muslim north, Christian south, and minorities in either place, have roots in the distant past. The Muslim-Christian struggles in Nigeria are less about religion than they are a mix of postcolonial woes and real-life issues of power disparities and injustice in a context where governance has long been characterized by corruption and incompetence.  

Sudan’s troubled history

Hirsi Ali then moves on to Sudan. Admittedly, after the 1989 coup by which General Omar al-Bashir took over, the war with the mostly Christian south only intensified. What is more, under the strict Islamist ideology of Hasan al-Turabi, life became nearly intolerable for the Christians in the north. Easily two million people died in this 22-year war; yet skirmishes continue in border regions, despite the 2005 peace treaty and the January 2011 referendum that sealed the south’s independence. Meanwhile, another million or so people died in the brutal attacks in Darfur – once again, nomads against farmers, but all Muslims this time.

So let’s be fair: these are all common symptoms of postcolonial chaos and growing pains, especially in Africa. The mayhem is indicative of a civil war with both parties fighting. Still, responsibility lies mostly with the north – it’s for good reason that al-Bashir stands indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

Egypt’s revolution and bumpy road ahead

Are Christians in Egypt and Iraq afraid these days? Yes, they are. But again, reasons differ. Having lived three years in Egypt in the 1990s, I can tell you that Christians have complained of discrimination and harassment from time immemorial.

Iraq, a wounded nation “pacified” by force

Hirsi Ali correctly notes that half of the mostly Assyrian Christians of Iraq have fled the country since the US invasion of 2003. What she leaves out is that this is mostly due to the American military occupation and the violence it has spawned in Iraq. Though Sunni-Shii tensions are longstanding, Muslim-Christian ones, unlike Egypt, are not. Christians, since 2003, have been perceived as somehow collaborators and thus scapegoats for the violence perpetrated by a “Christian” nation on them.

Pakistan and Afghanistan: a cauldron of acrimony and violence

Hirsi Ali mentions a growing number of attacks against Christians in Indonesia, and again, a lot more could be said about ethnic tensions, political grievances, and the like. She rightly calls Saudi Arabia’s handling of religious minorities “totalitarian restrictions.” But I would like to comment on Pakistan, which I see as perhaps her strongest case. Indeed, since at least the 1980s, there has been a hardening of Islamic traditional norms, and the military, in its bid to control the political elites, has only made the political opposition harden its islamist rhetoric. 

Yet by far the biggest factor for Islamic radicalization in Pakistan has been the war in Afghanistan. Its government turned to Islamic symbols to counter foreign imperialism, first in supporting the CIA-backed mujahiddeen against the Soviets in the 1980s, and then in their alliance with the Pashtun-led Taliban state in the 1990s. Hence, the genie was let out of the bottle, so that with the Nato-led coalition invasion of 2001, years of bitter fighting, scores of civilian casualties, and now regular drone attacks on Pakistani soil, anti-American resentment has reached a boiling point in Pakistan. This kind of resentment only produces more venom against the already beleaguered Christian minority (about 1%).

Hirsi Ali’s “War on Christians” Discourse

There is another motive in Hirsi Ali’s piece: she’s setting out to counter what she perceives as a smear campaign on the part of some Muslim organizations – a campaign that has been remarkably successful. Hence, she fights back. Her objective in this article is to pit the annoying but rather “minor” discrimination that Muslims face in the West against the outright persecution and killing of hundreds of Christians every year in Muslim countries.

On one hand, Hirsi Ali’s piece is considerably toned down, compared to writings by Robert Spencer, Brigitte Gabrielle, or Daniel Pipes. On the other hand, she deftly builds her case by piling the most egregious acts against Christians one on top of the other and then saying, “[i]t should be clear from this catalog of atrocities that anti-Christian violence is a major and underreported problem.” This, combined with a contemptuous dismissal of Muslims’ complaints about “Islamophobia,” allows her to build up to her conclusion:

“Instead of falling for overblown tales of Western Islamophobia, let’s take a real stand against the Christophobia infecting the Muslim world. Tolerance is for everyone—except the intolerant.”

Hirsi Ali's article is about telling a tale of woes suffered by Christians in Muslim lands. But is the litany of suffering on the Christophobia side of the ledger so many times worse than that on the Islamophobia side? Yes, in the sense that many basic human rights are denied to non-Muslims in Muslim-majority contexts and that there is much loss of life. No, in the sense that the suffering is caused by many more factors than intentional persecution. Other minorities are oppressed too. Besides, Muslims suffer as well from the lack of freedom of expression and conscience. In fact, if you count numbers of casualties, Muslims are by far the greatest victims of extremist violence.

To sum up, Christians do suffer in some Muslim countries. Some of it is outright persecution. Yet most of this hardship is due to a brutal convergence of factors that affect many Muslim societies as a whole: authoritarian regimes, economic woes made worse by corrupt governance, a groundswell of puritanical and intolerant religiosity, and an angry reaction to western military and political interference.

In conclusion, Hirsi Ali’s tale of Christophobia told in this way is inflammatory. While raising an issue that deserves careful consideration on a global scale, the tone and tenor of her article will likely short-circuit needed negotiations. 


More by David Johnston can be found at www.humantrustees.org.

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