A religious dialogue of the deaf in Syria

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

With great interest and a good deal of pessimism I listened to the statements made during the enthronement of John X Yazigi, the new Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All The East on Sunday, and watched the most prominent attendees sitting in front seats. I have to admit some speeches made were positive and reflected an understanding of the general atmosphere surrounding Syria and the region. But two speeches worried me about the Levant’s future and interfaith dialogue; the first because of what it overlooked, the second because of what it included.

The first statement was made by the Vatican, it stressed the Christians’ unity and included the emphasis of Pope Benedict XVI on the “meaning and importance of the Christian presence in the East and the importance of the return of Christianity to the East.” The Pope’s message to Yazigi had nothing to say about the issue of Christians’ coexistence with their Muslim neighbors, in a region where Muslims constitute 90% of the population and where they are going through what is being called an “Islamic awakening.” One of the most prominent indications of this was the presence of the Iranian ambassador to Syria in the front row a couple of meters away from the papal envoy.

The second statement made by the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rai was very consistent; and reflected the Patriarch’s frank and direct political orientation. Rai said: “all what is being said and requested [to achieve] reforms, human rights and democracies …are not worth the bloodshed of one innocent man.” Although no one argues about that, the problem lies in Rai’s holding those who call for reforms, human rights and democracies responsible for the bloodshed. He did not blame those who have held on to power for four decades. He overlooked the “police state” where desperation grew and where sectarian extremism found fertile soil.

In any normal situation, it would have been acceptable that those who aspire for healthy coexistence of religions, sects and races based on tolerance, should keep quite. It was acceptable to appreciate the nature of the occasion, which was after all an ecclesiastic ceremony; thus, there is no need to turn the church into a political stage. However, Syria’s situation today is far from normal and so is the region’s situation.

Fear of 'Political Islam'

Today, we face a “political Islam” imbued with feelings of bitterness and anger…in addition to manifestations of greed and hubris. One has to admit that the image displayed by some Islamic factions who have taken over government in Egypt and Tunisia is worrying minorities, but is it not a source of worry only to minorities; it is causing unease – even fear - about the future of development, investment in youth, and opening up to the world.

Isolation and retreat is disastrous primarily to Muslims; and to those who are afraid of Islamic extremism – particularly in its Sunni form – amid some parties’ attempts to solely control power and eliminate others I say it is not only religious and sectarian minitories that are afraid of this extremism but that fear is also felt by millions of Muslims. Nothing shows this clearer than the mass protests that Egypt and Tunisia are witnessing.

Based on that, I think that wise men and women in countries inhabited by sizeable religious, sectarian and racial minorities like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, have to encourage moderation and openness within the Muslim majorities – mainly the Sunni one – instead of building alliances against them. It is in the minorities’ interest to find commonalities with the Sunni majority and not conspire against it and seek the support of foreign parties’ power to weaken the partners in the country.

What is painful today is that the threat against coexistence among religious and sectarian minorities in countries like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq is not limited to the stubborn arrogance of a retired officer’s aspiration to become president, a clergyman spending most of his time practicing politics, a blood-thirsty sectarian mafia that lectures day and night about progressiveness, secularism and “resistance” or a sectarian regime established by western foreign occupation and kept in power by being an appendage to an eastern power.

Yet what is more painful is that “big lie.” The lie of “protecting” the region from one type of religious extremism while exploiting this radicalism with the full knowledge that extremism begets opposing extremism.

‘Actions speak louder than words’

“Actions speak louder than words” is a famous saying that perfectly describes Israel’s recent announcement that it is about to build a wall and establish a buffer zone in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in “anticipation of the fall of the regime in Damascus.”

Let us ponder the reason behind Israel’s fear of what may happen on the Golan Heights for the first time since 1973. For forty years, Israel has been reassured about the security of its settlements in the Golan. But when the popular uprising threatened the regime of “resistance and confrontation” Benjamin Netanyahu became worried.

Israel’s concerns

Imagine this weird issue.

Israel is worried about a popular uprising which the Syrian regime wants to convince us is a terrorist one. One that is aiming to “implement the enemy’s agenda” with funds from countries supporting the West “which surely supports Israel” in order to “overthrow the enemies of Israel!”

Israel and Iran, which appear as fierce rivals to us, are each pulling the Middle East region toward their direction. Seasonally, we hear the Israeli blackmail - even to Washington – that Tel Aviv needs to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. On another level, Israeli warplanes shelled an area near the Syrian-Lebanese border targeting what was said to be a convoy carrying arms shipments to “Hezbollah.” At the same time there is no sign that Tehran is softening its “hard-line” stance against Israel. It neither decreased its animosity practically on the level of armament and “liberating Palestine” nor verbally on the level of denying the “holocaust.”

Despite all this, Tel Aviv does not look happy about the change of a regime that it claims was part of Iran’s strategy in the region. On the contrary, Israel is worried it will fall. Indeed, the “worry” contagion has spread from Israel to the White House where U.S. President Barack Obama rejected some of his top aides’ requests to arm the Syrian opposition under the excuse that “arming the Syrian opposition poses a threat to Israel.”

There is another case that indicates the convergence of the interests of Tehran on one side, and those of Tel Aviv and some Western powers on another. This is represented by the alliance of Michel Aoun’s movement with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hezbollah is a religious organization that openly follows the Guardianship of the Jurist in Iran, and the Aouni movement is a Christian movement that openly incites against “Islamic extremism.” Doesn’t General Aoun see that Hezbollah is an Islamist party? Doesn’t he see that the party’s leaders are devout religious people … and that Shiites are Muslims?

Doesn’t Hezbollah sense the “Aouni’s” hateful incitement against the Muslim Sunnis? Doesn’t it see that inciting against the Sunnis has led to the emergence of Sunni leaders who are much more extremist than Aoun’s and its own Sunni rivals? Or perhaps this is exactly Hezbollah’s aim in order to divide the Sunnis and facilitate accusations that the Sunnis are extremists?

What is happening today at Syrian fronts and in several Lebanese areas, like in the besieged town of Aarsal, calls for pessimism. As do some Christian Arab and foreign leaders’ positions regarding the Christians’ relations with Muslims.

This unhappy situation also calls for serious thought about whether there is real enmity or rather intersection of interests between the authority’s institutions in Iran and Israel.

*This article was originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat on Feb. 12, 2012.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with An-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. Joned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.