In the introduction to his focused yet far-ranging Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack, Rupert Shortt points out that “[o]ne reason why Western audiences hear so little about religious oppression in the Muslim world is straightforward: young Christians in Europe and America do not become ‘radicalized,’ and persecuted Christians tend not to respond with terrorist violence.”
Another reason for the silence, he adds, stems from the fear that criticizing Muslims will prompt charges of racism. A third explanation lies in the fact that many liberals in the West look askance at Christianity in the developing world due to a simplistic and often historically inaccurate belief that its spread was bound up with Western imperialism.
Shortt, religion editor at the (London) Times Literary Supplement and biographer of Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury), begins with the premise “that freedom of belief and association are unqualified goods” and proceeds to examine countries – including several non-Muslim ones – that deny them to Christians.
Shortt relies on interviews he conducted in seven countries he visited, reports released by international Christian aid organizations as well as Amnesty International, and scholarly and other books. In some ways, he follows in the footsteps of Paul Marshall and co-authors, who have long written about persecution of Christians and whose findings are among the references he cites. Throughout, he eschews polemics and unhesitatingly criticizes both historical and recent Christian violence against Muslims and others.
Shortt makes a very good point regarding the title of his book, which, technically, would refer to fear of Christianity. “I am aware that ‘Christianophobia,’ like ‘Islamophobia,' is an elastic term, perhaps implying a passive attitude, unlike the more active ‘anti-Semitism’; and that prejudice should be distinguished from more overt forms of ill will manifested in state ideology or various sorts of behavior,” he observes. “However, neither ‘anti-Muslimism’ nor ‘anti-Christianism’ has caught on, so Christianophobia seems to me a valid term.”
So, why are Christians discriminated against and even persecuted? Reasons are varied, and Shortt strives, with a good deal of success, to provide context. In Vietnam, China, and North Korea, all of which are totalitarian and have been Communist to varying degrees, the regimes fear alternative sources of authority, as well as some Christians’ association with the West.
This has also historically applied to Myanmar – which Shortt refers to by the older name of Burma – though the situation is changing there. It remains the case in Turkey, where the mere presence of missionaries sends security services into a tizzy. Myanmar, Indonesia, Turkey, and Vietnam are countries where Christians are often also ethnically distinct from the majority population, thereby highlighting differences.
Relying on the work of Eliza Griswold, Shortt explains that in central Nigeria, an economic conflict was exacerbated by the differing ethno-religious identities of two groups competing for resources, though in the heavily Muslim north, where several states have applied Sharia, the friction is more inherently religious.
Shortt’s exploration of religio-cultural attitudes fueling anti-Christian movements enriches his narrative. The chapter on India (concentrating on the states of Orissa and Karnataka), proves most informative, what with the author’s discussion of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. The treatment of Myanmar and Sri Lanka will disabuse many a reader of comfortable assumptions, “[s]ince the standard view of Buddhism in the West tends to be even more rose-tinted than that of Hinduism.”
Shortt’s chronicling of Buddhist campaigns against Christians in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is also notable given the more recent outbreak of anti-Muslim violence orchestrated by Buddhist monks in both countries. When it comes to Egypt, however, Shortt does not tackle anti-Coptic stereotypes among ordinary Muslims (as opposed to Islamists), of the sort that depict Copts as treacherous manipulators of the economy, and the Coptic Orthodox Church as a sinister and disloyal institution.
“Christianophobia” conspicuously omits the travails of faith groups whose birth is of relatively recent vintage (with the partial exception of Pentecostals, who comprise a movement rather than a denomination). This is an unfortunate lacuna, because these groups sometimes suffer greatly in countries not otherwise known for religious repression. Jehovah’s Witnesses (along with Pentecostals) endure vicious persecution in Eritrea, and discrimination in Russia, where Mormons also fare badly. Admittedly, Shortt, who tackles neither Russia nor Eritrea, could not have included all oppression of all Christians in his book, but it is imperative that advocates of religious liberty take to task countries that tolerate traditional denominations while hounding newer ones.
Regarding the Muslim world, Shortt demonstrates that the problem is not merely one of rampant religious fanaticism, which sometimes means that there are groups worse off than Christians (Bahais in Iran, Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan), but involves deliberately blurred definitions of the sources of legal authority. For instance, in several countries, constitutional and other guarantees of religious freedom and women’s rights are often vitiated by the proviso that legislation must not violate Sharia. The author observes of the Pakistani government, one such example, that “taking away with one hand what it has given with the other” falls within its means.
In addition to Pakistan, Shortt provides a solid overview of discrimination against indigenous or long established Christian communities in the predominantly Muslim states of Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia, as well as the horrendous violence targeting Christians in Iraq, though he does not probe the mindset of Islamists keen to exterminate this defenseless and dwindling minority. The author also illustrates the extreme vulnerability of Muslim converts to Christianity; according to most interpretations of Islam, apostates deserve the death penalty. Possibly because of their large numbers and international media attention, the Iranian converts whose stories Shortt relates have, by his admission, generally been spared torture while in custody. But he shows that from Egypt to Pakistan, extreme physical violence, including murder, is the usual treatment for ex-Muslims. The perpetrators are vigilantes – sometimes including family members of the victims – or the security services, even in those Muslim countries (the majority) that do not explicitly outlaw apostasy.
In the book’s incisive concluding section, Shortt plunges into the prickly question of whether longstanding Muslim attitudes to non-Muslims are intrinsic to Islam, and therefore possibly unregenerate. He emerges with a powerful and heartening reminder of Islam’s historical malleability over the issue of “People of the Book.” The Quran confers this status upon Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sabians, and those “who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness.” During the days of Islamic rule in India, several Muslim political leaders as well as religious scholars decreed that Hindus fall into this category, thereby demonstrating – perhaps unintentionally – that Islamic tenets can be refined.
Yet Islamic doctrine prescribes discrimination against non-Muslim “People of the Book,” which is what Christians and others in much of the Muslim world remain in practice, even if they have become full citizens in theory. They are to be tolerated in exchange for their submission to Muslim political authority and acceptance of social disadvantages. Shortt refrains from recommending specific actions, but for non-Muslim “people of the book” to become equal citizens, and for Muslims who abandon Islam to gain acceptance, it is evident that a two-pronged approach is critical. Christians in the West will have to lobby their governments, while moderate Muslims in the Islamic world will have to close ranks with their Christian compatriots against the forces of religious tradition, repression, and violence.