The Magazine

Killing Christians

The underreported story of Islamist violence around the world.

Nov 11, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 09 • By AMITAI ETZIONI
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ON OCTOBER 17, bombs killed 6 people and wounded 143 in Zamboanga, the Philippines. While press accounts mentioned in passing that the victims were Christians, few conveyed to the reader that these were people assaulted by Muslim extremists because of their religion. On September 25, militant Muslims shot dead 7 Christian Pakistanis execution style in Karachi. Most of the media failed to report this at all, though it was at least the fifth bloody attack on Christians in Pakistan in the last twelve months.

And the media almost never point out that Christians are being killed, often at places of worship, in several countries with Islamic majorities or governments, not because they are Westerners or Americans (many are neither) but because they are Christians. Nor is the White House or Congress nearly as attentive--to put it mildly--to this pattern of killing as it is to any injury on either side of the conflict in Israel.

People who follow international news are aware that a civil war raged in Ethiopia for more than 30 years. But few realize that it was a religious war--between Muslim Eritrea and Christian Ethiopia--in which tens of thousands perished. Many know that the people of East Timor were savaged, but it is rarely mentioned that most East Timorese are Christian, while the Indonesian militants who killed many of them and brutalized the refugees in West Timor are Muslim. Indeed, Christians in other parts of Indonesia have hardly fared better; for instance, thousands died during riots in the Moluccan Islands in 2000.

The bloody war in the Sudan, similarly, pits the Muslim government in the North against the Christian and animist South. And in Nigeria, as Muslims try to impose a strict version of the legal code called sharia in several provinces, armed conflicts between Muslims and Christians have erupted and thousands have died. Just lately, in the Ivory Coast, Muslims in the North have been attacking Christians in the South. On a smaller scale but very much along the same lines, scores of Coptic Christians were killed in Egypt in January 2000; several churches were burned in Kenya the following year.

It seems somehow inflammatory to point to the religious element of these and many other conflicts. Nearly every day, meanwhile, some scholar assures us that Islam is a peaceable and loving religion. What is going on here?

From the beginning, Islam drew a distinction between Christians and Jews and other non-Muslims. The former were "people of the book." They had to pay special taxes and wear identifying clothing, yet their status reflected a certain respect for what Muslims saw as the earlier but incomplete and corrupted revelation recorded in the Bible. In the modern period, Christians and Jews are typically called Kuffr, or infidels. In countries under strict sharia, apostasy is a capital crime, and in the minds of extremists like Osama bin Laden, infidels too deserve death. While Muslim societies differ widely in their levels of tolerance, pluralism, and religious freedom, full respect for Christianity is virtually absent.

This matter came up last spring at a conference held by Iranian reformers in Isfahan. The gathering brought together a number of Islamic and Western intellectuals in opposition to the thesis advanced by Samuel Huntington of Harvard University that Western and Islamic civilizations are bound to clash. During his presentation, Ebrahim Moosa, an imam from South Africa now teaching at Duke University, urged that Islam be recast so as to accommodate liberal attitudes. He stressed the need for three changes: recognition of women's equality with men; toleration of capitalism; and recognition of the full dignity and humanity of nonbelievers. But we are still waiting to hear from many other Muslim leaders as to whether they wish to move Islam in this direction.

The White House has solid tactical reasons for stating and restating that our fight is only with terrorists, not Muslims. We must face the fact, however, that while the prophet has many moderate followers, the terrorists command great sympathy in the Islamic world not only because Islamic populations are anti-American or anti-Western, but also because the terrorists are attacking infidels. An elderly Afghan freed from detention at Guantanamo last week made a telling statement to a Washington Post reporter: "The Americans treated me well, but they were not Muslims, so I didn't like them."