By Elias Ghazal
One hundred years ago, on November 2nd, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Lord Balfour, issued a letter on behalf of his government that favors the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Perceived as a fair resolution to Jewish persecution in Europe, the letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, ignored the impact of such a decision on the welfare and rights of the indigenous population of Palestine. Plus, it broke British promises of independence previously made to Arab leaders. The declaration paved the way for the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by Jewish armed groups and the establishment of the State of Israel – what Israeli historian Ilan Pappe calls the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Three weeks later, on November 23, 1917, the Soviet Bolsheviks exposed a secret agreement between Britain, France and the ousted Russian Empire. The agreement was negotiated between Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France, and was later known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Agreement placed Lebanon and Syria under French Mandate, and placed Southern Iraq plus the ports of Haifa and Acre under British Mandate. Palestine was to be administered by an international regime because of its significance for the Abrahamic religions. Mandates were ostensibly a form of political supervision exercised by European powers to lead other nations to independence. In reality, however, Mandates were colonialism in disguise.
The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement are widely considered the root cause of division in the Middle East. European imperialism, not the interests or desires of Arab inhabitants, was the chief architect behind the modern map of the Middle East. The mandate period lasted for about 20 years following the post-WWI Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The period witnessed a lot of resistance and bloodshed, which ultimately led to the independence of Arab states, with the notable exception of Palestine.
One of the outcomes of the Paris Peace Conference was to send an international commission of enquiry to the dissolved Ottoman Empire to gather information about the conditions and desires of people there. However, only president Wilson sent a delegation. He appointed Henry King – theologian, educator and president of Oberlin College – and Charles Crane – wealthy businessman and ‘Arabist’ – to lead the commission. The King-Crane Commission travelled wide and interviewed hundreds of individuals representing various groups. At the end of the commission, they submitted a list of recommendations that would basically grant Arabs a monarchy over Greater Syria, freedom from any mandate, and a severe cut to the Zionist program.
The King-Crane Commission gave Arabs a voice, but the world did not listen. The report was ignored, and then officially suppressed by the US State Department for political reasons. Britain and France, having emerged from WWI as the victors, considered themselves entitled to the territory of their enemy (i.e. the Ottoman Empire), and they relegated Arabs’ aspirations to secondary importance. A few years later, the report was made public, but it was born dead. Could the Middle East have experienced more peace if the recommendations of the King-Crane Commission were implemented successfully? While we cannot affirm that with certainty, at least one person was sure that implementing the recommendations would lead to a disaster! That person was no stranger to the Commission, but in fact a member of it.
Dr. George Montgomery, an ordained minister, was one of seven that formed the Commission. He wrote a memorandum that explains why he disagreed with Commission’s recommendations. He believed that it was unwise to try to unite a predominantly Christian territory and a predominantly Muslim territory under a single government because religious hatred runs deep in Syria and would disrupt any stability. In his opinion, Islam was the problem. He wrote,
“Islam contains no nucleus of unselfishness which may hold out a hope of a Mohommedan reformation. (…) There is in it no heart to meet the needs of modern society. (…) I anticipate that most of the efforts of the Moslem Arabs will be spent in a fight against Christians and Christianity.”
Basically, Montgomery believed that Islam is violent, backward and more significantly beyond reform. Therefore, Muslims in Syria could not form a modern and tolerant government where Christians would be treated as equal citizens.
I find it interesting that after one hundred years, the world is still struggling with the same questions concerning Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. Can Muslims and Christians coexist in peace? Is there a government structure that protects both communities and treats them with equity? Is Islam inherently violent and incapable of reform? Can the Middle East ever be cured of religious intolerance? These are complex questions that require historical research and careful analysis, not a simple yes or no response based on uncritical observations. Rather than attempt to answer these questions, I would like to offer some thoughts that might recalibrate the attitude of Christians towards the reality on the ground:
- We do not have an option not to coexist! Jesus’ prayer to the Father when his disciples were about to face religious intolerance was “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Christians are not called to withdraw from the world or isolate themselves in order to survive. In fact, Christ assured his disciples that they will have hardship as they live out their faith. In other words, if coexistence comes with challenges, and it usually does, it does not mean that we can abandon that endeavor in search of a safer and more homogenous community.
- Just as the peace of God came at a heavy price (Isaiah 53:5), we should expect the peace that we seek to bring to our society to be costly as well. In last week’s IMES post, Martin Accad explains that “the kind of peace inaugurated by Christ will only be fulfilled as a result of peacemakers being willing to pay the ultimate price for their calling.” Peaceful coexistence is desirable, and we should always seek it, but we must be aware that it comes with sacrifices, and more importantly, we must be willing to make those sacrifices.
- While coexistence is desirable and we should always seek it, we should not pursue it by any means possible. Many groups have used violence, coercion or malpractice to establish themselves firmly in the region. Other groups have reached out to regional or international powers for support and protection, often in ways that aggravates the equilibrium of coexistence. As Christians, we should not compromise the teachings of Jesus for the sake of self-protection. Nor should we seek foreign intervention that betrays our witness. Jesus offered us a great example when he did not retaliate against the armed mob that came to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, nor did he call for help from the legion of angels that were at his service (Matthew 26:53).
- Religion is a complex phenomenon and reforming it goes beyond developing a new hermeneutic or promoting a revisionist approach to holy texts. There are various social, economic and political factors that affect how religions evolve, and why they reform. It is simplistic to try and push for a reformation with a single-track agenda. If the political, social and economic situation in the Middle East does not change, any reformation of Islam will not be sustainable.
- Frankly, it is not our business whether Islam can or will reform! Nor should our attitude towards Muslims change whether Islam reforms or not. Our responsibility is to point to the truth and to lead others to the knowledge of God in Christ. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he was not distracted by her faith or actions. His motivation and goal was to define true worship. (John 4:23)
- Above all, we must guard our hearts. In our age where protectionism, xenophobia, and fearmongering politics are on the rise, it is easy to dehumanize the other, particularly Muslims. Yet, our message is one of love and embrace. We must grow in our love for God so that we overflow with love for the other.