When reality is looked at through a glass in the form of a heptagonal Archimedean prism, one notices that what is seen depends on the angle from which one looks, on the thickness of the prism corresponding to that angle and on the consequent diffraction of the light. A similar phenomenon happens when one looks at the history and the present situation of the Middle East, especially its recent history, which goes from the fall of the Ottoman empire to the new fundamentalisms. So many in the Middle East – at least where there isn’t war – give up, resigning themselves to simple gossip of qahwa, to the sound of backgammon dice (an evocation of the qadar = “the case”?) and the gurgling of a narghileh [shisha or waterpipe].
Yet there is much to gain in understanding that history, in learning its lesson, in tracing the historical and ideological lines in the hope of finding the key to the problem. Certainly the losses are sensibly reduced. If, in fact, history generally does not forgive, the history in the Middle East crushes inexorably whoever does not know how to read and manage it correctly.
Riccardo Cristiano’s book Middle East without Christians: From the End of the Ottoman Empire to the New Fundamentalisms, ventures into a sharp and documented reading of the last century to seek to understand the orientation and the consequences and to propose a sustainable position to Christians becoming ever more a “minority” in their land of origin. Riccardo Cristiano is a Vatican expert of the Giornale Radio Rai, not new in the realm of geopolitical research on the Middle East and a great connoisseur of the Iranian Revolution and of recent Lebanese history, on which he has previously published books.
The book, subdivided in three parts, begins with a consideration of the lastest sad events that have markedly upset Iraq and Syria, but which at present are also “at the south of Rome.” Even if the jihadists are not the whole of Islam, the “at” brings to light with clear-sightedness what is held by one who seeks to look at the whole picture, or the silence and the widespread lack of clarity with which a larger portion of the Islamic world witnesses the present horror in silence. Riccardo Cristiano writes: “Clarity on the jihad is an urgency for all, and it is in the hands of the Muslims, who to preserve a future for their religion must find strength to furnish such an urgent as well as clear answer, also in the actions of those who represent it politically.
Beyond clarity, these words turn out to be prophetic, given the awakening, also military, of nations of Muslim majority (such as Jordan and Egypt) that, sensing the danger of terrorism at their doors, no longer stop at words, but have turned to action. At the same time, however, these important and sporadic actions are not enough. It is urgent to put into action what His Beatitude Louis Raphael Sako I, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, has asked for a long time. Speaking at Anversa last September during a meeting on interreligious dialogue promoted by the Sant’Egidio Community, he affirmed the acute need of a hermeneutic of the Koran, of those verses used by terrorists to legitimize their horrors in the name of Allah. The Patriarch admonishes the Muslim leaders continually: “The Christians can go, but if you do not hurry to change your record your religion risks becoming a religion without future … It’s no longer enough to read the verses of the Koran that are dear to you, it is necessary to read the others also, and to file the literal interpretation of sacred texts, as we did with the Bible., because the world has changed.”
Undoubtedly, the heart of the book is the consideration of Al-Taif. That meeting, not only put an end to the very long Lebanese civil war that lasted 15 years, but also set the basis for a possible “system of consensual democracy.” The “A” presents Taif as the key to a regional prospect of peace inscribed in the line that sees in the spirit of the Taif peace agreements a prospect of “post-individualist democracy,” which corresponds to the profound characteristics of the Semite culture, in which the individual is not a “sovereign I.”
This argument, developed already by A. in the book with Samir Frangieh, has as the turning key and turn the formula “guarantees to the community and rights to persons.” This key is exportable also to Syria and Iraq in a non-sectarian but State system, where the confessional partition of the highest magistracy is charged with ensuring the end of the hegemonies of one community, an elected Chamber on the basis of parties ensures political rights and, therefore, of citizenship, the Senate elected on a community basis assures all of the impossibility that tomorrow someone will seek to eliminate another.
This system is called by A. as a “consensual democracy.” It is a fragile way but it is, perhaps, the way out of today’s rampant sectarianism, which eliminates States in favor of “nations” and of the Umma.
In a Middle East fundamentalism takes on as many faces as the existing different factions of Islam but, according to the A., the whole is tied and fastened to the radical roots itself launched by Said Qutb. In this context of war where all will lose, Christians cannot but be mediators between Sunnis and Shi’ites, proponents of a regional conference of peace that isolates the two totalitarianisms and proposes not peace as opposed to war, but a common plan, of which Taif is probably the only application possible.
In his book, Riccardo Cristiano looks at the complex and irregular prism of the Middle East. Beyond an award for courage, he merits the award of a culture also capable of a reading. Certainly the prism seen from other perspectives (including that of the undersigned) offers other views, other prospects. So that, though not underwriting the whole analysis, I believe that the proposal of a mediating role of Christians is a happy prospect shared by the “Popes’ Sunni,” Muhammad al-Sammak, political and religious adviser of the Mufti of the Lebanese Republic, who in an interview during the Synod of Bishops on the Middle East, said to me: “The flight and emigration of Christians is a grave loss inflicted on the Middle East. Because of this exodus, the East loses its identity, its plurality, the spirit of tolerance and of mutual respect. At the level of religious practice also, the Muslim needs the other Christian to practice the moral values of his faith, such as tolerance and respect. Therefore, the emigration lacerates and enfeebles the rich fabric of this East weakening our societies and leading them to a dangerous precipice.” These are prophetic words…