Are Christian Arabs an endangered species?

22 Oct

National Times, 22 October 2013

Are Christian Arabs an endangered species?

From the onset of the Arab Spring in Syria, I was advocating a third way: unarmed dialogue, rather than the status quo advocated by the pro-Assad rallies or the forced regime change advocated by the armed rebels.

The more I listened to stories from those living in Syria, the more I suspected that the Arab Spring foliage was hiding some foreign seeds and foreign weeds. There was a disconnect between the factual testimonies and the fictitious tale. Many minorities, especially Christians, feared that a crude form of democracy would prevail: majority rules with no constitutional protection for the most vulnerable citizens.

But it was an uphill battle for me to find media space to question the Arab Spring goodies and baddies. “Sorry, we have no space” became shorthand for “sorry, we have no space for counter narratives”. If the Christians were declared an “endangered species” of animal, rather than the indigenous people, there would have been greater global outrage.

After all, the fishing bait that I was feeding to the media may have been bitter to swallow and my fishing hook was upside down in the shape of a question mark.

More than a decade after George W Bush’s divisive ultimatum, “Either you are with us with us, or you are with the terrorists”, it appeared that some still chose to watch a colour television in black and white.

Then I happened to be grounded at the airport. My plane had “something missing from its checklist” and could not take off. As I gazed out of the plane’s window, I had an epiphany that something else was grounded – me. After more than 20 years with more than 500 published opinion pieces, why was I still grounded at the same intersection?

A former editor once sniggered: “When will you stop beating the same racism drum?”
I replied: “When you stop beating the racist drum. When you stop, I stop.”

I looked at the wings of the plane and thought about the wings of my advocacy. Those who walked with me in the 1991 Gulf War had moved on. Those who walked with me in the 2001 War on Terror had moved on.

Many became disillusioned with this unpaid work. Some were fed up with being “fire extinguishers” that were rolled out every time Arabs behaved badly. Others became armchair advocates for the advocates, tweeting and emailing from their “clearing house” of articles by advocates. Many pursued creative paths by writing plays, writing poetry, writing musicals, writing PhDs or writing speeches.

I understood them, but still stood there. The perils of criticising fellow Christians when they are “Islamophobic” and criticising fellow Arabs when they are “anti-Semitic” come at a personal price.

But with the rise of so-called “Christianophobia” in Muslim majority countries, as warned by peace-activist Mother Agnes Mariam and British historian Rupert Shortt, it will be inspiring to see the rise of Muslim advocates defending the Christian “endangered species”. Just as many of those speaking out against Islamophobia were fellow Christians.

For too long, some sections of our media treated Arabs as a wild species to be contained and scrutinised in a test tube. But the irony was that some of us advocates were treating media editors like a school of fish without realising it. I wanted to inhabit their habitat and understand their feeding patterns so I could offer the right bait to catch the coveted “column”. But their feeding habits kept changing.

In the shadows of the Arab revolutions, there was an advocacy evolution. In the main streams of yesteryear, the bait had to be a proven “head” of a proven organisation with proven representation. But with global warming, the media mountains were melting and little islands were breaking away and sinking. The fish were migrating. They were more interested in immediacy than legitimacy.

Their food was literally “online” and they could feed from anywhere. As a free floater, my catch could no longer be fetched by casting one rod to one fish at a time. I needed to cast my net out wide.

After staring at each other through the barrel of the test tube for too long, editors and writers learnt that we swam the same turbulent ocean like little dots on a global page. We never said something so simple. “Let’s have a coffee” was code for let’s have a conversation. After all, coffee and conversation start with C which is an open circle, while Other starts with O which is a ‘closed circle.’

Joseph Wakim is the founder of the Australian Arabic Council and a former multicultural affairs commissioner. This is an edited excerpt from his forthcoming book Sorry we have no space to be released this month.

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