The Middle East is more polarised along religious lines than ever before. Yet recent history shows the region can return to the enlightened tolerance it once enjoyed

Across the Middle East today, non-Muslim minorities are on the retreat. Let the numbers alone tell the story. Christians in Iraq comprised eight per cent in 1987 and are one per cent today. The mysterious Mandaeans, who once kept alive Babylonian traditions and a Gnostic faith in the Iraqi Marshes, have shrunk by more than nine-tenths. Even Egypt’s Copts, the largest of all non-Muslim communities in the Arab world, are beginning to head towards Europe and America.

This trend is not new. One in 20 inhabitants of Latin America is descended from 19th-century Christian emigrants from the Levant.

Such 21st-century immigrants have left behind them a Middle East which is more polarised along religious lines than it has ever been. Religious intolerance does not stop when it drives out non-believers; instead it constricts society into narrower and narrower circles. First pagans are persecuted; then Christians and Jews are driven out; then Muslim groups turn on each other with more brutality than they ever showed to outsiders. Sunni against Shia, Salafi against Sufi, and even al-Qaeda against Daesh (the self-styled “Islamic State”).

The battles for orthodoxy are ever-diminishing in their purpose, ever-expanding in the violence and chaos that they bring. The best lack all conviction, as Yeats wrote, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

The post-1918 dream of national self-determination risks turning into the nightmare of religious segregation. Christians and Yazidis from Iraq bear eloquent testimony of threats or actual violence directed against them for their beliefs. In Syria, minorities who fear the Islamist opposition are corralled into support for a bloody and divisive government. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood government of 2012 had just about the lowest level of Christian representation for 150 years.

It wasn’t always this way – and it didn’t have to be this way. Yes, for those who want to interpret Islam as a militant faith which should be spread through violence, there are religious precedents and arguments at their disposal. This is what “Islamic State” exploits. Pretending that they have no religious basis at all is a mistake: it makes us ignore that the fight against their ideology is not just a matter of bombs and bullets but also of theology and psychology. Equally, though, those who think that the path of confrontation between Muslims and those of other faiths is inevitable, and that the Middle East has always been a maelstrom of sectarian conflict, could learn something from its modern history.

In 18th-century Egypt the Copts – Egyptian Christians, who have their own ancient Church, founded by St Mark as tradition has it – were said by one European visitor to “tremble like leaves” because of constant persecution. They were excluded from government service and owning land, and their legal rights were severely restricted. Even riding on horseback was forbidden, in case it elevated a Christian above the level of a Muslim. By 1911, their position had changed utterly. There was a Copt as prime minister, and the Copts owned 20 per cent of the land (being probably then somewhat over 10 per cent of the population). Lebanese Christians had set up the country’s first newspapers. A Jew had been called “Egypt’s first Molière”.

Most telling of all, Egypt’s film industry was just getting off the ground: Togo Mizrahi, one of its great Jewish directors, set up his first studio in the 1920s. Leila Murad was a Jewish Egyptian actress; even that more familiar figure, Omar Sharif, was originally a Christian. Both he and Murad adopted Islam as adults; but anyone who has read Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet will know that, in the early 20th century, Egypt was a cosmopolitan place.

It might be tempting to put this down to the British involvement in Egypt, which began in the 1870s. The Copts themselves, though, saw the British as having interrupted a home-grown process of enlightenment under Egypt’s liberal native ruler, who before the British came had appointed the country’s first Christian prime minister and had declared “all are Egyptians alike”. At a time when Jews in Europe were far less emancipated, it was a radical move.

Other parts of the Ottoman Empire were not so advanced. Christians and Yazidis continued to be persecuted in the late 19th century. When autonomous Arab states emerged after the First World War, though, they opened up space for non-Muslims to thrive.

A Mandaean became president of one of Iraq’s biggest universities. Many of the country’s star footballers were Christian. So was the country’s foreign minister, Mikhail Yohanna, for all that he took the Muslim-sounding name Tariq Aziz.

In Syria, an Alawite rose to become president, through a political party (the Ba’ath) founded by a Christian. Minority religions still attracted prejudice; rather as in the 19th century, Catholics could achieve prominence in English life but never equality. Yet the Arab world might have seemed in the 1940s or 1950s to be on a trajectory, rather like Europe’s, towards greater acceptance of the other. And then, it shifted and went in the other direction.

What changed? Three things, and it happened some time ago: token appointments like Aziz’s concealed the social shifts that began in the 1950s and have since exacerbated conflicts. Those three things involved leadership, education and a sense of direction.

Governments point the way: “all are Egyptians alike” has not often been the motto in Egypt since the 1952 coup removed the country’s monarchy. That coup introduced an era of anti-colonial autocracies across the Arab world. But other social changes were underway, too. The creation of Israel sparked a desire to have Muslim states to rival and oppose the Jewish state. Oil money enriched the Muslim world’s most conservative kingdoms, and empowered hard-line preachers and institutions. Villagers migrated to the cities, and developed what the author Amin Maalouf called “the intense religiosity of the urban migrant”, who finds religion – of the black-and-white, us-against-them variety – to be the best protection against the vanishing of community spirit and the secularising effect of city life.

The struggle for identity gave scope for Islamist movements which made it a priority to take over the education system and use it as a recruitment base. Learning Arabic in Egypt became a matter of studying the Koran.

In a bigger way, religion has become the answer to the question: who am I? If the answer is “I am an Egyptian”, then a Copt or a Muslim can be equally loyal to that identity, because it includes them both. If the answer is “I am an Arab” then, though it is an identity forged by Islam, it still admits Christians. But if the answer is “I am a Muslim” then this cannot include Christians any more.

The Middle East’s great rift today is between Iran and its allies on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other, which neatly fits into and reinforces the religious divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims. From the beginning of the Syria conflict I found that I could predict very accurately whether a Muslim would prove to be Shia or Sunni, just based on their view about Bashar al-Assad. Christians are neutrals in that conflict, but in the end a society that defines itself by religion will not make a comfortable home for them.

For the Middle East to regain its lost tolerance would, again, require three changes. One is peace, which is easier said than done: the Syrian crisis will not quickly be resolved, nor will Saudi Arabia and Iran reach an agreement any time soon on their respective roles in the world; but the Middle East would be better if they did.

Another is education. I spent years studying Arabic language and culture. Sometimes, as I travel in the Middle East, I feel that the Arabs themselves are abandoning this rich heritage. Religion then becomes the one reference point around which people can rally, which makes them feel that they are a people.

Education, though, must encompass a benign understanding of other faiths and cultures. It must give a true understanding of history, not a long list of battles that Muslims have won. We non-Muslims
can help with this. We can set an example of understanding, for one thing. We can also help projects to provide education to Syrian refugees, who are a huge sector of the Middle East’s population who may otherwise be deprived of any chance to study and learn.

And then there is the tantalising possibility that, by giving Arab and other forms of Islamic culture the honour that they deserve for their genuine contribution to world civilisation, we might shut out the sham and violent interpretations of that culture. I don’t mean a superficial, over-rosy interpretation of Islam’s history; it was really not much more tolerant, nor much less, than Christianity. We had our Crusades; they had their jihads, or futuhhat, meaning the invasion of non-Muslim lands by Muslims. They killed pagans who refused conversion; so did Christians, in Europe. They enforced orthodoxy with force and fought over small differences of doctrine: so, of course, did we. Both religions also set moral boundaries at a time when no government could do so; both gave opportunities to shape nations on a basis that was not simply that of race; both, at their best, brought people closer to God.

A true appraisal of Middle Eastern history would show the disaffected, often psychologically disturbed recruits to ISIS that they have misread the history of their own religion. The Arabs made amazing conquests in the years after Mohammed’s death, but plenty of other peoples (Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols – let alone the French and British) did the same. What the Arabs did that was more amazing was to keep hold of their empire for so many centuries. They did that by making good use of the talents of the non-Muslims over whom they ruled – from the very first caliphs, who had Christian doctors and architects, to the open-minded Khedive Ismail, who governed Egypt and Sudan from 1863 to 1879. This is a history lesson worth learning.

Finally, governments must give a clear lead. Attempts to placate bigots do not generally work; rather, they encourage them. They must be confronted – in the Middle East as in Europe. This must include certain extremist clergy who have hitherto been given a wide licence to preach hatred. It must also include tougher laws on the financing of terrorism. This means promoting a sense of equal citizenship and enforcing a rule of law in which a court, not a tribe or a religious community, is the place of resort for people who want to protect and claim their rights.

Gerard Russell is a former diplomat whose book on Middle Eastern religions, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, is published by Simon &; Schuster UK

This article first appeared in the Christmas double issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here