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Measuring the Arab World: Check the Christian Barometer

Are free elections truly a good measure of freedom and democracy in the Middle East?

May 31, 2005

Are free elections truly a good measure of freedom and democracy in the Middle East?

Even those who have celebrated the recent election in Iraq are concerned that it could give birth to a government dominated by Shiite fundamentalist parties that have little respect for the rights of women and minorities.

But even those observers worried about the outcome in Iraq take some comfort in the prospect that the liberalization of state-controlled economies and the adoption of free-market reforms signals positive change by Middle Eastern governments.

That hope is primarily rooted in the East Asian experience, where economic liberalization has helped expand the middle class and empower its members to press for political reforms.

But as China’s experience demonstrates, there could be a long time delay between the launching of free market reforms and the creation of democratic institutions in the Middle East.

No matter how one approaches the issue, assessing movement towards reform in the Middle East by considering just free elections, market reforms or even the adoption of constitutions and bills of rights does not provide a full picture. After all, these steps amount mostly to political and legal arrangements — and could be swiftly reversed by a new government.

So here is my idea: Why don’t we measure progress towards freedom in the Middle East focusing on the status of an integral element of the region’s political and social-demographic environment — its large Christian minorities?

Most of these people are highly educated and multilingual, have studied and worked in the Europe and North America — where they also have a large diaspora. The Christians of the Middle East also tend to be more secular and liberal than the surrounding Muslim majority.

To put it differently, common sense — backed by statistical and anecdotal evidence — provides you with this surprising but dependable rule of thumb.

As the Middle East becomes more free and prosperous, linked to the west and hospitable to minorities and women, the higher is the probability that the Christians will continue to live in and even return from abroad to countries like Lebanon, Egypt or Syria.

And vice versa, if the Christians sense that things are getting worse, that the Arab country they live in is losing its commitment to political, economic and religious freedom, they would tend emigrate from the Middle East.

Call it the Middle East’s “Christian barometer,” which provides the world with a more accurate measurement of the political temperature in the Middle East than even the most sophisticated social scientific model.

Although no precise figures are available, most experts estimate that Christians make up between seven and ten percent of the total population of the Arab world, which translates to between 21 and 30 million Christians living there.

Some of the numerically significant Christian minority groups include the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of Lebanon, the Assyrians of Iraq and Greek Orthodox and diaspora Armenians of Syria and the tribal members of southern Sudan.

The Maronites have been the leading force in the rise of a Lebanese identity, and individual Christians have played an important role in the secular Arab nationalist movement and in Arab cultural life.

But the Copts and the Assyrians have declined into politically marginal minorities as the Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, has been trying to assimilate the Christian (and animist) South.

At the same time, since the U.S. invasion of Iraq the condition of the more than one million Christians in that country — Chaldeans, Syrian, Latin and Armenian Catholics — has deteriorated. Churches in Iraq have burned, while scores of Christians have been killed. According to press reports, 200,000 Iraqi Christians have left for Syria — and perhaps as many have left the region.

True enough, Saddam Hussein tried to suppress the religious identity of the Christians as part of the effort to create a secular Iraqi identity.

But now, in the aftermath of the American invasion, the Christians sense the rise of radical Islamic tendencies in both the ruling Shiite majority and the Sunni minority.

So the Christians in Iraq are trying to leave the country — as opposed to taking part in building a new liberal democracy. Joining them in emigrating from the Middle East are the Christians in the Holy Land. Many western-educated Palestinian Christian professionals had actually returned to the West Bank in during the Oslo peace process.

But after the start of the Second Intifadah, and with signs that Islamic radicals are strengthening their power, they are moving back to North and South America, Europe and Australia.

Even in Lebanon, which was established by the French to provide autonomy to the Maronites, the number of Christians has been dwindling.

No census has been conducted among the population in that country, but the best guess is that the Maronites constitute around 25%, including many who hold dual citizenship and spend most of the year abroad.

All which is only adding to a very depressing picture as the number of Christians in the Middle East continues to shrink. The Arab world is losing some of its best and brightest who could have played a major role in an authentic — not choreographed — reform process in the region.

So pay attention to the “Christian Barometer.” Only if and when the Christians in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere become more bullish can we be confident that the region is becoming more open, free, pluralistic and prosperous.