The Syrian Army recently laid siege to the southern city of Daraa. Hundreds of people died in this especially bloody episode of what’s being called the “Arab Spring.”
While the world sympathized with the victims of president Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy forces, one group had a more ambivalent take: Syria’s Christian population. They, like their brethren throughout the region, have ample reason to suspect that Arab democracy is not the panacea we in the West think it is.
About 10 percent of Syrians are Christians. For all its brutality, the Syrian government has done a good job of protecting religious minorities, including Christians, from persecution.
This leaves Syrian Christians in something of a bind: All else being equal, they would welcome a more democratic Syria, but things are far from equal, and a post-Assad Syria could be a dangerous place for Christians.
Just look at the fate of Christians in the new, more “democratic” Iraq. And at the same time that Daraa was being attacked, a rumor that a Christian woman had converted to Islam and then reverted to Christianity led Muslims to burn down two churches. The attack was only the latest instance of what the New York Times calls “sectarian animosities,” which is newspeak for Christians defending themselves.
What’s missing in all the talk about the “Arab Spring” and “democracy” is any examination of what democracy means and whether it necessarily makes things better.
Yale Law School professor Amy Chua, in her book World on Fire, challenged the assumption that exporting democratic capitalism would increase tolerance. She claims that on the contrary, in many places it would have the opposite effect: unleashing resentments against minorities, especially those whose affluence and influence are perceived as disproportionate to their numbers.
Authoritarian regimes or strong democracies enforcing the rule of law, can offer these minorities some protection against the anger of the mob. Remove all authority, however, and the result is often violence.
That’s what Middle Eastern Christians are afraid of. Their fears aren’t helped by the fact that most westerners don’t seem to understand that it takes more than elections to create a good or democratic government.
In his newest book, The Origins of Political Order, political scientist Francis Fukuyama writes about the importance of accountability and the rule of law in creating such a government.
The institutions we take for granted in the West, the ones that help safeguard the rights of minorities, are rare and they are next-to-non-existent in places like Syria and Egypt. Without them, you get democratic tyranny, mob rule by the majority.
This is why Christians, who believe that man is a fallen creature, have always supported democracy underpinned by checks and balances and the rule of law. That’s why we call it a “Republican form of government.” And that is why we must be wary of what some people call “democracy,” particularly for its effect on religious minorities.
As religion columnist Terry Mattingly wonders, “Has the story of the Arab spring evolved into a story about the possible extinction of the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East (and how America responds to that emerging reality)?”
This article published on May 13, 2011. Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.