It is not surprising that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is persecuting Christians in Mosul. ISIS has been targeting and killing individuals and groups that do not abide by its extremist ideology and politics since it was formed in April 2013. Women, secular activists and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters came under attack by ISIS in Syria way before they moved to Iraq. What is actually surprising is that except for a few statements of condemnation and expressions of support, no real international campaign or political effort has emerged to stop this madness.
What is more concerning is that Lebanon seems to be sitting in the observer’s seat, as if words of support by the parliament were enough to face the danger looming on the horizon. If Lebanese leaders and politicians are genuinely concerned about Lebanon’s safety and security, we should at least take a unified stance against Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria and, more recently, in Iraq.
ISIS wants to establish an Islamic state, and Mosul could be just the beginning of it. Their state will probably expand – geographically and ideologically – wherever they can find a supportive Sunni environment. They will not tolerate anyone who is different, including Christians, Shiites, or secular individuals and groups. Their main battle will be against other Sunni groups that they consider competitors.
ISIS is still not popular in Lebanon’s Sunni community, but there are several factors that make Lebanon vulnerable in the face of extremism and violence: the fragility of its state institutions, Hezbollah’s control over state institutions (mainly security), Hezbollah’s ability to use the permeable Lebanese-Syrian border to send its military to Syria, and the rising sectarian tension in Lebanon between Sunnis and Shiites that is dragging Lebanese increasingly into regional conflicts.
Meanwhile, clashes continue in Arsal outskirts and Qalamoun between Hezbollah fighters and Syrian rebels, and Hezbollah has reportedly increased the number of its fighters and weapons in Qalamoun. Borders between Lebanon and Syria are practically non-existent and it is no longer news if the battles between fighters take place on Lebanese land.
The Qalamoun and earlier Yabroud and Qusayr battles destroyed the borders long before ISIS very publically destroyed the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria. No factions – Hezbollah, The Syrian army, ISIS, or Jabhat al-Nusra – have ever acknowledged Lebanon or its borders. If their future battles require Lebanon as a battlefield, nothing will stop them.
The Christians in Lebanon have a historic role to play. The whole region is being divided along Sunni-Shiite lines. Lebanon has so far been resilient because of its diversity, and mainly because of the presence of Christians. As such, Lebanese Christians, for their own sake and the sake of all Christians, minorities and secularists of the region, need to stop making mere statements and become active participants in the political scene.
Back in 2001, Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi told The Guardian’s William Dalrymple that it is Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world “Arab” rather than “Muslim,” saying that they “have played a vital role in defining a secular Arab cultural identity. It is no coincidence that most of the founders of secular Arab nationalism were Christians.”
Salibi died before ISIS drove the Christians out of Mosul in Iraq, but he was able to draw on events and incidents that have led to the rise of ISIS and similar groups.
In the same interview, Salibi warned against ramifications that are today becoming reality. He said: “Each time a Christian goes, no other Christian comes to fill his place and that is a very bad thing for the Arab world.[…] Since the 19th century, the Christian Arabs have played a vital role in defining a secular Arab cultural identity. It is no coincidence that most of the founders of secular Arab nationalism were Christians: men like Michel Aflaq, who founded the Ba'ath Party, George Antonius who wrote The Arab Awakening. If the Christian Arabs continue to emigrate, the Arabs will be in a much more difficult position to defend the Arab world against Islamism."
Salibi was right. The emergence of ISIS today threatens us all because it refuses “the other.” We are all in danger. The region seems to be going back to tribalism, as if a century of intellectual awakening and secular ideas are being erased and our identities are evaporating.
All Christians, all minorities, all moderate Muslims, all women, and all secularists are potential ISIS targets. Dictators like Bashar al-Assad, Nouri al-Maliki or Ali Khamenei never have and never will protect us. They have treated minorities as minorities and survived in part by using them to claim legitimacy in the face of Western powers.
Yet in Lebanon’s diverse, if fragile, sectarian makeup, there is fertile ground to confront all this. On the political scene, Christian leaders should start acting as decision makers. Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun must stop hiding behind Hezbollah’s crimes in Syria just because the Islamists are coming. He should, first and foremost, realize that Lebanon is more important than his becoming president and that his pro-Assad stances will not be forgotten.
Electing a president and a new parliament should be a priority. Hezbollah should not be allowed to decide who our president is, and Aoun needs to realize that he and his party, and eventually all Christian areas in Lebanon, will become targets of Hezbollah’s enemies in Syria and Iraq. If Aoun really wants to protect Christians in Lebanon, he should abandon ship immediately and reconsider all his stances.
That said, Christians in Lebanon do not need to sacrifice political pluralism for the sake of total unison. To become a leading community and regain their role as decision makers, Lebanese Christians should at least unite over the principles that would safeguard all of Lebanon’s communities – sovereignty, state institutions, and individual freedoms.
The question is, can General Michel Aoun get off the Hezbollah boat and once again make all of Lebanon a priority? It is probably too late for the General, but it is not too late for his followers to think about themselves as active participants, not as a passive minority that need the Shiite Hezbollah for protection.
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW. She tweets @haningdr [https://twitter.com/haningdr]