by James J. Zogby
The recent horrific massacre of 29 Egyptian Coptic Christian pilgrims served as a tragic reminder of the vulnerability of minority faith communities in many parts of the Middle East.
As a Maronite Catholic with family and friends in the Middle East, a PhD in Comparative Religion, and over 40 years of work experience throughout the Arab World, this issue is a deeply personal one for me. I know that in many parts of the world, there are religious communities that are facing threats to their very survival or dealing with serious problems of discrimination and dispossession. The challenge we face is how can we help and not harm these vulnerable communities.
Three years ago, this issue was directly addressed by eight Patriarchs of the Eastern Christian churches—representing the majority of the Middle East’s Christians—appearing together before a conference in Washington, DC. Their message was poignant and direct: we need your help, but the help we need is not for you to vilify Muslims. Demonizing Islam may generate applause in some circles in Washington, but it does not help Christians in the Middle East.
That simple message was clearly not heard by the makers of the film “Faithkeepers,” which is currently being screened across the United States. While purporting to be in defense of Christians in the Middle East, “Faithkeepers” is a not so subtle attack on Islam. The film mixes real stories of Christians and others who have suffered at the hands of ISIS with the insidious insinuation that such persecution is at the heart of the Muslim faith.
Adding insult to injury, the film falsely conflates disparate historical events—the Armenian Genocide, the Jewish exodus from Iraq and other Arab countries, and the atrocities committed by ISIS—as if they were all the result of Islam’s “inherent” desire to purge all non-Muslims from the region. What “Faithkeepers” ignores is the fact that the Armenian Genocide was perpetrated by a secular movement in Turkey that attacked all non-Turks, including Muslim Kurds; and the horrific anti-Jewish pogroms in Arab countries that followed the 1948 war that were in reaction to Israel’s horrific “ethnic cleansing” of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians and Muslims from what to became the “Jewish State.”
When “Faithkeepers” looks at the situation of Christians in Iraq and Syria, it fails to mention that, historically, Christians fared well in both countries. It was the civil war in Syria, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resulting disruption of life and the empowering of extremist sectarian movements in both countries that put Christians and the entire population of both countries at risk.
And when speaking of the Christian exodus from Arab countries over the past century, “Faithkeepers” fails to understand that it was not Islam, but several other factors, that led Christians and other elites to leave the Middle East—namely that Christians had connections, through their churches, with the West and, when seeking opportunity, the U.S. and Western Europe were obvious desirable destinations (note: many Muslims left as well for similar reasons, but they found the Arab Gulf countries or Africa to be more promising and hospitable destinations).
But none of this matters for the “Faithkeepers,” since its central purpose is to demonize Islam. It is not a stretch to make such a claim when we look more closely at the production team that made the film, its funders, and those who are promoting it, most of whom have a disturbing record of disseminating and supporting a number of anti-Muslim propaganda films and organizations. A look at the line-up of individuals and organizations behind “Faithkeepers” reveals a “who’s who” collection of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of Islamophobic “hate groups.”
The film itself is a product of the Clarion Project which has been involved in the production, direction, and distribution of other films—including: “Obsession” and “The Third Jihad”—both of which have been discredited as works of notorious anti-Muslim propaganda. According to NPR, Clarion was founded by employees of Aish HaTorah—a pro-Israel group with offices in Israel and the U.S.—and shared offices with that group. Clarion’s funding also comes from the same sources that have funded anti-Muslim campaigners like Pamela Gellar, David Horowitz, Robert Spencer, and Brigitte Gabriel.
Finally, if there were any question as to the intent of “Faithkeepers,” that matter is resolved in the film’s credits which note that the film itself was based on an article written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an anti-Muslim activist who has described Islam in the most offensive terms.
The bottom line is that vulnerable Christian communities do need protection and support. What they do not need is to be exploited as pawns in a disgraceful effort to demonize another religion. By using the plight of Christians for no other purpose than to further an anti-Muslim agenda, “Faithkeepers” has broken faith with those it claims to be helping.
ames J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute. Cartoon by Carlos Latuff via Wikimedia Commons. Photo: St. Mark Church, Heliopolis, Egypt (Andrew Shenouda via Flickr).