The encounter was revealing. Stuck in traffic on a recent visit to Cardiff, I began to put the world to rights with my Afghan cab driver. Yes, we agreed, the invasion of Iraq was worse than a crime: it was a mistake. Yes, the United States in particular had given an unwitting boost to Islamist extremists by arming the mujahideen against their Soviet occupiers during the 1980s.
But then my driver made the false move common in some circles. “This proves that all the West does is oppress Muslims. Who created Saddam Hussein? Who created Osama bin Laden? It was you guys.”
The standard replies to views as one-sided as these are familiar. I took a different line, reminding my driver that overall, Christians – starting with more than a million church members butchered by government forces in Sudan – have endured far worse treatment from Muslims than vice versa in recent decades but have largely keep quiet about it. When I pointed out that there is scarcely a country between Morocco and Pakistan in which Christians are fully free to worship without harassment, the cabbie eyed me with bewilderment.
His blind spot is shared by many a liberal secularist who would normally be among the first to speak out on minority rights. The reason for this malaise stems from ignorance, as well as a hierarchy of victimhood. Many assume that Christianity is a Western faith and therefore an import to the Middle East, rather than an export from it. The point is encapsulated by the anecdote about an American general who once asked an Arab Christian when his family had converted. “About 2,000 years ago,” came the wry answer.
The plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt is especially tragic, long predating the worsening regional situation triggered by 9/11 and regime change in Iraq. Copts still form about 12 per cent of the population but used to be more numerous. To the consternation of Islamists who are in denial about the Middle East’s mixed religious ecology, the very word “Copt” derives from the Arabic Qibt, an abbreviation of Aigyptos, the Greek word for Egypt.