“Why are you Christians so selfish?,” I was asked by a bearded Mullah in the city of Sulaimaniya in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. I had gone there to give the keynote address to a conference of 400 Muslim scholars and clergy from the region who were convening on the topic of religious extremists and what to do about them. For “extremist” they used the Arabic term, taqfiri, which refers to any pompous religious person who accuses others of heresy, thereby pretending to be better than they are.
With the presence of the Islamic State just a few miles from the conference site, they had plenty of examples of taqfiri to worry about. In my keynote address, however, I could assure them that this taqfiri attitude was not just a problem for Islam. All religious traditions have their taqfiri, I said, and the recent presidential elections in the United States brought out the Christian taqfiri in droves.
This brings us back to the question that he raised, about why so many Christians seem so selfish. What he had in mind was the refusal of Americans to take in refugees from Iraq and Syria who were fleeing from the persecution of the Islamic State (also known in the West as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and called Daesh by Iraqis who despised them, since this word that is an acronym of the Arab phrase for the movement also sounds like the Arabic word for bullies or thugs).
The Mullah’s question was followed by a diatribe against the ban that had recently been proclaimed by the newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump, prohibiting people from trying to enter the US, many of them refugees, from seven Muslim countries. Though I agreed that it was a pointless and insulting policy, I said, it can also be seen as part of a larger mood of nationalism around the world. I tried to explain this fear of refugees by the global mood of anti-globalism, linking the vote for Brexit in the UK to the nationalist xenophobia in the US. In both cases immigration and entangling trade alliances were issues that voters pointed to in their surprise upset votes for Brexit and Trump, respectively.
But the Mullah in Sulaimaniya was having none of it. This was not a universal response, he thundered. He pointed out that Kurdistan was a tiny little country (everyone in Kurdistan describes it as if it were already independent from Iraq), and a poor one at that. It is now overflowing with perhaps two million refugees, a third of its population, the Mullah said, adding that there is not a whimper of rejection of them from the Kurdish Muslim population. Just the opposite, he explained, the Muslim Kurds are eager to help however they can.
I knew what he meant. I had visited several refugee camps in the region where tens of thousands were encamped. Though UNICEF and other international agencies provided much of the material support, the relief centers were run by Kurdish NGOs with funds provided from the region itself. Though most people in the Kurdistan region were Sunni Muslims by religious affiliation and Kurdish by ethnicity, the people in the camps were Christian and Yazidi as well as Muslim, Arab as well as Kurdish. They were all treated with respect in the camps.
In addition to the established refugee facilities, I also saw makeshift huts in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where refugees were crowded into vacant lots and half-built buildings. At one of these impromptu settlements I found that the Kurdish neighbors in comfortable middle-class houses were helping the refugees set up their tents. They helped them tap into the power lines so they could have electricity, and they provided them with water, food and blankets.
Millions more refugees from Syria and Iraq have flooded into Turkey. That Muslim country, poor by European standards, has welcomed the same people who then tried to move onward to European Christians countries and were often rudely rebuffed.
The Mullah I met wanted to link these two contrasting attitudes to religion–the Muslim theme of hospitality and service, compared with what he saw as Christian selfishness and individualism. “No Muslim,” he said, “would turn away a stranger in need.”
I was tempted to argue with him. After all it was the intolerance of ISIS taqfiri that created the refugees in Iraq and Syria in the first place. And Turks have hardly been the world’s model of hospitality for all ethnic groups–surely Kurds of all people should be aware of that. The current regime in Turkey has resisted the Kurds from having a voice in the nation’s political life and is waging war against Kurdish militants in the eastern areas of the country. In the past hundred years, ever since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of Turkey as an independent nation, Armenians and Alawites as well as Kurds have been treated as second class citizens.
But I didn’t argue with the Mullah, not only because I didn’t want to enter into a sparring match, but also because he had struck a sensitive chord. I felt that he was, in part, right. Some of the most vicious inhospitality of Islamophobia and anti-refugee attitudes in the United States have come from within the Bible belt of America’s Midwestern and Southern states. It has sometimes been Christian church leaders who have raised the anti-immigrant slogans most loudly. It as if they had never read the biblical words commanding the faithful to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and admonishing those who have not loved their neighbor whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.
But as a sociologist I know that religion is not just about belief and creeds, it is about how people think of their relationship to specific communities and cultures, and how they defend them with religious zeal. My own experience of being raised in the religious milieu of the American Midwest taught me that much of the Sunday morning identities of church were about establishing we-they communities of faith, the religious clubs of small town American churches that are exclusive by their very definitions. Taqfiri attitudes are built into the very social fabric of American religiosity.
That is not the whole story, fortunately. My family’s religiosity is testimony to another strand of Midwestern religion that comes from an immigrant past, a more hospitable and tolerant attitude reflected in the 19th century missionary movement that was largely about world service rather than simply saving souls. The several missionaries in my own family would return on furlough with great stories about the schools and hospitals they had established, and the poor they had helped to lift up to better roles within society. Our house was open to people from other countries whom we regarded as very special guests. My older sister brought home three Iranian women she met in college, and I remember thinking of them like Magi from the East, wise people from foreign cultures who could teach us something special about the world.
So yes, we Christians can be selfish. But like the Muslim tradition that can embrace both hospitality and taqfiri, the story is complicated. The same religious tradition that can be a resource for intolerance can be a basis for acceptance as well. Though Christianity can become the shield of clubbish and nationalist sentiments there is still the haunting image of the legendary birth events of a child who was born into a refugee family who could not find a room to accept them. It’s good to know today that at least some Christians would have taken them in.
My thanks to the Union of Islamic Clerics in Kurdistan for the invitation to the conference and to Prof Ibrahim Anli of Ishik University, Erbil, for arrangements and translation assistance.