Assad's Quiet Allies: Christians
These days, Bashar al-Assad is no longer the international darling he once was. Since 2011, the Syrian leader has waged war against his own people and has participated in one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, deploying chemical weapons against his own civilians and denying any wrongdoing with a cold-blooded stoicism. He even has disavowed the legitimacy of any opposition before him, and has expressed his desire to lead his “country” and his “people” going forward. In the face of international outcry, he has remained resolute in his mission to remain in power while toeing the line of human atrocity.
Why would anyone support a man like this? Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia protect him for geopolitical considerations. The Syrian military and government see their personal salvation wedded to his success. Alawites dread the persecution they may face in a post-Assad world. And most predominantly, there are those—and increasingly so in the Western world—who prefer Bashar al-Assad because he is the “devil they know”.
On Syria’s southern flank in Jordan, few would agree with the above justifications. In this (approximately) 95% Sunni Muslim country, most Jordanians support Assad’s ouster. As a friend to Shiite Iran and Hezbollah while a ruler of a majority Sunni country, the al-Assad family for years has struggled against the rise in popularity of Sunni Islamic movements within Syria. And as the sectarian rhetoric has taken hold of the Syrian war, most Jordanians do not want to believe that Bashar al-Assad could be their geopolitical friend.
But even more importantly, as the war continues to drag on, refugees continue to pour into Jordan; in other words, the threat of a spillover remains. The Syrian civil war has created major stresses for the Jordanian economy and threatens to reshape the country's demographic and political map. As one local in northern Jordan expressed to me, life in Jordan has become “more expensive”, and refugee inflows have created tense “social issues” between newcomers and native Syrian inhabitants. To Jordanians, Assad is the source of these headaches. The sooner he goes, the better.
Yet despite the popularity of the previously described opinion, there is still one group of Jordanians whose support for Assad remains uniform—albeit quietly. These Jordanians dread a world without Assad, despite recognizing his malice and empathizing with the anxiety of Syria’s Alawite population, because they prefer Assad as the devil they know over the extremist devil they don't (rebel groups). Their justification is not of the religious type, for they do not believe in the Quran or Mohammad. Just who are these people then?
As about 4% of Jordan’s population, Christians comprise the largest minority group in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, inhabiting a privileged position in society. Considered among the business and political elite, Christians enjoy an amicable relationship with the monarchy: not only are Christian holidays celebrated publicly in Jordan, but the Christian community is allotted 9 out of the total 110 seats in the elected Jordanian parliament. And one need not go far to see why Jordan’s Christian community is one of the oldest in the world. Across Jordan, ancient Christian churches inhabit a position of importance within the rich multi-faith mosaic known as the Holy Land.
But beneath the surface, and between the vestiges of this historical interfaith fabric, lies a more troubling, less romantic reality. The Christian population has dropped precipitously in recent decades, down from the previously estimated 10-12%. Violence against the Christian community may be nonexistent, but there is still a palpable tension in the air. “We don’t feel safe here,” one Christian told me, “at work, I am still asked by my Muslim coworkers why I have not yet converted to Islam. They tell me my life would be better.” (He works in software animation, and has no plans to convert.)
This sentiment may not be applicable to all Christians, but it is also not an outlier. Among many Christians perspectives, I have heard that the problems in the Arab world today are the result of “Islamic culture” and that “Islam is not ready for democracy.” I have even heard from one Christian that Islam is the “religion of the devil.” While these are particularly harsh words, there is indeed a general sense of wariness among the Christian population vis-à-vis their Muslim neighbors. They feel more vulnerable than welcome here. In a country where Christian missionary activity is illegal and Muslim worship is open and public, Christians are a minority—and they know it.
Yet even more glaring is the colossal gap in perception between the Muslim and Christian communities. While I have heard from one Muslim that “Islam is better than Christianity,” the more commonly expressed Muslim opinion is that Christians and Muslims (and even Jews) all come from the same mold. They are three peoples under “one God.” Al-Kitaab al- Maqdus, or the “Holy Book” (the Bible), binds these people together. Any conflict between these peoples is not an issue of faith, but rather of politics.
This dissonance is striking. Even if we assume that most Jordanian Muslims genuinely believe that Christians are their brothers under “one God,” most Jordanian Christians still don’t feel the same way. This dynamic may just be the result of basic majority-minority demographic relations, but it may also have to do with the obvious religious character of Jordan.
By many respects, Islam is currently experiencing a resurgence of religious conservatism around the Middle East. It is very much part of daily life here, and in part frames social interaction. While riding cabs, I am frequently asked if I am Muslim—one of the first questions in my discussion with the driver. When I tell them I am Christian, the discussion still continues, sometimes about religion, sometimes not.
This is not to say that Christians are immediately judged negatively as “Christians” in this Muslim country, but rather that to observe religion is an important element of identity in Jordan, and has become even more so with the spread sectarian discourse. Within the majority Muslim community there exists a seemingly special relationship, which includes particular habits and expressions. No matter how much they respect me, a non-Muslim, I’m not one of them, and I know it. Jordanian Christians may be Jordanian, but they are certainly not Muslim, and they know it too.
So as Christians lend their quiet support to the Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, they only do so because they fear a victory by his enemies. With the recent rise of Islamist groups like ISIS in Syria—groups that endeavor to implement strict Islamic Sharia law—Jordanian Christians pray that Assad will defeat and deter those who may threaten their way of life in Jordan. They have seen what as happened to Christians in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, and they pray that Assad will re-impose stability in Syria and spare Jordan of any discriminatory religious terror.
Jordan may stand by its Christian population today. But if the Islamic extremists come knocking on Jordan’s door, can Jordan’s Christians rely upon the protection of their Muslim brothers? Christians and Muslims may pray to the same God, but can this God protect both peoples? Jordan’s Christians hope they never have to find out.