“Dozens of Christians are massacred … macheted to death, locked in their churches and burned alive.”
Raymond Ibrahim, author of the new book “Defenders of the West,” has been tracking persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries for decades—from Nigeria to Iran. He says this pattern has become so routine, widespread, and violent that it constitutes what he calls a “drip genocide.”
Ibrahim discusses the history of Christians in the Middle East, growing anti-Christian sentiment in the West, and the false narratives perpetuated by much of the media, academia, Hollywood, and international organizations, such as the United Nations.
“Christian women who fled from Muslim countries and went to some European nation and they were granted asylum … and now at work, they get fired because their little cross, for example, shows,” says Ibrahim. “Whether it’s Islamic radicalization, or extremism, or whether it’s, you know, this militant leftism … Christians have quickly fallen out of favor.”
Raymond Ibrahim, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Thank you for having me, Jan. Good to be with you.
We’re going to talk about Christian persecution in the Middle East and beyond. You’re an expert on such things. I want to congratulate you on your new book, Defenders of the West.
Frankly, I was surprised to find one defender of the West, John Sobieski III, was very strangely absent, given that he led the Polish and Lithuanian forces at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, which was certainly a very massive defense of the West. I’ll get you to start there, because that’s a bit of my Polish history.
Sure, Jan. No, that makes perfect sense. He completely and totally fits into and has a place in that book. He should have a place in Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam. That’s the subtitle, and you could understand why he definitely belongs in there.
I do explain this in the introduction. I did not include him, because in the predecessor book that I wrote, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West, which circulates around eight of the most decisive battles between Islam and the West, the first from the year 636, the last, 1683 and even beyond, to the Barbary Wars in the United States— chapter eight, the longest chapter, is dedicated to Jan Sobieski. He gets his place, just not in the new book. In the previous book, he gets it.
It looks like I have some more reading to do.
Now you have to read both books.
Please tell me about how you came to be an expert on this topic that generally isn’t covered very much.
A lot of it has to do with my own personal upbringing, and background, and also my professional academic training. My family hails from Egypt. We’re Coptic Christians, basically the indigenous inhabitants of Egypt. Technically, we’re the descendants of the pharaohs, because the Coptic language is still the pharaonic language with a different alphabet, the Greek alphabet.
At any rate, the Islamic conquest is a whole long story we can get into. Of course, Egypt is a Muslim-majority nation now, and the Christians, the Copts, are a minority, but they’re also the largest Christians minority in the entire Middle East.
My parents left Egypt in part because of the entrenched discrimination. It’s gotten so much worse now. It’s not just discrimination. It’s violence, outright murder, burning churches, and other long lists we can discuss. I was born in the United States. Growing up here, I was aware of what was happening in Egypt to the Copts. I developed a natural interest, obviously, because it is personally related to me and my family.
I went to college, and I studied history. I focused on the medieval era, and also the classics. Victor Davis Hanson was my professor. We’re talking now about a quarter of a century ago. I’m happy to say we’re still friends, and I still see him as a mentor. He wrote a foreword.
He wrote the foreword to your book, yes.
Yes, he wrote the foreword to my last book. That was great. He was a great professor to have at the time. As you probably know, one of his fields was military history. I also gravitated towards that in my master’s degree, and he was the chair of my thesis committee. It was about the first battle between Muslims and Christians, the Battle of Yarmuk in the year 636.
I also did it for linguistic reasons, because I was studying Greek and Arabic. Those were the main sources that you needed to understand Byzantine Greek and the classics of Arabic. I was able to put together a thesis. Everything seemed very academic for me. In the same month my thesis was published it was 9/11, September 11, 2001.
Immediately, what I noticed and what caught my attention when I started reading contemporary sources about Osama Bin Laden, and Al-Qaeda, these groups, which I had never really focused on, I was focused on history—what immediately caught my eye was the immense continuity in their own words and their worldview with what I was writing about from the 14th century.
Then, to make a long story short, I decided to stay in this field, and Victor encouraged me. I came out to D.C., and went to Georgetown University, and studied there a little bit. I was young then. I didn’t realize how politically charged things like the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Georgetown were. I actually got A’s, but I also ruffled some feathers amongst my professors who didn’t like my viewpoints, which to me were just objective.
At any rate, I decided to leave Georgetown. I was going to, but then I got an internship at the Library of Congress in the Middle Eastern Division. The Library of Congress is a great place, because it’s the largest repository of books from all around the world. While I was there, I got Arabic writings from Al-Qaeda that would pass through my hands, and I started reading them, by Osama Bin Laden, and Ayman Zawahri.
At the time, the narrative that the Western media was sharing with us was that Al Qaeda was angry. When they covered 9/11, they would give you a whole list of grievances, from supporting Israel to mocking Muḥammad. It was always a grievance.They would say, “We’re attacking you because you attacked us.” These were all relayed by CNN and all the big media. They would interview people like Peter Bergen, and then give you the whole grievance mantra.
Then, I came across the Arabic writings that were written by Al-Qaeda to fellow Muslims, which most Westerners are not, obviously, privy to, or that were not accessible, and they said the exact opposite. Now, they basically sounded like ISIS, the Islamic State. They basically said, “Yes, we tell them about grievances, but we hate them because they’re infidels. It’s our law. It’s our religion to wage jihad until the whole world is subjugated.” That’s a whole other thing we can discuss about doctrine.
I took those Arabic writings and put them together, and it was my first book. It came out in 2007, called The Al Qaeda Reader. Actually, that helped change the narrative and the discussion about what Islamic groups wanted. Because before then, like I said, we had to rely on CNN telling us why they’re angry. Back to my original interest, which was my own family and Christians in the Middle East, I fused all that together, and I started focusing on writing about and trying to shed light on the plight of Christian minorities.
Really, the rise of Christian persecution is now in many countries, but still the lion’s share is the Islamic world. It’s probably 80 per cent. If you look at the statistics that come from think tanks, like Open Doors and World Watch List, they rank the 50 worst nations in which to be a Christian. Habitually, of the top 10, 8 or 9 are Muslim nations.
I started writing about that, and I still do. I wrote a book in 2013, Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians. What is also interesting, at that time, in 2011, I started writing a report for the Gatestone Institute monthly report where I collate and I go through, never major media sources, but Arabic sources or alternate media.
I check my sources, and I collate every month all the violence or discrimination that Muslims commit against Christians. I said, “I’m going to create it and write one report a month.” When I did that at the time, I thought, “Maybe one day I’m going to come to a month where there’s just nothing to report.”
It has been 11 years, and that has never happened. The report gets longer and longer. It’s one to two dozen anecdotes of violence and murder in the name of Islam vis-a-vis Christians. With all of them, if this was the opposite, if it was a Christian or a Westerner doing that to a Muslim, this would be all over the news.
In the seventh century, when Islam was born, if you looked at the Christian world, three quarters of it was actually conquered and Islamized until today. When we hear about Egypt, Syria, Libya, North Africa, Morocco, Iraq, and Turkey, we forget that in the seventh century that is where Christianity was centered. There were five C’s, and Rome was only one of them. You had Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople. All of those were swallowed up by Islam.
What we’re seeing today happening to Christians, I believe, is just the continuation of that. St. Augustine comes from Carthage, Tunisia. That was a bastion of Christianity. Christianity has been completely snuffed out there. In Egypt, you had the Christians, the Copts. They were a very large and powerful population. Now, they’ve been reduced to about 10 or 15 per cent of the population. We’re still seeing the same kind of shrinkage. I call it the drip-drip genocide because it doesn’t happen overnight.
You’ve started telling me what my next question is. Can you give me a general overview of the state of Christian persecution? Again, it’s just something that most people aren’t generally aware of.
Yes. I’ll just begin again, because we won’t understand the modern idea unless we go to the historical aspects, briefly. As I was saying, in the seventh century, that’s where Christianity was located, in what we call MENA, the Middle East and North Africa. The seventh century conquest, we know that as the Arab conquest. They come, and sweep in.
From the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, to one century later in 732, which is the Battle of Tours, Islam had essentially swept through all of North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, all of the Middle East proper; Syria, Iraq, Iran, and had conquered Spain. People forget about that, and it was now midway into Europe, into France, by Tours. That’s the conquest.
You can look at what happened to Christians. Islamic law, or sharia, as it is known, is very detailed. It tells you everything, and how to treat different people. It’s important. Again, this is why I go to history, because sometimes with what I’m going to tell you, people will say, “Well, these are doctrinal, abstract, old, musty, scriptural books. People can interpret them in any way.”
That’s actually what happened, historically. Basically, “the people of the book,” as Christians and Jews were called specifically, including in the Quran, had three choices during the conquest: to convert and become an equal citizen, or to become a dhimmi, which is a technical term, which basically means you’re a second-class citizen. You pay tribute, and there’s a host of discriminatory measures that are leveled against you.
You can’t build a church, for example, or a synagogue. You can’t proselytize. You can’t show your cross in public. If a Muslim wants your seat, you have to get up and give it to him. Those were all historical things that happened.
Now, fast forward to today. Believe it or not, many of those elements are still enshrined in various Islamic countries. Take Egypt, for example. In their Constitution, its second article says that the Constitution traces back and makes use of sharia, Islamic law. You have this situation.
I was at a conference, Coptic Solidarity, which is based in D.C. It’s a humanitarian organization which exists to shed light on the plight of the Copts. We’ve been meeting with various senators. Even they get surprised to hear how bad it is, because it’s so entrenched, the discrimination and the persecution. It just permeates all of Egyptian society and other Muslim nations in general.
Because, essentially, you’re saying it’s doctrinal in many cases.
It’s doctrinal. It gets codified, and it becomes part of the Constitution. I’ll give you one example: churches. According to Islamic teaching, you’re not supposed to build churches. That’s against Islamic teaching. If a church exists, you can let it stay there until it completely crumbles.
In a nation like Egypt, it is like pulling teeth for the Copts to try to build one church. I just got statistics recently from an Arabic source. In Egypt, the Coptic minority population is anywhere from 10 to 15 per cent, and then the rest are mostly Sunni Muslims. There’s something like half a million mosques and prayer halls for Muslims.
The Copts have 3,000 churches. They should have 50,000 churches, not 3,000. Because of that, the churches are often in someone’s home. It becomes a fire hazard. Last month, 11 churches caught fire in Egypt, and the government claims that it was just faulty wiring. In one of them, 40 people were killed, women and children, and the priest as well.
It’s rather telling and curious that Egypt is also the one nation that’s probably had more churches bombed and burned in the modern era than any nation in the world. The Muslim Brotherhood, in 2012, attacked almost a hundred churches in one week after the ousting of Mursi.
Then, when there’s some moderate element in Egypt or another country who does allow the building of a church, then the mob acts up. They will bomb the church with Molotov cocktails and things of that nature. Then, of course, you have the terrorist element. In Egypt, I did the math, and something like maybe 10 churches have been bombed by professional terrorists with hundreds of Christians killed. Does that mean every Egyptian is a terrorist? Of course not.
Even the government will combat a terrorist. But because it goes back to Islamic law, the infidel, or the kafir in Arabic, is a second-class citizen. They should just be grateful that they’re alive. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t try to build churches. Because of that, from top to bottom, all this is ignored. Like I said, it permeates every aspect and every rung of society.
It’s very interesting to me, because it creates a complex situation. On one hand, the authorities do deal with it to some extent.
But you’re saying on the other hand, culturally and doctrinally, there is resistance to that.
It’s going to push and pull from both sides.
Right. For example, with the curriculum, in Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran, it comes out in reports from think tanks and NGOs in the West, because they do surveys of their curriculum and what they teach their children—they’ll teach them things not unlike what ISIS says, that the non-Muslim is our innate enemy, and you can never really befriend them. If you do, it’s for some ulterior motive.
Basically, it is radical teaching. Children are indoctrinated by it in these Islamic nations, including ones that you would think are moderate, like Indonesia. The same thing happens there. Then, they grow up.
In that climate, it’s very hard when that child becomes an adult. It’s ingrained in their head. I’ll leave you with one last example that’s very pertinent, just to show you how ingrained this sort of thing is, again, from Egypt.
A child was born, and he was found in the Coptic church, a day old. The theory was some Coptic mom had him out of wedlock. Out of shame, she just left him in a church hoping someone would find him. The church entrusted the child to a barren couple, an older couple. I think they were at the time 40 or 50.
They gave him a name. They baptized him. They raised him. He was their pride and joy for four years. Then, the state got wind of it. They actually seized the child from them, gave him a Muslim name, and sent him to an orphanage.
You ask why? Because when it’s all said and done, Islam teaches what is called fitra. Every human, when you’re born, you’re actually a Muslim by nature, unless your parents change you. If they’re your biological parents, that’s fine. In this case, they have to assume he was born a Muslim, so we can’t give him to this family who are Copts.
That’s just one little heartbreaking example, because if you know what orphanages in Egypt are like, it’s not somewhere you want to be. He had a loving family taking care of him. That’s how ingrained these sorts of things are in the entire society, and in the government, as in this case.
There’s typically a distinction made between Islamism, which is radical Islam that leads to terrorism, and Islam. How do you see that distinction?
I believe it’s important to make a distinction. It’s true, look around you. There is obviously what you would call moderate Muslims. I, for one, don’t think every single Muslim is screaming, “jihad,” or anything like that. I do believe there is a distinction. The dishonesty in that paradigm is that it presupposes that true Islam is problem-free. When you dig into the sources as I did, it’s the Tatars, the Mongols, the Turks, the Arabs, and the Berbers.
All of them rationalize what they were doing according to these jihadist principles that say, “You’re the infidel. You are, by nature, my enemy. I have to fight you. I have to subjugate you.” Now does that mean every single Muslim today thinks that way and wants to do this, or is it Muslims who just interpret the religion any way they want, which you have in all religions?
Reformers. Sure, they’re out there. Yes, there’s room for reform. There’s definitely room for moderate Muslims.
I can’t help but think of the Crusades, and I’m sure you get this question a lot, that maybe not every religion, including Christianity, isn’t problem-free when it comes to the general realm of this kind of behavior.
Yes. Bernard Lewis, the great historian once said, “It was a belated response to the jihad.” Sside from what I mentioned, in the 600s, that’s when that massive jihad takes over most of Christendom. The Crusades began in 1095, which is almost 350, 400 years later.
At any rate, right before the Crusades, the Seljuk Turks were running amok in Asia Minor, which is today’s Turkey. Asia Minor, of course, was one of the oldest Christian regions. It’s where St. Paul sent most of his apostles.
Right before the first Crusade, according to the primary contemporary sources, including Muslim sources, you had anywhere between tens, and possibly hundreds of thousands of Christians that were either butchered outright, or enslaved in really gruesome ways.
In Armenia alone, around 1070, you had a thousand churches destroyed in one city, in Ani. One Muslim source says, “I tried to walk after the conquest, and I couldn’t walk because for miles, there were just dead bodies of Christians slaughtered everywhere.
That was going on right before the first Crusade. The emperor of Constantinople, the Eastern Roman emperor, Alexios, because the Muslims had reached his country, called and begged the Western Christians to come.
Of course, today, if you mention historic hostilities between Muslims and Christians, virtually everyone will remember the Crusades, and they’ll bring it out in a vacuum. If you don’t know what happened in the preceding 400 years or the preceding decades under the Seljuks, it will just seem like a bunch of European xenophobes trying to colonize the Middle East.
I discuss a lot of these men in my book, Defenders of the West. They actually sacrificed so much, because a lot of them were nobles, kings, emperors. They would fund this. Some of them would die and lose their kingdoms. Now did they fight cruelly? Were there atrocities? Of course, but it was tit for tat.
What you’re hoping to do is to provide the entire context for this, the reality of these terrible times.
Yes. I think this is by design. What I’m saying now really transcends my particular topic and field of Islam, for example, like trying to insist and prove that America’s very racist.
Then, they’ll talk about the slave trade, which is true. But they won’t tell you that 10 to 15 million Europeans were actually enslaved by Muslims, many of them from Africa. They don’t want you to know that something like slavery was done by everyone. If anything, probably white slavery of non-whites was the least, when it came to numbers.
They won’t tell you that it was white Christians and missionaries who actually abolished slavery. Whereas, it was still going on in the Islamic world. History is a potent tool. Much is being done to just suppress it, make people ignorant of it, and then present a false history.
Let’s go to the present now. What do things look like in the Middle East?