We can focus better on tasks that are urgent or pressing than those that seem distant and far away. Even the laziest of students seem somehow able to drag themselves to the library to cram study in a week before an exam. This is because temporality has a strong influence on our evaluation of importance; the more urgent or pressing something is, the more it seems to matter to us. Conversely, the further away something is from us in time, or the longer it has been going on, the less relevant it usually feels.
That’s why expression “time heals all wounds” holds true, as the more distant a traumatic event is in time, the weaker its capacity to elicit an emotional response becomes. Yet time doesn’t bring back our loved ones, nor does it resurrect the dead; all it does is numb us to the pain of our loss.
Through the media, we can experience this “numbing” in real time. No matter how shocking, the media has a power to transform events from pressing and urgent concerns into stale and uninteresting “old news.” Unless there’s a fresh update juicy enough to satiate our appetite, we’re unlikely to give much notice if a story from last week or beyond reappears in the news. It took a story about Islamic State fighters dismembering a baby and forcing his mother — held in sexual slavery — to consume him to get us to remember that a genocide of Yazidi Kurds is ongoing in Iraq and Syria. Yet as soon as we condemned this incomprehensibly insidious barbarity, the story seemed to disappear once again.
My previous articles in this series have focused on forgotten genocidal events that took place in recent history. Yet perhaps more often than not, the targeted extermination of a people can also take place over longer periods of time, frustrating the shallow capacity of our attention spans and preventing appropriate response. In these cases, it is only long after the genocide, when we notice how a group of people have seemingly vanished, that we realize a grievous moral crime took place right under our noses, but at a pace simply too gradual for us to care.
This mass disappearing takes place more commonly than we might like to think. In 1948, the 3,000 year-old Jewish communities thriving all across the Muslim world from Iraq to Morocco were expelled after the formation of the modern world’s first Jewish state. Few might call this “genocide” given that these Jews and their descendants now thrive in the state of Israel. Yet in reality, Judaeo-Arabic and the flourishing culture that produced it have all but disappeared, as Jewish refugees to Israel rapidly assimilated. While the same methods may not have been utilized, the expulsions of Jews from across the Middle-East had the same outcome as that intended by the genocidal project of Nazi Germany — the vanishing of a culture, a language, a religion, and a people.
In considering the appropriate response to these situations, we encounter a moral grey area of some complexity. How should we evaluate forced expulsion, systematic extermination, and even natural demographic replacement (via assimilation, birthrates) when they all produce the same outcome?
This complexity becomes clear in the case of Middle-Eastern Christians, previously the majority religion in the region. Despite having long since fallen to the homogenizing influence of Arabic, Christian ethnicities from Egyptian Copts to Iraqi Assyrians have been able to retain their unique identity until modern times. At the dawn of the 20th century, Christians comprised around a fifth of the population in the Middle-East, yet now account for as little as 5% — a number in catastrophic decline. After 2,000 years of rich history in the homeland of their faith, Middle-Eastern Christians appear to be headed towards extinction.
But is this truly a genocide? After all, Christians were have not been expelled from the area en masse in the same way as Jews were in 1948, nor were they targeted for systematic extermination as the Jews of Germany were during the Holocaust. While it is true that the Islamic State has attempted — with some degree of success — to expel, enslave, or exterminate every Christian it is able to, this recent spate of atrocities appears only to have accelerated a terminal decline underway well before the Syrian conflict. So why are Christians disappearing?
Seeking answers, I visited St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in London. Every Sunday morning the church holds a service in Arabic, for which it becomes completely packed with worshipers, segregated neatly into male and female sections as is custom. While waiting patiently after the service in hope of an interview, a middle-aged Coptic man began chatting with me about the weather (in typical British fashion). Our conversation eventually turned to terrorism, as two German tourists were stabbed to death in Sharm el-Sheikh just the day before.
“Oh, that” he said, waving his arm dismissively in reference to the atrocity. “We get that all the time. Where I’m from in Alexandria, you know, they stabbed our priest here” he added, pointing to his throat while drawing a line across it. While I couldn’t find details of his specific case, while researching I was able to uncover a long list of terroristic and murderous attacks on this indigenous minority population so numerous and so unspeakably evil as to make one’s blood run cold.
The headlines may be different, yet all tell the same story. “Coptic woman beheaded in apartment” “Copts killed by Muslim neighbors for establishing home church” “Church bombing kills 43” “Copts on pilgrimage forced to convert to Islam or be shot at gunpoint.” Clearly, there are no concentration camps or mass expulsions involved in this case — but the 1400 year campaign against Egyptian Christians, whether through systematic oppression or outright genocidal violence, appears to have done its work.
Perhaps the reason that few view the atrocities suffered by Egypt’s Christian minority as a “genocide” is because it is simply too slow. Whether perpetrated by Islamic extremists or simply their Muslim neighbors, anti-Coptic violence has gone on for so long, and is now so horrifically banal, that we have lost our capacity to care. Foreign Affairs notes that “Attacks on Egypt’s Copts are becoming so commonplace that they no longer interest Western audiences.”
Attacks on Egypt's Copts are becoming so commonplace that they no longer interest Western audiences. https://t.co/CUs0eFtuG6
— Foreign Affairs (@ForeignAffairs) June 21, 2017
As Copts as well as other Christians are killed or flee from the Middle East, their traditions, languages, and cultures too disappear. The disappearance — a direct result of centuries of ferocious ethnic cleansing — is now seen as inevitable. If the tragic extinction of Middle-Eastern Christians isn’t genocide, then there is no other name for it. And if it is genocide — then why don’t we care?