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Last week, at a Washington, D.C. rally against the war in Gaza, I was surprised to see a woman wearing a t-shirt bearing the Arabic letter ن in red. This symbol is used by militants known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to identify the houses of Iraqi Christians for expropriation and expulsion.
“I’m here today opposing the atrocity that’s happening in Palestine to civilians,” says Asil Al-Benna, whose family fled Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991. At the same time, she said she was wearing her ن t-shirt“ to bring awareness to what’s happening to the Christian people in northern Iraq . . .” Just yesterday, ISIS forces conquered even more territory as Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from villages surrounding Mosul.
The Arabic letter ن (pronounced noon) stands for Nasara, meaning “Nazarenes.” It’s the term Muslims or Jews in the Middle East often use to refer to followers of Jesus of Nazareth — a title that does not connote divinity. (Arabic-speaking Christians call themselves Masihiyin,“followers of the Messiah.”)
This summer, thousands of Christians have fled Mosul with little more than the clothes on their backs, and people around the world like Al-Benna have converted the symbol of that persecution into a badge of solidarity. Many have replaced their social media profile photos with images of the letter ن, along with spreading Twitter hashtags like #WeAreN and #IAmNazrene.
— Baghdad Invest (@baghdadinvest) August 2, 2014
— Sarah-Jane Marshall (@s_jmarshall) July 23, 2014
Dear Churches, I urge you to do something about what's going on in Iraq. Don't sit idly by as our family gets slaughtered! #WeAreN
— Justin Boothby ن (@jnboothby) August 8, 2014
Remarkably, Iraqi Muslims were among the first people to voluntarily bear the ن and declare “#WeAreN.” According to the Iraq-based Christian activist Jeremy Courtney, one of the campaign’s instigators, “Muslims across Iraq joined together in protest, prayer, and viral photographs saying, ‘We are Iraqi. We are Christians.’” That’s consistent with every Iraqi that I’ve spoken to. “I’m not only opposing what’s happening in Iraq for Christians,” said Al-Benna. “I’m also opposing the ISIS atrocity that’s taking place against minorities and women.”
However, Courtney laments the turn #WeAreN has taken outside Iraq:
Sadly, when comparing Iraqi solidarity with the Western evangelical response, I fear we have not gone nearly far enough. . . . We meant #WeAreN to be a lighthouse that guided us back to the shores of humanity by recognizing all of the peoples of Iraq who have been targeted by the murderous Islamic State. Instead, through avatars and news articles that validated the suffering of our group, often to the exclusion of others, #WeAreN has become a siren, calling our ship off course and into the rocks of a dehumanizing Christian tribalism. . . .
Why is the Church standing with the Christians, who have largely made it out alive, and not the more numerous Turkmen who have been massacred or left in desert camps to die? Are we willing to say, “We are Yezidi” with the ancient Zoroastrian sect?
To which I add: Are we willing to say “We are Gaza” in solidarity with suffering there? How many of those tweeting #WeAreN are also tweeting #GazaUnderAttack?
“Ethnic cleansing — that’s what’s taking place,” says Al-Benna. “That’s what Israel is doing and that’s what ISIS is doing.”
Such rhetoric might sound extreme unless compared with the plan of Israeli Knesset Deputy Speaker Moshe Feiglin, who advocates the annihilation of both Gaza’s armed fighters “and their supporters,” adding that Gaza’s remaining civilians should be sent to “tent encampments . . . until relevant emigration destinations are determined.” Afterwards, “[t]he city of Gaza and its suburbs will be rebuilt as Israeli touristic and commercial sites.”
At present, at least 1,845 Palestinians have died in the last month of fighting, 1,256 of them civilians. At the same time, 65 soldiers have died, as well as a Bedouin citizen of Israel, a Thai foreign worker, and a Jewish rabbi.
Even with the imbalance in casualties, it’s still easier for many Americans to identify with Israeli victims. We’ve been terrified of terrorism. We’ve depended mostly on military technology rather than diplomacy to protect us, even if it kills a lot of civilians somewhere else. We let our soldiers bear the ultimate cost of our political agendas. Some of the soldiers killed fighting for Israel were U.S. citizens, and some of the weapons used by Israelis are made in the U.S.A.
We may agree in principle that all deaths deserve to be mourned. But it’s harder for most Americans to identify with Palestinians grieving in Gaza. Unless you’re an Arab. Or black. Or that rarest of minorities: People of privilege who take an unpopular stand.
“We helped bring this about,” writes Courtney, pointing out the U.S. role Iraq’s sectarian disintegration. “We may have had good intentions. But this suffering, Christian and Muslim alike, is partially on us.”
The suffering of both Christians and Muslims in Gaza is partly on us as well. Until more Americans are willing to stand in solidarity with people outside of our tribal affinities, our complicity in their suffering will continue.
All images courtesy of the author. Lead image: A Jewish boy wears a yarmulke and American and Israeli flags at a “Stand with Israel” rally in Boston, Mass., August 7, 2014.