Change in the Middle East

April 15th, 2011
Photo: Flickr | Used under Creative COmmons license.

Protests in the Arab World

The ongoing saga of upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East raises questions for us about how God works in the world and how our actions can matter. We have seen transformation fueled by people who are tired of living in poverty, fed up with corrupt authoritarian regimes, and insistent on their human dignity. The prospects of change in North Africa and the Middle East are greater than they have been in recent memory.

Washington Post columnist Eboo Patel writes that accounts of the Egyptian pro-democracy demonstration in 2005 pale in comparison to the events of January 2011. He says, however, that “there would have been no January 25, 2011 if there was not an April 27, 2005 [when a few hundred Egyptian protesters were outnumbered by police]. There would not have been a few hundred thousand friends and supporters of the ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ Facebook page (widely credited with gathering and channeling the discontent in Egypt) had there not been earlier democracy blogs and Facebook pages that were trafficked by a few hundred.”

A Review of Events

At this writing, unrest spans the Arab world (countries in which Arabic is the primary language) from the western Atlantic coast of North Africa to the Persian Gulf. The following review of events includes some, but not all, of the countries where there have been demonstrations–– mostly by young people and fueled by social networking–– calling for governmental reform.

In January, mass demonstrations in Tunisia forced President Zineel- Abdine BenAli to resign; and on February 27, Tunisian primeminister Mohammed Ghannoushi announced his resignation as head of the transitional government. The Tunisian protests inspired revolts in Egypt and Libya and protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and Iraq.

In Egypt, where protestors ousted President Hosni Mubarak on February 11 after weeks of mostly peaceful demonstrations against his 30-year autocratic regime, the military will run the country for six months or until elections can be held. Much of the unrest is about corruption (including personal enrichment among the political elite), unemployment (especially among young people), poverty, rising prices, and social exclusion.

In Libya, leader Colonel Moammar Gaddafi’s violent attempts to quell protests in Tripoli and other cities has resulted in international outrage, while protesters are gaining control over much of eastern Libya, where plans are underway for an interim government. In Bahrain, protesters have called for constitutional reform. Sunni ruler King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is slowly responding to the demands of the movement.

On February 24, Algeria lifted a state of emergency ordered 19 years ago that had banned protest marches. Protestors there have been calling for a peaceful transition to democracy. In Yemen, widespread anti-government demonstrations have called for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Activists in Saudi Arabia have called for political reform–– including a constitutional monarchy–– of this highly restrictive nation. Aging King Abdullah’s promises of reform have stalled as his relatives squabble over who will be his successor. In Oman, protestors want jobs, higher wages, and political reforms. In Morocco, there have been mostly peaceful demonstrations calling for political reforms, a new constitution, and more limited power for King Mohammed VI. Following violent protests on February 27, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq called for his cabinet to enact government reforms. In Lebanon, protestors are demanding changes in governance.

Christians and Human Rights

As protests grow through the Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East, similar grievances are voiced: unemployment, poverty, dictatorial rule, inadequate public services, governmental reform, corruption, free speech, and a free press. Many of the issues are directly connected with human-rights violations.

For Christians, human rights are to be afforded to all human beings because all are made in the image of God. We cannot say that some people are made in the image ofGod and others are not.As creatures in the image of God, all persons deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Bishop Kenneth Carder writes in his book Living Our Beliefs: The United Methodist Way, “How we treat ourselves and others––and how we form communities and nations––is determined by the image we have of human beings.”

The reality of human sin and evil distorts but does not remove the image of God in humankind. God’s intention is the restoration of the divine image. The prophets expressed it in terms of God’s vision of shalom: peace and harmony in all creation.

In this age of the Internet, social networking, cell phones, and constant news availability, we cannot live in isolation from other human beings who suffer around the world. Our commitment to live out the commandments to love God and neighbor means that we are to care for neighbors globally. One way of doing that is by supporting human rights.

That God loves humanity and wants us to love humanity supports our concern about human rights. The Old Testament and the New Testament teach us to love God and neighbor and to stand with the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. When we act out of love for neighbors near and far, we are working for God’s vision for the world: justice, peace, wholeness, and harmony.

Connecting God’s Vision With the Protest Movements

“The whole drama of history,” observed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.” The daily television news we get does not provide even a small frame of meaning. When we stop at the factual and do not reflect on the larger context, we take a superficial look at what is happening. The larger context is peace and justice for all of creation. The larger context is the kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God that is breaking into our world even now. Our Christian faith and hope call us to pay attention to those places and events in which God is transforming the world toward peace and justice.

Writing on his blog about the current uprisings in the Middle East, Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, makes the case that “people of faith are called to work at being globally aware. . . . Viewing religion (or politics, for that matter) simplistically is tantamount to ignoring the transformative spirit of God in the ongoing creation.”

Partners With Providence

What can people of faith and hope do? First, we can learn more about North Africa and the Middle East. What countries are involved in prodemocratic movements? What is the location of each country? Why are people demonstrating there? This learning could be individual or in study groups in our communities and congregations. Second, we can seek to relate the ethical issues to our faith. Do we consider people in the region to be our collective neighbors with the same longings and yearnings that we have? Do we believe God intends for them to flourish––that is, to have basic human rights? Can we be advocates for justice and freedom for these people? In a recent essay on Egypt, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, spoke of the arch of the moral universe being long and bending toward justice. Observing that the arc of the moral universe recently caught up with former President Mubarak, Thistlethwaite is quick to point out that this image does not mean oppressed people should sit around and wait for God to act. She says the story of Tahrir Square illustrates the truth that “Providence needs partners in history for justice and peace to reign.” President Barack Obama alluded to the same image when he said, “For . . . Egypt, it was the moral force of non-violence–– not terrorism, not mindless killing–– but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arch of history toward justice once more.” When we see the upheavals in the Arab world, it might be easy for us to believe we are helpless to do anything. How can we be partners in the work of peace and justice in North Africa and the Middle East? Can we see God at work in the uprisings in the Arab world? These are questions that can engage us more deeply with the plight of the people as well as with our own Christian faith.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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