A Christian Response to the Arab Spring
How should believers think about the recent conflicts engulfing Arab nations?
In December 2010, Tunisian protestors filled the streets, sparking a revolution that resulted in the overthrow of their long-standing dictator, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. What happened in Tunisia set off a chain reaction—now referred to as the “Arab Spring”—around the Middle East, one that caught pundits and policy makers off-guard.
Soon after, Egyptian youth followed the Tunisians’ lead, demanding that their president, Hosni Mubarak—who had ruled for 30 years—step down from power. The citizens of the island nation of Bahrain attempted a non-violent revolution, but the government squelched it by using force.
Libya was next. The president, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, retaliated against protesters with violent attacks, leading to an armed conflict that currently has Gadhafi on the run and the rebels in a tenuous control of Libya. And, as of press time, protesters in Yemen and Syria are both still facing off against their leaders.
Perhaps the most dramatic of the successful protests took place in Egypt. And it was all sectors of Egyptian society that participated. Amid the chaos in the capital of Cairo, brave Egyptian Christians formed a human shield around their Muslim countrymen as they prayed during the protests. In a beautiful display of shared humanity, Muslims returned the favor in front of churches across Egypt.
Describing what he witnessed in Egypt during and after the revolution, Paul Gordon Chandler writes in the Episcopal News Service: “Time and time again, thousands of young Egyptian Muslims and Christians have taken to the streets together, first to protest the repressive system, and then to celebrate their victory. The scenes are moving, as Egyptians wave flags and carry banners depicting the cross and crescent embracing, with slogans such as: ‘The crescent and the cross are one. We are all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian.’”
Christians and Muslims have voted with their lives for a better land that will provide what Americans consider basic values. The question is: How should international Christians respond?
A lot of evangelicals have reacted with fear or skepticism. During the Tahrir Square stand-off in Egypt, Christian blogs and airwaves were buzzing with speculation that the proposed revolution would give rise to an Islamic state, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, that would immediately start killing off Egypt’s Christians (roughly 10 percent of the population) upon seizing power.
Others bought into conspiracy theories that cast the protestors as unsuspecting puppets for communist-backed global Islamists out to destroy America. A few viewed the uprisings as a heroic struggle for freedom and human rights by disenfranchised youth. Still others took a wait-and-see approach, balancing optimism with a healthy dose of caution.
"Can Christians really trust an Arab movement?"
While there are no easy answers, one thing is clear: The Arab Spring has put American Christians in a dilemma. Many are wondering, “Can we really support a movement fronted by Arabs—and more specifically, by Muslims?”
The fact that Arabs would desire many of the same freedoms Americans enjoy, and they would choose to express these desires non-violently, goes against every stereotype many American Christians have been taught to believe.
Many have been raised under a certain end-times theology, groomed to harbor deep suspicion of all things Arab. For Christians who follow this way of thinking, the formation of Israel in 1948—and the subsequent 750,000 Arabs who either left their homes or were expelled—was a result of divine prophecy, a rebooting of the prophetic time clock, triggering a series of events that will culminate in the return of Christ.
In this particular theology, Arabs are often cast in the role of the violent “sons of Ishmael” who always have, and always will, persecute Jews (and their stepchildren, Christians) until Jesus comes back. So is it any wonder millions of American Christians schooled in this theology are suspicious of masses of Arabs demonstrating on the streets? “What exactly are they aspiring to?” asks this Christian. “Is it the destruction of Israel, or the annihilation of Christians?”
Further complicating matters is that many American Christians’ primary source of information about Arabs, the Middle East and Muslims in general is what they read in newsletters highlighting the suffering of persecuted Christians. They see radical fundamentalists burning down churches, and Christians being ostracized, beaten, imprisoned or killed for their faith—and often these atrocities are taking place in predominantly Muslim countries. This leads one to conclude Muslims have an innate hatred toward Jesus and His followers.
The reality is a bit more complex.
What do Muslims really believe about Christians?
Contrary to popular belief, the Quran does not call for the indiscriminate killing of Christians, so fears that a group like the Muslim Brotherhood would automatically start killing Christians upon seizing power is overstated. Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” in the Quran, not infidels.
Jesus is also highly revered in the Quran, though not given the same divine status as in the New Testament. The Quran specifically commands Muslims to protect Jewish and Christian houses of worship (churches, synagogues, holy sites). It’s true that in some cases. Christians have to pay a tax under Islamic law, and that open proselytizing is forbidden, but Muslims see these laws as protecting, not subjugating, Christians.
I’ve befriended and interacted with thousands of Muslims over the years, and one of the questions I often get is, “Why do so many American Christians accuse us of persecuting Christians?” They think it’s strange because, from their perspective, Christians in their countries have freedom to worship as they please. A lot of my Muslim friends, especially the ones in the Middle East, are even proud of the fact that the Christian minorities in their countries date back to the first century, and have held on to their traditions. They would argue that—right or wrong—Christians in their countries have been treated far better than minorities in Christian lands (think: the Crusades and the Inquisition).
While most Muslim countries today do not allow for open proselytizing as is common in the West, and it is true that Muslims who convert to Christianity are often persecuted, it’s not true that Christians have always treated Muslims better than Muslims have treated Christians. When you look at the long view of history, even up to recent history, the reality is a bit more nuanced.
This is an explosive issue on both sides, so here are a few points to offer perspective:
1. For a Muslim to convert to Christianity is a lot like an American in the 1950s saying, “I’ve decided to become a communist.” Just as most Americans thought of communism as the immoral, godless imperialist system, Christianity is viewed by most Muslims as the religion of the colonialists, the people who come (or came) with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. They view missionaries, and their spiritual offspring, as a ploy by the colonialist powers to occupy their land, exploit their resources and subjugate their people.
2. Muslims who convert to Christianity aren’t just persecuted by other Muslims; they’re often viewed with suspicion, and sometimes outright derision, by the Christian population who trace their faith through the centuries. I’ve also seen “Insider Muslims” (Muslims who follow Jesus but don’t call themselves “Christians”) persecuted by those who have openly converted to Christianity.
3. In some cases, radical Christians are just as violent as radical Muslims. During my 12 years living in Beirut, Lebanon, I met many on all sides of the Lebanese Civil War who told me about the Christian Militias who committed some of the greatest atrocities during that time. It’s not just a one-way stream of violence.
Who is the victim … and who is the persecutor?
Westerners can denounce Muslim practices like the death penalty for apostasy (a very rare occurrence, by the way), but are we also willing to condemn violence perceived to be committed by “our” side—things like invasions, occupations and drone attacks that kill a disproportionate amount of civilians?
Americans often feel violence between Christians and Muslims is a one-way street, with Muslims as the persecutors and Christians as the victims. Muslims feel the exact opposite. They think of “us” as the persecutors and “them” as the victims.
So what does this have to do with the current situation in the Middle East?
For one thing, America has supported ruthless dictators in Muslim lands for years. Take Egypt, for example. Mubarak was a tyrant. He tortured, manipulated elections, controlled the media, stole billions of dollars from the Egyptian people to finance his lavish lifestyle and enrich his cronies, all with support from the United States. The same story can be repeated throughout the Muslim world.
It stands to reason that when a people see skyrocketing food prices and high unemployment, while their leaders are living lavishly, they’re going to want change. Just like Americans, they want free elections and a chance to determine their future. Because we’ve been the ones financing their dictators, they see the U.S. as an obstacle to their freedom, not a partner for peace and equality.
This is why the question of whether or not American Christians should support Arab aspirations for democracy is easily answered with a resounding “yes.” It’s silly to think their primary motivation is religious domination, or some plot to establish a global Muslim theocracy.
For one thing, Mubarak fiercely persecuted Christians. The same can be said for dictators throughout the Middle East in places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The American government has been the one, albeit behind the scenes, supporting those regimes as they engage in the persecution of Christians.
Now that the people have risen up and demanded a say in their future, it would be hypocritical for us to say to them, “Now that you’re taking your freedom from the people we’ve supported over you, we’re going to double down our efforts to keep you in subjection, because we’re concerned we may not agree with your version of freedom.”
They will know we are Christians by our approval
Sadly, many Arabs have negative perceptions of American Christians. If we choose to not support them now, they will continue to stereotype Americans as warmongering hypocrites. That has huge implications for indigenous Christians living in Arab lands. If some theorize American Christians’ approval of the revolutions could lead to the greater persecution of Christians in Arab lands, then how might our disapproval also lead to the greater persecution of Christians in Arab lands?
Many feel the latter is more likely. Christians in Muslim lands are often (wrongly) viewed as stooges of the West. How much would hostility toward indigenous Christians increase if American Christians took a public stand against the rights of Arabs in the Middle East to determine their own future?
If Arabs were to see that Western Christians disapprove of their uprisings, they could believe Westerners do not want Arabs to experience freedom. The Arab protestors, mostly Muslim, desire to build their own societies their own way—societies based on democratic values. Maybe not exactly American, Jeffersonian values, but at least Muslim and Christian citizens would be determining their fate together, not a foreign nation or their tyrannical leader.
If Egypt continues to be used as a microcosm of the larger situation, the recent religious tension there needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, open conflict between Egyptian Muslims and Christians has escalated. Clashes have become more common.
Rather than looking at the uprising there as a loss because of new religious conflict, Westerners can encourage the Arabs to hold fast. We can stand with our Christian brothers while encouraging them to practice loving their neighbor and their enemy, as well as supporting the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims in that land.
Instead of being skeptical of the revolutions, Americans can celebrate the little steps being made as the Arabs celebrate. The transitions taking place across the Middle East have been sparked by grassroots non-violence rather than having democracy imposed upon them.
A Christian Egyptian shared a story during the time when the police in Egypt vanished. He told of neighborhood watches springing up all over the country as he spent many long nights with his Muslim neighbors guarding their homes. Through this simple act, trust was built. We must choose to do no less.
In order to respond intelligently and lovingly, we need to understand the hearts of the wonderfully diverse and complex people of the Middle East. We must become aware of the situation. Let your heart find empathy for the people—including Muslims. Hear their cry. Share their burden. Educate yourself and advocate. Pray for the nations and the people. Pray for the governments. Ask God what you can do. This is not about religious differences. It is about loving your neighbor. And maybe even loving your enemies.
Carl Medearis has lived and worked in the Middle East since 1983, and is the author of several books, including Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism (David C Cook). This article originally appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of RELEVANT magazine.