Our Utilitarian Ethics and the ‘Arab Spring’

by Martin Accad

The phenomenon that has been labeled the ‘Arab Spring’ is known today through its diverse incarnations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. It looks different in each country and is in each place at a different stage. But in each of these places the phenomenon should be viewed as ongoing, whether the emerging parties are at the stage of constitutional rewriting, elections or involved in ongoing warfare. The label ‘Arab Spring’ emerged early, clearly reflecting an optimistic interpretation of the movement as the beginning of something new. After more than 18 months, however, things don’t look as bright as it was initially thought they might be. In Syria, things look particularly bleak at this point, with both parties in the conflict now heavily armed, and with heavy casualties resulting from intense battles in Aleppo and Damascus as I write. Furthermore, the western media seem finally to be acknowledging that human rights abuses are being perpetrated by ‘opposition’ groups, as well as by the Assad regime, as a recent BBC report reveals.[1]

Interpretations of the ‘Arab Spring’ by analysts and intellectuals can be rather polarized, but the conspiracy theory has been a favorite interpretive lens on either side. You have those, like Tariq Ramadan, who interpret the phenomenon as a well-planned conspiracy of the West, designed to create a new reality in the Middle East that would serve western agendas better. ‘From 2004,’ Ramadan assures us, ‘activists and bloggers from Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in North Africa received non-violent training, supported financially by the United States State Department.’ And the alleged purpose of these trainings? ‘[T]he US and Europe were forced to review their strategies as they were facing aging dictatorial regimes that were turning eastwards as well as a growing influence of states like China, India, South Africa, Russia and Turkey in the region.’ Ramadan makes all of these affirmations, all-the-while exhorting us not to be ‘…naïve or conspiratorial.’ He sums up his position: ‘I totally oppose this idealistic appraisal of a movement that was born from nothing or young people who simply rose up.’[2] At the other end of the conspiracy spectrum is a position like that of Patrick Sookhdeo, who interprets the ‘Arab Spring’ phenomenon as a conspiracy of the East, driven by an Islamist agenda, funded by Saudi money, and further enabled by Qatar through its influential TV channel al-Jazeera. He sees behind the movement a sinister Islamist machination, driven by an apocalyptic eschatological agenda with detailed scenarios about the demise of Israel.[3]

Both men may be on to something. Certainly both Eastern and Western powers have been feverishly laboring at capturing the agenda of the Arab revolutions with various degrees of success. But should our predictions of the outcomes of an uprising drive our choice of allegiance? Can I, as a Christian, support a dictatorial regime, simply because I fear the negative consequences that might derive from an Islamist government on my Christian community? I would assert that the Church’s stance at such an important juncture should not derive from fear of a future that we cannot possibly know for sure. Conversely, our hope, as Christians, is in no way sustained by the winds of political change. Besides the fact that there is no cause to believe that the Church would be better off, say, in Syria, following an eventual fall of the current Syrian regime, we are not called, in any case, to be foretellers of the future. The Church does far better when it stays away from taking political sides and concerns itself instead with the humanitarian needs that emerge from political crises, regardless of the religious or political affiliation of those in need. We are called to do what’s right today, and leave the aftermath scenarios to God.

The trouble with a conspiracy-theory type of interpretation of political events is that it can lead us to the justification of violent repression. Hence, we might find ourselves at once denouncing massacres perpetrated in Syria, yet remaining silent on the violent repression of opposition voices in Bahrain, and vice versa, simply because the rebels in one location are more aligned with our own political positions than those in another location. Instead, the Church ought to adopt a moral stance that is driven by a concern for the protection and preservation of human life, whoever that life may belong to. We condemn violence wherever it is found and whoever is its author, and we applaud those who seek peace wherever they are found and whoever they are.

Secondly, while we cannot predict the outcome of a phenomenon like the ‘Arab Spring,’ I believe we ought to value the opportunity to move beyond the era of oppressive dictatorships, whether these dictatorships sustained a status quo that suited us or not. Again, rather than being driven by fear, the Church’s stance needs to be values-driven, affirming and seizing the opportunity and possibility of increased freedom and human dignity. In doing so, however, we ought to avoid being driven by utopian expectations of an idealized future. Power will continue to corrupt those who attain it, and oppressed peoples will not suddenly emerge as mature, human-rights-affirming citizens. After decades of living under paternalistic regimes, the best we can expect is a good few decades of turbulent ‘adolescence.’

And thirdly, since we are not called to be fortunetellers, it is true that we cannot justify the maintenance of an oppressive dictatorship out of fear of what might come after. But neither should we become intoxicated with the promise of sudden ‘democratic’ change. This kind of change is unlikely to come suddenly and it should not, therefore, draw us into taking political sides in violent and bloody conflicts. The Church’s stance towards the ‘Arab Spring’ phenomenon ought to be non-utilitarian.

This three-pronged, non-utilitarian positioning with respect to the ‘Arab Spring’ is driven by a sense of humility in the face of tortuous and complex politics, and by a conviction, together with the Psalmist, that ‘no one on earth – from east or west, or even from the wilderness – can raise another person up. It is God alone who judges; he decides who will rise and who will fall.’[4] And so, trusting the future into God’s hands, we can humbly apply ourselves to doing what’s right today, avoiding political partisanship as best we can, and laboring for the sustenance of human life.


[1] Report by James Robbins, ‘Rebels accused of atrocities,’ on http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19260674, Aug 14, 2012 (accessed Aug 16, 2012).

[2] In ‘I don’t see any sign of an Arab Spring,’ on www.swissinfo.ch, Nov 17, 2011.

[3] Keynote address delivered at a conference in Beirut, Lebanon, in February 2012, entitled ‘Challenges for Christians in the Middle East.’

[4] Psalm 75:6-7 from the New Living Translation of the Bible.

About Martin Accad

Martin is the Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies. He teaches primarily in the fields of Islam, MENA Christianity and Christian-Muslim Relations. He blogs on this site about once a month.
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11 Responses to Our Utilitarian Ethics and the ‘Arab Spring’

  1. Pingback: Christ-Centered Witness and the Proper Use of Power | The Institute of Middle East Studies

  2. Pingback: A Christian, Rights-Based Approach to Egyptian Developments | The Institute of Middle East Studies

  3. Amir Nafae says:

    I think Bahrain is not included in Arab spring movement

  4. Martin Accad is being less than transparent in his remarks about me, which he claims to derive from a plenary address I gave at a conference of the Fellowship of the Middle East Evangelical Churches held in Beirut on 13 February 2012.

    After my address he spoke to me privately to request further information about my views on the Arab Spring, and a few days later emailed me to ask for a copy of my presentation. Although my powerpoint presentation was not intended for public dissemination, I gave Martin a copy, because his father was an old friend of mine and I have known Martin since he was a boy. With regard to the Arab Spring, my view is that the original triggers were rapid modernisation, globalisation, population growth, economic factors, lack of political and social development, climate change and Islamism. I explained to him that I considered that the Arab Spring had later been “hijacked” by the last factor, Islamists. This view is now acknowledged by many in the Middle East and elsewhere, including Tony Blair and other politicians and academics, with Aljazeera claiming much of the credit for the various revolutions.

    So where is the conspiracy theory that Martin Accad ridicules me for? Is he arguing that the Islamists did not capture the Arab Spring? If so, how does he explain the rise to power of Morsi in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia?

    He also accuses me of asserting that the “sinister Islamist machination” behind the Arab Spring is “driven by an apocalyptic eschatological agenda with detailed scenarios about the demise of Israel”. This is a subject I did not mention in my address, nor is it mentioned in the powerpoint I sent him. In fact, in a public question from the floor after my address, I was asked why I had failed to mention Israel. I replied that I did not see it as having any significance in the Arab Spring. In my address and in email correspondence with Martin Accad I did allude to the Islamic understanding of the fifteenth Islamic century and its impact on contemporary Islamic thought including Islamic eschatology, and even sent him sources relating to this.

    I am puzzled as to why Martin Accad has written about me in such a way. Either he has forgotten what I said and lost my powerpoint, or he is being deliberately mischievous. As an academic I welcome any valid critique of my views, but I do not see why I should either be singled out as the single culpable flag-bearer for a view held by many others, or criticised for views I do not hold.

    Martin Accad seeks to write as an academic, but in his treatment of my views he writes more like a hack journalist who has little concern for accuracy and sources. He perhaps has something to learn still about integrity as he seeks to pursue his chosen career of teaching Christian leaders.

    I note that his article is published by the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES), which is directed by Martin Accad himself and is part of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon. The IMES building was paid for in 1999 by a donation of half a million dollars from Barnabas Fund, of which I am the international director, together with an equal sum donated by another Christian funding agency who contributed their grant at my suggestion and recommendation. Both before and after this support, we at Barnabas Fund contributed many times to the financial needs of ABTS including two grants totalling £10,000 specifically for the IMES library in 2003 and 2004. It is ironic to find that my organisation has, with the aim of strengthening the Church in the Middle East, enabled an institution to come into being, only to find that it now provides a platform for Martin Accad to condemn me.

    • Martin Accad says:

      The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “conspiracy theory” as “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators” (http://www.merriam-webster.com). For me to state that Patrick’s analysis of the “Arab Spring” belonged to the category of conspiracy theory has nothing to do with “accusing” or “condemning,” even less “ridiculing” him. It is simply my analysis of his position on the “Arab Spring” after I heard him speak at a conference. He is welcome to disagree with my assessment of his position. It would have been great if he had done that without turning his response into a personal attack. Of course no one denies the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements during this important phase in MENA history, even in their capturing of the movement’s agenda. My disagreement is with the assessment that the Brotherhood’s role was central in both manufacturing and managing the “Arab Spring,” which is what I heard Patrick say.
      Patrick, I have deep respect for you even if I disagree with some of your views. Both I and ABTS are grateful for your work and for the involvement you have had in the past with our institution as we seek to fulfill God’s calling to us for the region.
      Finally, let me simply reassert that my post is neither about Patrick Sookhdeo nor about Tariq Ramadan. It is simply a call for the Church in the MENA region to base its understanding and response to the “Arab Spring” not on fear but on trust in God’s power and rule over all of creation. It is an invitation to act creatively and constructively, not out of fear of what might come, but out of the love that we are called to show forth that derives from our trust in a powerful God.
      The IMES Blog is not a place for personal controversy or personal attacks. There are too many lives being lost, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have lost everything, and the long-term situation of the Middle East is too serious for us to use the present platform for personal bickering. Let the conversation be about the Church and its mission during and beyond the “Arab Spring,” and let disagreements be civil.

      • Rosangela Jarjour says:

        No doubt that the subject of the “Arab Spring” has been the most discussed these days not only in our ME Region but all over the World. This has affected our lives deeply one way or another, and no wonder that Martin has been involved in analyzing inputs from far and near. I only wanted to clarify 2 points here with regards to the input of Rev. Patrick Sookhdeo who has been a keynote speaker at our Conference to which Martin referred to, and which Martin attended as a guest for a very short time.
        1. The conference mentioned was confidential in nature and nothing was to be written about it or any comments made except those approved by the leadership of the conference. In that respect we have assured Patrick that he could speak freely because nothing would be reported publicly. We have kept that promise on our part as an organization and that is our right and our duty.
        2. Patrick did not place any emphasis on Israel and that was in fact one criticism he faced by one participant in our conference. This is proven by the actual power point presentation itself which we have kept in our files as confidential.
        Finally, I pray to God to lead us in His wisdom as we try to understand the reality and the truth about what is called: “The Arab Spring”. I also very much agree with Martin when he said: Let the conversation be about the Church and its mission during and beyond the “Arab Spring” , and that is surely a common concern for Patrick, Martin and ourselves at these difficult times. Let us see also how we can be practical about it in a way to support the Church and its mission during and beyond the “Arab Spring”.

  5. Darrell Dorr says:

    Martin, I might like to reprint this blog post, with your permission, in Mission Frontiers magazine (November-December issue, deadline for first draft within the next week). What do you think?

  6. c0c387a says:

    This is exactly the right way to work through this situation: be biblical and ethical. The conundrum of whom to support — in anyone — is a terrible choice. I’m inclined to seek faithful presence, support of the widow, orphan, stranger, and poor and let the political stuff work itself out. I don’t know if that’s trusting God or not. I just don’t see Jesus or Paul or Peter taking sides in the political violence of their day. John sure seems to say our allegiance must be to the risen LORD and not compromise that priority for political gain.

  7. DanutM says:

    Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    A new article by my friend Martin Accad on the ‘Arab Spring’. Really worth reading.
    Here is, as a teaser, an important question and the way he tries to answr it:
    ‘Can I, as a Christian, support a dictatorial regime, simply because I fear the negative consequences that might derive from an Islamist government on my Christian community? I would assert that the Church’s stance at such an important juncture should not derive from fear of a future that we cannot possibly know for sure. Conversely, our hope, as Christians, is in no way sustained by the winds of political change. Besides the fact that there is no cause to believe that the Church would be better off, say, in Syria, following an eventual fall of the current Syrian regime, we are not called, in any case, to be foretellers of the future. The Church does far better when it stays away from taking political sides and concerns itself instead with the humanitarian needs that emerge from political crises, regardless of the religious or political affiliation of those in need. We are called to do what’s right today, and leave the aftermath scenarios to God.’

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