Faith, Identity and Empire: Ethnic Minorities in Constant Flux

By Rose Khouri

Western academia is filled with research on the effects of a colonialist, imperialistic Christianity and its intersection with modern identities. As my colleague Jesse Wheeler alluded to last week, from the native peoples of the modern day United States to the descendants of Africans taken from their homes as slaves and shipped to the “New World”, there are millions of Christians – practicing or culturally – today whose ancestors did not choose to follow Christ willingly. Their struggle with identity is well-documented, particularly the African American “revert” movement during the 1950s and 1960s, a phase and a result of the broader ongoing Civil Rights Movement.

The core belief of the revert movement was that a significant number of the Africans taken to the New World were Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity, hence the idea of “re-converting” or reverting to Islam (a number that most researchers today do not consider to be sizeable). Another core element of the reversion movement is that Islam teaches the equality of races in the eyes of God, a teaching practiced today with mixed results around the Muslim world. But in 1950s America, it would have indeed stood out to those surrounded by “Christian” neighbors active in their dehumanization.

This reversion also encompassed a quest for personal identity, by African Americans whose original identities had been taken away by white masters.[1] In a revert’s own words:

“The Afro-American people have Islam in their hearts […] We have it on our tongues as we struggle to pronounce the Arabic which we have forgotten, but with which perhaps we came as slaves. This was the culture that was stripped from us, along with the language and religion. Most critically, the religion of Islam was taken from us through slavery.”[2]

Identity is often overlooked by those involved in ministry; rarely is its importance in religious life and practice of faith fully understood, especially by those who practice the faith of their family and community. While identity crisis may spark conversion, or at least open doors to a new conversation about faith, it can also develop a spiritual crisis as a new convert struggles to understand who they are and how they fit back into their society.

To observe the different ways identity intersects with faith, I pulled stories from two different ethnic minorities in the Arab Muslim world: the Kurds and the Algerian Amazigh (historically known as the Berbers), both communities currently witnessing the rapid spread of the Gospel.

Both the Kurds (found mostly in modern-day Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran) and the Algerian Amazigh (the Amazigh are found all over West North Africa) are ethnic minorities in the Arab Muslim world that can trace their identity back centuries before the invasion of the Arab Muslims from the East. But the Algerian Amazigh are undergoing a much stronger period of ethnic nationalism compared to their neighbors. I would argue that what pushed them to develop a stronger ethnic, rather than nationalistic, identity is the poor treatment and second-class status they received under an all-Arab government that historically oppressed them. The Amazigh trace their origins back nearly 2000 years before Christ and the Kurds consider themselves the modern day descendants of the Medes who are documented in the Old Testament. Despite their vast geographic differences, both the Amazigh and the Kurds share surprisingly similar views of the Arab Muslims. I believe this is playing a strong role in fostering the emergence of the Church among both people groups.

I spoke with a young Amazigh woman about how her people perceive Arabs and she told me that the Amazigh perceive Arabs as colonizers. The Amazigh are the original ethnic people of the land and have their own culture, language, and even calendars (she informed me that we are actually in year 2965). The Arabs pushed into Algeria through Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and gradually forced Islam and Arabization upon the people. The Amazigh, then ruled by Queen Kahina, initially accepted Islam and the Arabs. However according to their traditions, Queen Kahina told her two sons not to enter into the Islamic religion, and so the local Arab Emir or governor, ordered her killed.

Today the Amazigh live under Arab rule in Algeria. They are not considered equal to their Arab neighbors in the eyes of the government. A movement started in the 1980s to reclaim the Amazigh identity, headed by the famous Algerian Amazigh writer Mouloud Mammeri who taught and wrote books in the Amazigh language despite government pressure. Christianity took hold and began to spread again in Algeria, as large movements of “revert” Amazigh moved to reclaim their own identities. As my friend told me,

“Amazigh means ‘free man’ in our language. We want to preserve our language. We want to reclaim our identity; we are not part of this Arabization. We are reclaiming our identities from these conquerors.”

The Kurds likewise are experiencing a new period of ethnic nationalism and greater freedom to pursue an alternate course to the religious and cultural values which they feel were once forced upon them. The world’s largest group of stateless people is spread out around the Levant and Central Asia, particularly in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria – experiencing different levels of oppression and integration. Gassed by the thousands in Iraq, forcibly resettled and assimilated in Turkey, and abandoned by their government in Syria, the Kurds have taken advantage of the dissolving states around them to pursue greater independence and have been building stronger ethno-nationalistic ties. Along with these new opportunities for ethno-nationalism has come the startling spread of the Gospel, particularly among Syrian Kurds.

When I asked a young man of Syrian Kurd ethnicity here in Lebanon the same question I asked my Amazigh friend, he replied,

“Kurds feel that Arabs forced Islam on them. That’s their major issue. They feel that they’ve lost their identity because of the Arabs. Of course, by Arabs they also mean Islam. Some of them actually use ‘Arab’ as a curse word. I think it’s a matter of identity; they don’t want to identify themselves with Arabs. I’ve been feeling like their openness to the Gospel is a way to get rid of the Islamic identity. A Kurdish friend of mine explained that when he meets with his people, he opens the Bible and shows them the passages that refers to the Kurds. He tells them, ‘You have an identity in the Bible, do you have one in the Qur’an?’”

Identity is still an under-explored area. Not only is identity clearly playing a role in how people interact with, adopt, and even reject religion. The question of identity remains in contention even after a person moves from one religion to another. For those of non-Christian backgrounds living in the Middle East and North Africa, how they develop new identities after rejecting or lifting their previous identity – or even if this is possible, or necessary – is an emerging field that deserves greater study.

I conclude, therefore, with the words of IMES Director Martin Accad, from a personal conversation:

“It strikes me that some traditional approaches to evangelism are doing the same as Arab Islam did. Muslims are often pulled out of context, so that they lose (yet again) their identity and culture. They are stripped of their core identity as culture and traditions are confused for religion. A new culture is imposed along with the new religion of Christianity that is proposed to them. It is hard to miss that this approach will prevent the Gospel from taking root effectively.

“Ultimately, this has important implications for discipleship: as Amazigh, Kurds and others embrace Christ’s life and teaching, the top priority of those journeying with them should be to help these women and men sort through their identity issues and learn to love and embrace who they are, as they reinterpret it in the light of the crucified and resurrected Christ.”

Editor’s Note: IMES will be exploring such issues of identity during the Middle East Consultation 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, 15 – 19 June. For additional information about MEC 2015, or to attend, please follow the appropriate links.

____________________

[1] Jane I. Smith, Islam in America. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

Demographic Anxieties, Imperial Compromises and the Crucified Messiah

By Jesse Wheeler

“The cool thing about Pew numbers is how versatile they are; bloggers can wear them with triumph, grief, & multiple shades of schadenfreude!” Derek Rishmawy

Early April, the Pew Research Center released an in-depth demographic study titled, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050: Why Muslims are Rising Fastest and Unaffiliated are Shrinking as a Share of Global population.”

According to the report, “while many people have offered predictions about the future of religion, these are the first formal demographic projections using data on age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world.” Key highlights from the report include the projections that:

“If current demographic trends continue, however, Islam will nearly catch up by the middle of the 21st century. Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s total population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion, a 35% increase.1 Over that same period, Muslims – a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates – are projected to increase by 73%. The number of Christians also is projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate (35%) as the global population overall. As a result, according to the Pew Research projections, by 2050 there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%), possibly for the first time in history.”

The obvious conclusion from such an important study is that Christians and Muslims, as well as theists and non-theists for that matter, must learn to get along for the sake of global concord, hence my belief in the importance of our work at IMES. (Of course, this reality is already here: I used to pass two mosques, a Sikh temple, a synagogue, and a Buddhist shrine as I drove between my home and the church at which I served in Southern California.) These are the basic realities of our post/late-modern world.

However, my second immediate observation is that tiny, yet religiously complex Lebanon has the potential to serve as an excellent case-study for what such a future world might entail. Not to sound too self-important, but the actions taken, the hospitality shown, and the interfaith relationships formed now in the regional microcosm that is Lebanon can serve as a model, for good or ill, as to the future of our planet. (The irony, however, is the fact that in Lebanon many can drive to and from church without passing a single mosque. Or vice versa… so, we meet at the mall instead.)

Identity Politics and Imperial Compromises

The silliness of such demographic studies, however, derives from the manner by which we use them to buttress our identity politics. There seems to exist a bizarre sense of self-satisfaction in knowing that we Christians remain “Number 1!” and that our top position, for the time being, is secure. Somehow, we are still winning the religion race. On the other hand, the sense of moral panic derived from the notion that Islam is catching up, and might one day surpass us, is likewise silly.

In this, I am reminded of the ongoing feud in Lebanon regarding which buildings have the tallest minarets or bell towers. Apparently when it comes to the mission of God, the bigger the better.

churches downtown

Downtown Beirut: campanile extension project. (Photo source)

Yet, there is a darker story to this competition for numerical, architectural, and often geographical predominance between the world’s most numerous religions. Historian Richard Bulliet poses an important demographic question in The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization:

“Suppose… one were to ask what percentage of the world Muslim community is composed of descendants of people who converted to Islam between 1500 and 1900. The answer would surely exceed 50 percent. [B]y contrast, if one were to ask what percentage of today’s [Christian] populations descend from ancestors who converted to Christianity between 1500 and 1900, the answer would be well under 20 percent.”[1]

What accounts for the difference? In Bulliet’s account “European monarchs trumpeted their intent to Christianize the world, but settled for economics and military might. Muslim rulers… strove mightily to create rich and powerful land empires, but only sporadically thought of converting their subject peoples to Islam.”[2] So counterintuitively, Islam ‘won’ the conversion game. For ultimately:

“Parts of Africa and Asia saw ‘unofficial Islam’ succeed precisely because it was a potent alternative to the Christianity being propounded by the imperialists. If imperialism was a form of foreign tyranny, Islam, unwavering in its vision of a universal and legal moral order, increasingly became the bastion of resistance to tyranny.”[3]

In the face of western colonialism, often undertaken with the tacit approval of Christian religious authorities, a form of ‘unofficial Islam’ took up the banner of the Resistance, and grew exponentially as a result![4]

This innate drive towards numeric, architectural and geographic security often results in the tendency to ally ourselves with empire. The fact, however, is that such alliances have often resulted in the exact opposite of their stated intent. The historic inability of the visible Church to divest itself from imperial power has too often resulted in guilt by association, scapegoating, and flat out rejection, such that the very drive causing us to gloat/panic over demographics is the very cause for our having “lost the race.”

The Crucified Messiah

Even more so, such alliances represent a betrayal of our crucified messiah, who models for us the narrow path of self-sacrificial love in his rejection of imperial compromise. In the words of Joseph Cummings:

“It used to be commonly said that Islam was Satan’s greatest masterpiece. I believe that is not true. I believe that Satan’s greatest masterpiece was the crusades.  Why? Is it because the Crusades were the worst atrocity that ever happened in history? I think Hitler was worse. Pol Pot was worse.

What is horrible about the crusades is that it was done under the symbol of the cross, that Satan succeeded in distorting the very heart of the Christian faith.[5]

With the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, an instrument of imperial domination becomes in biblical imagination the ultimate symbol of Divine Love and the power-reversing means by which God reigns. To follow Jesus, to take the narrow path, is to therefore surrender our claim to numeric, geographic, (and even architectural) domination, as we trust in the resurrection and the ultimate Lordship of Christ Jesus.

________________________

[1] Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004) 40 – 41

[2] Ibid., 43

[3] Ibid.

[4] It’s important to note that this isn’t ancient history, but rather provides the historical context for Pew’s demographic projections.

[5] Joseph Cumming, “Toward Respectful Witness,” in From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices and Emerging Issues among Muslims, J. Dudley Woodberry, ed. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008) 323

Judeo-Christian-ism Meets Islam-ism

Muhammad Preaching

Persian or central Asian illustration showing Mohammed (on the right) preaching

By Martin Accad

Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Geert Wilders, and others, are inadvertently the spearheads of Islamism in the US and Europe! This may sound like a bit of a radical statement, but perhaps it really isn’t.

The situation is so getting out of hand that a bit of tweaking here and a bit of patting there has ceased to be useful. This is why I choose to start this post with such a radical statement.

Once again, through the highly mediatized event held in Texas three days ago, the ‘Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,’ a few authors, politicians and bloggers that have made a big name since September 11, 2001, have successfully handed another great victory to violent men who act in the name of Islam. This is not the first time of course. But this time it is easier to comment, since there were no deaths apart from the two gunmen, and most would not view these deaths as a loss…

I commend the group of young Muslim activists who decided to hold their own ‘Draw Muhammad’ contest in response to Geller. Their initiative is a peaceful and creative challenge to the widely-held misperception that it is the mere drawing of Muhammad which is the problem here, rather than the offensive and brash representations that would be viewed as of pretty ‘bad taste’ by any account.

Newsweek had already well documented this point last January when they ran a story about Iranian depictions of Muhammad. Not all branches of Islam have objected to the representation of their prophet through history. And certainly Iranian Islam has sat quite comfortably with such depictions through most of its history. But I digress…

The Church globally is in need of more prophetic voices that would help overturn the current destructive tide of the mainstream. What alternative do we have? Could it be that God is calling us to a religious war against Islam? Most serious followers of Jesus’ ways would not venture to say this. Or is he calling us to cave in to fanatics on both sides? Not his ‘style’ either… He must, then, be calling us to some sort of prophetic way of being, which would help reposition the Church as a challenge to the ‘dominant consciousness’ (as Brueggemann would put it in his The Prophetic Imagination) with regards to Islam, in the current atmosphere.

So what is it that is so disturbing in the behavior of the likes of Geller, Spencer and Wilders?

First of all, their initiatives continuously offer ‘soft targets’ for Muslim religious fanatics. This was once again demonstrated a few days ago in Texas. The same resulted from the drawings of the Danish and French cartoonists, as well as from the initiative of some obscure ‘pastor’ in Florida, who a few years ago suddenly decided that he would burn himself a few Qur’āns. These ‘stunts’ carried out in the West have now become costly on the perpetrators themselves. But they are infinitely more costly for multitudes of Christians living across the Muslim world whose churches get burnt down and who suffer massacres at the hand of fanatics in response.

Secondly, such behavior increases and promotes a misinformed understanding of Islam. I will continue to argue that Islam is what Muslims make of it. If some Muslims are violent in its name, then Islam’s Scripture has the capacity to inspire violence. If other Muslims are peaceful and loving in the name of their religion, this means that the Qur’ān also has the capacity to inspire peaceful and loving behavior. The Scripture of any religion only finds meaning in the interpretation that its bearers give it. But once non-Muslims begin to insist that the only ‘true Islam’ is the one that manifests itself violently, they cannot claim objectivity. They have simply bought into the ideology of ‘the terrorists.’

Third, people like Geller, Spencer and Wilders obstruct the practice of truthful and useful relations. It is not through indignant outcry that the most crucial and sensitive Muslim challenges perceived by non-Muslims will be addressed effectively. Rather, it is through the use of multifaith platforms that we are able to address important questions like the persecution of Muslim converts, the religious intolerance of Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, or Sudan, or the call of some streams of Islam for the establishment of Islamic Law in the West.

Has the Church played a part in allowing, or even promoting, the spread of this anti-Muslim hateful atmosphere in our societies?

There is no shortage of hurt, disenchanted, disaffected, and marginalized Muslim young people around the world with negative feelings towards the West. This is arguably the result of deteriorated historical relations between East and West, fueled by post-colonial tyrannical regimes in the Muslim world that are often still maintained in power by neo-colonial western agendas. But I would argue as well that the Church has not been responding adequately to this reality. Instead of reaching out in love to those despaired young people, the Church often contributes in fanning their flame of fanaticism and awakening the demons in them.

Secondly, the Church has allowed itself to be influenced by hatred and fear. Many fall for the narrative of Geller, Spencer, Wilders and others who have made a name for themselves as a result of 9/11. They have built their careers largely by feeding the devouring flames of fear, ignorance and hatred. Instead of seeking to be an alternative voice, we have too often bought into this narrative. We have reacted, not with the calls for justice, love of neighbor, and embrace of the enemy, as taught us by the Biblical prophets, but more often by adopting a supremacist and exclusivist ideology closer to the dominant attitude that Jesus opposed among many of his Jewish contemporaries.

Finally, the Church’s paralysis resulting from this discourse has prevented it from leading a campaign of love and embrace. I believe issues such as that of the headscarf, the building of mosques and minarets, the application of Sharia precepts, and other such hot topics currently being debated in the street and through finger-pointing, can only be resolved through dialogue.

The Church’s feeble, and often counterproductive, response has allowed the emergence of issues out of what could have remained non-issues. Would the Church normally stand for imposing a certain dress or preventing another? Would we normally support the obstruction of people’s freedom to worship the way they please and in whichever building they choose? If we have done so at certain times in our history, my understanding is that we’d like to promote the exact opposite. Would we really object to allowing certain communities in our midst from conducting their own affairs in a way that reflects their deepest convictions, so long as these were aligned with agreed principles of justice?

There exists in the Lebanese legal system a model worth considering, which entrusts each of our 18 religious communities with the responsibility of managing our own family affairs through specialized religious courts. The complexity of this issue would merit its own blog, which I hope to do at some point. But we must remember at the very least that Jurisprudence is by definition far more flexible than the conspiracy discourse would have us believe.

Of course when it comes to Islam, we claim that this would lead to human rights abuses and what not. But could this be primarily a projection of our own fears and insecurities? When it comes to the application of Sharia, why do we look at Saudi Arabia and Waziristan as the anti-models? Why don’t we look at the model of Lebanon, which is much more likely to emerge from the socio-cultural realities of the West if Muslim communities in the US and Europe were allowed to organize their own family courts? The rights of Muslim women and children are certainly not worse off than those of Christians in Lebanon.

Do we really think that millions of immigrants from Muslim countries (let alone multigenerational Muslim citizens of western countries), who have left inhuman political regimes in the non-western world are longing to reproduce such thuggish structures in their new home? Are they really longing to have the hands of their teenager cut off next time they shoplift a chocolate bar from the convenience store? Or are they really wishing to see their daughter lashed or stoned if she behaves sexually inappropriately during the explorative stages of puberty?

We need to get out of the destructive grip of the erroneous Geller/Spencer/Wilders discourse. It is far too cozy and aligned with the discourses of ISIS, Boko Haram and the Somali Shabab.

The New Face of ISIS

Things are not always as they seem…

A recent article in Spiegel sheds new and significant light on the inner workings of ISIS.  The article is based on documentation discovered in the home of one of the Islamic State’s chief architects—Haji Bakr—a former Colonel in Saddam’s Air Defense Forces—after his demise at the hands of Syrian rebels.[1]  Based on new evidence presented in the article, it seems that the prevailing narrative of ISIS as an offshoot of al-Qaeda whose top leaders are deeply motivated by religion must be revisited and indeed revised.  Read the article to fill in the gaps, but to summarize briefly…ISIS’ highest echelon of leadership may be a cadre of elite Iraqi former military whose dismissal after the American invasion resulted in their captivity and eventual release.  Haji Bakr was one of these who later moved into the anarchy of Syria to establish a beachhead from which to attack Iraq.  The flowchart of ISIS leadership is inspired by totalitarian regimes such as the former East German domestic intelligence agency—“Stasi”.  To be sure, the architects realize the power of religion to mobilize fighters and strike fear into the hearts of dissenters.  They also exploit the Islamic system of jurisprudence to manipulate and control the population.  Thus the name “Islamic State”—a rebirth of the ancient Caliphate of Islam complete with a Caliph who becomes the visible spokesperson.  However, if Spiegel’s report is accurate, the Islamic identity of ISIS is a tactic carefully crafted by former leaders of Saddam Hussein’s military.

Admittedly, the leadership structure of the Islamic State is not altogether clear.  Nevertheless, in light of these new findings, perhaps it is time for a few penetrating questions.  I ask them as a Jesus-follower whose primary concern is how Jesus is understood among Muslims.  First and foremost, I ask these questions of myself.

First question: Have I at any time smugly congratulated myself that I do not belong to a religion that beheads Christians, slaughters Yazidis and other minorities, displaces thousands and mercilessly annihilates even other Muslims who dissent? 

I have a tendency to compare the worst aspects of Islam with the best aspects of my faith.  Over quite a few years of interacting with Muslims, I’ve realized how harmful that tendency can be.  So when I hear the news of the most recent beheadings, how do I react?  Do I succumb to the effect of the media tidal wave and simply castigate Islam as the culprit for this senseless perversion?  If I have done so, I must now realize that identifying the culprit requires a more nuanced understanding.  It is certainly true that crimes have been perpetrated in the name of Islam and sometimes the perpetrators draw their inspiration form the core texts of the religion.  However, in this particular case, the masterminds of terror and fear-mongering—the brains behind the operation—do not appear to be religiously inspired.  Rather they are attempting to regain the power base they lost when Saddam’s regime fell.  To do so, they strike fear into the hearts of millions in order to dominate and subjugate anyone who resists them, including Muslims.  Of course, they have successfully recruited a band of disenchanted warriors, possessed by a passion to re-establish the religious, social and economic superiority of Islam.  Still, if the Spiegel article gives us an accurate picture, we can see the militancy of misguided individuals as a pawn on the chessboard of regional power-play and political machination.

Second question: Have ISIS’ antics in any way contributed to my reluctance to personally relate to and interact with Muslim people?

Stereotyping: “to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same.”[2] I tend to think I know them all because I have a general impression.  In our media-driven age the impression is usually based on news reports or documentary, not personal encounter.  Right?  Consider Jesus.  How did he respond to the stereotyped peoples of his day?  The dreaded Roman military occupiers—“I have never seen such faith, no, not in Israel.”  The religiously deviant and ethnically compromised Samaritans—“My food is to do the will of him who sent me.  Look at these fields!  They are white—ready to harvest.”  The despised and impure woman—“Take heart, daughter.  Your faith has made you well.”  The turncoat Jewish tax collector: “Come down from there.  I need to stay at your house.”  The Pharisee persecutor of the Way: “I’d like you to represent me!”

Even though Jesus had some tough words for the religious elite of his own people, it seems he never succumbed to the stereotype.  He always overcame it, saw things differently, looked into people’s souls, not their religious affiliations or ethnic features.

Let’s make it clear…that Muslim guy who stocks the shelves at the local big box store, he just may have a delightful sense of humor.  The veiled woman waiting in front of you in line may have a very interesting story to tell.  The student, son of a refugee, may be inspired by a keen sense of social justice.  But we’ll never know if we can’t get beyond the stereotypes to interact with them in a personal way.   Jesus’ method for interacting with a prejudiced people group is simple, direct and personal.  He lingered by the well.  He had a conversation.

Third question: Am I willing to critique my own religious heritage first before criticizing the religion of others?

Over-familiarity has perhaps robbed us of the humor of Jesus’ imagery.  “How can you say ‘let me take the speck out of your eye’ when there is a plank protruding from your own eye?  You hypocrite!  Get the plank out of your own eye and then you can see to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”  Jesus’ use of metaphor makes his point with stunning clarity.  Appropriate self-critique can spare us the deep embarrassment of falsely and ignorantly critiquing others.  If Islam, as a religious system, bears some guilt for perpetrating violence, it is not the first religion to do so.  In fact, as I call myself a Christian, I need look no further than the protracted wars of religion in Europe or the Inquisition to find a plank about three meters long jutting out of my eye socket.  Yes, I hear your protest “but that’s not what Jesus taught!”  You’re right.  He didn’t.  So why do we—his followers—get it so wrong, so often, even to this very day?

Please don’t misunderstand me.  The questions I ask are not meant to absolve the Islamic State of its atrocities.  Justice should be served.  My concern is how the identification of ISIS with the religion of Islam is impacting our active engagement in representing Jesus’ kingdom fairly and honestly amongst Muslim peoples in the entire world.  While the Islamic State has taken the religion of Islam as its tactic, its front, we must realize that Islam is every bit as diverse and multi-faceted as Christianity and other world faiths and philosophies.  The radical posture adopted by ISIS fighters represents the extreme right side of the socio-political-religious spectrum of Islam.   In fact it seems fair to say that Islam is experiencing a unique moment in history in which many of the foundational tenets of the faith adopted in medieval times are being questioned openly and forcefully.

I contend that this moment of transition and re-evaluation presents a unique window of opportunity to Jesus-followers.  Islam is in the throes of change, as indeed is our world.  A survey of the history of Muslim-Christian relations reveals embarrassing episodes when Christians were so caught up in the power struggles of their day that they failed to understand the importance of representing the Lord they professed before their Muslim contemporaries.  Our era is similar to those early centuries of the Islamic empire when Muslims and Christians were mingling in the great cities of the Middle East.  Today, however, Muslims live beside us on a world-wide scale.  We attend the same schools, work in the same businesses, view the same social media and download the same books and movies.  Never has the interpenetration of Christians and Muslims throughout the world reached such global proportions.  Never before has the need for honest and humble face to face conversation been greater.  Are we seizing the moment?  Are we lingering by the well?

One final question:  Am I terrorized by the terrorists?

Jesus has something to say about that:

“Fear not.”

_____________________________

[1] Haji Bakr is pseudonym.  The article records his real name as Samir Abd Muhammad Al Khlifawi.  Read the article  here:  Also for another article describing the Baathist roots of the Islamic State, click here.

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stereotype

Prejudice and Its Undoing: Knowing and Loving One Pair of God-Crafted Eyes at a Time

By Ashley al-Saliby

How long has it been since anyone has really seen her?

I can’t help but wonder her name and her story as I navigate the sidewalk parallel to the one she’s traveling, both of us with market bags in hand. I’m new here, and by “here” I mean new to my neighborhood, new to this country, new to married life. Everything and everyone are being taken in with sometimes frantic, always curious, eyes and mind that are trying to understand, categorize, evaluate, and make sense of all the “newness.” And so, as I seek to absorb all the data, I can’t stop watching her.

By her I mean the countless migrant, domestic workers doing their chores or errands or childcare or pet care in my neighborhood and all over Beirut. Maybe I feel a connection with them, a desire to know them and understand their stories, because we have something important in common. They and I clearly aren’t from around here, and that’s a kind of significant sisterhood. But, most likely, my eyes keep following them because of the realities my husband has described about the plight many of them face. Not all, but too many, are mistreated by employers. Wages and passports are withheld. Physical and sexual abuse take place. The hopes that led them to migrate here for work quickly dissolve. Some reach a level of despair and desperation that lead to suicide. And so my heart wants to connect with theirs. I want to know their names, their fears, their dreams for the future.

From the beginnings of understanding I’m gathering, migrant domestic workers here seem too often to be victims not only of cruel abuse and injustice but, more pervasively, a widespread dismissal and disdain rooted in a timeless lie: the superiority any group ever feels towards any other group, with various invented criteria fueling the same ugly tendency the world over.

Sometimes it’s a baseless sense of superiority that causes one group of human beings to dismiss another, to deny the value of others, to deem them as less-than. But sometimes the response is stronger. Sometimes the reality is hatred, and the root is often fear. I believe this to be the case with another woman that I grieve to know is often unseen. In Texas I have a sweet friend, a veiled woman who taught me so much more than the language lessons that first brought us together, who has expressed that although she immigrated thirteen years ago from the part of the world I now call home to the place where I grew up, she has never had a friend there.  People draw back from her, as she observes it. They don’t want to know her, to listen to her, or to understand.

And so, whether it’s a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon, or a Muslim immigrant in Texas, I’m struck by the fact that prejudice and hatred always exist in broad strokes and generalizations, and usually from a fearful distance. Love, however, only really takes place up close.  We love one heart and one story at a time.

Baseless superiority and fearful hatred come so naturally to human beings, though. It’s our default mode, our go-to attitude toward those who are different, those we don’t understand, or those we think might be a threat. What’s the remedy?

Let’s pause. There was a woman, millennia ago, who was seen. I love the story. It’s rich with truth revealed not only about her, but about the One who saw her. She was trembling, rejected, and alone after fleeing mistreatment. And after the encounter with our Maker that the Old Testament records, her response was a stunning, “I have seen the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). It’s similar to another encounter, between another invisible woman and “God-with-us,” Jesus of Nazareth. This woman, hesitant and desperate, likely expected the disapproval or at least the dismissal of Jesus that she would have been accustomed to receiving from others. But God-with-us stopped the crowd to see her, to know her, and to refer to her with an honoring title, “Daughter” (Mark 5:24-34).

In light of the beauty of these recorded encounters, we should ask some questions of ourselves. In cultures where it is so common (which is all of them), how does hatred become past tense in human hearts? How does our foolish sense of superiority become exposed and then eroded away?

The Bible makes unmistakeably clear that it isn’t through moral reform or positive peer pressure that the needed change will come. Our fears run too deep. The self-deception about our superiority has been too effective. The beginning of the end of our hatred and superiority comes as we, first, encounter the God who sees us, the Redeemer of individual broken ones, the Reconciler of individuals who are distant from Him. If it’s true that hatred and prejudice take place from a distance and with generalizations, but that love happens one human being at a time, we learn this best from God’s interactions with us. We can only be described as those who were “once… hating one another” when we first, transformatively encounter God in His unexpected “loving kindness” (Titus 3:3-5).  We begin to “consider others better than ourselves,” those of another ethnic background, another socio-economic class, another religion we don’t understand or fear, when we first watch the One who stooped humbly to serve and save us (Philippians 2:3-5). The cause-and-effect pattern in these passages is clear. Encountering this “great love,” (Ephesians 2:4), hate-filled hearts are transformed, because love is finally enabled in us, by His grace, that is stronger than the fear that fuels hatred (Ephesians 5:1-2). Encountering the Humble Savior, haughty hearts like mine and yours learn to see ourselves and others as we are: individually made in the image of God, individually in need of redemption, individually sought by the Redeemer.

Where defaulting to condescending generalizations and broad-stroke, seething prejudice are the norm, let’s begin to look with love into one set of valuable, God-crafted eyes at a time, learn one name at a time, and hear one story at a time. I believe it will happen as, one by one, we first see the God who sees us. He is Jesus, God-with-us, who saw the invisible. His eyes are full of redemption. He redeems us from, among other things, the individual pride and fear that combine to create cultures plagued with them.

ashleyAshley is married to Wissam al-Saliby, ABTS Partnerships Manager, and is a recent transplant to Beirut. Currently, she is prayerfully considering how to serve Jesus in the Arab world in this new season of life.

Middle East Consultation 2015 – Identity and Belonging in the Middle East & North Africa

Capture MEC 2015

The Middle East Consultation 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East & North Africa, 15 – 19 June 2015, will focus on specific opportunities and challenges related to “identity” and “belonging” that face followers of Jesus within the MENA context. These challenges are particularly important given the diverse socio-religious and cultural backgrounds of Christ-followers in the region and of those leaders who seek to disciple them.

We live in a world where belonging to multiple social and cultural traditions is the reality for many. Identity can be understood as a complex and multi-dimensional aspect of human life, formed in response to a variety of dynamic social, cultural, historical, political, religious and spiritual experiences and commitments within today’s globalized and interconnected world.

As such, the core of MEC 2015 will consist of listening to in-depth testimonies from those who live in the midst of specific challenges pertaining to identity and belonging. The consultation also provides an opportunity to reflect upon and analyze the diverse social and religious dynamics at hand through a process of theological reflection via round-table discussion, as well as conversations with global thinkers from diverse social and cultural backgrounds.

Leading global missiologists will present keynote presentations on a range of related themes, which will in turn be reflected upon and discussed by those personally facing such challenges in the region. This hermeneutical dynamic (or process of accountable theological reflection) provides a framework for mutual enrichment within the worldwide Body of Christ, one that we are sure will impact the future of Christ-centred witness in and beyond the MENA region. Some keynote presenters include the following respected scholar-practitioners:

  • Dr. Tim Green, an expert on discipleship, training and intercultural relations,
  • Dr. Evelyne Reisacher, professor of intercultural relations at Fuller Theology Seminary in Pasadena, Ca,
  • Dr. Martin Accad, Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Beirut, Lebanon.
  • Additional speakers include an expert on leadership in the North African church and a leader from a Christ-following community in Bangladesh.

Daily morning devotions will be led by Rev. Dr. Hikmat Kashouh, professor of New Testament at ABTS, who will be exploring the biblical basis for what it means find one’s identity in Christ. This year’s consultation also features a series of practical workshops examining discipleship training courses, practical issues related to witness and discipleship with young people seeking faith, “adaptive” approaches to witness in the Arab world, and factors facilitating faith in the Arab world, among others. In addition, we have the added treat of poet Lucy Berry to share with us her reflections throughout the course of the consultation. The consultation is in both English and Arabic with simultaneous translation.

For more information about MEC 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, please click here or contact IMES@abtslebanon.org.

Click Here to Apply!

The International Journal of Frontier Missiology (IJFM) published a report by IMES on last year’s Middle East Consultation 2014 – Discipleship Today: Following Jesus in the Middle East and North Africa, including an outline of MEC 2015. Check it out here.

The Power of Easter: Redeemed from Selfishness; Called to a Ministry of Reconciliation

By Martin Accad

If Christmas poses as the central Christian festivity in the consumerist societies we live in, for Christians it is Easter that holds the central place. It is the starting and focal point of all Christian theology. Through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection, his followers, who have been invited to carry their cross and follow him, are called to interpret the world and understand both their life purpose and mode of living. So perhaps by reflecting on how redemption works through the Easter event, we can gain insight into everything else, from the mindless violence of our world, to the significance of how we live in response to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A few days ago, as I was reflecting on the meaning of Easter, I came across a short but edifying blog post by Brian Zahnd (which I later realized he had written at Easter last year) entitled: ‘How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?’ Though some people reacted strongly to the article when I posted it on Facebook, I still highly recommend Zahnd’s post. The importance of his question, ‘how does “dying for our sins” work?’ is universal. Some people may still be interested in debating whether Jesus died on the cross, a question that still arouses passions in the context of Christian-Muslim conversations in particular, though from a historian’s perspective it is hardly a question at all. But to be sure, most people still get passionate about ‘how it works?’ ‘So what,’ that Jesus died on the cross? Why should the death of that first-century man from Nazareth have anything to do with my salvation 2000 years later? In the interfaith context of the Middle East, these questions are certainly crucial. For most Muslims, God says ‘let it be,’ and it is! This is how he confers judgment. Many a Muslim polemicist in history has argued that the excruciating narrative of the cross is unnecessary in light of Islam’s understanding of God’s absolute sovereignty.

These are the questions about the cross that face us in the multifaith context of the Middle East and elsewhere. I want to affirm from the outset that I have no interest in entering the current – mostly western – debate for or against the so-called PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) view of Christ’s death. On both sides, it seems to me, proponents tend to present the crudest version of the other’s view in order to facilitate its dismantling and the assertion of their own position. My starting position when reflecting over the implications of the cross is to affirm the diverse interpretations as ‘multiple facets’ found in the Biblical witness, rather than to affirm one ‘theory’ against another.

In the more extreme representation of the view associated in particular with the eleventh-century name of Anselm of Canterbury, the death of Jesus is viewed as a sacrifice offered to satisfy the requirements of some ultimate principle of Divine Justice. Justice required that we should die due to our sinfulness, but through the death of the innocent Jesus, the wrath of God was satisfied, offering us the possibility of redemption. The theory was further developed and codified by Thomas Aquinas (13th century), and made to rule over much Protestant thinking about the cross through its endorsement and adaptation by Protestant Reformer John Calvin (16th century). Many of the traditional hymns we sing at church, particularly around the time of Easter, are inspired by this view. I find myself remaining silent over certain stanzas…

Let me just say that it is not the idea of ‘substitution’ that I am questioning. What I am reacting against is the much cruder development that views the death of Jesus as a sacrifice that was meant to placate God’s anger and force his hand into renouncing the drive to annihilate us because of our sins, due to some higher principle of Justice to which God himself is subjected. On the other hand, the affirmation that Jesus died ‘for our sins,’ or ‘in our stead,’ is well attested in the New Testament. Due to the significant distance between our world and the socio-cultural world of the Old Testament, we tend to find it harder to relate to the sacrificial system than did those living in the New Testament world. However, the pervasiveness of the imagery in the Bible requires that we find in it meaning that connects with our own reality.

The Church has affirmed that Jesus died ‘for us’ as the ‘Lamb of God,’ as the ultimate sacrifice for human sin. This interpretation that permeates the writings of the Apostle Paul, however, is far more ‘typological’ in nature than legal. Jesus is a ‘type’ of Adam; he is the ‘second Adam’ (Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 45). He is also a ‘type’ of the Old Testament sacrifice. The Epistle to the Hebrews offers great insight into this second typology, by representing Christ both as the sacrificial lamb and as the High Priest offering the sacrifice. Two central elements emerge from the overall New Testament witness, which are essential to our understanding of the death of Christ. First, in Christ, it was God himself who took the initiative of salvation towards us; his hand was not forced (ex, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). And secondly, Christ gave up his life willingly for our salvation; it was not taken away from him by force (ex, John 10:17-18).

I disagree with those who read, in some key Pauline passages, an extreme version of the Anselmian theory of atonement. I think it is a wrong interpretation. Following my Facebook post, one of my colleagues reminded me of what French Anthropologist, Philosopher and Theologian, René Girard, had to say about the death of Jesus and its significance. In revisiting Girard’s work, I find that what he referred to as the ‘mimetic’ (imitation) framework offers some important insight into the Apostle Paul’s rich discourse on the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Again, though I believe that Girard brings some important insight into the question, I don’t believe that his contribution is to be read in exclusion of other historical interpretations of the atonement.

In the fifth chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul affirms that Christ died for all. And the immediate consequence of this, in Paul’s thinking, is that through this death, all have died as well (v. 14). Once we allow that we have died to ourselves, we are able to break away from the violence which, according to Girard, results from ‘mimesis.’ In the Girardian system, all violence is explained through an anthropologically induced desire to imitate (mimesis), to possess what someone else has. A triangulation is thus established between the subject, the object and the model, who possesses the object of desire (subject-model-object), to the point where the object eventually becomes irrelevant and the fixation becomes on the model.

The message of the Gospel is that, once we no longer live for ourselves, we break away from the primordial inclination to violence, for we now live ‘for him who died for (us) and was raised again’ (v. 15). The resurrected Jesus becomes both the mimetic model as well as the object of our desire. In verse 17, Paul makes perhaps the most important statement that we find in all of his letters, for it expresses in Pauline language the central principle of Jesus’ teaching reflected in the Gospel of John; that in order to share in God’s Kingdom, we must be born again, of the Spirit, from above (see John 3). Paul’s equivalent to Jesus’ concept of being ‘born again’ is his notion of being ‘in Christ’:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Applying the Girardian framework, being in Christ becomes an invitation to break away from that cycle of violence. By dying to self, we become a ‘new creation’ that has no need to pursue the mimetic drive to violence, in search for self-gratification. Through the death of Jesus, God reconciled us to himself ‘and gave us the ministry of reconciliation’ (vv. 18-19). But it is only those who have learnt the possibility of dying to self, and who practice this in ongoing manner, who are able to be true reconcilers. This is why the political way, in its pragmatism (the realpolitik), doesn’t lead to true and lasting reconciliation, because it continues to pursue peace for selfish purposes, to serve certain ‘mimetic interests’: American interests, European interests, or any other nation’s interests in any given situation of conflict.

I find important insight in René Girard’s anthropological framework as I try to make sense of the violence in today’s world, particularly the one currently threatening the annihilation of what remains of Christianity in the Middle East. The challenge that the cross of Christ poses to violence is absolutely unique. I find no satisfactory parallel, in other ideologies and religions, to Christ’s command to his followers that they love their neighbor as themselves, respond to evil with good, and even love their enemies. For the Eastern Church, today is the commemoration of the Last Supper, tomorrow we will remember the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and on Sunday we will celebrate his resurrection. We may debate staunchly about how the death of Jesus works. We may even argue still, with some, about whether Jesus actually died on a cross. But to the transformation that the ‘way of the cross’ does in us, and to the consequence that being born again, in Christ, has on our behavior and attitude towards the promises of the world, there is no substitute that I have found anywhere.

Why Do Young People Join ISIS?

By Arthur Brown

Much of my career has involved working with young people participating in ‘risky behaviour’. This included drug use, gang membership, reckless riding of stolen motorbikes, etc. As a youth worker my role was to understand what motivated them and hopefully seek ways of reducing the risk of serious harm.

Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy continues to confound the majority of humanity – even those who claim to follow Jesus. Throughout history, societies and nations generally depersonalise the enemy, categorizing them as ‘other’, whereby ‘other’ represents all things evil and in opposition to their own values and identities. It is easy to do this with ISIS, given their barbaric activities.

However, what happens when we realise that the enemy is increasingly coming from within? When the enemy is made up of individuals with names, with families, with tragic histories and experiences that some of us might actually share. Experiences which lead them – perhaps with some degree of rationality – to join organisations such as ISIS?

Young people are joining ISIS in ever increasing numbers. On Tuesday, the BBC reported that ‘More than 25,000 foreign fighters have travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), according to a UN report.’ As a result, countries around the world are being confronted by the reality that their young people are willing to travel to Syria and Iraq to ‘play their part’ in the establishment of the so called caliphate ISIS is seeking to establish.

But what is ‘their part’? One of the compelling features of ISIS is that, like any other state, they need all sorts of people to fulfill all sorts of roles. Whilst fighters and executioners receive the majority of attention, ISIS is a growing institution with a widening recruitment strategy and appeal. The evidence indicates that though conditions of poverty and educational deficit are strong factors in motivating young people to join ISIS, the truth is there are also highly educated young people from around the world who are keen to join. The three 15 & 16 year old girls from my area of East London [all A grade students in school] who recently traveled to Syria to become ‘ISIS brides’ are a case in point.

It is easy to label would-be recruits to ISIS as naive and misguided, and this may be true. However the ever increasing number and diversity of youth willing to join must cause us to ask deeper, more uncomfortable questions.

There are two main categories of motivation when thinking about risk taking behaviour. Abundance motivation drives individuals to seek  ‘peak’ experiences, a buzz or thrill. Young people often crave excitement, a sense of living life to the max! Deficiency motivation, on the other hand, seeks to make up for something that is lacking in an individual – in some way to suppress pain. What tends to motivate someone to take cocaine for example is different to what tends to motivate someone to take heroine. The former is a stimulant, the latter a pain-killer. Ultimately, young people take risks expecting some benefit or pay-off.

Other reasons why young people take risks include:

  • Symbolic identity: Developing a personal identity, which is recognised and validated in some way by others, is important for young people.
  • The need to belong: This is the motivation behind much, if not most, human behaviour. This is perhaps critical when considering what might motivate a young person to join ISIS.
  • To release anger: For some, violence is a powerful means of release. This is particularly so when the target of violence is the authority or value system that has lead to the development of such anger in the first place.
  • To escape or ‘numb’ the pain: Feelings of hopelessness and pain are also strong motivators; however, in these cases risk taking behavior is more likely a motivation to seek escape or ‘salvation’ in some form.

So, what might motivate a young person to join ISIS?

Motivation is multi-facetted and each potential ISIS recruit will probably have a complex mix of abundance and deficiency motivation that might attract them towards ISIS membership.

Bab el Tabaneh in the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli is an area that has seen ongoing tension and violence between neighboring communities for decades. It is now one of the recruitment hubs for various extremist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front.

According to scholar Mohammad Abi Samra,

The population lives well below the poverty line. Illiteracy and unemployment rates are high and broken families are common, as is early marriage and random divorce and pregnancy. This poor neighborhood has become an environment of instability, violence, and broken homes, a breeding ground for street gangs of unemployed and drug-addicted youth who get into pointless bloody fights on a daily basis.[1]

We can all probably think of places not too far from where we live that sound similar. I used to live in a community in London that was often described in such terms!

It is within this context that boys and young men experience a life of pain, emptiness, hopelessness, violence, addiction, and self-harm. Bab el Tabaneh and similar communities have cultures of poverty and desperation with a sense of rage simmering beneath the fragile daily grind – waiting to erupt at any opportunity. Recent events, including suicide bombings and the killing of well-known leader Badr Eid, have only heightened tensions. It is within this context that ISIS and others are so prevalent in their recruitment drive.

What have these young people got to loose? The answer – not much! Their desire for ‘salvation’ – the need to escape – becomes a fixation, one that ISIS and others are able to exploit.

Many of the young people from the region who are joining these groups, and who come from such impoverished and desperate circumstances, are uneducated and have suffered under local and regional security apparatuses, especially those of the Syrian regime during its occupation of Lebanon. Anger and resentment towards both the Lebanese and Syrian authorities runs deep and hostilities regularly flare up.

What does ISIS offer these young people?

Perhaps the main thing that ISIS can offer is a means of escape. Local mosques and prayer halls influenced by the Islamist ideas of ISIS are places where young people from similar backgrounds have found ‘salvation’ within a certain interpretation of Islam. This Islam has offered an escape from isolation and self-destruction into a community that offers discipline, respectability and dignity. Former gang members have become community leaders and role-models to the ‘wretched’ youth of impoverished communities. However, the young people who are ‘being saved’ lack much formal education and the ability to think critically and engage in a wider social discourse. They are easily led, and often lack even a basic understanding of Islam – other than what is being fed to them by some extremists in their communities. In fact, many of these young people are not attracted to Islam per se, but rather have a desire to escape (Abi Samra 230-234). The other significant thing ISIS can offer is a sense of belonging to something bigger and more significant than these young people may have ever been able to imagine. This is a trend that is growing by the day, as the vision of ISIS and what it offers becomes more significant.

So, what is the role of the faith communities – and the church?

Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemy, as well as their neighbour. The reality is that our neighbors – young people from our communities – are becoming ‘the enemy’. So how can we even begin to think about loving them, when loving them involves taking loving actions towards them?

In the first instance I think we need to recognise that each of these young people has a name and a history that has led them to take such a radical decision. They too are created in the image of God, however disturbing this may be to us. Rather than writing them off as ‘crazy’, ‘sick’ or ‘evil’, maybe we should try to understand the conditions that led them to be willing to join such organisations. In no way am I seeking to justify their actions, just to understand them.

It would be easy for the church to stay out of it. How might the church have a role in being a peace-maker between different Muslim communities? Poverty does not make distinctions between religious communities. Recently, at least two Lebanese Christians from Tripoli have joined extremist terrorist groups, further highlighting that maybe it is not Islam per se that drives people towards groups like ISIS. One is believed to have joined ISIS, while another was arrested in connection with suicide attacks in a neighbouring community. In such contexts maybe peace-loving churches need to build friendships with peace-loving mosques, to seek ways not only to reject violence, but to address the conditions that lead to such fertile recruitment grounds. Maybe the role of the global church is to take an interest in the local contexts from where ISIS members originate and seek to support initiatives that counter hatred and discrimination, asking prophetic questions about how nations could and should respond in such challenging circumstances. In the mean time, why not pray for these young men and women and for their families… as well as for the families who have lost loved ones as a consequence of the devastating realities on the ground in the region.

___________________________

[1] Mohammad Abi Samra, ‘Revenge of the Wretched: Islam and Violence in the Bab al Tabaneh Neighborhood of Tripoli’ in Arab Youth: Social Mobilisation in Times of Risk, ed. Samir Khalaf and Roseanne Saad Khalaf (London: SAQI Books, 2011), p.222.

Retiring Tired Myths about the Modern MENA

By Jesse Wheeler

Atlas Mountains – Morocco (source)

Thanks to the advent of social media, my access to Western media sources is nearly as good (perhaps even better) than it would be were I not an immigrant living in Beirut, Lebanon, just another sign of the ever shrinking world we inhabit. Yet in my readings I consistently encounter the same myths about the modern Middle East and its peoples; some myths are seemingly innocuous, others less so. And, it is precisely because our world is now so interconnected that such long-standing myths must no longer have a place within our global discourse.

Misinformation abounds when it comes to the Middle East, and certain misperceptions have proven to have profound socio-cultural consequences and destructive policy ramifications. (Nothing I write here is particularly new or inspired, most especially for our Middle Eastern readers, but certain perceptions simply refuse to die.) Some myths are basic, such as the erroneous belief that all Middle Easterners are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, and all Muslims are terrorists. However, two myths have been particularly vexing as I’ve encountered them in the past few weeks.

They are as follows:

  • MYTH #1: The Middle East is a Desert Wasteland

Now don’t get me wrong, there IS a lot of desert in the Middle East. Georgetown’s Margaret Nydell describes the Middle East as an archipelago of densely populated islands amidst a vast desert ocean.[1] This is an apt, but nevertheless misleading description. From Morocco to Iran and from Armenia to the Yemen, the MENA has its fair share of sun-soaked beaches, snow-capped mountains, and modern metropolises. It also has fertile river valleys, the very ones from which Western civilization sprung. And, the Mediterranean coastline is exactly how you might picture…well, the Mediterranean coastline.[2]

Geography lesson aside, more troubling is how this notion of the MENA as a desert wasteland so easily bleeds into the erroneous notion of the Middle East as a cultural and intellectual wasteland, beholden to a medieval religion hell-bent on world domination, comically backwards sheikhs, dancing harem girls, and throngs of helpless masses crying out for the ‘benevolent’, yet nonetheless ‘superior’ hand of Western intervention. Edward Said has said this all before.[3] Yet such misperceptions refuse to die.

Perhaps the most staggering image highlighting the gulf between perception and reality comes from a 2012 episode of the award-winning American drama “Homeland.”

(Photo source)

Either the producers didn’t know how to google ‘Hamra’, or they clearly had ulterior motives. And yet, the sheer amount of ‘culture’ per square km in the Levant is staggering, both ancient and modern. Ancient monasteries sit within minutes of the most modern, diverse, and technologically sophisticated cities one could imagine, replete with art, film, music, literature and scholarship. A quick internet search lists over 32 universities within two hours of my apartment alone.

Subsequently, this notion of the MENA as a geographical and cultural desert feeds in to the second myth.

  • MYTH #2: Islam is in need of a Reformation

As a student of modern religious history, I am always puzzled by this declaration. I’m not saying there doesn’t exist a profound crisis of religious authority within the Islamic community, nor that recent events haven’t inspired a revaluation of core religious texts among certain segments of the ummah. But, Islam has been ‘reforming’ for generations.

Revival movements have been a quintessential part of all religious traditions since their respective beginnings, Islam included. Yet the advent of European political and economic domination in the 18th-19th century triggered within the Islamic community a period of deep introspection and the reexamination of core methodologies[4]. Later, Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate in 1923, sending shock waves throughout the Muslim world from which it has yet to recover. The ensuing epistemological crisis set the stage for the events of the 20th century, witnessing the growth of Islamic liberalism, ethnic secularism, and reformist Islamism each offering a different response.

I was surprised to learn recently that Sayyid Qutb, the most influential ideologue of the Salafi movement, was an admirer of Martin Luther and saw himself in a similar vein regarding his own hermeneutical revolution within Islam[5]. The behavior of ISIS, most evidently its strident iconoclasm, clearly indicate that they see themselves as an Islamic reform movement. In essence, when Westerners call upon Islam to reform in response to the proliferation of Islamic radicalism, they are forgetting that such movements are themselves the byproduct of modern Islamic reform movements, and that such movements developed largely as a reaction to western colonial aggression. The irony is that movements such as these also encompass dramatic calls for the West to reform itself!

Furthermore, such misperceptions represent an acutely white-washed version of Christian history, wherein the Protestant Reformation represents the emergence of an enlightened, modern religiosity from the chains of medieval barbarism and ignorance. Whereas in reality, the Reformation unleashed one of the most fratricidal and tragically bloody eras of Western history culminating ultimately in the 30 Years War. In reference to the religious wars, Christian philosopher Brad J. Kallenberg writes,

“The Calvinist reasons that if a war satisfies certain just-war criteria, then it is their duty, as God’s stewards of creation and culture, to fight such a war for the honor and will of God… [T]his outlook gives Calvinists a certain resoluteness in their conception of duty. As one seventeenth-century observer of the religious wars remarked, ‘I’d rather see coming toward me a whole regiment with drawn swords, than one lone Calvinist [convinced] that he is doing the will of God!’[6]

Sound familiar?[7]

In failing to acknowledge the bloody remains of our own past, we ultimately perform a true disservice to our global neighbors. In failing to examine our self-serving narratives, we too easily project our misinterpretations upon the ‘non-western world’, with all the socio-cultural and policy ramifications therein entailed. Sometimes, I think that we project the boogeyman of our own dark past upon the playing field of the modern Middle East. If this is the case, could ISIS then be the specter of our own creation, reshaping the modern Middle East in imitation of our own worst nightmares – nightmares unjustly thrust upon our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters?

Conclusion

In the end, if we purport to follow the gospel of Truth we must be persons absolutely committed to truth, about ourselves as much as others. I conclude therefore with the words of Musalaha’s Salim Munayer:

[P]art of seeking after the truth, and part of righteousness, is to take a closer look at some of the things we believe and assume, especially about history, and particularly our history, and examine more closely some of what we believe to be truth. Some of what we are asserting could be very close and dear to our hearts, but if we discover that it is not the truth, or that it is not the whole truth, we are obligated to admit it.

This can be a very painful process, but it is needed if reconciliation is to occur. In conflict situations, people on both sides of the divide must seek after the truth, and challenge any assumptions made about the past or about the ‘enemy’. If we do not challenge these assumptions, narratives or myths, we become enslaved by them, and will only be made free by embracing the truth:

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).[8]

__________________________

[1] Margaret Nydell, Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society, (Intercultural Press, 2012)

[2] We mustn’t forget too that there is a lot of desert in a place like California.

[3] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, (Vintage, 1997)

[4]Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices), ( Routledge, 2011) 179

[5]Jan Slomp, “Christianity and Lutheranism from the Perspective of Modern Islam” in Luther zwischen den Kulturen: Zeitgenossenschaft, (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004) 281

[6] Brad J. Kallenberg, Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age, (Brazos Press, 2002) 100

[7] This is not an attack on Calvinism, but a recounting of history. Prior to moving to Lebanon, I served three years as a pastor in a Reformed Presbyterian Church.

[8]Salim Munayer. Musalaha: A Curriculum of Reconciliation. (Musalaha Ministry of Reconciliation, 2011)

Identity, Reconciliation, Persecution and the Challenges of Following Jesus in the Middle East and North Africa

IJFM

The Institute of Middle East Studies in Beirut, Lebanon was featured this week in the latest issue (31:4) of the respected International Journal of Frontier Missiology (IJFM).

1) “The Challenges of Following Jesus in the Middle East and North Africa”

First, IJFM published a report by IMES on last year’s Middle East Consultation 2014 – Discipleship Today: Following Jesus in the Middle East and North Africa, which includes an outline for the upcoming Consultation in June 2015. The following is an excerpt from that report:

The Challenges of Following Jesus in the Middle East and North Africa: The Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, in Lebanon, has been a hub for the formation of leaders for church and society in the Middle East and North Africa region since 1960. Throughout those years, it has been cognizant of the tremendous challenges that constantly face the church in the region in the area of discipleship. ABTS’ Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) hosts the annual Middle East Consultation (MEC) to provide a context whereby people from around the world can explore issues of critical importance to the Middle East and beyond, in ways that seek the transformation of individuals and communities in line with the prophetic message of Jesus Christ. The purpose of this document is to highlight a variety of the day-to-day challenges facing disciples of Jesus in the MENA region today, as transpired from the 2014 Consultation. It also provides a foundation from which the Institute of Middle East Studies will seek to further develop the conversations first begun during MEC 2014. It is anticipated that some of the recommendations deriving from this document will inform our ongoing discussions on the theme of discipleship over the next two or more years. Early on, we will also attempt a definition of what we mean by the term discipleship.

Read more about identity, reconciliation, persecution, and the challenges of following Jesus today in the Middle East and North Africa here: http://www.ijfm.org/P…/31_4_PDFs/IJFM_31_4-MEC2014Report.pdf (PDF; 103Kb).

2) “Towards a Theology of Islam: A Response to Harley Talman’s “Is Muhammad Also Among the Prophets?”

In addition, IJFM featured IMES Director Martin Accad’s response to Harley Talman’s provocatively titled piece, “Is Muhammad Also Among the Prophets?” wherein Dr. Accad writes:

Towards a Theology of Islam: In this article, Harley Talman is dealing with what I believe to be one of the most important topics of Christian-Muslim relations today. It should therefore not be viewed as some exercise in intellectual gymnastics. Evangelicals have been divided over three major issues during the last decade: (1) the legitimacy for Muslims who become followers of Jesus to remain largely within their community (the so-called “Insider Movement(s),” often domesticized as “IM”); (2) the legitimacy of highly-contextualized, reader-driven Bible translations for a Muslim audience; and (3) the legitimacy of dialogue as a complementary approach to Christian mission to Muslims.

Generally, I have observed that evangelicals are quite consistent in being either supportive of all three issues, or systematically against them. What is striking is that despite the amount of ink already spilled on these questions, proponents on both sides seem to have a very hard time defining the terms of the conversation. I have arrived at the conviction that the essence of this disagreement is completely unrelated to the extent of one’s motivation for God’s mission, or the amount of one’s experience in ministry, or the technical aptitude and effectiveness of one’s missional methodology. Indeed, most people on either side of the spectrum have unquestionable pedigrees as missionaries, and most have a passion for mission that is next to blameless. That is what makes these disagreements and splits even sadder. Instead, I believe that at the heart of this unfortunate divide is one’s “theology of Islam.”

You can read more about Dr. Accad’s call for evangelicals to develop an adequate theology of Islam here: http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/31_4_PDFs/IJFM_31_4-Accad.pdf (PDF; 197Kb).

3) Middle East Consultation 2015 – Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa and The Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies

Finally, IJFM offered to highlight IMES’ Middle East Consultation 2015 Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa and our innovative Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program. You can see our full page advert below:

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(Hi-Definition: BW IFJM adv)

The MENA History, Politics and Economics module for the MRel in MENA Studies program begins April 2015. For more information about IMES programs, please contact: IMES@abtslebanon.org.

Click here to register for MEC 2015.