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:

advert

(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.

Moral Decay or Social Privilege? A Bicultural Comparison

by Rose Khouri

As a Lebanese-American with an interest in religious studies who has lived a substantial amount of time in both countries, I am often struck by the similarities and differences between two groups who supposedly practice the same religion. If asked, both American Christians (historically white and Protestant) and Lebanese Christians (majority Maronite Catholic) would likely affirm that one of the most fundamental aspects of their lives – their sense of morality, of right and wrong – is influenced solely by religious faith. Yet on a daily basis here in Lebanon, I observe a significant difference between American and Lebanese perceptions of morality (particularly with regard to the treatment of foreign workers and widespread racism).

I have found, however, a similarity common among both cultures. To a large extent, both the older, white American Protestants of my youth, as well as the Maronite Catholics of Lebanon perceive the younger generations in their respective societies as being “less moral”. This perception can be influenced by many different variables; however, I believe there is a strong link between cultural and political power, identity (especially when perceived as being under threat), and one’s perception of moral decay.

Years ago, I read a book by Dr. Lara Deeb entitled An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi‘i Lebanon. The book, written during the dramatic rise of the Lebanese Shi‘ites in political, economic, social, and military strength, discusses the relationship between power and the perception of morality. Deeb details her ethnographic research in the Lebanese Shi‘a community and discusses how the younger generation of Shi‘a women in Lebanon perceived their generation to be the most moral – a perfect combination of modern and pious. This is an unusual opinion in the Arab world, where declarations of a decaying or corrupted social morality have fueled revivalist movements over the past century. In the case of Lebanese Shi‘ites, as religious Islam enjoyed a perceptible revival and the Shi‘a community grew in power in Lebanon, so too did their introspective view of morality. I was curious, therefore, to see if the Lebanese Maronite Catholics, long the political and economic players in a country essentially carved out for them by France but currently facing a serious decline in power and population, would perceive a matching decline in the morality of their community and country. So, I began to research this questions in depth.

Bemoaning the state of my generation and of society’s apparent moral decay was an oft-repeated theme at my childhood church gatherings in America. I distinctly remember an older woman commenting that ‘kids these days’ no longer had any morals or respect – to which I asked myself at the time, “what kind of person looks at a childhood of segregated schools and horrific violence against Black Americans as a golden age of morality?” I look at Lebanon with a similar perspective. The older generations in Lebanon, the parents and grandparents of those my age, participated in one of history’s bloodiest civil wars. Rape, kidnapping, open slaughter, the destruction of history, and the emotional and psychological scarring of a generation: these are the products of Lebanon’s recent past. The idea that this could be considered morally superior, in my opinion, does not seem objectively conceivable, yet this has been an opinion reinforced conversation after conversation in my discussions with Lebanon’s Maronites.

Like the white Americans of my youth, the older Maronites with whom I speak perceive societal morality (or rather, its decay) dismally. Yet, when I press them to detail the specific moral failings they observe, their responses do not resemble that which I would consider a Biblically-based source of morality. No Maronite I have spoken to would indicate that morality had improved since the Civil War, older men and women in particular. However, I rarely find objective evidence to support this contention. Instead, the primary frustration is with increased sectarianism after the war, especially the kind that led non-Maronites to cast off the traditional Maronite cultural and political dominance of the pre-war era.

In the highly sectarian Lebanese society, the older generation remembers when the Maronites were the favored sect. They feel this loss of favor and therefore project the loss of Maronite power upon their perception of lower morality among the emerging non-Maronite majority. I believe this reduction in political and cultural power for the Maronites has led to the perception of Lebanese society as being less moral. The rising political fortunes of other sectarian groups meant that Lebanese society must be less moral, because the Maronites firmly believed that, pre-war, they provided cultural, political and moral leadership to their nation. Since there is no objective evidence that Lebanese morality is in fact declining, I attribute the perception of decline to the reduction in political and cultural power of the Maronites within Lebanese society.

I compare this sense of decline to the similar reaction of the white, Christian America within which I grew up. Although white America’s political and cultural power has been on the decline for the last couple of decades, the recent election and re-election of African-American President Barack Obama has become a visible symbol of a new America in which white Americans play a smaller role. It is not a coincidence that the reaction of Maronite Christians could be so similar to white Americans, as both groups undergo a loss of power and a visualized threat to their sense of identity, coupled with the perceptions of the Shi‘a youth and diverse American youth – so full of hope for a better, more moral world.

This topic has been on my mind lately as I get to know my co-workers and the students here at ABTS more deeply. Bumping into so many Christians, from so many different sects, backgrounds, levels of theological training and understanding, nationalities, and ethnicities, has reminded me of my first impression when I came to Lebanon. We as Christians believe that our faith alone should shape how we understand morality. Yet the more I meet Christians, outside of my own original circle, the more differences I find in what we consider sinful, immoral, haram. Our widely differing views show that other factors beyond religion influence moral perceptions.

There are numerous factors that can influence these differences. Yet I believe our identity, and our perception of tangible or intangible threats to this understood identity, can be one of the strongest factors in how we interpret what is moral and immoral. Our reactions to threats to our identity can be among the most irrational and visceral, even as they are the most subconscious.

It should not be our cultures, our identity, our perceived threats that guide how we understand what is right and wrong and whether our actions are acceptable or not. We should not look at a younger generation turning away from the actions and behaviors of their parents as an indication of decay. Rather we should measure our actions by the tools our faith provides us. Do we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Do we love our neighbors as ourselves?

Ultimately, do we seek to do unto others as we would have them do unto us?

ISIS and the Apocalypse

By Mike Kuhn

Recently our community had the privilege of hearing a lecture by New Testament scholar David deSilva based on his book on John’s Apocalypse titled Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation’s Warning.  The thrust of the lecture was a challenge to read John’s apocalyptic message in light of events transpiring in the lifetime of John and his readers.  Revelation is a letter to specific churches in John’s day, according to Professor deSilva.  What is more, it is not about emerging powers in our day or the distant future.  It concerns primarily the prominent power in John’s day—the Roman Empire.  Its message urges early Christ-followers not to be co-opted by the Empire’s seduction, to have no other loyalties than Christ and his Kingdom even though the price for faithfulness be martyrdom.

The author’s point of view inspired some lively conversation as two Middle Eastern scholars responded to him and he also fielded questions from the listening audience.  One respondent asked the American professor to help the Middle Eastern church make sense of the current blood-letting of Christians and others at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the culture of death that seems to grow unabated in our Middle Eastern context.  Another respondent asked flatly what Christians should do to stop the death machine’s relentless march.

Our visiting lecturer wisely avoided prescribing a path of action for the Middle Eastern church but he did have a response for us to contemplate.  As an exegete his comfort zone was deciphering what the text of the Apocalypse was saying to its audience.  He avowed that he was not particularly fond of John’s approach to discipleship, which seemed to him, to exhort Christians to be ready to shed their blood in resistance of the empire’s forceful grip of corruption and exploitation.  Putting it bluntly, John called his readers to death in their pursuit of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

ISIS CopticSome of us in attendance were struggling.  It just doesn’t seem right!  Those twenty-one orange-clad Egyptian Copts herded out on the beaches of Libya to be beheaded by practitioners of a repugnant ideology…and it’s impossible to count the number of those who have been exterminated in Iraq and Syria.  What a waste of life!  And all of it filmed and posted to the internet to slake the curious eyes of a watching world.

In fact, one of the speakers captured the sense of meaninglessness as he pointed out that the deaths of these cannot be construed to carry the same significance as the death of their Master.  These are lambs helpless, defenseless.  They die at the whim of men driven mad by a demonic ideology repudiated and condemned by people of all faiths.

Was John (the Apostle)[1] weird?  Was he so caught up in the sufferings of his own day that he became morose, morbid, promoting a senseless willingness to die?  Certainly some of the audience in our lecture didn’t want to hear one more exhortation to die for the sake of religious faith…any religious faith.  Enough is enough!

John’s proclivity might seem weird to us…out of touch, excessive.

But isn’t this the very same apostle who recorded Jesus saying “I am come that they might have life and have it abundantly.”

“Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

“He who believes in me, from his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.”

Wasn’t he called “the one Jesus loved’, the one to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his own mother?

Isn’t this the guy who leaned on Jesus’ chest and asked “who is it Lord?”—which one of us will be the cause of your senseless murder?

My point is simply this:  John is an Apostle of Christ.  He carries Jesus’ authority, and for good reason, because he knew Jesus intimately, walked with him closely and imbibed the truth that Jesus taught and embodied.  When John calls us to be willing to die in pursuit of Jesus’ Kingdom, it may seem overwhelming—something like a culture of death, but it is not that.  We need a vision reorientation.  That’s what apostles do for us.  John is calling us to embrace the true life offered to us in union with Jesus.  He beckons us to lose what is ephemeral and fading and soon to be lost anyway in order to gain what can never be lost.

Maybe, just maybe, instead of trying to squeeze the Bible into the mold of what we find most accommodating to our lifestyle, John is doing exactly what Jesus did—calling us to squeeze ourselves and our attachments and preferences into a mold that has very little in common with our consumer society.

In fact, John is not proffering death.  He is offering life.

So how do the deaths of the twenty-one martyrs of Libya make sense?  Having lived in Egypt for quite a few years, there’s one thing I know about the Coptic Church of Egypt—they don’t forget their martyrs.  Icons are already pressing the images of these departed saints into the minds and hearts of young Egyptian Christians.  If, like me, you grew up in the Protestant Evangelical tradition, icons probably seem strange to you.  But I’ve learned that for Christians in the Middle East, it is holy art—the gospel in living color.  It continues to tell the story of the “great cloud of witnesses.”  It is eternal art because the church keeps it alive integrating it into its worship and prayer.  Yes.  Believe it or not, the martyrs are alive and well in the Coptic Orthodox church.[2]

The “senseless” deaths of the Middle Eastern Christians who have fallen at the hands of ISIS can only become meaningless if you and I let that happen.  Their death is an invitation to us to re-examine our undying commitment to conformity to the world…to press their sacrifice into our hearts and minds…to realize we belong to another Kingdom and we’ll only be home once that Kingdom has come on earth as it is in heaven.

John wasn’t weird.  He was telling us the truth.  His vision of the Apocalypse still speaks in today’s Middle East.

“And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

[Video] A Political Reading of the Book of Revelations: Click here to watch Dr. David deSilva’s Lecture, with responses by Rev. Dr. Hikmat Kashouh (Arab Baptist Theological Seminary) and Rev. Dr. Johnny Awwad (Near East School of Theology).

______________________

[1] I am taking the traditional view that the author of Revelation was John the Son of Zebedee, the beloved disciple. Though some suggest a different author known as John the Elder, the most ancient witnesses in Church history identify the author as John the son of Zebedee who also authored the fourth gospel. These witnesses include Justin Martyr writing c 135-150AD, Melito of Sardis (mid 2nd century) and Irenaeus of Lyons writing c. 185AD. Thematic links between John’s Gospel and Revelation such as Jesus as the Word of God and Lamb of God also favor the authorship of the Apostle John

[2] See this website for the response of the Egyptian Bible Society to the martyrdom:  http://www.darelketab.org/bs3/en/default.aspx

Capoeira: A surprising source of social transformation

Lugging a big wooden drum, about a dozen tambourines, and an assortment of other percussion instruments, we walked onto the big green astroturf. Some members of our team got to work assembling berimbaus, the staple instrument of a Brazilian dance/music/sport called Capoeira. Others began assembling several dozen young Syrian boys into a big circle. This was the beginning of a series of intensive Capoeira classes for Syrian youth living in al-Azraq camp in Jordan. I was there to help the team, part of the NGO Bidna Capoeira, monitor their project and get a better sense of how Capoeira can support disadvantaged youth.

Al-Azraq camp is astonishingly monochrome: little white pre-fabricated houses are lined up neatly against a backdrop of beige sand, for as far as the eye can see. The youth centre, with its bright green astroturf, created quite the contrast. It is easy to imagine how eagerly young people living in the camp flock to the centre, simply to enjoy a few hours of colour. The assortment of Brazilian instruments we brought with us, along with the unique songs and acrobatics that my colleagues were coming to teach, were an even more exciting contrast to the monotony of life in a refugee camp. I asked some of the youth what they do when they are not at Capoeira class, and their answers included helping their mothers get food and water, studying to catch up on the years of school they lost due to war in Syria, and little else.IMG_0914

But, while the initial appeal of the Capoeira classes might have been the fact that they offered something new and different in an otherwise dreary life, I was particularly impressed by how they helped these young people grow in confidence and respect.

The first class was on the astroturf, but the second class took place on a concrete patio, with a tin roof to keep the heat of the sun off our heads. The tin roof didn’t help keep the desert sand from blowing onto the patio, though. When we began the class there, the master teacher, a Brazilian who has been training and teaching Capoeira for almost 50 years, told the students that they needed to respect their space. He asked if anyone could rummage up some brooms. A few minutes later, a kind-faced woman appeared and silently began sweeping the far end of the patio. The teacher, however, asked her to stop. He said that the students need to feel pride in their own environment, and that pride would take root when they cleaned their own training space. Hesitantly at first, but with growing enthusiasm, one boy after another took the broom until they swept out the entire space. On the next day, we showed up again to a dusty patio and the teacher again called for brooms. He said that, from here on out, if the space was not clear when he arrived, he would not give a class. On the third day, we arrived to a freshly swept patio, as well as a circle of chairs neatly arranged in the shadiest spot under the roof. The boys grinned as they told the teacher that they were excited for the class, and had all pitched in to prepare their space!

Similarly, on the first day, when we pulled out the many instruments, which the teacher had brought all the way from Brazil, nearly fifty children ran to them, picked them up, and started banging away. It was fun to watch the joy on their faces as they played with these novelties, and at first their musical attempts created a pleasant cacophony. But soon, the sound grew loud and tedious, and I began to wonder if we would be able to gather the instruments back into one place again. The teacher then arranged the children into groups, according to which instrument they were holding. I watched as students fought over the more popular instruments, complaining when they got stuck with a small drum that they thought “boring”. We told them that everyone would eventually get a turn with everything, but they did not have the patience to wait, and kept squabbling and complaining. After allowing a few minutes of this chaos, the teacher brought them back into a circle and began to talk about the history of music in Capoeira, the significance of each instrument, and the orchestra that would be created when everyone learned to play in harmony with each other. He also talked a bit more about respect, and said that just like it was important for capoeiristas to respect the space in which they trained, it was also important for them to respect the instruments they were playing. He said that, from then on, if a student grabbed at an instrument without a trainer offering it to them, that student would have to sit out the rest of the music lesson.IMG_0922

About half of the students nodded and quickly put back the percussion pieces they had grabbed at, just moments before. A few others didn’t understand at first, but the teacher enforced his rule, and they began to understand the importance of respecting authority and sharing with each other.

These are small victories, but sometimes the small victories are the greatest ones. We might be tempted, when thinking about these challenging times in the Middle East, to want to solve entire crises, and then to feel utterly hopeless when we can’t do that. But Jesus often approached “the least of these” and spoke straight to their personal needs; similarly, touching people’s hearts in these minor, yet very wise, ways, is sometimes the best way we can help. Today’s Syrian refugee teenagers are, after all, the next generation of adults in Syria, and organisations like Bidna Capoeira are working hard to ensure that they are not a lost generation. In the Capoeira classes, I saw refugee youth who had lost much of the structure in their life when war broke out in Syria, re-learning discipline. Material loss may have made them desperate, to the point that they might break out in fight at food distributions or quickly snatch at anything given to them, but they were re-learning the value of sharing with others. They lived in a monochrome camp in the desert and were learning how to make colour in their own lives through music and dance.

All of this happened in a few short lessons; there is so much more that Capoeira classes can offer. Capoeira is interactive in nature, creating a space for its participants to act out their social frustrations inside the roda, or circle. It is physically challenging, requiring a great degree of discipline. It is empowering, in that its students are often expected to start teaching others once they have reached even a limited level of competence. It has a rich history of resistance in Brazil, which can inspire its students to address social problems in a productive way. It is expressive, as students learn a variety of songs and eventually learn to improvise as they play and sing. I look forward to learning more about how Capoeira can benefit refugee youth!

Beating Back ISIS

By Martin Accad

Every few days, we seem to wake up to another massacre committed by ISIS. And these are, of course, only the ones that the media reports. ISIS, in reality, is committing massacres on a daily basis. We have become familiar with their crimes in Syria and Iraq since last summer. But now their latest playfield, we are learning, is Libya. And their latest scapegoats are the Copts of Egypt.

In a recent, 21-page long analysis in The Atlantic, entitled ‘What ISIS Really Wants,’ Graeme Wood argues that the ISIS interpretation and application of Islam is one of many ‘legitimate’ manifestations of Islam. He nowhere argues that this is the only, or even the main, interpretation of the religion. Therefore, though it is important also to read and be aware of Wood’s critiques, it seems to me that many have been too quick in accusing him of contributing to the stereotyping of Islam. For instance, the article of Jack Jenkins, on the website thinkprogress.org, ‘What the Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong about ISIS and Islam,’ dismisses him far too quickly. In my opinion, his dismissal is based on arguments that he reads into Wood’s analysis, rather than on actual affirmations Wood makes. We all need to form our opinions based on our own analysis of the arguments offered, but here are 5 takeaways that I propose, taken from the most recent events and their analyses:

1) It would be far better for everyone if Muslim apologists stopped dissociating ISIS from some supposed ‘true Islam.’ As critics of Wood have argued, Islam is far from uniform. But this fact argues as much against the stereotyping of Islam as entirely violent as it does against claiming that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. What the claim about Islam’s vast diversity (which I endorse vividly) argues for is that ISIS adherents are ‘legitimate’ Muslims, by the mere fact that they claim so themselves. Muslim apologists should stop feeling like they have to defend Islam by saying ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.

It seems to me that this instinctive attitude of denial that the majority of Muslims today are embracing, which results from the gut revulsion they feel towards ISIS, is motivated by an ‘honor/shame’ framework. We constantly read, both in the mainstream media as well as in the social media, that ‘ISIS tarnishes the image of Islam.’ In the ‘honor/shame’ framework, when a member of our community or group misbehaves, we have a tendency too quickly either to cover up for them, or simply to dismiss them as not belonging to us, out of fear that their behavior will reflect negatively on (i.e. tarnish) the group. But if we are convinced that Islam is diverse, due to the vast diversity of interpretations of its founding texts both historically and today, then Muslims that do not adhere to ISIS’ interpretation owe the world no apology for the criminality of ISIS.

2) We need to understand ISIS for what it truly is: a deeply religious, fundamentalist, ‘restorative’ ideology, with long and deep roots both in history and in decades of radical preaching in certain types of mosques across the world. They are not simply a bunch of godless thugs, at least not in their own eyes. They are not simply using religion to serve other agendas. They are clearly and self-consciously religiously motivated. I do not, by any means, believe that ISIS’ interpretation of Islam comes even close to qualifying as a majority interpretation today. But I am convinced, based on Islam’s founding texts, based on parts of Islam’s history, and on some ways that the founding texts have been interpreted historically, that we are fooling ourselves when we simply dismiss ISIS’ claim to ‘legitimacy’ as a religious movement. On the other hand, I am not particularly fond of Wood’s argument that ISIS is chiefly an ‘apocalyptic’ movement. To a degree, most religious ideology is ‘apocalyptic,’ in the sense that it looks forward to the ‘final victory of God’ over evil and sin. Dismissing the seriousness of ISIS’ appeal, or attempting to marginalize them by comparing them to ephemeral sectarian groups like those of David Koresh or Jim Jones (as Wood does), I believe is also a mistake.

3) Non-Muslim slanderers of Islam need to stop applying principles to Islam they would not accept being applied to themselves. Yes, ISIS members are Muslims since they claim to be so, absolutely ‘legitimate’ ones at least in their own eyes – and in the subjective realm of religious belief, that matters supremely. No, this does not mean that this is the only ‘legitimate’ manifestation of Islam. Muslims who do not abide by ISIS’ perverse interpretation of Islam do not bear the responsibility for ISIS’ actions. Non-Muslims have a responsibility to listen honestly to the way that the majority of Muslims today understand their religion, and they are invited to believe them and support them in their ideological fight against the monster of ISIS.

In the same way, I believe, Christians do not owe any de facto, blanket apology to the world for the terrible slavery and racism that was perpetrated by many Christians historically, often even justified on religious and biblical bases. And as an Arab Christian, I have often felt dismay at the absurdity of the wholesale offer of apology by some Christians to Muslims for the Crusades. We absolutely need to acknowledge that slave-masters and Crusaders are part of our Christian history. And we need to keep a vigilant eye that detects early the reemergence of deviant interpretations of the Bible that lead to terrible injustices and evil in the name of Christianity. But what is the point of apologizing for the Crusades and for slavery, if in the next breath Christians support a Zionist ideology that has crushed the Palestinian people for over 6 decades, endorse modern-day slavery by ignoring basic human rights of foreign domestic workers, or join the calls for bloody war against the Muslim world in the name of the fight against terror?

I hear the unflinching voice of John the Baptist, when he preached: ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!’ (Luke 3.8) If we are incapable of following through on our apologies, we better not make a show of our repentance, but rather act upon it. Otherwise we are just another hypocritical ‘brood of vipers.’

4) Given the particular apocalyptic views of ISIS and its global recruits, which Graeme Wood highlights in his article, I agree with him that a massive ground-attack on ISIS is not the solution. This would only increase the legitimacy, and therefore appeal, of ISIS, by advancing the expectations of its own apocalyptic vision. Red lines should be drawn, and surely they already are, to ensure that ISIS does not gain more territory. Borders should be reinforced. Without pontificating too long about military strategy, I do believe that it is certainly the responsibility of states (particularly Iraq and Syria at the moment) to ensure and defend their territorial integrity, and to remedy if that integrity is in jeopardy. Seeking the support of their allies in doing so seems quite legitimate as well. By every means possible, ISIS’ ‘caliphal’ ideology needs to be delegitimized: undermine its territorial integrity, prevent it from expanding, minimize its image as a global player taking on the world, and perhaps most importantly: prevent global jihadists from joining its ranks. This brings me to my final point.

5) When Muslim apologists feel that they need to reject ISIS as non-Islamic, they risk obstructing a more fruitful fight against ISIS consisting in drying-up the ideological pools of ISIS recruitment. Rather than dismissing ISIS’ interpretation of Islam as un-Islamic, it would be better to make a strong case for the reason why the ISIS interpretation is less legitimate than the one that promotes tolerance, love and brotherly/sisterly relations with non-Muslims. I am not saying that the apologists of Islam are not promoting these alternative interpretations and visions already. But I am saying that the argument that simply disowns the ISIS interpretation as ‘un-Islamic’ is drowning the more cool-headed conversation that builds a solid case for why the ISIS interpretation is heavily biased, and why it is certainly not viable for the world today.

Most important, and what is most often ignored by politicians and journalists, is the long-term solution to ISIS. How many more ‘repeats’ do we need before we understand that militant jihadi groups are a recurring phenomenon, and not a one-off monster that we can get rid of. Yes it is a monster, but this one grows seven more heads for each head that gets chopped off. A massive global movement needs to be launched to dry up the recruitment pools of ISIS. As I have said before, I believe that the ISIS recruitment pools are made up of the disenfranchised, those with nothing more to lose, those who have lost faith in modern forms of government and social systems, those angered and marginalized by the dictatorial, corrupt and self-serving regimes in the Muslim world that enjoy the support of the neo-colonial powers of the West. What is the world going to do about these realities? That’s what we should all be asking. This generation needs to stop distracting itself with temporary military solutions to the problem of religious radicalization. It needs to invest its efforts in economic development, in establishing organizations and NGO’s, writing books, influencing the media, composing and singing songs, and dedicating their arts and passions to drying up the recruitment pools of ISIS.

I end with deep and wise words from the Testament of Christian de Chergé, the Abbot of the ‘Trappist Fathers’ of Algeria, written in December 1993-January 1994, and opened and read at his funeral two-and-a-half years later, on May 26, 1996 after he and his companions were brutally murdered by Islamist fanatics. He wrote it in anticipation of such a death, and it is well worth reading in its entirety. But here is a short extract:

I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice
if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay
for what will perhaps be called, the “grace of martyrdom”
to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be,
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters.
It is too easy to soothe one’s conscience
by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.

Ready to die for the people he loved, de Chergé was able lucidly to differentiate between the blind fanaticism of a Muslim extremist and the peaceful nature of its mainstream. His imitation of Christ, which can be seen clearly throughout his Testament, allowed him to frame Muslim religious fanaticism where it really belongs: one more manifestation of sin and evil, for which humanity is corporately responsible. Though the evil we keep seeing perpetrated by the adherents of ISIS is in no way excusable or justifiable, the rest of the world is not completely innocent, given that our eyes are still not set on the long-term solutions to beating back ISIS.

Israel, Palestine and the International Criminal Court

On January 16, 2015, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine looking into alleged crimes committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, since June 13, 2014. Israel condemned this move. Hamas welcomed this move, even though its actions will also be under scrutiny by the ICC. The announcement drew the ire of some Western media platforms, the blogosphere, and many US politicians, mentioning “retaliation” against the Palestinians, or – more subtly – concluding that this will “backfire” on the Palestinian Authority.

We Christ-followers are called to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17). Yet justice seems elusive in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with 60+ years of history and an array of vital issues – land, water, refugees, borders, Palestinian prisoners, civilian death tolls, security, etc.

Oftentimes, we need to deal first with our own belief systems, including who inherits the land. However, even if we have different theologies or belief systems stemming from our various interpretations of the Scriptures, no interpretation justifies the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity – of which the ICC is competent to judge.

Therefore, I would like to invite the readers to approach this conflict today from a different lens. I invite you to take a stand on international justice, as a pre-requisite for approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The entrance of the International Criminal Court (ICC), The Hague. (Photo credit: REUTERS)

The entrance of the International Criminal Court (ICC), The Hague. (Photo credit: REUTERS)

First, where do we stand on the ICC? The ICC is the permanent international court that followed several ad hoc international tribunals, namely those for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. I argue that, more than ever before, we need to lobby our governments to endorse a strong and well-resourced ICC.

  • International tribunals were the only recourse against the crimes committed in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, especially for crimes committed by high ranking civilian and military officials.
  • Today, the ICC is the sole hope for redress for many conflict victims in Africa, currently being investigated by this Court. Nigeria is under preliminary examinations. Investigations and evidence collection are under way in the Central African Republic.
  • The ICC Statute has only 122 ratifications with many of the remaining States, including the United States, unwilling to ratify. We need to advocate for further ratifications.
  • The ICC is one of the few international mechanisms that can possibly achieve a breakthrough to halt the lingering conflicts in Syria and in Iraq. We need to advocate for a referral of Syria and Iraq to the ICC by the Security Council.

A recent Washington Times article (February 1st 2015) argues “the obvious question is whether the International Criminal Court is capable of investigating with the objectivity the situation requires.” This is a key playing field: never before did we have the mechanisms to seek justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Dismissing the Court because it is scrutinizing Israel’s actions would leave millions of victims without any recourse whatsoever, and would perpetrate impunity worldwide.

Second, we need to accept that Israel is likely to have committed war crimes, as have Palestinian armed groups such as Hamas. Violations of the laws of war by these various actors have been documented extensively by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Palestinian organizations, Israeli organizations, media reports and UN agencies.

The definition of war crimes, in accordance to the ICC statute, not only includes the killing of civilians and destruction of civilian property, but also the “transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” All governments, including the US government, have condemned ongoing Israeli settlement of the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories including East Jerusalem, to no avail.

Third, the “statehood” argument is a key element of the debate. According to the ICC statement, “The Office (of the Prosecutor) considers that, since Palestine was granted observer State status in the United Nations by the UN General Assembly, it must be considered a ‘State’ for the purposes of accession to the Rome Statute.” In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued, “It’s absurd for the ICC to ignore international law and agreements, under which the Palestinians don’t have a State and can only get one through direct negotiations with Israel.”

As seekers of justice, I raise the question: Is it just to bind the right of granting statehood to the will of the one who is occupying and actively colonizing that same State? Since the Oslo agreements, Israel has denied Palestinians the right of statehood while simultaneously and vigorously erecting Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, destroying Palestinians homes, and confiscating Palestinian land and water.

An important and informative precedent on justice when the issue of statehood is at question is the accession to statehood of South West Africa/Namibia in 1966. Although Namibia was occupied, it was able to achieve statehood. (John Quigley, 2010).

Fourth, and finally, we need an authoritative court decisions that clarifies what justice is in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such decisions would bring clarity to a complex situation, or to a highly polarized situation. The only recent precedent of an international jurisdiction addressing this conflict was the International Court of Justice advisory opinion in 2004 on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Court’s 15 Judges unanimously found that Israel’s construction of the wall and the associated regime are contrary to international law, and ordered Israel to make reparation for all damage suffered by all persons affected by the wall’s construction. We need to advocate for judicial intervention in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and advocate for international judicial decisions and opinions to be enforced.

 

As believers, we should approve or denounce acts and events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict according to Biblical standards of justice and mercy among peoples. Supporting the ICC and its action on Israel-Palestine is just and merciful in this seemingly endless conflict. I invite all Christ-followers not to cave in to a discourse that favor Israeli immunity over and against justice and mercy for all Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Nigerians, Congolese, Sudanese and victims of every other armed conflict today.

When one of the Temple guards struck Jesus with his hand, Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23) It is right to ask this question today, and it is right to bring it before the ICC.

 

Note: Links in this blog post to third party websites are supportive of the corresponding statements. To be conclusive, additional footnotes, references and links would be required, but extensive documentation is not feasible in this blog.

Let’s Eat Together!

By Arthur Brown

Food and youth work have always gone hand in hand. While it is true that ‘pizza night’ generally attracts more young people than a discussion on the doctrine of the trinity, good youth workers recognise the significance of young [and old] persons eating together. I was recently reminded of an initiative working in communities that had experienced inter-religious conflict and violence. One of the projects involved a group of women from different religious communities meeting together in order to bake bread. Such a ‘simple,’ and yet profound, activity sought to help reduce community tensions and create friendships.

There is a traditional Arabic phrase, ‘baynatna khubz wa milah,‘ which translates ‘there is bread and salt between us.’ In Egyptian Arabic, the word used for bread [instead of the more typical khubz] is ‘aish,’ which is also the Arabic word meaning ‘life.’ This goes to show the significance in which bread is held in the Arab world.

Before I get myself into trouble for massacring the Arabic language, let me explain. The idea behind this phrase refers to the nature of relationship between two parties. As a Moroccan twist on this proverb makes clear, those who share bread and salt [or eat together] become close:

By bread and salt we are united.Moroccan proverb

There is a sense of bonding between those who have shared this meal together. In many Eastern European countries, the same idea refers to a ceremony of greeting.

Okay, so this isn’t a food blog. So why such a focus on food?

Feast_BW_with_tagIn the coming weeks IMES, in partnership with World Vision Lebanon and Youth for Christ Lebanon, will be launching The Feast. The Feast is an initiative based in the UK that seeks to develop community cohesion between Christian and Muslim young people. In such a context as Lebanon, this strikes me as a significant need.

What is The Feast?

Essentially, The Feast in Lebanon is about great quality youth work with religiously diverse young people who are committed to their faith. We will be creating a new youth group in Lebanon comprised of Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Maronite Christian, and Evangelical Christian young people aged 15-19. Over time, and as the young people get to know each other better, we hope that not only they but their families and communities will be impacted for the better.

As in The Feast UK, there will be three main elements guiding everything we do.

  • Exploring faith: young people are encouraged and equipped to discuss their faith in ways which draw out both the similarities and differences between them.
  • Creating friendships: by bringing together young people in a positive and fun environment, The Feast provides the opportunities for them to get to know one another, work on projects together and build ongoing friendships built on trust and respect.
  • Changing lives: having been to events run by The Feast the young people are challenged and enabled to live out the lessons they have learnt in their everyday lives amongst their friends, family and the wider community.

Spearheading Social Change

While it is a good end in and of itself for individual young people’s relationships to be developed with those from different faith communities, maybe, just maybe, The Feast in Lebanon, by virtue of these relationships, will also have wider peace-building implications. As a youth worker, I have always believed in the potential for young people to make a difference in society. And, it seems evident from recent events in the MENA region that the youthful voice [with the help of social media] is becoming a force to be reckoned with.

As well as building peace, there are many social issues that need addressing in Lebanon: the treatment of migrant domestic workers, the environment, domestic violence, and the list could go on. Often it is ‘non-religious’ NGO’s who spearhead campaigns to bring about change and social justice. However, often these same NGO’s are somewhat removed from the powerful [and political] religious institutions. Imagine if young people, inspired by their Muslim and Christian faith, became advocates not only for the building of peaceful inter-sectarian relationships, but for social change…based on their faith commitments! Imagine if groups of young people are inspired to go to their religious leaders and ask them what their faith tradition teaches on any number of issues or concerns.

What We Will Do

The Feast Lebanon youth group will meet every two weeks for a diverse menu of activities. It is anticipated that these will include:

  • Talking about what is good about being a Christian or a Muslim
  • Fun and games during creative youth meetings
  • Arts and crafts
  • Trips to each other’s religious sites and communities
  • Celebrating special religious events [Feasts!]
  • Discussions on a wide range of issues and themes
  • Sharing food!
  • Scriptural reasoning [exploring the Bible and the Quran as they relate to particular themes]
  • Drama & role-play
  • Campaigning / advocating [from a faith base] for positive social change
  • Life skills and peace-building training

And the list could go on.

However, each activity will be inspired by faith. The Feast is about religion [and religious faith] having a positive impact, rather than what is often considered negative. Yet, as an intentionally youth-led initiative, we will encourage young people to decide on the specific activities they themselves see as important [and fun]. One trip already in the works is igloo building in the snowy wintery Lebanese mountains! [Honestly, there is a company that does this!]

Dialogue Values

The Feast has a number of what it calls ‘guidelines for dialogue’ to help young people explore faith in healthy and appropriate ways. In Lebanon, this is imperative as we ensure all our young participants [and their faith leaders] feel safe and secure. Given some of the recent events around the world involving so called ‘religiously inspired violence’ the following three guidelines seem particularly pertinent:

  • [We will] not judge people here by what some people of their faith do.
  • [We will] not treat people as a spokesperson for their faith. [We come as individual young people, and not representatives of our religion].
  • [I will] speak positively about my own faith, rather than negatively about other people’s. [And, in the Lebanese context we will encourage the same at it relates to political belief].

Working in Partnership

This is a significant step for IMES. It is the first time we will be working directly with young people [aged 15-19]. In the future, we hope to be able to put on ‘Feast events’ in different parts of Lebanon, thus creating a movement of young people who will break down the barriers of ignorance and mistrust. In addition, we hope to start an informal network of youth leaders who are committed to intentional interfaith youth work in Lebanon.

Returning to The Taste of Salt

Mark 9:50 says,

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” [NIV]

As salt flavours all it touches, it is my prayer that The Feast [and more importantly the young people who participate in it] will help flavor their own communities and spheres of influence. Maybe it is Lebanon’s young people who will flavor the relationships between different religious and sectarian groups in Lebanon towards a future where we can see glimpses of hope amongst signs of hatred and conflict.

A New Kind of Consensus: Reforming Islam in the Internet Generation

By Rose Khouri*

Earlier this month, Martin Accad asked the very interesting question: can Islam be reformed? In his post, he argues that through ijmaa, or “consensus”, renewed and reformed interpretations of the Islamic scriptures are not only possible, but their development has been ongoing in this period of violence carried out in the name of Islam. In this article, I seek not to ask whether Islam can be reformed, but who will be reforming? Whose voices, as we move deeper into the 21st century, will become the most important?

The idea that Islam, or perhaps more accurately, how Islam is practiced and understood by its followers, needs reforming is not a new concept. In the last hundred or so years, calls for reform and revival developed out of interactions with the West. Albert Hourani, in his classic work, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, explores four “generations” of thinking as the Arab Muslim world began interacting with the rising European powers in the mid-1800s.

Hourani begins in the 1830s, as scholars from the major cities of Cairo, Istanbul, and Tunis became better cognizant of and familiar with the new, industrializing Europe. These scholars did not view the West as adversaries but instead wrote about the laws and institutions of modern Europe as models to be emulated while staying true to Islamic values. As European power grew in the region, Hourani notes that the writings of influential scholars also began to take on a more antagonistic tone in the face of a perceived threat. In the second generation, from 1870 to 1900, Hourani states that while writers still saw Europe as a model, they began to advocate for holding onto their past and their traditions while accepting Western-influenced changes they recognized as unavoidable. By the third generation, beginning in the early 1900s, Hourani described the burgeoning drive for nationalism, which was thought to preserve the Islamic past in imagination and heart yet allow Arab societies to become part of the modern culture first manifested in Western Europe. This led into the fourth generation of both Islamic revival and broadening Arab nationalism as the Second World War ended the period of European ascendancy (Hourani 1962).

There have been additional “generations” of thinking since his book was first published in the 1960s. I argue that a new generation has been forming through the rapid adaptation of Internet technology, an “Internet Generation”. The rapidity with which the Internet has evolved makes the social effects it enables more difficult to capture with certainty. As Internet use increases, so does society’s reliance on this technology for everything from shopping to socializing to religion. The Internet is a medium that allows for at least the illusion of anonymity, the free flow of information, and the ability to break down political and geographic barriers. This technology has allowed the global Muslim community to engage in instantaneous dialogue, in many respects reminiscent of the early Muslim community. With the spread of the Internet in the Muslim world, a “Muslim Internet” has developed.

This Muslim Internet is a communal space formed by those seeking or spreading information on Islam, in which issues of faith are discussed or carried out. Everything from Tumblr blogs dedicated to female Muslim fashion to humorous hashtags like #MuslimProblems to chat sites for engaging in serious discussions about the proper way to perform wudu’ (ritual ablutions before prayer) make up this Muslim Internet. This space is occupied primarily by practicing Muslims but also contains a dynamic group of non-Muslims interested in the religion, as well as non-Muslims engaging in polemics.

This Muslim Internet is also organized around virtual sectarian and ethno-religious divisions that mimic those in real life, tensions often exacerbated by the anonymity and facelessness that impact all internet conversations. With the Syrian and Iraqi crises splitting the Arab Muslim world it is difficult to avoid ugly Shi‘ite/Sunni fights breaking out beneath YouTube videos or blog comments embroiled in arguments over whether or not Sufis are kuffar (unbelievers).

With the growth of the Internet and its increasing usage in the Arab and Muslim world, the strongest voices in this medium – typically American and British – have been able to reach new groups and maintain influence in populations they previously could not reach. Simultaneously, traditional sources of religious knowledge – local sheikhs or intellectuals – have struggled to take advantage of new media. The most powerful voices of religious authority reaching young Muslims are no longer centered in the traditional Muslim world.

For revivalists in the Arab Muslim world, the historic center of religious authority, political instability interrupts the basics of their da‘wa (call to Islam). Political pressure can curtail their ability to freely author messages their governments would consider subversive or threatening. Muslims also have limited access to local religious leaders, particularly women who rarely attend Friday prayers. Traditional authoritative voices, local sheikhs or imams for example, rarely maintain Facebook pages or personal websites, restricting access to their views and teachings. As a result, many young Muslims turn to the Internet to seek out greater knowledge in practicing their faith.

These new voices, dominating the social media platforms over which Islam is being so rapidly carried and debated, bring the Euro-American perspectives they were raised with into their interpretations of Islam. Although the media is quick to note that converts and Western-raised Muslims are joining groups like ISIS in the hundreds, in terms of percentage and visibility, these Muslims attracted to groups demanding the re-establishment of the Caliphate, or cutting off hands of thieves, or enslavement of non-Muslims like the Yezidis are statistically minute.

This new generation of reformists, calling for new interpretations of Islam, are more likely to interpret scripture to call for greater inclusion of women in the life and activities of a mosque, protection against domestic violence, or racism. Their Facebook debates, YouTube clips, tweets, and blog posts calling for reform do not convey the same sense of victimization that drove the reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is this sense of victimization that led to the modern horrors of groups like ISIS and the Taliban, which place themselves as champions of an oppressed Islam in the face of Western oppression. Their obsession with the restoration of the Caliphate has far less to do with a complete understanding of the centuries-long historical reality of the actual Caliphate and more to do with a desire to return to the days when their assumed identity (Arab/Muslim) was in power.

I argue that through this Internet Generation of Muslim thought, devoid of this particular identity crisis, there is hope for a new chapter of reformation in Islam. Additionally, there is hope for an inter-faith role in this reformation. These rising Muslim voices are not cloistered in their own communities. These Euro-American voices that have gained such traction are living amongst Christians, Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, and Hindus, which may explain why many fight not only against Islamophobia, but anti-Semitism and the persecution of Sikhs. During this period of reformation, the Western Christian community should be encouraged to strengthen their relationships with those in their local Muslim community. Christian communities should not view their Muslim neighbors or colleagues as suspicious threats or harbingers of violence and “creeping Shari‘a” but rather cohorts in building a respectful, safer, more loving world.

rose blog picRose Khouri has been working at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in the Development and Partner Relations office since 2014. Lebanese-American, she grew up in California until moving to Lebanon to complete her Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

Christians, Culture and Power

By Mike Kuhn

Never ask a fish “how’s the water?”

I know…fish don’t talk so they can’t respond. But the point is that water is the environment the fish lives in and therefore the fish takes it for granted—true of fish and water but also true of people and culture. Unless we’ve had the experience of living outside our culture for some time, we may not be aware of the particularities of our culture and have some difficulty articulating what distinguishes our own culture from any other. Our culture is the air we breathe. It is the water the fish swims in.  It is ubiquitous such that our acquiescence to it is rarely questioned.

Yet many suggest that it is culture, not mere individuals, the gospel aspires to impact and change.  Culture is represented by inherited values, beliefs, practices and even artifacts. The impact of the gospel is to amend, reshape or possibly abandon these, replacing them with new values, beliefs, practices and products that reflect the reality of Christ’s Kingdom. So it stands to reason that if the gospel is being heard and heeded in a given location, the culture represented in that place must also change. Or so it would seem.

Frankly, the gospel does not seem to be making inroads in changing very many cultures these days.  There were some historic revivals which radically impacted a particular culture such as the Welsh Revival or the Great Awakenings. But scanning the horizon today, we are obliged to conclude that the gospel is not profoundly impacting culture. The cultures of Western Europe and North America seem to be morally and ethically adrift. The Middle East is still enduring the “Arab Spring.” The jury is still out on its overall impact on culture, but so far the net effect does not seem too positive.

It’s not that various ways and means of impacting culture have been left untried. In his book, To Change the World (Hunter, 2010), James Davison Hunter assesses attempts from various sectors of the Christian public to impact culture. The first is the so-called “Christian right” which has attempted to mediate the transformation of culture through policy and legislative means. At the other end of the spectrum is the “Christian left” often viewed by the “right” as the liberals who have abandoned propositional truths of the Bible, seeking to effect social change in the arena of public justice.[1] According to Hunter, neither of these sides of the spectrum has been very effective in producing change because both sides have resorted to power through politics as their means of achieving their goals. In Hunter’s view, both sides have acquiesced to a culture that, in the lack of common moral and social consensus, has resorted to an ever-expanding politicization in order to hold society intact. Living in an increasingly politicized culture, Christians have instinctively resorted to the means of political power to effect change in their culture. Hunter contends that this is wrong-headed—not the way Christ intended His people to effect change. In brief: Christians are so surrounded by a politicized culture such that they reflexively resort to political means to effect change.  It’s the old “fish in the water.”

Hunter’s analysis pertains primarily to the United States—my homeland. As I read his book, it seemed to me that the same critique could be made of my newly adopted land—Lebanon. The tendency to resort to Politics to effect change is not only a US problem. The root of the problem is the tendency to use the most prominent power structures (i.e. politics) to accomplish ends.

Hunter: “When one boils it all down, politicization means that the final arbiter within most of social life is the coercive power of the state. When politicization is oriented toward furthering the specific interests of the group without an appeal to the common [well-being], when its means of mobilizing the uncommitted is through fear, and when the pursuit of agendas depends more on the vilification of opponents than on the affirmation of higher ideals, power is stripped to its most elemental forms. Even democratic justifications are not much more than a veneer over a will to power. The actions themselves may be within the bounds of legitimate democratic participation, yet the basic intent and desire is to dominate, control or rule.” (Hunter, 2010, p. 106)

Politics is coercive power—hardly the appropriate means to effect change in Jesus’ Kingdom.  That’s not to say that the gospel should not impact politics (it should and does) or that Christ-followers should not be involved in politics (many are). It is, however, a critique of contemporary Christianity, or should we say “Christendom” pursuing change through coercive political means.

This “will to power” can be detected in the slogans that are tossed about in Christian rhetoric and media—“take back our country, drive out the enemy, recapture the land, extend the Kingdom, etc.” (Similar slogans abound in the rhetoric of the various Middle Eastern factions vying for power.)  Hunter discerns that “what is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms.” (pg. 168)  He points out that solutions to the issues we care most about are rarely achieved through political means—issues such as the deterioration of family values, the desire for equity across races, classes and genders, the absence of decency and care for the poor and elderly. Some may respond that political solutions do indeed contribute to resolution of these issues. But is it not true that political changes reflect public values rather than generate them? Is Hunter not correct in stating that “at best, the state’s role addressing human problems is partial and limited?”(Hunter, 2010, p. 171) The author finds it ironic that:

“In the Christian faith, one has the possibility of relatively autonomous institutions and practices that could—in both judgment and affirmation—be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than the quest for power. But the consequence of the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been, in effect, to reduce the Christian faith to a political ideology and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups.”(Hunter, 2010, p. 172)

Hunter proffers a different paradigm which he labels “faithful presence within.” Time and space do not allow much elaboration, but suffice to say it is a conscious and intentional pursuit of well-being for all. Much as Jeremiah instructed the exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” (Jer 29:7) so Christians act as a priestly community seeking the well-being of the world—even those considered to be “enemies” of the faith. (Read the book to fill in the details.)

To my mind, this vision has traction in the post-Christian West as well as the Middle East. For far too long, other faiths in the Middle East have perceived Christianity as “Christendom”—a will to power expressed through colonization, wars and cultural and economic dominance. We may well critique this over-simplified view. Nevertheless the perception remains leaving in its wake fallow ground and hardened hearts to anything that connotes the Christian faith. What if the world’s Christians were possessed with a will to transcend political wrangling and offer Muslims and others their best efforts at holistic well-being? What if Christ-followers inserted themselves into the conflicts of the Middle East as givers rather than opportunists, as earnest peace-seekers rather than partisans to the military conflicts? Would it make a difference? Admittedly, any change would be slow, but I think it would be worth a try, not so much because it would work, but because it would be more true to Jesus’ Kingdom and, whether you’re East or West, that’s worth trying.

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Hunter, J. D. (2010). To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] Hunter identifies a third group which he calls the “neoanabaptists.”