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:

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.