“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
So goes the old saying to advise caution in the midst of uncertainty. As deep uncertainty envelopes the Middle East, it’s not foolish to ask what’s happening. It’s only foolish to claim to know the outcome.
For sure this seems to be an epochal moment, a once-in-a-generation time for change. Tunisia and Egypt have been transformed, even if Mubarak is trying to cling on a few more months. Yemen and Jordan are experiencing the first blasts of discontent in the streets and cafes. Even Lebanon, with a history of puppet governments rather than a 30-year autocracy, is asking fresh questions about democratic freedoms.
Reporting from Beirut on BBC’s Today program Feb. 2, Jim Naughtie spoke of this being an Arab uprising, and in that very phrase hangs a key insight into what we may be experiencing.
The West so often fails to understand what it means to be Arab. For one thing, Arab is not to be confused with Muslim. Our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East are mostly Arabs. So first and foremost this appears not to be a religiously inspired call for change as it was in Iran in the late 1970s.
The most obvious triggers for change are global economic inequalities and restrictions on freedoms, which the Internet and social networking now make all the more obvious.
In Tunisia, tens of thousands of young people have gone through school and university and been out of work for years. The same story can be told across the region. Aging despots backed by militaries, who in turn are backed by Western powers, cling to wealth and power while their people, frankly, can go to hell.
So if this is an Arab uprising, what might be its consequences?
First, there is something inherently human happening here. The Bible talks of men and women being made in the image of God, and God’s good news is to set people free. Free from sin, yes, but also from injustice and tyranny, from shame and poverty. What else could “life in all its fullness” refer to?
Second, this search for freedom will nonetheless have a religious dimension because human beings are spiritual beings. And I say this even in the context of Egypt and Tunisia being essentially secular countries with millions of nominally Muslim Arabs. But whatever unfolds in the days to come, religion will be a factor. Islam has a unifying force, but there will be tensions between those who wish to use this moment to impose a fundamentalist Islam, and those who don’t. Millions of young Arabs are not going to swap the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a cleric – not if they can avoid it.
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Third, Israel. Make no mistake, there is no love for Israel (or the United States) among Middle Eastern Arabs. Many of these dictators have been in power because their militaries are backed by American dollars and British pounds. Arabs have long memories too, and you don’t have to go back too far to unearth the duplicity of the British in the current maelstrom that is Israel-Palestine.
While hotheads may call for Israel to be wiped from the face of the earth, realists may see this as the time when a pan-Arab voice might at last be able to say, “Let’s now address the plight of the Palestinians.” And remember, the Palestinians are Arabs and among them are many Christians and many Baptists.
So with regimes like Egypt about to change, the pressure is going to be full on to reach a solution to the Palestinian crisis, and that may be no bad thing. It could even result in greater security also for Israel – in the long run.
And what about the church across the world?
Well, certainly, this is a time to pray, so take the Bible off the shelf and read 1 Timothy 2:1-7. Pray for leaders from East and West who are now making key decision by the hour. But pray too for the church in the region, Arab Christians from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine and through to Egypt. They are in the eye of the storm.
One thing is for sure – this is momentous.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. This column first appeared on his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society.