The Arab Winter

The Arab Winter

FROM SPRING TO FALL: Egypt's Coptic Christians hold crosses during an October protest in Cairo following the destruction of a church in the southern province of Aswan. (Photo: Newscom)

As 2011 winds to a close, it’s clear that it has been a year of historic social upheaval around the globe. TIME magazine even chose “The Protester” as its annual “Person of the Year.” And the protests have sprung in diverse places — Great Britain, Russia, and even on Wall Street. But the most dramatic of all 2011 revolts took place in the Middle East and Northern Africa, as ordinary people who once submissively accepted their plights as second-class citizens rose up to confront the oppression of their governments, and in some cases to actually topple once seemingly indomitable regimes. As some have observed, it wasn’t a good year for dictators.

We now call those uprisings the “Arab Spring,” and marvel at how much change has transpired in such a short period of time. But despite the remarkable transformations, some say the revolutionary spring morphed into a bloody summer and now an uncertain winter.

To help put the year’s event’s into perspective, UrbanFaith asked Middle East scholar Kurt Werthmuller to break it down from his perspective. Werthmuller, who previously spoke to us back in March, is a research fellow in religion at the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. He was formerly a professor of history at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Werthmuller responded to our questions via email.

URBAN FAITH: Please talk about the origins of the “Arab Spring” and where it is today. How do you view the evolution of the movement?

KURT WERTHMULLER: As commonplace as it is to discuss the Arab Spring as a single movement, it’s important to consider it first and foremost as a series of domestic movements, each one inspired by other uprisings in the region rather than directly connected to them.  In other words, the main concerns of those involved in uprisings against their governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, etc. have really been about local concerns rather than regional ones.

Having said that, the euphoria of January and February has long since passed, and the big picture has become one of a series of socio-political — and in some places military — rebellions with very different trajectories.  I’ll comment more on individual countries in a minute, but I will readily admit upfront that my optimism has steadily diminished over the months since I last talked to you.  While citizens of Arab countries deserve the same political and personal freedoms that most people in the West enjoy, it is clear that the pursuit of those freedoms in the course of the Arab Spring has also brought along some harsh consequences and troubling implications.

What are some of the “troubling implications,” as you see them?

FALLOUT FROM THE REVOLUTION: An Egyptian Coptic priest recites a prayer next to the coffin of a victim of clashes between Egyptian Copts and military forces in October. (Photo: Moahmed Omar/Newscom)

The big story of the late fall was the emergence of Islamist movements as the primary political beneficiaries of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In Tunisia, the Nahda (Renaissance) Party took the lead in that country’s government following a free and open election in October; the party has been quick to assuage domestic and international fears as to whether it will seek to implement conservative forms of sharia (Islamic law), but the truth is that no one will really know what this will mean until the process of actual governance moves into full swing. In Libya, the head of the National Transitional Council that successfully overthrew Qadhafi’s rule announced in late October, within days of the dictator’s capture and death, that their country would be governed by principles of sharia as well.  He then immediately proceeded to announce plans to restore legal polygamy, which was banned under Qadhafi’s rule, and to institute specifically Islamic principles in the national banking industry.

Suffice it to say, at this point, as democratic initiatives have brought participatory governance to the region, the results of these initiatives are clearly reflecting the reality that Islamist parties — of a broad spectrum, to be certain, but religious conservatives nonetheless — have amassed far more legitimacy and popularity on the ground than have any liberal, secular, or other groups.

Egypt, of course, was the big success story during the initial uprisings. That country placed its former president on trial in what some viewed as a very chaotic approach to justice. And, of course, the conflict between Christian protesters and the military made headlines back in the fall. Can there be a happy ending to this story?

The democratic process has certainly had its first victories in Tunisia and Egypt, but they have been disheartening ones. I’m writing these responses shortly after the results of the first of three rounds of Egyptian parliamentary elections were made official, and Islamists of various sorts have thundered into a majority. [Editor’s Note: Second-round results were reported in early December.] The Muslim Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and its partners reached around 48 percent of the contested parliamentary seats, a result of their stellar campaign season over the last few months, and I readily admit that I deeply underestimated earlier in the year. They were working the streets, making friends, feeding poor families, and selling their political platform while most of the liberal groups failed to resonate with much of the Egyptian public at large. The Nour Party and its Salafi partners (the real hardcore fundamentalists of the bunch) won around 20 percent, while the main liberal coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, won 13 percent; this is just over half of the Salafi seats — a massive defeat for those who were optimistic regarding the chances of liberal parties to do well in this first round. 

But isn’t this a good thing — the democratic process in action?

The truth is that we don’t know what an Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament will mean, and we won’t truly know until, as in Tunisia, these parties actually begin to govern. But what we do know is less than promising, as even the “moderate” FJP’s electoral platform includes disturbing, highly illiberal items such as insisting on the role of the state in “consolidating the values of chastity and modesty in the media,” declaring the freedom of the press “as long as the publication … takes account of public morality,” and other potentially oppressive implications. In the same platform, it notes that that while Christians should have the right to worship and build churches, “it is essential to find a quick and just solution to the problems of unauthorized and unlicensed churches.” This ambiguous “problem” could easily apply to any non-Muslim events outside of an official property — for example, a prayer meeting in someone’s home, a Christian-led nongovernmental organization, etc. The Western press likes to discuss the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate,” but this is really one in relative terms to the Salafis rather than by any international standard of political, social, or religious liberty.

What might this mean for the Christian churches in Egypt?

The situation for Coptic Christians has been in decline since the fall of Mubarak. Domestic security has broken down across the country, and one of the results of this has been that Salafis — puritanical Islamists who are strongly influenced by radical Wahhabi ideology — have carried out an alarming number of mob attacks on Copts, incited by their equivalent of local fire-and-brimstone preachers, and emboldened by their newfound public presence and a sense that their brand of political Islam is poised to dominate the country. Copts have felt increasingly under siege as a result, and along with the failure of the SCAF to protect them (one need only look to the army’s role in the massacre of Copts on October 9th) or to punish the perpetrators of such attacks, and of course the rise of Islamists to prominence, the future does look increasingly difficult for them.

The recent elections certainly and understandably solidified these concerns for many Copts. The concept of citizenship is the Copts’ best hope, but it is almost a meaningless term in Egypt: decades of authoritarianism crushed any sort of civic consciousness, and confessional politics (i.e., one’s religious affiliation) are instead far more powerful. The success of the Islamists will not mean a genocide of Christians as some have suggested; it is more likely that we will see gradual, more stringent restrictions placed on Copts, possibly creating more pressure on them to convert or leave. We will also likely see the stricter enforcement of apostasy and blasphemy laws that prevent Muslims from converting to Christianity, from expressing alternative Muslim viewpoints, or — in an ironic turn following the revolution — from expressing political dissent. Salafis have led a number of terrifying, localized attacks on Copts and their property in the last several months; this pattern may continue or even increase, especially if intolerant Salafi preachers and their mobs continue to be emboldened by their newfound clout and by the legal cultural of impunity for such violence throughout the country.

What can Coptic Christians do to overcome this?

As a result of these anxieties, many Copts are either actively seeking to emigrate or openly talking about the prospect. But this will not provide a long-term solution. There are 8 to 10 million Copts, after all, and the U.S., Europe, and Australia can absorb only so many of them. My colleague Samuel Tadros has called this a “Coptic Winter,” and it’s not hard to understand the appropriateness of this term.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE: Coptic Christians gathered for a candlelight vigil to mourn the people killed in clashes with soldiers in Cairo. (Photo: Mohamed Omar/Newscom)

This will amount to a difficult turn of events for Egypt’s Christians, and it will also mean a sad direction for Egyptians in general. After all, as we know from our own painful experience in American history, true democracy cannot flourish without the protection and inclusion of minorities as full and equal citizens. I understand on one level why average Egyptians have voted so widely for the Islamists, but I fear they are choosing a dangerous path into intolerance and socio-religious oppression.

Where are things going in the Syrian uprising?

Syria is quickly moving closer to a civil war than a protest movement, especially since the Assad regime is violently digging in its heels even as defectors from the military have formed their own armed rebellion (the Free Syrian Army, or FSA). It’s a brutal situation, quickly moving into a worse-scenario. Non-Muslims may suffer greatly if things continue to spiral down into more violent territory: for example, the Assad regime itself belongs to the Alawi minority (a heterodox offshoot of Shi’ism), and it relies on this community for its base of power. However, it has also traditionally fostered good relations with other non-Sunni communities to contribute to that power base, including the variety of Christian sects in the country (10 to 12 percent of the population).

The local Christian community, representing several different denominations, has been deeply fearful of relinquishing this alliance. If they support the opposition and the regime survives, they fear that their security will be devastated; if they support the opposition and the regime falls, they fear that the country will move into the Islamist camp (like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya). Either way, fear is at the center of the equation for the Christian minority.

Can you comment on the potential long-term effect of the “Arab Spring” regime changes for Israel?

Islamist organizations universally argue for armed Palestinian resistance against Israel and tend to grumble when even the Palestinians themselves sit down at the negotiating table. So, the Islamists’ official ascendance in regional politics will certainly change the status quo with Israel. Again, we just don’t know how this will practically play out. The FJP includes a number of realists, and unlike the more strident rhetoric of most Salafis, they do not seem to be in any great rush to discontinue the check for $1.3 billion that the U.S. sends Egypt every year as part of the Camp David agreement.

But we should not use this tempered realism to underestimate or whitewash the extent to which all Islamist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood and their regional offshoots, are disinterested in pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Regardless of where one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I find it quite impossible to see this as anything but dangerous.

Here in the West, we’ve been confronted lately with the weaknesses of democracy — the polarization, social disaffection, and legislative gridlock. Do you think the protesters in these Arab countries recognize democracy’s weaknesses as well as its strengths?

The concept that democracy won’t solve every problem is more of a problem for the Western media than it is for the populations directly affected by the Arab Spring. The focus of the media here in the U.S. has been on elections, elections, elections …  But what are we missing as a result? Many people in Egypt, for example, more clearly understand elections as a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Almost every political party there includes a strong message of social justice and economic equality in its platform. Ideas such as “reform” and “renewal” have run throughout the Tunisian and Egyptian election seasons, evidence that people see the elections as the beginning of something new.

This is also key to understanding the success of Islamist parties, such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular ideologies and regimes have ruled most of the region for decades, and people have suffered from brutal authoritarianism, from widening economic disparity, and from crippling corruption. Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt have been brilliant in speaking precisely to these grievances, and it seems that many voters have seen them as the most likely to bring solutions, a 180-degree turn from the past. Liberal parties, most of which are led by socio-economic elites, have simply done a terrible job of convincing average people of the same. The real tragedy here is that as those same voters may have willingly exchanged one form of authoritarianism — corrupt military dictatorship — for another, in the shape of Islamist-dominated states in which women are relegated to the sidelines, free speech and free thought are restricted, and religious minorities are officially downgraded to second-class status or simply squeezed out altogether.

What do you think American Christians should keep an eye on the most? Are there particular things that should be at the top of our prayer lists when we think about the developments in the Middle East and Northern Africa?

Pray that Christians in the Middle East find the ways, means, and courage to stay, and that other countries swing their doors wide open if it comes to the point that staying is no longer an option. Iraqi Christians have fled the violence in their country literally by the hundreds of thousands over the last few years — many of them took refuge in Syria, which is now on the brink of a devastating civil war. Let’s pray that other believers in the region are not forced into similar, unbearable scenarios.

We should also pray beyond just our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, of course. In this respect we should pray earnestly that Muslim, Christian, and other citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and beyond, will come to more clearly see that following the path of the Islamists will not bring them economic prosperity, social justice, and political freedom. In my opinion, it will almost certainly lead them to greater subjugation, isolation, and misery.

Is Gadhafi a Martyr?

Is Gadhafi a Martyr?

CRIMINAL OR MISUNDERSTOOD?: Even in death, Gadhafi has his defenders.

In the aftermath of his death, some are wondering whether the late Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi will be remembered as a martyr instead of a mad tyrant.

Fellow dictator Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for instance, expressed anger over the death of his friend. “They assassinated him. It is another outrage,” he told reporters. “We shall remember Gadhafi our whole lives as a great fighter, a revolutionary and a martyr.”

Some have pointed to the free health care and subsidized housing in Libya as evidence of Gadhafi’s compassion, as well as his financial support of other African nations. “Mr. Gaddafi was a dictator, but he was a benevolent dictator, whether you like or dislike him,” said French journalist and blogger Moe Seager. “And he gave millions to black African health, educational and agricultural projects.”

But in addition to his support of impoverished nations, the Libyan leader was also known for funding a variety of notorious outfits. In fact, his government was implicated in the financing of many controversial militant groups, including several associated with terrorism.

Earlier this year, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan defended his friend Gadhafi and criticized President Obama and the United States for supporting the Libyan rebels. “It is a terrible thing for me to hear my brother called all these ugly and filthy names when I can’t recognize him as that.”

With a controversial friend like Farrakhan as an advocate, it probably isn’t a total shock to hear some African Americans sympathizing with Gadhafi’s plight and speculating about conspiracy theories in the wake of his death. In the comments section at the black news site NewsOne.com, for instance, one reader declares, “Any Black person who celebrates the ‘death’ of Muammar Gaddafi has to be a product of western media propaganda.” He goes on to argue that Gadhafi was a strong benefactor of other African nations, and concludes by implying that Gadhafi’s ouster and death were the result of a CIA plot.

It’s easy for most of us to take for granted that Gadhafi was an international criminal whose multitude of vicious sins had finally caught up to him. But it’s interesting to note that not all Americans subscribe to that view.

And so, the question lingers: Was Gadhafi a misunderstood revolutionary or a cruel tyrant? The smart money is on the latter, but your answer most likely depends on your personal view of the media, international relations, and America’s role in the world.

Is Anders Breivik a Christian Terrorist?

Is Anders Breivik a Christian Terrorist?

UNDER ARREST: Terror suspect Anders Breivik (left) is taken away by police in Oslo after the Friday bombing and shooting rampage that took as many as 76 lives. Photo: Newscom.

What a tragic irony it is, Mark Steyn implies at National Review, that racist, Muslim-hating terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 76 of his fellow Norwegians in pursuit of cultural and racial purity.

If a blonde blue-eyed Aryan Scandinavian kills dozens of other blonde blue-eyed Aryan Scandinavians, that’s now an “Islamophobic” mass murder? As far as we know, not a single Muslim was among the victims. Islamophobia seems an eccentric perspective to apply to this atrocity, and comes close to making the actual dead mere bit players in their own murder.

But Steyn’s attempt to divorce the killer’s action from his motives rings hollow. At Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner examines what drove the killer.

Breivik claims to protect a “pure” Nordic race, and apparently sees himself as launching a modern-day crusade … In the “Conservative Revolution” section of [Breivik’s] manifesto he lays out his views on “Solutions to prevent the extinction of the Nordic tribes and for implementation of conservative principles,” and opposition to “race-mixing” (in which he also decries what he calls “race-mixing,” either through marriage or adoption, by Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, to name a few). …

He “offers clues as to why he targeted fellow Norwegians, even though he claims to love his “Nordic tribe,” and in particular government buildings and the young people he massacred at the youth camp. … 90% of the category A and B traitors in my own country, Norway, are Nordic, Christian category A and B traitors.

At CNN’s Belief Blog, Dan Gilgoff unpacks why the “Christian Fundamentalist” label that was bandied about by media outlets over the weekend is inaccurate. “From what the 1,500-page manifesto says, Breivik appears to have been motivated more by an extreme loathing of European multiculturalism that has accompanied rapid immigration from the developing world, and of the European Union’s growing powers, than by Christianity,” said Gilgoff, who interviewed several scholars to make his point. Among them was Anders Romarheim, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies. Romarheim told Gilgoff that Breivik used Christianity as a vehicle to assign religious moral weight to his political views. “I would say they are more anti-Islam than pro-Christian,” said Romarheim.

At the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, Mathew N. Schmalz,  Professor of Religious Studies at College of the Holy Cross, argues that Breivik sees himself as a “cultural” rather than “religious” Christian.

Breivik calls himself a “cultural Christian.” Religious Christians, he observes, have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which he himself does not have. For Breivik, “Christendom” is a vehicle for preserving European self-identity and is not necessarily opposed to elements of “paganism” such as Breivik’s own “Odnistic/Norse” heritage. …

The Christian history that Breivik seeks to reenact is not the passion of Jesus Christ, but the narrative of the Crusades. … Although he wishes that Benedict XVI would call Christendom to crusade, Breivik argues that the Roman Pontiff has been too accommodating to Islam and has thus betrayed the Church and Europe as a whole. The new Crusade will thus have to be initiated outside the authority of decadent institutional churches….

Schmalz concludes that Breivik’s manifesto exposes “a dark side of Christendom as abstract fantasy and nightmarish nostalgia.”

In the comments section of her Get Religion post called “Guilt by Footnote Association,” journalist Mollie Hemingway debates Jeff Sharlet about whether or not the writers Breivik quotes bear some responsibility for his rampage.

Sharlet: “It’s silly to say that any writer is responsible for the actions of others — Breivik pulled the trigger, not Robert Spence — but it’s an oddly relativist argument to suggest that we don’t ponder the ingredients Breivik used to make his toxic stew. As the conservative saying goes, ‘ideas have consequences.’ ”

Hemingway: “I’m just saying that the argument needs to be made, not just asserted via guilt by association.”

At Slate, William Saletan takes the irresponsible rhetoric discussion one step further and asks anti-Muslim activists like Pam Geller (who led opposition to the Park 51 Islamic Center that is scheduled to be built in lower Manhatten) how it feels to have their own arguments turned back on them.

When the terrorist is a Christian—in his own words, a “Crusader” for “Christendom”—and when the preacher to whom he has been linked is you, you suddenly discover the injustice of group blame and guilt by association. The citations you didn’t create, the intermediaries you didn’t recognize, the transactions you didn’t know about, the violent interpretations you didn’t condone—these exonerating facts suddenly matter.

Saletan goes on to say he is tempted to blame Geller and “her ilk” for the attacks, but references the Qu’ran in concluding that “no one should be held responsible for another person’s sins.” He says this belief is the “moral core of the struggle against terrorism” and wishes activists like Geller would “show Muslims the same courtesy.”

Finally, in light of the fact that a lone gunman was able to shoot and kill 68 people unimpeded, The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf asks if we need to “reburden” ourselves with the responsibility to confront mass murderers, as the victims of 9/11 Flight 93, Columbine, and Virginia Tech did in the midst of terror. Said Friedersdorf:

“We forget. That there isn’t always someone to call. That sometimes we’re confronted by horrors even if we didn’t volunteer for them. That we each therefore bear ultimate responsibility for defending ourselves and our communities. It is our inescapable burden.”

What do you think? Does the news that this mass murderer rooted his evil in Christianity rather than Islam change the way you think about labeling terrorists? Should we, as Saletan argues from the Qu’ran, hold only individuals responsible for their actions and, as the Bible instructs, do unto others as we would have them do unto us? Do we bear the responsibility to act in the face of terror, as Friedersdorf argues, or does turning the other cheek lead to peace?

NPR vs. Juan Williams

FREE SPEECH MARTYR?: Juan Williams.

The public radio giant’s firing of one of its top analysts deals a terrible blow to free speech and diversity at a broadcasting network that prides itself on objectivity and open-mindedness.

NPR should not have fired Juan Williams. As a financial supporter of a public broadcasting station, I see the firing as contradicting the open-mindedness and civil discussions and programming I enjoy listening to on NPR and viewing on PBS. It goes against what I believe as a journalist, particularly one who is paid for expressing opinions.

NPR fired Williams, also a paid contributor to FOX, for saying on the O’Reilly Factor that Muslims make him nervous when he’s taking an airplane. I personally disagree with Williams’ opinion and concede it could be problematic for NPR if he does a report on Muslims. But it’s an opinion that is clearly held by many Americans. The knee-jerk reaction of firing Williams, a news analyst, was a missed opportunity for a teaching moment about the evolving role of journalism and to show that NPR is truly liberal — that is, open-minded. A reprimand, maybe, but fired? Isn’t Williams paid to give his opinion? It sends a distorted message about free speech. It’s a disservice to our nation at time when NPR should be helping to lead the civil, serious dialogue that we’re desperately lacking if we are to avoid permanently boxing ourselves into separate narrow-minded stupors.

The national unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent. Firing someone can be mentally and financially devastating. Knee-jerk calls to fire people typically come from folks who have jobs or don’t have a clue (or have forgotten) what being fired feels like. I was blindsided by a firing in 2006 and it threw my family and me into a tailspin. The lame excuse given for my firing had more to do with my supervisor’s low self-esteem, and a company that lacks class, than my job performance. Many firings have nothing to do with job performance, but simply the boss wanting to dump an annoying employee. According to published reports, this seems to be the case with Williams.

Labeled a right-wing black conservative by some, mainly because of his work on FOX, Williams, who has been with NPR more than ten years, reportedly has irked many of his more recent white liberal co-workers. Possible evidence of this is that NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller said that Williams should’ve kept his Muslim comment “between him and his psychiatrist or his publicist.” She later apologized, but what was that personal slap about?

“I think they were looking for a reason to get rid of me,” Williams told Good Morning America. “They were uncomfortable with the idea that I was talking to the likes of Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity.”

Fortunately for Williams Fox has reportedly hired him full-time and given him $2 million over three years. FOX viewers (all TV news viewers) absolutely need to see and hear from diverse journalists like Williams to help them understand differing viewpoints. There is nothing wrong with being black and conservative, especially considering polls consistently show that African Americans are socially conservative because of their primarily Christian influence. The black community is not monolithic.

Considering NPR’s difficulties maintaining diversity in its staff and programming, you would think they would be more sensitive to dumping one of their few black journalists — especially a journalist who has done quality, award-winning work for several years. Unfortunately, that’s one of the annoying blind spots of white liberals that blacks are all too familiar with, but decline to talk much about. Doing so can get you fired.

As a columnist/blogger, author, TV talk show contributor, and radio show host, I make sure to expose myself to different viewpoints. Along with PBS, I watch FOX, MSNBC, and CNN, C-SPAN and other stations. I read liberal and conservative publications and commentators. Exposing myself to differing views helps me to become clearer and more confident in my own opinions. By the time I express my thoughts, I’m sure of what I believe because I’ve challenged myself from within.

Perhaps the mishandling of Williams’ firing can help NPR to do the same.

Photo by Pete Wright from Wikipedia.