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Current Events

The Middle East Needs America to Reconcile

Lebanese Voices:

This post was submitted by Rev. Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon

Current demonstrations in the United States have exposed a rift in society, very similar to the gaps found in the Middle East. In both regions, governments have failed to guide their pluralistic societies toward harmony, peace, and reconciliation.

In the United States, these rifts take on the forms of black and white, rich and poor, and between non-integrated ethnicities. Economic prosperity and the high standard of living has papered over them for a long time, but only postponed the explosion.

As for the Middle East, underdevelopment and a deteriorating economy intensifies the contradictions, making them more violent. Our weak governments do not have the capacity as modern states to regulate conflict. In addition to rich and poor, our rifts occur as Shiite and Sunni, Christian and Muslim, along with various ethnicities that feel robbed of their homelands, with less sense of belonging to their country of residence.

At the grassroots level, the situations are substantially similar. But surprisingly, the similarity is beginning to extend to the level of leadership.

Three weeks ago, President Trump visited a church and lifted the Bible in an iconic photo op. Whether it was to appease his evangelical supporters or contain ongoing demonstrations and violence, he also hinted at involving the army in the restoration of calm.

Middle Eastern leaders often act similarly in their times of crisis.

When Saddam Hussein’s regime was threatened, he added the Islamic phrase “God is Great” to the national flag. He employed the army and chemical weapons against the Kurds, when they attempted to revolt against him. Religion and violence are the magic used to contain the anger.

Since government is responsible to guard national security, I believe it has the right to use the army if vitally necessary. But conversely, the United States should have the integrity to understand and permit this right when protests erupt and threaten the stability of other nations.

But it cannot be acceptable in any pluralistic country, and especially for the United States, to use religion as a weapon to solve its problems. It is the tool of ISIS, in their pursuit of “Islamic peace.”

The world recognizes America as a superpower, looking for it to lead the world by example. Many Americans are angry, whether demonstrating in the streets, or frustrated in their homes. Lifting the Bible is not the solution—living the Bible is.

These protests have much to teach us in the Middle East, where many governments rule by majority mindset. It can be difficult for God’s vision of justice and equality to result in full benefits of citizenship for underprivileged minorities. 

But when we witness massive crowds of white citizens protesting for the rights of blacks, it inspires us to believe that the American dream is still alive. The whole world is watching, some wishing the nation to fail. Others, like us, will find hope the US transcends its differences, and reconciles.

For our sake, then, America must be as great a democracy in times of trouble, as it is in times of peace. The Middle East also needs to breathe.

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Current Events

When You are Persecuted in One Place, Flee to Another. But Not to America

Flee to America

This article was first published at Christianity Today on November 5.

Zero.

The United States did not resettle a single refugee in October.

According to 30 years of records from World Relief, last month was the first time a calendar month went empty. For the past five years, the October average was 4,945 refugees resettled.

Among those impacted: persecuted Christians.

The humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals tracked the number of arrivals from the 10 countries identified by the US State Department as Countries of Particular Concern for violating religious freedom. The 5,024 Christians whose cases were accepted in fiscal year 2019 is a decrease of two-thirds from the 15,341 who were accepted in fiscal 2015. A maximum of 5,000 is allotted for victims of religious persecution in fiscal 2020—for all religions and countries.

Resettlements of non-Christians are also declining. For the same time period, Yazidi refugees from Syria and Iraq have declined 91 percent. Jewish refugees from Iran have declined 97 percent. And Muslim refugees from Burma have declined 76 percent.

“This isn’t just heartbreaking—it’s unjust,” stated Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, noting the State Department announced a limit of 18,000 refugees for fiscal 2020.

“I urge the administration to reconsider its approach and set a cap that better represents the compassion and hospitality of the American people.”

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the policy.

“Addressing the core problems that drive refugees away from their homes helps more people more rapidly than resettling them in the United States,” he stated, pointing out an estimated backlog of one million asylum cases.

“Helping displaced people as close to their homes as possible,” stated Pompeo, noting the $9.3 million the US has spent to alleviate humanitarian crises, “better facilitates their eventual safe and voluntary return.”

The Religious Liberty Partnership, birthed at a Lausanne Movement gathering and now numbering Christian organizations from 20 countries, has highlighted three biblical responses to persecution: accept and endure (2 Tim. 3:10–13); challenge and resist (Acts 22:25–29); or flee (Acts 9:23–25).

Jesus says the same in Matthew 10:23 (NIV): “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

But with Christian attention focused this past weekend on the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, the RLP document—reaffirmed with the Refugee Highway Partnership (RHP), a partner of the World Evangelical Alliance, in 2017—suggests that the clear choice of the local leaders who shepherd the displaced echoes Pompeo.

“Amongst church leaders across the Middle East, there is a strong consensus that indigenous Christians should…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

Syrian Christians to US: ‘Don’t Abandon Us Now’

Kurds Syria USA
Image: Chris McGrath / Getty Images; The Kurdish-led and American-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) announced the defeat of the Islamic State in at a ceremony in Baghouz in March.

This article was first published by Christianity Today on October 8.

Not long after the defeat of the Islamic State in the area, Syrian Christians warn that US military withdrawal from the Kurdish-controlled region, announced yesterday by President Donald Trump, will expose them to danger.

“The expected military invasion [by Turkey] and the possible confrontation with the Kurds might oblige Christians of the region to leave,” said Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon. “This means one more tragedy to the Christian presence in Syria.”

Seeking to honor his campaign promises to extract America from “endless war,” Trump yielded to Turkey’s demand to establish a “safe zone” along its southern border with Syria. Since August, the United States and Turkey administered a joint buffer zone patrol in the Kurdish-majority area.

Turkey’s objectives are two-fold. First, to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. Second, to clear the border of Kurdish fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), deemed a terrorist entity by both Ankara and Washington. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to establish a 20-mile corridor unilaterally, frustrated by US cooperation with Kurdish fighters belonging to the PKK.

The Kurdish-controlled area of northeast Syria stretches 300 miles from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border. Approximately 750,000 people live there, including estimates of between 40,000 and 100,000 Christians.

Over 700,000 Christians have fled Syria since 2011. And while some warn of further displacement, others fear a greater threat.

“Turkey aims to kill and destroy us and to finish the genocide against our people,” said a statement issued by…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

In UN Speech, Trump Announces New Religious Freedom Initiatives

Trump United Nations
UN Photo/Manuel Elias Secretary-General António Guterres and Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, attend the Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom briefing. (23 September 2019)

This article was first published at Christianity Today on September 23.

Speaking before the United Nations today, President Trump praised the country’s religious freedom record and cited figures that suggest the rest of the world has much work to do, as he announced new funding to protect religious sites as well as business partnerships to fuel the cause.

“Our nation was founded on the idea that our rights do not come from government, but from God,” said Trump. “Regrettably, the freedom enjoyed in America is rare in the world.”

Trump said he had asked Vice President Mike Pence to double-check the figure of 80 percent of the world’s population living in areas that restrict religious freedom. According to Pew Research, 83 percent of the population lives in places with “high” or “very high” restrictions, mostly targeting religious minorities.

“Today, with one clear voice, the US calls on the nations of the world to end religious persecution,” Trump said.

Pence stated that Trump was the first world leader to chair a meeting on religious freedom at the United Nations.

Seeking international consensus on religious freedom, he called out Iran, Iraq, China, Venezuela, and Nicaragua for their violations and mentioned the terrorist tragedies that struck down Jews in Pittsburgh, Muslims in New Zealand, and Christians in Sri Lanka.

Under Trump’s leadership, Pence said, the United States passed the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Act to protect religious minorities in the Middle East, and the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Fund dispersed 435 rapid response grants since 2018, aiding 2,000 victims of persecution. A year ago, the Trump administration doubled its funding for Christians and religious minorities returning to Iraq.

“As President, protecting religious freedom is one of my highest priorities, and always has been,” said Trump, who today pledged an additional $25 million to protect religious sites and relics around the world that are under threat. He urged the global community join in “measures to prevent the intentional destruction of religious sites and relics,” including attacks on houses of worship…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

What Next for Syria?

Syrian city of Aleppo

The conflict has turned a corner as the Syrian government regained control of Damascus and begins pushing into rebel-held areas.

LobeLog interviewed Josh Landis of Syria Comment to ask him what happens next. The full interview is worth reading, but here are a few excerpts on competing regional policies.

Turkey:

Idlib was one of the poorer regions of Syria. It was a Muslim Brotherhood and rather Salafi place before the revolution. Now it’s become a dumping ground for all of the defeated rebel forces that have been pushed out of the various rebel pockets. They’ve all been pushed into Idlib, and it’s become this very unhappy collecting point.

Today we’re seeing lots of violence there internally, between militias that are vying for supremacy. But also, Turkey is protecting Idlib. Turkey does not want it to be conquered, because in doing so Assad would push tens of thousands of militia fighters into Turkey. That will make the refugee problem much more difficult for Turkey and saddle Turkey with up to 100,000 hardened rebel fighters, many of whom have links to al-Qaeda.

This gives Turkey a lot of incentive to take Idlib province and try to set up a satellite statelet that can act as a holding province for these rebels.

Israel:

Israel wants Syria to remain weak. The civil war has opened up a lot of potential for advances on Israel’s northern border. It’s destabilized that border, but at the same time it’s weakened Assad tremendously. He’s no longer a military threat to Israel, and the militias that are now along the border also don’t pose a threat.

Even if they have links to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda they’re small and have no missile capabilities or other advanced military technology. Israel would like to be able to preserve those gains and consolidate its control over the Golan. It’s now pressing the United States to follow up on its Jerusalem recognition by recognizing the Golan as Israeli territory.

United States:

The U.S. has closed off all of the major highways out of Syria to the east. International trade for Syria has been blocked off and sanctions tightened. The U.S. is dead set against international organizations playing any role in Syrian redevelopment so the U.S. can continue to strangle Syria and keep it extremely poor.

You might argue that this is bad from a counterterrorism perspective because it will create more instability, but I think the U.S. is willing to pay that price because it won’t hurt the U.S. directly.

We’re not sure exactly what the U.S. is promoting in Syria, but all the talk coming out of Washington reflects an effort to squeeze Syria politically, economically, diplomatically, and militarily in order to unseat Assad and replace him with a government that’s going to be pro-West and anti-Iran.

Any favorites?

 

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Current Events

How Many ISIS Jihadis in America?

ISIS Jihadis Returning
Photograph by Bram Janssen / AP, via the New Yorker

A recent edition of the New Yorker tackled the problem of ISIS fighters returning to their home countries. Given the controversies in the US about Muslim bans and extreme vetting, it is interesting to note other nations have it much worse:

A new report, to be released Tuesday by the Soufan Group and the Global Strategy Network, details some of the answers: At least fifty-six hundred people from thirty-three countries have already gone home—and most countries don’t yet have a head count.

On average, twenty to thirty per cent of the foreign fighters from Europe have already returned there—though it’s fifty per cent in Britain, Denmark, and Sweden. Thousands more who fought for ISIS are stuck near the borders of Turkey, Jordan, or Iraq, and are believed to be trying to get back to their home countries.

Dozens of governments face similar challenges. Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that ten per cent of the more than nine thousand foreign fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics who went to Syria or Iraq have come home. (In private, other Russians have given me higher numbers.)

The report, titled “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees,” notes that countries in Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, and in North Africa, such as Libya, are particularly vulnerable.

Here are some more numbers, concluding with America:

Over all, since 2011, more than forty thousand people, from more than a hundred and ten countries, travelled to join ISIS—in addition to the local Syrians and Iraqis who became fighters. Among these jihadis were seventy-four hundred from the West—five thousand of them from Europe.

So far, the numbers of ISIS fighters from the United States have been comparatively low.

More than two hundred and fifty Americans tried to leave the country to join the caliphate in Syria or Iraq.

About half—a hundred and twenty-nine—succeeded, the report says. Some were blocked.

Only seven of those who made it to the battlefield have returned. As of August, the United States has charged a hundred and thirty-five people for terrorism offenses linked to ISIS; seventy-seven have so far been convicted.

Of course, these are the numbers we know, and even small numbers are significant. Terrorists do not need major manpower to succeed.

Even so, allow statistics to guide conversation and the processing of spin. Ideology knows no borders, but two oceans provide valuable buffer.

So does an already robust processing system. Vigilance must never falter, but neither must we surrender to mischaracterization.

Those returning have rights. Muslims coming are human. Let us protect ourselves, but keep our soul.

 

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Jerusalem Recognition

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Friends don’t always agree. But not all issues are the same. Jerusalem is, and has often been, historically different.

Changing longstanding US policy, the American president recognized the city as Israel’s capital, and began the process of moving the embassy.

The Egyptian president warned against it, and then spoke against it. Most of the world sides with him.

Parliament is now debating sanctions against America. The Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church will not meet with the vice-president during his upcoming visit.

Sporadic protests have broken out. Pressure may – or may not – be mounting.

God, the three religions of Egypt consider Jerusalem important to you. Consequently, it is to them. So it is to many in America.

But though they read you differently, do they read you correctly?

Guide all in proper conviction toward land, promise, people, and politics. Give consensus.

But God, in this your will has long been unrealized. Decades. Centuries. Millenia.

For those with conviction, no matter how proper, give them patience with the others. Give them fair arguments. Give them fairer attitudes.

And until realization comes, give love.

Help them to talk. Help them to pray. Help them to see themselves. Help them to see your principles.

Grant justice. Grant peace.

Where there is sincerity, spare the cynicism. Where there is callousness, call it out. May all speak from the heart.

May they stay friends. May they become friends. May they repent. May they be different.

God, this change is historical. Make it more so. Perhaps you are the only one who knows how.

Amen.

 

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Current Events

Giving Thanks, for Khartoum and Kennedy

Thanksgiving Khartoum Kennedy
via Mormon Newsroom and Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi

Happy Thanksgiving to all American friends. Religious freedom is one item of gratitude, as well as positive signs it may be developing around the world.

Consider again these promising signs I’ve been privileged to report on the past two years:

Arab Gulf — Why Christianity is Surging in the Heart of Islam

Indonesia — World’s Biggest Muslim Organization Wants to Protect Christians

Morocco — Arab Christians and the Marrakesh Declaration

Egypt — Let My People Build

Bahrain — Saudi Arabia’s Neighbor Defends Religious Freedom of Individuals

Saudi Arabia — The Game of Thrones Christians Should be Watching

Italy — Muslims Work for Religious Freedom

 

Not all is rosy, of course, and some nations pretend nothing is wrong.

Sudan is one of them. But in recent engagement, the United States has religious freedom on the agenda for improvement of ties and removal of sanctions.

As Crux has reported:

A leading U.S. diplomat visiting Sudan said the United States is willing to work with the Sudanese government to help it achieve the conditions necessary to remove its designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” in the U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan was speaking on Nov. 17 at the Al-Neelain Mosque in Omdurman, located on the western bank of the Nile River, which separates it from the national capital.

Sullivan said “supporting human rights, including religious freedom, has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of the United States’ bilateral engagement with Sudan.”

The event at the mosque included leading Muslim and Christian clergy. Sudan is 97 percent Muslim, and the small Christian community has faced harassment, especially since the predominantly Christian and animist south of the country became the independent state of South Sudan in 2011.

The State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report cited reports of government arresting, detaining, or intimidating Christian clergy and church members, denying permits for the construction of new churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and attempting to close church schools, restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country, and censoring religious materials and leaders.

There is always room for cynicism, and perhaps frequently it is warranted.

Does the United States care more for counterterrorism and military contracts, and will let this item slide if progress is seen elsewhere?

Will Sudan put on a nice face and make superficial improvements, only to squeeze non-Muslim communities once the diplomats leave?

Maybe. But this Thanksgiving, let not cynicism be a landing place. Even the public rhetoric of religious freedom is something to celebrate. It sets a tone; attitudes can adjust over time.

And as the US ambassador told his Sudanese audience, it took a while in America.

“I am the grandson of Irish-Catholic immigrants who arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1880s. At the time they arrived – and for many decades that followed – Catholics in the United States faced widespread prejudice based on their religion,” he said.

“When John F. Kennedy – another Catholic from my home state – ran for president of the United States in 1960, he even had to give a prominent speech to reassure the nation that his faith was compatible with the duties of the office of president.”

Sullivan said recalling such history “seems quaint” today, but added it took many decades – “it was not easy” – to reach the point where it is “nearly unthinkable” that one’s status as a Catholic in the United States would serve as a disadvantage to a person’s ambitions for life.

“The American experience in this regard underscores that respect for the human dignity of every person – regardless of religious belief or origin – is a key component of not only protecting human rights, but also fostering a society that can flourish, build upon each other’s strengths, and move forward together,” he said.

America has had flaws, too. She still has some, and may be developing others.

But today, around the table, give thanks to God for what exists — both at home and abroad.

Those who love God do not need freedom to follow their faith. But ample facilitation makes our world a better place.

Appreciate, and pray for more. And then, enjoy your turkey.

Categories
Culture

The Importance of ‘Nizam’

US Constitution

This quote is taken from an Iranian, but I think the sentiment — and language — would be the same for many Arabs:

On July 4, Mahmoud Esmaeili, a 33-year-old software engineer, became an American citizen. Here’s why: “I like the system here. I like the rule of law. You know what to expect and what to not expect, so you can plan. That was the major part of why I wanted to be part of America.” — from the Washington Post.

In Arabic the word for ‘system’ is ‘nizam’. On one level it refers to the governing apparatus, as heard during the Arab revolts, “al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam,” or “the people want the downfall of the regime.” Mubarak had his nizam, so did Morsi, and now Sisi bears the weight of the term.

But the term implies more. It is the way society operates. On this level Mubarak, Morsi, and Sisi are much the same. Regardless of their political orientation, most people I meet complain equally about the Egyptian nizam.

And they are equally jealous of the American nizam.

The Post article relates a fascinating survey that shows 93% of Americans believe that respecting American institutions and laws are very important to being American.

Read the article to discover other criteria that polled high or low, but take a minute to be thankful for the American nizam — regardless of who hold office.

And take a moment of reflection also about the foolishness of certain political trends that seek to undermine it.

We must jealously guard our constitution, laws, separation of powers, electoral system, and essential rights. The human tendency to power must be tamed by a social contract that agrees to play by the rules.

This contract, says the survey, suggests Americans are far more united than commonly thought. Both parties would do well to better esteem this consensus.

One Iranian, I trust, would heartily agree.

Can any Farsi speakers verify if ‘nizam’ would have been his word of choice?

Categories
Current Events

Strengthening America in Egypt

American Egyptian Relations
Protesters destroy an American flag pulled down from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, September 11, 2012. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Many Egyptians believe the United States is out to get them. Yet at the same time, the United States is the primary supplier of the Egyptian military, and ties between the two armed forces are strong.

Samuel Tadros wrote an engaging history of post-Arab Spring Egypt for the Hoover Institute, entitled “The Follies of Democracy Promotion.”

In it he brings to task the sentiment of past administrations — Bush and Obama included — who sought to pressure Egypt to open up democratically.

Some critics might say it is the underlying relation with the military and the failure to push harder for democracy that makes the United States a popular target. Tadros is cynical.

Regardless, in his conclusion he hits at a very important but often overlooked feature of the bilateral relationship:

Beyond any specific policy disagreements between the two countries throughout the years, the weakness of the alliance stems from the failure of Washington to build a constituency for the United States in Egypt.

As anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories overtook the country, no one in Egypt was willing to stand for the United States, defending the importance of the alliance.

Engagement with Egyptian society should not be limited to Cairo or to the business community, but the United States should make an effort to reach wider spectrums of Egyptian society.

And he offers several rather practical steps:

The US embassy should offer a correction to every anti-American story appearing in the Egyptian media, and those who actively spread such stories and refuse to correct them should pay a price.

A journalist consistently spreading conspiracy theories about the United States should not get invited to the US embassy Fourth of July party and he should not receive a visa to go shopping in America.

Alhurra, the US-based satellite TV channel, should be revitalized to provide fact-based news for Egypt and the region as a whole.

Above all, President el-Sisi should give a major speech making the case for the US-Egyptian alliance, detailing what America has done to help Egypt and refuting anti-American conspiracy theories. If he is committed to the alliance and wants US economic and military aid, he should be required to make the case for America to his people.

America has been content to look the other way as its reputation is trashed, assured vital interests will be [and have been] protected. And Egypt is free to pursue its favored foreign policy, independent of the United States, if it chooses.

‘Hearts and minds’ only go so far in a climate of disinformation. And America must step up to the plate and deserve the good reputation it desires.

But Tadros’ suggestions are sensible. It is strange they have not been widely discussed before.

Categories
Current Events

Small Town Offers ‘Sign’ of Welcome to Refugees in the United States

Mennonite Welcome Sign
(via http://www.welcomeyourneighbors.org)

This article was originally published at The Media Project.

Biking one day in the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, nestled in a valley in the Shenandoah Mountains of the eastern U.S., 33-year-old Pastor Matthew Bucher tumbled and fell.

Bloody and sore, he found himself in front of the local mosque. He looked up and read a sign.

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” it read in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

Bucher understood because he had written that sign – in all three languages.

“Suddenly, I knew the hope the sign offers,” he said. “I was the one in need of help, switching roles.”

The sign was born 15 months earlier, during the August, 2015, Republican presidential debate. Anti-immigrant hectoring was a prominent feature, and Bucher led his small congregation at Immanuel Mennonite Church to do something about it. 

Rather than filling neighborhood yards with political signs backing one candidate or another, Bucher’s church created a sign of their own.

“I was shocked at the rhetoric used against immigrants,” he said. “So I thought to put out a sign of welcome. Spanish speakers in the church helped, as did Arabic friends.”

That first sign in front of his church two years ago has since multiplied into an estimated 100,000-plus throughout the country, said Bucher.

The sign is recent, but its heritage extends back almost four centuries. 

Mennonite Christians know what it means to be strangers. Driven from Switzerland in the 17th century, the persecuted Anabaptist community, from which the Mennonites descend, found refuge in Pennsylvania. One hundred years later many of those families relocated to the Shenandoah Valley.

Bucher, a Pennsylvania native, became the pastor of Immanuel Mennonite one year before the presidential debate. But from 2007-2011, he lived as a stranger himself, the only American in the small, Upper Egyptian city of Qusia, 170 miles south of Cairo. Teaching English in partnership with a Coptic Orthodox bishop, his sojourn was a transformative experience.

“I received hospitality in Egypt, and here in Virginia I have been accepted and trusted as a pastor,” he said. “I want to extend that (hospitality), just as Jesus did. He and his parents were cared for as refugees, too.”

Harrisonburg is a fitting place for hospitality. Census data states the population of 50,000 residents is 16.7 percent foreign-born. Students in the public schools come from 46 countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Honduras, Mexico, and Ukraine.

Yet there have been only four police officers killed in the line of duty in the town since 1959. Nicknamed “The Friendly City” since the 1930s, Harrisonburg is also an official Church World Service refugee resettlement community.

“Listening to the current American national dialogue. . . one would assume that mixing nationalities, religions and ethnic groups in such close quarters would produce enough emotional tinder to fuel a blaze of angry divisions and open fighting in the streets,” wrote resident Andrew Perrine in the Washington Post. “Yet it does not.”

Instead, Bucher’s signs have found a home. The green, blue, and orange background was chosen so as not to correspond with any national flag, and 300 signs were initially distributed through six area Mennonite churches in March 2016. Another 300 were sold later at a local fair, next to the church’s tamale stand. By October, one month before presidential elections, another 1,000 were printed.

They sold out within a week.

That month the church created a Facebook page. Overwhelmed by interest, in December they created a website. Signs sell for $21.95, including shipping, but a free download is provided to print locally.

Money from proceeds is donated to the Mennonite Central Committee, the local New Bridges Immigrant Resource Center, and the Roberta Webb Child Care Center hosted at Immanuel.

Anyone selling in their own communities (usually for $10 with local pickup) is encouraged to donate to the charity of their choice. Unless they just give them away, as did a 68-year-old Buddhist, Kathy Ching.

Ching arrived from China in 1974 and ran a restaurant in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, for 40 years. During that time she helped 15 employees immigrate to the U.S., but now says of President Donald Trump, “He’s not letting people in.”

“Why do they want to come to America?” asked Ching. “Because their own countries are in trouble, and they want freedom.”

She learned of the sign through a neighbor, and purchased four at St. John’s United Church of Christ.

Pat Rieker made them available. A longtime member of St. John’s, Rieker was so pained at the anti-immigrant sentiment in America she felt her health was suffering. Feeling she had to do something, she mobilized her church after seeing the signs at nearby Plains Mennonite.

“It made me feel I was spreading some kind of message of hope and inclusion amid an atmosphere of hate,” she said. “To me, this is not the message of Christianity.”

Plains Mennonite in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, was one of the first in the area to display and distribute the signs. Associate Pastor Paula Stoltzfus had family and friends in Harrisonburg and followed the campaign on social media. She informed the church, and with a history of welcoming refugees from Sudan, Iraq, and the Congo, it mobilized easily.

“It was an idea whose time had come, reminding us to be a good neighbor,” said Pastor Mike Derstine. “This should not be a political issue but an expression of our faith.”

Similar grassroots stories have now resulted in 70 volunteer distribution centers in 32 U.S. states. Two churches in Idaho have circulated over 500 signs. In Portland, Oregon, the sign appeared at a memorial for two men who were killed in May while intervening to stop a white extremist harassing a young Muslim woman.

In addition to the signs at the local mosque in Harrisonburg, Bucher has sold to the synagogue and several atheists. Though the initial distribution moved through Mennonite churches, he estimates they only total 30-40 percent of total reach.

“I never asked my friends what religion they are. It doesn’t matter,” said Ching. “We are of different religions, but we all have a good heart.”

Yet it is Bucher’s Anabaptist heritage and Christian commitment that drive his particular service. His church’s motto is: Real people following Jesus’ radical call to love and service.

One local Baptist church pastor asked to meet him, suspicious of a liberal agenda. In the tense discussion that followed a spilled glass of tea helped them break the ice. But the conversation only turned once the pastor became convinced this Mennonite really did love Jesus.

“We must speak of power and privilege, sure. But many on the other side cannot accept Trump or his followers, either,” Bucher said. “Stand against violence and bad leadership, yes. March and demonstrate, yes.

“But be transformed by the love of God. Change is hard, but it is what we are called to do together.”

Bucher tells a story from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a traditionally rural Mennonite community now with a majority non-Mennonite city center. The municipality has resettled 20 times more refugees than the rest of the United States.

A lady put one of Bucher’s signs out on her lawn. She came home one day and found a Syrian on her front steps. Speaking no English, the hijabed woman took her neighbor by the hand and led her across the street into her own home.

Opening up the computer, she typed in Google Translate.

“Thank you so much,” read the neighbor. “Your sign made us feel welcome. We are glad this is what America is about.”

 

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Current Events

Does Egypt Still Matter?

Egypt drawn on gray map.

As America under Trump re-determines its policies in the Middle East, the feelings of the region’s people matter very little. ‘Hearts and minds,’ sure, but cold-calculating interests generally rule geopolitical considerations.

All the same, I can imagine the Egyptian angst in reading this recommendation by the Hoover Institute for Washington to re-up its cooperation with Cairo. Most of the article is an essay in explanation of why Egypt no longer matters, at least in the manner it once did.

Does Egypt today still matter? Some in Washington have been arguing otherwise.

True, rights of passage through the Suez Canal are helpful and so are flights over Egyptian airspace, but the United States can survive without both. Egypt’s control of the Arab League is no longer as strong as in the past and in all cases the Arab League is irrelevant anyway.

Maintaining the peace treaty with Israel is in Egypt’s own interests and not dependent on U.S. support. Al Azhar holds no sway over the world’s Muslim population, and Egypt’s cultural decline leaves it with limited soft power capabilities over Arabic speaking peoples.

From Syria to Yemen and even in neighboring Libya, Egypt has lost its ability to impact its surroundings. Even regional allies are growing frustrated with Egypt and its president. Those in the Gulf dreaming of Egypt becoming a counterbalance to Iran are realizing the futility of their investments.

In all cases Egypt is increasingly deteriorating under the weight of its own troubles and Washington has no ability to change that.

So cut the cord? Absolutely not.

Is it time then for the United States to abandon Egypt? The answer is a resounding no.

It is precisely because of Egypt’s movement towards the regional abyss that the United States needs to reinvest in the American-Egyptian relationship. Egypt is no longer a regional player but rather a playing field where local, regional and international powers are in competition over the country’s future.

The country may no longer be a contestant for regional hegemony, but it is today the primary contested prize in a struggle over the region’s future. If the Westphalian order is to be defended in the Middle East amidst state collapse and the rise of Caliphate revivalist movements, this defense has to start with the most natural of the Arabic speaking states. With ninety two million people, a state collapse in Egypt would lead to a refugee crisis of historical proportions.

No one wants a Somalia on the Nile, a Libya on Israel’s borders, or a Syria in control of the Suez Canal, the United States least of all.

This would require a policy shift, oddly enough, away from the traditional cold-calculating interests of Camp David and the Suez Canal. Instead, the US must strengthen (read: prop up?) the state.

U.S. interests in Egypt are [in] … strengthening state institutions to make sure a regime collapse does not lead to a state collapse.

Instead of focusing on military cooperation, the United States needs to develop a new partnership with Egypt that addresses the growing terrorist threat in the country, the collapse of the rule of law, the failed economic policies, the educational vacuum, and the growing sectarian hatreds that threatens the fate of the Middle East’s largest Christian community.

If US banks can stomach a ‘too large to fail’ bailout strategy, why can’t Egypt? This is easy enough to imagine from an ocean away, but locally many liberal-leaning Egyptians feel US ‘assistance’ (read: interference) has been too much, not too little.

But at the same time, this type of Egyptian assesses the problem similarly. The state is weak, they say, the economy is faltering, and education is low on the totem pole of priorities. They imagine, perhaps rightly, that sectarian issues will dry up if these failings are addressed.

So calling it a ‘bailout’ likely isn’t right. It is a call to strengthen a weakened longstanding partner, in a manner that moves beyond one or two points of American national interest.

So how to cooperate? The article referenced is meant to persuade Americans, not Egyptians. But in Cairo the tone taken risks being tone-deaf to local pride, let alone a legacy of bilateral mistrust.

Perhaps Trump, with his shock-value strategy of resetting all relations, can change that. And as stated earlier ‘feelings’ don’t matter. That’s good, because Trump puts little stock in the value of tactful rhetoric.

Just don’t imagine Egypt will be happy about it. ‘You matter because you’re a headache’ is an insult not an encouragement. The author, who identifies himself as a ‘native son of the land’, can swallow it.

I suspect few other Egyptians can do so readily. If America wishes to pursue this policy, it calls for a task even greater than the discredited ‘nation-building’ efforts seen elsewhere.

It calls for culture-influencing. And that requires real mutuality and engagement, much of it without control. Culture requires freedom, and freedom requires trust.

Whether or not Egypt warrants these in US policy eyes is one thing. Whether or not Trump’s ‘America first’ can prioritize it is another.

Egypt matters. So does every other nation and people. How any state relates to another is an indication of national character. Whatever policy chosen — and diplomats must be nimble — may both America and Egypt prove worthy.

Categories
Current Events

What Arab Church Leaders Think of Trump Prioritizing Persecuted Christian Refugees

qaraqosh-christians
Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters Preparation for Qaraqosh’s first Sunday mass since the Iraqi Christian town was recaptured from ISIS (October 30, 2016).

This article was first published at Christianity Today on January 30, 2017.

Married in December to a Syrian woman with American citizenship, Fadi Hallisso went to Beirut to apply for a green card.

A Syrian Christian, Hallisso has worked with refugees in Lebanon since 2012. Funded by different American agencies, he was no stranger to the US government. He even testified about the situation in Syria to the US State Department and to Harvard Divinity School.

But this week, Hallisso was told he was no longer welcome to apply. The new US administration said so.

“It is very humiliating to be put in the category of potential terrorist,” said Hallisso. “Just because I carry a certain passport.”

As more details of President Donald Trump’s new security policies emerge—including a promise to prioritize Christian refugees for resettlement in America—much appears lost in translation.

“This executive order has created a new atmosphere very hostile to people in the region,” said Chawkat Moucarry, World Vision’s director for interfaith relations—and Hallisso’s uncle. “Unwritten rules seem to be implemented as a result.”

Is Trump’s executive order on refugees a de facto “Muslim ban”? Is it not? Is it prudent? Is it overdue? As American Christians debate these questions from the small towns of Middle America to the nation’s major airports, so also Arab Christians are trying to figure out what is going on.

“I read the executive order,” said Adeeb Awad, chief editor of al-Nashra, the monthly magazine of the Presbyterian Synod of Syria and Lebanon. He remarked…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

Conspiracy Theory Comes to America

american-conspiracy-theory
Via NPR: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Living in the Middle East one drinks deeply from the well of conspiracy thinking. It pollutes the mind, but also trains it.

So while Americans mused over the merits and demerits of Trump and Clinton, I feared the patterns I was watching develop.

To describe would require a full listing of faults, but I mean this post to be more humorous than serious. It excerpts from an article by Karl ReMarks, a noted Middle Eastern satirist.

In it he compares the United States with Arab nations. It is funny while being unnerving. Enjoy, so to speak.

On the secret services:

Let’s start at the beginning. During the campaign we were surprised to learn of the influence that the head of the American mukhabarat (state security, i.e. your FBI) can wield over the election process, simply by choosing to pursue a certain line of investigation. As you may know, this has been a constant feature of our politics since independence. Our surprise turned to astonishment when we started to witness the blossoming feud between the then-president-elect and the American mukhabarat, another important feature of Arab politics.

On top of that, we started to hear reports of foreign meddling in your elections, which some say may have influenced the result. Of course, we are quite familiar with that situation, too, not least because of the efforts of your own administrations over the decades. Yet it came as a surprise to hear talk of “foreign hands” and “secret agendas” in a country like America. We sympathize.

On the bright side, this was also the moment that the conspiracy theories started to spread. You know us; we’re quite fond of conspiracy theories—particularly when they involve plots by external powers—and consider ourselves connoisseurs of the genre. Your plots are a bit rough around the edges, we have to admit, but top marks for creativity. Was the election of Trump a Russian conspiracy? Was talk of the Russian conspiracy a liberal conspiracy to undermine Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to help Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to hurt Trump? Was media coverage of Trump’s mukhabarat conspiracy theories part of a liberal conspiracy theory to bring him down? They’re all so deliciously complex and open-ended, much like our own.

On the media:

Of course, another crucial aspect to this transformation is the president’s contemptuous attitude towards the media. My, the delightful similarities. From blaming the press for engaging in secret conspiracies to undermine him to threatening their access to his White House palace to refusing to take questions from certain reporters, President Trump reminds us of several of our own leaders. In fact, an Arab leader complaining about CNN coverage is pretty much a staple of our political life.

This took an interesting turn on Saturday when the president accused the media of manufacturing his feud with the mukhabarat and his Minister of Information Mr. Sean Spicer castigated the media for reporting the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. The not-so-veiled threats by the president and Mr. Spicer to the media are very much in the spirit of Arab governance.

On protests:

And then there’s the unrest. In the lead up to the inauguration, we started to hear about youth protests against the new regime. Come on! This is bordering on plagiarism now. Please write your own plots and stop borrowing ours. Although, we usually wait for leaders to take power before we start protesting; we like your preemptive revolution approach.

A word of warning though, before embarking on this path. We tried the revolution thing ourselves, and it didn’t work out so well. Maybe you should just adapt to living in the new regime. We were always told that having a strongman in charge is the best solution for Arab countries, otherwise there would be chaos. Perhaps the American people are not ready for democracy after all. Let’s face it America, you look like an Arab country now.

Gulp.

Categories
Current Events Religion

The Application of Sharia Law in the United States

sharia-law-usa

In 2008 a Moroccan man and his 17-year old wife immigrated to America. Not long after she filed a restraining order against him, claiming her husband was raping her. The husband did not deny their sexual relations were non-consensual, but said that in his religion, the wife was supposed to submit and do all that he desired of her. The New Jersey judge found that given his understanding of Islam, he did not intend to commit a crime, and was therefore innocent. The restraining order was denied.

Cases like this set off alarm bells that shariah law is coming to America, and in fact is already here. Called “creeping shariah,” this case is given as just one further example of the United States nation forsaking its heritage in an effort to be politically correct and yield to the pressures of local Muslims to live by their own laws, and not our own.

But according to Eugene Volokh, a conservative law scholar at UCLA, it is quite the opposite. Where US judges have made reference to shariah law, they do so within parameters long established in American legal precedent. He notes, importantly, that the judge in the New Jersey case made a legal error, overturned by a higher court which granted the restraining order.

In the effort to understand this controversial and inflammatory subject, his explanation proved very helpful. Here is a list of what is and is not allowed in the American judicial system:

 

Allowed: Distribution of inheritance according to religious motivation

Not: Asking the court to divide inheritance according to shariah law

US law allows freedom of contract and disposition of property. One may divide one’s property in a will according to whim, or ask a religious scholar to divide it according to shariah law. But the court does not accept competency to interpret religious laws, and would reject a request asking it to do so.

 

Allowed: Application of foreign law to determine marriage or overseas injury

Not: Specifics of foreign law against US code or procedural discrimination of testimony

US law will accept that two foreign individuals are married if they were legally married according to the law of their country of emigration. If in foreign nations marriage is determined according to shariah, then US courts must take this into consideration for the determination of marriage in a domestic dispute. Foreign acceptance of polygamy, however, has no application in US courts.

Similarly, if an American is injured abroad and sues a company with representation in America, tort laws are determined by the nation in which the injury occurred. But should foreign tort laws limit the value of female testimony, as for example in some understandings of shariah, this has no carry-over consideration in the American lawsuit.

 

Allowed: Exemption from work rules for religious reasons

Not: Unless it imposes ‘undue hardship’ on an employer or is against government interest

US law permits reasonable accommodation for religious belief, evaluated on a case-by-case basis. So wearing a hijab at work or taking time from the work day to pray may or may not be granted, based on the nature of the employment in question. A famous ruling allowing Muslim taxi drivers to decline a customer carrying alcohol may or may not have been judged correctly, but what is important is that it was based on existing American precedent, not in understanding what is right in Islamic shariah.

 

Allowed: Granting accommodation to students or clients that impose only modest costs on the granting institution

Not: Evaluation of these requests on the basis of which religious group asks for them

US law allows public and private institutions to better serve citizens and customers by appealing to their religious sentiments, as long as this does not damage the public interest as a whole. Banks have offered sharia-compliant loans, for example, and schools with high density Muslim populations have granted a full day off on holidays rather than just excusing Muslim students. Examples of this sort apply equally to all religious petitions, and must not be judged on the basis of which religion benefits.

 

Allowed: Efforts to legislate Islamic morality in heavily populated Muslim areas

Not: Unless it violates the Free Speech Code or Equal Protection Clause

US law permits citizens to lobby government to pass laws reflective of morality. In local areas therefore, Muslims are as free as others to pass legislation barring alcohol, for example. Should any locality, however, seek to encode restrictions on “blasphemy” or limit the rights of women, it will stand in clear violation of existing US law and be struck down by the courts.

 

In addition to Volokh’s analysis, New York attorney Sadakat Kadri wrote in Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World, that US federal arbitration law has been on the books since 1925.

Arbitration law has legitimized religious tribunals for Christian conciliators and the Jewish Beth Din, giving them force of law to issue legally binding decisions. To deny similar right to Muslims, within the context above, would require reforming that law to impact all religious communities.

There are many cases offered by those who warn of creeping sharia, and each must be evaluated on its own merits. There may be examples–many or few–in which the above descriptions have been violated. The above is offered to all who have been affected by the clamor that “the Muslims are coming.”

Indeed, they are already here and are coming as citizens within a nation of laws. They are undoubtedly changing the demographic and culture of our country, as every set of immigrants has done before. That they are Muslims, outside of the general Christian heritage of most previous groups, does add a different application of the American guarantee of freedom of religion. It may also result in these newer Americans who, either unaware or rejecting of American liberty, seek to illegally restrict individuals in their own communities.

But throughout the nation’s history the constitution and bill of rights has worked remarkably well. It should be trusted to continue, no matter the unfamiliarity of those who believe also in shariah. The United States will honor them within reason, and curb any excess that violates our order. On many issues worthy debate must take place. But we must not let fear or demagoguery permit generalization or discrimination.

Let the law decide.

This article was first published at the Zwemer Center.

Categories
Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Trumping Protest

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Bless the president-to-be of the United States of America. May he govern wisely. May he engage Egypt well.

But though many are troubled in America at his arrival, many in Egypt welcome his opposition to the Brotherhood and his favor expressed toward Sisi.

And he comes at a moment when many in Egypt are troubled. An inflationary economy. A protest threatened.

A protest fizzled. A few answered mostly anonymous calls to fill the squares and overthrow the government. They were quickly subdued.

Among political forces only the Brotherhood endorsed the effort. The streets fell silent, save for the bustle of those who went about their business.

Issues remain, God, though an IMF cash infusion has been approved. May it begin to restore equilibrium, starting with those who need it most.

Until then, God, help many make due. Give them voice, that they might help shape policy.

And give wisdom to Trump, by whom so many in the world will now be affected. May America, and Egypt, to all be a blessing.

Amen.

 

Categories
Current Events

An Egyptian Human Rights Rebuke, to America

(via http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/10/22/amnesty-us-must-investigate-alleged-civilian-drone-casualties-in-pakistan.html)
(via http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/10/22/amnesty-us-must-investigate-alleged-civilian-drone-casualties-in-pakistan.html)

It is not unusual for American politicians and the State Department to call out other nations of the world for their violation of human rights.

But the past few weeks have given other nations an excuse to hit back. Laugh or cry, here is a selection of Egyptian statements about our racial issues and the UK Chilcot report on the Iraq War.

MP Margaret Azer, deputy ‎chairman of Egypt parliament’s human rights ‎committee, said in a statement that she was appalled by ‎the brutality of American police.

“I think that all ‎Egyptian MPs and defenders of human rights should ‎move to condemn the repeated brutal use of force ‎against black Americans and expose the bloody face of ‎the United States and its politicised use of the issue of ‎human rights to extort other nations,” said Azer.‎

Azer’s statement added that “the United States, which likes to ‎give lectures on human rights to other nations and issue ‎periodical reports on civil liberties in the world, was ‎caught red handed violating human rights and crushing ‎the peaceful protests of black Americans in the city of ‎Dallas and other US cities.”‎

Ilhami Agina, an independent MP and a member of ‎parliament’s human rights committee, also said in ‎a statement that “the excessive use of force ‎against black Americans in the US has exposed the ugly ‎face of Western regimes and that these ‎regimes are deeply involved in wide scale racial ‎discrimination.”

“[US President Barack] Obama, who came to Cairo in 2009 to ‎give us a long lecture on human rights, might have ‎forgotten that it is America that needs radical reform,” ‎said Agina.‎

Agina told reporters that he sent a letter to Egypt’s ‎foreign minister Sameh Shoukry asking him to summon ‎the US ambassador in Egypt – Stephen Beecroft – to ‎convey Egypt’s dissatisfaction with the excessive use of ‎force against blacks and urge the American ‎government to reform its record on human rights.

“Egypt is ‎now the head of the Arab summit and so it should give a ‎say on what happens in America, but if Shoukry does ‎not opt to do this, he should at least do as the US State ‎Department, which always grants itself the right to ‎comment on judicial and political issues in Egypt,” said ‎Agina.‎

Ayman Abu Ela, the parliamentary ‎spokesman of the Free Egyptians Party, told reporters ‎that he also hopes that Egypt’s parliament will hold a ‎session on America’s violations of human rights.

“The US ‎administration and media, which have always accused ‎Egypt of issuing a tough protest law have nothing to say ‎now about their police brutality against black protesters,” ‎said Abul Ela, also agreeing with other MPs that “the ‎recent incidents of excessive force and police ‎brutality in America have uncovered the falseness of ‎American democracy and its flawed reports about ‎human rights in the Arab world.”

Perhaps most US criticism of other nations means as little as these statements above in the practical rebuke and correction of abuses. Perhaps they reveal how indicative of the domestic political context each remark is made, rather than impact on international relations.

But sometimes, human rights abuses do result in international censure. Here is the Egyptian appeal:

The Egyptian parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs called on Friday for George W. Bush and Tony Blair to be tried as war criminals, saying the resounding report of a British committee investigating Britain’s participation in the war against Iraq clearly shows that there were no convincing reasons for the conflict.

“This British committee’s report – the Chilcot report – has exposed the false reasons which former US president George W. Bush and former UK prime minister Tony Blair had exploited to wage their illegitimate war against Iraq,” said the strongly-worded statement.

The parliament said that the American-led war in Iraq left more than one million Iraqis killed and millions more wounded, internally displaced or sent from their homes as refugees.

“There’s no question that George W. Bush and Tony Blair should be put on trial as war criminals not only because they are the ones who trumpeted the reasons for this war, but also because they should be held responsible for the deaths of millions of Iraqis since 2003,” the statement read.

Human rights – and their defense – are vitally important. Too important, in fact, to be left to politicians anywhere.

But without them, progress will always be limited. Empty rhetoric may be part of politics, but rhetoric sets a tone. The world is a better place even if politicians give only hypocritical lip service to human rights. Their conscience can always awaken. If so, laws and policies can change, however gradually.

Consider the alternative, if human rights are outright ignored or justified away. Sometimes, in many nations, this alternative is all too near.

 

Categories
Religion

The Difficulty of ‘Do Unto Others’

Arabic Golden Rule
The Golden Rule, in Arabic

As Christians involve themselves – for good and for bad – in the divisive politics and cultural struggles of our nation, it is assumed they do so to preserve and advance a moral ethic consistent with Scripture.

Unfortunately, it can be easy to forget one of the central marks of this morality: ‘Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.’

This command, and it is necessary to remember it is an active imperative, concerns many issues of the day. I would submit that current Muslim-Christian relations illustrate this selective memory, and the Middle East provides a useful mirror.

In the Arab world it is Christians who are the great minority. How do they describe their situation? Much like in America, there is considerable nuance.

It must be said at the outset that the comparison will not be exact. The US enshrines religious freedom for the individual and forbids a religious test for public office. While these concepts are not absent from the Arab world, they are mixed in with many constitutions that enshrine Islam as the religion of the state and sharia law as the basis of legislation. At the official level these articles can complicate matters considerably.

But what about the popular level?

To be certain there is a spirit that, while tolerating Christianity, strives to preserve and advance the Islamization of society. Some conservative Muslims argue that Christians should not be greeted on their holidays, lest it imply endorsement of false theology. Others warn their children against playing with Christians at school. And many Christians complain of discrimination that is mixed in with a general culture of nepotism.

But Christians the region over also speak of neighborly relations with normal people who happen to be Muslims. Post-Arab spring, many Arab governments are going out of their way to combat extremism that has crept into society. And as reflected in my recent article in Christianity Today, many Arab Christians are comfortable saying they and their fellow Muslim citizens worship the same God.

Yet the article also described an undercurrent of frustration, that Christians feel internally compelled to seek common theological ground in order to secure common societal acceptance. The more some push the distinctiveness of Christianity, the more they fear either government or popular response.

Within the diversity of these Arab responses there is also advice for America and the West: Limit the presence of Muslims in your midst.

The complaint is not so much against Muslims as a people, but of Islam as a religion. The more devout the practice, they say, the greater the enthusiasm to enact its superiority – not just in the afterlife, but to bring this world into conformity as well. As evidence, they simply point to their own societies.

Whatever is made of the ‘same God’ debate, Islam and Christianity are different religions. But different also is the historical fusion between these religions and their respective societies. It is good to learn from our Arab brothers and sisters in Christ about their experience with Islam where they are the minority. But the point here is not so much to arm with argument but to invite readers to flip the script and see within it a mirror to their own society.

How might American Muslims feel about our current social and political climate? Would they say most neighbors treat them well? Would they complain they have to accommodate their faith to a dominant culture? Would they state a concern over discrimination or a fear of rejection?

Many Arab Christians have responded to their challenges by withdrawing into their own communities. Are American Muslims tempted to do the same?

And what of the warning some Arab Christians issue about Islam? How similar is it to some Muslim warnings about decadent Western society and the Christianity that is powerless to arrest it? Or, others argue, the Christianity that is in league with colonialism or Zionism or consumer capitalism to radically alter the fabric of Muslim society?

Let every charge be answered, and every religious ideology be examined. But let every American Christian return to the imperative of Christ:

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.“

Consider the situation in which Middle Eastern Christians live and ask, how would you like this ‘you’ to be treated?

It is not argued that treating American Muslims well will necessarily make any difference to the Egyptian Copt, the Lebanese Maronite, or the Iraqi Assyrian. But any mistreatment of Western Muslims is often reported in the regional press, and gives fuel to those with an axe to grind.

The Golden Rule is not about quid pro quo. It is fulfillment of the law of Christ, who served those who loved him not. Please be mindful, for concerning Muslims it is often we who so rarely love.

This article was first published at Acts211.org.

Categories
Current Events

Reflections on Obama’s Mosque Visit

Many have praised President Obama’s recent visit to a Baltimore mosque and affiliated school. Others have been critical, but it is important to counter a rhetoric that is increasingly casting shadows upon fellow American citizens.

But here are two Western Arab voices that express a little concern. The first is a UK-based Muslim, Nervana Mahmoud. She cites official White House photos that present a ‘cropped’ picture of American Islam.

Obama Mosque Visit
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The leader of the West’s strongest nation has opted to strip Islam from its centuries-old, colorful diversities and frame it within a monochromatic conservative style—a self-defeating approach from a man who advocated for diversity among weary Americans who wish to shelter their country from the turbulence of the Middle East. … The lack of non-Hijabi women among the attendees, even among the children, is striking.

Nervana counts herself a liberal Muslim, and wishes this sector had been highlighted. She is confused why a progressive American politician would choose such a mosque for the spotlight.

Non-Islamist Muslims exist in America as well as in their native countries. Iranian Americans, for example, will undoubtedly tell the president tales about oppression, dress code, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Other liberal Muslims fight against segregation, enforcing Hijab upon children.

Almost all mainstream Muslim scholars agree that Hijab for pre-puberty children is not obligatory. The American leadership that fights the Islamic State’s oppression, however, seems tolerant of such indoctrination of children.

Coptic-American Maged Atiya suggests that no matter the mosque the venue would have been criticized as unrepresentative. But he is disappointed that such a cerebral president offered such an empty speech.

It is heavy on optimism, on declarations of belief in liberal values and tolerance, and on deep faith that fundamental forces will force a happy outcome. In short, that we are destined by the arc of history to a fair, just and tolerant outcome in any struggle.

The trouble with that view is that it offers no guidance to short-term policy that will actually lead to such outcomes in the long run.

… The Baltimore speech does American Muslims injustice by lack of acknowledgement of real barriers that stand between their desire to conform to a conservative version of their faith and yet integrate effectively into American society.

He laments Obama’s missed opportunity to really tackle this issue with substance. If so, he could have addressed the core competing values.

There are major differences between the ethos of conservative Islam with its backward glances and emphasis on community sovereignty and the liberalizing trend of American society with its emphasis on the liberation and autonomy of the individual.

Glossing over these differences leaves all exposed when the conflicts inevitably come to the surface. Bigots among American non-Muslims will insist that Muslims can never be “full Americans”, while bigots among American Muslims will insist that such differences are merely manifestations of irrational hatred of Islam. This is a disservice to any effective understanding and outreach between faiths.

I am sympathetic to both viewpoints, but also willing to propose an explanation.

Whether the choice to not wear hijab or sport a long beard and traditional clothing comes from conviction, compromise, or apathy, many of these Muslims mix easily into Western life. They may or may not believe fully the tenets of Islam, may or may not pray at home or the mosque. But in the panoply of American diversity they look more or less like everyone else, and thus, I imagine, draw neither the ire nor support of culture warriors.

Perhaps Obama chose to highlight such a mosque precisely because it draws such a visual image. You, too, are welcome in America. The vitriol of much political discourse targets you, and must be spoken against. Your clothing choices reflect your faith, and for this there is freedom. We must defend it vigilantly, and publicly.

If this is a sentiment behind Obama’s choice, it may also illumine his speech. The presidency is often more a bully pulpit than a university lectern. As hard as some are hitting Muslims these days, the force of rhetoric must be returned. Where fear and suspicion are preached, let principles and idealism respond.

But the criticism of both authors is fair. The complexity of this issue must be honored, and Muslims come in a million stripes.

But they also come as individual citizens. All but the tiniest minority deserve the full scope of American freedoms. American political leadership should do justice to both these realities.

 

Categories
Current Events

US Behind ISIS?

Map of New Middle East

Here in Egypt the conspiracy thinking is strong that the United States, or at least her allies in the region, are a force behind the emergence of the so-called Islamic State.

From the London Review of Books, here is some of the evidence. Fortunately, the author also deals with it along the conspiracy spectrum:

His book went to press before he could take account of the extraordinary revelation that US intelligence had anticipated the rise of Islamic State nearly two years before it happened.

On 18 May, a document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated 12 August 2012 was published by a conservative watchdog organisation called Judicial Watch, which had managed to obtain this and other formerly classified documents through a federal lawsuit.

The document not only anticipates the rise of IS but seems to suggest it would be a desirable development from the point of view of the international ‘coalition’ seeking regime change in Damascus. Here are the key passages:

7b. Development of the current events into proxy war … Opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar), in addition to neighbouring Turkish borders. Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts. This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command centre of the temporary government …

8c. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.

So American intelligence saw IS coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it. The precise formula used in paragraph 8c is intriguing. It doesn’t talk of ‘the possibility that Isis might establish a Salafist principality’ but of ‘the possibility of establishing’ a Salafist principality. So who was to be the prime mover in this process? Did IS have a state backing it after all?

The second piece of evidence is less direct, but comes from a 2006 map of the ‘New Middle East’ published in the Armed Forces Journal. It draws boundaries for an Arab Shia state, an Arab Sunni state, Syria, and Kurdistan.

Here is the author’s interpretation:

What we can make of this is, of course, unclear. At one extreme, conspiracy theorists will argue that it supports their claim that the Western powers have been deliberately creating chaos for unavowable reasons of their own.

At the other end of the spectrum, one could hypothesise that the DIA document may have been read by four unimportant people in Washington and ignored by everyone else.

In the middle, showing more respect for the DIA, we could imagine something else: the possibility that, in 2012, American and other Western intelligence services saw Isis much as they saw Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups, as useful auxiliaries in the anti-Assad drive, and could envisage its takeover of north-eastern Syria as a helpful development with no worrying implications.

If Islamic State escaped whatever influence Western intelligence services may initially have sought to have on it and went its own way, this means that people have been playing with fire.

I don’t pretend to know what the truth is. But there is no need to prove malign intent on the part of the Western powers. The most charitable theory available, ‘the eternally recurring colossal cock-up’ theory of history, will do well enough.

It is a very long but thorough article, stretching from the Mamluke era to Sykes-Picot through last century’s cycle of Arab revolutions and coup d’etats, up to the current day. His conclusion is that if the Western world wants to defeat the Islamic State, it must do so through the Syrian army, at least temporarily with Assad at the helm.

It makes for a good read, and also drives you crazy. Just realize that Arab conspiracy theorists are right there with you, and have suffered far more than we who can read the London Review of Books.