“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” So goes the old saying to advise caution in the midst of uncertainty. As deep uncertainty envelopes the Middle East its not foolish to ask what’s happening. Its only foolishness to claim to know the outcome.
For sure this seems to be an epochal moment, a once-in-a-generation time for change. Tunisia and Egypt have been transformed, even if Mubarrak is trying to cling on a few more months. I’ll be surprised if he lasts to the weekend. Yemen and Jordan are experiencing the first icy blasts of discontent rumbling in the streets and cafes. Even Lebanon, with a different history of puppet-Governments rather than a 30-year autocracy is asking fresh questions about democratic freedoms.
Jim Naughtie reporting from Beirut on BBC’s Today programme on 2nd February spoke of this being an Arab uprising, and in that very phrase hangs a key insight into what we may be experiencing.
The West so often fails to understand what it means to be Arab. Arab is not to be confused with Muslim for one thing. Our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East are mostly Arabs. So first and foremost this appears not to be a religiously-inspired call for change as it was in 1978/79 in Iran.
The most obvious triggers for change are global economic inequalities and restrictions on freedoms which the internet and social networking now make all the more obvious. In Tunisia tens of thousands of young people have gone through school and University and been out of work for years. The same story can be told across the region. Aging despots backed by militaries, who in turn are backed by western powers, cling to wealth and power while their people, frankly, can go to hell.
So if this is an Arab uprising, what might be its consequences? Firstly, there is something inherently human happening here. The Bible talks of men and women being made in the image of God and God’s good news is to set people free. Free from sin yes, but also injustice and tyranny, from shame and poverty. What else could ‘life in all its fullness’ refer to?
Secondly, this search for freedom will nonetheless have a religious dimension because human beings are spiritual beings. And I say this even in the context of Egypt and Tunisia being essentially secular countries with millions of nominally Muslim Arabs. But whatever unfolds in the days to come, religion will be a factor. Islam has a unifying force but there will be tensions between those who wish to use this moment to impose a fundamentalist Islam, and those who don’t. Millions of young Arabs are not going to swop the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a cleric, not if they can avoid it.
Thirdly, Israel. Make no mistake, there is no love for Israel amongst Middle Eastern Arabs, nor for the US either. Many of these dictators have been in power because their militaries are backed by American dollars and British pounds. Arabs have long memories too, and you don’t have to go back too far to unearth the duplicity of the British in the current maelstrom that is Israel-Palestine.
Whilst hot-heads may call for Israel to be wiped from the face of the earth, realists may see this as the time when a pan-Arab voice might at last be able to say ‘lets now address the plight of the Palestinians. And remember, the Palestinians are Arabs and amongst them are many Christians, and many Baptists.
So with regimes like Egypt about to change, the pressure is going to be full on to reach a solution to the Palestinian crisis, and that may be no bad thing. It could even result in greater security also for Israel – in the long run.
And what about the Church across the world? Well, certainly, this is a time to pray so take the Bible off the shelf and read 1 Tim 2:1-7. Pray for leaders from East and West who are now making key decision by the hour. But pray too for the church in the region, Arab Christians from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine and through to Egypt – they are in the eye of the storm I referred to in my previous post.
One thing is for sure – this is momentous.