Les Mis

By Gary M. Burge 08-02-2011

I prefer my revolutions to be simple: A corrupt dictator/tyrant, an oppressed population, inspired reformers who risk their lives, calls for democracy, waves of marchers in the streets, background music from Les Misérables. The stories from Tunis and Cairo were epochal. The Arab spring was in full bloom as calls for participatory government could be heard from every corner of the Middle East.

Then there was Syria. The Assad government has been infamous in its intolerance to dissent. It is a military regime whose 30-year leadership under Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000) established it as one of the most severe in the region. In 2,000, after the death of Hafez, the world was intrigued to see his second son -- Bashar al-Assad -- ascend the throne. Bashar was an ophthalmologist who had studied in London, but because of his older brother's death in a car accident in 1994, he was called to follow his father. Bashar speaks English and French fluently and has been as critical of the U.S. as he has been of Israel.

Then came the Arab spring. Swell the chorus of Le Mis.

I'd been following the Syrian struggle (civil war?) for some time in the American media. And the Syrian script was following my preferred formula: democracy vs. the dictator. Then last month I was sharing a meal in our home with an Arab pastor-theologian who lives on the Lebanese/Syrian border. He was on a short sabbatical in the U.S. and it was a good time to catch up on his views of the Arab spring. "So as a Christian as you excited about the revolution in Syria?" I asked. He knows America and knew what we expected to hear. "Not so quick. Not all revolutions are what the West thinks they are."

Some backfill: The Assad regime is part of a Muslim minority group called the Alawites who make up 15 percent of the population and live mostly along the Mediterranean coast. And because of this, the government has protected minority rights and suppressed discrimination -- including the oppression of Christians (all 900,000 of them) by Muslim extremists. As a Christian recently told me in Damascus, "We hate Assad. But we don't want the alternative."

My dinner guest told me that in the major demonstrations in Syria, there is an Arabic street chant unreported in the Western media. "Tomorrow we throw the Christians into Lebanon; then the Alawites go into the sea." Today he sent me an email with a link from an Arabic website. He interpreted for me. Ayman Al-Zawahri, the second-in-command after Bin Ladin, was praising the Syrian opposition and urged them to overthrow the Assad regime because "they are friendly to the U.S. and its war on terrorism." What? Al Qaeda is cheering for the revolution? Of course. Because Assad has opposed Muslim extremism.

Syria is not Egypt. And the calls in the street in Hama or Damascus may not be the calls for western democracy the way we think.

portrait-gary-burgeGary M. Burge, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous books both on the Middle East (Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land" Theology, and Whose Land? Whose Promise?) and the New Testament (Jesus the Middle Eastern Story Teller, The New Testament in Antiquity, and Encounters with Jesus).

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