Middle East

Jim Wallis 8-29-2013
ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Image

Demonstrators protest against potential British military involvement in Syria in London Thursday. ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Image

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, there must be “international consequences.” The president is right. But what should those consequences be?

The issue here, again, is one that we have not decided how to deal with: terrorism. The definition of terrorism is deliberate and brutal attacks upon innocent people — whether by individuals, groups, or heads of state. By that definition, Assad is a terrorist. And terrorists who possess weapons of mass destruction and demonstrate their willingness to use them are most dangerous ones. But how should we respond?

I am in in the U.K., where political leaders last night backed off the decision to make immediate “military strikes” while the U.S. and other nations are considering them. The feeling here is that international and legal legitimacy need to be established first, that the U.N. inspectors should finish their examinations in Syria before any actions are taken, and that all other means of response should be fully explored first. These are good decisions.

Why is there such public “war fatigue” in the U.K. and the U.S. in light of Iraq and Afghanistan — and why is that creating reluctance to more military action? Because wars and military solutions have FAILED in response to terrorism — failed to achieve what they were purported to do.

Photo courtesy Mariia Savoskula/Shutterstock.com.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Middle East United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy Mariia Savoskula/Shutterstock.com.

People who hoped the Arab Spring would lead to greater religious freedom across the Middle East have been sorely disappointed, and a new Pew study confirms that the region has grown even more repressive for various religious groups.

“In 2011, when most of the political uprisings known as the Arab Spring occurred, the Middle East and North Africa experienced pronounced increases in social hostilities involving religion, while government restrictions on religion remained exceptionally high,” according to the report by the Pew Research Center.

The study shows the number of countries in the Middle East or North Africa with sectarian or communal violence between religious groups doubled from five to 10 during 2011, a year that coincided with most of the political uprisings of Arab Spring.

Gregg Brekke 6-05-2013

Arab Christians are vital to a thriving Middle East - and their numbers are dwindling.

Jim Wallis 6-05-2013

Religious extremism will not be defeated by a primarily military response.

Matthew Skinner 2-27-2013
Newspaper headlines, justasc / Shutterstock.com

Newspaper headlines, justasc / Shutterstock.com

Current events, like much about our lives, frequently leave us hopeless, fearful, and uncertain. Religious faith isn’t a matter of wishing away these experiences; it involves perceiving God in the midst of our hardships.

I still remember one Friday night when I, an overly sensitive preteen, made a conscious decision to stop watching the nightly news with the rest of my family. I found what I saw too depressing and threatening: crime after crime, yet another house fire, economic challenges, too much Cold War.

I don’t recall how old I was when I mustered the willpower to face the news again on a regular basis. But a quick scan of the latest headlines makes me wonder why I still subject myself to it: the imminent and potentially crippling sequester, American drones flying in and out of Niger, Iran’s growing nuclear capability, recurring bloodshed in Syria. Maybe I had it easier back in middle school.

WASHINGTON — It’s an idea that feels particularly poignant this Thanksgiving: American Jews and Muslims banding together to help the homeless and other needy people.

The interfaith collaboration has been going on for five years, but the recent exchange of rockets between Gaza and Israel is weighing especially hard on both communities this week. That's why a joint session of sandwich making or a group visit to a nursing home has taken on added significance.

“In this time of warfare it was a beautiful experience to see the two come together,” said Haider Dost, a Muslim student at Virginia’s George Mason University who worked with Jewish students to feed the homeless Sunday in Franklin Park, just blocks from the White House.

Jon Huckins 11-08-2012
Photo by Jon Huckins

Photo by Jon Huckins

Over the past four years I have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount time in the Middle East. I no longer approach the time as a tourist, but instead seek out relationships and experiences as a listener who has much to learn about the way God is at work in contexts much different than my own. In that posture, it has been remarkable how much I have learned and begun to integrate into the way I live, love and lead back in my neighborhood. Theologian Paul Knitter describes it well when he refers to ones inherited worldview as a telescope. 

"No matter how objective we may think we are or desire to be, we all see the world through a specific telescope/worldview. When we choose to look through the telescope of people who are “different” than us, we begin to get a more comprehensive picture of the world and the way God is at work within it."

Leading our first Learning Community to the Middle East apart of The Global Immersion Project I recently co-founded, I was invited to take a look through the lens of friends’ telescopes who live amid conflict in Israel and Palestine. Here are some of my key learnings:  

Aaron Taylor 10-19-2012

A possibly significant development in Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations is being spear-headed by the Islamic Scholars of North America (ISNA). In July of 2012, ISNA Director of Community Outreach, Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, convened a small multilateral forum of scholars in Mauritania to discuss challenges faced by religious minorities in Muslim-majority communities around the world.

Mauritania is an interesting choice, since it has no indigenous Christian population, and the CIA World Factbook lists the country as “(official) 100% Muslim.”

So, officially, Mauritania is 100 percent Muslim, which begs the question: If the ISNA is reaching out to Islamic scholars in Mauritania on the issue of minority religious rights, and the (official) statistic is that Mauritania is 100 percent Muslim, is this a tacit recognition on  ISNA’s part that some of the 100 percent officially Muslim Mauritanians have secretly switched their religion … and that international human rights standards should allow them to do so?

If that’s the case, then this is a significant development in interfaith relations.

… the key word being if.

Jim Rice 10-03-2012

We'll never reach reconciliation between Christians and Muslims until we address root causes—and take on the haters.

Jim Wallis 9-27-2012

The most recent discussions of U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East, once again say more about politics during an election year, than they do about the fundamental issues we must confront if we want to see substantial change.

So let’s look at the basic issues and fundamental choices we need to make.

Today the Middle East — where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25 — is a region dominated by humiliation and anger.

Failure + rage + the folly of youth = an incendiary mix.

The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep (literally and figuratively). We can start with the fact that our oil (and its economy) lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive and backward regimes, the continual presence of foreign troops on their land and in their holy places, and the endless wars waged there, ultimately fueled by the geopolitics of energy.

Add to that incindiary cocktail the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Islamic world. Fundamentalism — in all our faith traditions — is both volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it becomes hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” 

How many of us grew up with this old adage ringing in our ears? How many of us believe it’s true? 

I’ve gone back and forth over the years. I understand that the saying is an invitation to turn our backs on harsh, mean-spirited words thus robbing them of their power, but how many of us are really capable of simply doing that? The truth is words do hurt and sometimes they do more than hurt. Sometimes they are downright destructive and on a large scale.
 
I think this is what the writer of James is getting at in this morning’s text. Words, the works of our tongues, can be used for good and evil. It is not always easy for us to shape our words and move our tongues in a fashion that serves our faith, our calling as Christians, our work for the reign of God on earth.

One important spiritual discipline, one vital element to our faith formation, then, is learning to tame the tongue. That is, we are challenged to develop custody of our speech in such a way that good news is proclaimed and people are lifted up toward the fulfillment of their creation in the image and likeness of God.  Remember, James is especially concerned that we align our words and our work so we both “talk the walk” and “walk the talk.”

If we are offspring of the heavenly parent, if we are made in the likeness of God, how should that shape our speech and control the way we wag our tongues?

Jon Huckins 9-20-2012
A shared meal in Hebron.

A shared meal in Hebron.

My heart is heavy.   

Every day for the last week, media outlet have told their version of the current uprising stretching across the Middle East (Egypt, Libya, Yemen).  Whether it’s pictures of embassies burned to the ground, rioting citizens, or highly politicized comics, the surge of content has been anything but “feel-good” and hopeful.

And that’s because the events and corresponding responses have been anything but “feel-good” and hopeful.     

My heart breaks because I know the events that are unfolding do not represent the majority of those who inhabit the Middle East. I spend a significant amount of time in there and have built deep, life-long friendships.

Just two weeks ago I sat around a table and shared a meal with Christians, Jews and Muslims in the home of a devout Muslim family in the region. A day after that, I served alongside Muslim youth workers who are promoting non-violence and reconciliation in the face of oppression and poverty.  

On the same day, I sat with an Arab Christian who embodied Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in dealing with daily injustice by saying, “We refuse to be enemies.” Lastly — and what keeps playing over and over in my head — are the words spoken to me by a Muslim friend named Omar who said,

“Please give this message to all of your American friends. We (Arab Muslims and Christians) desire peace.  The violence you see in the news does not represent us.  It is not the majority, it is the smallest minority of extremism.  Please listen to our story and accept our friendship.”

Oren Dorell 9-18-2012

Anti-American protesters in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, India., on Sept. 14, 2012.

Anti-American riots that have spread to more than a dozen countries across the Middle East are a sign of fissures between radical and more moderate Islamists that are vying for power as their societies undergo change, Middle East experts say.

Whether U.S. foreign policy has helped create a political environment where radicals are struggling to remain relevant, or emboldened extremists to act out, is a matter of disagreement.
 
President Obama's approach to the Arab Spring, to engage with the Islamists and not the secularists, "is seen by our foes as disengagement, while the radicals are not backing off," said Walid Phares, an adviser to the Anti-Terrorism Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives and author of the 2010 book The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.

"When we withdraw, they advance."
 
Tamara Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs until a few months ago, sees it differently.
 
The U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq removed "a massive source" of grievance for ultra-conservative Muslims, called Salafis, who have been leading the charge in the recent protests and who are ideologically close to Islamic terrorists who have warred with the U.S., Wittes said. "Now they're left trying to gin up anti-American feelings over this campy movie. If Salafi groups are left having to troll the Internet for a pretext, I think we're in pretty good shape."

Chris Lisee 6-07-2012

A group of Episcopal bishops is asking President Obama to help assure that a United Nations agency continues to support a diocese-run hospital in the Gaza Strip.

In a June 6 letter, the 102 bishops ask the president to support funding for Al Ahli Hospital from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. The letter asserts funding was cut off in May, though an UNRWA official said a final decision has not been made.

The hospital, run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, “is the only facility of its sort in the Gaza Strip that is not run by the Hamas government and as such, it is able to provide care without any outside interference or political calculation,” the letter states.

 
Duane Shank 3-05-2012
 Photo by Przemek Tokar/Shutterstock.com.

Special forces troops patrol in the smoke. Photo by Przemek Tokar/Shutterstock.com.

While compiling the morning “Daily Digest,” I often recall  the advice of Karl Barth, who is said to have told young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

There are many mornings that Jesus’ advice comes to mind after reading the news. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come (Mark 13:7). While I am not an end times apocalyptic, there are days that Jesus’ prophecy seems all too real.

Omid Safi 2-07-2012

It seems like every day we hear from another politician saying that “we are ready to attack Iran if necessary," or from another pundit full of hot air telling us why we should invade Iran right now.

The presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has said that he would support “something of a surgical-strike nature, to something of a ‘decapitate the regime’ nature to eliminate the military threat of Iran altogether.” President Obama has said:   “Every option is on the table.” All of these conversations typically go along the lines of emphasizing how Iran poses a serious and immediate threat to the United States.

As was the case in the conversations leading up to the 2003 Iraq war, there is much heat, and not a whole lot of light.

CAIRO, Egypt — From her home, Samia Ramsis holds a key chain bearing the face of the Virgin Mary as visitors outside come to look upon the spot where Egypt's Coptic Christians believe Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus found refuge after fleeing Bethlehem.
   
Once crowded with Christians, Cairo's Coptic quarter where she lives with her husband, Mounir, and two children is now home to fewer than 50 Christian families.
   
"We know many Christians have left," said Mounir Ramsis, speaking not only about this quarter but about all of Egypt. "But we love this country and will stay until death."
   
The Arab Spring uprisings that toppled secular dictatorships have unleashed long-suppressed freedoms that have allowed Islamic parties to gain a share of political power they have been denied for decades. Their rise is creating near-panic among ancient Christian communities that dot the Muslim world and predate Islam by centuries.

Gary M. Burge 12-12-2011

Ridiculous. Ignorant. Racist. Dangerous. 

These are just a few of the terms that flew out of the Middle East this weekend following Newt Gingrich’s unwelcome remarks about Israel and the Palestinians on Friday.

As the Republican front-runner, Gingrich was speaking to the cable TV Jewish Channel and hoping to curry favor with its conservative pro-Israel constituency. 

What did he do? He described the Palestinians as an “invented people” and lumped every Palestinian under the terrorist umbrella. There is no difference between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, he said.

On Saturday night during the ABC Republican debate, Gingrich doubled-down: “They [the Palestinians] are all terrorists.”

A few of the other candidates looked, well, alarmed.

 

Jeannie Choi 12-01-2011

An Arab Christian works -- person by person and block by block -- to bring Muslims and Christians together in Jordan.

Lynne Hybels 10-07-2011
Lynne Hybels

Lynne Hybels

Increasingly, in meetings focused on a wide variety of human tragedies, I hear these words: "What are you doing here? I didn't think evangelicals cared about these things."

I understand those comments. I grew up in a form of Christianity in which "saving souls" was pretty much all that mattered. The God I discovered in that church was a harsh, demanding tyrant; I knew that if I wanted to earn God's love I would have to be very good, follow all the rules, and work very hard. As a devout adolescent I did that. As a young pastor's wife I did that.

Unfortunately, I worked a little too hard and eventually became utterly exhausted, seriously depressed, and physically sick. That plunged me into a total life crisis in which I felt compelled to give up the God of my childhood.

Fortunately, a wise friend said to me, "For a while, forget everything you've ever thought about Christianity; forget the Old Testament; forget Paul and the epistles-and just read Jesus."

So for months -- for years actually -- I just read Jesus. And slowly but surely, Jesus reshaped my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.

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