For several weeks, Friday has marked the day of street protests in several Arab countries who are demonstrating against very brutal regimes. As many of you know, I work for a company owned by three Syrian brothers whom I have come to know and value as friends. It is hard for us Americans to rid ourselves of the mindset that all Arabs are Muslims, and all Arab Muslims are terrorists, bent on destroying the U.S. I’m sorry that I almost came to believe this myself, influenced heavily as I was by an inadequate and untruthful media in America.
Seeing some of the unreported violence firsthand through my coworkers’ cell phone feeds and services such as Skype, it is quite convincing that we do not have the whole story, not even close. It is however starting to come out in the American press that these are truly pro-democracy movements, and they do indeed signify a rejection of the terroristic philosophy of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. There is as much relief among my Arab friends at the death of OBL as there is even among most Americans.
I have lived 56 years so far, and I have been slow to accept that my predisposition toward Arab Muslims and the unholy alliances with terrorist organizations was based on ignorance and shallow reporting by the American press.
I recall what a former mentor of mine, Frank Mabee, my Area Minister when I served in Houston as a pastor, said upon one of his return trips from the Middle East. Frank, who was quite analytical and knowledgable about political issues, told me that we have it all wrong when it comes to the Middle East. We have supported Israel, almost without question, even at the expense of our position on human rights and freedom vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
Frank’s report was very much at odds with the “Christian” presuppositions I had held regarding Israel. But, because I trusted Frank, and because I found myself coming around to his way of thinking so many times, I began to see more and more how my former opinions had been shaped by a false interpretive view of Christian scriptures, namely that the references in scripture regarding Israel as “God’s chosen ones” refers to the state of Israel. In the New Testament, Paul clears this up rather pointedly by teaching that the “true Israel” is made up of those persons who are “justified by faith” not by citizenship in the earthly state of Israel. Unfortunately, American Christianity was shaped more by Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great, Planet Earth, published in 1970, than by our own scriptures; thus, our political preference has historically been in support of the state of Israel, believing that this was the right thing to do because it’s God’s desire to treat the state of Israel as special among the nations of the earth. Unfortunately, this has caused a great deal of conflict and violence as we have seen fit to ally ourselves with Israel regardless of what they do. I think it is right to distance ourselves from this blind policy because much of its force is based on false interpretive rhetoric.
One thing has been clear to me for a very long time: American commitment to global human rights is almost always trumped by the commitment to American economic advantage and growth. The easy examples are China, South Africa, Central America, but there are others. Egypt, for example, under Mubarak suffered from brutality for decades without recourse from the United States. Mubarak was westernized in appearance and honored the Camp David accords, so by all appearances was playing his cards right with regard to American interests. In Syria, the brutality of former president Hafez al-Assad was well-known to American presidents. Publicly, we had no relationship with him, but the tacit laissez-faire policy was, “we’ll ignore your brutality on your own people if you just stay away from Israel”…and they did.
I’m a believer in truth. I believe that untruth comes home to roost. With the events unfolding in what is now being called the “Arab Spring” Americans are having to deal with new political realities in the Middle East. And, just as the old “cold war” paradigm is no longer valid with regard to our relationship with the old Soviet Union, now Russia and other states, the old Arab paradigm is getting increasingly complicated.
To sit on our hands during the pro-democracy movements in the Arab world is to commit to a policy of political hypocrisy. If we cannot support the morally superior value of Democracy, then our celebration of July 4th is hollow and should be relegated to one of the lesser holidays on the calendar. Furthermore, if we cannot support Democracy in the Arab world because of the predominance of Islam in those nations, then what does it say about the ideal of religious pluralism here at home? This, too, I’m afraid, becomes a rather shallow ideal.
I’m not sure how honest we can be about our own values. Again, economic interests as well as interpretive problems within the Christian faith, have dictated our course.
As wrong as I believe President Obama is with regard to health care and economics, in the end, I am wondering whether his Middle East policy will be more agreeable to me than the policies of our recent former presidents. I want to be clear about this: I am opposed to military intervention in the Middle East at this point in time. However, publicly, and at the substantial risk of political suicide, the president is beginning to be more vocal about his support of the Arab Democracy movements. We should drop our political partisanship and support Obama in this.
Not knowing what will happen today in the Arab world, it is clear that the democracy movements are increasing. In Syria alone, they are probably at the point of no return. Finding our voice in these conflicts will be difficult, but silence, or worse, the tacit support of brutal regimes, is not an acceptable outcome for American political activists, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. Most of all, it is time for utter honesty about who we are and what values we hold to be dearest to us.
Written by Todd Thompson