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Spring Storms

19 Apr 2013

Many outcomes are possible across the ‘Arab Spring'

Noel Weeks, Professor of history at Sydney University is chairman of MERF Australia.

[Insightful analysis of events in the Middle East by Christian historian, Dr. Noel Weeks is reprinted, with permission from Australian Christian periodical AP]

Anybody who thinks history is irrelevant should follow closely the events consuming many Arab countries at the moment and the attitudes of Western governments and commentators to those events. It can be argued that the West is seeing the events in terms of its own dominant theory of history and ignoring the alternate possibilities.

The Western hailing of the turmoil as a "Spring" flows from reading the movements as democratic with all that connotes in the Western mind: free, progressive, secular. In turn that flows from a theory that sees democracy as the inevitable direction of history. The Arab world is following us in demanding freedom and rights.

[Historical Background]

A little knowledge of history, especially of history as experienced by Arab peoples, might allow other possibilities. And that is not to deny the reality of Western influences in what is happening.

As a start this is not the first movement in living memory which owes something to Western influence. When European imperial powers such as Britain, France and Italy withdrew progressively after World War II from the sections of the Arab world they had dominated, Arab thinkers saw the possibility of the resurgence of Arabic culture and power to the position of influence it had known in the Middle Ages. Coming together in that movement were memories of the former greatness of Arab civilization, the importation of nationalistic ideas from the West and a sense of resentment at the outside powers who had held them in subjection during the age of European empires.

Since the great age of Arab power had been under Islam, that was the model, yet the movement was not sectarian. One of the founders was Michel Aflaq, who was a member of an Arabic-speaking church whose lineage goes all the way back to the church of the Eastern Roman Empire. The aim was to unite Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shi'ite, in a movement whose characteristics were that it was Arab, non-sectarian and democratic. Hence arose Pan-Arabism, the United Arab Republic and the Ba'ath Party.

What happened to that great dream? Saddam Hussein and the Assad family in Syria were, or are, the remnants of it, claiming Ba'ath affiliation. Yet both represent a form of military dictatorship built around a religious minority. If there is a remnant of the Ba'ath lineage it is in their attitude of toleration to the Christian church. Egypt and Libya were also military dictatorships. The fall of Saddam unleashed a wave of persecution of Christians in Iraq that forced a very large proportion to flee the country. There is a very real prospect that the same could happen in Syria, if Assad falls. There are ominous signs of a similar threat in the new Egypt.

There are unavoidable questions arising from this history. Some actions of the Pan-Arabists may not have pleased some in the West, such as Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, but on the whole its objective was Western-style governments. Why in country after country were they replaced by military dictatorships? Is relatively stable democracy not the future to which all must come, but rather the product of special circumstances?

Looking at countries such as Japan and India, it would be foolish to argue that Christianity is the sole preparation for democracy, but one can argue that it is one such preparation. Of course Western governments and commentators determined on secularization and immorality cannot allow that democracy might need an ethos, for which Christianity is a preparation.

Yet a lapse back into military dictatorship is not the only possibility. The great Arabic culture of the Middle Ages produced a brilliant analysis of the dynamics of the Islamic cultures of western North Africa: The Muqaddimah (Introduction to History) by Ibn Khaldun. He observed that dynasties tended to become corrupt and senile, estranged from the population and oppressive. As that happened so their grip on power slackened until there arose a group united by a purer religious faith. That group would overthrow the old and corrupt dynasty and establish their own, which in turn would eventually succumb to the same cycle.

[Islamic Revolutions]

A prominent British Jewish figure, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has suggested that Ibn Khaldun is a significant influence upon al-Qaeda. A movement motivated by Islam defeated the Russians in Afghanistan and, partly as a consequence of that defeat, Soviet Communism collapsed. Now they are fighting against corrupt Western governments and also against the corrupt regimes which support the West, such as in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

I have no special insight into the motivations of al-Qaeda, but the significant thing is that the dynamics of that movement conform to the pattern recognized by Ibn Khaldun: a revolutionary movement inspired by a "purer" form of Islam that seeks to overthrow regimes it sees as corrupt and those who support them.

Let us not deny the fact that their view of many Arab governments and particularly of the West as corrupt is plausible. One of the immediate consequences of the Allied attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the flood of pornography unleashed upon the country. Such corruption is symptomatic of the West in the eyes of strict Muslims, and they are not wrong.

Therefore one of the possible consequences of what is happening in the "Arab Spring" is the establishment of Islamicist movements in power. There is evidence that that is what is happening in Libya where one of the first acts of the new regime was to legalize polygamy, which Gaddafi had opposed. It is ironic that this is the country where the West played the greatest role in defeating the old regime.

I spoke previously of Christianity as providing the conditions for successful democracy. One of those preconditions is that the successful party must govern for the good of, and in the interests of, the whole nation; not just of the group which supported it. That flows from God's command to us to do good to all men. That Christian ethos is not commonly accepted. Where sectarian and tribal mentalities prevail the more common thing is to punish the opponents.

A radical Islamic party winning means persecution. In turn that means the party presently in power must use all means to stay in power, knowing that to lose power is a death sentence. Hence the brutality with which the Alawis in Syria and the Sunnis in the Gulf states have clung to power. That is not to approve what has happened there. It is simply asking whether the West has a practical contingency plan, if a change of government in any of those places unleashes a bloodbath.

[Another alternative]

There is another alternative. Many people in these countries do not want Islam, particularly the more legalistic forms of Islam. That may be partly because they have been influenced by Western secularism, but it also flows from experience. Islam is now deeply unpopular in Iran. Hence a great interest in Christianity that at the moment is being held down by political and social pressure. Mass turnings to Christ are a real possibility. Please note that that anticipation is coming from native Christians involved in these countries.

So what will be the outcome of the "Arab Spring"? Military dictatorships, maybe immediately, maybe as a result of attempts at democracy descending into chaos? Or radical Islamic regimes opposed to the church, to the West and to forms of Islam that are not their form; hence persecution and mass migrations such as has happened with Christians from Iraq as a result of the bungled Western attack? Or revival of the church and turning to Christ whether directly or in reaction to legalistic Islam? Maybe an Islam-wide war of Sunni against Shi'ite with stupid Western governments taking sides? We simply do not know what will happen and all these outcomes are quite possible in different places. Personally, I would put Western-style democracies as lowest on the list of possibilities.

[Dr Noel Weeks earned a B.Sc. (Honors in Zoology) from the University of New England, Armidale (Australia), a B.D. and Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. (Mediterranean Studies, dealing with some of the Nuzi texts) from Brandeis Univeristy, Massachusetts. He is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Sydney, and is an Associate of their Department of Classics and Ancient History]

Learn more about the work of MERF and its ministries through a variety of articles. These deal both with current work and the history of missions in the Middle East.


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