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THE MIDEAST: What are uprisings all about?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of a three-part exploration of events in the Middle East by Mike Edens, professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and an emeritus missionary who served 25 years in the Middle East with Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board.

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–“What are the uprisings all about?”

This question regarding the Arab world, posed in a theology class I have been teaching in a Southern Baptist church, is complex enough and entails somewhat of a guess on my part. But we need to start with a different question: What is God up to in the Mideast and North Africa?

We believe that the God of the Bible is the author of all humanity, composed of our families, nations, cultures and history. He currently is bringing all things to the proper conclusion according to His judgment and timing. God is working in various ways to reveal Himself and His will to all people primarily through His church, the Bible and His presence — the Holy Spirit. Also, He increases in every person a hunger which can only be satisfied by a relationship with Himself in Christ Jesus. Without a witness of Jesus as the “bread of heaven” sent to address humanity’s hunger for purpose, dignity and meaning, people will feed on other less satisfying “food.”

Part of this current uprising, then, may be a cry for recognition of this hunger inherent in every person as God’s creation.

However, other factors are also at work. As evidence, consider that the simultaneous uprising across the various national boundaries is historically rare. The short list would include the formation of European states at the beginning of the modern era, the communist uprisings across the world, and the formation of post-colonial sub-Saharan African nations (both of the latter occurring in the years between the two world wars) and the breakdown of the Soviet empire following the Polish shipyard strikes. These instances of broad disturbance of social and national fabric are each very different, yet all express the interaction of strong internal and external factors which resulted in long-term consequences for the world as well as the indigenous people directly involved.

So, in the current unrest of the Arab world, external and internal factors are apparent. The external factors are universal to the whole region. European and American diplomats created Middle Eastern nation states to fill the vacuum of failed governments after the two world wars. These diplomats did not consider, however, that the new national borders dissected nomadic tribal migration routes and in other cases forced together tribes with histories of conflict. Instead, to provide cohesion, the diplomats devised strong central governments. To develop the people, they established universities. Commerce and communication services were established and upgraded. All of these externally supplied and locally implemented factors have played important parts in the birthing and nurturing of the various national uprisings blossoming across the region.

A second set of external factors is abstract and interacts with the nation states that were imposed on the region. The reality of the Internet and social networking is just the tip of an iceberg of the information age which has swept the region. The world of ideas has been thrown open to the Arab world. Education, global commerce, transportation and communication (especially since online translation of world languages is available) have exposed the people to standards and ideals of the entire human family for comparison with local norms. A young parent in Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt or Tunisia can easily and fairly accurately understand the hopes and aspirations of her peers in China, France, Peru, South Africa or Canada. In addition, events and ideas within the region can be compared and contrasted. To illustrate the rapidity of this change, imagine being in Lebanon in the early 1990s. Few working telephones existed after decades of civil war. However, within a decade the wireless revolution had connected the Lebanese to the world through cell phones, computers and the Internet. People who had not been able to place a phone call across Beirut were able to “brainstorm” quickly with the rest of the world. Additionally, these external factors have become intense during the global financial stress of recent years.

Although internal factors are unique in each of the countries of the region, they can be talked about in general terms. The national expression and balance varies.

In the global village of today’s culture, Arab youth have easily seen their limited prospects for a better life under existing governments. They are dissatisfied and frustrated with the status quo. They have observed as corrupt officials have raided national resources for personal purposes. They have experienced the abuse of power as special police units have held their own behavior above the law and constitution which they swore to uphold.

The lack of confidence among Arab youth in government officials and their hopelessness were personified when Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze on Dec 17. He had lost his means of income when government agents confiscated his vegetable cart. Having no hope of supporting his sister and family, he went to the governor’s office and set fire to himself. Nineteen days later, Bouazizi died. His action expressed a generation’s outrage at governmental injustice and the hopelessness of thousands of young men and women. They observe the rule of law elsewhere and hunger to voice their grievances and desire for justice.

Essentially, the uprisings in the Arab world are demands for human respect from those who govern them. They express hope that their children might be able to lead lives filled with basic human dignity. The mood in Egypt’s Tahrir (liberation) Square communicates this expectation. As they called for the overthrow of a corrupted president, they called to one another, “Hold your head high; you are an Egyptian!” They earned the respect of their military and the world in their dignified and united stand for a better future.

We pray that God may grant them a bright future. However, the better life may not come with the prosperity that they think will bring it. The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, has given this wounded yet great city a rallying cry: “Let us find higher common ground!” That is really what the people of the Arab world are seeking — higher ground to share. Higher paying jobs and better cars do not really result in a better life, just more “stuff.” The best life is lived in faith in Jesus Christ.

The God of the Bible has been seeking to lift the peoples of the world as well as this region to higher ground in Christ. He has been doing that and continues to do that during times of war and peace, prosperity and poverty. He is the true King and all persons will answer to Him for our conduct of this life.
For Mike Edens’ initial article in this series, titled “Are radical governments on the horizon?” go to www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=34845. For the second article, titled “Christian minorities & the risks they face under Islamic rule,” go to www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=34899.

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  • Mike Edens