How to read the "Arab Spring"

By Rania Giacaman Murra, Pax Christi International Board Member and Coordinator of the Sumud Story House, Arab Educational Institute, Palestine

 

Eph. 6:10:[12] For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

With this teaching from the Apostles we as Palestinian and Arab Christians try to find our way in what is called the “Arab Spring” – this contemporary period in which revolt has seemed to be the only thing to do against oppression and injustice.

The Arab youth, the poor and the oppressed revolted against the authorities and resisted corruption and violations of human rights and dignity. Hence the “Arab spring” - initially a dream many longed for - became a reality through the scenes we witnessed at Tahrir Square in Egypt: youth rebelling and raising slogans of justice, freedom, democracy, and demanding a civil state. We witnessed remarkable signs of coexistence between Christians and Muslims when we saw the demonstrators lifting the cross next to the Koran and when Christian youth were protected by their Muslim brethren while praying, as well as during the firm stand of some Muslims with their Christian brothers in front of Maspeero in Cairo where the asphalt became mixed with blood.

We can only say that afterwards disappointment sank in when we started seeing certain parties and traditional trends getting back on top of the new leadership and riding the wave of “change” supported by foreign powers and other old Arab regimes and their tools of influence. Manipulative money and media made us skeptical and more concerned about how genuine the revolutions were, even though they were launched as a result of real challenges in the society and were embedded in the experiences of well-networked young activists. We saw the continued military rule in Egypt. Elections came and a new movement emerged in Tunisia, where the Islamic Revival Party won. In Egypt, the Freedom and Justice party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafists increased their power while the liberal parties did not obtain enough votes. All this increasingly worried Christians and many Arabs. We started questioning the feasibility and the future of this so-called spring on the Christians in Palestine and the Arab countries. We started looking at the components and the motives and supportive pillars of this movement. From here we started analyzing what came in the wake of the eruptions of natural revolt of the poor and the young and how their energy became the leverage for the ambitions and goals of certain political regimes and parties. Even the term "Arab Spring" turned out to be imported. Election results were unlike what was advocated by Mohammed, Fatima, Marcus, Mary and Antonius... There's still blood in the streets next to Sahet Al Tahrir.

Continuing the reading of the Arab spring, we went to research in our own community to find out about the views of young Palestinian Christians and try to identify the repercussions of the revolutions on the future of Christians in the Arab countries and the future of co-existence. AEI-Open Windows conducted a series of individual and group interviews in youth groups of both sexes and religions and came out with a variety of views that show diverse directions of thinking.

Some young people were affected by the opinions of some leaders of the Eastern and Western Churches. As Arabs and Palestinians with a Christian identity some agreed with statements of Mar Butro El Ra’I, the Patriarch of the Maronites in Lebanon, when he said: "We must give the leaders of Arab regimes more time to make reforms.” He also said that “there is a fear of strengthening the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region as they are reclaiming power in the Arab world, which threatens the Christian presence in the East."

On the other hand, some criticized the opinion of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Anglican Church in Britain), Rowan Williams, who stated that the Arab spring might increase the persecution of Christians and the emergence of Muslim extremists. Others agreed strongly with the opinion of Dr. David Youssef in an interview during the meeting of the Council of Churches in Beirut, where he called for more awareness of the Christians and active participation in social, political, and cultural life. He stressed the need to effectively participate in elections and in the planning for a better future in which Christians should play a key part in projects securing livelihood and resilience of all people, including Christians, to prevent further migration.

The following views and attitudes of young people came foreword in the aforementioned interviews:

  • Christians and Muslims are together in this revolution because they are equal, and because they are part and parcel of the revolutions.
  • Syrian Christians are protected by the regime. Are Christian Palestinians also protected by the regime?!
  • We must raise our children on national values and an ethos of co-existence to achieve common goals that will change over time.
  • Some are afraid… there are limitations to exercise liberties and religious practices in some Arab countries which are protected by the West like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
  • Whatever the results of these revolutions, we have to resist and keep our rights and be recognized as Christians.
  • We have to accept reality and try to adapt to change. We are concerned that we will be respected as Christians in the beginning, but later on be considered second-class citizens, and some regimes might ask us to pay extra taxes.
  • Iran and the Gulf states have played a funding role in this “Spring”.
  • Since the outbreak of the Arab spring, the attacks and insults against us and the Cross have increased.
  • I see that the impact of the Arab spring will be ethnic cleansing on religious and denominational grounds, Shiites vs. Sunnis etc.
  • Some people believe that the Arab spring created chaos and lack of security and stability, and that this opened the door for new attacks against civilians.
  • Fear emerged because of our internal divisions as Christians. We are a minority caught in crisis. There is tension between our thirst for Christian unity, for freedom, democracy and justice of all kinds on the one hand, and our fear of radical Islam and politics on the other.
  • After the revolutions, waves of emigration started again, affecting the diversity of our national identities and leading to tensions in the fabric of civil society.
  • Some viewed the revolutions as a new page for new parties.
  • I think that the absence of unifying parties leads to a situation that parties and factions form coalitions along religious lines. This creates more fears and concern among Arab Christians.
  • As Christians, we must participate and engage in all government institutions and social and political changes to bring about peaceful, democratic and civilian authorities.
  • The Arab spring is a result of foreign interference, and political-economic domination by countries that are motivated by arrogance and a drive for hegemony.
  • After the Arab spring we see disintegration, fragmentation and sectarian conflicts, as well as tribal, religious, and political chaos. It is an “Arab Autumn”.
  • The problem is not in the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as such, but their insistence to apply Sharia on all.
  • We are Christians and better emigrate than being forced out.

Many Palestinians who are involved in political life and in the Church have developed their opinions over the last few years. Despite all the fears, and although they represent a small minority within the Christian minority in the Arab countries, they are convinced that it is time for change and reform. We witnessed decades of political, social, religious, tribal and family constraints and repression. These decades delivered neither independence, nor freedom from occupation, or equality between men and women and between different faiths. There is a real need for change and reform at all levels to break the barriers of fear and raise the voices demanding freedom, justice and democracy. This should be in cooperation with all segments of society. Foreign intervention should not be permitted. Although the implications and consequences of the elections in Tunisia, Egypt and the events in Libya have been disappointing, Arab Christians and liberal Muslims should not surrender to these consequences. Rather, we should continue to participate and practice our rights to reform and equality as partners and authentic components of the fabric of the Arab world.

The question remains whether these revolutions will lead to the establishment of democratic governments supportive of full equality before the law. Or will systems be manipulated according to the moods of extremists?

These questions are faced by the Arab Christians living the Arab spring. Outcomes and indicators seem at the present time uncertain, all the more so with the recent developments in Egypt.

We may be in the first round and perhaps more rounds are to come... The rebellion will not calm until what is just becomes a fact. What has been witnessed so far indicates that a “civil state for all its citizens” remains a goal still to be accomplished. Perhaps it is a first round and perhaps we have to give the new rulers some time. Soon there may be another round – and hopefully the last.

We as Arab Christians are demanded to stand up for our faith. We hope to work for a change because we belong to this nation and society even though we are a minority.

We want an Arab Spring that is not imported. We will keep resisting tyranny and injustice. We want an end to occupation and fragmentation. We want national projects and a new vision at all levels, especially in regard to the constitution and legislation that affects Christians. We want to live in partnership with our fellow Muslim citizens in freedom and equality. This way we will keep witness of Christ at home, and serve our nations and enjoy our full rights.

We urge the church, as the foundation of Christian education, to teach our youth how to survive and stay on the ground, engage in nonviolent activities to recover the land of our Lord, and promote a culture of openness to others and participate in political life. We demand that the churches in the West press their governments to support the liberation of Palestine and the establishment of an independent, non-religious democratic state with justice and equality.