As dictator after dictator was deposed in North Africa, people around the world began to talk about the “Arab Spring.” Many claim that what was happening in countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt represented the emergence of participatory democracy. Those of us who were political activists during the 60s believed that the call “All power to the people!” was being heeded. The problem was that we never asked who the people were and what the people wanted.
We are inclined to believe that democracy is when the majority rules and free elections take place wherein every citizen has the right to vote. That, indeed, is a very superficial definition of democracy. At least we should add to that statement that democracy requires a political system wherein it is safe to be in the minority.
After American-led forces deposed Saddam Hussein (who, incidentally, provided protection for the Christian community, giving them freedom of worship and freedom to evangelize), a free election was held and the Shi’ites came to power. Immediately the Shi’ite government was in place, they established Iraq as an Islamic republic, which denied Christians many of the rights they had previously enjoyed. What is worse, Christians have experienced tremendous persecution at the hands of the democratically elected majority government. There were once 1, 500, 000 Christians in Iraq. Today, it is down to about 500, 000. Churches are being burned down in Baghdad for the first time in 1500 years and massive numbers of Christians have become refugees in places like Jordan where they live on the verge of starvation.
In Egypt, where another dictator was deposed, the emerging majority rule has disintegrated into mob rule. Again, we see that churches are being torched and scores of Christians are being slain while the military stands idly by, watching the massacres. The Christians chose to stage a protest march of their own. They were mowed down by Egyptian gunfire. All of a sudden, it wasn’t safe to be of a minority religion in Egypt.
Right now, pressure is being put on President Assad, the dictator who rules Syria. In spite of the tyranny he has exercised over the populace of his country, the Christians of Syria have been reluctant to join in the efforts to overthrow Assad because he guaranteed them freedom of religion and protected their churches and their people. It’s a terrible thing to choose between participatory democracy and the freedom to live out your faith without persecution, but that’s what the people of Syria are being asked to do.
Over and over again, in each of the revolutions in Northern Africa, we were told that the moderate Muslims would win out and create fair and just rule for all people, but in each and every case, we have witnessed the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood who are well organized and able to usurp power. This extremist group has no patience or tolerance for Christians.
Samuel Huntington, one-time professor of political science at Harvard University, predicted that sometime in the 21st century there could arise a war between the Islamic nations and the western world. Many scoff at this, but more and more I have come to believe that it could happen, especially as radicals in the Islamic community gain control of governments. History is often controlled by disciplined minorities.
This blog is by no means intended to encourage islamophobia. What it is supposed to do is to stimulate us to look for alternatives to Huntington’s prediction that can begin right here in the United States and in other countries in the western world. It begins by establishing close relationships with moderate Muslims in our own communities and asking how we can work together to curtail extremism. It must be noted that Muslims here in America are as frightened by Christian extremists as Christians in North Africa are frightened by Muslim extremists. By establishing close relationships with Muslim brothers and sisters, we Christians can work together to negate the extremism in our respective religious communities.
In Great Britain, where islamophobia has picked up incredible momentum, I have urged, through my radio show, “Across the Pond, ” which is broadcast across the United Kingdom, for moderate Muslims to organize a march on Trafalgar Square, protesting the behavior of extremists in their own community and demonstrating that they are true citizens of the United Kingdom, and their loyalty to their adopted nation. The rest of the United Kingdom needs some evidence of the massive support that most Muslims in their country have for the British government and for the freedoms they, themselves, enjoy.
Muslims in the United States and in other western countries must begin to call for Muslim nations, such as Malaysia, to grant to Christians and to other religious groups the same freedoms that they enjoy here in our country and in the other countries of the western world. Religious freedom should be everywhere evident. Christians in places like Malaysia should be able to evangelize anyone, anywhere, with the Gospel without fear of being arrested and even put to death. When persons from the Middle East come to America, they enjoy great freedoms. We have a right to ask them if they are willing to work for the same kind of freedoms in their country of origin.
These are difficult days. It’s easy to get swept away by the populace without asking some severe questions about religious freedom. In the Arab Spring, there doesn’t seem to be much freedom of religion emerging, and we had better stand up, take notice, and do something to stop the tendencies towards religious persecution that we are beginning to see evident in those places.
Tony Campolo is the Founder and President of EAPE and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University. Look for Tony in your area and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.