by Elias Ghazal
Last week, my brother and his family travelled from Canada to Lebanon for a visit. My brother is no stranger to life in Lebanon. Although he never lived in Lebanon for an extended period, he grew up in the Middle East and he is very familiar with its regimes. He witnessed the fragility of the Lebanese system when he was visiting in 2006 and the Israel-Hezbollah war broke out. To his dismay, he was visiting Lebanon again in 2008 when the conflict of May 7 erupted, which nearly drove the country into a second civil war. He has probably seen the worst of Lebanon in recent history, but is there any good?
A few days ago, we went for a ride together to get some government paperwork done. On the way, he expressed his bitter frustration with the situation in Lebanon and the level of corruption that has infested the country. I tried to reason with him that despite the extra-long list of wrongs, there are promising signs of change. I told him about the increasing number of civic movements in the country and how they are gaining popularity. In response, he explained that these movements will not be able to stand in the face of cunning politicians and well-networked feudal lords. They will eventually be co-opted by corrupt officials or be pushed out of their way to oblivion. In the end, he felt that the situation is hopeless, and any semblance of hope is false hope.
Though it sounds cynical, I think my brother’s attitude towards the Middle East is shared by many of its residents. People feel helpless and disempowered to bring about positive transformation. Despair often strikes young people’s hearts and it either cripples them or forces them to seek better living conditions and work opportunities abroad. In truth, it takes more than mere hope to stay in the region and make a difference. It requires patience, endurance, encouragement, prayers, a clear sense of purpose, and eyes of faith. More on that in a bit.
Yet, what I find most troubling is the reason many people give to explain the grim state of affairs in the Middle East. Islam, they would unabashedly say, is at the root of all the Middle East’s problems. Real progressive change is impossible in the Arab world because Islam, the predominant religion there, is a backward religion. It is worldly, irrational, violent, oppressive, discriminatory, misogynistic…etc. and the list could go on and on. They insist that Islam as a political and social system is archaic and ill-fitted for our modern day. They point to groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafi movements as the real manifestations of Islam. By doing so, they hold every Muslim suspect of a greater radicalization project, where the ultimate objective is to topple the established world order, and replace it with an Islamic one, at any expense and by all means necessary.
At best, this framework of thinking leads to hostility towards Muslims. At worst, it calls for preemptive measures to curtail the expansion of Islamic activities in the world. The clearest example of this is Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban on all Muslim travel to America. The US is not an exception here, nor is Trump a special case. We see the tension play out in the variety of attacks Western governments have been getting from their own citizens for welcoming and settling Muslim refugees in their territories. A more recent example of this could also be spotted in the negative reactions towards Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London, who is Muslim. Global attitude towards Islam is extremely negative, and I think it impacts the stability of every country that has a sizable Muslim population.
Back to the Middle East. To say that Islam is the problem is a gross oversimplification. To be sure, there are multiple shades of Islam. Why is the most violent reading of Quran the true face of Islam? Numerically, extremist groups represent a minority of the Muslim world. Plus, more than 20 major Islamic bodies around the world made different statements to condemn ISIS, and by extension any groups that engage in similar activities. By contrast, why not consider the examples of Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates as the true face of Islam? They are certainly not perfect, but both countries are overwhelmingly Muslim, and they offer modern and stable forms of governance.
I am not trying to defend Islam or make a statement about its truthfulness. My concern is Christians’ attitude towards the Middle East. To believe that Islam is the problem will lead to hopelessness and despair since Islam is nearing omnipresence. At the same time, exempting Islam from all responsibility for the ills of the region will not brighten the situation. Herein, I think, lies the crux of the problem. We subconsciously look at difficult situations with a problem-solving attitude. When the problem confounds us or the solution evades us or is too difficult to implement, we get frustrated, offer half-hearted solutions, or quit altogether. So, what if we have a different approach to the Middle East where the problem is not the problem; the problem is our attitude towards the problem!
The apostle Paul was no stranger to difficult situations. He wrote to the church in Corinth about one episode of his hardship. He said,
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor 1: 8-9a).
So difficult was the situation that it left him without any hope of survival. Yet, instead of entering into problem-solving mode, and trying to figure out what the root problem is, he shifts his focus on God. He writes,
“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us (2 Cor 1: 9b-10).
Paul saw his hardships as an opportunity to grow in his dependence on God, and a chance to experience the power of Him who raises the dead. He was not distracted by what forces were behind his troubles, or how to stop them. Instead, he turned his eyes upward to God. As a result, his faith in God increased and his hope in God’s deliverance was strengthened. Not only so, but he was better prepared to face more difficult situations, knowing that the almighty God was on his side, and that he can rely on Him.
Christians seeking to do the will of God in the Middle East have a tough task. They are called to speak the truth and do good works in the midst of a hostile environment. Rampant corruption will make it challenging to simply live an ethical life. The threat of imminent persecution will plant fear and despair in their hearts. Left to our human tendency, we would be inclined to explore what the root problem behind our situation is and try to address it directly. However, with so many problems surrounding us, I think this approach will demotivate us, and lead us to a dead end. Instead of adopting a problem-solving attitude towards the region, I think an attitude that seeks to grow spiritually and experience the almighty God will help us endure the various hardships.
We are more or less comfortable to look to God for the salvation of our soul. We love God because he absolves us from our sins, and renders us righteous through Christ. We trust that Jesus is our only savior and the only way to heaven. We are happy to submit our spiritual life to God, but not so easily our daily life! When we face a difficult situation our first instinct is to try and resolve it with our own strength. We don’t cry to God for help because we think we can handle it. We end up crying to God when we fail to remedy the situation. This attitude will not serve us well, especially in the Middle East where problems are so complex and require institutional and constitutional reform.
However, if we are armed with an attitude that God is our savior from all our problems, although our problems won’t magically disappear, we will experience God’s deliverance. We will also be better prepared to bring positive transformation to the region, and ultimately see its problems resolved by the God who defies the biggest human problem, death.