[notice]An analysis of the headline-grabbing developments in the Middle East, by Dr Peter Hammond, founder and Director of Frontline Fellowship and and an evangelist to Muslims and a Missionary to restricted access areas for over 29 years.[/notice]
The tidal waves of protests and riots convulsing capitals throughout the Arab world herald a seismic shift in world politics. More than a million demonstrators on the streets of a single capital, day after day, calling for the resignation of authoritarian leaders, some of whom have been in power for decades, is creating consternation, not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world.
Tunisia was the first Arab domino to fall. Tunisia has often been an exception. Tunisia was the first Arab country to abolish slavery, in 1848; the first Arab country to adopt a Constitution, in 1861; the first Arab country to abolish polygamy, in 1956. Now it is the first Arab country to remove a dictator without external help, in 2011.
Tunisia has only had two presidents since its independence from France in 1956. Exploding public anger at blatant corruption and sharp rises in prices sparked initial protests in December.
In January, the sudden flight of President Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia, after 23 years of dictatorial rule, made possible the return from exile in London of Rachid Ghannouchi to assume interim control of the troubled country. However, as the interim government consists of numerous ex-ministers from the previous regime, and as the economic crises which sparked the discontent in the first place remain, further instability can be expected.
Although Tunisia has no history of Islamic fundamentalism, radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are attempting to exploit the instability and hijack the popular revolution to turn Tunisia from a mostly secular state into a radical Islamicist regime.
The relative political stability under President Hosni Mubarak for over 29 years has come to an abrupt end. Mubarak’s rule has been mostly secular and pragmatic. However Islamicist groups have grown greatly in strength in the past 20 years despite harsh suppression from Mubarak’s government. Despite the ban on religious parties running in the parliamentary elections, the radical Muslim Brotherhood gained 20% of the elected parliament by running as Independents. Mubarak’s military government has since limited their number of seats by imprisoning a number of Muslim Brotherhood members of parliament.
Egypt is home to one of the most ancient civilisations in the world. Egypt is also the most important Arab country. It has the largest population of any Arab country: 84 million. Islam is the state religion. There are however over 10 million Christians, mostly Coptic Orthodox, making up 12% of the population of Egypt.
For over 1,000 years Egypt was a majority Christian population, even after the Arab Muslim conquest in AD 640. Incredibly the Egyptian church has survived 14 centuries of Islamic discrimination and persecution. Violence against Christians in Egypt has escalated sharply over the last ten years. Churches have been targeted for car bombings.
An Islamicist takeover in Egypt would be a massive crisis because the country has so much influence in the peace process with the state of Israel. Egypt is America’s key regional ally and was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel. The vital Suez Canal is controlled by Egypt.
An Islamic Awakening
Iran and Egypt severed diplomatic ties after the 1979 Revolution because of Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has compared the turmoil in Cairo to the period before the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. The popular uprising in Egypt is being described by Iranians as “An Islamic Awakening” which could lead to the establishment of an Islamicist Middle East led by Iran, dedicated to the extermination of the state of Israel.
Increasing Persecution of Christians
Along with this tidal wave of popular Islamic fanaticism on the streets of the Middle East has come a sharp increase of violent persecution of Christian communities. Many hundreds of Christians have been wounded or killed in violent attacks on Christian churches and neighbourhoods, especially in Iraq and Egypt. Tens-of-thousands of Christians are packing up and fleeing the region. Some estimates are, that more than half of the total population of Christians in Iraq have fled the country. Considering that these Christians come from communities which have survived many centuries of Islamic persecution, only to be uprooted today, show just how severe this new wave of ruthless persecution by radical Muslims has become.
The Myth of the Moderate Muslim Majority
With the crisis escalating throughout the Arab world, Western governments are facing a conundrum of their own making. For many years Western governments and media have been repeating the liberal mantra that the vast majority of Muslims are moderate and against terrorism. This is now being shown to be a self-deceiving fantasy. Surveys and opinion polls in Egypt have revealed that 59% of Egyptians back Islamicists, while only 27% back modernizers. 50% of Egyptians support the radical Hamas terrorist group. 30% of Egyptians support the even more violent and radical Hezbollah. 20% of Egyptians express support for Al Qaeda. 95% of Egyptians want greater Islamic influence in politics.
The proposed solution by Western liberals to virtually any problem worldwide, that of ballot box democracy, is plainly not going to work in the Muslim Middle East. After the American military succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq and making possible the first democratic elections in that country, the result was more radical Islamicists in power and far more severe persecution of Christians than had ever been experienced in Iraq before.
Islam and Freedom
In 2003 American President George W. Bush declared: “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are they alone never to know freedom…?” The religion of Islam does seem to be diametrically opposed to the Western world’s concept of freedom. Either Islam will die or freedom will die. The Islamic concept of freedom bears no resemblance to the Western understanding of freedom. What Islam defines as freedom most Westerners would understand as slavery. In fact that is exactly what Islamic scholars define freedom as. Ibn Arabi, a noted Islamic scholar, defined freedom as: “being perfect slavery” to Allah. The Muslim definition of freedom is submission and subjection to Shari’a law.
Oppressive Majority Rule
A 2010 Pew Opinion Survey and University of Maryland/World Opinion.org survey have found that 84% of Egyptians favour the death penalty for “apostates” (those who choose to leave Islam); 95% of Egyptians say that they want Islam to play a major role in politics. 74% of Egyptians favour a strict enforcement of Shari’a law. 67% of Egyptians favour a Caliphate (a military dictatorship uniting all Muslims under Shari’a law).
What Do They Mean by Freedom?
The fact that 90% favour “Freedom of Religion” is not considered a contradiction in Muslim eyes, because by freedom of religion they mean submission to Islam. To Westerners freedom means the exact opposite. Plainly we are not talking the same language.
Freedom for Islam Alone
Islam does not recognise any other religion as valid. What we in the West understand as Freedom of Religion, to Muslims is freedom for Islam alone.
A Clear and Present Danger
The danger of the Radical Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most virulent Islamic terrorist organisations in the world, hijacking the popular revolution in Egypt to turn that country into an Iranian style Islamicist state dedicated to the annihilation of the state of Israel and exporting radical Islam worldwide, is a very clear and present danger.
Egyptian government leaders have publicly declared their astonishment at how America’s president Obama is betraying them into the hands of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian government is shocked that the Obama administration is openly advancing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood and working for the downfall of the pro-western Mubarak regime. Mubarak has been a staunch US ally and a recipient of billions of dollars in military aid. His administration has long been considered the major stabilizing force in the volatile Arab world.
The Carter Connection
Observers are noticing that the Obama administration’s support for the revolutionaries in the streets of Cairo is strikingly reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s betrayal of American ally the Shah of Iran and support for the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran in 1979. This marked the birth of the modern Islamicist Revolution.
The Iranian Connection
Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami, on Iran’s radio Zamanea, declared: “31 Years after the victory of the Islamic Republic, we are faced with the obvious facts that these movements are the aftershocks of the Islamic Revolution. The fate of those who challenge our religion is destruction.”
An Anti-Western Revolution
The leader of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hammam Saeed, warned that the revolution in Egypt would spread across the Middle East until the Arabs succeed in toppling all leaders allied with the United States and Europe.
Fatwa and Jihad Declared
Prominent Muslim cleric Abu Mundhir Al–Shinquiti issued a Fatwa encouraging the protests in Egypt and claiming that Islamicist Jihadists were now on the verge of an historic moment, an earthquake similar to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City.
The Threat of War
The balance of power in the Middle East is about to be severely shaken and dramatically re-aligned. With the White House giving support to the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel is preparing for the worst. After years of enduring Iranian supplied kassam rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel now fears that their cities and towns could be hit with the full brunt of the Iranian arsenal, as Iran could replace the United States as Egypt’s main military supplier.
Since the 1978 Camp David Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt, US taxpayers have provided US$ 63.7 billion dollars in aid to Egypt alone. The state of Israel now fears that Egypt could become part of the Iranian pact in the Middle East along with Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. A Muslim Brotherhood take over in Egypt would herald the imposition of Shari’a law, a drastic increase in persecution of Christians and open hostility with the state of Israel.
A Clash of Civilizations
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the Knesset that the future of Egypt and that of Egypt’s ties with Israel hang in the balance: “We have two separate worlds here, two opposites, two worldviews; that of the free democratic world and that of the radical world. Which one of them will prevail in Egypt? The answer to this question is crucial to the future of Egypt, of the region and to our own future here in Israel.”
The Forces of Despotism
“The Iranian regime is not interested in seeing an Egypt that protects the rights of individuals, women and minorities. They are not interested in an enlightened Egypt that embraces the 21 st century. They want an Egypt that returns to the Middle Ages, They want an Egypt to become another Gaza, run by radical forces that oppose everything that the democratic world stands for. … We oppose the forces that seek to enforce a dark despotism, terrorism and war.”
A Trail of Terror
The Muslim Brotherhood which seems poised to hijack the popular revolution in Egypt has been responsible for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the birthing of the Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda terrorist movements, and Ayman Al-Zawahiri (Osama Bin Laden’s deputy). Al-Zawahiri grew up in the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and was jailed for his involvement in the assassination of President Sadat. Nevertheless, despite its radical statements and bloody track record, numerous Western government leaders have gone out of their way to claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is “a force for moderation” in Egypt and neither violent nor extreme!
Yemen is the poorest and least developed Arab country. It has a turbulent history of wars and conquests. The North was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918 and then an isolated feudal theocracy until the 1962 Egyptian engineered republican revolution. Aden (the South) was ruled by Britain until independence in 1967. The two countries united in 1990 with the North as the dominant partner. A Southern secessionist revolt in 1994 led to a Northern victory. The current political situation is fragile with a low intensity internal war and voices of the South clamouring for secession from the North.
86% of its 24 million population live in rural areas and literacy is only 54%. The government of president Ali Abdullah Saleh has a reputation for extreme brutality over the last 20 years. Human Rights groups document frequent use of acid and electric shocks on prisoners, and a culture of revenge killings. Yemen has become a training ground for Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. The Islamicist threat in Yemen is extremely high with the potential for a descent into a Somali style civil war.
Yemen dominates the mouth of the strategic sea route of the Red Sea and much of the shipping through the Suez Canal.
Islam is the official state religion and the legal system is based on Shari’a law. 66% of the population are Sunni and 34% Shi’ite. There is no religious freedom for the population, although expatriates are free to practice their faith, as long as they do not attempt to proselytize Muslims.
Jordan was part of the Turkish Empire until 1918 and granted independence by Great Britain in 1946. Jordan is a constitutional monarchy with King Abdullah having executive powers. Jordan is considered a moderate Arab nation and a Western ally. Sunni Islam is the state religion, but there is some tolerance of the established Christian churches. Jordan is sandwiched between Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The desert country has no natural resources of its own and depends on American aid for its survival. The prompt actions of King Abdullah of Jordan, dismissing his unpopular government and promising reforms, illustrate one way of dealing with the tide of protest.
Algeria was a colony of France for 132 years. After an extremely vicious war against France, Algeria was granted independence in 1962. A one-party socialist regime held power for over 25 years. Economic failure and political abuses provoked widespread protests which led to Islamicists winning the 1992 Election. At this the army intervened to prevent the establishment of Shari’a law. An ensuing civil war caused more than 100,000 deaths. The current president’s attempt at forging peace via the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, attempts to accommodate militant Islamicist groups to a dangerous degree. It is feared that this appeasement approach may prove disasterous in the long run.
Algeria’s gas and oil reserves, its proximity to Europe and the many millions of its citizens who live on the continent of Europe make it a strategic ally for the West. The Algerian secret police have a brutal hold on power. After decades of posturing as the anti-Western champion of the Third World, the threat of home-grown Islamicist fundamentalism pushed the secular government closer to America. Algeria harbors many fundamentalist terrorists who have launched violent attacks on France. If the grip of the secret police is weakened a radical fundamentalist Islamicist regime could seize power. As Algeria borders Tunisia, the birthplace of the recent Arab Revolution, thousands of Algerians have protested at the lack of jobs, inflation and corruption. The government promptly responded by reducing the prices of oil and sugar.
Persecution against Christians in Algeria has been intensified since 2008. Islamicist groups are increasingly intolerant of all other expressions of faith. Catholics and the Protestant Church of Algeria are the only Christian bodies officially recognised. Muslim fundamentalists are constantly agitating for the institution of Shari’a law.
Ruled by Italy from 1911 to 1943, Libya was granted independence as a monarchy in 1951. The military coup of 1969 led to a Revolutionary republic under the leadership of Muammar Qaddafi, the Arab world’s longest ruling dictator, now in his 42 nd year in power.
Sunni Islam is the state religion. Evangelism of Libyan citizens is illegal, but Christians are generally left alone unless they try to witness to Muslims. Meetings of more than 6 people are illegal.
Libya’s economy was transformed by the discovery of oil in 1959. Oil accounts for 95% of export income, but very little of this wealth trickles down to the 6.5 million population. Very high unemployment and pervasive poverty would be the basis for any serious threat. However the country is run as a military dictatorship. Any dissidents are beaten, tortured or publically hanged. Given Qaddafi’s iron grip on power it seemed unlikely that the popular revolution sweeping the Middle East would unsettle this brutal regime. Hundreds of protestors have been gunned down in Libya with Qaddafi ordering his air force to bomb, rocket and strafe these demonstrating in the streets.
Independent from French rule in 1956, Morocco has one of the oldest monarchies in the Middle East. The young King Muhammad VI has tried to present the image of a popular European styled monarch, but he is such a control freak that he recently banned a magazine because it conducted an unauthorized opinion poll that had merely confirmed his popularity! Islamicist agitation in Morocco escalated to terrorist bombings in 2003.
Sunni Islam is the state religion. Christians and Jews are tolerated, but the existence of any indigenous Moroccan church is not accepted by the government. The state carefully monitors all known Christian activity. In 2010 a large number of expatriate Christians were deported and institutions with a Christian ethos were closed. Local Christians are harassed and intimidated by police. Christians accused of proselytizing have been imprisoned. The media constantly stirs up public prejudice against the Gospel.
Syria is an unusual Arab state. It lacks oil, but is strategically important. Damascus is known as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Once part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Syria was granted independence from France in 1946. It suffered continuous upheavals until the 1970 coup which brought internal stability under a military socialist dictatorship. Political expression is very limited. Since 1973 Syria has been deeply involved in Lebanon’s conflicts including military occupation, orchestrating assassinations of high level Lebanese officials and being a sponsor of the radical Hezbollah terrorist movement. The Syrian government is a repressive police state and a steadfast opponent of the state of Israel. The regime justifies its dictatorship as a bastion of anti-Western Arab nationalism. While Islam is recognised as the religion of the majority, Syria is a secular state which accords a measure of religious freedom to the Christian minority (6.3%).
Saudi Arabia is the richest Arab oil state and the most oppressive and brutal regime in the Arab world. No criticism of King Abdullah is allowed. Torture is widespread and public executions are common. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with a semi-feudal state tightly controlled by the large royal family. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state committed to the role of custodian of Islam and its holiest sites of Mecca and Medina. No church or synagogue is allowed in all of Saudi Arabia. No Saudi Arabian citizen may be a Christian.
15 of the 19 Al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks were Saudis. Saudi Arabia is also the home country of Osama Bin Laden. It is the focus of Al Qaeda activity. Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves and strategic location have made it a key American ally. It is also a huge purchaser of British defence equipment. The House of Saud is too rich and powerful to be easily swept away by the wildfire unrest sweeping the Middle East, but it is terrified by the developments.
Democratic Experiments in the Arab World
To many Westerners who know little about Islam or the Middle East, the news of mass protests against dictatorships and calls for democracy would sound like a good development. However, in Arab countries where some measure of democracy has been introduced, however tentatively, it is invariably the radical Islamicists who come to power. Although Morocco is a monarchy, with every election the Islamicist PJD party increases its following significantly. When Bahrain held elections, the Islamicist parties won most of the seats. When elections were held in Gaza, the radical Islamicist terror group, Hamas, received most of the votes. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is confident that the majority of Egyptians will vote for them.
Those who understand Islam and the Middle East are warning that democracy will bring change, but it would be in the form of the worst nightmare – an Islamicist crescent spreading from Pakistan in the East to Morocco in the West. A pan Arabian Caliphate, where the word Islamicist would no longer just be shorthand for terrorist, but describe official government policy, even in capitals such as Cairo.
If European and American officials are worried about developments in the Middle East, one can only imagine what politicians and military commanders in the state of Israel are thinking. If democracy comes to Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power. They have made it clear that one of their first actions would be to tear up the 1979 Egyptian-Israel Peace Treaty. That alone would hurtle this troubled region into even more deadly instability.
An Urgent Call to Prayer
The fundamental, and seemingly irreconcilable, differences between most Israelis and Arabs, means that any outbreak of serious conflict could easily embroil most neighbouring countries, including Lebanon and Syria. Many feel that such a war is almost inevitable. Christians need to be praying through Operation World – The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation. We need to be particularly focusing the payers of our congregations on Christians under pressure in the Middle East, and for increased Christian missionary efforts to reach Muslims for Christ.
“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord Almighty” Zechariah 4:6