Catholicism and the Arab Spring

I haven’t seen much on this across Catholic media, and I thought to make a return to my blog with something of import to me. Revolution has ripped across several countries in the Middle East, with ripples and consequences being felt across the world as Islamic countries vie for democratic governments, and oppose the regimes that held power through oligarchy and militarism.

The world has seen from a distance, at least as far as the Western media is concerned an unfolding usually heralded with positive lights. Liberals rejoice in the coming of liberalism and democracy to a people who have taken it into their hands to make government their own. Conservatives rejoice in the unfolding opportunity for democracy to counterbalance the still latent socialism, and expect a free-market system to increase oil production in the long term. Though certainly there are concerns about religious freedom, and these are warranted, what stake do Catholics have in paying attention to these revolutions?

About a decade ago the neoconservatives were decidedly pessimistic about the possibility of democracy in the Middle East, Israel being the only exception. The cultural baggage of democracy from the West seemed too heavy a burden for Arabs who were decidedly anti-colonial, culturally and otherwise. And then, the internet.

The internet has been the large player in many of these revolutions. From spreading videos of injustice to incite demonstrations, to twitter and facebook groups organizing and pooling together to hold a common voice, the internet has changed Islam, Arab culture, and the world once again. Those who assumed that Arabs were sui generis incapable of producing democracy, have found themselves in shock as men and women from across the Middle East demonstrate in political protests for a voice.

Let’s not be idealists, Tunisia is leading the way in terms of establishing political change that could enact representative government. The other countries still show lack of organization, and no decisive moves towards leadership.

Where did it begin? Well, in 2005, some media commentators speculated that invasion in Iraq might have a spin-off effect of inciting democracy in the Middle East. The first recorded protest happened in December 2010 as “hundreds of youths” in Tunisia reacted to Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in protest to the police confiscating his vegetable cart. There is an Interactive Timeline available for those who want to see how these events have unfolded.

What does this begin to mean for Catholics? We have some primary concerns:

  1. The Christian communities in the Arab World
  2. The Process of “Integral Human Development”
  3. The Moral, Political and Religious Liberation of Oppressed Socieites

So first of all we have the conflict between Islam and Democracy, or at least we are witnessing the end of what tension there was as Arab socieites begin to start uprisings against social and civil oppression. These revolutions have also brought many other cultural and social concerns to the forefront of conversations happening across the world. The Arab spring has brought us back to questions about democracy, social and civil liberties, Islam, the Enlightenment, gay rights, technology, and social media.

Specifically of note is the already widely publicized but still to be mentioned story of the man who posed as a gay woman in Damascus. His alter ego was later “arrested” and there was outcry for the release of Amina Arraf, who was hours later admitted to being a fictional character. This seems like water under the bridge, especially to American Catholics who live in a society that has polarized Christians and Homosexuals across the political spectrum. What this means for Catholics, who believe in a robust social theology is of importance in the midst of these revolutions. Catholic social teaching offers us a view at charity and the proper development of societies where individuals have freedom. While I believe that lambasting this man and another who posed as a woman on the blog ‘Lez Get Real’ is unnecessary, it is certainly an interesting story which brings to light a certain tension between the East and West. Daniel Nassar a psyedonym for a gay man living in Syria offers us this perspective:

MacMaster’s admission on June 12 that the blog was fictional has spurred fears within Syria’s LGBT community of a potential backlash. The media has been targeting minorities who are seen as critical of the current regime, and the LGBT community is an easy target. They don’t need to change people’s opinion of homosexuals; it’s already a negative one.

Now, for my Catholic readers out there who are wondering what a fictional gay-rights activist in Syria has to do with the Catholic Church, my answer is: everything. The keyword here is minority. Minorities are in Arab culture extremely shunned, targeted by the media for ridicule and used as scapegoats in Neronian style cultural attacks.

If Christians in the West care at all for Christians in the Middle East, they will watch the gay and lesbian movements with solidarity and compassion. If Christians are to have a stake in a revolution that would largeley trample them, they will need allies, gay, straight, atheist, Muslim and otherwise. If Christians in the Middle East care to find an ally in the midst of cultural upheavals that could extinguish minorities in the Arab world, the gay and lesbian movements are not only allies, they are integral to the survival of the minority populations.

The Arab Spring has gone uncommented on by the Vatican, and the bishops seem to have other concerns. The Catholic Blogosphere is tied up with the Retirement of John Corapi. However, the world is in upheaval, and arab communities across the world are taking a stand, this is something worth noting.

Let’s turn our attention to the way in which Syria specifically is of concern to Catholics and Christians.

Syria today is much like Iraq was, pre-2003. The dictatorship runs strong and there are is a sense of brutality against the people. However, in the midst of this darkness is the silent religious tolerance of the regimes. An interesting article on the subject can be read at Catholic Moral Theology. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only blog taking seriously the Arab Spring as a Catholic moral issue.

Patriarch Gregorios III, the Syrian head of the Melkites a Greek-Catholic Church, is warning Western leaders not to encourage the revolutions tearing across the Middle East. The Patriarch declares:

“Our Arab countries are not ready for revolutions, and not even for democracy of the European kind and model,” the patriarch explained in a recent letter to Western leaders. “I am asking the West not to encourage revolutions unconditionally here and there in the Arab world.”

The fear is that what happened in Iraq will take place in Syria and other countries where the politically charged atmosphere will lead to sectarian violence that tramples minorities underfoot. We should contemplate and consider the encouragement we lend to these revolutions, especially where violence is being used. However, we must not only stand up for the minorities, who have our affections as brothers and sisters in Christ, but also for the general persons, the muslims, the youth, the women of the Middle East who have decided to end their oppression.

Where Catholicism collides with the Arab Spring, it should make calls for non-violence, stand against regimes using violence against civilians and encourage peaceful demonstration. We lay persons can stay tuned, pray for peace and new life, and remember that it was in Syria where we were first called Christians. The Arab Spring is full of disinformation, and the room for the growth of terrorism and anti-Israeli sentiment as well as anti-Christian sentiment is massive. Where there is unrest, Hamas and Al-Qaeda have room to grow because they prey on the weaknesses of the established orders.

So, we should not uncritically support these revolutions, but we should also mind to support the freedom of individuals. We must remember that politics is morally neutral, it’s what’s done with the process of revolution and governmental change that decides what and where our moral contribution should be. I, for one, believe that it is my contribution to discuss these revolutions in Catholic circles, to bring awareness and to shape my concerns for these things through Catholic theology rather than my nation’s political aspirations.

Whether Spring has sprung remains to be seen, I’m cautious about the optimism of the moniker, but it is my sincere hope that change and openness can come to Arab societies.


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