What in the World is Happening in the Middle East?

Having spent a considerable amount of time in the Middle East year after year, it is clear to me that some factors are now in play that the dictators, potentates, and royal families had never counted on, or at least had seen as of negligible importance.  And this is not just in the countries which have reasonably close ties with the West.  It’s happening even in a country like Iran.

The first of these factors is of course social media, which some news outlets have rightly made a good deal of, and this includes not just Facebook and the like, but basic cellphones with cameras in them. It is not only hard to hide one’s crimes against the people these days. It’s hard to hide at all.  ‘The eye in the sky don’t lie’.  Even the attempt to shut down all social media including the Internet in Egypt didn’t solve the problem.   And today we have seen diplomats and military personnel defecting all over the the place, even in Libya.  Wow.  When Libyan diplomats start bailing and criticizing their own ruler, and Libyan pilots refuse to bomb their own people, and instead seek asylum on Malta,  ‘the times they are a changin’.

The second of these factors is the median age of residences in many of these countries.  For example,  in Libya the median age is an amazing 24 years old!   Why is this important?   This is the generation which has grown up with the social media, all over the world, and there is no going back.   They have seen how the other half lives in the West and elsewhere on the Internet and through films etc. and they even have ‘Friends’ on Facebook all over the world.   The old tribal and national boundaries are more porous than ever, especially in the minds of the younger generation.   And the military in most of these countries is naturally reluctant to kill their own children marching in the streets!   This is not a revolution of the old or wise or politicos or political parties, and no it is not primarily a revolution fomented by any radical Islamic groups, or even by the Moslem Brotherhood.

Thirdly,  the desire for basic human rights, and a goodly modicum of freedom, and frankly the ability to just have a job that keeps body and soul together is driving this revolution.  The young and middle aged are sick and tired of uber-wealthy rulers who have done little or nothing to lift the majority of their people out of poverty or near poverty.   The disparity between rich and poor is these countries is enormous!!  And what little middle class there is,  is not like the American Middle Class.  They are living more like lower end blue collar folks in the West, and they are sick and tired of it as well.

Fourthly,  these countries have never really been democracies, and indeed have endured decades and more of repressive regimes.  They don’t even really know how to get things organized in a democratic way, and so they have taken to the streets.   The results in Egypt are just encouraging the same sort of people in the rest of the region, and unfortunately, in Iran this means a large body count pretty soon.   What they wouldn’t give to have the Shah back now.

Fifthly, various of these countries such as Bahrain and Egypt have an inter-Islamic split in their country—between Sunnis who have been ruling and Shias who make up a huge percentage of the population.  Remember what happened in Iraq when Sunnis and Shias were allowed to try and settle their differences on the battlefield?   The Moslem world is far more divided than most Westerners realize, and this itself has helped fuel what we are seeing now in these countries.  In short, the religious leaders are by no means united.

Sixthly,  there is the education factor.  Lots of men and women in the more Westernized of these countries (e.g. Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan)  are pretty well educated, and most importantly they speak the language of the Internet and Facebook.   There are men and women in these countries, many of them young, who do not want to go back to the old tribal and feudalistic ways of the past, and for sure, there are lots of women, educated women,  who don’t want any of these countries to become ‘Talibanized’ so to speak.

There are also in fact a goodly number of secular Moslems in these countries, who are well educated, and much like many Moslems you meet in Turkey.  If those leading the protests were wise, they would take a page out of Turkey’s book, and start building a democracy, but this requires actual leadership,  strong leadership,  like that of  Attaturk in the last century.  Frankly, Turkey is bigger and more diverse than most of these countries, and if Turkey can pull off a democracy without ‘losing their religion’   so can these other countries.  Our own President needs to figure out how to walk the tightrope and help make this happen, now, while there is an opportunity.

Lastly,  there is the proper media, like Al Jazeera.   Al Jazeera is a responsible Middle Eastern journalistic enterprise,  and it has helped make all the people who speak Arabic in the region aware of what is happening.   This is a good thing, whether we agree with all their analysis or not.  It doesn’t matter–  the cat is out of the bag and will not willingly go back to ‘business as usual’.  Thank you Al Jazeera.

If you take these seven factors together, and stir them up in a large gumbo pot,  you get what you are now seeing on TV.    As Christians our obligation is to pray for all these people who want freedom fairness and opportunity to make a decent living.  Pray that God will begin a mighty work of working things together for good.   For indeed, ‘God is great’, and Moslems already believe that.

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  • mason

    Dr. Ben, thanks for the observations. i wonder how much of this rise in unrest and what appears to be a desire for freedom is due to Iraq/Afghanistan becoming more democratic and experiencing freedom? i like most have mixed views on Iraq/Afghanistan wars but it appears that the seeds of democracy are spreading. i just wished that Iraq/Afghanistan could have come via peace rather than war and more of a grass roots initiative rather than by the West invading. but freedom once tasted is hard to quench. i pray for the Christians in these countries and i also pray that a democracy rises and not more Islamic fundamentalism.

  • Greg Van Dussen

    Thanks Ben, your analysis is encouraging. I share Mason’s concern about repressive traditional regimes being replaced by repressive Islamist regimes, so it is good to consider the diversity among Muslims and the educational, technological, democratic, and economic forces moving these revolutions. Their relative peacefulness has also been encouraging. Unlike Mason, however, I’m sceptical that our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan has produced seeds of democracy that could ever outweigh the intensification of anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Christian reactions to our
    policies and presence there.

  • Jeff L

    Thanks Dr. W. Was hoping you’d weigh in on this stuff.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Greg I share your concerns. It can go either way, but if it were to become more repressive there will be lots of blood shed, and lots of martyrs.


  • Percival

    Shiites in Egypt are probably less than 1%. Perhaps you were thinking of Lebanon?

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