A changing Middle East and North Africa: annual overview

It has been a momentous twelve months in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and in relation to developments popularly dubbed the 'Arab Spring' or (perhaps more helpfully) the 'Arab Awakening'. Time, we think, to stop for a moment and take stock.

For that reason, Ekklesia is devoting an entire e-bulletin (subscribe to the daily updates by entering your email in the box in the top left-hand corner of our website) to a selection of recent articles by some of our expert contributors.

We are delighted and privileged to have published regular material by a range of commentators, not least some very astute Christian ones, on Middle East issues over the past year. The most prolific of these is our valued associate, Dr Harry Hagopian - whose wisdom is recognised and appreciated in ecumenical, evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic, interreligious, secular and (partly through us, perhaps) Anabaptist circles.

But Harry is not the only one. We have also started publishing regular pieces by Ghassan Rubeiz, formerly of the World Council of Churches. Our associate Michael Marten, Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Stirling, is another acute observer, and he also heads up the 'Critical Religion' project which Ekklesia is delighted to partner. In October last year, Drs Hagopian and Marten had an interesting exchange about the use of the language of 'minorities' in relation to Christians and others in the region, here and here. See also Michael's The murder of Osama bin Laden: The end of the beginning of the 'clash of civilisations'?

Equally worthy of mention are the important articles by Dr John Heathershaw, Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and the College of Social Sciences and International Relations at the University of Exeter. Among these has been a thought-provoking piece on Libya and the ‘responsibility to protect'. Another occasional contributor has been Timothy Seidel (Mennonite Central Committee). And we are delighted to have published material over the past year by Dr Sami Zubaida (Emeritus Professor of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck College, London), Dr Elizabeth Kassab (a scholar of philosophy who taught for many years at the American University in Beirut and Balamand University in Lebanon) and Dr Ahmad Sadri (Professor of Sociology and James P. Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College, USA), among others.

Of course Ekklesia's modus operandi in this and other areas of concern is not just practical reflection but also reflective practice. Our work on Israel-Palestine relates to exploring nonviolence, active peacemaking and conflict resolution, in particular the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams and the World Council of Churches EAPPI. Our research includes: Is it worse or better in the Middle East today?; From Turkey to Gaza: Human rights and fundamental freedoms? ; Writing peace out of the script; The Gaza conflict in context, and Briefing on Christian Peacemaker Teams.

We also support JustPeace for Palestine - which means peace and security for Israelis too. We have been involved in a modest way in promoting this new multi-agency initiative for those keen to be involved in supporting a just resolution to the Israel-Palestine crisis - one involving churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, unions, and other civil society and faith groups working together.

Last but not least, it is worth drawing attention to two important MENA-related essays published earlier last year.

First, Harry Hagopian's Politics, religion and the Middle East. In this article, the author gives an overview of some entrenched problems infecting religion and politics in the contemporary Middle East. His chief concerns include the plight and status of historic Christian communities, the treatment of minorities, violence and oppression sanctioned by corrupt regimes and totalitarian religious ideologies, the incohence of strategies towards Israel-Palestine, and the damaging failure of many Western policies and prescriptions. But while being tough-minded about the complex and interrelated factors which entrench these problems, Politics, Religion and the Middle East is also hopeful. The seeds of change are also to be found amidst confusion and terror. Popular movements to challenge top-down political rule and concerted efforts by faith communities to educate their peoples to accept and respect the other, rather than kill or ostracise, are both vital, he says. Above all, the true diversity of the Middle East region needs to be acknowledged, celebrated and protected by law.

Second, in critical perspective, John Heathershaw's provocative Analysing the Arab 'democratic revolutions'. There has been a great deal of wild speculation about the character and consequences of the uprisings in the Middle East. In this short essay, the author pursues a historically-grounded power analysis, arguing that comparison with post-communist states sheds some light on what is happening and helps us identify both the hope and tragedy in ongoing events - not least from a Christian perspective that seeks to demand justice and practice nonviolence. He also contrasts principled and pragmatic approaches to nonviolent action, and discerns six parallels between the two waves of rebellion.

And so the debate goes on. Ekklesia contributors often have different but overlapping perspectives. What they definitely hold in common is a passionate commitment to truth, justice, and engagement (rather than 'academic detachment'). As for Ekklesia itself, our overall perspective on the Middle East and North Africa is shaped by some strong values-in-practice: nonviolence, the common struggle for JustPeace, the desire to see both Palestinians and Jews living in security and neighbourliness, cooperation for humanity among people of all faiths and none, rejection of autocracies (whether religious or secular), support for grassroots driven change, recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and clear opposition to all types of abuse and racism: anti-semitism, anti-arab and anti-islam prejudice, victimisation of Christians, and the oppression of women, LGBT people and other ethnic, religious or secular groups.

Justice, we believe, is indivisible. It is also an enterprise involving risk, resistance, peacebuilding, faith, hope, hospitality, charity and difficult truth-telling. Thank you to all our friends and associates who have contributed to these virtues in relation to the pain and possibility of the MENA region over the past year.

* Aggregators Ekklesia news, articles and analysis on the Middle East (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/MiddleEast) and the Arab Spring (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/arabspring).

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. From 1996 - 2005 he was a staff member of the Middle East Forum (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland / Churches' Commission on Mission). Back in the 1980s he worked as a commissioning and contributing editor to a publishing house with a specialism in Middle East commerce and law. He edited Arab Business Yearbook (Graham & Trotman, 1980) among other collections and monographs. He also wrote for Middle East magazine on the international arms trade and militarism.

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