I really appreciate reading a book where I both become better informed and also feel that I have shared in a journey with the author. Reading ‘After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East’ by Elizabeth Kendal (Publisher: Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016) proved to be such an experience. The journey which author Elizabeth leads the reader on enables us to participate in the sufferings of Christians and others in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) which has resulted from Islamic militancy and oppression. However, if one is simply looking for material to reinforce popular self righteous prejudices and stereotypes which enable us to simplistically point the finger, Elizabeth’s book is not the one to read, as she deals with the truth and things as they really are. Elizabeth, citing a wide variety and range of excellent sources, engages in some myth busting which reveals that tragically the West is complicit and up to its neck in the genocidal disaster unfolding in our time for the many Christian who live in the MENA, some of whose communities faith formation goes back to the time of the Apostles.
Elizabeth is not naïve about Islam and doesn’t want us to be either. From its formation and breathtaking spread since around the early 600’s AD, Christians and others have felt its wrath. In fact, the first chapter and the books title ‘After Saturday comes Sunday’ is a saying used by some Muslims. The Saturday is a reference to the Jewish Sabbath, while Sunday refers to the traditional Christian day of assembling for public worship. With statistics to back up her assertion, she reveals how many Jews have been driven and virtually eliminated from predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern counties over the past century or so and that now it is the turn of Christians. Elizabeth is particularly critical of Western cultural elites who distort the reality of what is happening, saying Islam is not the problem, as they choose to evaluate the situation through rose colored ideological or philosophical glasses which includes the innate goodness of humanity. Her writing cannot be dismissed arrogantly and simplistically as Islamopobia, however, for two reasons. Firstly, she provides evidence which shows that many of the atrocities being committed by the Islamists (radical or militant Muslim’s), are in accordance with Islam's foundational sources such as the Quran, Hadith and very early traditions. Secondly, Elizabeth reports carefully, acknowledging the great diversity which exists within Islam, the complexity which includes divergent ethnic groups and she distinguishes between the precepts of Islam and Muslims who are the adherents. In fact, chapter two describes the Sunni-Shia divide which is foundational for understanding many present day conflicts in the MENA as the implications are still felt today as different groups with differing interpretations of Islam fight for supremacy.
‘Hasten to success’, the title of the third chapter, points out the motivating power of Islam's theology of glory. Five times every day as a part of the call to prayer, Muslims hear the muezzin proclaim in a most beautiful voice ‘Hasten to success, hasten to success’. And Islam did meet with success. In its first millennium it spread far and wide, encroaching upon and seriously threatening a weaker Europe. However, the West would see a great, and in many ways unexpected, rise in power as forces unleashed in part by the Reformation and the momentum of the industrial revolution gave it great ascendency. The Turkish Ottoman Empire with it’s caliphate went into decline and some of its greatest atrocities towards Christians were committed at this time. Russia would at times come to the aid of Christians, and sometimes met with ‘Christian’ opposition. In what seems preemptive of today’s situation Elizabeth quotes Ecclesiastes ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ and writes: ‘To deny Russia – long recognized as the protector of Eastern Christians –any pretext to interfere in Ottoman affairs in a way that could threaten Britain's own imperialistic interests, Britain pressed Turkey’s sultan to enact reforms. British MP’s were of the opinion that all Turkey needed in order to be fixed, rescued, spared collapse and steered towards enlightenment was a good injection of European civilization. It is a thought not unlike the modern view that all the Muslim world needs today is a good injection of Western-style liberal democracy and free market capitalism! ... The Crimean war of 1853-1856 was a pivotal war in which Britain and France allied with Islamic forces in pursuit of economic and geostrategic gain at the expense of persecuted Christians. The war was thoroughly politicized, driven by media, fueled with propaganda and justified through toxic Russophobia and the vilification of (Russian) Orthodox Christianity. Protestant church leaders seized upon the war as a righteous struggle and a Christian duty, lauding it as a struggle for religious liberty, and against the impure and idolatrous faith of degenerate Russia’ (49,51).
One result of Islam's decline and subjection during much of the 19th and 20th centuries, coupled with its promise of success, has been a return to traditional Islam. Elizabeth declares that ‘Islam is back’ while qualifying the statement by saying that ‘Islam never went away’. What she means is that we are facing a resurgent Islam where a significant minority are confident of success now that they are addressing the problem, namely having moved away from a strict and pure Islam, they are moving back to it. They are intent on imposing this new, deadly and now often messianic and apocalyptic form on everyone who will not submit or conform; less zealous and militant Muslims, whom they deem apostate, included. For the Islamist fear is a powerful tool and the various threats and punishments in Islam against leaving it or turning to a different belief help make up for what is philosophically and historically lacking.
Chapter four tells the stories of the Iranian Shia revolution of 1979 and the lesser known, but possibly equally significant failed uprising in Saudi Arabia called the siege of Mecca that same year, the result of which was the Sunni clergy in Saudi Arabia gaining even more power and resulting in Saudi Arabia becoming a stricter Islamic theocracy. The subsequent Iran-Iraq war provided a crisis, exploited by the new rulers in Iran, to consolidate power and expand their military, leading to the new Islamist state of Iran becoming a very significant regional power. The West backed Hussein's Iraq in this war, though deceitfully and greedily some were selling weapons to both sides. War and national ambition benefits arms manufacturers and what is often termed the ‘military industrial complex’.
The West’s interference and poor judgments in the MENA have so often produced a blowback that fuels Islamic radicalization and strategically aids the cause of the Islamists in many ways. This is certainly true of both US led Iraq wars which Elizabeth shows in chapter five titled ‘The Shia crescent’ could have been averted. Quoting terrorism expert Yossef Bodansky much of the Arab world, along with Russia, were proposing Hussein be offered an honorable way to get out of Kuwait, but the US would have none of it. Bodansky said they (the US led forces) launched Operation Desert Storm for one reason ‘to protect its access to cheap oil with no thought of the potential consequences for its allies in the region’ (90-91). Likewise with Gulf War ll. Moscow warned of the radicalization and destabilization that an invasion of Iraq would unleash on the entire region. The Russians even came up with a plan to topple Hussein with a pre-emptive coup which would still leave a stable structure for governing in place. Russian intelligence informed the CIA so that their people could be protected. The US would have none of it however, betraying the confidence by deliberately leaking the information via Egypt so that Bagdad would be forewarned. The end result is a Shia government in Iraq, further strengthening the East-West Shia crescent and Shia ascendency in the region, now that the secular buffer state (the Baathist Iraq) had been deposed.
The Arab spring, also the title of chapter six, provided a cover for the opportunist West and its Sunni allies to advance their ambitions for hegemony. Beginning spontaneously in Tunisia with a poor and bullied vegetable vendor dousing himself in petrol and setting fire to himself as a form of protest against the authorities, the protest movement which followed grew swiftly via social media, with others joining, so that the Tunisian president Ben Ali and his family were forced to flee. Protests swiftly spread, but things quickly became complicated. In Bahrain and at their request, for example, Saudi Arabia, which had itself banned protests with the support of the Muslim clergy, sent in troops to join with Bahrain's troops to forcefully squash the uprising, all with the tacit approval of the West. Elizabeth writes ‘The West would only champion democracy where it was perceived to advance its interests; so much for the higher moral ground ... Bahrain made clear this movement was less of an Arab spring – that is, an Arab movement to advance Arab democracy – and more of a Western-backed Sunni Islamic intifada’ (117). This was clearly visible in Libya where the Western ally in the war on terror and anti Islamist Gadhafi was betrayed and deposed, with the aid of Western air power, to the cheers of Western leaders and press, leaving the country divided, chaotic and open to many atrocities the likes of which we saw with the beheading of the 21 Coptic martyrs. Under the guise of the Arab spring Sunni Islamist rebels funded, trained and very often fed in from abroad helped orchestrate and quickly high jacked Arab spring protests in Syria, creating a civil war. Syria however, ‘would be where the Western – backed, MB (Muslim Brotherhood) led Sunni intifada would finally meet its match’. (122)
In chapter seven titled ‘Myth busting the Syrian crisis’ Elizabeth informs us that the ‘policy of the US – backed, Turkey – Arab –Sunni axis – to support the rebels and effect regime change in Damascus so as to realign Syria from the east-west Shia Crescent to a north-south Sunni bloc – was built on two enormous myths. The first myth was that Assad had limited support. The second myth was that Syria was isolated’. (124) Polls proved that Assad had the support of his people and those calling for regime change were clearly not motivated by democracy. (125) Instead, Elizabeth points out that this is a geopolitical battle by foreign backed rebels, none of whom are moderate, for strategic advantage, power and vital interests including who controls the flow of gas into Europe. Quoting conflict analyst Ailing Byrne ‘the battle for Syria is essentially the first stage of a war on Iran’ (129). I add that from Iran Sunni Islamists would be strategically placed for incursions into and the destabilization of nearby Russia. Little wonder that in addition to their interests in and historical relationship with Syria, Russia has reason to be concerned. As in other times and at other places, Russia proposed a plan by which Assad could be removed to a safe haven and a new leader installed. Once again this was to no avail.
Asymmetric warfare is described in some detail as this is what the anti Assad powers are using and it is a form of warfare widely used by Islamists. It is also one used by the imperialistic West through its proxies (Sunni Islamists), as democratically elected governments are able to wage war without the direct consent of its people. This type of warfare includes ‘psychops’ (psychological operations) which includes the fear generated by terrorism (‘the poor mans smart bomb’ 133), a sense of victimization, enormous propaganda, human shields, and false flag events. The use of chemical weapons likely fell into this category and was likely executed by the rebels in an attempt to pin this ‘crossing of a line’ onto Assad in an attempt to gain air cover, something which almost happened. Some are convinced the failure to get this intervention ’by the skin of the teeth’ was an answer to prayer as it would have led to the fall of Assad and a free reign for the bloodthirsty Islamists as we have seen in Iraq, Libya and so many other places. That event, along with the rise of IS and the split between IS and al-qaeda/al-nusra, their central figures, ideology and tactics, including the success of IS and its foreign links are explored in chapters nine and ten, including various battles and massacres and the exposing of NATO Turkey and its role in the success of IS. In a rather chilling and prophetic message to us, Patriarch Ignace Joseph lll Younan says the ‘West bears much responsibility, having fueled, escalated and prolonged the crisis through its support for the fundamentalist Muslim opposition...For us Middle Eastern Christians the faith means a lot...religious liberties come first, otherwise we would not have been surviving for centuries in this area. Western leaders do not want to understand this. Christians in the Middle East have not only been abandoned, but we have been lied to and betrayed by Western nations, like the Untied States and the European Union. And I believe there will be a time coming when the Christians of the Middle East will no longer look to the West for support...rather to the East, to Russia, to India and China’ (164/5).
Chapter ten titled ‘A message signed in blood to the nation of the cross’ is full of depth, resolve and something we in the West need to reflect on deeply. It also reveals how standing firm, embracing the cross and rejecting hate defeats evil at its own game. Its focus is the martyrdom of the 21 Copt’s in Libya and the attempt to instill fear and rally support by IS with this barbaric act. But the Copts, like many Middle Eastern Christians, firstly under the Romans and then under Islam, know how to carry the cross (195). ‘IS gave us more than we asked when they didn’t edit out the part where (the martyrs) declared their faith and called Jesus Christ’, one brother of two of the victims says. (197) The Bible society got to work straight away and within a week 1.65 million tracts calling on all to put their faith in Christ and to love were distributed. Many interviews were conducted and the message of love and forgiveness based on Christ rang out in a sea of hate. Journalists expecting hate found love. ‘What a truly radical testimony these humble, faithful, broken hearted families have given the world’, concludes Elizabeth. (200)
Islam is divided into Shia and Sunni, and divides the world into ‘the house of Islam and the house of war’. We, who are outside of Islam are a part of the house of war, and are to be brought into subjection. Yet we unnecessarily and foolishly allow ourselves to be divided against this resurgent force. Chapter ten titled ‘A house divided’ provides us with a way forward in this struggle and warns we are dancing with the devil in embracing the Islamist. In a recent online forum discussion about suing Saudi Arabia for their part in in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center I asked: ‘Why not (threaten to) drop them (the Saudi’s) as an ally, renounce our support of terrorist proxies and through the UN join with Russia in building a broad international coalition against terrorism based on international law?’ It makes great sense but I need to clarify. This isn't uniquely or exclusively my idea (although I have held such a position for a long time now). Putin, in addressing the United Nations in 2015 and renouncing the subversive and unfounded propaganda that Russia is expansionist responded to Obama's speech where Obama had echoed the Turkey-Arab song (lie) that Assad and the Syrian government was entirely the problem, concluded ‘On the basis of international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism (223). We share much in common with Russia, a world superpower. Why alienate her and seek to impose our hegemony upon her rather than work with her?
I began the review with the title and first chapter for this book which states that after the elimination of the Jews comes the Christians who, unlike the Jews with their neighboring Israel, often do not have somewhere to go. The book concludes with chapter twelve, ‘After Saturday comes Sunday for the nation of the cross’. This is profound, and an exercise in the ‘theology of the cross’ which renders Christianity far more comprehensive and real when compared to Islam's simplistic and crass ‘theology of glory and success’ For Saturday is the day that Jesus body lay in the tomb and his followers felt defeated and failures. Yet that is not the end of the story. Sunday is Easter resurrection, victory and glory. God works life out of death, triumph from failure and light from darkness. From the house of Islam more are converting to Christianity now than ever. Bible sales and distribution are soaring right across the MENA. Significant movements from Islam to Christ, the likes of which were not seen in the days of Islam's great ‘success’, are occurring everywhere from the Persians (Iranians, whose Muslims are very nominal and where the Islamic regime may eventually fall) to Ethiopia and everywhere in between, the West also. A suffering God of the cross who is with us and forgives and calls for relationships based on what is right but that are also bound together by love and forgiveness. New starts. Reconciliation. Truth, justice, peace and mercy. A God who works from within and is within, yet transcendent, but not just a distant authoritarian. One who still holds sinners accountable, yet freely justifies the repentant and those dependent upon him, flawed though we may be. Something which stands up historically and philosophically. A sophisticated faith coupled with a simple trust; something which mirrors reality. The mystery of this absolutely majestic and unfathomable God who works in hidden and confounding ways, but who reveals himself as the opposite to what we would expect, as the suffering God of the cross who proves himself to be absolutely trustworthy. That is what we are able to cling to and share! No wonder it stands up against the sword and is not dependent upon the sword for its spread, as God ensures its survival and spread.
And so, as Elizabeth prompts us in her two appendixes: lets speak up, warn, pray, stand in solidarity with the suffering, and renounce the political correctness, soft diplomacy and ecumenical compromise which so often whitewashes reality and contributes to the plight of so many. To stand with the oppressed and advocate on their behalf, charitably supporting them, is to share Christ's cross; and we are assured that if we participate in his sufferings we will also participate in his glory. Or, as St Paul writes in 1 Cor 12: ‘When one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it’.
The aim of this Page is to be a safe place to explore the ultimate questions of meaning and purpose and to enquire about and discuss the Christian faith from a Lutheran perspective.
A Little About Me
I am Pastor Michael Steicke, often referred to as Pastor Mike. I have been a Lutheran Pastor for over 30 years, having served Parishes in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, before moving to Tasmania to be the Pastor of St Peters Lutheran Parish in Hobart at the beginning of 2016.