The Rise of the Middle East’s Atheists

September 2012, Middle East:

A low-budget movie titled “The Innocence of Muslims” makes its way to the media of the region. The movie insults the prophet Mohammad and doesn’t pretend to do so innocently. The mayhem it caused became infamous, notably for the American embassy storming in Libya which made its way to the US presidential elections. Protests across the region turned bloody. Innocent people lost their lives because of cheap ten minute footage. And the image that some Muslims have been giving to Islam over the years was reinforced once again.

October 2012, Pakistan:

Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen year old girl, was shot in the head by Taliban individuals who feared her message. Malala’s message was not that of an uprising against the men who worked endlessly to make her life and the life of countless other girls like her a living hell. She was calling upon girls her age to seek an education, which most of us take for granted: the kind where we sit behind a desk and listen all day to teachers telling us things we believe we’ll never need. Her message did not sit well with the Taliban whose mission had been, in part, to eradicate education in the parts of the world where they are of influence. They had destroyed countless schools and forbade women from attending schools in their attempt to restore the days of 600AD.

October 2012, Facebook:

A Syrian woman named Dana Bakdounes posted a picture of herself on Facebook without the veil as part of a movement for the rights of women in the Middle East. (Check the picture here). The message Dana wrote, as part of her picture, said “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I was not allowed to feel the wind on my body… and on my hair.” The message rubbed some people the wrong way and a bunch of extremists took it upon them to silence Bakdounes, even on Facebook. So they mass reported her picture as offensive, prompting Facebook to remove it.

October 2012, Egypt:

In a post revolution Egypt where Islamists have been gaining power, two Copt boys, aged nine and ten, were arrested for defiling the Quran. Another Copt teacher was arrested after some students accused her of speaking badly of prophet Muhammad in class while another Copt is facing charges for material deemed offensive which he posted on his Facebook account. A veiled Muslim teacher also cut the hair of two girls in class who refused to wear the veil. She later explained that she had been “challenged.”

The Rise of Atheism:

The rise in religious extremism in the Middle East is touching all of its religions. Be it Christians who are worried about their fate and revert to their Bible in belief that it will somehow be their salvation. Or Jews whose reputation has become intermingled with zionism and borderline inseparable in the mind of many. However, I decided to only discuss Islam because the broader picture of the Middle East, in which there’s a tangible rise in Islamist Influence, is a canvas of Islam – as it is the region’s first and foremost leading religion, demographically.

The rise in extremism is attributed to many geopolitical reasons. It is also associated with a serious lack of understanding of religion from all involved, most notably the men of the robe who are doing more harm to their religions with their backward mentality than anyone else.

The Middle East has probably one of the world’s highest rates of religious people. And it’s simply because we were born this way. We are not allowed to choose what we want to be religiously. I was born into a Christian Maronite family. Therefore, I am a Christian Maronite. If fate had it differently and my parents were from another part of Lebanon, I may have been a follower of a different religion. And this applies to everyone. As we grow up, we are taught our religion and nothing else. Come Sunday morning, it was better for me to attend Mass. For others, they had better pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan and never eat pork or drink alcohol. During my early days at AUB, I was surprised to find that some Muslim people – obviously a minority – had absolutely no idea when Christmas was celebrated. On the other hand, I thought Achoura was a happy celebration. We rarely challenge our religious beliefs because we don’t feel the need to. Those beliefs enable us to blend in our societies and not get ostracized – at least in that regards. They enable us to connect to other people with whom we are able to identify not due to their mentality or thoughts but because of their religious beliefs. At a certain level, deep down, it’s always easier for a “Christian” to make “Christian” friends than to become friends with a “Muslim.” The reverse is also true.

Our narrow religious upbringing also limits us to the other religions present around us, especially in the region’s few relatively mixed countries. Egypt’s Muslims know very little about the Copts who were founders of their country. Lebanon’s Muslims know very little about its Christians. The opposite is also true. This lack of understanding, combined with an increased rooting in unchallenged belief, places the seed of conflict, which has been manifesting way too many times across the region.

However, religion is but one side of the coin. For with the rise of the Islamists on one side, I believe that the region’s atheist numbers are increasing dramatically, albeit most of them are probably closeted, and they are fueled by the exact same events that are getting people to become more religious, coupled with an increase of education across the board. What people turning increasingly religious see as a threat to their belief, others do not see it as such. What some increasingly religious people do to defend their beliefs, others see as a violation of freedom. What some increasingly religious people feel related to, others want to detach from it. The religious behavior that makes some religious people proud causes others to be the opposite. The picture that some extremists deem offensive, others see as a manifestation of free thought. The children seen as defiling Islam by some, others see as children being children. The girl infecting the minds of other girls with poison, which some (obviously very, very few) believe, others see as a complete violation of every single human sanctity.

One part decides to cling further to what they know because of such events. Others decide to look at alternative, which might fit better with how they see the world, away from a notion of faith that has become alien to them. After all, all they’re seeing of faith is repeated incidences of things they do not remotely agree with, despite that being as remote from what religions call for.

Religious people will call it a lack of understanding and narrow-mindedness for someone to turn atheist. They will never be convinced how someone who was born and raised on certain teachings can ditch them entirely and move towards thoughts that they find revolting. What they don’t get is that the same rhetoric they use applies in similar fashion to atheists who are moving away from teachings that they find revolting and forced upon them throughout their years.

Of course, this does not apply to all religious people as some practice their religion in silence, without letting everyone know when they’re praying and when they’re offended. But this silent majority is not the one that gives an impression. Out of a crowd of millions, the person who changes perceptions is that whose voice is heard the most. And in a time of religious insecurity, in a region of political insecurity, the voices heard the most are those of people that rub a whole lot of other people the wrong way.

Regardless of where you stand regarding the two sides of the religion-atheism coin, the image being painted is the following: religion is the bread of the poor. Atheism is the butter of the “educated.” However, the only one thing that I believe is of absolute necessity is that the Middle East needs more atheists.

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Rest in Peace Pope Shenouda

With Lent halfway through, one of the Christian sects that observe this time of year the most has lost its leader and mentor. The Copts have lost Pope Shenouda today, at an age of 89.

I have met many Copts throughout my life . And what I’ve touched from them all is their deep belonging to their church and their commitment to their faith. In a time when relinquishing such things for the pleasures of life has become a way of life, them clinging to their heritage has always been admirable to me.

Pope Shenouda has had a great deal with the Copts’ attachment to their faith. For a sect that is so heavily persecuted, they do not relent. They do not fear dying for their rights. They do not fear dying to keep their voices high and heard. In a way, the Copts are examplary for the Christians of the East. They are a minority that doesn’t act like one: it’s not subdued, it’s never rendered insignificant and over the past forty years of forced marginalization, they still exist.

They have been the central pillar in the foundation of the country whose name is as it is today because of them. The Copts were an essential part of Egyptian history and are considered by many as the founders of that country. Pope Shenouda was the 117th Pope to preside over them.

It may be because of their resiliency as people and their clinging to their heritage. But the leadership of Pope Shenouda had a great deal to do with the preservation of the Copts in such tumultuous times. Not only did he keep the Coptic church alive, he also expanded it in various countries around the world.

Pope Shenouda had been exiled for defending his people against Egyptian presidents who didn’t think those people deserved to be defended. He let his own health deteriorate to breathe life into his own congregation. He was an advocate for ecumenism (Christian unity) and showed strong commitment to the inter-dialogue of different Christian denominations.

I, as a Lebanese generally and Maronite precisely, am saddened by the passing of such a man. I truly hope his passing is one of the last days of sorrow for the Copts and Christians of Egypt. Pope Shenouda’s departure from this world couldn’t have fallen at a more appropriate time – if there’s ever such a time. Easter is one of the favorite periods of the year for Copts. Pope Shenouda must have been serene knowing he was moving on during his favorite time of the year, smiling, sure that the Church he worked forty years to protect is here to stay.

Rest in peace Pope Shenouda – and to all Copts in the world, may your struggles find their conclusion with the conclusion of his life.

The “Arab Spring”… One Year Later

Yesterday, January 25th, marked the Egyptian revolution’s first anniversary. To celebrate this, millions of Egyptians went to Tahrir to protest the current situation in their country:

The protest in Tahrir on Jan 25, 2012.

Yes, the Egyptians are protesting after a parliamentary elections that birthed a parliament with people like these in power. Thinking about it, though, if one wanted to give an overall description to the “Arab Spring,” the most accurate expression would be: rise of the fundamentalists.

It serves as a catchy Hollywood title, no? Arab Spring: The Rise of the Fundamentalists. I should trademark this. And nothing describes the way it is in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries that protested better than this picture:

A caricature circulating currently in Tunisia

Who cares that Egypt has a soaring poverty rate or that Tunisia has a ridiculously high unemployment average. The first thing the new Egyptian parliament did was not to start serious discussions about the country’s future but to refuse to commit to women rights. Again, who cares about women rights, men rights, children rights, animal rights. Who cares about the Copts getting killed on daily basis because of their faith? What matters is saying no to overly revealing clothing and taking extended naps during parliamentary sessions.

Just some food for thought but perhaps one of the few things keeping the society in Lebanon from absolutely crumbling is the fact that fundamentalism cannot and will not get to power.

Christians, The Middle East and a Whole Lot of Hypocrisy

I am not a Christian who would like to think I am of a persecuted religion in the Middle East. In fact, I’d much rather think that the situation I’m in is a byproduct of the political situation of the region, more so than a simple manifestation of hate.

But simply put, that is not the case.

It’s very easy to look at the situation at hand and say: Oh, it’s not that bad. But it is.  Recently a Pew Poll (one of the most highly regarded research polls) showed that about half of the Egyptian population have negative views towards Christians. But no it can’t be the truth that in Egypt, where Arabism has sprung from, has sectarian problems and practices discriminatory policies. It just can’t be that sectarian hatred exists in a country with so called “revolutionary youth.” Or is it that we can’t accept that Arab youth can have discriminatory feelings and that discriminatory policies are carried out in their own backyards?

I am not an atheist. And even though I am definitely understanding and tolerant to all other religions, there comes a point where, upon seeing people getting killed for protesting against their church getting burned down, you start to boil inside.

And that’s what happened to me on Sunday evening as I watched Egyptian Copts get murdered on the banks of the Nile, after a peaceful protest against the governor of the Aswan province for issuing an order to tear down what they called a church.

Many people think their struggles extend only for a brief period in time, not knowing that the Coptic existence in modern day Egypt has become synonymous with persecution.

Do any of you know that Coptic schools were nationalized by Gamal Abdul Nasser and never given back to them? Imagine Armenians in Lebanon being forced to give up their schools and not being able to teach their language.  And for reference, the Coptic language is one of the oldest languages in the world.

Do any of you know that Copts are not allowed to build churches except by going through drawn out bureaucratic hoops, most of which end up failing? Contrast this with an Egyptian law that states having a Muslim house of prayer in your building exempts you from paying taxes on that building.

Do any of you know that Copts have witnessed many massacres at the hands of fundamentalists, most of which people outside their community have no idea about?

Do any of you know that in Egypt you must write your sect on your ID card, which can lead to discriminatory policies?

It’s very easy to look at the predicament of the Copts in Egypt and turn a blind eye. But turning a blind eye is no longer acceptable.

When the Copts were protesting on Sunday and they started getting killed for doing so, Arab news outlets portrayed them as terrorists. They were portrayed as low lives whose only cause of existence is to stir trouble, which is far from the case. As people who have been burned, killed, tortured… all for the sake of their religion, they sure have put up with a lot. But there’s just so much that a people can take.

And if you thought the portrayal of Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera was bad and thought it might be justified due to their overwhelming ignorance, why don’t we look at how those Copts were portrayed in their country’s state TV. The reporter compared them to the Israeli army and called upon Muslims to defend their country against “them.”

But who are “them”? Aren’t those Copts the reason those Muslims actually have a country to defend?

I don’t want to go into history. But there’s something that is quite simple and clear. Copts are the heart of Egypt. They are the founders of that nation. They are the people that gave Egypt its name and a direct link to its past. Copts are the Ancient Egyptians. That is a fact that cannot be debated.

Yasmine Rashidi, an Egyptian journalist, tweeted the following on Sunday: “Insulted for being Copt. I’m not, but with hair uncovered I’m a target. There is blatant persecution here. Never seen it in this way before.”

She may not have “seen it in this way before” but it was always there.

The problem, however, is not confined to Egypt.

Christians all around the region have been persecuted for a long time just because of their religion. And in the 21st century, is that really acceptable? Is it really also acceptable for everyone to act as if nothing was happening?

If we take a very quick glimpse at Iraq today, it’s very easy to see who is the greatest victim of the country’s current situation: the Christians.

Persecuted and decimated, only very few remain in their country today. The rest of them? Stranded in the land of nowhere, hoping to return to the country they cannot call home anymore.

It is also very easy to look at what many Syrian Christians consider as arguments to keep their political system the way it is and be “persuaded” into thinking it is really the best thing for Christians in the region.

But I respectfully, categorically, utterly and totally disagree.

 

It is strange though how so many people in the region are silent about such important issues like that of Christian persecution.  For many so called “leftists” and “activists” in the Arab world, and outside, the trend is to fight the big bad evil “West” which is seen as “Christian”, constantly stating it is they who oppress.  Yet many of them fail to bring up the Middle Eastern Christians’ plight because it is shows hypocrisy in their own cause: Arab society also carries out oppression.  “Leftists” and “activists” hold rallies in support of Palestinians, brandishing flags and slogans, yet when Iraqi Christians were driven from their homes “activists” remained silent.

When Copts watched their churches burned and their people massacred, why did they not cry out for them?  Why were there not huge rallies in support of these people demanding their equality?  Aren’t they suffering the same as Palestinians? Being driven from their homes and their places of worship being destroyed?

People cry and curse every time an Arab is treated poorly in the West, but when people in our own backyard have their houses destroyed or families killed we remain silent. In the West many shout in protest about their Arab identity, yet in the Arab world it is near blasphemy for Copts and other minorities to identify as the way they wish.  Western societies are not the only xenophobic or discriminatory societies in the world.

One thing, however, is clear. The ONLY source of protection for Christians in the Middle East – in any country of the Middle East – is political power. There is no way us sitting around waiting for some dictator to protect us, for some tyrant to give us mercy, is a good enough measure of self-preservation.

As a Lebanese Christian, I have seen what the Syrian regime has done to me. I have seen how its tanks ran over our men and women just because they defied it. I have seen how it killed everyone that spoke up against it. I remember how, with my most basic instincts I realized that having this foreign army in my land is wrong, and my parents telling me not to say so in front of anyone. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

And I also remember that it was us, Christians, who asked for their protection – not knowing that it would be the reason we are in our predicament today, not knowing that their greed in our land would take away of our political power and turn us into weaklings.

But the time to regain our political power is here. We cannot accept any politician who thinks that our best interest is with that of a tyrant just because that tyrant is of a minority. We, as Christians, cannot accept the status quo of things anymore because it is obviously not working.

The Copts in Egypt had their say on Sunday. It was bloody. But their word is out there. And it sure feels much better, I’m sure, than to bottle yet another burned church in like it’s nothing. The time to act is now.

The Nakba

Gebran Khalil Gebran wrote in “The Prophet”:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

Imagine this quote being applied to something more concrete than a human soul… imagine this quote being applied to your land.

Your land is not your land. It does not belong to you.

There is nothing harder than having no home – only a transient house, or even a tent, where you sleep the night, worrying what the following day brings.

Some people have been worrying about that issue precisely – where to sleep – for more than sixty years. I am not appealing to any political reason, only humanitarian common sense. There’s a people who has had their land swept away from beneath their feet on the premise that this land does not belong to them, whose homes got ripped to shreds because they were built on a land that was not “theirs” and who are in limbo just because they were the victims of wrong place, wrong time circumstances.

The Palestinian people, and I do not mean its political figures (because those are as rubbish as garbage goes), are a collection of human beings whose lives have been torn apart by years of them being in the middle of a conflict they chose not to be part of.

I shall not go into the history of how they lost their land. After all, the history is well known (Balfour promise, etc…). But the sad thing is how this people is portrayed today: a collection of terrorists voting terrorists to fight those who are good, aka, Israelis.

Sure, the Palestinians have had their share of mistakes. They sought out a country where a country was already built and they have constantly failed to get themselves represented in the best possible way. Arafat? Abbas? Seriously?

But there’s more to the conflict than what ABC, CBS and Fox share with their viewers. There are people who are the victims of massacres against them on daily basis, whose children are used as bullet pillows and whose souls are being hammered with missiles. I firmly believe the holocaust has happened. Whether the number of Jews who died is ten million or one million, it doesn’t mean they were not ruthlessly exterminated at one point. But you’d think going through that ordeal would deter you from wanting to inflict it on another people. Not true, obviously.

I do not advocate equaling the holocaust with what’s happening in Palestine today. But I feel the human life has become of so little value in some areas of the world, it’s sickening.

However, the Arab Nakba (which translates as catastrophe) does not stop with Palestine. Arab countries are infested with dictators who kill their people ruthlessly without caring and who limit freedom, in spite of protests demanding for their basic right to speak.

The Arab Spring, which is also the name analysts have called the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, is slowly turned into another Nakba. Why? Sectarian clashes in Egypt against the Coptic population, just for them wanting to remain Christian in their country. Copts face daily discrimination, having to ask state permission to build churches and must indicate their religious affiliation on their ID cards.  Their schools were nationalized by the government in the 1950’s and over the last several decades they have witnessed terrible massacres. This past weekend witnessed two churches being burned and several dead. And yet, people in the Arab world have turned a blind eye on them and their suffering mean while constantly bemoaning about discrimination against Arabs. Not to mention what has happened to Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq, half of whom have fled for their own safety. And no it was not American troops who drove them out.

Add to that rioting in Tunisia that is knowing no end. The Libyan revolution dying a painful and agonizing death amidst an international silence that knows no limit. A Syrian revolution attempt that is the victim of people simply not caring anymore and a Yemeni revolution that’s the victim of them being so geographically distant that they have become also distant from attention.

It doesn’t help as well that the population in the Gulf suddenly got preoccupied with watching Star Academy and counting their oil millions again.

Yes, the Arab Nakba doesn’t stop with Palestine, although they are the bigger victims in it. It’s the story of a whole region of the world that allows itself to be degraded with time by incompetent rulers, indulgent people and hypocrisy without limit. The next time you protest against Israel ask yourself. Do I believe in equality in my own home? Have I treated one of my own citizens differently based on ethnicity or sect? Are people in my own state suffering because they are religiously or ethnically different? Next time you march or protest ask yourself these questions.

And quoting Gebran Khalil Gebran again,

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.
Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.
[…]
Pity the nation divided into into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.
PS: Thanks to Paul Gadalla for his input in this post.