Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sermon: "Marching in the Streets in the Middle East" (Delivered 3-13-11)

[Note: This sermon was delivered approximately a week before the United States, Great Britain, and France launched airstrikes against Libya. I have decided not to change my original sermon in light of these newest developments.]

There is a moment from my life, a moment of regret I think, that has been replaying in my mind quite a bit over the past couple of months. A decade ago I was sitting in a tea house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, having a conversation with a good friend, a Unitarian Universalist young adult at First Parish in Cambridge. We were both in our early twenties and my friend was a world traveler. While our tea steeped, I asked her about the any upcoming trips she was considering. She answered me, “Do you know where I’m really trying to get to? I’ve been dreaming of taking a trip to Iran.”

Truth be told, I chuckled nervously. Admittedly, Iran is not at the top of most American’s ideal travel destinations. Let me put it this way: at my bank, the tellers all have these little get-to-know-me name cards that state their name, their hometown, their hobby, and the country they most want to visit. There is a lot of France and Italy, a lot of Jamaica and Australia. Nobody says that they dream of visiting Iran.

My friend began to describe her dream trip. “There is an enormous youth population in Iran. They are young people who are educated, idealistic, politically thoughtful, and culturally inventive. There is a youth movement underway. Revolution is in the air. And there is nowhere I would rather go than the coffee bars of inner city Tehran. It’s where the movement is. I’m planning to fly to Moscow, meet up with some Russians I know, and have them escort me down and cross into Azerbaijan, at which point I’d catch a ride to the Iranian border, cross over, and figure out a way to get to Tehran.”

I wasn’t invited to go along exactly. And plus, I had committed to internships and was earnestly preparing for ministry. The September 11 terrorist attacks occurred a few months after that conversation. A few weeks later the United States attacked the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Bush Administration began to set into motion the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

I became the minister here. My friend traveled to Cuba instead. And, in Iran, the youth revolution was put on hold. There is a basic rule that says you don’t try to shake up your own government at a time when the world’s largest military superpower has invaded, occupied, and overthrown the government of the country neighboring you to the East, and has also invaded, occupied, and overthrown the government of the country neighboring you on the West, and has posted aircraft carrier battle groups miles away from your coast in the Persian Gulf, and an influential Senator and presidential candidate thinks it’s funny to sing “Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann.” Simply put, when nations feel threatened from the outside their citizens tend to unite behind their own leaders, even leaders many would normally oppose and criticize. Case in point: after September 11, the approval ratings of George Bush climbed from 55 percent to nearly 90 percent and remained elevated for the next two years.


This morning I want to say something about the populist political uprisings that have been sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East, beginning in Tunisia and then stretching out through Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and beyond. I want to add another confession. Just as a decade ago I was oblivious to the presence of a revolutionary youth culture in Iran, this is a topic that I am far from the expert on. Many of you may know far more than I know. So, be forgiving and kind to me if you conclude that I just don’t get it.

The purpose of these remarks is also to be self-critical and reflexive. Examining these revolutions may in fact challenge some of the judgmental and biased views that some of us may hold about the people in that region of the world. And, to preview the sermon next week, in which I will talk not about taking the streets in the Middle East, but taking to the streets in Middle America, examining the revolutions half a world away may stoke our own thoughts about the possibility and necessity of revolution right here in our own backyard.

What I said about Iran a decade ago (and I should point out that it is quite possible that we may see a similar uprising in Iran in the coming months) is also true about Tunisia and Bahrain and Egypt. All of these countries have population bubbles with enormous populations of young people in their teens and twenties. The median age in Egypt, for example, is 24. By comparison, in the United States it is 35. These nations have an extremely large population of youth and it is the youth who are both the best educated and who face the greatest struggles with unemployment. The unemployment rate for young people in Egypt and Tunisia is significantly higher than the unemployment rate of the rest of the country. The unemployment rate for those with college degrees is especially high. Make no mistake, the protests in Egypt were not purely economic in nature, though they were certainly fueled by rising food costs, endemic poverty, and chronic unemployment. The frustrations of poverty and unemployment, however, were combined with criticisms of rampant government corruption, political repression, police brutality, violations of free speech, and election fraud.

The story of what triggered the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa is a story with which you are probably already familiar, but it is a story that deserves to be retold. The story involves a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty six year old who supported his family by working as a street vendor in a small city in Tunisia. He repeatedly ran into harassment from the police as he tried to sell vegetables out of a cart. He was shaken down for bribes because he did not have the proper permits. One day, a police officer trashed his cart and Bouazizi responded by committing self-immolation in front of a police station. Two weeks later he died from the injuries he had inflicted upon himself. Ten days after his death, Tunisian President Ben Ali stepped down after having ruled Tunisia for 23 years. Ben Ali fled the country, and is currently in hiding in Saudi Arabia.

The speed and the momentum of the protests that toppled the government were extraordinary. Amateur Tunisian hip-hop artist Hamada Ben Amor, known as El General, released a couple of songs critical of the President’s regime. As his song was reposted time and again on Facebook, the movement unified around a tragic story that was emblematic of the political and economic frustration of the people.

Similarly, in Egypt, the rallying call to occupy Tahrir Square came from a simple Facebook status update that was reposted and reposted. A twenty six year old woman simply posted, “People, I am going to Tahrir Square.” Similarly, when Egyptian security forces brutalized and beat to death a twenty eight year old young man named Khaled Said in June of last year, social media users turned his death into a rallying cry for a movement. In memory of his death, a Facebook group entitled, “We are all Khaled Said” administered by a Google executive in Egypt provided an organizing platform that would eventually topple Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year reign in Egypt.

[By way of digression, I should mention that, at last year’s Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, I remember sitting with a colleague of mine who commented on the tradition of congregational delegates passing statements in response to a multitude of social issues. These are traditionally called Actions of Immediate Witness and Statements of Conscience. My colleague leaned over and told me that at this General Assembly, the delegates should be making “Tweets of Conscience” and “Facebook status updates of Immediate Witness.” His comment made me crack up. But, at that very moment the first young people in Egypt were joining the “We are Khaled Said” Facebook group.]

The power of social media cannot be understated. But, it can also be overstated. Last month Thomas Friedman published an article on contributing factors to the political uprisings. One of those contributing factors, he said, was the computer application known as Google Earth. Google Earth allows you to use satellite imaging to zoom in and see what is happening almost anywhere in the world. You can type in your coordinates and see what is going on in your neighbor’s backyard. Thomas Friedman claimed that the citizens of Bahrain used Google Earth to see a graphic representation of how the underclass lived in cramped, congested tenements while the elite lived in spacious estates. In response, one critic asked if Friedman was saying that it took satellites and a website for the people of Bahrain to understand the gross inequalities of wealth in their country. (And, by the way, this critic pointed out: the spacious tracts of land in Bahrain that you see on Google Maps are not controlled by the country’s ruling elite. Those are the expansive United States military bases.)

I do want to add a few words about the reception that these demonstrations and protests have had in the West. Many in the West have looked upon these demonstrations and uprisings with mixed feelings, while the voices of the radical right in our country have called the demonstrators fanatics and terrorists in so many words. This reception, whether cool or antagonistic, is due, I would argue, to a form of ethnocentric and often racist stereotyping that is known as Orientalism.

The term “Orientalism” was made popular by the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, who wrote a book on the subject in the late 1970s. Said provocatively wrote, “Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and thoroughly ethnocentric.”

That is a bold statement. But, notice what one observer and commentator has written about the current political uprisings,
For years, intellectuals, mostly Arabs, have been confronted by the stereotypical, even racist, approach found in much of Western Orientalism… Under this approach, there is a contradiction between Arab and Muslim culture on the one hand, and democracy, equality and social justice on the other. Based on this contradiction, this form of Orientalism rejects any hope of democratization in the Arab world and justifies the prevalent tyranny…

According to this simplistic notion, limited to a dichotomy and tainted by the crude sense of supremacy in which this Orientalism is imprisoned, Arab society is conflicted between the forces of undemocratic political Islam and those of oppressive, despotic regimes. Terms such as democracy and social justice [it is suggested] cannot exist in Arab society because of the cultural obstacle that exists.
You should note that in the case of the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq, failures to establish a working democratic government in short order were blamed on the populations of those countries themselves. They’re incapable of democracy, it was suggested. I think we see the same kind of Orientalism, the same kind of skeptical “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude among many in our own country.

This attitude, whatever you may think of it, should cause us to pause, to reflexively look at ourselves, to ask ourselves, “Are we qualified to be the supreme arbiters of what constitutes functional democracy?” Who was it that the Bible said should cast the first stone?

But, what we have seen, no matter where the future course of human events in North Africa takes us, is the fall of a corrupt 23 year regime in Tunisia, the fall of a corrupt and abusive 30 year regime in Africa, and, as we speak, the increasingly likely fall of a brutal 40 year regime in Libya. In the first two cases, Tunisia and Egypt, regime change happened with relative peacefulness. In Libya, the course of political change has taken a much more violent turn. Even so, there have certainly been much more violent regime changes. We should know.

The future, as always, is as of yet unwritten. There will be no utopia. There will continue to be struggle. But, the future does hold promise. It is important for us as people of faith to affirm the promise that the future holds.