Monday, January 30, 2017

On Christian Syrian Refugees

A lot of statistics are floating around the internet about Christian Syrian refugees, and almost all of them are based on assumptions that ignore the situation of Christians living in Syria. In fact there are very few Christians fleeing Syria because they tend to live in areas which have not been hardest hit by the conflict.  Almost all refugees fleeing Syria are Sunni Muslims simply because almost all of the fighting has take place in Sunni areas.

Christian Population centers in Syria

Here’s a typical evaluation of the numbers of Syrian Christian refugees, taken from National Review: 
The United States has accepted 10,801 Syrian refugees, of whom 56 are Christian. Not 56 percent; 56 total, out of 10,801. That is to say, one-half of 1 percent. The BBC says that 10 percent of all Syrians are Christian, which would mean 2.2 million Christians. . . .

Herein lies the problem: This assumes that Christians are dispersed evenly throughout Syria and have suffered equally in the fighting.  In fact, that is not the case.  Some Christians have fled their homes because of fighting, especially from Aleppo and Hasakah, but also in much smaller numbers from other cities like Homs and Hama. Most Christians live in areas (mainly large cities) that have been and still remain under government control.  For them, there has been nothing to flee. They are still living in their homes. 

Christians are more affluent than the average Syrian Muslim, and have better options for remaining in Syria, or at least in the nearby region.  Some have come to Lebanon, where they are readily accepted into the nation’s substantial Christian minority. 

The arguments about why Christians are not in refugee camps are made by people who are simply inventing statistics and are unaware of the cultural dynamics. If there are 2.2 million Syrian Christians (a reasonable figure), and 25% of Syrians have fled their country, then they reason that there must be a half-million Syrian Christian refugees outside Syria. A Newsweek article was based around this purely invented figure, and even suggested that there might be as many as one million Christian refugees:

The truth is that Christians have better options, including staying at home, and are using them.  The same is true for Alawites, Druze, and other Syrian religious minorities. The rebellion is largely Sunni, and the fighting is taking place in Sunni areas.  This is why almost all refugees are Sunni.  Everyone living in the camps is Sunni. So, almost all of the refugees with the direst need are Sunni. We should not be passing over those with the greatest need to favor those who usually have better options.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

History Repeats Itself-Murder in the Caliphate

It appears that the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was poisoned back in September along with three of his aides. He has summoned other leaders to choose his successor as Caliph in case assassins manage to kill him.

Why would anyone want to poison this guy?

If we take a look at history, this is a reflection of the close similarity between the Islamic State and the earliest leaders of Islam. After the death of Mohammad, the Muslims chose a new leader to be their Caliph.  The first four such leaders chosen are called by Sunni Muslims the "Rightly Guided Caliphs." These were all companions of Mohammad, who ruled in the years soon after his death.

All of them, Mohammad and his Companions, were men of conquest. Mohammad said that he earned his living from "under the shadow of the tip of my spear" and the Islamic State magazine "Dabiq" presents a lengthy discussion of this in issue 4, beginning on page 10. He lived from the spoils of conquest. Though Mohammad was himself poisoned, he did not die of that incident but was weakened by it and died of illness three years later. His first successor, Abu Bakr, also died of illness. The remaining "Rightly Guided Caliphs" died violent deaths.

Umar-Assassinated by a slave after village was attacked
Othman-Assassinated by rebels during war
Ali- Assassinated by a religious extremist who wanted war

Mohammad and his grandsons Hassan and Hussein
with his companions in better times

The Caliphate of Ali was divided, with a rival Caliph Muawiyah controlling the Levant and Egypt. The next Caliph, Hassan, resigned after making an agreement agreed to allow Muawiyah to reign until his death, with Hassan as his successor. It did not take long for Muawiyah to decide that his own son Yazid should instead be his heir, and he arranged to have Hassan poisoned -by Hassan's own wife.

Hassan's brother and rightful heir Hussein was later killed by the army of the treacherous Yazid at a battle in Karbala in Iraq. He was beheaded by an enemy leader who had agreed to allow him to say prayers, and then cut off his head when he knelt to pray. This event marks the complete rupture between Sunni Muslims (with Yazid), and those who would become Shia Muslims (with Hussein).

Death at Karbala

Why is this history relevant?  Muslims have worked over many centuries to build an Islam that allows for peace and tolerance.  Most of them are kind, decent people who want to live that way. There are schools of theology (primarily four for Sunnis an one for Shia) that interpret the Quran and the life of Mohammad in a different light than the Islamic State.

What you see in the Islamic State is a desire to throw away Islam as we know it, modern Islam, and revert back to tribal barbarism. It is not the Islam of your Dentist, or even of most Muslims.

Unless he does this, in which case you are in trouble.

It is the Islam of the Islamic State. It is the Islam of Al-Qaeida.  It is the Islam of Saudi Arabia. It is the Islam that we see lived out in the time of the "Rightly Guided" Caliphs. It is the Islam of terror.

Why has this version of Islam come back to the forefront after being dormant so long?  It has always been lurking around in the Saudi Peninsula, where it originated.  That is the root and the reservoir of violent extremist Islam.  A Saudi preacher of this theology, ibn Abdu Al-Wahab, allied with the house of Saud and together they established an Islamic State in the late 18th century much like the one we see in Syria and Iraq today.

The First Islamic State - Emirate of Diriyah
The Wahabi theology lives on and is exported by wealthy Saudis who build Mosques and pay extremist Wahabi preachers with oil money. All around the world, they are slowly spreading this extremism. The genie is out of the bottle. We have already poured fabulous wealth out on the Saudi princes.  They have already set up worldwide organizations to promote their beliefs.  We have already armed them with the latest and most powerful armaments that their oil money (which came from us) could buy from our factories.

What can we do? We can attack the ideology, and not the many Muslims who don't really believe it and whose belief systems have rejected it.  We can quit trying to portray every Muslim as a terrorist.  We can give up the stupid comparisons of refugees to skittles. Not every Christian is a Klansman, and not every Muslim is a terrorist. Maybe we could quit pouring weapons into the region? Those weapons almost always seem to end up in the hands of extremists.

We can also share the Gospel with them.  We've done a lot of horrible things with our religion (as Christians) over the centuries, but in it's earliest days Christianity was a religion of peace. When we look at the companions of Jesus (the Apostles) we see something very different about them.  They were men of peace, not military conquest.  They did not kill for their faith, but instead they were killed for their faith.
Deaths of the Apostles
It is wrong to suggest that Muslims are a violent people and that Christians are not.  That simply isn't the case.  Christian nations are just as involved in the blood-letting as Muslim nations.  Our corporations have reaped a huge windfall from weapons sales to all sides.  Christian nations have made the worst of the good example of the Apostles, and Muslims have made the best of the bad example of the Companions.

But if we are to look for a way out, where do we look? Whether Muslim or Christian, our only hope is Jesus.  The answer is not a religion, or a system, but a person -Jesus.  His Apostles were different because he changed them.  We should be different because he changes us.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Islamophobia is Irrational

Having lived among Muslims in Muslim neighborhoods in a Muslim majority country for over five years now, I am constantly confused and disappointed by the denigration of Muslims in the West. This generally comes from two groups: those who have never met a Muslim, and those who have met them in a war zone. While the latter group does know something about Muslims that is valid, what they know is how Muslims act when they are being shot at, frightened, gassed, bombed, beaten, starved, tortured, and killed.  This is not a political statement, simply a description of a war zone.

In my experience, most commentators are simply passing along what they have heard from other commentators.  Even those who have a background in the Middle East often come from areas where they lived in seclusion from Muslims.  Years ago I asked one lady who grew up in Lebanon about a Muslim custom and she said "I don't know, I was never in the home of a Muslim." Being from the Middle East didn't give her any particular knowledge of Muslims because she actively avoided contact with them. If you really want to know what Muslims are up to, I suggest that you meet a Muslim.

A friend recently asked my opinion of an anti-Muslim video, and when I watched the video it was immediately obvious that the person who made it had no personal knowledge of Muslims or their culture and religion. It was recycled video clips. I won't link it here because that would promote it, but the upshot was that fear of Islam is rational. Because the (stated) aim of the video was to promote fear, it was long on emotion and short on fact.  The video presented four distinct themes, which I will comment on here.

Myth #1 - All terrorism is Muslim terrorism.

Since the video was made from a US perspective, we can look at terrorist acts in the US to see if this is true. The FBI has published a list of domestic terror attacks in the last few decades in the US. What is clear from this list and other sources is that the danger of Muslim attacks in the US has been greatly exaggerated by those who sell fear, or those whose agenda is to, as one professional fearmonger put it, "to scare the bejeezus outta ya!"

Terrorism by groups 1980-2005

Since this data was compiled in 2005, the FBI's greatest concern has been the resurgence of right-wing hate groups  and militias.

Myth #2 - Only Muslims can't live with others in peace.

This myth simply ignores the many cases of religious strife around the world between other groups.  The maker of the video is probably hoping that no one will bother doing a few quick google searches.  In the case of Christians, they are being attacked by Hindus, being attacked and killed by Buddhists in several places, and they are being killed by atheists.  Even animists persecute Christians.

The video maker in this case is either very ignorant (most likely) or willing to tell a bald-faced lie.

There are no Muslims in this photo.

Myth # 3 Only Muslims are unhappy with their countries.

Ironically, the maker of this video is likely to be among those who complain the loudest about illegal Mexican immigration to the US.  Those Mexican people (Christians) are unhappy with their country (Christian) and want to come to the US. In fact if we look at the top ten immigrant groups in the US, none of them are from Muslim countries.  The maker of the video obviously made no effort to learn the actual facts before jumping to conclusions.

Place of birth for the foreign-born population in the United States
Top ten countries2013201020001990
El Salvador1,252,0671,214,049817,336465,433
South Korea1,070,3351,100,422864,125568,397
Dominican Republic991,046879,187687,677347,858

Myth #4 - Only Muslims Have Terror Organizations.

The video listed many terror organizations operating in the Muslim world. Some were duplicates, rather like listing "KKK" and "The Klan" as distinct groups.  Others are long disbanded, and some are simply a rebranding of the same group. But there are many terror organizations active in the Muslim world, so surely that makes them especially evil and violent, right?

While there is no official national catalogue of terrorist groups operating in the US, the Southern Poverty Law Center does keep an extensive list of hate groups, some of which are not very hateful at all, and others of which are terrorist by nature -everything from Klansmen, Black Panthers, White Nationalists, Ecoterrorists, Nazis -the list is long. The State Department keeps a list of terror organizations, both active and "delisted." On both lists are groups from around the world -South Americans, Irish, Japanese, Cambodians, Indians -there are plenty of groups on the lists which are not Muslims.

Terror cells often look more like this.

There is a conversation to be had about radical Islamist violence.  There are hard questions to be asked about Wahabi Islam and the export of violent, radical ideology.  There are questions about rampant arms sales and the arming of dangerous groups for political purposes.

Promoting fear of Muslims does not do anything to advance this dialogue.  In fact, it shuts it down.  Reasonable Muslims are not going to respond with engagement if they are lumped in with extremists by the ignorant.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2)

What if our Lord Jesus had been shunned or rejected in his time of need?  What would Christmas be like if he had been thrown along with his family back into the clutches of Herod? It was God's plan that he be a refugee.  Remember that.  It was God's plan that his Son Jesus be a refugee.

Our nativity scene at home
I will be sharing some pictures with the hashtag #christmaswithoutrefugees during the season where we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus, and his escape to Egypt as a refugee.  Will you join me?

Did the refugees beam up?
Made by Maronite nuns, but missing the refugees.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Supreme Court Myth

The idea is being put forward by both major parties that the future of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance because of Supreme Court nominations that will be made during the next 4-8 years.  People are urged to vote for a candidate that they might otherwise abhor, so that their side can prevail in Roe v. Wade.  Is that true? Can we solve this just by supporting the right party?

The best case study for this idea is the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v Casey.

At the time of the decision, Republicans had been in control of the White House for 12 years. Because President Carter made no nominations to the Supreme Court, Republicans had nominated every Justice appointed since 1969.  Eight of the nine sitting Justices were appointed by Republicans.  Only Justice White, appointed by President Kennedy, was the nominee of a Democrat. This was the perfect opportunity for Republican nominees to overturn Roe v. Wade. They had an 8-1 majority over Democrat nominees.

The Justices were:

Blackmun (Nixon)
Stevens (Ford)

Souter (Bush)
O'Connor (Reagan)
Kennedy (Reagan)

Rheinquist (Reagan)
Scalia (Bush)
White (JFK)
Thomas (Bush)

The first five, all appointed by Republican Presidents, upheld Roe v. Wade. Six of the nine Justices were Reagan-Bush era nominees, and they best they could do was an even split among the six.

The last four expressed their dissent against Roe. v Wade.  The only Justice appointed by a Democrat voted pro-life.  Five Republican nominees, with no Democrat nominee among them, upheld Roe. v. Wade.

The evil of abortion will not be struck down by Presidential appointments. The people of America have to repent of the blood on our hands. We have to adopt an ethic that does not just value the lives of the unborn, but all lives -poor, old, criminal, Muslim, soldier, black -and we are not ready to do that.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Between Two Fires

Sometimes we have to make hard choices in life, and often we seem to have to choose between two bad options.  In the US, people say that we are “between a rock and a hard place.”  Here in the region of Tyre, we say that we are “between two fires.” Which one is it better to be burned by?  That’s a great analogy for tough choices.

As Christians, how do we apply a Biblical morality to making those hard choices? This is especially important when other people will also be burned by the fire we choose.

Jesus gave us some important teachings to guide us through times like these.  He was often tested by being given two bad choices.  People wanted to know which bad choice he would prefer.  In these cases he never allowed himself to be blinded by the illusion that there are only two choices.

Here’s one of the best examples of Jesus making an ethical choice when offered two unethical options:

John 8:Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd. 
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?"
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. 
They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. 
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

Notice that the Pharisees brought “a woman” who had been caught “in the act” of adultery. Could they not catch the man?  They then lied and told Jesus that the law of Moses says “to stone her.”  It says, actually, to stone them both.  But conveniently, they only caught the woman.  Was the man one of them?

For the Pharisees, this was never about justice.  They would have brought the man along, too, if they were interested in justice.  This was about forcing Jesus to make one of two bad choices.  These were political choices, to be clear.  He could ally himself with the Pharisees by sanctioning her stoning.  This would anger the Romans, of course, who did not allow upstart locals to administer executions.  Jesus could have allied himself against the Pharisees by repudiating stoning.  He would have been portrayed as an ally of the Hellenistic, liberal left who sold out to the Romans.

Jesus was trapped between two fires.  Neither choice was just or good.  

So Jesus chose goodness and justice.  Was his choice likely to challenge either of the two predominant political parties?  No.  The Romans remained in charge of the government, and the Pharisees remained in control of religious life.  Yet Jesus remained in possession of his own personal moral and ethical values.  He chose neither fire. They both conspired later to burn him together, but he never sold out his moral and ethical beliefs to the lesser of two fires.

If you are sure that your choice of evils is the right thing to do, consider these words of Jesus:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

There’s only a small space between those two fires.  Most people won’t find it.  They’ll follow the wide and easy path laid out for them.  They’ll tell you that any path off the wide path is the wrong direction. They’ll tell you that not choosing the first fire is the same as choosing the second one.  Don’t listen to them, listen to Jesus. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Patriotism: Symbolism vs. Substance

The recent row in professional football about saluting during the national anthem or kneeling in protest has sparked a national debate about what it means to be patriotic.  What does it mean to be a patriotic, loyal, freedom-loving American?

I submit that we are talking about the wrong things.  Our national debate is focused on a symbol.  We are ignoring substance. The slogans and memes abound, and for the most part they are meaningless.

Except for this meme, which is meaningful.

When we say "Blue Lives Matter" and "We support our law enforcement officers" is that really true?  Does saying those words constitute support, or is it just an effortless way to signal our empty patriotism to everyone around?

If you want to support police officers, how about buying a life-saving first aid kit for each officer?  Nothing says "thank you for your service" like doing something to save that officer's life.  When an officer is bleeding from a beating, stab, or bullet wound, ten thousand "likes" on facebook will not stop the flow of blood.

Thanks for the thousands of likes,
that made it all better.

If you want to support homeless veterans, how about picking up a hammer and building a home for a needy veteran?  Nothing says "thank you for your service" like doing something to give that veteran a home.  When that paralyzed veteran can't run his wheelchair down the stairs, ten thousand "likes" on facebook will not get him to the bathroom.

On a national level, "supporting the troops" should mean a lot of things that we often ignore.  It should mean funding the VA well enough that they can all access the health care and benefits they are due.  That means we agree to pay more taxes for that, and vote for people who will fund the VA.  It should mean decent pay for our troops.  That means we agree to pay more taxes for that, and vote for people who will give the raises.  It should mean being extremely reluctant to send our troops on missions where they will be wounded and killed.  That means we agree to pay less taxes for wars, and vote for people who will make fewer wars.

What could explain the recent upsurge in concern
for the plight of homeless veterans?

On a national level, "supporting our law enforcement" should mean a lot of things that we often ignore. It should mean decent pay for our officers.  That means we agree to pay more taxes for that, and vote for people who will give the raises. It should mean funding academy training to provide more than a meager 8 hours of conflict resolution training, compared to the more than 100 hours of combat training. It should mean body cams for all officers, because in most cases body cams provide evidence that protects officers from wrongful accusation. It means we agree to pay more taxes for those ideas, and to vote for people who will enact them.

When people wave the flag, don't assume they are patriotic.  They might just be attention-starved.  When people salute for the anthem, don't assume they are patriotic.  They might just be jingoistic.  When people recite the pledge, don't assume they are patriotic.  They might just be conformists.

Which of these men is a patriot?
Hint: Not the one with the flag.

People are patriots when they are doing something to make the United States of America a better place for all Americans.  They are patriots when they serve, work, and sacrifice for their fellow countrymen. They are patriots when they show the best of America to the world, both in affirmation and constructive protest.