Understanding and responding to Middle East anger

Jan 15, 2020 by

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A defining moment for me in understanding the Middle East was the four nights of bombing I endured as a humanitarian worker in Baghdad in 1998.

I’ll never forget that terrifying experience: lying on the interior hallway floor, balled up in a fetal position, praying like I’ve never prayed before or since, as the bombs sent by Americans fell around me. I remember the building shaking and the odd sound that shaking made between the ear-splitting explosions. And I distinctly remember how the dust shook loose by the bombing fell on me from the suspended ceiling above.

After four terrifying nights, the bombing stopped. But the people of the Middle East have collectively experienced something closer to four or more decades of violence at the hands of America. What we’re seeing in the current rage on the streets of Middle East cities and villages are people who have finally said, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more.”

A mother and sick child in Baghdad, Iraq, suffer from sanctions in 1998. — Mel Lehman/Common Humanity

A mother and sick child in Baghdad, Iraq, suffer from sanctions in 1998. — Mel Lehman/Common Humanity

The crisis point we find ourselves in as a new decade begins did not happen in a vacuum. Quite the contrary. The people of the Middle East have been at the receiving end of American and Western violence and disrespect for so long they have now collectively lost their tempers and are demanding U.S. forces leave. I think they’re right; our forces should leave now, immediately, before any more harm is done.

I love my native land and, yes, there is much good in America. But we need to see U.S. interventions in the Middle East not the way our American military and political leaders describe them to us. Instead, we need to imagine seeing our U.S. actions and policies in the Middle East as people there have experienced them. We need to walk a mile in their shoes. We were told of a glorious invasion of Iraq in 2003; Iraqis experienced the doors to their homes kicked in by strange men with guns and their loved ones taken away and sometimes imprisoned, tortured and shot.

Imagine leaving the comfortable chair you are sitting in and instead sit next to me on the floor of that hotel in Baghdad in 1998 with dust shaken loose by American bombs falling on you. That is something untold millions of Middle Easterners have experienced and now fear is happening again. Here a short list of the grievances held by many people there against the U.S. and the West:

— the terribly misnamed Crusades;

— several centuries of Western colonialism;

— the CIA- and British-backed overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953;

— chemical and conventional weapons supplied by the U.S. to Sadaam Hussein during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, which worsened and prolonged the conflict;

— the accidental shooting down by American forces of an Iranian civilian passenger plane in 1988 inside Iranian airspace with Iranian religious pilgrims aboard. There were 290 casualties, including 66 children. President Reagan issued a statement of deep regret.

— horrific economic sanctions imposed at the request of the U.S. on Iraq from 1996 to 2003, which cost the lives of perhaps a half a million Iraqi children;

— the unjustified U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003;

— the imprisonment, torture and killing of people who, not surprisingly, did not like our invasion of their country;

— the current devastating sanctions on Iran.

Other grievances elsewhere in the region include 18 years of catastrophic war in Afghanistan; U.S. acquiescence for the Israeli theft of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and shooting of civilians (some 215 Gazans have been killed by Israeli forces and thousands more injured in extremely disproportionate response to recent protests); U.S. support for rebels in Syria and Libya.

The list could go on, but one more point needs to be made about how vast numbers of people in the Middle East view the recent assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani of Iran. Many people see it quite differently than how the event has been described to American audiences. Whether or not we agree, we need to recognize many people in the Middle East view Soleimani much like Americans view French Gen. Lafayette and his aid to American troops in our revolution — military assistance to people living in a time of great fear.

What can we do? Write to your elected officials, demanding the U.S. move in the direction of easing rather than increasing the conflict. There is still some wisdom in Washington, and I believe there is wisdom in Tehran amid the anger. We need to pray for and call upon wise people on both sides to act.

Tradition holds that the Wise Men of the Christmas story came from the ancient Persian town of Kashan, now in modern Iran. Let us pray for that wisdom to emerge once again in both nations so some sort of face-saving response can be found instead of warfare.

Demand the U.S.’s foolish refusal to grant a visa to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to address the U.N. be reversed so that he be allowed to visit the U.N. as he is entitled.

Christians need to re-enage the discussion within American Christianity on the mistake of confusing violent American aggression with achieving the kingdom of God. Jesus came to teach us to love our enemies. I’m angry with many of my fellow Christians who support President Trump and the military-industrial complex’s repeated assertion that war is the answer. It is not. Love is the answer. As a Christian, I’m distressed my country’s military aggression can easily be misinterpreted as an expression of Christianity. Our actions are hurting Christians in the Middle East. To my fundamentalist and evangelical sisters and brothers: Can we talk?

I have another, simple suggestion. Have coffee or tea with a neighbor of Middle Eastern heritage. It’s a simple first step. There are many Christians of Middle Eastern heritage who would be glad to talk with you. We need to imagine a world of peace, using our hearts. We need to think about how to achieve that new world, using our heads. And we need to talk. We cannot let another war happen.

Mel Lehman directs Common Humanity, a nonprofit organization that does peacemaking through understanding, respect and friendship with the Arab and Muslim world. He is a Mennonite deacon available for speaking engagements at info@commonhumanity.org.


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