Christian journalists can ask a question others often stifle: What is God doing in the world? It's a good question, if tricky. There is the risk of underestimating God, of playing it too close. And there's the risk of going long, and presuming. So taking Paul as my guide (1 Corinthians 2:16) I will launch out, because many people lately have asked, "What do you make of the Middle East?" when what they really want to know is, "What in the world is God up to?"
The question-and the recent upheaval-bring to mind a conversation over lunch in July 2001 with a learned American working in Africa. I had just returned from Kakuma, a camp in northern Kenya for refugees from civil wars in Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia. It had 77,000 refugees then-today it houses over 400,000-and seethed with tension and violence much like the civil wars most of its inhabitants had escaped. I poured this out to my friend, and he said a profound thing: "I believe that if we as Western Christians will not go to the Muslims, the Lord will bring the Muslims out to us."
The refugee crisis was one of few intersections between the Western and Islamic worlds, but six weeks later 19 Islamic militants hijacked three American airplanes, and with the 9/11 attacks Islam came into Western homes, businesses, even trespassing on our travel and leisure.
Average Americans became fluent in jihadisms, suspicious of names like "Hussein," and knowledgeable of central Asian countries never taught in our history books. Intersections multiplied. I've met a Shiite tribal leader who became a Christian after translating for U.S. Marines, an Afghan schoolteacher who converted after assisting a U.S. relief agency, an Iraqi leader who divorced her husband and came to the United States for grad school. For reasons that go beyond U.S. invasion, Middle Easterners have learned in the last decade to want new, divergent things.
But what about Americans? We've grown complacent in our newfound familiarity with the Islamic world, and comfortable with political leaders who refuse to address the important issues that divide us. Enter the revolts of 2011, each confusing and unsettling, each pointing out the complexities within what we like to ball up into the "Middle East" or the "Muslim world"-never minding it was once the Judean and the Christian world. Now we are learning that Tunisia is not Egypt, nor is Egypt Libya, Yemen, or Bahrain.
If 9/11 brought the "Muslim world" to us in a dramatic way, recent upheavals are showing us it is a world distinctly peopled. And its people turn out to be as complex, contradictory, and covetous as any Americans. They may want adulterers stoned (while 82 percent favor that in Egypt, only 16 percent favor it in Turkey), but large majorities also say they favor democracy and are worried about Islamic extremism in their own countries. They want the old, corrupt leaders to go, but continue to favor the kind of influence peddling that gets things done. And some of the protesters in Oman were asking the government to forgive their home loans. Sound familiar?
The test of Christian witness in the Muslim world is more important than ever. And never more risky. As Catholic archbishop of Denver Charles J. Chaput said in a speech at Georgetown University March 1: "We now face a global crisis in religious liberty."
The reality is in the numbers-70 percent of the world's population lives in countries that restrict religious liberty (most of those are Muslim-majority countries, plus China and North Korea)-and in recent persecution and violence, as in the assassination of Pakistani Christian leader Shahbaz Bhatti.
What in the world is God doing? He may be showing those in the Middle East and North Africa they cannot embrace democracy without religious liberty-and with it the often chaotic choices between right and wrong. And He may be showing those in the West they cannot hope to understand, influence, or live alongside the Muslim world without themselves recapturing its meaning and significance. For religious liberty is not about protecting minorities, as some Washington policymakers suggest, but about protecting the most elemental freedom-the freedom to think in one's conscience and to change one's beliefs as conscience directs. "Religious freedom is humanity's first and most important freedom. Our first governor is God, our Creator, the Governor of the universe," said Chaput. That's the first lesson for the street, and for the halls of power.
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