March 2011

Tremendous events have been happening in North Africa and the Middle East. On December 17 a young Tunisian street vendor by the name of Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the ongoing harassment by local officials of his vegetable cart by which he supported his mother, uncle and younger siblings, including one who was at university. He couldn’t afford the weekly bribes the police and others extracted, and after his final arrest and subsequent humiliation, took his own life.

His death sparked a protest that led to the overthrow of the Tunisian president Zine El Abidine. Inspired by the events in Tunisia protests broke out across the region, resulting in the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the imminent demise of Libya’s long reigning strongman Moammar Gadhafi. From Algeria to Iran, formerly submissive Muslims are calling their leaders to account for generations of corruption and despotism. What on earth is going on?

The roots of this unrest go back to the roots of Islam itself. The word Islam is loosely translated “submission” and a Muslim is “one who submits.” Unlike Christianity, which calls for an intelligent consideration of the options and an ongoing dialogue with the Almighty, Muslims have always had to face the strictures of a doctrine that has called them to what for all intents and purposes amounts to volitional slavery. That doesn’t make for good citizenship, and historically there has not been much accountability built into Islamic rule. Of course the ruler should himself submit to Allah, but if he doesn’t, only Allah can do anything about it. The only legitimate justification for the overthrow of a ruler is if the ruler does not follow Islamic teaching. Even secularists like Mubarak and Gadhafi are wily enough to cloak themselves in the robes of Islam when it suits them to do so.

The Shah of Iran was not so clever. His secular lifestyle sparked a revolution that did not seek to replace him with someone that was more open to dialogue with the people he ruled, but only someone who adhered more closely to Islamic teachings. The lessons of this kind of “revolution” have been exposed to the world’s just censure for more than thirty years. The possibility of the countries of the North Africa and the Middle East following this pattern is still an open question.

But perhaps we are witnessing something else. I am reminded of the words of American President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 3, 2009. He said at that time, “No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”

Unlike many presidents before him, Obama actual set about to anticipate, plan for and welcome that change when it came. In August 2010, after months of planning in various committees he issued Presidential Study Directive 11. This document cited “evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region’s regimes” and warned that “the region is entering a critical period of transition.” The president asked his advisers to “manage these risks by demonstrating to the people of the Middle East and North Africa the gradual but real prospect of greater political openness and improved governance.”

The reaction to Obama’s handling of the events of the past few months have been mixed, with some commentators claiming that he has been indecisive. On the contrary, he has actively promoted the changes we see unfolding, and has prepared his government for them. He is managing the situation with a combination of carrot and stick that so far has not cost a single American life, yet has done more to change the governments of the region than Bush’s Iraq extravaganza has done in eight years (4.7 million refugees, 2.7 million internally displaced people, an estimated 600,000 deaths, a cost approaching 3 trillion dollars). I have been watching these events unfold for months, and have not heard a single negative comment directed towards America by the people (the deposed rulers have been less than pleased), nor a single American flag being burned.

Of course not all the credit goes to Obama; other factors have been at work. The proliferation of social media and the plurality of views available on the internet have had a part. There is also the ticking time bomb of governments who have encouraged large families and even paid considerable sums of money to ensure that outcome only now to be faced with millions of unemployed youths with plenty of expectations and not many prospects. Nor as Christian am I oblivious to the fact that particularly since 9/11 millions of Christians have been praying and encouraging a genuine dialogue with moderate Muslims who deplore the violence that has come to characterize their faith. Surely as God lives, those prayers have been having an effect as well. The strictures of my faith encourage me to hope for the best.

Malaysia has not signed the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (one of the few countries in the world that has not), so refugees in this country are by Malaysia’s definition of the word, illegal. This means that they cannot officially work and they cannot attend school. There are refugees in this country, however. Some come from Burma, thinking that their Muslim faith will earn them some consideration in this largely Muslim country. Some come from as far away as Somalia, for the same reason. They eke out an existence in the corners of Kuala Lumpur, trying to avoid notice and trying to get both an education and a job until they can find a country that will accept them and give them status.

The Canadian teachers in our program have undertaken to help them out where we can. We collect computers and school equipment for them, and cash donations every once in awhile. And we transport eight or nine students over to the school three days a week to help out with the teaching. This week was my turn to accompany the kids and provide some teaching for the adults in the school.

There were thirty-five to forty adults packed into the ‘classroom’ with nothing but a fan and a small opening for a window to break the stifling heat. I taught syllabic structure, an important component for ESL learners, although I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing so. Instead I told them that I was teaching them Haiku. Haiku is a very structured form of poetry that depends upon an understanding of syllabic structure to succeed. You don’t always tell your students the real purpose of the lesson. A little ‘smoke and mirrors’ helps the show to work.

I taught them other forms of poetic structure as well, just to get them used to the idea. I taught them iambic and trochaic forms in William Blake’s ‘London’ so that I could give them the message that it was the duty of writers to criticize the organizations that rule them if they were acting in an unconscionable manner. I taught them ‘Lochinvar’ so they could clap out the galloping rhythm of anapaestic metre and hear the message that arranged marriages should be trumped by love. Yes, this is clearly a little subversive of me. But thinking is, by its very nature, a subversive activity. We do a lot of that in English.

I also taught them ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ to teach them spondaic and dactylic rhythms and to let them have a little fun in singing a round. But mostly the kids and I taught them that in a caring society refugees should be treated like people. They should not be forgotten and isolated, hidden away from society’s view and care. We hope that message gets through to the students in our program as well. Who are the refugees where you live?

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