From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
CHURCH LEADERS DEBUNK MIDDLE EASTERN STEREOTYPES
05 May 1996 13:00:57
95162 CHURCH LEADERS DEBUNK MIDDLE EASTERN STEREOTYPES
IN WAKE OF FALSE OKLAHOMA BOMBING CHARGES
by Alexa Smith
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--When the bomb exploded in Oklahoma City, Victor Makari had
just arrived in Amman, Jordan, with a Presbyterian peacemaking group.
The first prayers he heard offered for grieving families were spoken
in Arabic by Palestinian Christians.
"There was a great deal of sympathy, of sadness everywhere we went,"
and especially so among Arabs, said Makari, the denomination's coordinator
for the Middle East. "They've had similar experiences: lost a parent, a
child, a grandparent in a similar senseless act."
The same compassion, Makari said, was extended in Cairo by Sheikh Dr.
Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Mufti, who is the highest authority on
Islamic law in Egypt.
But back home, few are familiar with the realities of empathy and
hospitality so common in the very complex Arab world that runs from
Pakistan to Morroco. What is more familiar is the stereotype of Arab
extremists or terrorists who, church sources say, exist but represent only
a tiny minority of the population.
That stereotype reemerged when the Oklahoma bomb exploded. What
alarms those who relate to Middle Eastern churches and religious bodies was
not assumptions that Middle Easterners were behind the bombing but how
quickly that theory surfaced. So churches with long ties to partners there
are trying to tell the rest of the story.
"Terrorist acts are perpetrated by very small groups of people," said
former Presbyterian mission worker the Rev. Ben Weir, who served in Lebanon
in the 1980s. "The great majority of people very much want peace."
Aline Papazian of Beirut agrees. She got news of the blast while
visiting Canadian church partners. "When you go through an experience like
that ... maybe you understand. I felt very sorry for what happened to all
those innocent victims. What happened we have lived through, personally,
in Lebanon during the war. ...
"So many in our country lost children, parents, sisters, wives,
spouses ... and identify very much with [such] strong feelings," Papazian
of the Middle East Council of Churches told the Presbyterian News Service.
She also said she is grieved that whenever extremist acts occur,
Middle Easterners seem to be automatically accused of being "the authors."
K.T. Ockels, former Presbyterian mission worker on the West Bank,
listed three common assumptions many Americans hold about Middle Easterners
-- and quickly refuted each one.
* All Arabs are Muslims. "That's not always the truth. The majority
of Arabs are Muslim. But there are also Arab Christians ... in Lebanon,
Syria, Jordan, Iraq, the West Bank and Egypt. The largest number is in
Egypt," Ockels said.
* Arabs are wealthy because of oil. "The oil wealth is only in the
Gulf states," said Ockels, citing Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and adding that
many Arabs live in countries with no oil industry.
* Arabs love violence and their religion advocates killing people in
the name of God. "There are all different kinds of Arabs in different
countries with different cultures and numerous religions," she said, saying
even the concept of "jhad," which is understood here as holy war, actually
means "striving for God" -- a concept that is subject to many different
Weir, too, is quick to point out that the Islamic world is not united,
nor does it speak with one mind. Islam, according to Weir, is in a period
of resurgence and religious language is used by its leaders to speak to
social situations -- something Christians have also done in periods of
What is needed is more in-depth understanding, says Papazian,
stressing how important church contacts are so the whole story is told.
"Through humanitarian service we are trying to bring forth some justice and
promote reconciliation ... and therefore work for peace," she said of
Middle Eastern churches in a world torn apart by military conflict and
Makari agreed. "It's a human tendency to generalize from particular,
specific incidents. To label. To pigeonhole. To put people in boxes.
And to put the burden on others to get themselves out of those boxes. ...
To label 100 million people is quite unfair," he said. "We need to open
ourselves to a gospel of love and justice that liberates us from suspecting
the other, from putting the other down."
PC(USA) budget analyst Elias Sahiouny was 12 when war erupted in
Lebanon. The blast brought back bad memories of death and grief and fear.
What he first felt was fear.
"This isn't supposed to happen here," he said, adding how reassuring
it is to be embraced by his church community in times like these,
especially when some people of Middle Eastern origins experience more
isolation. "Every now and then I share with members of the church the
experience I had to go through. ... They know my particular experience of
growing up in war.
"And, as they grow to know more of the situation, their overall
understanding gets better," he said.
For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
phone 502-569-5504 fax 502-569-8073
E-mail PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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