From Arab Spring to Islamic Winter
Since the Arab Spring more than two years ago, the Muslim world continues to make headlines—civil war in Syria, violence and bloodshed in Egypt, continued unrest in Tunisia and Libya, unrelenting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan even as the U.S. and her allies struggle to pull out. Large populations of displaced refugees now threaten the stability of neighboring countries. As age-old sectarian and tribal hatreds rage across the region, one CNN journalist sadly concluded that there seems little that outsiders can do but wait for the volcano to finish erupting.
Will the turmoil open more doors for radical Muslim groups to take power? Or will it help to break down the strongholds of Islam as people in their affliction and disillusionment turn to consider the Good News of reconciliation in Isa (“Jesus” in the Q’uran)?
Open Hearts and Minds––Theirs and Ours
In the years since 9/11 many of us have learned more about Islamic culture and the condition of Muslim peoples around the world. Inasmuch as their hearts and minds need to be opened to God, our hearts and minds need to be opened to them.
Today, Muslims make up a fourth of the world’s population. If God’s grace is to reach to the ends of the earth, they must be included. For the longest time, Muslims have been hostile to the Gospel. But as we learn about their histories and their present sufferings, we can appreciate the challenge to bridge the gaps of understanding between our worlds. What would it take to open their hearts to God’s love?
50 years ago, China seemed unreachable behind the Bamboo Curtain, running mad at the height of the Cultural Revolution. But today, the Christian movement is growing rapidly, and progressive Chinese churches want to take the gospel to the Muslim world. The world of Islam may seem impenetrable right now. But God is at work through the scorching desert winds of change. China’s journey from chaos to the cross may have parallels for the Muslim world, signaling hope in these times of tumult.
CHINA’S RECENT JOURNEY
Personal or national salvation by works is the basis for all religions and ideologies except the Christian Gospel. It is hard for any individual or people group to give up traditional ways of thinking rooted in their culture and religion. But when one’s life events or a nation’s history shows time and again that our best intentions could not save us from self-destruction, we are forced to re-examine our presuppositions and consider alternative solutions. Like what China went through, the volatility of the Muslim world today could make these the worst of times and the best of times for radical change of historic and eternal consequence. China’s journey in the last two centuries is a good illustration.
150 Years of Affliction
With their ethnic pride and intellectual arrogance, the Chinese people resisted Christianity for centuries. But generations of suffering and disenchantment has brought about the recent awakening, finally releasing the Chinese mind from spiritual bondage.
For over 150 years since the 1800s, the Chinese suffered immensely. They were oppressed by corruption of the Qing Dynasty and humiliated by the invasion of western imperialists. After the founding of the Republic in 1911, the people continued to suffer from internecine conflicts between regional warlords and the corrupt Nationalist government in its attempt to unite the country.
Then WWII broke out. Japanese armies ravaged the country, committing atrocities epitomized in the Nanking Massacre. After 1945, China endured four more years of civil war. The Communists prevailed, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, and refugees poured into Hong Kong
In 1949, New China was born, proud and free, master of her own destiny. There was great optimism that socialist ideology would inspire the people to serve society selflessly. But in less than 20 years, power struggles within the Party culminated in the Cultural Revolution—a 10-year holocaust that devastated the country.
Although the Gang of Four took the blame for the debacle, the Chinese people realized that their suffering was not just the result of a political system or ideology gone awry. Dark forces within the human soul and Chinese national character were exposed when the Cultural Revolution unleashed hatred, betrayal, and savagery among neighbors, friends, and even family members.
Still, it was hard to relinquish the time-honored Confucian faith in the basic goodness of man, the belief that education would make everyone a gentleman and scholar. This resonated with Buddhist teaching, deeply entrenched in Chinese culture, that good works could make a saint out of every commoner. The Chinese are staunch humanists at heart, hence the saying “man’s resolve will conquer heaven”. Such cultural moorings strongly predispose them against the gospel.
When China re-opened her doors to the world in 1978, hope for the system was rekindled: modernization and reform would revitalize the nation. But in less than a decade, the avarice and corruption of those in power became insufferable to many. Workers and even journalists joined student protests that ended in the Tiananmen Incident of 1989. Stunned and heart-broken, the Chinese people, including an unprecedented number of intellectuals, finally gave up on political ideology as the cure for centuries of national affliction.
It took unrelenting pain and violence, inflicted not only from the outside, but also from within, to shake the Chinese hearts and minds loose from their cultural, religious, and political foundations. Out of the crucible of the Cultural Revolution, the house church movement of rural China was born. Likewise, the Tiananmen Incident was the catalyst that sent many Chinese intellectuals on a quest for a new moral order for China the country, which gave birth to the urban church movement.
A Parallel Journey for Muslims?
With its ancient, illustrious past, the world of Islam is also made up of proud peoples. Like the Chinese, they also suffered from western imperialism which, along with the deep scars from the medieval Crusades, is a major stumbling block for Muslim to dialogue with the west, or with Christians despite our shared Abrahamic roots. But in today’s Muslim world, the escalation of bloodshed and chaos in many Muslim countries is increasingly a product of endemic political, social, ethnic and sectarian conflicts.
Radicalism and Turmoil
When we hear about the mushrooming of madrassahs to train future jihadists to purify the world, our hearts sink. But we can understand their draw to radicalism.
50-70 years ago, many Chinese students who joined the Communist Party were also idealists, who looked to revolution to usher in China’s utopia for China. In the 60s, the Red Guards rallied behind Mao Zedong to purge society of evil bourgeois and western influences, only to bring devastation to their country. Still, it took another 20-30 years before the Chinese people became totally disillusioned with Communism political ideology as the answer to their nation’s woes.
The Arab Spring is a bold attempt by Muslim peoples to seize their own destiny and improve their lot. But the euphoria of hope was short-lived. Many who risked their lives to topple corrupt dictators quickly became disillusioned with the Islamist governments that have replaced them. As in Iran, where the people have lived under Sharia law for 30 years, there is a growing outcry among the citizenry against the Islamization of public life and private liberties. We see as country after country fall into greater turmoil and misery.
Suffering and Hope
For over a hundred years, the Chinese people blamed the west for their sufferings and misfortunes. In the early 20th century, they debated whether China should follow the west in modernization or hold on to traditional culture to revive past glories.
Today, many Muslims also blame the west for their countries’ troubles. But the fact is that after the Afghan people got rid of the Russians, who ruled them for 70 years, they suffered worse oppression under the Taliban that ironically still have a following to this day. The fate story of Afghanistan could replay in Syria if the increasingly radicalized opposition seizes power. But if the current dictatorship prevails, insurgencies and bloodshed could also well continue for years as in the case of Lebanon. Either way the people will suffer. Already, over 100,000 Syrians are dead and a quarter of its 20 million people displaced.
Must Muslims drink their bitter cup to the full before they will come to a spiritual awakening? We pray for the alleviation of suffering, but more suffering turmoil seems inevitable. While the dark night deepens, our hope is for the imminent break of dawn will come.
The Signs of Our Times
Before going to the cross, Christ spoke about a troubled world in the end times—wars and rumors of wars, people against people, nation against nation, famines, and natural calamities. Then he assured us in no uncertain terms: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Mt 24:14) Regardless of what tomorrow’s news reports might bring, as Christians, we know that God is working out his sovereign redemptive purpose in history. We read the signs of our times and press on with the task of reaching the world with his love. As we beseech the Lord of the nations, we ask to become part of the healing process.
Today, prospects of Muslims turning to the Gospel may look grim. But at one time, as recently as 35 years ago, China seemed unreachable too. Jesus said promised: “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.” (Mk 10:27) The dark night deepens, but a new day will dawn.
Where Do We Go From Here
For ten years, GLS has done short-term projects in Central Asia where the great majority of the many people groups are Muslim. In the past two years, we have been seriously exploring longer term initiatives. As our project plans clarify, we will share in the upcoming newsletters “Why Central Asia?”, and the what, how and when that are unfolding.
We covet your prayers for partnerships to launch this initiative. Please pray for
- partnership collaboration with churches and campus ministries in the target country
- guidance from seasoned tentmakers and local Christian business leaders
- implementation of the vision by Russian-speaking coworkers to implement the vision—the greatest faith challenge before us
Prayer is the greater work that clears the path and empowers us. Will you join us in this venture?