The Book of Amos and the Arab Spring

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, August 12, 2012

Many might wonder how the Amos, an ancient book of the Nevi'im, a division of the Jewish Bible, written more than two and half thousand years ago, has relevance today and for the current situation in the Middle-East and North Africa. This is not just a claim of a few appropriate phrases, from which we recognises the universality of the human existential condition. Not only do we find in Amos recognition of religion as an outward and shared expression of the conscious internal world of individuals, but also in the very practical questions of contemporary internatonal relations, and in particular the events known as "The Arab Spring" which are transforming the political landscape of North Africa and the Middle-East.

The following is the standard information that any attentive student from Sunday school would be able to tell you; Amos was a shepherd, who lived around 750 BCE, during the rule of Jeroboam II of Israel to the north and Uzziah of Judah to the south. It was a period of great prosperity, relative to the times, but the people of the two kingdoms had become inattentive to their ethical requirements, concerning themselves with financial gain to the exclusion of all else. This was a ripe situation for Amos to spread the message that had been received from his God. It begins with a recitation that the enemies of Israel and Judah will be punished by God for their wars and other acts of aggression. Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah too would be punished. Perhaps the hint should have been evident by that stage; "I will send fire on Judah that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem."

The narrative turns at this point to the punishment turns to Israel itself because (Amos 2:6-7) "[t]hey sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed." The punishment for these transgressions is indeed be severe, so much so that many contemporary atheists would cite them as examples of how the Judeo-Christian deity is one of great violence and aggression. It prophesises the entire destruction of Israel; the the destruction of the temple, and the creation of the diaspora. False devotion will be of no use; "Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light...I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me... let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:18, 23-24). These are, of course, two of the most famous by-lines of the book; the notion of a "day of the Lord", where justice will "roll on like a river" - Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr paraphrased them in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963.

It is typically recognised that the Book of Amos belongs to the bodies of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. But this does little to explain the intensely ingenious theme that Amos constructs. For viewed in the context of the entire narrative, and who the message is directed to, The Book Amos is a giant wind-up against its intended audience. For the people of Israel, proud in their wealth and remembering their history, would initially be thrilled to hear the prophecies of devastation against their neighbours who have treated them poorly. But they are less impressed when Amos turns the tables and reminds them that the God of justice is an internationalist, who knows no borders, who has no sense of state sovereignity or even the so-called right of nations to self-determination. "Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?.. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" (9:7)

Among simple theologians one will find the suggestion that the God in Amos is a supernatural being that will literally and physically smite the neighbours of Israel, then Israel itself, destroying the institutions of governance and scattering the people to the world. A more sophisticated anthropology of religion, of which we can refer to the recent address at this Church by David Miller on "Religious Atheism" tells a different story. This address itself is in the the same theoretical approach as Ludwig Feuerbach's "Essence of Christianity", which understands religious belief, and the idea of God, to an outward expression of the strongest human values, hopes, desires, and fears. Those outward expressions become reificated and personified, and the idea becomes an a abstract quality of leadership itself. The French romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix, expressed this beautifully in his work "Liberty Leading the People". Amos too understood this; and the God that spoke to him said that all those nations which do not institute economic justice or engage in wars of aggression will eventually suffer themselves destructive fates.

This has particular importance for the contemporary situation in North Africa and the Middle East. For almost two years now there has been an protests, insurgencies, and revolutions across this part of the world. There has been revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, an insurgency in Syria, along with significant protests in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Western Sahara, and even in Israel. All of these started as a peaceful protests against their respective governments; brave acts considering the violence that some are particularly known for. As the Palestinian Professor Rashid Khalidi remarked last year, "People all over the Arab world feel a sense of pride in shaking off decades of cowed passivity under dictatorships that ruled with no deference to popular wishes... An area that was a byword for political stagnation is witnessing a rapid transformation that has caught the attention of the world."

Technology and demographics have played their role as well, the region having a relatively high youth population. It is extraordinary to think that anything else could have happened; a young population, educated in the ways of the contemporary world, aware of the wealth of their countries, aware of the lack of democracy and civil rights, aware of the degree of corruption and painfully aware of the level of economic insecurity. When one considers the Arab as being a normal flesh-and-blood human being, with the same existential desires as any other member of the species, why is it all surprising to witness these revolts?

In 1857 Frederick Douglass remarked "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress." These words give a prologue to the terrible loss of life that has occurred. In Tunisia, over three hundred people died in the conflict. In Egypt, over a thousand. In Yemen, around two thousand. In Libya, perhaps forty thousand. In Syria, the current death toll is over twenty thousand. In all of these cases the overwhelming loss of life has been among civilian non-combatants by existing regime forces, and in the latter two case, there has been clear indiscriminate use of heavy weapons in civilian population centres, a well-established war crime.

It is not as if peaceful forms of resolution has not been sought. Both the United Nations General Assembly and Security Councils have called upon ceasefires and withdrawals of heavy weapons from population centres. Invariably these have been broken by existing regimes who see any temporary break in the fighting as an opportunity to shore up their positions. In the case of Libya, the Security Council eventually was forced to authorise international intervention. In the 21st century, the State can no longer use the tired old claim of a right to sovereignity as a a smokescreen for mass atrocities against civilians. Sovereignity is not a right for the rulers of a State, but a responsibility of governance to protect their civilian population. If peace is to be achieved, all existing regimes must recognise this.

Then there is those who have a mistrust of the revolutionary protesters with what can only be described as anti-Arabic racism and bigotry against Muslims. Speaking from their benefits of liberal democracy, they question on whether the future governments will be as despotic as those that currently exist, or suggest that they will seek to establish theocratic dictatorships. Such attitudes represent a personality failing common to racists and bigots - the inability to to consider life from the perspective of a person living in such countries. In any case, it is being disproved every day by the successful revolutions. Although the lands are still deeply conservative and religious, they are certainly appreciating their new found freedoms, they are appreciating the right to associate, to form independent unions, to protest, to publish, to form political associations, and to participate in a democratic process. As Bernando Valli has noted: "The 'Arab spring' has blossomed and exploded for want of democracy and freedom. It is not provoked by Islamic fanaticism, and even less inspired by the idea of a caliphate... launched by bin Laden. His terroristic instrument, Al Qaeda ... has been, and is, ignored by the Egyptian, Tunisian, Syrian or Libyan youth. For them, [Al Qaeda] is a bloodstained and obsolete tool. It is not a choice. It is outdated, even if its sporadic followers are still able to strike."

Last year the U.S. President, Barak Obama, spoke in Egypt after their revolution. He quite rightly said: "There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times.The word Tahrir means liberation. It is a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom. And forevermore it will remind us of the Egyptian people - of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country, and in doing so changed the world." These are fine words, and they are not a subtle reminder to those who still hold and abuse State power against their civilians, that their day will come.

It is a reminder to all the hypocrites in these conflicts. It is a reminder to the emirates of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two of the most entrenched monarchial dictatorships in the region who have been happy to support the revolutions in Libya and Syria for their own reasons of religious sectarianism and political maneuverings. Do they seriously think that their own people do not wish to taste the fresh waters of freedom? Do they not think that they will not rise up to establish their own democracies in time? Do they think the world will not see what is happening in Bahrain, where the Saudis are supporting a Sunni minority kingdom repressions against the pro-democracy Shia majority protestors? It is a reminder too for Israel, that their policy of apartheid against the occupied Palestinian territories. As Avraham Burg, speaker of Israel's Knesset from 1999-2003 and former chairm of the Jewish Agency for Israel wrote "This cannot work. Even if the Arabs lower their heads and swallow their shame and anger for ever, it won't work. A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself."

It is a reminder to those powerful nations in the Security Council who block the opportunities for peace with justice. China argues against any UN forces to ensure international peace plans are implemented. They are like the husband which ignores the domestic violence next door, as it will bring attention the violence within their own home. Russia too, with its own geopolitical interests overriding, does not concern itself with the legitimate aspirations of the Arab people. The French and British of course which to re-establish their old colonial empires, albeit this time by proxy. Within the United States, there are the those, such as Liberman and McCain, who want to engage in an even more direct imperialism and call for the US to intervene, without the support of international law. They want another Iraq, with all that entails. Do the powerful countries think that this has all gone unnoticed, and that the will be excluded from the reckoning?

It is a reminder to the western liberal who, with the benefits of a relatively free and democratic society, have food in their bellies and a roof over their head. How passionate we were, and rightly so, when Israel engaged in its murderous onslaught against Gaza in Operation Cast Lead just a few years ago. But today in Syria the regime has killed over ten times as many civilians and the only protests we see are those carried out by a handful of Syrian expatriates. Robert Fisk wryly remarks "we demand justice and the right to life for Arabs if they are butchered by the West and its Israeli allies; but not when they are being butchered by their fellow Arabs."

Every State which engages in violence against its own people will crumble and fall, it will be swept away by their righteous and indignant people. It doesn't matter whether the country is small, like Bahrain, or powerful like Israel, or even the United States itself. For liberty, democracy, and justice are indeed powerful sisterhood, the most powerful of the social Gods, and they will lead and inspire to victory, not matter what the cost or brutality of those who stand against the people. Their day is coming, and not just in the Arab world, who with no small irony, are are providing the true Israel, the "light unto the nations"; and so it is the words of Amos are echoed throughout the centuries: "let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!".