Frustration, humiliation—then desperation. Mohamed Bouazizi was trying to support his family as a street vendor when Tunisian police confiscated his vegetable cart and produce. They claimed he lacked a permit. When Bouazizi complained, he reportedly was slapped and humiliated by a female municipal official. In protest, on December 17, 2010, he burned himself to death in an act of self-immolation that sparked a wave of protests—leading to the toppling of Tunisia's 26-year-old Ben Ali regime. This set off a series of further protests across the Middle East in what some have called the "Tunisian Wind."
How will these protests ultimately be resolved? Will the "Tunisian Wind" become a storm of radical Islamism that will change the political and social landscape of the Middle East? Commentators struggle to find a context, but few realize that Bible prophecy offers answers available nowhere else.
Secular analysts repeatedly point out that no one can predict the course of these events, and they can only outline a variety of options. Some take heart in finding even the slightest evidence that today's instability may lead to the formation of Western-style democracies. Others expect to see more nations revert to dictatorships. But nearly all recognize the likelihood—and the danger—that more "Islamist" governments may be on the horizon.
"Islamist" political philosophy advocates the rule of nations (and eventually the whole world, through conversion or conquest) by the many centuries of Sharia law built on the foundation of the Muslim holy book, the Qu'ran. A handful of nations are already governed by some form of Sharia law, including Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. Other countries, such as Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have blended Sharia with other systems.
Some Muslims, especially those living in countries where Islam is a minority religion, profess that their faith does not require them to press for the establishment of Sharia law. These are usually tagged as "moderates" in contrast to those who favor strict Islamic law. What we are seeing in the Middle East at present is viewed by many as the rise of the Islamists and the decline of the "moderate" Muslims.
With the exception of Israel and Turkey, the countries of the Middle East have historically had authoritarian governments. Repression, poverty and corruption have continually fed popular dissatisfaction. Now, however, change is sweeping the region. In February 2011, after three decades of authoritarian rule, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was forced out of office by his own military acting with widespread popular support. Similar unrest has spread to other countries as well.
Egypt has been the linchpin of U.S. geopolitics in the Middle East, ever since the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, in which Israel returned to Egypt the Sinai Peninsula territory it captured during the Six-Day War of 1967—a conflict that had been a disaster for Egypt. In return, Egypt agreed to recognize Israel's right to exist.
In connection with the treaty, the United States agreed to provide massive financial aid to Egypt—typically in the range of US$1.3 billion annually, most of which has gone to Egypt's military to keep its successive regimes in power. We should remember that the rulers of Egypt over the last half-century—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak—were all military officers who held power chiefly because of military support.
The treaty allowed Egypt to obtain U.S. equipment and arms, which had to be maintained with U.S. parts and U.S. maintenance contractors. Egypt could no longer afford to attack Israel, because unless the U.S. continued to supply its massive funding, Egypt's military would quickly grind to a halt, which would jeopardize the Egyptian rulers' authoritarian control of their nation.
Without Egypt as a potential aggressor, the prospect of an Arab military conquest of Israel became far less feasible. So, for more than 30 years, an uneasy peace has been maintained between Egypt and Israel. But has it been a popular peace? We should remember that, because of his efforts for peace, Egypt's Sadat was assassinated on October 7, 1981 by a group of Islamist nationalists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian military now faces a daunting task—to preserve an appearance of change, post-Mubarak, while keeping the old arrangement functionally in place. This may prove to be very difficult, in light of the winds of Islamism blowing across the Middle East. Revolutions can have unpredictable outcomes, and are often co-opted by hostile forces.
Consider the case of Iran. As Gerald F. Seib reported in the Wall Street Journal, "It is often forgotten now, but the path of Iran's revolution wasn't clear from the outset. Initially, the post-revolutionary government was led by secular leftists. It took months and a national referendum to decide Iran would be an Islamic republic, and longer still to write an Islamic constitution. Ultimately, it wasn't until the impeachment of secular President Abulhassan Banisadr in 1981 that clerical dominance in the Iranian regime became clear." ("Capital Journal," Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2011, p. A8).
Even so, Egypt's next crisis may be financial rather than political. For now, the military is firmly in control of the country, but it does not control the international lenders who have been keeping Egypt afloat. Like Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, Egypt too has been borrowing money at unsustainable levels—7 percent to 9 percent of GDP—and its debt is increasing. It has been reported that Egypt's military has been taking out loans from Egypt's banks—loans that it plans never to pay back. A full-fledged crisis of banking and sovereign debt may be inevitable in Egypt.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, currently Prime Minister of Turkey, was formerly a radical Islamist. He once quipped, "Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it until you arrive at your destination and then you step off." ("Moment of Truth for the EU and Turkey," Turkish Daily News, November 10, 2006). Currently, Erdogan supports a moderate Islamism in Turkey, but in his policies he has been hostile to Israel and friendly to radical Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Turkey's bid for full EU member status has been stalled since 2006. Since then, some fear that Erdogan's administration may be turning its back on the west and looking eastward. Turkey's military was formerly the bulwark of support for the nation's secularism, but under Erdogan the military's political power has been reduced significantly.
Frequently, when Muslim-majority nations have the opport-unity to hold democratic elections to choose their government, they elect Islamist candidates—even when those candidates oppose the very democracy that allowed their election. In 2006, when voters in the Palestinian Authority territories chose members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, they could choose between the Fatah party which acknowledges Israel's right to exist, and the Hamas party—an Islamist group that remains violently opposed to Israel's existence. A plurality voted for Hamas. Since then, Hamas has gained strength among Palestinians, and few believe that the organization is truly committed to democracy. Votes or not, it is assumed, Hamas will continue to press its agenda of Islamist theocracy and Sharia law—a Caliphate in miniature.
The term Caliphate means the "dominion of a Caliph" and refers to the system of government originally established under Islam. Under the Caliphate, the head of state is the Caliph who governs in accordance with Islamic law, also known as Sharia.
A majority of Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, which teaches that the head of state—the Caliph—should be elected by Muslims or their representatives. Adherents of the minority Shiite branch, however, hold that the Caliph should be an imam (religious leader) descended in a line from the household of Muhammad.
In historical practice, however, Caliphs routinely fulfilled neither of these requirements. After the first four Caliphs following Muhammad, there were often two simultaneous Caliphs, ruling as heads of dynasties not unlike European kings. The institution of the Caliphate lasted into the 20th century, with the last Caliphate abolished by the secular Turkish Republic in 1924.
Of course, just as many "nominal Christians" are only minimally engaged in their faith, so too among Muslims is there a broad spectrum of belief and practice. At one extreme there are "cultural Muslims" who are largely secular and whose faith is little more than an expression of their national or family traditions. At the other extreme there are militants who hope to kill as many of their enemies as possible before dying as martyrs for the spread of Islamist theocracy around the globe. In the middle are hundreds of millions of faithful Muslims who strive to practice their centuries-old faith devoutly while adapting to the realities of modern society.
So, what percentage of Muslims would support the reestablishment of the Caliphate? Remember, only about 315 million Muslims—20.1 percent of the world's 1.57 billion Muslims—live in the Middle East. These are the Muslims whose views are most pertinent to the current crisis—and, overall, they are more enthusiastic about a Caliphate than the average Muslim around the world. The Pew Research Center recently conducted a survey of Muslim attitudes in several Muslim countries. Their survey, released December 2, 2010, revealed some remarkable attitudes: "About eight-in-ten Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan (82 percent each) endorse the stoning of people who commit adultery; 70 percent of Muslims in Jordan and 56 percent of Nigerian Muslims share this view. Muslims in Pakistan and Egypt are also the most supportive of whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery; 82 percent in Pakistan and 77 percent in Egypt favor making this type of punishment the law in their countries, as do 65 percent of Muslims in Nigeria and 58 percent in Jordan. When asked about the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion, at least three-quarters of Muslims in Jordan (86 percent), Egypt (84 percent) and Pakistan (76 percent) say they would favor making it the law" ("Muslim Publics Divided on Hamas and Hezbollah," December 2, 2010).
The Pew study also found that, in Egypt, 95 percent of Muslims said that it is good for Islam to play a large role in politics. 80 percent said that it would be bad for Islam to play a small role in politics. It is little wonder that Muslims frequently vote for Islamist parties when they are permitted a choice.
But what about reestablishing the Caliphate itself? A University of Maryland study reported the following: "Do average Muslims dream of the Caliphate rule? Analyzing data from four Islamic countries [gathered by the Program on International Policy Attitudes] in 2007, the answer is yes. Survey respondents indicated whether their primary identification was religious or nationalistic, and whether they support an Islamic world unified under a Caliph. Support among Muslim and national identifiers is substantial (77 percent and 67 percent respectively)" ("Support for the Caliphate and Radical Mobilization," START Research Brief, January 2008).
The study found that substan-tial majorities of Muslims in the four countries surveyed—Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Morocco—supported the reestablishment of the Caliphate! Of all those surveyed, between 54 percent and 87 percent favored it. Of course, it should be noted that Islamist groups differ widely on how to achieve this goal. For instance, Indonesia's Hisbut Tahrir favors the non-violent electoral route. Al-Qaeda, as we know, favors terror.
So, will the "Tunisian Wind" gain force and become an "Islamist Storm"? It is a major step to go from dictatorship to Sharia law, and an even more momentous step to go from Sharia law to a Caliphate—but support for such a development is widespread across the Middle East. Demands for democracy are sweeping the Middle East, leading some in the West to envision Western-style democracies taking root. However, we should remember that under Sunni Islam, the Caliph is elected. A democratic restoration of the Caliphate may now be thinkable!
Many people today are unaware of the long history of violent conflict between Europe and the Islamic Caliphate. After Muhammad died in 632ad, Islam was spread by conquest across the Middle East and Northern Africa. In 711ad, the Ummayad Caliphate began its successful conquest of Spain by landing at Gibraltar. Conquered Spain became known as al-Andalus. Muslim armies pushed northward, capturing large portions of France until they were finally stopped in 732ad at the Battle of Tours. Muslims also occupied Sicily and southern Italy—they raided Rome, looting St. Peter's Basilica. The western Caliphate was actually seated in Cordoba, Spain from 929ad to 1031ad—which is why, among Muslims, Cordoba has long been a symbol of Islamist success in the West.
In 1492, after centuries of warfare, Muslims were finally pushed out of Granada, Spain, their last stronghold in Roman Catholic Western Europe. However, the fighting continued for centuries more in Eastern Europe, where large areas were conquered and occupied by the Muslims. There were actually three attacks by the Turkish Caliphate on the seat of the Holy Roman Empire in Vienna, Austria. Not until 1718, upon Hungary's independence from Ottoman rule, did the Caliphate finally retreat from Eastern Europe, ending more than a thousand years of wars in Europe.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote, "The two halves of the old Europe, before the modern era, had known essentially only one opponent that it had to confront in a life-or-death battle, namely, the Islamic world" (Europe Today and Tomorrow, p. 22). Catholic Europe's existential struggle against Islamic conquest contributed to the common identity of Europe, because it helped Europeans to think that they had a common fate in opposing the Islamic Caliphate that for more than a thousand years sought conquest in Europe.
The trauma of those wars lies deep in the consciousness of Europe. If the Caliphate is reestablished in the Middle East, it must have a profound effect on the collective identity of the Europeans. It has been less than 300 years since Europe last faced the threat of another Muslim invasion—a threat that was instrumental in the formation of a shared European identity throughout the Middle Ages. Now, however, there is again a perceived and stated threat from Islamists, as Muslim extremists call for "holy war" and restoration of the Caliphate. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, wrote, "Andalusia [the Muslim name for Spain], Sicily, the Balkans, south Italy, and the Roman sea islands were all Islamic lands that have to be restored to the homeland of Islam… it is our right to restore the Islamic Empire its glory." (Wall Street Journal, "Understanding the Muslim Brotherhood," Bret Stephens, February 15, 2011, p. A13).
If the Islamic Caliphate is restored, it will have a profound effect on Europe. The religious winds that are blowing across the Middle East can blow across Europe as well!
God prophesied that in the years just prior to Christ's return, the Jews will return to Jerusalem and Judea, where they will be opposed by the surrounding nations. "In that day I will make the governors of Judah like a firepan in the woodpile, and like a fiery torch in the sheaves; they shall devour all the surrounding peoples on the right hand and on the left, but Jerusalem shall be inhabited again in her own place—Jerusalem" (Zechariah 12:6). In recent decades, this remarkable prophecy has been fulfilled before our eyes.
The Bible reveals that later in this same time period, a great religio-political power will arise, as a revival of the Holy Roman Empire—the same empire that was threatened by attacks from the Caliphate for more than a thousand years. This revival will be an alliance of ten nations or groups of nations, some that will be strong and others weak (Daniel 2:31–46). This power will be involved in a covenant that will allow the Jews to resume their sacrifices on the Temple Mount (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 2 Thessalonians 2:4). Such a revival of Jewish practice would galvanize Muslim opposition, yet preparations for those sacrifices are being made today by Orthodox Jews familiar with the ancient rituals.
Biblical prophecy also reveals that a power will arise, to the south of Jerusalem, that will "push at" or provoke this powerful "king of the north." The northern power will defeat this "king of the south," and in the process Jerusalem will be overrun and occupied (Daniel 11:40–45). Finally, when the Temple Mount sacrifices are stopped, the prophesied "Great Tribulation" will begin—culminating with the return of the Messiah, Jesus Christ!
The Bible gives a context that the secular world is unable to see. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob said, "For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure'" (Isaiah 46:9–10). This God has much to say about what will happen in the Middle East—so, who can afford to ignore it? If we believe what God said, we can understand current events in the context of Bible prophecy, and be prepared when end-time events soon surge to their prophesied climax. Are you ready?