Peaceful elections: One more thing we often take for granted

With the exception of that whole Florida recount controversy in 2000, one the many things we take for granted in the United States is that our votes will be counted accurately. Generally speaking, the U.S. population accepts the outcome of elections, whether or not things turn out the way we as individuals had hoped.

Trust in the democratic process is brought to mind this week as half a world away, Kenyans prepare to vote on a proposed new constitution, which would, among other things, attempt to guarantee more valid elections and limit the powers of the president.

Kenya’s most recent presidential election in December 2007 led to an outburst of violence over ethnic tensions and accusations of fraud and electoral manipulations. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands fled their homes amid the post-election hostility. Some of the worst violence occurred in churches, including an Assembly of God church where dozens of children and adults seeking shelter were killed when the church was burned.

This week, World Concern will close our Kenya office for four days, beginning tomorrow, Aug. 3. The closure is a security precaution as the voting there takes place on Wednesday, Aug. 4. There has already been some violence leading up to referendum. Six people were killed and more than 100 were injured on June 13 in an explosion in a park where a rally was being held.

While our organization has no opinion on the referendum, we are praying for a peaceful process and that Kenyan citizens will have the opportunity to express their opinions and have their votes counted accurately. It is also a time to be reminded that our employees in the field do face security issues regularly. We serve in places where the need is greatest, and some of these areas are politically unstable. We don’t let this stop us from helping the poor in developing countries. We take every security measure reasonable – and remember to pray. It’s the undergirding of everything we do.

A school boy in Kenya
School children in Kenya.

“Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” – Ephesians 6:14-18

Obama’s Cairo Speech & Islam: Should the poor rejoice?

CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4: U.S. President Barack Obama makes his key Middle East speech at Cairo University June 4, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. In his speech, President Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims", declaring that "this cycle of suspicion and discord must end". (Photo by Getty Images)

I’ve just returned from Asia and, because World Concern works many places in the Islamic world, I listened closely to Obama’s Cairo speech. This morning I was in the middle of writing an email responding to a very conservative critique of the speech when I took a call from our Area Director for Africa. Because of the now uncontested control of Al Shabab in the two major areas of our work, we have had to table any plans for expansion even though the need of the poor increases. We will expand in Somaliland where there is greater stability.

The media report on only a few of the attacks of Islamic fundamentalists, especially if they target Europeans or Americans or involve a suicide bombing. Even more than those who are killed, though, the poor pay the price for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. They may flee their homes in the midst of fighting, as we now see tens of thousands doing in Somalia and Pakistan. They may remain as helping agencies are driven out or required to curtail their work as we are having to do. And they may not even be able to cultivate or harvest a crop. Men and boys who would be working to feed the family are forcefully conscripted into militias. The suffering of the poor is many times greater than those who are violently killed or maimed.

So will Obama’s speech make anything better? The conservative commentary that I read was a resounding “no” for one of these reasons.

1) Saying something does not make it so. Failing to challenge intolerance of other faiths even among non-fundamentalist governments and communities does not protect minorities. Policy differences still remain. Nothing is really different on the ground after the speech than before.

2) Fundamentalists are not going to change their beliefs and practices as a result of the speech because their actions are rooted in an Islamic expression that would discount the words of infidels.

I’ll concede those two points but that does not mean that “words are cheap” or that nothing has changed.

The criticism does not recognize and words and symbols are powerful, not in bringing magical solutions to seemingly intractable problems but in changing the context in which they are seen and discussed. Sure, a speech will not solve all of the contradictions within the doctrine and practice of Islam anymore than a Papal edict would have stopped the IRA until the power of the community had turned against the violence in Ireland. Yes, there is a significant difference between the foundations of Islam and Christianity in how we regard political power and nature of kingdom. Islam is too savvy to embrace grace and such impractical concepts such as loving enemies. The Prophet Mohammed entered Mecca at the head of an army from Medina and triumphed over those who had ignored him earlier, establishing a religious/political reign that has been contested ever since his death. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and was killed by his opponents less than a week later, triumphing only through his death and resurrection and establishing a Kingdom of servants.  Islam and Christianity are different at their cores.

Even though words and symbols alone do not change circumstances on the ground nor reconcile true differences between faiths, peoples or nations, I believe in their power in changing the context in which debate and discussion happens. When I meet an obstructive government official who wants a bribe, I will not oppose him but try to include him in solving the problem that he has created. “Let’s see. It does look like we have a problem. How do we manage to solve it.”  That approach has worked more often than not and certainly better than the confrontational approach that drips with judgment. I do not expect the official never to extort money again as a result of this interchange but rather to solve an immediate problem. By (hopefully) changing the context of the discussion from “me against you” to “we’ll solve this together”, my words and attitude make a difference.

I also think that Obama is right in presuming that most Muslims worldwide do not want to live under a fundamentalist regime, not even in Somalia. Muslims are created in God’s image and worthy of respect. They desire to live in peace and without fear. Fundamentalists of any flavor eventually hang themselves on their own rope but US rhetoric and attitudes have given the Islamists a lot more rope to work with before it begins to tighten. Obama’s speech shortened the rope and Obama and his team are not naïve enough to think that all will now be well. But we have a better chance for progress.

Finally, isn’t there an Arabic tradition of fine words and hospitable actions on the part of both guests and hosts while action, if there is any, takes place behind the scenes? Obama respected that tradition, again showing that he values those within Arabic and more broadly Islamic cuItures. I think that we need to look more closely at the responses of the Muslim man and woman in the street to gauge the success of the speech in accomplishing what the US hoped that it would—not in solving the problems but in beginning to change the ethos in which the problems are discussed. The last president to be able to do that effectively was Carter and the peace that he facilitated between Egypt and Israel has been among the few hopeful elements that has endured in the Middle East.

Do I think, then, that we’ll be able to immediately revive our plans to expand our work in southern Somalia because of a speech in Cairo? No, of course not. But I do believe that it incrementally reduces the power of the fundamentalists who sacrifice help for the poor among their own people to acheiving and maintaining rule over them.

And I believe, because we are created in God’s image, we wish to be respected and valued. Approaching those with whom we disagree with respect will not in itself close the gap that divides us but does make bridge-building easier.

Fighting Poverty in a Violent Place: Sri Lanka

Ragu was killed while helping the poor in Sri Lanka.
Ragu was killed while helping the poor in Sri Lanka.

9/11 is a date that will always be associated with violence. For most of us, we think of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon but there was another act of violence on that day. On September 11, 2006, Ragu was killed-shot down as he worked with World Concern to serve the poor in Sri Lanka.

 Ragunathan (Ragu) was one of the field workers, working with community members to get their homes rebuilt and also to rebuild their lives and livelihood after the tsunami that devastated Banda Aceh, Indonesia washed ashore in eastern Sri Lanka. .

 After the tsunami struck the Government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers crafted a fragile truce. In August 2006, the truce fell apart. One of the hotly contested areas was around the port city of Trincomalee, built on the largest protected natural bay in all of Asia.

 On September 11 2006, during the course of his work near Trincomalee, Ragu stopped his motorcycle beside the road to answer his cell phone. While he was talking, he was shot dead. To this day nobody knows who did it. Was it a soldier thinking that Ragu was reporting information to Tamil fighters during this time of war, or a Tiger assassin, mistaking Ragu’s development work for collaborating with the government? Or was it a targeted killing because of a dispute going on in Ragu’s village at the time? Nobody knows-even now.

 When I was in Trincomalee last year, I passed by the spot in the road where Ragu was killed. I wanted to find out more about this man who had died while helping others.

 Ragu, a Tamil, was a father of five, three daughters and two sons. His last born, a son, was only four days old on the day Ragu was killed. Ragu was the poorest of the World Concern field workers. Though he was poor enough to qualify for a rebuilt home for himself and his family, he removed his own name from the list. Others needed homes so much more than he.

 When he attended staff meetings and training events with the team involved in rebuilding, Ragu asked the practical questions, always with others in mind. “Why is the supply of concrete delayed?” “When will the supplies be transported?”

 Ian McInnes who later led the Sri Lanka office once listened to Ragu talking with farmers who had received a house and were now were asking World Concern to give even more things-things that they could now provide for themselves.

 “You have a home now. Now is the time for you to pick yourselves up and rebuild. And, if you are thinking of fleeing the area, make sure that you give this home to someone else, just as it was given to you.”

 Ian wrote a letter to affirm and praise Ragu. Ragu carried it in his rear pocket wherever he went.

 The World Concern family in Sri Lanka and around the world rallied around Ragu’s widow and the children. All of Ragu’s children are able to go to school. Ragu’s oldest child completing secondary school at a local Catholic boarding school and the youngest will celebrate his third birthday on September 11, 2009.  

 Fighting world poverty in places of violence carries a price.  The number of humanitarian workers killed worldwide has continued to climb. Nine in ten die in acts of violence.