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Understanding and Responding to Middle East Anger

The anger we're seeing on the streets of the Middle East didn't just happen overnight; there are decades of grievances, including harsh economic sanctions which the U.S. imposed on Iraq from 1996 to 2003 which kept the children in these two photos from receiving the food and medicine they needed. Left, a mother and sick child in Baghdad suffering from sanctions in 1998. Right: Author Mel Lehman took this photo in Basra around the year 2000. Sadly, the baby died several minutes after this photo was taken.

A defining moment for me in understanding the Middle East was the four nights of bombing I endured as a humanitarian worker in Baghdad in 1998. I'll never forget that terrifying experience: lying on the interior hallway floor, balled up in a fetal position, praying like I'm never prayed before or since, as the bombs sent by Americans fell around me. I remember the building shaking and the odd sound that shaking made between the ear-splitting explosions. And I distinctly remember how the dust shook loose by the bombing fell on me from the suspended ceiling above.

After four terrifying nights, the bombing stopped. But the people of the Middle East have collectively experienced something closer to, shall we say, four or more decades of violence at the hands of America. What we're seeing in the current rage on the streets of Middle East cities and villages are people who have finally said, "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more."

The crisis point we find ourselves in as a new decade begins did not happen in a vacuum. Quite the contrary. The people of the Middle East have been at the receiving end of American and Western violence and disrespect for so long that they have now collectively lost their tempers and are now demanding that U.S. forces leave. I think they're right; our forces should leave now, immediately, before any more harm is done.

I love my native land and, yes, there is much good in America. But if we are ever to find an answer to the crisis we're in we need to imagine seeing U.S. interventions in the Middle East not the way our American military and political leaders describe them to us, but instead we need to imagine seeing our U.S. actions and policies in the Middle East as people there have experienced them. We need to "walk a mile in their shoes," as that old, wise saying puts it. We were told of a glorious invasion of Iraq in 2003; Iraqis experienced the doors to their homes kicked in by strange men with guns and their loved ones taken away and sometimes imprisoned, tortured and shot.

Dear reader, I would ask you to image leaving the comfortable chair you are now sitting in and instead sit next to me on the floor of that hotel in Baghdad in 1998 with dust shaken loose by American bombs falling on you. That is something that untold millions of Middle Easterners have experienced and they now fear is happening again. Here a short list of the grievances held by many people there against the U.S. and the West:

-the terribly mis-named Crusades;

-several centuries of Western colonialism;

-CIA- and British-backed overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Iran in 1953;

-chemical and conventional weapons supplied by the U.S. to Sadaam Hussein during the 1980's Iran-Iraq war which worsened and prolonged the conflict which cost a million lives;

-the accidental shooting down by American forces of an Iranian civilian passenger plane in 1988 inside Iranian airspace with Iranian religious pilgrims aboard. There were 290 casualties, including 66 children. President Reagan issued a statement of deep regret.

- the horrific economic sanctions imposed at the request of the U.S. on Iraq from 1996 to 2003 which cost the lives of perhaps a half a million Iraqi children;

-the totally unjustified invasion and occupation by the U.S. of Iraq in 2003, one of the most tragic mistakes of all of American history;

- the imprisonment, torture, and killing of people who, not surprisingly, did not like our invasion of their country;

- the current devastating sanctions on Iran.

Other grievances elsewhere in the region would include: 18 years of catastrophic war in Afghanistan; U.S. acquiescence for the Israeli theft of Palestinian land, destruction of homes, and shooting of civilians — some 215 Gazans have been killed by Israeli forces and thousands more injured in an extremely disproportionate response to recent protests; U.S. support for rebels in Syria and Libya.

The list could and should go on, but one more point needs to be made in regards to the current moment of how vast numbers of people in the Middle East view the recent assassination of General Soleimani. Many people there see it quite differently than how that event has been described to American audiences. Whether or not we agree with it, we need to recognize that many people in the Middle East view Soleimani much like Americans view General Lafayette and his aid to American troops in our revolution; military assistance to people living in a time of great fear.

What can we do? First, write to your elected officials, demanding that the U.S. move in the general direction of dampening rather than increasing the conflict. We should not mistake the seriousness of this situation; this could get very much worse very quickly. There is still some wisdom in Washington, and I believe there is wisdom in Teheran amidst the anger. We need to pray for and call upon those wise persons on both sides to act. Tradition holds that the Wise Men of the Christmas story came from the ancient Persian town of Kashan, now in modern Iran. Let us pray that that wisdom emerges once again in both Teheran and Washington so that some sort of face-saving response can be found instead of total warfare.

And demand that the U.S.'s profoundly foolish refusal to grant a visa to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to address the U.N. be reversed and that he be allowed to visit the U.N. as he is entitled.

Second, if you're a member of a Christian church, we need to re-enage the discussion within American Christianity on the absolute mistake many of us are making of confusing our current stance of violent American aggression with thinking we are somehow achieving the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to teach us to love our enemies. I'm very angry with many of my fellow Christians who unthinkingly back up President Trump and the military-industrial complex's repeated assertion that war is the answer. It is not. Love is the answer. As a Christian, I might note, I'm especially distressed that my country's military aggression can easily be misinterpreted as an expression of Christianity. I'm very angry about that, and I want to stop the besmirching of the good name of our faith which I imperfectly but dearly hold. And our actions are hurting Christian in the Middle East. To my fundamentalist and Evangelical sisters and brothers: can we talk?

And a very simple third suggestion: have coffee with a neighbor of Middle Eastern heritage. It's a simple first step you can take. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a good organization; there are many others. There are many Christians of Middle Eastern heritage who would be very glad to talk with you. We need to imagine a world of peace using our hearts and we need to think about how to achieve that new world using our heads. And we need to talk. We cannot let another war happen.

Mel Lehman directs Common Humanity, a non-profit organization which does peacemaking through understanding, respect and friendship with the Arab and Muslim world. More at He is a Mennonite deacon who is available for speaking engagements. Contact him at

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