Given at boarders’ chapel, Loughborough Grammar School, 16.ii.11.
A reading from Zechariah 8:16-17
These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgements that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.
A reading from Philippians 4:8-9
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
It cannot have escaped your attention, unless you do truly spend all of your time playing Football Manager doing homework, that a popular revolution has just swept Egypt, ousting the president and laying the foundation, we hope, for democratic elections later in the year. Mobilised through Facebook and Twitter, the youth of Egypt have inspired us all and struck fear in the hearts of despots throughout the region.
I love the Middle East and would like to tell you something of my own travels in Syria. A few months after we married in 1999, and with son one safely deposited in utero, my wife and I travelled around Syria. We visited museums in Damascus and Aleppo, archaeological sites on the banks of the Euphrates, and crusader fortresses high up in the anti-Lebanon mountains. The worst thing that happened was a severe case of Hammurabi’s revenge gained from eating dodgy bedouin food in the desert near Palmyra. The good things are too innumerable to list. Here are a couple:
Somewhere outside of Homs, just as we entered the Syrian desert, our rental car overheated. The rental had not come with Syrian RAC, so we sat there grimly wondering what the hell we would do. A local guy on his moped pulled up and offered to help. We ended up riding around various desert villages looking for parts which he then duly used to fix the car, offering us dinner at his home in the meantime. He refused payment.
Syrian hospitality also informs the second story. Rebecca flew home from Damascus a week before I did. One afternoon I was strolling back from reading newspapers at the British Council when a Syrian man approached me and invited me for coffee. He was a lawyer and wanted to speak English. We chatted for a while and he eventually brought me to his home to meet the family. He lived in the mountains outside Damascus where we spent the evening eating, laughing, and watching CNN. His whole extended family came to the home to meet me and I ended up staying the night in their guest room.
To this day, I remain deeply impressed by the friendliness and hospitality of Syrians. I could tell other stories — like the one where I ate dinner with a work crew at Damascus airport (my flight left at 3am) — but these will suffice. I have had similar experiences in Egypt, Turkey, and Israel. I remember arriving back in Heathrow and feeling deflated by the busyness and isolation of my own culture. There is no way in hell that I would eat and drink with some random stranger who approached me on a London street, let alone sleep in their home. And yet in Syria it felt perfectly natural and utterly safe. You would have to have been there to fully understand.
Most people thought we were insane to spend any time in Syria. Vague ideas about Arab/Muslim violence, Syria’s support of Hezbollah, and the Assad dictatorship, translate in many people’s minds to a country where westerners would be lucky to retain their heads. This notion will only have increased since 2001. It is, of course, utter nonsense, completely opposite to my own experience and that of many others who have enjoyed Syria.
We have a tendency to judge things by the worst in them. For Syria, we condemn a whole people because of their government and the sins committed by a few of their Muslim brethren. We fail to recognise that we would fall by the same sword. I like to think that my lawyer friend remembers me as a friendly Englishman who enjoyed an evening of shared humanity with him, and not as the caricature (deserved or not) of an empire-hungry, Muslim-hating, morally decadent crusader that is a popular Arab view of the generic westerner.
We so often take the worst and judge the whole. Roman Catholicism is defamed because of the sins of medieval popes; the Church of England is brushed aside because of Henry VIII’s foibles; Mormons are mocked because of Joseph Smith’s polygamy; Jews have suffered centuries of abuse because of what was perceived to be the crimes of a handful of their leaders two millennia ago.
The admonition of Paul asks us to instead seek out the best in people, in cultures, in religions, and in philosophies; to seek out the true, the honourable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, the praiseworthy.
In Egypt, Muslims and Christians did exactly that. Rather than dwell on the theological and cultural differences that divide them, important though they are, they instead worked to promote a common good for all Egypt. A month or so ago, after a Coptic Christian church was bombed by Islamist extremists, many Muslims attended Coptic services to act as human shields. During the Tahrir square protests, Christians similarly protected Muslims from the police during prayers.
I do not wish to be naive. Christian/Muslim relationships are often poor and I suspect this will continue, alas. The revolution in Egypt also remains a fragile thing. However, it seems to me that when we seek the best in each other, good things, remarkable things can happen.