An entire region of the world halfway across the globe has been fighting for democracy as an escape from oppression. Riots and revolts were their only means of being heard by their governments and as a result, there is change.
The Syrian Revolution marked a “civic awakening of millions of Arabs who had found their voices to prove that they were citizens, not subjects,” according to Mark Schnellbaecher. Millions of Arabs all throughout the Middle East united against their oppressive rulers for a common cause; freedom.
Schnellbaecher, the Catholic Relief Services regional director for the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, spoke on Tuesday, Nov. 13 as the keynote speaker for Cabrini Day. He is currently residing on campus while on sabbatical from CRS. This particular Cabrini Day’s encompassing theme was “We the people, Democracy and Diversity,” appropriate for the celebration of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini’s feast day.
“In many ways in today’s Middle East, history is actually current events,” Schnellbaecher said. The long and fractured history of the Arabs have influenced the current way that government and life are being run, and it is the generation of the technological age that wants to do something to change it.
Schnellbaecher and many other experts believe that the root of the problem is Arabs’ religious differences and the freedom from a religious government that some Arabs desire.
“Islamist rulers draw no sharp line between religion and the rest of life,” Schnellbaecher said. “The fundamental question is how to reconcile faith and governance.”
This concept of religious pluralism, or tolerance, is difficult to align with strict forms of Islamic religion. Islamists’ beliefs prevent them from simply instituting tolerance for many different reasons. “Contemporary Arab attitude toward religious difference have been shaped by the varying competing interpretations of Quranic scripture, by the Sunni-Shiite split,” Schnellbaecher said.
The governments that took over after the uprisings occurred are now in the process of forming a better and more comprehensive democratic system for their people. “They face the very same massive socioeconomic challenges that confounded their authoritarian predecessors: widespread poverty, rising unemployment and growing income disparities,” Schnellbaecher said.
Schnellbaecher’s speech was followed by a panel of faculty, as well as one student, each of whom had firsthand experience in the world of Middle Eastern turmoil. Professors Vonya Womack and Alia Sheety shared stories and insight of their time spent amongst the people living in the shadows of their governments.
“How the Arab world deals with their religious pluralism, how it deals with their constitution and how it deals with it in actual practical, political, social and legal practice will have substantial impact in the Arab world,” Schnellbaecher said.
It is the aftermath and how it is dealt with that will determine how the revolutionized countries fare as democracies.
Not only has the Middle East been hugely affected, but the entire world also has in its attempt to aid the countries in revolt.
“One thing we can be sure of, the Syrian conflict is not just another Arab uprising,” Schnellbaecher said. “And the geopolitical consequences of how it ends and what comes after it are enormous.”
Who is Mark Schnellbaecher?
• Graduated from Georgetown University
• Graduate degrees in theology and public administration from Harvard
• Regional CRS director for the Middle East, North Africa and Europe since 2003
• On staff at Villanova University
• Currently resides on Cabrini’s campus until December