Brothers' Keepers

American evangelicals were always big believers in democracy -- until it reached the Arab world.

Most American evangelicals view democracy much like Yankees fans view their beloved Bronx Bombers: as a human institution that has its flaws, but one that God clearly prefers to the alternatives and has destined for world domination. No less an authority than Billy Graham called free elections a "blessing from God."

Yet the Arab Spring has caught them up short. The editors at the evangelical magazine Christianity Today are biting their nails over what will happen if the Syrians topple Assad; to the Baptist Press News, things don't look so rosy in newly liberated Egypt. In World, a Christian magazine, Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky warned that the region may be headed not for a new era of freedom, but smack into "a different tyranny."

Given many evangelicals' commitment to baptizing the Founding Fathers and praising the cross as a "statue of liberty," it may seem strange that they have greeted the pro-democracy movements agitating the Middle East and North Africa with distinct ambivalence. But if it's surprising, that's only because so many observers of American politics are out of touch with the evangelical worldview, particularly evangelicals' understanding of themselves as embattled outsiders who have much to lose when democracy doesn't go their way.

Whenever evangelicals show heightened interest in the Middle East, pundits tend to suspect two motives: evangelicals' supposedly blind loyalty to Israel, and their view of the region's population as pawns in God's great apocalyptic endgame. But grasping for reasons that free elections might delay Armageddon brings us no closer to understanding evangelicals' true concerns. Their uncertainty over whose side to take in the Arab Spring has little to do with whether Hosni Mubarak should count as one of the heads of the scarlet beast in the Book of Revelation, and a lot to do with the hardships facing their fellow Christians -- as well as that malleable ideal and political tool, religious freedom.

Evangelicals spend far more time worrying over the persecution of Christians here and now than they do parsing the Bible's predictions about the end of the world. And it's no secret that the Arab Spring revolutions have not done any favors for the roughly 25 million embattled Christians in the region (a precise head count is hard to come by). In the wake of Mubarak's fall, hard-line Islamists in Egypt rioted against Christians and vandalized churches. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has hardly been a poster child for religious freedom, but approximately 2.3 million Christians there view him as a protector whose wobbling regime is the only thing standing between them and hordes of Salafists who aren't so interested in keeping up the appearance of a modern, secular state. And a half-million of those Christians are Iraqi refugees who fled the bloody fight between contending Muslim factions in their homeland and have no desire to relive that experience. "Pray for the believers in Syria ...[who] are there trying to bring Jesus into this very dangerous and chaotic place," one missionary told Mission Network News, an evangelical missionary news service.

Evangelicals are hardly the only ones worried about the fate of religious freedom -- or freedom in general, for that matter -- in the Middle East and North Africa. But they devote a remarkable amount of energy to aiding the region's Christians, giving funds, supplies, and Bibles through a web of organizations like Christian Freedom International, the Voice of the Martyrs, Persecuted Christians Care Fund, and others (though the Catholics do give them a run for their money.)

The diffuse nature of evangelical charitable giving makes fundraising figures elusive, but anyone who spends a little time reading, talking, or worshipping with evangelicals can't miss the fact that they have a zeal for honoring martyrs and connecting with persecuted Christians abroad. They love a good sermon on the afflictions of the righteous. Their churches sponsor persecuted congregations abroad and screen movies with titles like Tortured for Christ. To give the youngsters a more vivid taste of virtual martyrdom, one organization offers an activity kit called "Locked Up," "a 12-hour simulation of a prison-like setting" to challenge youth groups "to live their role in God's great story of the Church around the world."

Although homegrown martyrs are scant these days, American evangelicals never stop feting the few they have: One of the most famous evangelical women of the 20th century is ex-missionary Elisabeth Elliot, whose 1957 account of her husband's martyrdom at the hands of a hostile Ecuadorean tribe is still selling briskly a half-century later. And evangelicals have lobbied hard in Washington on behalf of oppressed Christians, playing an important role in the 1998 passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. All this is to say that when American evangelicals think of the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, it's a good bet that for many, the plight of persecuted Christians is the first thing that comes to mind.

Secular commentators, however, tend to focus on the alleged influence of apocalyptic belief on evangelicals' views and votes. Yes, theories of the end times do have some bearing on evangelicals' reactions to world affairs. But brooding over the end of the world is hardly unorthodox or unusual in the history of the faith: Christianity was born in a frothy mix of Greek philosophy and Jewish apocalypticism. End-times mania reached a modern apogee after an Anglo-Irish evangelist named John Nelson Darby toured the United States in the mid-19th century, preaching an intricate doomsday theory called dispensational premillennialism. Darby and his followers approached the Bible like a code book that, once properly understood, would allow even the untutored layman to decipher newspaper headlines for signs of the Antichrist and the mark of the beast. Darby's theory also found room for an old idea: a special role for the Jews, who had to reclaim their biblical patrimony and have one more chance to embrace the true God before Jesus himself would descend to lead the saints in battle with the Antichrist.

Dispensationalism became wildly popular in the early 20th century, but in recent decades its hold on evangelical culture has waned. Evangelicals still take the Second Coming of Christ seriously, but have become increasingly preoccupied with the Bible's earthly themes, such as social justice and the burden of Christian "dominion" over the natural world and in human society. Meticulous forecasting of the end of days is out of style (Hal Lindsey's prognosticating book, The Late Great Planet Earth, was a bestselling sensation in 1970, but mainstream evangelicals considered Harold Camping's more recent efforts an embarrassment). The massive popularity of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's Left Behind series, which follows the basic schema of Darby's theology to chronicle the travails of protagonists who are stuck on Earth after the Rapture and must battle the Antichrist (who happens to be the secretary-general of the United Nations), might suggest that the series's 65 million readers are all counting down the days until Armageddon. At least one survey, however, found that half of Left Behind readers aren't even evangelical Christians. Most of them probably want a thrilling read more than a Bible lesson.

The Holy Land's bustling Christian tourism industry confirms evangelicals' fascination with the Middle East. But most of the evangelicals who spend their summer vacations on a "Footsteps of Our Lord Tour" or the "Lands of the Bible Cruise" are far more interested in walking where Jesus walked than in visiting the future site of the Antichrist's assembled armies in the Valley of Megiddo. Then what about Christian Zionism, evangelicals' infamous zeal for the ingathering of the Jews? It's true that evangelicals tend to be friends of Israel and believe that God has a special relationship with the Jews. But polls show that a plurality of evangelical leaders worldwide sympathizes equally with both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And much of American evangelical support for Israel derives from nonsupernatural sources shared by many Americans: friendship for and strategic dependence on what was once (and may yet remain) the only democratic country in the Middle East, seasoned with a dash of well-deserved, post-Holocaust guilt.

Prophecy talk has been conspicuously absent from mainstream evangelical coverage of the Arab Spring. In its place we read scores of interviews with terrified Copts, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants on the streets of Cairo and Damascus. Those heart-rending photos and news reports have played an enormous role in shaping evangelical opinions of Islam and U.S. foreign policy. Evangelicals' fixation on the mistreatment of their co-believers has a history as old as the Christian religion itself: Christianity began as the faith of a persecuted minority, of martyrs shredded by lions in the Colosseum.

But if these stories have a place in every Christian's heritage, American evangelicals have taken spiritual and ideological empathy with the persecuted to new heights. Despite centuries in the American mainstream -- and the fact that there are about 100 million of them today -- many conservative evangelicals in the United States think of themselves as a persecuted minority. They are the few faithful who refuse to bow down before Obamicus Maximus (or Sultan Barack the Magnificent, as a disturbing number of crazies believe). The war on Christmas is old news; now half of Americans also believe that Christians are "being persecuted" at the hands of advocates of same-sex marriage. It's little wonder they are reaching out to Christians thousands of miles away (the ones who are actually being tortured -- in places where torture means more than being forced to watch a gay pride parade).

This is not to say that American evangelicals publicize the persecution of Christians abroad and work to advance their rights only to bolster their own self-image. Evangelical concern for persecution overseas is completely genuine -- though too often lumped together with more dubious causes. "Religious freedom" has become a kind of shorthand in American political rhetoric, useful for prescribing some domestic policies (prayer meetings in public schools, intelligent design in the curriculum), decrying others (same-sex marriage, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"), and contributing to an ambivalent view of democracy -- whether in the United States, or in the Muslim world -- if the principle of "one voice, one vote" happens to threaten evangelical priorities. Every time evangelicals indulge in hysterics about the persecution of American evangelicals and "how liberals are waging war against Christians," they weaken their own case against the tyranny of the majority in the Middle East and insult those congregations huddling behind drawn curtains in Egypt and Libya.

But then, scholars of evangelicalism have long observed that cultivating a persecution complex -- even one that is mostly a self-perpetuating fiction -- is not a bad way to maintain authority and stoke followers' sense of divine purpose. The trouble is that this mindset may make evangelicals look less like their oppressed brethren and more like the very despots they hate.


Tarnished Brass

Turkey's general staff has resigned in anger, leaving the civilian government as the apparent winners. But, with a military prone to coups, is trouble still lurking?

Read any newspaper, magazine, or journal article about Turkey over the last few decades, and the odds are that the Turkish military establishment was described as "staunchly secular," "powerful," "autonomous," "dominant," or all of these things. At times, it seemed that observers were in awe of the Turkish commanders, armed as they seemed to be with an uncompromising ideology and a will to act to ensure the security of Turkey's republican and, importantly, secular political order. The ideals, cohesion, and strength of the armed forces stood in stark contrast with the weakness and corruption -- especially during the 1990s -- of Turkey's civilian political leaders.

The military's reputation (some of it deserved, but also clearly exaggerated) is a function of the fact that between 1960 and 1997, the officers got rid of four governments that the general staff did not like. That's what makes the Friday, July 29, resignation of the military's most senior officers, including its chief of staff, all the more surprising. In Turkey, it is usually the military that pressures the government and forces the politicians to resign, not the other way around.

In a statement, the military's just-resigned chief of staff, Gen. Isik Kosaner, explained that the officers believed they could no longer "protect their personnel" from criminal investigations and as a result could no longer carry on their duties effectively. Within hours of the resignations of Kosaner, land forces commander Gen. Erdal Ceylanoglu, navy chief Adm. Esref Ugur Yigit, and their air force colleague Gen. Hasan Aksay, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed a new chief of staff, the former Gendarmerie commander, Gen. Necdet Ozel.

Erdogan's demonstration of strength and control only reinforced initial assumptions that the officers' move reflected the manifest political weakness of the Turkish armed forces and the ascendancy of civilian power. After all, the resignations did not destabilize the country, the financial markets remained steady, and there was no outpouring of public support for Kosaner and his colleagues. Turkey did not miss a beat. The only possible conclusion analysts can draw from this episode: Erdogan has won. The prime minister, buoyed by a recent election that saw his Justice and Development Party (AKP) win an unprecedented 49.95 percent of the vote, has finally mastered civil-military relations, paving the way for a potentially more democratic future.

At the same time, however, the emerging narrative about the resignations and what it means seems a little too neat. To be sure, the days when the Turkish military could oust a government by memorandum are long over, but the collective resignations of the country's senior brass raise a number of important questions about the quality of Turkish democracy and the future of civil-military relations.

In institutionalized democracies, where the military is subordinate to civilian politicians through regulation and tradition, senior commanders do not just bolt because they do not like something. They process their grievances through consultation with their civilian political masters. If that does not work, they salute the politicians and carry on with their duties. Not so in Turkey, where -- through four coups, numerous other more subtle interventions, and institutional mechanisms -- the military cowed civilian politicians into either accepting its dictates or risking punishment.

Of course, an argument can be made that Kosaner's resignation and Erdogan's refusal to allow the military to intimidate him may very well hasten the process of military subordination. Yet for all that Erdogan and his colleagues have done clipping the wings of the once-powerful National Security Council -- the body the military used to pressure civilian leaders -- by bringing officers accused of certain crimes before the civilian courts and gaining control of parts of the military budget, the officers still remain beyond the bounds of complete civilian control. After all, the Turkish national security state is 85 years old; it will take more than the resignations of the top brass to rip out its deep roots.

It is that stress on the military as an organization that may yet unravel Erdogan's apparent mastery of the officer corps. There is little doubt that there are more than a few officers (currently serving and retired) who have plotted against the government. Even if Erdogan has used that enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in mystery known as the Ergenekon investigation to unfairly target political opponents, as some allege, there was evidence when the initial plot was discovered that elements of the military were set on undermining Erdogan.

The AKP's firm grip on the government and thus its ability to affect the trajectory of Turkish politics for decades through well-placed supporters in the bureaucracy is anathema to the military. This was precisely the reason that Erdogan's onetime mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, who led Turkey's first experiment with Islamist-led government, was pushed from office in 1997's "postmodern" coup. Even if there was reason to suspect the armed forces of plotting against him, Erdogan was clearly using Ergenekon to hammer and humiliate the Turkish general staff into submission.

Erdogan was already able to find a new chief of staff in Ozel, and the current meeting of the Supreme Military Council will fill the vacancies atop Turkey's individual services, reinforcing the notion that he is firmly in control. That does not mean, however, that the problem of civil-military relations in Turkey has been resolved. There is little reason to believe that the AKP years have produced a sea change in the military's worldview that will allow it to comfortably submit to AKP or any other civilian rule.

Critics will point out that an organization as large and complex as the Turkish armed forces is not monolithic and that it stands to reason that there are AKP sympathizers within the ranks. True enough, but the Turkish military has always been a unique specimen among militaries. Its traditions are more Prussian than American, and its officers are often socialized in the ways and beliefs of the armed forces from a very young age. This produces a set of beliefs about their identity, their role in politics, and the supreme importance of Kemalism to Turkey's internal cohesion that has likely not changed even as Turkish politics have become freer and society grown more complex. At the very least, this opens the possibility that the officers -- not despite, but rather because of the beating they have taken in the last few years -- will still try to remain beyond the complete control of Turkish civilians.

There is very little about Erdogan that is nuanced. He is the ultimate street politician, intent on remaking a system that was manifestly undemocratic and discriminated, in particular, against the pious Turks around him. The primary address for these problems was the military. As a result, the prime minister viewed the military with great suspicion and, in turn, never cultivated a second tier of officers who could be his allies in smoothing the military's transition from autonomy to subordination. The predictable result is more mistrust between the government and the commanders, sowing potential divisions in the ranks, which is bad for the military and bad for civil-military relations.

In one way, a divided military is good for Erdogan: It makes the officer corps more susceptible to manipulation and further weakens its ability to meddle in politics. It also, however, raises the prospect that some officers will take matters into their own hands as they see their professional prerogatives and everything they stand for mercilessly whittled away.

The odds are, though, that last week's resignations were the dying gasp of the Turkish general staff's autonomy. Yet just as Friday's events surprised everyone, there may be more surprises in store from the officers. The military is much diminished, but Turkey's civilians have not won this battle yet. For instance, despite the fact that there is a civilian minister of national defense, Turkish officers do not answer to him. Changes to the military's internal service codes, which enjoin the commanders to intervene in the political system if they perceive a threat to it, have been under discussion, but have yet to be implemented. Nor have the curricula of the military academies and staff colleges been changed to emphasize the supremacy of civilian leadership.

Erdogan is nothing if not shrewd. He will likely take the opportunity now to complete his efforts to bring the military to heel. If he does not, the prime minister's grand experiment in rewiring Turkey and transforming it permanently into a more democratic, more modern, and more pluralist country remains in jeopardy.

-/AFP/Getty Images