Dubai, the parvenu (or 暴發戶, as my family says in Chinese) of the Persian Gulf, has finally been exposed as a financial black hole, dealing a serious blow to the reputation of the Arab Gulf. One could go on and on, I suppose, about how Dubai unmasks the financial fakeness of the West, because its desalinized oases of luxury certainly took the cake. But even before news broke, as London Independent columnist Johann Hari reports, Dubai, the wonder of which I heard plenty – whether from the Monocle about its art scene or from other people about its prodigal displays of wealth and the quest of the United Arab Emirates to become internationally respected (as symbolized in the Burj Dubai, a now-unfinished Tower of Babel) – was morally bankrupt.
People go to Dubai to enjoy the beaches and to party: indeed, it was the New York Times’s 2008 travel choice for partying. Behind the scenes of Mr Gatsby’s party are abuses that beggar belief (though the child camel jockeys have been abolished for several years now).
This is a princedom built by the labour of manual workers who are effectively foreign slaves tricked by false promises into going to Dubai to work and imprisoned by a mélange of the law, employers’ dark tactics and the tacit support of the powers that be. The injustice is crushing. As Moses tells Rameses in The Prince of Egypt, « No kingdom should be made on the backs of slaves. » It’s bewildering to think about trying to abolish something that, by the assessment of many an Emarati, has made Dubai and without which Dubai would crumble back into the sand, back into the poverty of the generation before.
My question is, where is the Church, and indeed what can the Church even be expected to do? There’s a secret police to reckon with. The system looks stuck, and the slave labour is much more a part of the foundation than camel jockeys ever were. Yet talk is cheap: will the gospel ever be anything to an Indian slave in his squalid abjection if it keeps him in submission to a cruel master without freeing him truly from the darkness? Try telling him the words of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: « I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment? » How hollow our faith must be if it does the same, and how diabolical or weak our God if he does nothing to alter the real world!
Given the small number of Christians present in Dubai, it seems all too easy to just keep quiet and to turn a blind eye to what’s obvious. Talk, and you’ll be deported or imprisoned. Yet the earth, even those prodigious Palm Islands dredged up from the gulf, utter cries for justice, for mercy, for the Lord of Hosts to break into this present age and destroy the unjust gods (Psalm 82). Here the Church father Tertullian says the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. Indeed, there seem to be two alternatives to silence: violence and martyrdom.
What can the Church do? How are we supposed to respond vis-à-vis injustice perpetuated by those governments that help thieves prey on the weak and invite tourists to come and trample on their groaning bodies? What does the Bible count as a real government authority? Is armed rebellion contrary to the way of the Cross?