10 PEOPLE TO WATCH IN 2021
by Mike Burnard and ministry partner
The world is continuously being shaped by people who take their convictions – the good, the bad and the ugly – beyond the borders of their own existence. It is these people whose influence stretches across the globe with their names inked into the history books forever. dia-LOGOS would like to explore a short-list of 10 people who are likely to influence the political, religious, cultural, and geographical arenas in 2021.
These are not the only people who will impact the year ahead and some political pundits might even frown upon some of the names on the list. Some names might be new to many, like Yousuf Hanson, and others are already household names, like Erdogan, Macron and Xi Jinping. The essence of this article is not to predict key influences for the year ahead but to stimulate the Body of Christ to be informed, to WATCH and to pray:
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2: 1-4
Joseph Robinette (Joe) Biden Jr. is the 46th and current president of the United States. Mr.Biden is the oldest president to serve the country. At 78, he is older even than the older president to leave office, Ronald Reagan, who was still 77 at the end of his second term. That is almost two years older than the current life expectancy for a US-born male, which is 76.3 years and 14 years older than the male life expectancy of an American man born in 1942.
Even though Mr. Biden is healthy and vaccinated, it is still a possibility, given his age, that he may get ill while in office, or worse, die. After all, that has happened to a remarkable 17% of US presidents—eight out of 46.
The challenge in the current political climate in the USA however stretches beyond the current President. The 25th amendment of the US constitution, which deals with “presidential vacancy, disability, or inability,” is clear on what happens if the president dies, resigns, or is removed from office. The vice-president (in this case, Kamala Harris) is sworn in to take over the presidential responsibilities until the end of the mandate.
Kamala Devi Harris is the United States’ first female Vice-President, the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, and the first African American and first Asian American Vice-President. As a member of the Democratic Party, Harris served as a United States senator from California from 2017 to 2021, and as the Attorney-General of California from 2011 to 2017. Harris became Vice President upon inauguration in January 2021 alongside President Joe Biden, having defeated the incumbent president, Donald Trump, and Vice President, Mike Pence, in the 2020 election.
While Biden is regarded as moderate or central left in his policies, Harris is regarded as an extreme liberal. According to GovTrack.us, an organization tracking U.S. Congress and information on lawmakers and their voting records, which touts itself as “one of the oldest government transparency websites in the world,” Harris was “ranked most liberal compared to All Senators” in 2019. The group’s analysis was based on senators’ “legislative behavior by how similar the pattern of bills and resolutions they cosponsor are to other Members of Congress,” according to its website.
There is therefore a legitimate concern that, should Biden not serve his full term, things could turn for the worse should your political views not align with extreme liberal perspective in US politics.
Back in 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that his goal is to make Turkey a “top ten world power” and spoke about his country’s influence in international affairs.
As part of his ambitions to turn his country into a superpower, Turkey embarked on a journey that saw them engage in conflicts in Syria and Libya, extend their influence in the Aegean Sea, illegally drill in Cyprys’ gas exploration blocks, accused the UAE and other Arab nations of betraying the Palestinians and backed the Azerbaijans in the war with the “Christian” Armenia. Turkey has also established military bases in Qatar and Somalia and, together with Qatar, are now competing for influence against the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey has also angered the west by establishing close relationships with Russia and China.
But the influence of Mr Erdogan stretches further than just a political leader with a geopolitical agenda
The Muslim 500, the most authoritative and widely recognised list of influential Muslims in the world, has nominated Mr. Erdogan as the number one, most influential Muslim in the world for 2021. This no small achievement. He is ranked higher than King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud (king of Saudi Arabia and custodian of the Two Holy Mosques), the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Supreme Leader of Iran and Shia Islam), and even Dr Ahmad Al-Tayeeb (Supreme Islamic teacher, scholar and Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University)
Not only is Mr.Erdogan seen as the most influential Muslim in the world but some scholars even attribute a divinity to him. There are some Muslim scholars that refer to Erdogan as the “the promised Islamic Mahdi (the equal of the coming messiah for Christians). The Mahdi is a man who will emerge at the end times and fill the world with justice and equity according to Islamic tradition.
Suat Onal, a member of the Governing Council of the Ruling Justice and Development Party, has already mentioned on his Facebook account that “Erdogan will become the Caliph in 2023 and Allah will shed his light upon him.” Similarly, in 2013, Atılgan Bayar, a former advisor to the pro-government news station A Haber, wrote that he recognized Erdoğan as the caliph of the Muslim world and expressed his allegiance to him. In one of her recent tweets, Beyhan Demirci, a writer and follower of Erdoğan, also wrote that Erdoğan is the caliph and the shadow of God on Earth. Some of his followers have gone even further and have said things like, “Since Erdoğan is the caliph, he has the right to use money earned through corruption for his political goals.”
There is no doubt that Erdogan will combine his political ambitions with his religious aspirations and this could be a dangerous tipping point for the region. The recent peace treaties between Arab nations and Israel will no doubt add to this. The resistance of other Arab nations, the discontent with Islam in Iran, and the influence of key role players like Russia and China, could result in shifting the Powerhouse of Islam from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.
Brigadier General and former Minister of Defense of Iran, Hossein Dehghan, is currently a friend and adviser to Iran’s supreme leader and a possible 2021 presidential candidate in the Iran elections in June 2021. He could be a tipping point in Iranian politics should he win the elections. Dehghan has already warned the West that an American attack on the Islamic Republic could set off a “full-fledged war” in the Mideast.
Speaking to The Associated Press, Hossein Dehghan struck a hard-line tone familiar to those in Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, a force he long served in before becoming a defense minister under President Hassan Rouhani.
A soldier has yet to serve as Iran’s top civilian leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in part over the initial suspicion that its conventional military forces remained loyal to the toppled shah. But hard-liners in recent years have openly suggested Iran move toward a military dictatorship given its economic problems and threats from abroad, particularly after President Donald Trump pulled America out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
“We don’t welcome a crisis. We don’t welcome war. We are not after starting a war,” Dehghan said “But we are not after negotiations for the sake of negotiations either.”
Dehghan, 63, describes himself as a “nationalist” with “no conventional political tendency” during an interview. He’s one of many likely to register to run in the June 18 election as Rouhani is term-limited from running again.
Dehghan’s military service came under presidencies representative of the groups that largely compose Iran’s tightly controlled political arena — reformists who seek to slowly change Iran’s theocracy from within, hard-liners who want to strengthen the theocracy, and the relative moderates between. Those calling for radical change are barred from running for office by Iran’s powerful constitutional watchdog known as the Guardian Council, which serves under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A new hard-liner in control of a nation with nuclear ambitions and a professed aspiration to “wipe Israel off the map” will no doubt spell bad omens for the whole of the Middle East, the Sunni Arab world and Western enemies like America and Europe
This might be a new name to many commentators in the West, but Yousuf Hanson is highly influential, widely known, and deeply respected in the Muslim World. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf was born Mark Hanson, in Walla Walla, Washington, 1958. He was raised with a Christian background but after a serious car accident, which brought him “close to death”, began a serious inquest about life and death culminating in his conversion to Islam.
In 2009, The Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre published the “500 Most Influential Muslims” publication amid much criticism. Shaykh Hamza was ranked 38th most influential in 2009, and 42nd in 2010. Today, 12 years later, his influence has grown to the 22nd most influential Muslim in the world. He is one of only two North American Muslims to break the top 50 list.
In an American context where irreligiosity is growing faster than Christianity, the Islamic agenda seems more appealing to young millennials than to any other generation.
There are no U.S. government statistics on the number of Muslim Americans. For that matter, there are no official figures on the size of any religious group in the U.S., because the Census Bureau does not collect information on the religious identification of residents. However, according to the PEW Foundation, demographers can calculate a rough estimate of the number of Muslims who currently reside in the country.
Based on these calculations, Pew Research Center estimates that there are currently 3.45 million Muslims in the U.S., including 2.15 million adults and 1.35 million children. Muslims account for roughly 1.1% of the total U.S. population (including both adults and children), as well as approximately 0.9% of the U.S. adult population.
Moreover, the U.S. Muslim population has been growing rapidly, albeit from a relatively low base. When the Center first conducted a study of U.S. Muslims in 2007, researchers estimated that there were 2.35 million Muslims of all ages (including 1.5 million adults). By 2011, the number of Muslims had grown to 2.75 million (including 1.8 million adults). Since then, the Muslim population has continued to grow at a rate of roughly 100,000 people per year, driven both by natural increases due to fertility and by the migration of Muslims to the U.S.
There is no doubt that the likes of Yousuf Hanson will provide an alternative picture to the perceived perception that all Muslims are terrorists. He will be instrumental in providing a more secular and more appealing face of Islam to a new generation of seekers. He might not be as well known as Sadam Hussain or Bin Laden, but his appeal will be far-reaching in the Western World
In December 2020, Gideon Sa’ar, a former ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announced he was defecting to start a political party to rival the nationalist Likud, saying it’s become a “tool” for the prime minister’s interests.
Sa’ar, 54, a lawyer and former cabinet minister, launched his party, New Hope, with the aim of replacing the longtime premier. Israel’s fragile governing coalition collapsed weeks later, spurring an election on March 23, Israel’s fourth in two years.
Polls suggest Sa’ar might be able to siphon off enough voters from both the right and center to unseat the country’s longest-serving leader. Support for Netanyahu has sunk following a bungled reopening of the economy last May.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is known for his smart political maneuvering that has helped make him the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. But has he finally met his match in prime ministerial hopeful and former Likud cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar?
Last month, Sa’ar outmaneuvered Netanyahu, bringing down his government by helping prevent the Knesset from extending the deadline for passing the state budget. Now, Sa’ar – as head of the New Hope Party – is intent on preventing Netanyahu from forming another government ever again.
In an interview with the Magazine Sa’ar outlined his plan to capture the premiership. “I won’t deny that I was very involved in the effort to end the farce of this ridiculous government that was going to pass a laughable bill to artificially extend its tenure for two weeks,” Sa’ar said. “Every Israeli patriot would work to end this failed government. I did everything necessary to make sure the coalition would not obtain a majority in the vote, and they indeed did not receive a majority in the vote.”
Now it is Sa’ar who is working to ensure he will have a majority to build his own government after the March 23 election and based on his political career until now, he might have a chance. A new face, a new party, and ultimately a new government will provide new dynamics to the new leadership in the USA and a new leadership in Iran. The permutations are endless and could guide the Middle East into a new era.
Abu Mohammed Abubakar bin Mohammad al-Sheikawi is a Kanuri man known as the current leader of Boko Haram, a Nigerian militant group that has declared loyalty to the Islamist militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). He served as deputy leader to the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, until Yusuf was executed in 2009.
Nigerian authorities believed that Shekau was killed in 2009 during clashes between security forces and Boko Haram until July 2010, when Shekau appeared in a video claiming leadership of the group. He has subsequently been regularly reported dead and is thought to use body doubles. In March 2015, Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Shekau is a Salafi.
On 27 June 2017, Shekau released a video in which he claimed responsibility for the abduction of Nigerian policewomen and criticized the Nigerian government for claiming that Boko Haram had been defeated. This video would seem to be further evidence of Shekau’s continued survival. In February 2020, Shekau released a video threatening the minister of information and digital economy, Isa Ali Pantami, and making reference to what was done to Islamic scholar Ja’afar Mahmud Adam in Maiduguri when he preached against Boko Haram.
There is no doubt that Shekau has a strategic vision to establish a larger Islamic – and more radical – footprint in the southern tip of Africa. With the north of Africa safely secured, the next prize would be South Africa and her neigbouring countries. According to the Global Terrorism Index (25 November 2020), the “centre of gravity” for the Islamic State group IS has moved away from the Middle East to Africa, with total deaths by IS in sub-Saharan Africa up by 67% over last year. These attacks could mostly be attributed to Shekau.
7 of the 10 countries with the largest increase in terrorism were in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Mozambique, DRC, Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Ethiopia”. The report points out that in 2019 “sub-Saharan Africa recorded the largest number of ISIS-related terrorism deaths at 41% of the total.
The Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to grow by nearly 60% in the next 20 years, from 242.5 million in 2010 to 385.9 million in 2030. Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa will account for a growing share of the global Muslim population. By 2030, 17.6% of the world’s Muslims are expected to be living in sub-Saharan Africa, up from 15% in 2010.
Alexei Navalny is a Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist that has in recent years become the face of Western opposition against Vladimir Putin, who has ruled Russia for more than 15 years. Navalny, a known critic of President Putin, registered as a candidate for the Presidential election in 2018, but was barred by the Central Election Commission on trumped-up charges that disqualified him from running for the Presidency. This however has not stopped Navalny from trying to expose Putin as a corrupt leader that uses fear to remain in power.
In spite of serious repercussions against anyone who publicly opposes the Putin government, Navalny has gained widespread support throughout the country, with some pollsters saying he has an approval rating of up to 17%. This can be seen in the mass protests that were held for his release after Navalny was arrested in January on charges of allegedly violating the terms of his probation. Navalny had to undergo medical treatment in Berlin after being poisoned by a nerve agent that Navalny suspects was administered on direct orders from the Russian President, in order to kill him.
In January Navalny supporters released a YouTube video titled Putin’s palace, in an attempt to expose the widespread corruption under Putin’s government. The video, which has been watched more than 110 million times caused widespread protests, not only against Putin, but also for the release of Navalny. Putin responded by stating that the protests were illegal. More than 11 000 protesters have been arrested over the past two weeks.
Geopolitical aggression by Vladimir Putin has caused widespread Western opposition against Russian expansion. In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and sponsored a civil war in East Ukraine killing more than 13 000 people and displacing more than one million Ukrainians. European and especially Baltic States have warned that Russia might try and annex more countries on its border and have consequently bolstered their military spending in a bid to prevent it from happening. Russia also supports the Syrian government with munitions and troops as it fights against Western-backed separatist groups. Russia is also a known sympathiser of the Iranian regime that further angers the West.
Western governments, especially the US, have for years tried to reduce Russian influence through diplomatic opposition and sanctions, but have until now fell short of any meaningful change. The only way that President Putin can be stopped is through the Russian people. Elections have so far proven a less able method as voter fraud and scare tactics have helped Putin remain in power. Enter Alexei Navalny, the new bullet in the gun held by the West.
In 2021, Navalny’s imprisonment encouraged more and more opposition against the Putin government. With overcrowded prisons, due to the imprisonment of protesters, the Russian government will find it increasingly hard to ignore Navalny. If they keep him imprisoned more protests may erupt, leading to more arrests that have the potential to increase negative public sentiment against the government. If they release Navalny the West may try and support him as an activist against Putin, and possibly increase his popularity. Whether Navalny stays in prison or released, he remains a bleeding thorn in the side of Putin.
From a Christian perspective, the support that Navalny enjoys from the West (US and Europe) could have a negative impact on the Evangelical and Protestant church in Russia. In 2016 Russia passed its anti-terrorism law (Yarovaya laws) which prohibits the sharing of religion in private homes, online or anywhere except in recognised religious buildings. The law, according to the government, is designed to limit terrorist groups in the country from gaining new members and meeting together. The law has since been used to prosecute non-orthodox Christians. Because the Russian government views Evangelical and Protestant churches as avenues for Western influence in Russia, restricting their activities is key. Because Alexei Navalny receives so much support from the West, the government might increase its suppression of Evangelical and Protestant believers, whom they view as pro-West and therefore pro-Navalny.
Elected as President of France in 2017, Emmanuel Macron presented himself as a champion of secularism from the start. Secularism in France came with the official separation between State and Church in 1905, with France henceforth taking a neutral stand in all matters of religion, neither supporting religion or the absence of it. Although the State does not endorse any specific religion, it does guarantee equal rights to all religions and a peaceful co-existence. Islam, however, in the mind of the government has violated these secular values and needs to be rid of its extremist elements. Macron said that Islam was in a crisis, referring to its radical elements, concluding that Islam in France deeded “freeing from foreign influences”.
In September 2020 President Macron defended the rights of Satirical Magazine Charlie Hebdo to reprint a caricature of the prophet Muhammad. This led to widespread criticism and protest from various Muslim nations who burned effigies of Macron and the French flag. When Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher who showed his class a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, was beheaded by an Islamic extremist in October 2020, Macron again defended France’s secularist values against the attack of Islamists who according to Macron “want to steal our future”. The Macron government is now taking it a step further with a new law that will drastically curb religious liberty in the country, in a bid to uproot radical Islam. The law, called “a draft law to strengthen republican values”, is designed to target associations and mosques that are suspected of spreading jihadist ideologies.
In 2021, Emmanuel Macron will play a defining role in the fight against radical Islam in Europe. Although Macron’s laws and the implementation thereof will be limited to France, his actions as European leader will undoubtedly cause an overflow into Europe. A 2020 report by the Counter Extremism Group (CEG) in the UK showed that on average Islamic extremists attempted or carried out an attack somewhere in Europe every two weeks since the defeat of the Islamic State. As Macron clamps down on the liberty of Muslims in France, aggression against the French will be felt elsewhere in Europe where secular ideals are similarly upheld.
From a Christian perspective, because France promises equal liberty to all religions, a restriction on one religion (Islam) will be a restriction on all religions, including Christianity. Because the draft law is designed to curb foreign influences, that form radical ideologies, it could potentially place certain restrictions on the evangelical church that receive foreign funding for its missionary endeavours. Christians may also find themselves on the wrong side of an Islamic counterattack against the French government.
The leader of the world’s most populated country and second-largest economy (GDP), Xi Jinping holds a firm grasp on China’s only political party. Xi Jinping was elevated to a Communist Party “core” leader in 2016, an honour previously bestowed upon Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
China’s parliament recently amended its constitution, broadening Xi’s power and scrapping term limits.
Xi Jinping is arguably one of the most strategic political leaders of our generation and even though his persona seldom takes center stage in global politics, his “China First” policy makes him a leader of notable contention. One of his strategies is what commentators refer to this as Xi Jinping’s “Chequebook diplomacy” (or checkbook diplomacy) – a form of soft power, by the usage of aid, development funds or favourable loans.
WIONEWS (https://www.wionews.com/world/why-is-chinese-colonisation-a-severe-threat-for-foreign-countries-349795) reports that China is using a new form of colonialism to scheme its way into countries as a part of its expansionist policy. To fulfill its aim of becoming a true global power, China is utilising investment, influence, and interference as its secret weapons.
China has been using the financial tool of debt to gain influence across the world and grab considerable power in India’s neighbouring countries and in Africa, thereby increasing the amount of political and security threats the nation is exposed to.
In 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping launched an international investment program that became known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Under a new mantra to connect the global economy, China began investing heavily in foreign infrastructure projects in over 60 countries that account for 60 percent of the world population and 30 percent of global gross domestic product.
From 2013 to 2018 China made an estimated nearly $614 billion worth of investments in countries participating in BRI. Morgan Stanley predicts China’s overall expense from BRI could reach $1.3 trillion over the next decade.
President Xi considers BRI an opportunity to share China’s model for economic growth with the developing world. Geopolitical rivals are concerned BRI investment programs will deepen China’s political influence and military expansion.
Xi Jinping’s influence also stretches beyond the borders of mainland China. There are thought to be about 50 million Chinese people living outside of the Greater China region, meaning that if all the Chinese people living outside of mainland China were a single nation, its population would be more than the population of Canada — and greater than that of Greece, Belgium, Sweden and Hungary combined.
In 2020, the United States brokered peace between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government, on the condition that the US would withdraw its military troops, including those of NATO, within 14 months. According to official statements, in return, the Taliban has pledged to prevent any group or individual from using Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies. The Taliban has also promised to sever ties with terrorist organizations including Al Qaeda.
One of the first things US President Biden has done, after winning the election from Donald Trump (whose government reached the deal with the Taliban) was to review the agreement to make sure that the Taliban was living up to its end of the deal. The Taliban in return promised attacks on all foreign troops if the foreign troop withdrawal is not completed in the set time-frame.
Although the Biden administration, like Trump before him, wants to put an end to America’s longest war, it also wants to ensure that the Taliban will allow democracy, and not religion to govern the country. That includes upholding international woman’s rights. If the Taliban does not hold to its end, the Biden administration might choose to continue military operations in Afghanistan.
The Taliban counterpart to Biden is Hibatullah Akhundzada, a famous hardline religious scholar from Kandahar. Rather than being known as a military commander, Akhundzada has a reputation for issuing the most Fatwa’s. In July of 2020, during his Eid message, Akhundzada said that the Taliban was “on the threshold of establishing an Islamic government” in Afghanistan. An Islamic government however is not what the US had in mind.
In 2021, Hibatullah Akhundzada (meaning gift from god) will play a decisive role in the future of Afghanistan, with direct implementations for its neighbours. Because of his hardline religious stand, it remains uncertain to what extent he will allow a non-Islamic Western-sponsored democracy to flourish in Afghanistan. If Akhundzada backstabs the US, with whom it made an agreement, the US will have no other option but to renew its military operations in the country.
From a Christian perspective, since the start of the US military occupation in 2001, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, fewer accounts of persecution against minority groups, like Christians, have been reported. Since US troop withdrawal started, more and more attacks have been reported. The reason for the decrease was because the Taliban was mainly engaged with fighting US and other NATO troops. Once fighting decreased due to troop withdrawals persecution of minority groups started up again. If President Biden chooses not to uphold the agreement made by his predecessor, the Taliban, under the leadership of Hibatullah Akhundzada will most likely start attacking foreign targets not only in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan where the group has found a safe haven along the border. Between Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, Pakistan has the most Christians, and holds the key to evangelising the region. If the Taliban focused their attacks on Christians in Pakistan it would greatly impact the growth of Christianity in the entire region.
A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
There are three components to consider when believers contemplate global news.
Firstly, we have to maintain a peripheral view. We need to look wider than just the picture in front of us and see the whole picture. The bigger picture will always reveal opportunities and the need for hope.
Secondly, we need to readjust our vantage point. We need to step back and look from God’s perspective. Once we look through Kingdom glasses our first impressions will always be redemptive. It is the will of God that all be saved.
Thirdly we need to adopt a Biblical prospective. We need to approach the future with Christlike solutions and not human conspiracies.
1 Peter 1:13 gives a glorious reminder that we cannot afford to ignorant, uninformed or deceived, but to always keep our focus on heaven. Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.
- Heaven is our citizenship.
- Hope is our language.
- Love is our currency