Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Religion and Politics in the Middle East

Religion and Politics in the Middle East
Palm Beach, November 15, 2006, World Affairs Council

Good evening, Thanks for the kind introduction and my gratitude for the opportunity to be here.

When our son Eddie was nine years old he asked me once to compare Christianity with Islam. In Geneva, we had sent our son to the mosque to learn Arabic but the mosque was not ready to teach Arabic without religion. After exposure to the mosque, our son surprised me one day with this question: “Which is better Christianity or Islam”? he asked. I said to him after a few seconds of hesitation: “Eddie, for you, Christianity is best; we know God through Jesus. For your Muslim friends, Islam is best; they know God through Muhammad. For your Jewish friends, Judaism is best; they know God through Moses”. Eddie was satisfied and his father breathed a sigh of relief.
This evening, I am discussing a framework of oppression in four dimensions in Middle East society. The people of the region are occupied four ways. Rulers occupy freedoms, religious authorities occupy the mind, colonialists occupy borders and local militias occupy the street.
How does a ruler occupy his own country? Well, the ruler behaves as if he is the state. But in reality, the ruler is in constant search for his often questionable legitimacy. Religion and its authorities are often abused to justify un ending rule.
The second type of occupation: How may religion occupy the mind? The religious establishment regulates marriage, inheritance, affiliation and life style through strict laws. Clerics require strict application of the faith. Religious authorities emulate political rulers in restricting freedom of interpretation of the scripture.
Third occupation: Why are colonial powers responsible for a portion of region’s problems? In 1919 the Western Allies designed the region’s map. They invented new countries and terminated others, like Kurdistan. The ME has had 50 years of British/ French colonialism followed by 50 years of US intervention.
Fourth occupation: How do militias become a state within a state?
Militias fill in the void when the state does not deliver. Militia ideologues are smart in pointing to the region’s problems, but their remedies may not be so smart. When armed groups are focused on liberation of land they are known as resistance movements. When their target is civilians they qualify as terrorists.
Let us look at each of these four types of occupations in some detail:
First, Ruler’s Occupation:
From a few examples we can infer that oppression in governance varies from country to country.
Take Saudi Arabia: Here The House of Saud is inherited through a long line of sacred succession. This Kingdom is legitimized as a protector of holy places, yet it is the most restrictive of social and political freedoms.
Other Gulf countries are less oppressive; these oil producing countries are under pressure to experiment with provision of political freedoms in small doses.
Take Egypt: Egypt is a republic with an autocratic government. To be fair, economically, Egypt is hard to govern. Limited land fertility and a bulging demography make it increasingly ungovernable.
But President Mubarak runs the show as if he is the proprietor of the country. Elections are predictable. Minorities complain about representation and majorities complain about legitimacy of governance.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be facing increasing internal pressure for regime change.
Iran: Iran is a religious republic. The republic side is authentic; the religious side is a drag on democracy. Khomeini in 1979 introduced religious control in Iranian state building.
However, experts on Iran tend to place hope in the potential power of women and youth to correct the structural inhibition of religion in politics. But when will the breakthrough take place?
Regrettably US policy of confrontation with Iran has extended the legitimacy of Iranian autocracies.
It is so important to understand Iran because it is connected with five types of power rivalries in the region: Arab vs. Persian, Kurd vs. Arab, Sunni VS. Shiite, secular vs. religious and militia vs. state.
Lebanon: The leaders of this country are war lords. However, Lebanon is a fragile sectarian power-sharing democracy that is plagued by corruption. The fact I can say that about Lebanon and visit the country is a good sign.
Jordan: Jordan is a Kingdom with a King and Queen that are bent on reform. But Jordan is 60% Palestinian and the reform is from top to bottom. This enforced reform has its limits and it may backfire at crisis time.
Syria: Syria is a semi-secular regime that is hard to understand. It is ruled by a regime whose politicians are an ethnic minority, known as Alawites, a form of Shiism.
The Assad family rules with an iron fist, but in recent years the regime has moderated internally and radicalized externally, by supporting the militia culture in Lebanon and Palestine. Its role in Iraq is important.
Israel: Israel is a democracy for five million Jews, and at the same time it is an occupation of five million Palestinians. Israeli leaders are enablers of their own community and hard on Palestinians under their rule.
In sum, the Middle East ruler is in constant search for legitimacy. He often abuses religion to justify oppression.
Second, occupation of the mind: the Fear to ask intelligent questions
In the Middle East, regrettably, each religious community believes that its God is the best. As a result, we have three distinct Monotheistic Gods.
A fourth God is imported from the West; he speaks “televangelically”.
Religious culture and leadership dominate science, politics, education, business and other social institutions.
To challenge religious authority is to challenge the faith itself.
Religious socialization is literal. We turn children who are born with curious minds to beings with robotic ways of thinking. We transform children who love all, to creatures who love the few.
Third, border occupations: Sovereignty
A look at Palestine:
Arabs and Jews look at history from contrasting perspectives. For the Jewish community, Israel is a religious fulfillment, a realization of a national dream, an opportunity to bring the community to a land of security.
In contrast, for Arabs, the Israeli state was born in a process of displacement of innocent Palestinian civilians from their native land of (what they consider) Historic Palestine.
Arabs are angry about land occupation in their region. They are furious about the ongoing occupation and annexation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
They feel that international social justice is eroding.
In contrast, today, Israelis consider “Occupied Territories” as land which they can afford to return to Palestinians.
Occupation in Syria: Israel occupied the Syrian territory known as the Golan Heights and the contested Shib’a Farms in 1967.
Syria says it is ready to negotiate peace and normalization if Golan is returned. Israel says it does not believe Syria is ready for peace.
Iraq: Iraqi people are living a security nightmare and the US is experiencing a political and military quagmire.
Regrettably, the issue of Iraq in the US is reduced to how and when to leave the mess after troop withdrawal, not how to change foreign policy to fit Iraq into the regional politics.
As result of the recent US elections and the sudden focus on the Baker Hamilton Iraq Study Group, reference is made that Iran, Turkey, Syria and Egypt should sit around the international UN table of negotiation in a future peace conference on Iraq. So far, this conference table is not connected with the Palestine/Israel and Syria table of peace. That is a pity, and there are efforts to make the connection.
US military presence in Gulf countries: US see its military presence in Qatar and other Gulf countries as a strategy for peace maintenance and a policy for oil supply. But as long as the oil producing countries are at the end of the scale in democracy building the US will carry the burden of being considered an agent of imperialism in the region.
There is a mutual dependence in US strong presence in the gulf. While the US needs uninterrupted flow of oil at any expense, America is afraid to encourage economic empowerment through industrialization. This is a short sighted policy. The salvation of these countries lies in the shift from the rent economy of oil revenues to a tiger economy of intensive labor.
The Islamic world views the military presence in the region as a form of hegemony.
Fourth, occupation of the street: unauthorized armies
Militias are by-products of state failure. Unauthorized armies become state-within-a-state formations. They fill in the void of state responsibility.
They may offer effective military resistance to external occupation. They may provide social services, and they always offer indoctrination and political organization.
Militias may occupy the street and the neighborhood in response to foreign occupation of land and or domestic regime injustice.
Militias are often correct in political analysis but they are also often misguided in problem solving. Hamas is an example.
Militia leaders mobilize young people with religious symbols but these leaders may not be religious themselves. Ben laden is best example.
Extended power asymmetry in combat between armies of wretched societies and technologically advanced militaries are leading to a new phenomenon of non classical warfare. Militias may compensate for their military weakness by living underground, taking cover in human shields and expanding their power with violence that victimizes civilians. Militias often respond to organized state terror with unorganized grassroots terror. This summer Lebanon was hijacked by Hizbullah and the Israeli response to it.

After this survey of four types of occupations I move to a set of conclusions.
A general statement first: The Arab silent majority is disabled intellectually by Mullahs, Bishops and Rabbis, and sandwiched between unruly militia power in the street, autocratic regime power in the capital and abusive foreign influence on the border.
Arabs, Israelis as well as Americans are tied with a knot of mutual interests. These three societies must review their perspectives. The US current policy in the Middle East is a disaster and the current regimes in the region are under increasing threats. Change of attitudes, policies and programs are urgent to reduce the global tension and bring about political and socio economic solutions. Change is required from all sides. There are no villains and angels in this tragedy. There is no monopoly on evil and virtue. We must shift from a moral paradigm of analysis to a political framework.
Here are some conclusions:
1 Arabs need to change attitude and policy
Tolerance: Religious tolerance is key to political and social change. Tolerance is not about changing the tenants of any faith. It is about attitudes toward diversity. Traditional religious education is a major problem that can only be modified by political change from within.
Women: Gender gap is another central problem in the Arab world; it is not sufficiently recognized by Arab women. Culture relativity is often used as a shell of protection of oppression of women. Islam is for the freedom of women, but I am not sure about Muslim Men in authority positions, who often act as God himself.
Priorities: The Order of Arab political priorities is reversed. Internal reform should come first. Palestine is important but it should not become an excuse for delay of regional reforms.
Indigenous Democracy building: Islam should experiment with its own form of gradual democracy building. Read “Passions of Islam” on this subject.
2. Iraq: When I think of Iraq I picture a surgeon with unclean hands operating on a patient in intensive care. The extended and abusive occupation has turned a solution into a major part of the problem. I offer four points on Iraq:
a. Withdrawal: Foreign troops should withdraw in phases in order to calm down the local people, raise their moral, reduce their anger, make them feel more responsible and above all and generate some good will and cooperation from the key states in the region.
b. Region Consultation: The Iraq solution needs consultation with and support from Key states: Turkey, Iran, Syria, Gulf countries and Europeans. Turkey is needed on Kurdistan issue; Iran on Shiite politics; Syria on border control and Gulf countries for economic aid. Europe to soften the American shadow that has become so negative in the region.
c. National accord: Bringing about a National accord leading to a credible government: New leadership, power sharing, and allowing Sunnite community access to revenues, and decentralization that gives Kurds some degree of autonomy.
d. Security and services: Provision of national Security and infrastructure services. Technical assistance is needed to strengthen the army. Within a regional accord, it is possible to liquidate criminal elements, end regional sabotage and to meet the demands of the local insurgencies.
US policy on Israel
Power management: It is true that within the Jewish community there is a lot of soul searching and sharp self criticism. However, Israeli advocacy may be too successful to its own disadvantage. We Lebanese Christians were so successful in convincing the world that Christian dominance in governance would guarantee stability in Lebanon. That was not the case for too long.
Long term security: Israel needs friends within the region. Israel can not rely on nuclear deterrence and US support for ever.
Ideas not walls: Israel needs to be protected with ideas, with relations, with diplomacy and for the distant future.
An engine not a thorn: Israel can be an engine of creativity for all, rather than (as perceived by many) as a thorn in the body of the region.
Territoriality: What the world community may need to better appreciate is that Palestinian territoriality is as strong as that of the Jewish community.
Equality or ethic cleansing: What lessons do we draw from the phenomenon of territoriality of both nations: Palestinian statehood or ethnic cleansing?
4. US needs attitude and policy change
Policy: We need to answer the question of “Why do they hate us”? honestly. We keep saying “they hate us for what we believe in”. It is the policy, not our values Muslims hate.
History: There is amnesia on history and a double standard on religious bigotry. There is a confusion of Muslim Politics with Islam as a religion.
Empowerment: US action should shift from exporting freedoms to empowering international economic and technological exchange.
In conclusion, US policy should heal a clinical military compulsion to overthrow “misbehaving” regimes. Instead the US policy should engage in the region’s aspirations. Now, in Iraq, there is aggressive micromanagement while in Palestine, there is abusive neglect.
Thank you for your attention and for the privilege of being here.


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