Welcome to the Middle East. With few exceptions, a garden variety of seventeenth century Europe; gruesome wars over religion, sect, ethnicity – and any pretexts you can think of.
This in addition to oppression, poverty, inequality, illiteracy, unemployment, and any other ills you can think of.
Statist systems and global and regional geopolitical rivalries override the right to life and human dignity.
It is not the first time we have witnessed human debasement on such a large scale and, sadly, it might not be the last. The tragedy is that the Middle East enjoys all the natural and human resources to prosper and be at peace, were it not for the dire lack of good governance and unscrupulous – at times illegal – and shortsighted foreign meddling.
To maintain the status quo means we risk destroying the region as well as our entire planet, courtesy of the weapons of mass destruction at our disposal, which sooner or later will fall into the wrong hands.
It is a chimera to believe we can quarantine areas of turmoil or build walls around ourselves. In a high-tech and globalized world we are all vulnerable to the consequences of what happens anywhere. Another tragedy is that we behave as if we have no comprehension in the least of this simple truth. It is not just a question of ethics, but one of survival.
The problem we face is the Islamization of radicalism and not the radicalization of Islam.
We ought to have learned that conflicts like the Palestinian conflict cannot be left to fester for decades, with millions living as refugees, and others in the diaspora or under occupation, without generating a pervasive and deep sense of humiliation across the Middle East.
People in the region have become accustomed to dreadful scenes of killing and maiming of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places. They have seen suspects being sent for “rendition” to be tortured, or to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to be humiliated. Most were Muslims.
The belief that the value of human life depends on who is dying and where has firmly taken root in the Middle East, together with the mindset that, if you don’t care about me, why should you expect me to care about you? A grand western conspiracy against Muslims has become part of popular culture, which the local dictators are happy to encourage to justify their authoritarianism.
This combination of misery, oppression and loss of dignity has been a significant factor in some of the heinous extremism that we see engulfing the region.
In the wake of the Syrian mayhem, four million civilians fled the heart of darkness in the hope of a safe haven. They were told, with some humane exceptions, that there is no place for you in our midst, particularly if you are a Muslim who would disturb our social cohesion or, incredibly, bring “disease and parasites.” Some great minds suggested that we should not let in any Muslims at all, and proposed that Muslim citizens be disqualified from seeking public office or better still, be subject to enhanced surveillance.
Most of the over billion and half Muslims have swallowed this feeling of humiliation and blatant discrimination. When some Muslims and non-Muslims, most with criminal records, turned radical because of alienation, degradation or their own psychological issues, radical Islam became a fitting ideological framework for identity. It is a perverse and dangerous ideology founded on falsehoods accumulated over centuries.
As Olivier Roy, a respected scholar, rightly noted, the problem we face is the Islamization of radicalism and not the radicalization of Islam. No serious efforts have been made by Muslims to reform their religion accordingly, either because they were incapable or afraid of the backlash from extremists. IS, Al Qaeda and other merchants of horror became magnets for radicals.
The problem of extremism in the Middle East is multilayered and deeply rooted, but one we need urgently to address upfront.
First, we must adopt effective policies that lift people out of misery; second, we need to create an environment of zero tolerance against human rights violations. Third, the Muslim world needs to establish a group of eminent Muslim thinkers to develop a blueprint for religious reformation to erase this streak of radicalism from Islam.
Islam has been with us for fourteen centuries. Like other civilizations it has had its highs and lows. We in the Middle East must pull ourselves up by the boot straps. We need to find a formula to live together in freedom and dignity and understand that violence is not a panacea but only ever begets more violence.
Minorities, many of which are subject to persecution, must be protected from the tyranny of the majority. Democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society are crucial in such a formula. The armies should go back to their barracks and the clergy back to their houses of worship. They should yield power to capable elected civilians.
But in all this we need support. A global mindset where we are all recognized as part of the same human family, free from any kind of discrimination, is key. We must grasp the fact that only free and prosperous societies enjoy stability. Importantly, we need to recognize that all our challenges are interlinked; conflicts, governance, development and so on.
We should initiate a Westphalia type conference with the participation of all major and regional powers, where all issues are addressed simultaneously with a view to work out a new regional security system based on dignity, equity, prosperity and nonviolence.
A “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East, financed by both the region and the international community, should be a cornerstone of this process to provide people with incentives and hope that a better life and human dignity, are within their grasp. Its central component should be human development with the priority focus on education, science and technology.
We are on the cusp of a momentous awakening. History tells us it is a long and bumpy road. This is the beginning and not the end.
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