16 January 2015
The terrorist attacks in Paris were called the 9/11 of France. Then, there was the Unity Rally, a remarkable display of national and international solidarity.
The question, however, remains: What now?
During and after these dastardly attacks, hundreds of people have attempted to analyze the problem. In view of inherent sensitivities they were careful with their language. The words/expressions they most used were the following: the Middle East, alienation, Islamic radicalism, exclusion, jihadism, isolation and “la banlieue”, suburban areas where most of France’s Muslims live.
To me, these are like reference points which help charter a course.
The preamble of the UNESCO Constitution reads:
“… since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed…”
This is a fundamentally correct observation. Yet, “constructing the defenses of peace” cannot be an abstract project. It needs to be accompanied by concrete improvements, particularly in the lives of people. In the Middle East, unfortunately, hopes of justice, fair and equal opportunity, decent distribution of income, democracy, respect for human rights, personal security have remained frustrated for decades and the region has been trapped in a vicious circle where internal and external problems have fed on one another creating a climate not conducive to peace and progress. International community’s failure to resolve outstanding conflicts has provided regional governments with a useful smoke-screen to avoid political and economic reform.
The West has failed to meet expectations of the peoples of the region. The invasion of Iraq has further complicated the picture. Internal dissatisfaction and the widespread feeling that the West is not acting with justice have resulted in an ever deepening cultural fault line. Western efforts to promote democracy have come to be viewed with suspicion. New military interventions by the West, either under a Security Council resolution or the cover of the “coalition of the willing” type of arrangement have not been well-received.
The perception in the West has not been favorable either. 9/11 And the following acts of terror committed in European countries, the participation of locals in these attacks not only strengthened fears of Islamic radicalism but also turned many local Moslems into suspects. Paris attacks will no doubt galvanize doubts and fears.
Thus the West and the wider Middle East now face a crisis of confidence stemming from irreconcilable values.
How to break this vicious circle?
In the aftermath of the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoon crisis in in September 2005, a number of projects were launched to promote cultural dialogue such as the “Alliance of Civilizations”, a Spanish-Turkish initiative. The “Report of the High Level Group” prepared under this project put forward two complementary methods to address the problem: Encourage intercultural dialogue and more importantly, resolve outstanding regional conflicts in the broad Middle East, prominently among them the Arab-Israeli dispute. That was eight years ago, before problems multiplied.
The Alliance of Civilizations and other similar projects helped to reduce tensions at the time but have made no real difference on core issues. They cannot.
Since a head-on international approach to the present challenges is not in sight, governments will concentrate, in the first place, on security and political/cultural damage control. This in itself is a huge task but it has to be accompanied with a long-term effort to bridge fundamental differences.
Such an effort may consist of a series of parallel endeavors:
On the part of Muslim countries:
• Soul searching beyond the usual public discourse,
• Stopping sectarian strife,
• Political and economic reform to promote democracy, human rights and to ensure higher living standards,
• Taking a clear stand in words and deeds against radicalism, terrorism and putting an end to the “the snake that does not touch me can live a hundred years for all I care…”kind of mentality,
• Giving some thought to embracing secularism as the ultimate guarantee of religious freedom and political stability,
• In depth educational reform extending to the supervision of private schools/courses providing religious education,
• Mobilizing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to act as a forum for discussion and follow-up action.
On the part of Western countries:
• Soul searching about relations with Moslem countries,
• An fair approach to regional problems rising above self-interest,
• Showing compassion for the loss of innocent life in the broad Middle East,
• Addressing the problem of integration in such a way as to enhance the sense of belonging of Muslim minorities; eliminating the risk of isolation and alienation,
• Preventing a backlash against minority Moslem populations.
And on the part of all:
• A genuine joint effort to resolve regional conflicts,
• Reaching agreement on the parameters of integration of the Muslim communities in the West and their relationship with their countries of origin,
• An honest, no-holds-barred dialogue on all of the foregoing.
What are the chances of success? I think very low. But even the launching of a honest discussion will be a step forward. This depends first and foremost on political leaders avoiding inflammatory language at this critical juncture.
I should add that “leading by example” could have been a less costly approach to bridging the intercultural gap had the opportunity been seized in good time. Turkey moving closer and closer to EU membership could provide that example. Regrettably, due to bigotry on both sides this is no longer the case.