Polarization: The Greatest Challenge Facing the Middle East

10 March 2015

The irrefutable law of physics faces a severe challenge by an insuppressible rule of the sociopolitical order. While opposite poles attract each other under the former, they repel to a point of mutual destruction under the latter. Thousands who have perished in the clash of cold war poles, today pale in significance in the face of the brutality with which racial, religious and sectarian poles are seeking to eliminate each other in the Middle East. Polarization has become the greatest challenge facing the region.

Throughout history the Middle East witnessed countless carnage. Religious conflict always played its part. There was the desire for conquest, plunder, political and economic power. But in spite of all the violence, there were times when peoples of different faiths and ethnicity managed to live side by side in relative peace. Indeed, there was discrimination but those were not the days of the Copenhagen criteria.

At present, the region is once again going through a most violent period. In Iraq monthly death toll has for long been in the hundreds. Two hundred thousand Syrians have lost their lives. Yemen is in turmoil. Egypt is far from peace and stability. According to some Libya is already a failed state. Dislocation, starvation and disease are widespread. Misery reigns everywhere. Behind their façade of stability and affluence Gulf States are increasingly anxious. ISIL’s appetite for crime and destruction seem insatiable.

Let alone democracy, any kind of peaceful coexistence requires a minimum amount of tolerance. “Tolerance”, though widely used in a positive sense, has never been my favorite word because it has this “tolerating pain” dimension. I have always preferred to speak of “respect for the other and his/her point of view” which also embodies compromise, give-and-take.

In the entire Middle East, unfortunately, the prevailing mentality is not even one of toleration but winner-take-all. This is what we witness in Syria where coming to the table to talk about stopping the bloodshed is seen as a concession. Whereas it should be clear to all the parties, at least by now, that there is never going to be a military solution. Differences are of course diverse and extreme. They extend from religion, ethnicity, world outlook and politics to culture. Furthermore, they are increasingly characterized by an element of hate. The world witnessed similar drama during the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the wounds are yet to be healed nearly two decades since the Dayton Agreement. And that was in Europe.

This winner-take-all mentality even extends to the practice of democracy in Turkey where an election victory resulting in parliamentary majority is interpreted as a political blank check. Why then do we have constitutions? What about the social contract which defines a country and its people? What about the very fundamentals of democracy which need to remain in place regardless of election results?

What is the solution? The sad reality is that there are no quick remedies. Polarization, once it takes its hold is not easy to cure. Recovery depends on generously administered doses of democratic leadership, foresight and an ability to follow inclusive policies. Politicians in the Middle East can make a start by looking at the Turkish example with its ups and downs, achievements and failures. For those with shattered lives in Libya, Syria and Yemen, Turkey may seem like an island of stability. Yet we also suffer, though not as acutely, from the same disease of polarization and our homework is far from over.

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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