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A Middle East at Christmas 2009?
This morning, I watched a BBC One programme where Fern Britton discussed with Tony Blair the importance of his Christian faith and its influence upon his decade-long political life as prime minister...

13 December   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... She also explored with him the vision for his London-based Faith Foundation and the way in which faith and reason could co-habit by occupying a public space that is beneficial for all humankind. I shall return to Mr Blair’s policies later in this article, but one sentence that seized me in this sotto voce conversation was when he told Fern Britton that Christmas is a return to the essence of our faith.

Indeed, as an awkward Christian myself, I think I understand the statement quite well, particularly now as we find ourselves in the second half of the Advent season. But I also think that ‘returning’ to the essence of one’s faith is in itself a constant struggle requiring prayer, discernment, contemplation and honesty coupled with an ability to separate the chaff from the wheat and to question one’s own overarching priorities in life in such a way that it favours life over death, compassion over coldness and success over failure. This occurs in our personal and family lives, as much as with our friends and colleagues, all the time. But my experience has taught me that it could also happen in the political field, and I would like to tease out those few thoughts today by reflecting upon the political conflicts of the Middle East and by sharing with my readers my short “wish-list” of how things could ‘return to their essence’ in the lives of some of the inhabitants in this troubled region. And today, I would largely confine myself to Israel-Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq - with an obiter dictum on Yemen.

Let me start off with Israel-Palestine. Having written substantively about this conflict over the past decade, I would like to summarise it today in a rather elemental way by referring solely to a theological call in the Kairos Palestine Document issued two days ago by a group of Palestinian Christians representing a variety of churches and church-related organisations.

This document essentially demanded an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and echoed a clarion call that was made by South African churches in the 1980’s during the height of the apartheid regime. Whilst admitting that Palestinians had reached a political ‘dead end’, the signatories of this document challenged the international community - including church leaders and politicians worldwide - on their questionable support of, and contribution to, the Palestinian struggle for freedom. The signatories claimed the call was made in a spirit of faith, hope and love, although their language was rather animated at times and their names - with notable exceptions - did not carry much political weight. But the document itself [a kairos or an opportunity] was spot-on when it stated that the current efforts in the Middle East are confined to managing the crisis rather than finding pertinent and long-term solutions - or as I have often articulated in conflict resolution terms, they paper over the cracks but do not address the cracks themselves. And as the UK-based Ekklesia think-tank reported in its own piece, the document decried the emptiness of the promises and pronouncements about peace in the region, reminding the world community of the separation wall built on Palestinian land, the blockade of Gaza, the issue of settlements, the sense of humiliation felt by Palestinians in the face of Israeli military might and political arrogance, the plight of refugees awaiting their right of return, of prisoners in Israeli gaols, as well as the lack of fundamental freedoms for the Palestinian people - including the freedom of worship. Underlying this litany of grievances was clearly the indictment that International law was being flouted by a world comity that had paralysed itself in the face of an unfolding Palestinian drama.

The document also adopted the familiar language of liberation theology when it affirmed that the Palestinian [and Christian] connection to this land is a natural right, not merely an ideological or theological question, and it rejected any use of the Bible to legitimise or support political options and positions that are based upon injustice. Moreover, it added that the logic of peaceful resistance is seen to be as much a right as a duty, with the potential to hasten the time of reconciliation, and then segued on - and here I felt much less comfortable about the frail moral absolute and inherent political canon of the assertion - that if there were no occupation, “there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.”

So my wish for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that this document would become a credible roadmap for peace amongst Palestinians and Israelis by focusing on justice and security in equal measure for both parties. No more land-grabs or gratuitous violence as evidenced only yesterday with the burning by settlers of the central mosque in the village of Kafr Yasuf in the northern West Bank region of Salfit. No more mutual killing and terrorism that denigrate the sanctity of all life. Rather, a genuine attempt to establish harmony amongst the two peoples and three faiths, although that could only be achieved with goodwill and good faith amongst the key protagonists as well as international key players - which would include the Quartet and the Arab League. In fact, in the words of a traditional song of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights which is being celebrated this week, is it not time to banish the darkness at long last with less dubious moratoriums, political spins or worse still with crocodile tears?

Now, what about Lebanon with all its confessional permutations, political intrigues and foreign agendas?
Over the past year, this small country has witnessed decisive parliamentary elections that yielded less-than-decisive results with the formation of a national consensus government bringing maladroitly together the majority and minority camps. Parliament also approved earlier this week a ministerial statement that defines the direction and parameters of the new government. Mind you, there are many people who are still diffident that Lebanon can ‘get its act together’ since so much that is at stake is controlled by outside actors. Lebanon continues to be willy-nilly a terrain for proxy wars - be they inter-Lebanese, Palestinian, American or French, Israeli, Syrian or Iranian, Saudi or Egyptian - and it is crucial for survival to ensure that the cedars regain their independence by re-acquiring their Lebanese identity, viability and purpose. Moreover, a further cursory look would also indicate that the Christians who once made up at least half the country have seen their numbers and political clout dwindle considerably through divisions, one-upmanship manoeuvres and gradual emigration.

In order to avoid dissensions, I would suggest that the cabinet under the premiership of Sheikh Sa’ad Al-Hariri should focus on two focal goals. The first one relates to the various UN Security Council Resolutions on Lebanon. After all, those international resolutions were accepted by all Lebanese political parties as they stress the right of the Lebanese state to control its whole territory and for the Lebanese army alone to bear arms. Therefore, the new cabinet faces a duty to ensure the protection of Lebanese independence and the strengthening of its state institutions. But before readers interject with an “we-know-where-he-is-going”, let me add that this does not necessarily entail falling out with Syria, removing article 6 on the issue of arms from the ministerial statement or waging a war against Hizbullah. After all, the political inter-state contacts between Lebanon and Syria are steadily growing, and a realist would add that national resistance is still a component that not only deters Israel but also helps keep the peace by avoiding confrontation. It is equally necessary to allow the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to reach its impartial judgment (albeit the judges will be hard-pressed in their decision), and for the national dialogue under the aegis of the president of the republic to continue tackling inter alia the issue of arms.

The second challenge that the government should take on board is the Palestinian issue. It is quite clear that a majority of the Lebanese do not want the Palestinians to be permanently settled or naturalised as this would upset the demographic balance of the country. Nor do they wish them to take over chunks of the economy, remain a security problem (as has been the case in some camps where armed groups have operated beyond the reach of the government), or impinge upon Lebanese sovereignty. This is explicable, but the Palestinians also need to be treated like human beings with civil and human rights (including work opportunities, home ownership, access to basic education and health services) so that they are not merely viewed as a security threat to be disarmed, but rather as a community entitled to live a dignified life until their national trauma of exile is resolved and they can exercise their right of return. In fact, this is what Ahmad Jibril, from the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), alluded to yesterday in an interview with Ghassan bin Jeddo on Hiwar Maftouh (Open Debate) on Al-Jazeera TV. He stipulated that only a convergence of the security, humanitarian and political issues would ensure an agreement between the Lebanese authorities and Palestinians in Lebanon. Given that many of the armed Palestinians outside the camps are located in Beirut’s suburbs in the Nehmeh Hills as well as the Beka’a Valley, and in the training camps of Sultan Yaqoub, Kfar Zabad and Qusaya, his words should be studied by all politicians. In fact, what counts now in Palestinian terms in Lebanon is the re-building of the Nahr el Bared camp as well as the development of a new governance system so that the camps can be managed by the Palestinians themselves through popular committees, but with security (and therefore sovereignty) primarily in the hands of the Lebanese authorities. As a new relationship is forged between the Lebanese and Palestinians that oversteps the painful fault-lines of history, the continued efforts of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) to address and improve tangible problems related to Palestinian living conditions, personal legal status, and work opportunities becomes invaluable in the medium term.

My wish for Lebanon is that its politicians labour to represent the wishes of their constituencies, and that their schisms do not lead to political initiatives that only serve to weaken the country whilst purportedly strengthening personal fiefdoms or sowing discord and violence. This applies essentially to the Christians as they are the weaker side with the more critical divisions when compared with the Shi’i, Sunni or Druze communities. Moreover, I also wish the different countries involved in the Lebanese geo-political tug-of-war to stop using Lebanon as a training ground for their confrontations. After all, would they be happy if the wars they have been waging on Lebanese soil were transported onto their own soils?

A Lebanon concerned with national sovereignty must also think creatively of turning to its advantage the regional and international yearning to preserve a peaceful country. So I hope that the new Hezbollah political document, unveiled on 30th November by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, will be a fresh departure in defining relations with other parties. I am keenly aware that there are political pundits who believe that this new document - succeeding the one from 1985 - is defending Hizbullah’s parallel state without abandoning its ideological principles or strategic objectives whilst simultaneously forcing its priorities on Lebanon’s state and society. Yet, it would be counter-intuitive if the Lebanonisation of this significant movement would buttress the notion of resistance as its sole guiding principle on the Lebanese arena. Devoid of collective responsibility, this would eventually freeze the whole country and wreak further havoc without exception upon all eighteen confessions.

Finally, let me focus on Iraq as it struggles between modernity and democracy on the one hand, and factionalism tinged with large doses of bloody violence on the other. What is my wish for this particular country?

I would like to start off by ushering into my article once more the interview Tony Blair gave to Fern Britton today. I do this because we in Britain are now witnessing the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war as the latest attempt to get to the truth of the war that was waged in Iraq. The former prime minister is expected to appear before this committee early next year in order to give [public] evidence to this august body and explain why he used the WMD as a causus belli for his war with Iraq.

As a former supporter of Tony Blair who was let down by his myriad subterfuges let alone by his sycophancy toward the Bush Administration and his gross political misjudgements, I re-discovered a new face to this complex barrister turned politician - one that is perhaps a tad more thoughtful and introspective, less arrogant or certain about his own being, and even admitting in a rather roundabout way that he had erred in using vainly the WMD in the case against Iraq. Only today, Sir Ken Macdonald, former director of Public Prosecutions and barrister in the London Chambers, mounted a swingeing attack against Blair by adding that our British troops are warriors who were “cast carelessly into death’s way by a Prime Minister lost in self-aggrandisement and a governing class too closed to speak truth to power”. Perhaps I wouldn’t presume to go so far and would state instead that I too am against appeasement and procrastination so long as it is not a pick-and-choose commodity, and that Blair might have sold us the wrong line but thought that he was doing the right thing albeit for entirely the wrong reasons. Yet, even this line of reasoning cannot exonerate him as there is thin line in politics between mendacity and narcissism, and his overall Middle East record disallows me to trust his motivations let alone endorse his judgments.

But having stated my case, let me also add that a few things catch my attention in Iraq today. Starting with the obvious one, I would refer to the horrific bombings that have plagued parts of the country after a two-year lull. They have further shaken the security of the country and led toward more instability. But the bombings mask the sobering fact that politics and governance remain dysfunctional. For instance, politicians have made little progress on the principal constitutional issues cleaving them - particularly on how to share or divide power and oil wealth, or how to settle territorial disputes - particularly in Kirkuk which remains the real prize for Arabs and Kurds where emotions run highest and oil reserves are richest.

The same is also true of the Ninewa province and its capital Mosul. Caught largely between Arabs and Kurds, one comes across ethnic and religious minorities in whom the central government has invested little interest. While true that Ninewa is majority Arab with a strong Kurdish minority, it also counts a number of smaller groups - Christians, Yazidis, Turkomans, Shabaks, Akai - that admittedly comprise a mere 10% of the population but are nonetheless concentrated in disputed borderlands between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. They have suffered a disproportionate share of ethnic attacks, as well as the hardship caused by war, occupation and inter-communal violence. At times co-opted, at others threatened by one political camp or another, they fight for sheer survival today and have become vulnerable pawns in a contest that often sees them as little more than cannon fodder. The recent initiative to re-build St Elijah’s Assyrian Monastery just south of Mosul - destroyed in 2003 at the outset of the invasion - is one small step toward helping bolster those smaller communities.

But in the midst of those weighty issues, my most urgent wish list for Iraq is that the latest compromise on the electoral law that required many rounds of voting in parliament let alone much horse-trading would herald new parliamentary elections in March 2010 so they would help stabilise the political topography of Iraq and encourage the drawdown of US troops.

In the midst of those three important axes of conflict, I would also briefly like to draw the attention of readers to two simultaneous wars raging in Yemen. One is pitting the central government in Sana’a against the Houthi rebels of Zaydi Shi’i background in the northern Yemeni provinces of Sa’ada and Hajjah - resulting in a huge humanitarian disaster (as evidenced by the refugees in the al-Mazraq camp). The other is between the central government and separatists in southern provinces such as Shabwa or the Radfan region who are opposed to the unity deal of 1990 that incorporated the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and the southern port of Aden into the present unitary state. But roughly speaking, this is almost a proxy war between Iran and Arab countries: Yemen is the latest card to try and manage the emerging Shi’i-Sunni tensions and reflects Saudi Arabian and other Arab fears that Yemen could also turn into a haven for al-Qa’eda terrorists.

So what will it be then? A Middle East that helps recapture the essence of our faith and undergirds the fundamentals of truth and honesty at a time when the three Abrahamic faiths are celebrating their feasts? Or a hoax that will lead nowhere so that 2010 will start and end with the same recycled arguments, pretexts, impasses, spins, mendacities and perils of 2009?

A Chinese proverb claims that “the finger that points at the moon is not the moon”. My overall wish today is that politicians of all colours stop staring helplessly at their political fingers and focus instead on looking at the moon itself. But would they?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   13 December


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