image of jerusalem 2015

The loud silence of deadened hopes?
I was having breakfast in a Scandinavian hotel a fortnight ago when I spotted a man in his mid-thirties coming in for his breakfast too. The man looked rather Middle Eastern to me, but he also had a diffident demeanour to him that I found strangely moving.

15 June   |   2015   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

His body language and mannerisms spelt a resilient mixture of weariness, unease, perhaps even discomfort or nervousness, which were coupled with what came across as a dogged determination to get on with the task of the day. All this was either a figment of my own runaway imagination or real enough, and so I decided to say hello and see whether he would respond to my opening gambit.

The man - I did not dwell on his confessional or sectarian affiliations - was indeed from the MENA region. He had been invited by the local university to share his experiences and interpretations on the unbridled violence that has swept into many different countries in this amorphous region since 2010 - with the key stations today being of course Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

Here was a man willing to talk to other men and women about his ordeals and those of his friends and neighbours. Was it meant to be a cathartic exercise for him? I doubt it. I suspect he was genuinely trying to correct some misconceptions about the ‘wars’ in the MENA region and was also gripping the hope that the world might act at long last in order to end this nightmare in his homeland and in adjoining countries.

But will his academic interventions prove helpful? I am frankly sick to the teeth of the prolix statements, interviews and social media self-promotions that purport to dissect - ‘knowingly’ - the dehumanising let alone murderous attacks by the Syrian regime and its acolytes or else by Daesh fighters and their allies. No less fed up am I with the ravages of Iraq and the real possibility that - not unlike Syria - this country might well be broken into three lots. And Yemen, a country that had consistently been one of the poorest in the region since its unification in 1990, faces large-scale destruction from Saada to Taez. I am not of course forgetting Libya with its two parliaments, two governments and myriad militias or else other countries that are disempowering their populace in more silent but equally sinister ways such as skewed judicial verdicts or the cowing of citizens with prison and torture.

The dilemma seems self-evident to me: bloodthirsty dictators are hell-bent on staying in power no matter the consequences whereas terrorists and thugs are regressing the region into the penumbra of seventh-century religious practices! Dictators and terrorists are collaborating hand-in-glove in their joint objective to destroy the middle ground. Just look at the oil-for-electricity deals allegedly struck between Damascus and Der Ezzor. Or else, observe how some politicians and religious leaders are stoking the fires of the historical Sunni versus Shi’i discord in the aftermath of the death of the Prophet Muhammad. And we - the world outside this dusty geographical space - are either too clever and are letting them get on with killing each other in view of our geostrategic interests or else are gullibly watching them destroy each other’s communities, treasures and long-term hopes. Either way, we are surely responsible for a scenario that has passed the point of no-return. After all, we can no longer use whatever software apps we possess in our political iPods to turn the clocks back to 2010 again.

A few days ago, I read another inspiring op-ed by Rami Khouri. He juxtaposed Lech Walesa and the Gdańsk events of the 1980’s in Poland with the killing in 2005 of the Lebanese-French philosopher Samir Kassir who incarnated the collective hopes of many men and women in Lebanon and the broader region. Rami wanted to stress that change takes time and patience. But the difference between Poland and the MENA region is that the Polish politicians gave in to the popular groundswell that wanted to end Soviet-style dominion whereas parts of MENA have already morphed into a modern-day mini-apocalypse.

And yet in the face of such dreary news, many of us continue to pontificate, state, perorate and hold conferences, briefings and powwows. In the meantime, some of our political and religious establishments play games of chess with the lives of the men, women and children of this region who are already terrified enough if not utterly deprived of hope, penniless and displaced as refugees surviving as soulless zombies. Alas, do we forget at times that the MENA region has become a series of battlefields where chlorine gas and barrel bombs dropped indiscriminately on civilians goes hand-in-hand with beheadings and ethnic cleansing? What happened to the UNSCR 2139 which demanded an end to the use of barrel bombs? As Bente Scheller, director of the MENA office in Beirut for the Heinrich Böll Foundation asked in her recent piece, who defines humanitarian law, international norms and conventions? Alas, we are no longer actors: we are turning into mere spectators.

But can we afford to do so? After all, the region is going through these shockwaves not merely because of a clash of wills between those men and women who seek freer societies and their rulers who refuse to yield an inch. Nor is it solely because of the fallout on the successor to the Prophet Muhammad that has suddenly emerged anew. History has a more aggregate reality to it that also includes years of Western colonialism, Arab hypersomnia and - yes, let me add it although it has been shelved awhile - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Again, I recall the man in the hotel having his breakfast - timidly, tremulously and with a clear expression of unknowing that defined to my mind a loud silence inhabiting his deadened hopes. I wish I could read his real thoughts or fathom his innermost feelings. Has he lost relatives amidst the bombs that explode from the skies and from suicide bombers alike or from the death sentences delivered on judicial conveyor belts? What does the future hold for this man, his partner and family, his friends and acquaintances? Is he destined to put up with more soliloquy from those who examine, empathise, recite from their holy books or appear on television and then dust off the inconvenience and go back to sleep? They are not living the pain, are they?

Let me be clear: my writing today is pointedly a cri de coeur than anything more ambitious or scientific. However, despite all the pain of the moment across the MENA region, the tragedy that angers me is not what is happening today. Of course I worry about the perversion of the rule of law and the abuse of power to say nothing of the murderous rampages that are perhaps the food for many future ICC-led preliminary examinations and potential subsequent investigations. But in some pathological sense, I can somehow process all the destruction as it conjures up in my mind images of, say, Coventry or Dresden fast-forwarded to 2015.

The more harrowing tragedy will come when the fighting ceases - as I suppose it inevitably will one day - and the rebuilding of human lives as well as concrete edifices begins in earnest. Who will take care of the millions of refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey? What will happen to countries that have become hollow carcasses? How many 1947 Marshall Plans will we manage to put together and how many modern-day Trumans or Roosevelts will be ready to wade into the rubble?

Meanwhile, a number of MENA Church hierarchs - including Gregory III Lahham (Melkite Greek Catholic), Bechara Raï (Maronite), Ignatius III Younan (Syriac Catholic), John X Yazigi (Greek Orthodox) and Ignatius Ephrem II (Syriac Orthodox) - met in Damascus over a week ago to consider the existential challenges facing their communities amidst the violence tearing across biblical lands. As I have often written or else shared with colleagues, church leaders need to assume their pastoral duties whilst resisting the temptation to play politics. Given the polarising circumstances that the whole region is going through, they must show the prophetic courage to speak the whole truth. In so doing, I believe that they will shift the discourse away from one of an alliance of minorities and re-affirm instead that the Christians of the MENA region are not a community apart from all others but are indigenous and rightful members of the larger Arab Muslim society in which they live and witness today.

“So what happens next?” I ask myself. And I dread answering my own question.

This piece appeared first as a Comment on the NOW Lebanon portal.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2015   |   15 June


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