image of jerusalem 2016

And so it continues … in 2016!
With many fine wishes and an array of dazzling fireworks that celebrated the basic goodness of life, we ‘citizens’ of the world in all seven continents have shut our doors on another year - 2015.

3 January   |   2016   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Our readymade but ephemeral resolutions are now readying themselves for the stark challenges of another year, and our cyberspace, let alone radio or TV stations, astrologers and chat rooms, are instructing us about the nature of events in 2016.

Far be it for me to lumber my hardy readers so early in the fresh year with any intellectual somersaults or penetrating analyses. I will simply seize a few moments to look at the MENA region - my geographical alma mater - in a global and somewhat HIGNFY (Have I Got New News For You) format. I am no Ian Hislop but I am a fan of this master of satire and so shall do my very Armenian best. Having worked in the MENA region - in its politics and second-track negotiations, its inter-faith and ecumenical powwows - for well over two decades, I can perhaps claim few words alongside those experts who have been to the region a few times and already consider themselves its veteran oracles.

  • My first point focuses - perhaps understandably given my work with many Christian and ecumenical organisations - on the Arab Christian communities in the MENA region and the plethora of statements issued by clerics and politicians alike about the dangerous existential challenges facing local Christians since 2011. I would tend to dispute the raison d’être behind those passionate rhetorical perorations because they are not entirely accurate. To start with, those numerically “minority” Christian communities are still present and witnessing in the region after two millennia. Equally importantly, the challenges facing them did not begin in 2011 irrespective of the ugly nature of ‘jihadi’ movements and their recent persecution of many communities. Those challenges are decades old and were with us since at least 2003 in Iraq and well before too. We need to be more honest with ourselves and also with others.
  • The counter-revolution against those uprisings in support of the freedoms we all aspire for as human beings is well under way. Not only in Syria (and hence by proxy also in Lebanon) where the Russian Orthodox Church even blesses the military efforts of the Russian army fighting against anybody who is not siding with President Bashar Assad and his decimation of both human beings and state institutions. Look at Egypt where censorship and state control are being enforced with relentless harshness in every corner of society - from the press and social media to academic institutions and grassroots NGO’s - at levels that exceed those exercised by the erstwhile Mubarak regime. Or even in the Arabian / Persian Gulf where some of the revanchist countries are snuffing out any form of visual expression or fundamental freedoms that dares challenge their perennial hold on power and wealth.
  • We in the West are in a state of retrenchment too: faced with the dangers within our own societies, some countries have decided to trade the ideals of freedom that we fought for in two big wars for the sake of an elusive sense of security. This is made manifest by our pallid response to the oppressive measures undertaken by our allies in the MENA region against their peoples. But equally against our own societies where we succumb to the blackmail of terror organisations that have frightened us so much that we suspend constitutions, impose emergency measures, monitor our every click of the keyboard and ride roughshod over our personal liberties. A looming post-Orwellian danger that could come back to haunt us.
  • To win the war against terrorist organisations like Daesh / ISIL, we also need to win the war against the autocracies that have furnished the incubators for such movements. Just assume we wipe out Daesh in 2016: does any policy-maker with strategic nous think that this would be the end of terrorism and the resumption of the status quo ante worldwide? If the political conditions and social inequities that helped fester such religious ideologies are not tackled at source, the problem will - Hydra-like - manifest itself again in a few short years.
  • A final realisation that seems to have escaped us is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a galvanising element for the majority of the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Starting with the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 and ending up with the current stasis in political initiatives or good will and hence the consequent spate of stabs and killings, Palestine is being mothballed again. Pursuing the fabled - and impractical - politics of the ostrich by ignoring this long-festering conflict is perilous. A thought: if we had shown enough backbone to resolve this conflict decades ago by coercing Israel and the Palestinians to forgo their delusions of grandeur and strike a deal that acknowledged the concepts of natural justice, international legitimacy and mutual security, might we not have spared ourselves some of the mess that is the MENA since the early 2000’s?

By nature and legal training, I am cautious of politicians and clerics alike because many of them either tend to speak from both sides of their mouths or else are far too quixotic with their thoughts! So if I really want to find out what is happening in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco or other MENA countries, I often hold my most helpful conversations with cab drivers or at popular cafés as I drink Arabic coffee and play backgammon. They often know (and analyse) better the ills of their own societies than many politicians, clerics, pundits or journalists sitting in rarefied and often self-absorbed environments. Those are the men (and alas the MENA region still remains largely patriarchal in its political or clerical corridors) who define my compass, and the message being told by them is that 2016 will not be too different. I hear from them that - irrespective of the multi-state coalitions striking Syria, Iraq and Yemen or despite the possible liberation of Ramadi and even Raqqa or Mosul - the deep anger within society coupled with the will for reform remain undimmed across the region despite the deep fatigue and enormous casualties.

In May 1916, a centennial ago, a French and a British diplomat looked at a map and drew a somewhat arbitrary line between the towns of Acre and Kirkuk. The Sykes-Picot agreement that created boundaries and sovereignties might not have been entirely bad given the on-the-ground realities then. But it traumatised the peoples of the region, and the memory of this line still haunts MENA politics. So what can we do today to avoid further traumas? Here is my two-pence worth of wisdom: unless we acknowledge the causal nexus of terror from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Daesh in Syria and then act on them, the MENA will remain in a state of ebullition and we in the West will not douse those fires simply by delegating our problems to them as we did in the last century.

But will Ian Hislop have reacted similarly on HIGNFY and as editor of the Private Eye magazine, or would he have been a tad chary with his acerbic wit? That is for him to answer, but I am irate that we have transitively plunged ourselves into such a mess today because we were full of tactics but lacking strategies. We lacked imagination, and we lacked gumption, so will we wake up in 2016?

Happy New Year: may my fears prove to be unfounded … although I do have my misgivings!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2016   |   3 January


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