Whither the Middle East?

Authors' note: This blog post is part two of a two-part series. Read part one: "A Middle Eastern House of Cards."

Great uncertainty hovers over discussions of the shape of the new order that will emerge from the violence and chaos sweeping through the Middle East today. The old order, unnaturally born from the Sykes-Picot Agreement 100 years ago, is coming to an end, dealt a death blow by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and alternative visions for the region have proved misguided.

Today, four countries -- Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen -- have effectively ceased to function as states. Most of their geographic land mass lies beyond the control of a central government. Sectarianism and ethnic identities have hollowed out any sense of nationhood in the former Ottoman territories that Britain and France carved up after World War I.

Countries not "created" a century ago by European colonialists, such as Turkey, Iran and Egypt, though not without their problems, possess a stronger sense of shared history and tradition and have so far escaped a similar implosion. But Turkey and Iran are non-Arab states with their own aspirations for civilizational and regional leadership, and the struggle for dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the ancient Persia, is and will be a driver of change for smaller and weaker states.

Some lessons for the future:

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The aspiration for democracy

The past 100 years provides some critical lessons in nationhood and governance. The first lesson comes from the Arab Spring: The people of the region do aspire to liberation from autocracy and for self-rule. But while history, including recent events, shows street demonstrations can overthrow tyrannical regimes, establishing democratic government will be a harder task, especially with those human rights we beneficiaries of "liberal democracy" regard as essential to a just political order.

Fostering a democratic culture

Building the institutions of democracy will require fostering a sense of shared citizenship above sectarian affiliations and a healthy, respectful exchange in every aspect of life between government and the governed will. This will be a generational effort to allow for the time for these institutions to grow roots, establish themselves and become a normal part of the national landscape.

Lebanon tried this route after its civil war, but regional troubles have thwarted the effort without quite killing it. After the 1995 synod for Lebanon, Pope John Paul II gave his endorsement to this process in his apostolic exhortation "A New Hope for Lebanon" (1997).

Civil society, whether human rights organizations, anti-discrimination groups or women-empowerment organizations, has a vital role to play in a democracy. The Middle East is flush with such organizations, but they are often regarded with suspicion and antagonism by governments, often accused of "colluding" with foreign powers. These groups have a vital role as nongovernmental watchdogs in a democratic society.

Accommodating religious and cultural differences

With religious and cultural differences, the source of so many tensions, preserving civic culture depends on creating a convivencia among subcultures and religious sects. The ancient cities of the region -- Damascus, Alexandria, Beirut, Istanbul (Constantinople) -- have at various times presented models of a flourishing intergroup life. They can do so again.

Two steps may facilitate such intergroup peace. The first is to create mechanisms for inclusion of various groups within broadly democratic political structures. This could involve, for example, senates with proportional representation or federal systems, like the one Vice President Joe Biden proposed for Iraq composed of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions.

The second is interreligious and/or civilizational dialogue. In the case of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, both are in order. Turkey, representing still a different culture, might facilitate an Iranian (Persian)-Saudi (Arab)/Shiite-Sunni dialogue.

Turkey is sponsor of a civilizational dialogue at the United Nations. Turkish scholars played a leading role in 2007's "A Common Word," which brought about agreement among an unprecedented number of Islamic sects, including several regarded until that time as heretical. Finally, the widespread Gulen Movement based in Turkey has dedicated itself to peaceful interreligious dialogue.

Freedom of expression

Equally important is that new political and civic institutions be sensitive to and reflect the unique religious and cultural characteristics of the nations they are in without losing national solidarity to sectarian, tribal and ethnic groups. Transplanting Western democracy cookie-cutter style to a part of the world with very different traditions, beliefs and value systems is a recipe for failure.

There is more than one model of democracy, however. Nations like Spain provide autonomy for regions with historic cultural and linguistic differences. The United Kingdom is in a process of devolution along historic cultural lines. Autonomy, especially in cultural matters, when it doesn't descend into chauvinism is one way to promote a common life.

Freedom of the press, especially printed media, is one of the few relatively independent institutions in the Middle East. Although journalists themselves are often victims of random arrests and even violence, countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan have a lively opposition media critical of the power structures. One benchmark test of a truly free press will be when satirical news shows such as Jon Stewart's are part of the norm, and governments are not so defensive and insecure as to be threatened by satire.

Freedom of religion

There is also more than one way to promote freedom of religion. French laicité and American separation of church and state are two approaches; the UK model, in which there is an established church but freedom of religion and state support for religious schools and social service agencies, is still a third.

The countries of the Middle East have a long way to go on this front. But there are local models of religious freedom in the Gulf States, in Lebanon and Jordan that could be adapted in the transformation of religiously repressive states like Saudi Arabia or divided ones like Iraq.

Oman is a Gulf country not many Americans are familiar with, but it is one that provides a positive example of religious tolerance in a region where political machinations, whether from outside powers or locally, have aggravated religious tensions.

In Oman, while Islam is the official religion, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha'is and others, enjoy freedom of worship. In fact, Oman's basic law protects religious freedom, and discrimination based on religion is prohibited.

Until 2009, Lebanese national ID cards, as in many other Arab countries, identified the "religious affiliation" of the cardholder, such as Shiite if you were of that sect of Islam. This embedding of sectarianism in one of the very symbols of the state structure itself, a national ID card, has weakened affiliation with a national citizenship and strengthened sectarian affiliations instead.

Other sectarian policies, such as the reserving of certain political and military positions for members of a certain religious, ethnic or political sect, have been equally damaging. What is required instead is a merit-based system where advancement in state institutions is based strictly on performance and capability, and equally for men and women.

Blueprints for the future

The Arab Human Development Reports, a series of United Nations-sponsored reports launched in 2003, provide an excellent blueprint for comprehensive societal reform in order to foster the human development necessary for a human renaissance in the region.

In 2004, Arab civil society organizations and governments issued a declaration calling for action "to deepen the foundations of democracy and consultation, and to broaden participation in political life and decision-making, in tandem with the rule of law, equality among citizens, respect for human rights, freedom of expression and ... safeguards for the independence of the judiciary."

The people of the Middle East are hungry for change, as the Arab Spring showed. God willing, before armed conflict wreaks more havoc, pioneers of peace will open paths ahead with building the condition for dialogue, building the institutions for multicultural, multireligious states, and for retrieving the ideal of equal citizenship, shared nationality and honorable participation in the community of nations.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]


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