Winning the Peace, Ending the Chaos
Two years since the invasion of Iraq, the world is still wrestling with the question of peace and stability. The invasion has not only forcefully resituated the issue of Middle East turmoil on the center of the global stage, but has given a reason for people in different parts of the globe to rethink global political priorities and the urgency for avoiding catastrophic consequences. Indeed, never before in history have people shown a keener interest in tackling the roots of the Middle East problems. Even President George W. Bush, in his speech to the United Nation on November 6, 2003, had to recognize issue when he stated, “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
This new thinking in Washington, and certainly in other capitals, underscores the fact that the turmoil in the Middle East has global reach and consequences far beyond the region. It highlights the reality that political and economic repression in the region is not a new but, rather, a long existing yet avoided reality. This reality is an outcome of the intertwining of complex international and local forces.
There has been a worldwide grass roots consensus that the chronic Middle East problems have poisoned the relationships between the West and the Muslim societies and seriously endangered world peace and safety. It becomes more apparent than ever that the gap of mistrust and suspicions is steadily growing. Indeed, the enduring aspect of the problems has effectively connected individuals from all parts of the world into networks of groups who have joined hands in promoting and fueling a clash of civilizations.
Over the last four decades there have been various unsuccessful attempts to address the Middle East problems. Chief among them are the Camp David Agreement during the Carter administration, the Oslo Agreement, and the Road Map. These initiatives, along with others, have failed miserably and, in fact, contributed to deepening mistrust. The September 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq underscore the fact that violent approaches to global concerns, camouflaged as protecting national security or religion duties, further intensify human suffering and world instability. A casual survey of the world political scene demonstrates that irresponsible acts and policies have resulted in numerous deaths and tragic events. This is more apparent in the Middle East where people are emotionally drained, culturally and psychologically alienated, and economically and politically oppressed. Thus, as recent years have shown, the region has become a fertile ground for extremism and a primary source for global instability.
Middle East experts and responsible international observers have warned that the conspicuous failure of the above mentioned attempts stems from the simultaneous interplay of politics, religion, and business interests. This interplay has prevented the prevailing world powers from genuinely tackling the roots of the Middle East problems. Consequently, much of the discourse in the Western World, particularly in the U.S., has become a dialogue among those who have preconceived ideas, irrespective of the facts, their historical context, and people’s aspirations. This has left the majority of the people in the region bewildered, frustrated, and hopeless. It should be mentioned that Europe, in general, is much more aware than its American counterpart of the root of the problems. Their voices, however, are often ignored.
The current events in the region (e.g., the election in Iraq and Palestine), along with the repeated public commitment by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair for a democratic and peaceful solution to Middle East problems, offer a historical opportunity. The lingering fear, however, among the people in the region is that their aspirations for democratic transformation, freedom, and safety will be ignored by the West. This is a powerful reminder of the superpowers’ failure to act upon their promises. In Iraq, for example, President Bush, before the invasion, promised the Iraqis that Iraq would be for Iraqis and they, not any power, would determine their destiny through open elections. When General Garner proposed to act upon this promise, he indicated that he had received a phone call from the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, informing him that he was to be replaced. His replacement, Paul Bremer, introduced a caucus system, instead of an open election. When the Iraqis went to the street in protest and demanded open general elections in late 2003 or early 2004, Bremer reluctantly changed his mind, but postponed the election until January 2005. Previously, President Bush senior had called for the Iraqis in 1991 to begin an uprising against Saddam Hussein. When they did, they were left alone to be slaughtered by Saddam. Similarly, when Briton invaded Iraq during the WWI, it proclaimed in 1914, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” When the Iraqis asked for freedom, the occupying power used forceful suppression.
One of the most overlooked issues in the discourse on the Middle East is the fact that the Arab World, from Morocco to Iraq, since the eighteenth century, has been subjected to Western colonization and invasion. The area was arbitrary divided into countries and protectorates. The colonization and subsequent invasions have had a powerful emotional impact that has influenced and shaped the political outlook of the Arab people. Seldom discussed in the West, however, is how the Arab and Muslim people have reacted to this fact and developed a link between their persistence calamity under their own authoritarian governments and the Western colonial ventures.
In politics, like in business, fruitful and long –term productive relationships cannot be established in an environment of mistrust and domination. While Europe has made constructive efforts and come to terms with its colonial legacy, the U.S., of late, seems to consider its venture abroad as a virtue. This trend has been solidified since the sudden rise and active participation of Evangelical Christians in politics in the early 1980s and their alliance with the Hawkish in Washington, the neoconservatives. Since then, religious words have been consistently infused in political discourse and foreign policy. Consequently, it has become impossible to tell where policy ends and religion begins. In the case of Iraq, in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense (2002) accentuated three priorities: security of Israel, invading Iraq, and reforming Islam. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, stated, “I first visited Israel in 2000. I already then felt that I [was] returning home despite the fact that this was a place I [had] never visited. I have a deep affinity with Israel.” David Klinghoffer, writing in the influential Forward in April 2004, argued that the Bible describes Iraq as the land of lies and that our involvement in the conflict there is no less than the struggle of truth against lies. He further asserted that both the neoconservatives and President Bush were following divine order in the pursuit of the war.
In all probability, injecting religious sentiment and prophecies in foreign policy discourse gives the impression that policymakers adhere to the “ends justify the means” formula. This adherence restricts dialogue and possibilities. Furthermore, it certainly fuels extremism in many parts of the world and provides justification for military ventures abroad. Indeed, international affairs experts have documented that the U.S. support for the Saudi ruling family and its considerable assistance to Muslim fighters in Afghanistan were instrumental in creating an environment simultaneously hospitable to religious extremism and tolerant of right-wing and reactionary thinking in the Middle East. Likewise, Washington’s active support of the Iraqi and Israeli invasion of Iran in 1980 and Lebanon in 1982 respectively further destabilized the region, emboldened Arab dictators and substantially weakened Arab progressive and patriotic organizations. Alienated, hopeless, and suppressed, the Arab masses have resorted to religion as a means to relief their frustration, to feel a sense of security, and reclaim their sanity in a state of hopelessness.
It is clear that in the modern Western world, people are not expected to stand behind a policy that espouses war and which is based on Biblical justifications. Thus, democratization initiatives are perceived to be a useful means to rally the public support to otherwise unpopular belligerent ventures. Middle East experts question the truthfulness of the democratic initiative by pointing out that liberty can not be realized in an environment of coercion and oppression. Writing in the New York Times, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US National Security Advisor, stated that the Bush administration has to recognize that “without political dignity derived from self-administration there can be no democracy.” Similarly, in its editorial (March 10, 2004), the Washington Post underscored the fact that democratic transformation cannot take place under the existing totalitarian regimes. It noted, “Yet the Bush administration will not encourage transformation of the Middle East until it breaks with old-style rulers and old ways of thinking. Until it is prepared to use its considerable leverage with allies such as Mr. Mubarak to promote political freedom, as opposed to stability, its democracy initiative will lack credibility.”
People in the Middle East and the Muslim World have their own doubts too. They believe that the democratization initiative amounts to a new means of dominating the area and further inducing their ruthless rulers to suppress them. Surprisingly, they do not only question the carrier of the message (military invasion and intervention), but also the content of the message. For many Muslims, freedom for Palestinians tops the list of their priorities. Likewise, Muslim intellectuals and ordinary people, alike, make a case in referring to President Bush‘s speech in 2003 on the “Freedom in Iraq and Middle East.” In the speech the President warmly praised Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, and Qatar and strongly denounced Iran and Syria for their lack of democratic transformation. The irony is that Iran has had open direct elections for municipalities and parliament and a relatively free election for president. Furthermore, opposition groups, unions and the Iranian female population are actively involved in politics (there is a woman currently serving as vice president). In contrast, the above countries have lack openness, and rulers do not answer to the people. In Saudi Arabia, opposition groups, union, and female participation in political life are prohibited; in fact women are not allowed to drive or vote. The New York Times, under the title “Holding Up Arab Reform,” reported that Washington censored the publication of the UN Arab Human Development Report because it was critical of the Arab government, the invasion of Iraq, and the treatment of Palestinians. The Report was scheduled to be published in October 2004, but Washington threatened to cut its contribution to the UN if it went ahead with the publication without changing its content. Thus, the populace in the Arab and Muslim World are left wondering about the nature of the new promised freedom.
For uninformed citizens on either side of the fence, the state of the relationship between the West and the Muslim World is hopeless and chaotic. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, elements of a fruitful relationship and peaceful coexistence are in place. Traditional Islamic thinking shares much in common with traditional Western liberalism. This is especially true in regards to the sanctity of human life, freedom of expression, individual responsibility, personal propriety, and freedom of religion. However, the Muslim people perceive that they have been targeted and are subjected to humiliation, oppression, and invasion. This perception, whether it is real or imaginary, is powerful and is widely and deeply shared. A wise course of action is to address these concerns openly and seriously. The alternatives are upheaval, chaos, pain, and continuing bloodshed. Below are the most basic elements necessary to eradicate the roots of chaos:
- Have a sense of history. Since the Muslim and the Arab people have been victims of Western domination and invasion, they may tend to be suspicious of any Western political gesture. The persistent support for authoritarian regimes in the Muslim World is on the minds of the ordinary people there.
- Understand people’s aspirations for freedom and dignity. The people in the Middle East and the Muslim World, like other people, do not like to be humiliated, tortured, or killed. The events of 9/11 were tragic resulting in the death of about 3,500 Americans. The invasion of Iraq resulted in a widespread destruction of cities, the loss of thousands of lives, and the transformation of Iraq into a chaotic state.
- Reassure the people in the region that they are not purposefully targeted for further fragmentation and humiliation. There is a strong feeling among the Muslim population that the West acts immediately on any UN resolution that weakens them, but prevents the passing or the enforcement of resolutions that protect their rights. Critics often argue that the UN resolutions regarding the Israeli - Palestinian conflict are never implemented. Nevertheless, those against Iraq, Libya, or Syria are immediately enforced. Furthermore, in Sudan and Iraq, militant groups which were engaged in widespread destruction of public properties have not been denounced as terrorist groups (e.g., Southern Sudanese Liberation Front) and governments are obliged to deal with them. Palestinian and Lebanese militants and civic organizations are treated as terrorists.
- Strengthen credibility. Because the West often issues conflicting messages and contradictory policies regarding the Middle East, the people there display an indifference to anything coming from the West, especially Washington. For example, the state Department in its Press Briefing on February 15 stated that the bombing of Rafik Harir “shows that the excuse, the reason, the rationale, that’s given the security—for the Syrian presence really doesn’t work, it has not provided internal security for Lebanon” thus Syria must withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Bombing and suicide car bombs in Iraq, however, are taking place almost daily, but there is no similar call regarding the rationale for the presence of the foreign forces in Iraq.
- Avoid hypocrisy. The most recent events in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, reinforce the widely shared perception in the region that countries which have a kind of democratic institutions and in which the root of a civil society is growing, are not on the U.S designated list of “friendly countries.” Furthermore, people openly question how the presence of an Arab army in another Arab country is denounced by the West while the heavy presence of foreign armies is considered a noble deed. In commenting on the events in Lebanon, the Israeli Haaretz wrote, “Three occupying countries remain in the Middle East: Syria, Israel and the United States. The two Western occupiers are now demanding that the Arab occupying state desist from occupying. … The hypocrisy of occupying states is nothing new and the attempt to find differences between one occupier and another always requires semantic juggling.”
- Avoid spreading fear and anxiety. Congressman Sam Johnson reported (Roll Call, March) that he told President Bush: “Syria is the problem. . . . I can fly an F- 15, put two nukes on ‘em and I’ll make one pass. We won’t have to worry about Syria anymore.” The mere thought of using weapons of mass destruction to achieve a political goal is frightening. It is certain that no people would like to be annihilated from the face of earth.
- Avoid short sighted policies. In its attempt to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Washington along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, heavily financed and trained Muslim fighters; this has facilitated in the emergence of extremism and the emergence of the Taliban. Likewise, to counter the influence of Arab nationalism and liberalism in the Arab World, especially after the 1967 War, Washington courted the Saudi ruler, King Fasil, to plan for the creation of the “Organization of Islamic Conference” in 1969. The Organization was instrumental in weakening Arab national liberation movement but encouraged Muslim identity instead. The current news from Iraq is that some faction within American intelligence recruits detainees to join religious extremist groups and is a condition for their release is alarming.
- Use dialogue instead of bullets in solving conflicts. Accumulated human wisdom demonstrates that uses of force and forceful suppression never win the hearts of the people. Openness and transparency are certain to minimize fear and anxiety. This leads to trust and positive change.
- Reduce incitement and negative propaganda. This not only increases hatred, but also perpetuates conflict. In the Muslim World, the government is accused of encouraging anti-American sentiments because it diverts attention from their own oppressive policies. In the West, anti-Muslim propaganda seems to be increasingly tolerated in the media without any fear or precaution. Anti-Muslims should be treated no differently than Anti-Semites or other racists.
The above points provide the necessary framework for uprooting hatred and bridging the gap of misunderstanding between the West and Muslim World. Of course there are forces with vested interests that wish to derail the quest for peace. These forces, however, are a minority. An unintended, but positive, consequence of the invasion of Iraq is that people in the region and the entire Muslim World have realized that their ruthless rulers are not as powerful as they projected. This realization is a potent force for profound change. Encouraging such emerging feeling and sustaining the new founded spirit gives the Muslim people a reason to actively participate in determining their future; a future free of terror and repression. More importantly, it facilitates a positive dialogue and a new trust between the two civilizations. Failure to engage positively and objectively means missing a historical opportunity and the very real fear of permanent chaos and bloodshed.