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Heinz Theisen {*}

How is peace feasible in the Middle East?


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 35/2013, P. 397 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Civil wars and extreme acts of violence increase as a result of the Arab Spring, although it was supposed to bring democracy. The international diplomacy has hitherto not succeeded in appeasing the conflict. What could be of help?


An Israeli-Palestinian student named Rafik took part in the exchange of my university with the University of Bethlehem. He was born in Haifa, has an Israeli passport, and lives in East Jerusalem. Rafik is studying in Bethlehem, and after examination he wants to open an Arabic food restaurant in Austria. When I asked whether he sees himself as an Israeli, as Palestinians or soon as an Austrian, he replied tersely, "I hate politics." Politics, in the sense of actions of communities that are built on general cultural, ethnic, national, political or other "identities," has no high value for Arab youth. The impotence of politicians towards their key problems, i.e. unemployment, lack of perspective, actual social exclusion, is too obvious.

Rafik is Christian. Another of our former students, Abdallah, is a Muslim. As a Palestinian, he is working in Jerusalem at the "Middle Eastern Institute for Education and Technology." It provides computer science courses for highly gifted students of both the West Bank and Israel. As was noted during a visit, one does on principle not speak about politics and religion. The students had to do better things than to get tangled up in hopeless conflicts.


"I" instead of "We"

The revolutionary gesture of this generation is to say "I" to a world that knows above all several hostile "we". They have no political agenda but want only to exercise their right to lead an individual life. However much Arab youth might despise the secularized Western culture - all the more they appreciate the Western civilization in the material sense, and often also in the structural sense. That does certainly not mean a schizophrenia in the awareness of the individual, but is consistent with the diverse forms of life, purposes in life, and cross-links of the modern era. You needn't like our culture and politics in order to appreciate Western science and technology. From the perspective of those young people, the West is not a self-contained system but consists of a diversified wealth of many cultures.

In the Middle East and North Africa until 2020 the number of unemployed young people will grow to one hundred million. Of the eighty million Egyptians every second person is already now younger than 25 years. There are five applicants for every job. The unemployed young Arabs have enough of collective "visions", whether they are of political or religious nature. Instead, they demand the right to build their own future. They want to be able to adopt the world as their own. This individualism differs from the old secular forces of the Arab socialism or nationalism.

The period of political apathy of most young people is coming to an end: due to the fact that they use social networks via the Internet and mobile phones. This young generation is not yet the majority but, as the population development proves, will soon be it.


Democracy Rhetoric

There are serious obstacles to the development towards a civilization of Middle Eastern, Arab, North African cultures. There is, first, Islamism. It nips the opportunity for development of religion and politics - and thus a modern society - already in the bud. Moreover, there is also a Western democracy rhetoric. Whith all its enthusiasm for free elections it overlooks that Islamism is not compatible with individual liberties. It is part of the tragedy of numerous attempts of Western influencing on the governments in the Middle East and the Arab region: especially in free elections radical Muslims regularly came to power. Thus, "illiberal" democracies emerged at best, where the majority harasses, oppresses, deprives of the right of decision, even terrorizes the minorities, as it is done, for example, in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists with the Copts.

In recent times, a certain restraint of the West became apparent. However, it is only limited. Thus, American and European troops did admittedly not march into Syria, as it was the case in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the democratic countries indirectly support fanatical Muslims with money and arms supplies, and at the time of going to press nobody knows which alliances in some other way will militarily show the border-lines to Assad. America and the European Union not only verbally hurried to the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood's and Salafists' assistance in Egypt. Here, however, they got entangled between Western democracy claims and the fight against fanatical Islam. Thus, the West got into danger politically to be no longer taken seriously in the Middle East.

In Western liberal democracies, the rule of the majority and the protection of minorities are two sides of the same coin. In contrast, the many initial attempts of democracy in the Middle East and North African have produced regimes and systems without the protection of minorities, without religious freedom and freedom of expression. They produced rather regimes of the majority, which are a new form of oppression. They are illiberal, reject largely individual liberties, or distrust them. But the meaning of democracy is freedom. If free elections limit the freedom of the individual, the West has no reason to assist the from those elections resulting rulers.

Egypt's secular forces, including the protesting youth from Tahrir Square, Coptic and other Christians, as well as the powerful military have driven the Muslim Brotherhood out of the government. For the latter wanted to prevent both a constitutional division of power and liberal ways of life. This great coalition is held together solely by the desire not to become victim of culturalism, i.e. the collective dominance of Islam alone. It makes "infidels" and "wards" out of all non-Muslims or non-believers, and thus they become social outcasts without the right to equal social, political, economic participation.

Given the currently in Egypt and neighboring Arab states observed simultaneity of Islamization and secularization, which is pregnant with civil war, the West needs a dual strategy. In order to avoid an overstretching of its forces and a hopeless entanglement in the Arab-Arab conflicts, it should politically and culturally exercise restraint. This would be complemented by an all the more closer cooperation in science, technology and business. The Western commitment has thus a less imperialistically provocative and patronizing impact on Muslims and is also more sustainable. There is hope that this other manner of - material - support by cooperation will gradually positively influence and change both the spiritual areas and the living conditions.


Workplace rather than State

Since the long-lasting conflict between Israel and Palestine has been neither politically nor culturally solvable, it should be put on a worldly level - regardless of religious conditions, and cultural dissonances. The often demanded "two-state solution" is also unrealistic. Also many Palestinians basically do not want it. Due to the deadly enmity between the by Yasser Arafat founded secular party Fatah and the radical Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which is classified as "terrorist organization" in Europe, a "three-state solution" would theoretically be required. Completely absurd! Many educated secular Palestinians know that they are better off under Israeli sovereignty over the region than with a Hamas government and the threat of civil war as well as with the eternal corruption of the Palestinian regime. Quite a few Arabs who live and work in Israel appreciate what they have there - at least as a modest "prosperity" and security. Those enlightened educated Arabs have no longer any interest in ideological collective dreams of the old men of yesterday.

Given the decaying world of states in the Middle East, also the fervent old nationalism of the Palestinians is no longer of any use. These States, which are lead by corrupt, partly Islamist regimes and are in any case ethnically and religiously torn, have become a problem.



The unemployed Palestinian youth need less a own State than a own workplace. But this presupposes an orderly civil society. The nation-state must not be an end in itself, it may at best serve as a tool.

The Palestinians in the "autonomous" areas will have no choice but to try to benefit from the civilizational strengths of Israel - as the more than 1.2 million Israeli Palestinians. Their - still too - cheap manpower is currently needed only in Israel, in no Arab state. This is bitter, but it is the reality. On the other hand, the Israelis need urgently Palestinian workers - also due to the growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who are unwilling to work.

The political common sense is always a weak force in order to get reforms, i.e. peace, some prosperity, security, and more justice under way. A strong force, however, are technical and scientific innovations. However, all sides must benefit from them. Water scarcity in the Middle East is not remedied by the Jordan rivulet, no matter who it belongs to. The solution to the water problem beyond the national and cultural boundaries is the access to knowledge of how to desalinate sea water - no matter who "owns" this water.

The political cards are reshuffled also worldwide by new technologies, as e.g. when the United States gain independence of imports from the Middle East by the ecologically controversial "fracking" for the extraction of gas and oil reserves. At the same time, the Western armed forces must withdraw from the Islamic world. This could definitely promote the civilizing processes.

An order without any religious references is neither possible nor desirable in the East - and indeed also in the West. However, only a secular state is able to guarantee the necessary peaceful, mutual cooperative structural complement of religion and politics. It combines the two worlds - separated but nevertheless merged. In the long run, the Christian model of the Enlightenment of the West could definitely have a stimulating effect also in the Arab-Islamic world - provided that no longer any occasion is given for reservations towards the Western "imperialism." The secular minded Christians of the Orient already demonstrate the other religions how it is possible to live together in peace with secular powers: by sharing common goals and not mutually excluding one another a priori.

During his journey to Lebanon in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against the negative form of the radical separation of religion and state. A "healthy secularity", however, means to release faith from the burden of politics and to enrich politics by the contributions of faith. Here, distance has to be kept, a clear distinction, and the indispensable collaboration for the common good. The division of power according to religious affiliations, as e.g. in Lebanon, is also difficult. This example shows that such a division of power can all too easily change into civil wars. That's why there is no alternative to secular structures.

The religiously motivated culture struggle between Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land can not be overcome by inter-religious discourses but only by a secular political reflection. The Christian inspired spirit of social universalism, i.e. all people have equal dignity, may here perhaps be enlivened and be fruitful in a secular humanist manner.

The Christians of the Middle East have many social institutions and excellent educational facilities - from the vocational schools of the Salesians of Don Bosco to the Catholic University of Bethlehem - where more than two-thirds of the students are Muslims. Although the Christians, due to the Islamization, have come under pressure, they might act as role models in the Arab world.

The cultures of the One-God-Belief have not only the task of preserving their intrinsic value. They should also empower and motivate people to contribute to the civilization of the world. The present era demands pluralism, not uniformity, individuality, not collectivity. If collective ethnic or religious "identities" are paramount, this means endless violence. If, however, science, technology and personal development opportunities are promoted, from it opportunities arise to develop also healing powers between different cultures and nations.


    {*} Heinz Theisen, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science at the Catholic University of Cologne, last published "Nach der Überdehnung. Die Grenzen des Westens und die Koexistenz der Kulturen" (Münster 2012)

See also
Clash of Denominations - Why Western Powers should remain Neutral in Syria


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'