Welcome to 2016 amidst much tension and consternation! As someone who has worked in the MENA region as a lawyer, an ecumenist and also a second-track political negotiator for well over two decades, let me project a few pithy thoughts onto the fresh year.
• My first point focuses on the Arab Christian communities in the MENA region and the plethora of statements issued by clerics and politicians alike - often with multi-coloured graphs - underlining the existential challenges facing local Christians since 2011. Everyone is suddenly claiming that indigenous Christians are vanishing from the MENA region as a result of the ISIL phenomenon. But much as I too oppose ISIL fiercely, I tend to dispute the raison d'être behind those passionate rhetorical perorations because they are not entirely accurate. To start with, let us draw back from apocalyptic scenarios since those numerically "minority" Christian communities are still very much present and witnessing in the region after two millennia. More importantly, the challenges facing them did not begin in 2011: the emigration of Christians from the MENA region started in the early 1950's and became more noticeable after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Much as we empathise with those communities, we also need to be honest with ourselves.
• The counter-revolution against the freedom-seeking uprisings in the MENA region - dubbed the Arab Spring - 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 human beings and state institutions. Look at Egypt where censorship and state control are being enforced with rampant voraciousness in every corner of society - from the press and social media to academic institutions, researchers and grassroots NGO's. Or even in the Arabian / Persian Gulf where some of the revanchist countries are muzzling all fundamental freedoms that dare challenge their perennial hold on power, wealth or both.
• We in Europe are in a state of retrenchment too: faced with the dangers within our own societies, some EU countries have decided to trade the ideals of freedom that we fought for in two world 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 MENA 'allies' against their peoples. But equally against our own societies where we succumb to the blackmail of terror organisations that have frightened us so much we suspend constitutions, impose emergency measures, monitor our every click of the keyboard and ride roughshod over personal liberties. A looming post-Orwellian danger that could alas come back to haunt us.
• To win the war against terrorist organisations like ISIL, we need to win the war against the autocracies that have furnished the incubators for such movements too. Just assume we wipe out ISIL 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 or disenfranchisement that catalysed such religious ideologies are not tackled at source, the problem will - Hydra-like - manifest itself again in a few short years.
• The Israeli-Palestinian conflict still remains a galvanising element for the majority of the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Starting with the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 and culminating with the current dearth of irenic initiatives, there is indescribable despair among Palestinian grassroots as their virtual state is being mothballed again in front of their eyes. Pursuing the self-deluding 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 based on 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 or clerics who tend at times 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 different countries of the MENA, 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 countless politicians, clerics, pundits or journalists sitting in rarefied and often self-absorbed environments. Those are the men who define my compass, and the message being told by them is that 2016 will not be too different. I hear from them that the deep anger within society is coupled with an undimmed resolve for reform region-wide 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 those awkward boundaries and sovereignties also traumatised the peoples of the region. Indeed, the memory of this line still haunts MENA politics. So what can we do today to avoid further distresses? Here is my two-pence worth of wisdom: unless we acknowledge the causal nexus between social ills and the terror from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Al-Qaeda in Iraq and ISIL in Syria and then act on them long-term, the MENA will remain in a state of ebullition and we in the West will not douse those fires simply by transposing our problems on them as we sometimes did in the last century.
Today, I am sad that we have plunged ourselves into a deep mess because we were full of tactics but lacked strategies. Alas, we lacked imagination, and we lacked gumption, so will we wake up in 2016?
Happy New Year!