PARIS – We live in a time of progress and folly. From bullet trains to the Mars rover, humanity has an insatiable appetite for pushing boundaries and breaking records. But, while radical ambition can drive progress, it can also fuel recklessness and large-scale devastation, as we see today in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, western China, and elsewhere. In an age of extremes, how can peace be achieved?
One thing is certain: The international community is at a loss. A staggering number of countries have simply refused to help resolve the numerous conflicts plaguing the world, particularly in the greater Middle East. Those that have intervened – whether for essential strategic reasons, as in the case of the United States, or out of a sense of obligation to protect societies, as in the case of France – have yet to find an effective approach. Some have even sought to prolong conflicts, believing that to do so serves their national interests.
Clearly, the focus on national interests is inadequate to temper religious extremism, limit human suffering, and prevent the deterioration of societies. Given the factors fueling today’s turmoil – Islam’s struggle with modernity, irrational belief in the efficacy of force in solving problems, and widespread fear, often stemming from religious differences – addressing the greater Middle East’s myriad problems begins with religious, not political, leaders.
Of course, Islam is not the only religion that has struggled with modernity. In fact, nearly all of the major faiths – from Judaism to Christianity to Confucianism – were born of a desire to preserve an established sociopolitical order. (The notable exception is Buddhism – more a philosophy than a religion – which emerged from a rejection of the unequal and violent structure of Brahman societies.)
But, as stubbornly as religious leaders resist change, the forces of economic and social development are unstoppable, and the transformation of relationships among genders, generations, and classes is inevitable. Other groups have reconciled with this immutable reality more quickly than Islam.
The Jews, who long lacked their own territory, found modernity elsewhere, then brought it to Israel. In China, though clerics and soldiers blocked development for centuries by forbidding any external contact, the rise of an anticlerical regime finally opened the way for modernization. And, following a long and difficult struggle, Christian leaders ultimately acknowledged the need for reform.
For Islam, that step has been far more difficult. Political and military rulers have managed to rally Islamic clerics behind opposition to religious reform, silencing anyone who dared to defy them. This constrained social, political, and economic progress for many Muslims, especially women.
Making matters worse, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, much of the Muslim world was subjugated by European imperial powers. Unsurprisingly, this humiliation fueled rage within increasingly fragmented societies, with some groups concluding that they must wage a holy war against the Western infidels.
Nonetheless, in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, secular powers enabled the cohabitation of believers, at least for a while. Lebanon’s Western colonizer, France, actually managed to engage each religious community in an agreement for stable cohabitation – a scheme that inspired similar efforts in Algeria and in Iran under the Shah.
But, for Western powers, particularly the US, preserving these delicate arrangements has taken a backseat to strategic interests, particularly access to the region’s oil. If these countries were, as their governments claimed, seeking to improve the lives of Arab populations, they would have promoted cohabitation, secularity, and stability. Instead, they launched destabilizing military interventions under the false pretense of advancing democracy, upending the fragile balance among religious and ethnic groups in countries like Iraq and Syria.
As a result, Sunni-led governments that had enjoyed Western support in exchange for generous oil deals – notably, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – became enemies of the Shia and their quest, backed by Iran, to regain their dignity and identity. Russia, with its 9.4 million Muslims, also supported the Shia, hoping that their rise would undermine the West’s influence in the Arab world.
As the Islamic struggle against modernity has led to conflict, Israel’s embrace of economic, technological, and social progress has enabled it to win five wars, without ever having to negotiate a peace agreement. For Israel, fear is essential both as a source of motivation, owing to its position among Arab countries, and a source of protection, through its status as a clandestine nuclear power.
But, as the recent eruption of violence in Gaza demonstrates, there is a limit to the capacity of fear to deter conflict. In many cases, it even fuels more violence.
Likewise, as the ongoing struggles in countries like Syria and Iraq highlight, the use of force is not an effective problem-solving strategy. Though carefully calibrated force can, at times, curb the human costs of a conflict, what is really needed is compromise, based on the understanding that a stable and conflict-free environment is in everyone’s interests.
Before any political compromise can occur, however, a degree of religious reconciliation is needed. While leaders seem to be increasingly willing to communicate with one another, there has been little talk of peace. It is time for believers to pester their clerics – and non-believers to hound those who believe – to provide what no politician can: an injunction to respect all people, regardless of their beliefs.