Thursday, October 23, 2014
6

Peace in an Age of Extremes

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.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Michel Rocard says we are living in "an age of extremes" with "peace" hanging by a thread. We certainly "live in a time of progress and folly", and we have "an insatiable appetite for pushing boundaries and breaking records", but it doesn't necessarily inspire extremism. Then he speaks about "radical ambition" that "can also fuel recklessness and large-scale devastation", like "in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, western China, and elsewhere." But this "radical ambition" has little to do with the progress and development science and technology have made!
    It's true that many countries in the international community have become self-centred free-riders. They take the current world order for granted, but they contribute little to the common good, or they "have simply refused to help resolve the numerous conflicts plaguing the world, particularly in the greater Middle East". Yet he is full of praise for France in playing a positive role, while criticising the US for advancing its goals under the "false pretense of advancing democracy" and disrupting the "fragile balance among religious and ethnic groups in countries like Iraq and Syria". He says these policies have an impact on the Shia/Sunni schism.
    Then Rocard speaks of "religious extremism" in Islam, blaming clerics' failure to keep up with "modernity", and political leaders' reluctance to carry out reforms, tackle corruption and address the grievances of their citizens. The only good thing they offered was secular rule. But there were strings attached - authoritarian governance. When people take to the street, protesters are divided into two camps - the urban educated and the rural impoverished. Their demands often diverge.
    At times Michel Rocard digresses from the topic and it's difficult to make head or tails of the piece. But his core message basically is to provide "an injunction to respect all people, regardless of their beliefs".

  2. Commentedyang guang

    All problems and wars in the Middle East are the result of USA intervention . If the USA did not go into Iraq . ISIS would never exist . Syria, Libya battles and Alfgan. You would not have the uprising of the truly Muslim tribes . The Muslim people are not a democratic people , many do not want too be a democratic . The USA makes its own reasons for invading and killing of people who are not of there ideology of life. They also supply arms to theses small wars in the Middle East . Why go into another world and try to change a culture that is older than time. The USA and its allies and NATO . Will sooner start a war to make peace . They kill any one who does not adopt too the North a America way of thinking or living . They infer in all nations that do not accept the North America way of life .

  3. CommentedDominic Albino

    Written by a crotchety old French partisan, I can forgive the starry idealism regarding French motives and the jabs about American motives. However, it's unsubtle to the point of naivete to suggest things were well in Iraq under a brutal dictator whose secret police regularly tortured and disappeared people, while also scratching the occasional genocidal itch at his own pleasure. The people of the region of Iraq and Syria (as well mountainous western Asia) do indeed need to come to their own decision to live together peacefully and join the modern world, but this is not new since America's latest activity there began. This issue far, far predates American involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia. The damage was kept secret for a time from prying global eyes and America's actions shed new light on the gruesome realities, but certainly unmasked an extant concern, and did not create a new one.

  4. CommentedCurtis Carpenter

    I find much good sense here, and only wish Mr. Rocard had shared more of his prescriptive insights with us. How will the international community, now so clearly at a loss, find a way forward? Could it be that less intervention -- rather than more intervention, or different kinds of intervention -- is a good part of a workable (and certainly fresh!) approach?

    In declaring that the U.S. lacks a clear strategy in the Middle East, I found myself greatly encouraged by President Obama's candor (where so many conservatives found themselves appalled). He shares, I think, Mr. Rocard's realistic understanding that the international community is at a loss.

    Perhaps less "strategy" and more pragmatism and patience is part of the solution.

  5. Commentedhari naidu

    At 84 Rocard - this *Lion* of French (SP) moderates still makes a lot of political sense: "les rocardiens”.

    “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….”

    Inability to focus on religious sectarianism & its essentials features is diverting US/EU, in particular, from striking the right non-military strategy to bring some semblance of law and order in ME. The Arabs themselves cannot and will not facilitate a solution of ISIS. Because some of them (GCC) are in fact funding ISIS. Therefore, for non-Arabs (US/EU) military intervention is not going to be a dance on roses; constraints of political leverage will make it an endemic civil war - until there is a victor.

    Turkey, under President Erdogan, may finally reassert its power and influence in the region and facilitate an end to sectarian atrocities – but even that possibility is clouded by direct and explicit Egyptian opposition to Erdogan’s politics (support of Hamas & Muslim Brother’s). Kurdistan Republic may eventually emerge under Erdogan’s benevolence – to spite Iraq of its sectarian discord. Dissolution of Iraq thus becomes a real-time possibility; but what will replace it?

    While Obama is fiddling with military strategy, Iran may be in driver’s seat to decide Shia Iraq’s frontiers and its future. US-Iran-EU cooperation may ultimately decide direction of ME developments. However that may not be acceptable to Saudi Arabia (GCC) – Egypt.

    It’s in this strategic vacuum, Putin has a free-hand to destabilize Ukraine - despite sanctions. Neither US/EU has military capacity to deter Russian ambitions….lack of a total ground war.



  6. CommentedGeorge Hodge

    France protects its interests, much the same as the United States. I find the "sense of obligation to protect societies" a little unrealistic.

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