When I discuss my vision for peacebuilding in the Middle East, one of the most common reactions I encounter is fatalism--an a priori
belief that violent conflict in the Middle East is inevitable, therefore peacebuilding efforts are doomed to fail and are a waste of time. In popular culture, this fatalism takes myriad forms. "That conflict has raged for centuries," is one common refrain. "It's not going away." Many Christians of the Left Behind-loving variety expect the world to end in an apocalyptic nuclear war between Israel and the Arab world, and see little reason to intervene. Critics claim that peacemakers are selling out to Evil; they invoke words like "appeasement" and historical examples like Chamberlain's Munich Agreement with Hitler. This fatalistic worldview resigns itself to an eternal conflict that can never be won, only fought or ignored.
The critics do have valid concerns. With its myriad religions and ethnic groups, its entrenched authoritarian governments, its legacy of damage from colonialism, its militant religious extremists, its strategic importance, and of course its oil, the Middle East is no easy place to pursue peace. Many rivalries are indeed longstanding, and the hottest conflicts at present--such as the Israeli-Palestine issue--have no apparent end in sight. Misguided idealism has always been a dangerous force, and any efforts at peacebuilding which are not firmly rooted in reality are certain to fail. They can even be dangerous.
But none of this amounts to an argument for fatalism. In such an explosive political and social climate, peacebuilding is more important than ever. No one expects to see a sweeping, comprehensive peace in the Middle East, but the small, incremental actions of wise, dedicated, visionary leaders can help manage existing and future conflicts.
Peacebuilding has a place in the region is vital for the following reasons:The world's worst conflicts are not primary ethnic or religious. They are political--and political problems can be solved.
Contrary to the views of some pundits, violence in the Middle East--from Palestinian suicide bombers to Iraqi insurgents--is not primarily religious or ethnic. At root, the region's most pressing problems are political: how power and resources are allocated, how governance and institutions function, how social services are delivered (or not delivered), how to ensure national security. Culture and religion are certainly involved--when political tensions turn violent, societies typically fracture on religious and ethnic lines as people revert to fundamental identities, and militant Islam has become a dangerous and alluring worldview for globalization's discontents--but the foundational conflict is political. Fortunately, political conflict can be solved. This is not always quick or easy, but governments and institutions can be built, freedoms expanded, power and resources reallocated, policies changed. This is the day-to-day stuff of building peace--from the lone journalist documenting human rights abuses by the Egyptian government, to interfaith dialog organizations combating ignorance in Israel and Palestine, to diplomats negotiating new treaties.No conflict is insurmountable.
Any violent conflict, particularly between ethnic or religious groups, seems intractable at the time. The gulf between Judeo-Christians and Muslims today seems vast today, but not that long ago, the divides between Jews and Christians and between Protestants and Catholics were just as vast, and responsible for just as much violence. Today these faiths have found ways to peacefully coexist. Few GIs who fought on the Pacific Islands could probably imagine at the time that within their lifetimes Japan and the US would become friends and allies. No one could really imagine the Cold War ending peacefully until it was over. As intractable as Middle Eastern conflict seems to be today, there is no reason to suspect that it will prove any different. There is nothing intrinsic to either Arab culture or the Islamic faith that necessitates violent conflict.Middle Eastern conflicts are complex and nuanced.
The Bush administration painted the Global War on Terror in the crudest possible brushstrokes; a global war between Good and Evil, between the forces of freedom and liberty and the forces of terror. Popular culture embraces a "clash of civilizations" worldview that pits the West against Islam. In reality, conflict in the Middle East is much more complex, nuanced, and localized. Israelis and Palestinians dispute territory and security measures. The Lebanese struggle to maintain a functioning government out of diverse ethnic and religious groups, complicated by the fact that a militant Islamic party--Hizballah--is more powerful than their army. The Egyptians struggle with the political tension between the defunct, authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak and the Islamic parties who would likely come to power in a free election. The Jordanians struggle to balance friendly ties to the West with the deep anti-Western sentiment of their large Palestinian population. The Iraqis are struggling to build a government out of a power vacuum. In such a complex political and social landscape, the bad news is that conflict is on the horizon for the foreseeable future. The good news, however, is that these problems can be tackled in localized ways. Peace might not be possible at the global level, but small victories are possible each day in any of these local arenas. History progresses forward as these small victories accumulate.Even if a conflict cannot be decisively solved, managing it can reduce violence.
Peacebuilding is not all-or-nothing. Even when a conflict cannot be decisively settled, the active intervention of outside individuals and agencies can help manage the conflict and mitigate needless human suffering. Governments, churches, NGOs, universities, and businesses can all play vital roles in managing conflicts and charting a path through them towards peaceful outcomes.Doing nothing is a policy choice--and almost never a good one.
The alternative to engaging in conflicted regions like the Middle East is doing nothing. This is seldom possible, and almost never desirable. In today's globalized, interconnected world, conflicts in even the most obscure countries have significant spillover effects. The US learned this the hard way in Afghanistan; this obscure failed state, which seemed to have little strategic importance to the outside world following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, gave birth to the Taliban and to the September 11th attacks.
Peacebuilding is neither easy nor simple, but it is a necessary and worthwhile pursuit. It is a lifelong journey, a way of approaching the world's problems, a deliberate commitment to building a better future. Fatalism is seductive, but it is too easy; it is the fallback of those so overwhelmed or exhausted by conflict that they lose their will to fight for a better future. Peacebuilders refuse to yield to that seduction. They believe a better world is possible, and they dedicate their lives to small, incremental steps towards achieving that future. Even in a region as conflict-ridden as the Middle East.