And so it goes on: the pain of the MENA region

By Harry Hagopian
September 14, 2015

Truth be told, I admire – even envy sometimes – those analysts or observers who still manage to write regularly and apparently confidently on the shifts that continue to quake the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region – the after-effects from which are now rippling into other continents, not least Europe.

My own sometimes dour feelings pale into insignificance when compared with those of men, women and children in the region who are wading through Stygian waters: the walking refugees, the demonstrators and those being suppressed, squashed and blackmailed, by those power machines that still dissimulate, dominate, discriminate and disassemble, as well as subjugating and killing in the names both of God and mammon.

Here are a few of the key recent developments that illustrate some of this tragedy, and the struggle against it.

• First, my political alma mater. I wonder how many people are still actively concerned about the festering 48-year-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? We have a voracious Israeli government that operates in ways antithetical to any irenic understanding of coexistence with their Palestinian neighbours and is keen instead on gobbling up more lands and resources and keeping Palestinians in isolated towns or villages. Conversely, the Palestinians are riven between two rival camps that are hell-bent on checkmating each other. Hamas is a dangerous ideological irrelevance on the political spectrum, whilst the Authority that governs some aspects of the West Bank suffers from political senescence and succession intrigues.

Our solidarity with this conflict today manifests itself tepidly with soft EU indictments, bland US statements, Arab double-standards of futility and – wait for the clincher in terms of political breakthroughs – the hoisting of the Palestinian flag at the UN in New York. Palestine needs to find ways for turning those admittedly symbolic achievements into concrete ones.

• Second, the war in Syria continues and politicians are keen to rehabilitate the Assad regime without too much loss of face or too much attention to the barrel bombs falling on East Ghouta and elsewhere. True. But that is the new normal in 2015, so let me focus instead on the Iraqi and Lebanese streets that have moved against the symbols of nepotism and corruption in both countries. There are similarities as well as differences between both popular manifestations. The last straw that broke the camel’s back in Iraq was the continual power shortages (in a country awash with oil) during a blistering summer. In Lebanon, it was the garbage crisis. Both movements have nudged the realities on the ground a bit, but the remedy is so radical that I doubt those attempts – unless sustained and encouraged by the media too – will manage to challenge those systems that are disempowering the state, whereby the notion of citizenship is redundant and what matters are sectarian or confessional affiliations.

• The influx of refugees into Europe has exposed the wide gaps in our understanding of what the EU means to its member-states. From the racism of some East European countries to the mean attitude of some Western ones (with the exception of Germany that has now become the New Jerusalem for refugees), many in Europe are apoplectic about a few hundred thousand refugees amidst a citizenship of roughly 500 million. Such indifference is replicated in the USA too: imagine that the village of Ketermaya at the southern end of the Mount Lebanon range is hosting more Syrian refugees than all 50 US states put together. Those refugees and economic migrants consist of Syrians as well as Eritreans, Afghans, Pakistanis and even Palestinians. But the majority from Syria are in their large numbers escaping a debilitating war as well as dodging the military draft or the increasing difficulty in accessing neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey.

If we plan to staunch such an influx in practical terms, while exercising due compassion, we need to harmonise our own policies let alone address the issues at source – in other words in Syria itself which is writhing in the two equally destructive pincer movements of the regime and Daesh / ISIL, with a number of allies or supporters for each side.

• Finally, let me add a word about ethnic and religious numerical minorities, including Arab Christians who were already witnessing to their faith in the MENA region seven long centuries before the revelation of Islam. They have every reason to be afraid of the unavoidable changes buffeting the region. After all, look at what has befallen those hundreds of thousands of ‘minorities’ in Iraq in view of the ideological criminality of Daesh / ISIL and al-Qaeda movements.

However, and as I have often stated in the past, it is unwise for those communities and their hierarchs to seek the patronage of despotic regimes simply because they get a few crumbs of freedom thrown in as a reward for their fealty. Thinkers and intellectuals need to keep in mind that wars are indeed fought on the battlefields. However, the deals will be hammered out in anterooms or backrooms by politicians and they will not overlook which side of the fence those communities were sitting on when the last bomb killed its last prey.

The region is changing but such change will take long years and further sacrifices. This is perhaps not the message many people would wish for today, but there is no gain in sweetening a pill politically and then backtracking miserably over and over again. However, the length of such wars also depends on the involvement of outside powers – whether regional or global. Would they stop egging on their own allies and proxies and in so doing muddying the MENA waters further? Or will there be a political consensus at long last? And so the drama goes on…

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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