Aiming for the Stars and Shooting the Moon

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As the contemporary science informs us, man’s long journey began from Africa. We all come from the same chromosomal Adam and the same mitochondrial Eve. One of the major stops after our exodus from the beautiful black continent appears to have been the coasts of East Mediterranean. ...

As the contemporary science informs us, man’s long journey began from Africa. We all come from the same chromosomal Adam and the same mitochondrial Eve. One of the major stops after our exodus from the beautiful black continent appears to have been the coasts of East Mediterranean. Lebanon being a part of this shoreline, has been a breathing channel for the Middle East, a fascinating geography, one of the two cradles of civilization, the other being China at the far eastern periphery. During his long journey, faith was perhaps man’s earliest intellectual discovery. And the Middle East gave rise to the three major monotheistic religions still thriving among us. If you will allow me to count myself as also one this geography, all three are part of our historical and cultural heritage. Be it Judaism, Christianity or Islam; they shelter a spectrum of widely intersecting basic set of tenets that all men aspire to in different contexts. One of the most basic being justice.

I am informed that civilization in Lebanon is rooted in at least seven thousand years. I have often fancied this country as the land of Canaan, realm of the gods and goddesses, Baal and Baalim residing high in the skies, either quarreling thunderously at times or making love above the clouds and showering the earth underneath with fertility, some of the fruits of which we tasted last night at Munir Restaurant. But one, the one in your flag, the Lebanese cedar, Cedrus libani has a special place in my imagination. During the 2. Millennium BC, while the warring empires of Egypt, Hittite, Assyria raged storms beyond the mountains of Lebanon, Phoenicians neither took part in the bloodshed, nor sat still contended trembling with fear. Instead, they cut down the Cedrus libani, pulled them down to shore, shaped them into vessels, dressed them in sails and set journey through the Mediterranean, setting up trade colonies along the coast lines all the way up to Cadiz; Larnaca in Cyprus, Finike in Anatolia, Genoa in Italy, Cagliari in Sicily, Palermo in Sardinia, and on the North African shores; Tripoli in Libya, Cartage in Tunisia, Tania in Morocco and many more. They traded in wine and clothing throughout the region, thereby enriching themselves and the then known world. They trimmed their clothing in fancy colors, epitomized by the Phoenician purple, the most widely sought after pigment of the ancient world that was derived from a few species of sea mollusk endemic to Eastern Mediterranean waters. Of course, initially they must have had difficulty in employing the Sumerian script or the Egyptian cuneiform for their business correspondence and speedy draft of contracts. But in due time, they bent the script, linearized it, then realizing the greater expediency of using the symbols for sounds instead of ideas, switched from ideograms to phonemes, thereby discovering the phonetic alphabet and bequeathing it to the whole world.  A diligent and resourceful people indeed, just as Lebanon still is, a cat with nine lives. Please forgive me for having indulged in this long prologue. This is the first time I have been to Lebanon. I am both humbled and honored to be in this land. I would like to extend our deeply felt thanks to our hosts for bestowing us this exquisite experience; yes, in all sincerity. Now, to the point, to our topic...

First of all, I would like to point out that, this region, Middle East, producing more than a third of the world’s tradable oil is bound to be a focal point of big power interests , there is no avoiding that. The point is to counter these interests with our own so as to make them work to mutual benefit. Today, tumultuous events are unfolding throughout the region. Since Turkey, a country on the fringes, is frequently mentioned as a workable or unworkable model for the region, I would like to state a few thoughts about my country’s experience. But, it is not possible to understand today, without remembering the past.

A profound event had taken place in the 18th century Europe, the 1789 French Revolution. Before then states were governed on the basis of faith. But the French discovered the idea of a nation state. This idea supplemented by science and technology proved to be such a potent idea that it made France the leading power of the continent for however a brief period of time and with its power of appeal produced shock waves emanating from Paris that hit the walls of the Ottoman Empire within a mere couple of decades. Despite serious attempts at reformation spanning the following century, the empire failed to cope with the wave and collapsed after World War I. We decided to establish a nation state in a smaller geography, in Anatolia, in order to survive. The new state was based on Turkish ethnicity and this label having been used neither widely nor with high esteem during the Ottoman era had to be emphasized for speedy consolidation of the emerging system. We have been working on it for almost 90 years, some mistakes were made along the way and we are trying to alleviate them.

Civilized social life is framed by a contract extended by the state to the governed. If the contract is based on ethnicity or faith, then individuals are forced to seek their interests through either or both, thereby associating themselves with sectarianism more strongly than they otherwise would. Due to legitimized vying for influence between different sects, tensions build up in the system and if the ensuing pressures are not somehow relieved, end up tearing the social fabric asunder periodically, as has been tragically exemplified by Lebanon’s past experiences.

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However, if the state stands neutral in faith and ethnicity and eyes to extend the social contract directly to the individual on the mere basis of citizenship and individual freedoms, then the individual is more likely to become an active dialog partner with the state, broaden his allegiance toward the system as a whole and participate in social life more vigorously. A free man, delivered from paralysis of fear, is empowered to realize his inborn potential for creativity to a larger extent, becomes more productive, produces better goods and ideas, thereby contributing more potently to the well being of the self and all. Freedom, with its entailed responsibility enables the individual develop faster and farther. This is in contrast with regimes of suppression wounding individual souls and burdening the system with excessive impotency. Of course, the individual is still free to associate with the ethnic or faith groups with which he identifies himself, but the strength of this association and therefore the influence of relevant groups cease to be predominant and fade to the background under the light of individual freedoms.

Another profound event took place in the 18th century, on the other side of the ocean, the American Revolution. It even predates the French counterpart by a few years, and has to my mind, greater significance and more relevance to our times. Because the new continent lacked ethnic homogeneity and were largely inhabited by escapees from religious suppression, the ‘Founding Fathers’ of this revolution designed a social contract based on individual freedoms later supplanted by a bill of further rights. And an impressive edifice of successes has been built upon this contract over the past two centuries. Despite its at times ugly projections of power over the globe, especially in this region, the American experience has steadily gained in allure and is now generating a new shock wave.

Yet, in our corner of the world, the Middle East, newly emerging states after World War II were enthralled by the global fear of Cold War and greatly disturbed by the appearance of Israel. Fear jumped on the stage, setting freedoms in flight. Due to legitimate national security concerns, governments demanded cohesion and the masses willingly abided. Expectations of social and economic development were delayed to uncertain future and even the basic rights were greatly curtailed. This state of emergency soon gained permanence. US, having become the dominant Western power in the region after the Canal Affair, entrusted its foreign policy towards Middle East to active minority interests during the 60’s and 70’s and largely focused on the security concerns of Israel at the expense of almost all other parties, thus ended up becoming, in the name of reel politicsor strategic interests,a captive ally of the corrupt dictatorships, personal and family fiefdoms thriving thereof. Stagnation was to endure through 40 years of Gaddafi, 30 years of Abidin and Saleh, 20 years of Mubarak and God knows what. Tensions arose in the social framework, turning the societies in the Middle East into pressure cookers, with dictatorships on top, the masses under, ready boil, while the Western influence in the region amounted to denying from desolate masses the very human rights that were being propounded as being universal. What had thus become a thinly wailed practice of double standard and hypocrisy culminated in the devastating invasion of Iraq at the end of the 20th century following the tragic events of 9/11, the likes of which the region had suffered perhaps a hundredfold in equivalence during the prior half a century.

A man cornered, with nothing to lose, death abounding across, becomes death himself. Due to speed and ease of communication, the world is smaller than it has ever been before. A new tide has hit the region, that of human rights and freedom. Large segments of society are withdrawing from the existing unjust social contracts unilaterally. They paradoxically hate and envy the West. They want for themselves what the West has cherished for itself but denied them. There is no ready formula or model that could be adopted to stem this tide. Only general principles can be a guide to tranquility. The two most basic ones are a broadening of individual freedoms and open system of government. Free men are more reliable and constructive citizens. And open government is like curing the wares under sunlight; parasites have a much lesser chance to survive, let alone flourish. These are not ideas we are strangers to, not things invented by the West and being imposed upon us. I believe they are innate in our shared past. It is time we aspire for justice again, justice for all. Justice for myself, justice for my brother and sister; be it a Kurd, Turk, Armenian, Arab, Persian or Jewish. Justice for all, once again. That is why “zero problems with neighbors”, even if utopic. It is like aiming for stars and shooting the Moon. It is a long way. It is not easy. But the earlier we get going, the farther we go. Best of luck to us all. Thank you all for your patience.

1st regional conference on “Regional Emerging Issues: Challenges and Future Perspectives”

30-31 Mart 2011, Beirut

Organized by: Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), Research & Strategic studies Center (RSSC)

 

1-      Regional Ethnic Tension, Rights and Role of Minorities in the Middle East.

2-      Rise of Fundamentalist Movements and Sectarianism and Subsequent Impact on the Peace Process and Regional Stability.

3-      New Energy Resources in Eastern Mediterranean as potential Source of Cooperation or Regional Conflict.

4-      Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine: Commonalities and Links as Areas of Regional Conflict

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Africa 65 135
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