Living Peacefully with One Another in the Middle East

Introduction to December 2008 IJWP

The articles in this issue all relate to the Middle East region from Palestine to Pakistan. This region is perhaps the most resistant to religious pluralism in the world. War and violence are often the result of the attempt by a religious or ethnic group to lay claim on an entire state. A group may want to use the power of the state to redistribute all of the wealth and resources to its own members, or it may fear mistreatment or genocide if another group controls the power of the state.

When a religious group, an ethnic group, or a state claims to have the true understanding of peace and justice, or some monopoly on knowledge, they run into direct conflict with others who make similar claims based on different sacred truths. Within states we find ethnic and religious groups fighting over control of states; on the global level we have the “clash of civilizations.” Here there are transnational religious and cultural claims in competition over the definition of peace for the entire world.

Our first article by Norman Swazo looks at the idea of global jihad and the justifications Osama bin Laden has to claim a right to a holy war against infidels. The claim can be traced back to Islamic jurists such as Ibn Taymiyya who have a historical role in shaping the Islamic doctrines about war and peace. Developing such traditional religious doctrines, members of Al Qaeda can claim they are the true soldiers of peace, a peace in which their version of truth will rule over all people. From their point of view they are not “terrorists,” but the defenders of the true way of life. They believe that the injustice of false Muslims in the Saudi Royal family and the moral degradation of the West are the real threats to God’s kingdom.

Swazo suggests that the use of the word “terrorist” by Western leaders does more harm than good. It might be a way to mobilize U.S. forces on a crusade to oppose the Al Qaeda crusade, but it does not scratch the surface of a comparative understanding of justice that might assist in conflict resolution, respect and peaceful coexistence. Theories of justice and just war have developed in both Islamic and Christian civilizations. These theories may have much more in common than the political and economic interests of those using religion to mobilize soldiers for a crusade.

Our second article, by Nasreen Akhtar, is on “Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.” Written from the perspective of a political scientist in Pakistan, the author provides us with an overview of several competing forces in Afghanistan: ethnic groups within the state, competing interests of neighboring states, and transnational alliances and movements.

Afghanistan is made up of a number of tribal and ethnic groups, with the northern half speaking Farsi and culturally close to its neighbors Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. The groups in the South are Pashtun and have more in common with Pakistan. A landlocked country, Afghanistan has established a legal right of transit through Pakistan to get goods from ocean shipments.

All the conflicts of religion, ethnicity, and the modern state seem to have descended on Afghanistan. After 1978, the country also became a pawn in the geopolitical strategies of the Soviet Union, the United States, and Al Qaeda. Refugees from the fighting fled to the surrounding countries. Pakistan ended up with 3 million. Many were taken into Islamic boarding schools and became strict students of Islam (Taliban).

It is in the interest of all the neighboring countries to see political stability in Afghanistan but, in the absence of a strong centralized power, warlords have ruled various territories. In that situation, Pakistan is concerned about good relations with its warlord neighbors among the Pashtuns. However, after 9/11 the U.S. decided to oust the Taliban and support the creation of a stable national regime. That was also something Pakistan could support.

Akhtar takes the reader through this history in detail and in the end warns that a premature withdrawal of the U.S. coalition from Afghanistan that would lead to destabilization and greater internal conflict could cause another reversal on the part of Pakistan. Worried about political stability on its own borders and the fate of its Pasthun neighbors, Pakistan might be forced to defend them against other groups seeking control of Afghanistan.

Throughout the article, the reader is forced to conclude that the peace of Afghanistan cannot simply be the peace imposed by one of the many political players involved. Rather, there needs to be some broad coalition regime that recognizes pluralism and the rights of all religious and national groups, and at the same time is able to protect them all with equal justice.

Our last two articles propose solutions to the conflict between Palestinians and Jews in Israel. Alon Ben-Meir recommends that Israel look seriously at the Arab Peace Initiative, originally known as the Saudi Initiative, as the basis for a peace settlement. This proposal makes a just peace the overriding principle under which other claims are settled. It includes the idea of an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as the capital. Ben-Meir also emphasizes that Arabs need to recognize Israel’s concerns for security, the Jewish national identity, and normalized relations.

The second article by William Stover and Marina Mankaryous also states that both sides should place peace as the foremost value and recognize the paradox “that only through negotiations toward peace can their other values be achieved.” They argue for a condominium arrangement in Jerusalem to resolve the conflicting sovereignty claims over the holy sites. They analyze other places where condominium arrangements have worked and make a proposal on how this can take place in Jerusalem.

Our senior editor, Morton A. Kaplan, thought both articles are important contributions to resolving differences, but issued the following warning about realizing the security of Israel:

In the 1974 proposal I did with Cherif Bassiouni, Syria did get the Golan back. The problem is whether a Palestinian state will be able to control its radicals. The PLO does not have real support and I doubt even a good solution will restore it. Rockets from the West Bank would immobilize Israeli air communications. Even the Egyptians do not have domestic support for their cooperation with Israel. This is a very difficult issue and one reason I proposed both in the 70s and more recently, a joint Israeli Palestinian force that can operate in both states to control violent groups. Perhaps Syria should get the southern part of Lebanon to prevent the utter disruption of the Lebanese state if the Palestinian refugees are integrated. This is not a very good idea either. At the very least, Israel might need a transition period in which it retains the right to intervene if a West Bank state cannot control its radicals. I think the game was lost in 1974 when Kissinger objected to a global solution. Either someone must come up with something very inventive or we are in the soup. I believe the latter.

All of our authors remind us that the nations surrounding Israel and Afghanistan have a role to play in bringing peace to these countries. The concerns of Syria need to be addressed to gain security in any agreement with respect to Israel. Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states have a role to play in maintaining peace in Afghanistan. Also, the great powers, especially the United States, have to rethink their understanding of terrorism and strategic interests and make a just peace for all citizens in the region the primary goal of foreign policy objectives in the region.

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