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Religious in Middle East

Religion, unavoidable element in any political settlement in the Middle East

The West in general and Europe since 1945 continue against all odds to buttress on the liberal principle of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights Council of Europe; ultimately the objective of these documents was to banish war and to ensure to every individual on this planet, a secured space of freedom regardless of race, religion, sex, language, or political opinion …

This vision of the ideal world began to be undermined by countries wchich saw this as, either an extension of a western domination by soft means (cf. conditionalities “good governance” of loans from the World Bank or gifts of the European Development Fund: the democratic dimension in the recipient country is part of the award criteria or not of the loan or grant by these multilateral agencies)or in fine a denial of their specific values ​​(“Asian values”, in number five, often borrowed from Confucianism; these values ​​have allowed for greater acceptance of the political authoritarianism in order to stimulate the Asian economic compared to the Western world, among these principles, the nation prevail over the community, society over individual, the search for compromise and the social harmony and religious communities adherence separated by religion, ethnicity, or social inequalities, so everything can be obtained through these five values. (cf. Yves Gazzo “ASEAN asiatype 2000”).

On the west side, decolonization coupled with the post-war boom could suggest that we finally nearing the “end of the story”. Yet disorders storm clouds became more and more increasingly pressing either the war in Chechnya, in the Russian Caucasus, the Balkans war, or the delicate integration of Central European countries in the EU, some of them having within them significant harm integrated communities (“Roma” in Hungary and Romania, Muslim minority in Bulgaria, Russian in the Baltic States …). This desired “blindness” on other worlds and the obsession with exporting democracy supposed to bring happiness to all the inhabitants of the planet, led to severely underestimate the sociological realities of these other worlds and even worse, taking the brunt an end of inadmissibility of much of these non-Western populations

The Middle East, “a majority of minorities”

This is why General de Gaulle castigated the “Western or Ottoman diplomat going to the complicated East with simple ideas (Y. Gazzo, original No. 7 April 1998 -” the Middle East: is peace possible?”). This complexity is not surprising therefore that we remember that it is in this part of the world that have hatched three great monotheisms and, more recently, that ideologies were invented or reinvented: the Ottomanism, anti-colonialism, Arab nationalism, Arab socialism of Nasser, fundamentalism … etc. In this context, the region does not tolerate any outside hegemony, once liberated from Ottoman rule that would finally shed at the end of the First World War, after an agony that began in the 19th century; the end of the reign was accompanied by woes fomented by the Ottomans as the conflicts between Druze and Maronites in Lebanon between 1840 and 1860, the infamous genocide of the Armenians and even the reversal of certain provisions of treaties: Sevres in 1920 recognizing a Kurdish state, Lausanne in 1923, picking up Kurds’ rights to have a state.

The colonial powers that built on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire Western states nations, France and UK have made the bitter experience: France with its mandate on Syria and Lebanon and its attempts to balance the weight of different religious communities in each country, the choice to rely on the Alawite minority (Shiite), which constitute the core of the Syrian army and who, in fact, become the guarantor, with an iron hand, the stability of the new state; the British who will concede the creation of a Jewish state while creating a new kingdom, that of Jordanian Hashemites, driven from Mecca, where the Hashemite family was “Sharif” by the Wahhabis; the kingdoms of Egypt or Iraq, meanwhile, will have a short life span and the crowned heads will be replaced by strong men from the army …

These authoritarian regimes were crucial, like it or not, to maintain the different communities in a “living together” or default side by side because communities are numerous and most often identify with a religion or one of its currents.

Taking Islam, it is divided into three branches, the large majority Sunnis, Shiites and finally the Kharijites, especially minority presence in North Africa. However, within Sunnism there are four schools including the fundamentalist Wahhabi, the Hanafi, present in Turkey and Central Asia, the Maalikis in northern and western Africa and the Shaafa’is in Egypt and in the Indian Ocean and finally brotherhoods as Sufism, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists … etc. and all appear in the Sunni spectrum.

The Shiites for their part, are divided into three schools: Zaydis the Twelver and Ismaili.

The Christian world in the Middle East is no less divided since there are more than ten churches between Melkites or Greek Orthodox and the branch agreed with Rome, Greek Catholics; Nestorians and Chaldean Catholics, the Orthodox Syrians, Jacobites and the Syrians or Syrian Catholics, Copts of Egypt shared between a Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate and other Catholic Coptic, the Armenian Church, which also has a catholic branch and finally the Catholic Maronites; should be added to this panorama on one hand the Latin Community directly connected to Rome and finally the Protestant churches that have proliferated in the wake of the establishment of the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut in the nineteenth century.

In this complex world, it is obvious that if some external power wished to intervene it would have to either use brute force knowing that its effect will be temporary or try to understand the decision making process, alliances, alliances change order to try to distill its messages and to imbue its brand. A fundamental point is the raeding by the local populations of ” the message” carried by outside powers, although this message is more and more reduced to hammering the goal of a world irrigated by a universal democratic fiber , wishing the leaving of “dictators” (Mubarak, Ben Ali, Bashar al-Assad and his father even more cruel, Qaddafi, even Saddam Hussein when he was useful to the “containment” in Iran of Khomeini) time courted by these outside powers, which contributed to confuse the original message or to the discredit and this in a region in need of economic and social well-being.

A simplistic answer to a complex situation

A stranger outside to the issue of the region will struggle to understand why at the time, the conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia supported the communist South Yemen but Sunni, against the conservative North Yemen but Shiite. This was the same situation between the leaders of the same party “baas” but enemies, but Assad Syrian Shiite and Sunni Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The memory of history also plays its part, Eastern Christians are sometimes perceived, and wrongly, as relays of Western powers and Vatican City. This was the case in Iraq, where the war bringing down Saddam Hussein, led to a wave of persecution and departure of this very old community of Christians reduced to its simplest expression (the arrest of Saddam Hussein, taken brutaly and humiliating from his shelter shocked a lot the Arab world, Christians included, again the message was interpreted differently in the camp where we place and the same scenario occurs in Syria!

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also contributes to regional disorder and create doubt concerning the good faith when dealing Western conflict and propose solutions (human rights, non-compliance by Israel of United Nations resolutions such as 248, on the return to the 1967 borders, the non-ratification by Israel of nuclear non-proliferation etc. … and closer to us, the Oslo accords of 1993 and especially the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin who sincerely campaigned for peace).

Alongside lectures I gave in Algiers in 2008, I had the opportunity to meet with Secretary General of the Algerian government and during our conversation I mentioned the case UPM (Union for the Mediterranean) dear to Nicolas Sarkozy ; General Secretary was very clear because for him there will be no progress as long as the Israeli-Palestinian issue will not be ended.

But Western diplomacy and the French in particular, has made conversion “human rights” and in fact since Alain Juppé and Hubert Védrine, France has only known transparent foreign ministers or behaving as if they were at the head of an NGO, restless without political vision. The tragedy was that they used their power to appoint ambassadors from the same breed (case of Syria, for example, with the appointment of an ex emergency doctor to the touchy position of ambassador in Damascus right in there, a seasoned ambassador would have been useful.) In the same vein some Western countries themselves up as judges of behavioural rules by declaring overnight that those received with great ceremony at the Elysee yesterday as presidents, Assad, Gaddafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak spent all suddenly the group of “dictators” with the added support of a docile press and devoid of discernment mind playing the role of an amplifier. Without repeating the disastrous effects on the internal balance of the country rid of their “tyrants”, the cruel lack of reflexion on the side effects including the regional of such actions (Libya / Sahelian countries … etc.) is breathtaking and saying that local populations caught in the crossfire of the various militias around, making their life impossible, and inviting them to emigrate! What to do in these conditions?

Assert its identity; dialogue taking into account the realities

A seductive temptation would be to get into the game of the Eastern complexed but the risk of tripping over the carpet is much higher, with the exception of measures at the margin, to achieve the desired results. What desperately expected by people in the Middle East is a West that “speak truth” and who does not preach, by not applying himself to the same rules as those it wishes to export or uses a selective and biased prism in his choices, his statements, given its support (human rights in Palestine / Israel and kindness compared to oil-producing Gulf countries: Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc …).

To the world outside Europe is seen as a Christian land (75% of Europeans declare themselves as Christians according to a study of the think tank of the European Parliament (see “violence and persecution against Christians in the world”, Brussels, December 2015 .) It is on this basis that Russia operates in the Arab world value to the tacit understanding signed between the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church and the Russian executive, “one state, one language, one religion” and without reject other religions, on the contrary, the position of the Russian Orthodox Church is interesting about it. On occasion of his visit to Rome in 2010, Mgr. Hilarion, the Minister of External Affairs of the Patriarchate, wrote in Osservatore Romano “Islam is welcome in Russia but there is a priority for the first religion, ie the Orthodox Church which has the advantage of clarity, since religions belong to” new “adapt to the Russian context and history, traditions etc … this, knowing that, according to the same study the EP in its projections for 2050, the number of atheists and agnostics to fall by 16.14 % in 2010 to 13.2% in 2050, Christianity remains the first religion in the world with 31.4% closely followed by Islam, up 29.7%, and far ahead of the 14.9% Hindus and Buddhists in decrease (5.2%). So those who dreamed of a world without religion, or at least with shelved religions are going to be disillusioned and they will have to deal with religions and religious nested within the policy.

This distinction is important knowing that in the future the Middle East will probably be more “mono-religion,” Christians have been either eliminated or marginalized while Europe (the West) will be more, however, and this, willy-nilly, multi-confessions, where the importance of knowing who we are. If Europe comes out of his guilty shyness to define itself, it will after implement a readable policy by people and governments of the Middle East: be fair and equitable in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in his way of reading the respect for human rights, aid economic democracy while respecting the political traditions of the countries concerned and finally use the hard way when necessary.

The dialogue between politicians and religions should be a key factor of the relationship between Europe and the Middle-Orient: political and religious dialogue even if the difficulty of the dialogue said by experience that we know (based in Rome as ambassador to the Holy See, I often talked with the leaders of interfaith dialogue and according to them, if the dialogue with Shi’ism is relatively productive due to the very structure of religious guidance, it is much more complicated with the Sunni world: indeed like every community can freely choose their Imam, regardless of the ideological training of the latter, this flexible formula leaves the door open to all interpretations of the Koran, all the drifts and, whatever the position of the lawyers of the University of Al Azar.

Regarding the use of force, some will undoubtedly argue that we should not give the impression to wage a war against Islam and bomb Muslim countries, a war which is inappropriate and knowing a priori that any use of force must be a last resort, it should not be maintained over time and especially that it should be accompanied by a serious political project supported by the main communities or countries of the area; to this we could reply that in the world where the “end of the end of history” is recorded, if Europe wants to continue to exist it must be assertive and not withdraw into itself, which would be suicidal and does not solve the problem, because we will post more our weakness against a political Islam that think the time has come to take power dreamed for centuries.

Moreover, it will be noted that military interventions in the Middle East are often made at the request of Muslim leaders or to defend certain groups or Muslim communities. And if the great majority of Muslims who are in Europe aspire to live in peace the fact is that, the Muslim religion did not operate a separation of “mosque and state” could tip the majority silent to the proponents of political Islam and the West; it was among others the technique used by the FLN in Algeria to win over the masses of “fellahin” (peasant in Arabic). Therefore, there is still much progress to be made on the western side to identify the real enemies and get rid of this corset of human rights, without eliminating the main principles provided, which annihilated any analytical multi- criteria and led us to take positions regrettable since the war in Iraq.

Yves Gazzo
Ambassador, Official Representative of the Sovereign Order of Malta to the European Commission

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