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Opinion

Middle East: Death by identity

The problems of the people in the Middle East are rooted in an overindulgence in identity.

Last updated: 17 Jun 2014 08:31
John Bell

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government during the Iraq crisis in 2002-03.
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Indeed, in the complex politics of the Middle East, any solution perceived to favour one side would only inflame an already wild circumstance [AFP]

The Middle East is experiencing yet another one of its periodic convulsions. The region lives from crisis to crisis, but the events in Iraq last week may speak to something larger, a geopolitical watershed that leaves key players in disarray.

After $1tn in total spending, US hopes for Iraq are being dashed. The Iranian strategy of clever diplomacy and expanding regional influence is under threat as a key ally disintegrates. Turkey's regional diplomacy is in tatters and, above all, the Arab powers are in absentia. Today, there is no countervailing Arab-Sunni force to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its ilk. Syria is in civil war, Egypt busy with internal matters, and Saudi Arabia incapable of rising to the regional challenge.

There may, however, be a silver lining to this dark cloud. There is already talk of US-Iranian cooperation against the marauders, and there will likely be further coordination with Turkey to contain and diminish this radical scourge. These are important components; however, if this explosive event is to serve as an opportunity, another framework will be required to properly achieve stabilisation of the Middle East.

US President Barack Obama is on the right track by indicating that the condition for US intervention is that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must "set aside sectarian diffferences", i.e. the US will not take sides. Indeed, in the complex politics of the Middle East, any solution perceived to favour one side would only inflame an already wild circumstance.

The people of the Middle East suffer from an exaggerated identification with groups, whether political, religious or politico-religious. The myths and traditions of any sect, tribe or nation are not only alive and well, but reaffirmed daily by the instruments of modernity. They are either dumbed down by formulaic ideology, or intensified through the circuits of the digital media.

Therefore, not only Iran and Turkey must be in the game, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia as key Arab Sunni states, despite their current weakness. All four must come together and agree on areas of common understanding, such as pushing back in a coordinated fashion on radicalism, first in Iraq, then elsewhere. In such a framework, the needs of all sides must trump the ambitions of any single power, and limits to behaviour defined.

Such an effort will need a patron or facilitator, and the US is the prime candidate, but this is also an opportunity to involve China and Russia. The current crisis can serve as the incubator for greater regional understanding if orchestrated deftly by concerned parties.

A deeper illness

However, the reality is that this scenario, if it proceeds, will only achieve the bare minimum for a region with a much deeper illness. This is a necessary but insufficient step, and a deeper cure is required than such diplomatic arrangements can deliver.

The people of the Middle East suffer from an exaggerated identification with groups, whether political, religious or politico-religious. The myths and traditions of any sect, tribe or nation are not only alive and well, but reaffirmed daily by the instruments of modernity. They are either dumbed down by formulaic ideology, or intensified through the circuits of the digital media.

Few know how to deal politically with someone from outside their group. Whether Sunni, Shia, Druze, Christian, Jew, Kurd or subsets of all of the above, all are taught how to exclude (and therefore to devalue) the outsider, and not to tolerate difference or partake in a larger cause.

It is a taboo in the region to dissent with one's nation or sect, and the opposite is encouraged: competition over unquestioned loyalty, and fatal consequences for betrayal.

Distrust is the natural consequence of such hard lines in the sand between "us" and "them". Breaking agreements, and bolting when necessary as circumstances shift is justified in the name of group survival. All is temporary, especially alliances; it is therefore very difficult to build any permanence or common ground. How soon will it be before the Baathists and ISIL in Iraq start bickering and fighting amongst each other?

The goal is for each group to grab what it can and quickly, before others do. Maliki did it surreptitiously, ISIL quickly. Whether this is workable or has any constructive purpose is rarely considered.

Indeed, we are all biologically wired to be biased towards our group but cooperation is also natural and, in today's complex and colliding world, likely an imperative. The sudden spread of jihadists along half the length of the Euphrates river should serve as a wake-up call to the unsuccessful Middle Eastern behaviour of pursuing one's ends to the exclusion of others.

Group allegiance

Despite pretensions otherwise, the reality is that no one in the Middle East, not a single government, is successfully creating a context of acceptance of the outsider. Democratic institutions, and ideas like pluralism are all well and good as long as people abide by them. In the Middle East, group allegiance trumps them every time.

The evolution forward is possible if, for a start, politicians work to make sure people's basic material and emotional needs are met, instead of lining their pockets or chasing political chimera. It's also important to keep emotional levels in the public space low so all can work constructively towards these new frameworks - a tall order in a region that thrives on high drama.

However, whether in three or 300 years, the cure will inevitably be that people from Lebanon to Israel to Iran have to learn that group belonging has its limits, and an overindulgence in identity can lead to severe blindness towards others. This may seem like a distant remedy that requires generational change, but the right fix is better than a thousand patchworks that leave the region lurching from crisis to crisis.

No one is even thinking of truly doing so because they fear diminishing what is cherished most: one's own group, culture and history. Sadly, the Middle East is a testament today that an instrument once crucial for our survival, our group, has become become the very vehicle of our destruction.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government during the Iraq crisis in 2002-03.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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