Middle East self determination: Is the Middle East able to determine its development without extremism and external interference ?

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Answered by: Walter, An Expert in the U.S. Middle East Policy Category
Middle East self determination

Middle East self determination

Too many of the ongoing sectarian religious and political conflicts of the Middle East seem so intractable that one might wonder if volatility will ever give way to stability and regional progress.Lets look at some examples that highlight some dilemmas:

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:

If we think about the numerous attempts made at negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years ( since the 1993 signing of Oslo Accords between then Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization's -PLO- President Yassar Arafat) we can see how the potential for peace was squandered and torpedoed because radical extremist militants and their external backers had an interest in seeing it fail.

It is an open secret that hardline Zionist and Jewish orthodox extremists ( who believed they have a god given right to colonize and settle these ancient lands as they please regardless if it causes harm to the Arab inhabitants) balked at the idea of a compromise of a "two state solution" and a land for peace deal ( Israel agreeing to surrender control of the Westbank and Gaza and stopping Jewish settlement of these occupied lands in return for an end to hostilities, recognition of Israel's right to exist and security guarantees ) because it would have considerably undermined their political influence in Israel.

The same applies to radical Palestinian islamists, and their affiliated organization like Islamic Jihad and Hamas( to name a few) who have kept targeting Israel, its citizens and overseas interests for years with a sustained bombing campaign which was also aimed at undermining the bargaining position and relevance of the PLO within the Palestinian camp.

These developments do not bode well for peace, since it is hardly also a surprise that Israel's nemesis and regional competitors like Syria ( after the Arab-Israeli 1967 War, Syria lost control of the Golan Heights to Israel) and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been collaborating on how to undermine Israel and have been very generous and supportive with arms supplies and training to exactly these extremist proxy organizations that target Israel.

Think of it yet in another way, without a conflict or "destructive" cause to pursue, Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or the Zionists-Orthodox Right wing Jewish lobby or the clerical rulers of Iran would loose their "legitimacy-relevance" in the eyes of their supporters.After the toppling of the pro Western - US supported Shah of Iran in 1979,Iran's Islamic theocracy has adopted a vehemently anti-Zionist stance, arguing the Jewish state must be destroyed or cease to exist before Palestinians can attain their rights and peace be achieved).

Beyond this problem of fundamentally different- conflicting world views, we also continue to see how meddling from the outside has been affecting outcomes of unrest and opposition against autocratic rule across much of the region in the Arab Spring since 2011:

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria:

Although the social and political unrest that swept through the region back in 2011 after decades of repressive autocratic rule heralded in the promise of democracy, prosperity and freedom, the results are very uneven at best. Since then we can see that significant challenges remain. Egypt's transition to democracy has been fraught with economic decline and violent conflicts flaring up between governing Islamists and secular opposition, likewise although Gadaffi's fall has enabled the victory of moderate Liberals at the polls it also given the islamists a new lease of life to seek a mandate to islamize the country if they win elections, and in Syria's case the embattled Assad regime has been under economic pressure and looks to keep Syria descending even further into sectarian strife and civil war as each day passes.

Again as you can imagine major Western and non western powers haven't been idle and watching events unfold from the sidelines.

Undeniably without Western (US, UK, France and Italy supported) intervention in the Libyan civil war ( Feb-Oct. 2011) in favor of the anti Gadaffi opposition, Gadaffi would still be in power today and Syrian's armed secular and islamist opposition have only gained momentum ( despite the Western powers repeated failure to cajole Russia and China who have excellent trading and diplomatic relations with Syria and who wield veto holding powers in the UN Security Council into agreeing to applying sanctions against Syria) against the Assad regime because of the increasing logistical financial support they are receiving also from the Gulf monarchies and Turkey.

Iran and Nuclear Proliferation:

Those who follow the news will not have escaped the growing tensions between the West and Iran as regards their pursuit of a nuclear program. While Iran claims its program is for peaceful and civilian purposes only and using nuclear power for military purposes is plain unislamic ( Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious edict -fatwa- in this regard, and Iran never used any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in its war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq 1980-1988), the West and Israel fear that Iran has been playing a game of deceit with UN inspectors ( who still cannot fully verify the program and sites) and thus is hell bent on military nuclearization because it can become a regional power house, threaten Israel's security more directly and increase its diplomatic and military clout vis a vis its Arab neighbors.

Many in the West, with hindsight have come to realize that Iran is a conundrum that is very difficult to deal with. Hawkish elements in US and Israel have repeatedly declared Iran is a tremendous threat to international peace and security and a state sponsor of terrorism worldwide , that needs an unequivocal response from the West that goes beyond diplomatic and economic containment.

Iran however has a case in point when they decry all of this as a barely concealed Western plot against them with allot of saber rattling and double standards ( nuclear apartheid: Why can Israel violate UN resolution and be allowed to have a nuclear program and Iran can not ?), because if the pro Western Shah of Iran didn't get toppled in 1979, the West today would have no problem at all endorsing their royal ally's drive for a nuclear program.

Moreover Iranians have a good memory of external interference in the affairs of their country, with the British (Mi6) and US (CIA) intelligence services actively plotting against and then toppling the democratically elected "social democratic minded" Mossadegh government (that proposed nationalization of British oil interests in Iran ) and so are extremely weary of anyone who promises them freedom. They have learned the hard way, 33 years of repressive clerical rule, has turned most Iranians into moderately religious and secular minded proponents of "organic" home grown regime change without external meddling.


In my view Islamists and Secularists will continue to battle each other to shape and control the future of the region. There is nothing wrong in that provided it is a peaceful competitive "legitimate" process that strives to reconcile modernity with preservation of Islamic tradition, while entrenching accountable governance (the rule of the law) and respect for pluralism.

This is where the crux is. If ordinary people sense their expectations are not being met under democratic conditions and still remain poor, uneducated and beholden to tradition they will very likely turn to islamism and their extremist agents as their salvation from hardship, and this can have negative implications and a destabilizing effect on democratic development in the region.

Some monarchies like Jordan and Morocco have avoided pitfalls by threading carefully and incrementally in that direction and so far it has worked, and it remains to be seen if others can follow. Much really depends on whether political and economic liberalization can take place at a pace that works and delivers results that the toppled autocracies couldn't deliver and the remaining existing ones (i.e. Syria and Iran) are unwilling to extend to the majority of their populations.

It would be best if the West stopped interfering in the affairs of these countries, as this stirs up allot of resentment, unless asked to help, why cause locals to think you want to impose your agenda on them via creating submissive puppet governments ? People in the region are now experiencing a sense of ownership and a belief that they are not powerless and that things can change, and this must be reinforced by supportive policies and not be disappointed. Hence national self-determination can be achieved in a democratic context, but it can also be weakened and it depends on intelligent leadership.

People are people, and Middle Easterner's will need to shake off some bad habits, which are more cultural based then religious or political, i.e. continued sense that "a significant degree of authoritarianism is the only way to maintain political power and exert social control over society".

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