Managing the Madness in the Middle East

From Iraq and Syria to the Gulf, from Turkey to Yemen, the bewildering role of religious factions, parties and extremist groups is leading to panic and confusion in global politics. It seems as if a number of powder kegs are going off, almost as a chain reaction: the complete destruction of Syria; the massive influx of paid global jihadis; the steady increase in bombs and extreme responses in Iraq between Sunni and Shia that led to its near-dissolution as a country; the massive exile of Christians everywhere; the explosive emergence of ISIS and the global reaction to ISIS's challenge to the oil status quo of the Middle East (not to mention its unprecedented embrace of atrocity); and the simmering rage over the killing of so many Muslim civilians in Gaza this summer. The list goes on, and the chain reaction suggests a spiral of violence that begs for a strategy to cope with and reverse the trend.

The key to untangling this mess and creating a series of tactical and strategic responses is to understand one basic truth: There are spirals of violence here that come from below, from the street, and spirals that come from above, from the state. Responses by citizens must undercut the violent spiral and address separately the state and the street.

On the state level:

  1. Face the real power brokers of what appears to be religiously inspired rebellion but is often a cover for state and imperial interests. Trace the money. That includes tracing the money for democratic change. If the source of funds for demonstrations and "democratic change" is severely antidemocratic itself and supportive of violent extremism in other pockets, then the motivations for supporting "democratic change" are in fact to support the weakening of rivals and enemies. Be aware of the game that is being played around you in the name of religion when in fact religion is irrelevant.
  2. Face your own state's economic and political entanglement with power brokers of religious extremism, in terms of both military contracts and oil interests.
  3. Demand the exposure of 1 and 2, or at least a radical course correction in foreign policy, which aggressively insists that allies and adversaries begin a process of détente and a deescalation of proxy wars across the region. Insist on conferences between Sunni and Shia states where differing rational interests regaring security, defense and economic welfare are openly faced and negotiated.
  4. Insist that your government create a more balanced approach to the whole region that puts everyone on notice that détente, diplomacy with all states and an end to proxy warfare are the only way forward.
  5. Expand the diversity of interested third parties to include other major states, Eastern and Western, non-Middle Eastern. The global system of energy that has fueled the imbalances, distortions and competitions of the Middle East needs to be at the table in order to forge a return to stability and reform rather than subversion and proxy warfare.
  6. Pour far more state resources into women's empowerment across religious and sectarian lines with crosscutting ties, which is a key ingredient of global stabilization. This is central in the work of interfaith peacebuilding, but also in state interventions, particularly because there is an unfortunate tendency, when encountering religious extremism, to focus on male clerics. This deliberate pivot toward religious men will be resented as interference. It is interference, and there is overwhelming evidence that it is the essential course correction globally, which is exactly why women are such a central enemy target for religious extremism, and for state patriarchal power structures as well.

On the street level:

  1. Support the process -- already underway -- of major religious authorities making sophisticated arguments for the global end of violence in the name of religion -- all religions.
  2. Bring those arguments into a widely accessible set of tools of mass communication that will be appealing to all, but especially to the young.
  3. Recognize the competition, study the style of those who have captured the imagination of youth, understand their appeal, and compete at every level -- at the level of imagination and purpose, at the level of economic incentives, at the level of empowerment.

A combination of challenges to popular culture but also to the state of elite relationships of states and state alliances is essential for the decline of this spiral of utilization of religion for conflict.

Finally, in the long term, a world based on fossil fuels is completely unsustainable, and states and individuals must each take concrete steps to rapidly move away from their use. It is not the first time in history that a resource craved by everyone distorted all rational investment in and valuation of citizens. The less valuable that oil becomes, the more valuable will be the minds and hearts of every single woman, man and child in the region, every minority, and thus there will be clear incentives to invest in every citizen rather than sacrificing them to a god of war that is always insatiable. The god of war may have a religious body covering up a materialistic heart. It does not matter. It is a false god that consumes the population, and the goal is a vision of the future for the whole region that makes everyone, from states to women and minorities, into assets of a shared future.

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