Posted by: ourvoicestogether | December 11, 2007

Middle East Peace Process – Getting The Perceptions Right

I know and I understand that the recent Annapolis peace summit did not turn out to be a great success. I am also cognizant of the fact that many have blamed President George Bush for waiting too long to take any constructive initiative in the Middle East and that he used this particular summit just to make his ‘resume look good’.

Having said that, it appears that the Middle East peace process is perhaps never going to advance any further if left to the whims and wishes of the politicians and certain interest groups that may apparently stand for peace but are actually afraid to take any bold measures in that direction. What has transpired is a failure of such meetings and summits held for a region that is regarded as perhaps the one of the most explosive regions in the world.

Despite these ‘understandable hiccups’ and fruitless junkets, there are perhaps still some bodies and individuals that genuinely yearn for reconciliation and better understanding of issues. I was pleasantly surprised to read an article written by Bassem Eid, founder and director the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group based in east Jerusalem.

Titled as ‘It need not be a clash’, and published recently, Eid has talked about certain extremely pertinent issues and perceptions that subvert chances of finding common grounds and thereby work on getting rid of the glitches within the structural framework.

Although I am not too enlightened vis-à-vis the writer’s background, I must say that I am rather impressed by the analysis and his expression of desire to achieve peace in the region.

Eid writes:

In recent years, the relationship between the Arab world and the West has been framed in terms of a fundamental conflict of interests, values and goals. The West, with its capitalist markets and liberal cultural standards, is viewed as being the antithesis of the Arab world, with its conservative social values and centrally-overseen markets.

Eid believes that the differences between Western-style capitalism and Middle-Eastern style socialism are exaggerated. He in fact points out to some similarities between the two, such as the one that involves the strict protection of state sovereignty.

Eid mentions Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (first articulated in the early 90s) theory according to which it is believed that there is an increasing danger and threat of violence arising between countries and cultures that base their tradition on religious faith and dogma.

The writer, in the context of the discussion, challenges the theory and argues that ‘the ideologies of the Western and Arab states are not mutually exclusive, nor are they doomed to play out Huntington’s theoretical model. As the late Edward Said argued in his “Clash of Ignorance” essay in 2002, Huntington’s line demonstrates that the most pressing problem of Arab-Western relations is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash of mistaken perceptions.’

Eid argues that in the realm of foreign policy:

perceptions always play a key role in negotiations between powers. For example, nations tend to perceive their own actions as “necessary” and “defensive,” while viewing the actions of other nations as “unnecessary” and “belligerent.” And this is the foundation of Arab-Western misconceptions. It is the magnitude of the Jihad vs. McWorld question, namely border-crossing capitalism versus splintering factionalism, as Benjamin Barber termed it in his 2003 book, which sets the relationship between West and Arabia apart.

‘Thus mistaken perceptions’, according to Eid, ‘encompass every area of life, including the economic, political, cultural and social realms’.

Eid extends his argument further and brings in the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ phenomenon. The writer is convinced that it is this very struggle that leaves the West in a perpetual state of apprehension and fear. Ignorance of the Middle Eastern way of life coupled with the absence of a balanced exchange of information has resulted in the greater misunderstandings and distortion of perceptions on both sides of the divide.

Here’s what I think is the most important part of Eid’s article:

Perception is key. In the Arabic-speaking world, there are groups which take a radical stance, and consider themselves in a clash against Western civilization. There are also radicals in the West who view the Arab states as a violent enemy. However, there are those on both sides who are able to identify their own misconceptions and who strive to work toward a greater level of understanding. In this sense, often the characterization of Arab-Western relations depends on the leadership of the nations involved, and their perceptions as influenced by history and the media.

And the last few words are full of hope and light: The opportunity for cooperation does exist. As human beings, Arabs and Westerners share bonds that can transcend cultural, economic, or religious differences, the challenge is to look beyond the initial rejection of an opinion or idea and try to understand what motivates the other side. In this way, clashes can become misunderstandings, and in time misunderstandings can be transformed into partnerships.

Idealistic as all this may sound, it appears that there are saner elements in the Arab world who think on the ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ lines, are willing to step away from the beaten track and are honestly interested in ‘fixing’ the problem.

One cannot but agree with Bassem Eid that perceptions are paramount and they are vital in creating the ‘grudnorms’ and views, thereby translating and orchestrating into policies that make or break the eventual network of links and ties that exist amongst nations.

Talking about perceptions, I would hasten to add my two cents! I remember that in the days and weeks that followed the 9/11 attacks, I felt, like millions around the world, absolutely disgusted about the fact that in the name of religion a certain group of people would kill and maim thousands of innocent souls who had come out of their homes to earn livelihood. It shattered my internal peace and negatively impacted my creative ability to grasp the realization that mankind can stoop to such a level of atrocious behavior.

As it was, I had little or no religious beliefs anyway beforehand, my faith in God’s existence and His will to do good for humanity was somewhat precipitating. Having experienced the passing away of both my parents that same year did not really help matters. In fact, I felt even more miserable.

In this condition of frustration and sorrow I met an elderly religious Jewish gentleman, named Kriss, who was always willing to ‘talk it out’ with me. We would converse for hours together and I would appreciate listening to his stories of commonsense and his brilliant hold of political history. Slowly and gradually, Kriss made me walk back to the path of faith and change my views about God and His ways. I would never forget Kriss’s words when he said that ‘religion may be what we make or mould but faith is what is eternal’.

Today, several years later, Kriss is my elder, my mentor and perhaps one of a handful number of people who I can trust for advice and guidance. Long story short, my lack of information, experience and the failure to ‘connect’ were throwing me off literally into some kind of a narrow tunnel that lead me absolutely nowhere. Kriss held my hand and gave me back my faith in life and its Creator.

Carol is another individual who has shown me how to probe and dig deep into situations to find the good and the positive and to bridge the gap between reality and fiction. The lady’s resoluteness and focus to lend a helping hand to those in need is a lesson for those who get ‘distracted’ by worldly matters. Having known her for years now, I can write countless number of pages with respect to her deeds in the most testing times of our lives. She is a torchbearer of patience, perseverance and a superb perception-builder.

The bottom-line is that perception holds the key. Bassem Eid’s conception that those involved in the Middle East muddle need to learn and communicate well makes excellent sense. If politicians have failed, the people can always introduce the much the needed energy and impetus necessary to make the peace process work.

Statesmen like Yitzhak Rabin are no longer amongst us and it seems that those engaged at the highest levels of negotiations are too weak and unassertive to ‘make things happen’. The Middle East quagmire will need a lot many mighty-hearted Kriss’s and the Carol’s to clear the haze and introduce fresh perceptions in the minds of all concerned.

I am sure Bassem Eid is not just a lone voice in the wilderness. There must be many more like him. What we need to do is to pay heed to their message and help perceive matters in an appropriate manner. Perceptions are like an artist’s impression of a painting – they are how well they are presented to the audience and how the audience feels about the message conveyed. If the priorities and the modus operandi are put in order, the perceptional ambiguities can be overcome and peace in the Middle East may no longer be an illusive dream.

–Ahson Saeed Hasan

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