Abu Dhabi


New York

Tuesday 20th March 2018

Iron Age Thinking


James Watt

Wed, 09 May 2018 12:16 GMT

In geo-political circles these days the idea prevails, even among those who despair at it, that the Middle East is inherently prone to conflict, that human disasters will multiply, and that the only way forward is through more use of force. Not so much, it seems at times, in order to gain a better end-state, as to counter the opponent and deprive him of victory, at the level of regional and global rivalries. Not so much to build a future in which war-ravaged populations can recover, and can look ahead to building something better than what went before. More like to double down on the crude political mechanisms that led to uprisings and war in the first place. 

The ancient Middle East saw the rise of the neighbour-devouring militant state, reaching its fullest form in the Iron Age. A walk through the Assyrian gallery at the British Museum gives a direct sense of what that meant.

The same ruthlessness, likewise backed by an aggressive version of monotheism, was shown by the barbarous ISIS, a product of our own times. ISIS is presented as a freak, a monstrosity, which it certainly is. And yet the continuity of Iron Age thinking extends to the capitals of the most advanced modern nations. The number of strategists and pundits in Washington now urging war on Iran is breathtaking, urged on by some in Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is as if amnesia had set in, like a science-fiction plague, wiping out knowledge of negotiation, of mutual confidence, of shared interests, of peaceful coexistence, of a common future. Or that war is always the worst option, and that even when the fighting stops its trauma continues in societies and individual psyches for generations. 

The crisis of liberalism in the West has many causes, and may have contributed to a sense of fatalism about the inevitability of more war, and above all of war in the Middle East. Compassion for the suffering of civilian populations has not been accompanied by the outrage that would have inspired peace-movements in the past. Even if it were so, the limits of collective European influence, to take the example nearest home, have been starkly revealed by the unrestricted brutality of warfare in Syria. The voice of reason and conciliation is drowned out by the ferocious onslaught of lying propaganda unleashed by all sides. 

Fortunately, the region's fate does not depend upon the West. Nor on the grim security regimes that flourish in unending conflicts. The future lies in society itself. Not only Arab society, but Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish and Israeli society, having to live together in a space that requires ever more careful management and cooperation. Borders and boundaries will remain. But thought flows free - the civilised thought that has flourished since the Iron Age and, despite what we are currently witnessing, it influences human behaviour.  

For the contemporary Arab world, on the receiving end of so much insecurity, the challenge to recover its full historic intellectual and cultural depth has long been its most urgent modern challenge. This has led some to a fervent religious faith. More significantly, across the range of religious and secular belief, it has revealed the power of the social and personal values deeply rooted in Arab society. This was laid bare in the extraordinary courage of so many ordinary Syrians in the uprising against the regime in 2011, and in facing the additional oppression inflicted by Islamist militants who ended by depriving them of their victory and their freedom.  

Geo-strategists ignore this at their peril. The slick discourse of inter-state confrontation has all the wisdom of a teenager playing a video game. The future will not forgive them. The true challenge is to give expression to the aspirations of tens of millions of the younger generation, who despise the failed leaderships that have given them war, poverty and repression. Who despise the West for its cravenness and frivolity in failing to defend common human values. And who see themselves as individuals with multiple identities, legitimate expectations and a vision of their future, not a passive factor in a war game.

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