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Saturday, November 14, 2015
Towards a Strategy for Defeating the Barbarians
President of the Republic of Lebanon, 1982-1988
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Waiting for the Barbarians
14 November 2015
Dutch Opera House, Amsterdam
Why are there still barbarians?
Tilburg, The Netherlands
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Dear colleagues: my friend and our distinguished host and organizer, President Rob Riemen, has asked me to use an informal style and to share personal perspectives when initiating our dialogue. I will of course comply with this sound advice, but also beg your understanding if I must refer to a written text because English is not my first language.
Friends, some individuals hearing our words tonight or reading about them later, may be tempted to invoke the words of W.H. Auden:
Shut up talking, charming in the best suits to be had in town,
Lecturing on navigation while the ship is going down.
Needless to say, I reject such criticism. Amid an intensifying crisis, it is essential for organizations such as the Nexus Institute to bring together writers, poets, scholars, and artists for dialogues like this, dialogues that can help launch considered action.
The need for both dialogue and action is apparent. Allow me to discuss the scope of the crisis we face from a personal perspective.
I am a native and lifelong resident of a small country that, for better or worse, absorbs almost every Arab, Middle Eastern, and global trend; I have been a close student of and participant in Middle Eastern politics on the national and regional levels for well over half a century; I have served in government as a peacetime parliamentarian and wartime president; I have directed an international think tank and one of the Arab world’s oldest political parties; in all these capacities, I have traveled extensively and visited practically every country in the Middle East, some numerous times over many decades.
Given the arc of my career, I am equally saddened and alarmed to say to you that I have never in my political life witnessed Arab civilization in such extreme danger. The most prominent expression of this danger is that the so-called “Islamic State,” or ISIS, lords over large areas of Syria and Iraq.
The ISIS mindset is revealed in the vocabulary used to describe their operations: massacre, execution, beheading, crucifixion, murder, rape, sexual slavery, and burning alive.
These are not just horrific words and actions that the world associates with ISIS; rather, they are horrific words and actions that ISIS gleefully associates with itself, as documented in their endless stream of social media productions.
But “Why,” we have been asked to discuss, “are there still barbarians?” I would like to amplify this vital question by asking you, my fellow panelists, two additional questions: “What is the nature of the barbarians storming across the Middle East, the very cradle of human civilization?” And, “How can we start moving towards a strategy for defeating the barbarians?”
With your permission, before yielding the floor I will offer some brief reflections in response to these questions.
When I first saw the theme of our panel, I immediately thought of Walter Benjamin’s famous statement, written in 1940 while he was on the run from Nazi Germany, that “[t]here is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.”
For me, Benjamin’s powerful observation helps us answer the burning question of why barbarians exist. I think Benjamin’s dictum can be interpreted to mean that in the modern world, it is not the breakdown of civilization that precedes a spasm of barbarism, but rather it is a totalitarian assertion of civilization that causes mass violence and wars.
In other words, the truly dangerous barbarians are not those who are outside the symbolic “gates” of civilization; rather, the truly dangerous barbarians are the ones within the gates who are convinced with a fanatical certitude that they are the carriers of a superior civilization that must dominate, displace, or destroy other expressions of civilization.
In this regard, we can think of Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. Certain that—in their love of art, architecture, and music—they were the most civilized of men, they instead became personifications of barbarism because they wedded their civilized sensibilities to a boundless urge to dominate or exterminate what they saw as competing civilizations.
Perhaps there are still barbarians, then, because there are still so many who refuse to accept that our great house of humanity does and should contain many mansions of civilization, which is to say many corridors to the enhancement of the human experience.
Next, perhaps in our exchange that follows we can discuss the nature of the barbarians that have seized center-stage in the Middle East. Here, let me suggest that just as in criminal law, the charge of barbarism carries varying degrees of offense.
So, with respect to twentieth century history, we can ask: what was the greater barbarism, the Nazi or the Soviet version of dictatorship? A most difficult question to answer, which is perhaps why Robert Conquest, when asked to make such a judgment, would only say that the holocaust, quote, “just feels worse” than Stalin’s crimes.
To me, what ISIS is doing in its expanding zone of control “just feels worse” than anything I have ever seen in the region. Yes, the Iran-Iraq war and the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s featured their share of barbaric acts, as have all wars.
In fact, I have in the past referred to the war in Lebanon as an “eclipse of civilization.” But an eclipse of civilization, like a solar eclipse or a lunar eclipse, goes through its cycle and eventually ends.
Even if the aftereffects of an eclipse of civilization linger for decades, as they have in Lebanon, the underlying civilization reemerges from the smoke and destruction and goes on. Yet, surveying the barbarism of ISIS—which recognizes neither the borders of states nor the boundaries of civilized behavior—I am not at all that sure Arab civilization can survive its depredations over the long-term.
If the ISIS project succeeds in stamping out Christian, Muslim, Druze, and other communities as vibrant elements of Middle Eastern society, then we would need to alter the very lexicon we use to describe the region. For example, a decade before his death in 2011, the Lebanese scholar Kamal Salibi noted that, “It is the Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world ‘Arab’ rather than ‘Muslim’.”
Surveying the Middle East current trajectory, the poetic warning by Anacreon of Teos comes to mind:
For the abyss of Hades is frightful, and the descent to it
Grievous. And once you have gone down, there is no coming back.
In closing, I would like to briefly sketch some key elements of a strategy for defeating the barbarians who threaten the future of the Middle East. First, of course, a military response by moderate Arabs and their international partners is needed.
Recognizing this fact, in March of this year the Vatican’s representative in Geneva issued an extraordinary call for the creation of a UN-approved multilateral force to stop ISIS “genocide”—that is the word he used—against Christians and other groups.
Although military force must be deployed against ISIS in the short-term, I submit that over the long-term the opponents of barbarism must promote—by means of reformed education systems—pluralism, democracy, and human rights as fundamental values. Elsewhere I have suggested that such measures could be bundled under a comprehensive reform program called the “Arab Marshall Plan.”
Only through a bold concept similar to the Arab Marshall Plan can the Arabs preserve the core of their civilization and position themselves to join the broad movement of history in the twenty-first century. This movement is characterized by an increasing tempo of change, growing interconnections between cultures, and expanding popular participation in politics.
If ISIS twists religion for the worst purposes, then the opponents of barbarism must enlist religion as an antidote to such atrocities. We need new initiatives such as a “Concert of Religions” that can lead multinational, multi-faith efforts to secure religious pluralism, especially in the Middle East.
Finally, I must briefly mention the role that Lebanon has played in stemming the Middle East’s tide of barbarism. Lebanon as an idea—a concept of tolerance—has wider Middle East significance in that it is the only Arab state founded on the principle of all-sectarian inclusion and conciliation.
If this formula works in Lebanon and other places—most notably Tunisia—then it could also be applied in post-conflict situations in other Arab countries, including Syria.
My fellow Lebanese and Arab democrats, my political party, and even my personal family, have sacrificed lives to defend and implement ideals of freedom, human rights, and pluralism.
That is why Arab democrats will never refuse to fight for change in the Arab world, certain as we are that only democratic governance can rescue Arab civilization from the barbarians that seeks to turn it into a crazed, expansionist, and blood-drenched force of destruction.
But I have said enough, and now turn to you, my distinguished colleagues, for guidance and enlightenment.