My childhood was shaped emotionally, politically and physically by the Cold War. The Iron Curtain stood a 20-minute drive from my childhood home. The borders adjacent to my small village in the eastern Alps changed during my grandfather’s lifetime, that of my father and during my own. Now, thanks to the collapse of communism and the expansion of the European Union, there is no border.
In my professional life, I have journeyed from the Hindu Kush to the shores of the Mediterranean, mostly during times of war. The most constant component of this journey across borders invented by past generations has been change. Change is also the most difficult aspect in political leaders’ vision, for change means the unknown, and the unknown requires courage. Yet, only those who have the courage to walk into the unknown can build a better tomorrow.
The right type of change is still missing from the Middle East. The Levant has mutated over the last decade or so. Its very architecture — constructed by European powers and rooted in the Sykes-Picot agreements of 1916 — appears to be falling part. Yet, its leaders have shown scant courage when it comes to embracing change without weapons and resort to arms. It is evident that the fire of the Shiite-Sunni divide has played quite a role, as have unresolved ethnic divisions among Arabs, Jews, Persians, Turks and Kurds.
In a world where the very issue of borders is changing — if not losing its practical significance — and where the power of the individual has reached its highest level in human history, a question comes to mind: Does the new president-elect of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, have the courage, vision and ability to set the stage for a new Levant as well as a new Iran that does not rest upon violence, war and threats? One might also ask another question: Do Rouhani’s fellow leaders in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Palestine also have the courage to lead without basing their policies only on confronting enemies?
Despite the persistence of civil wars and other conflicts in the region, there have been long periods of relative quiet when members of different religious and ethnic groups have coexisted in harmony. While no one, not even Turkey’s neo-Ottoman prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, can go back in time, there ought to be a way to shape a better future. This will require creative and courageous leadership by outside powers whose interventions in the past have often exacerbated local problems.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire, the West began to take the Levant for granted. The United States pocketed Iran’s assistance in creating a new government for Afghanistan after 9/11 and has been slow to embrace the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. China has become the beneficiary of US sanctions on Iran and has scooped up contracts with an Iraq liberated by US arms.
If I were one of the region’s leaders, I would find an answer that is not rooted in decades of conflict. The very meaning of borders is changing by the day, and the power of rulers over the ruled is weakening year by year due to technology, economics and globalization. During my childhood, I used to visit the cemetery where my grandmother was buried. The cemetery was cut in half by the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain, for God’s sake! Do the people of the Levant really wish to repeat the misery of the European Cold War era?
If I were a newly elected president in the Middle East, I would be most careful not to repeat the idiocy of the West in the previous century. Real leaders must extinguish the flames that threaten a conflagration between Sunni and Shiite from the Hindu Kush to the shores of the Mediterranean and resolve the civil war in Syria before another 100,000 people die.
I am a simple man who has journeyed across borders for the last four decades and who came to respect the lives of those who were not members of my small tribe. I was asked time and again why I risked my life for people outside my tribe. Let the leaders of the Middle East rise above tribe and show that they can lead without an enemy, that they can build a future that requires a real mind and a real soul. Few are able to build, yet people will judge us by our ability to construct, not destroy.
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