In this series of three articles, I have tried to address three tumors that are rotting the MENA region from within: ignorance, poverty, and division/polarization. These three issues are deeply intertwined and feed one another in a vicious cycle that has kept the region mired in conflict and instability for decades. This article will delve into the complex and divisive issue of division/polarization, whereas previous articles have explored the insidious nature of ignorance and poverty.
In the Middle East and North Africa, a land of ancient cultures and vibrant traditions, a dark and persistent problem exists. A problem born of centuries of division, fueled by fear and mistrust, and perpetuated by a seemingly intractable web of historical, political, and cultural factors.
That problem is polarizing, dividing people into religious, ethnic, national, ideological groups. It has ripped apart families, pitted communities against each other, and resulted in countless acts of violence and bloodshed.
The roots of this problem run deep, reaching back through the ages to a time when different groups of people lived together in relative peace and harmony. But over time, this fragile peace was shattered and replaced by a simmering animosity that persists to this day, as empires rose and fell, borders were redrawn, and cultures clashed.
Today, the problem of polarization is manifesting itself in many ways. We see this in the fierce sectarian strife engulfing countries like Iraq and Syria, pitting Sunnis and Shiites in violent struggles for power and control. We can see it in the ethnic tensions that have plagued nations like Sudan and Ethiopia, where different groups have fought for dominance and survival. Finally, we see it in the geopolitical rivalries that have shaped the region for centuries, as different nations vie for power and influence over their neighbors.
Rooted in deep-seated beliefs and perceptions, reinforced by generations of conflict and mistrust, it is not an easy problem to solve. But because the future of the region and its peoples depends on it, it is a problem that must be addressed. The MENA region can only hope to overcome its problem of polarization and find a path to a more peaceful and prosperous future by promoting dialogue, understanding and reconciliation among different groups.
THE ROOT CAUSES OF THE PROBLEM
The underlying causes of division and polarization in the MENA region are complex and multifaceted, involving historical, political, and cultural factors.
The problem is rooted in centuries of conflict, conquest, and displacement, and in deep-seated mistrust and animosity between different groups. These conflicts, often perpetuated by authoritarian regimes, foreign intervention, and economic inequality, have been fueled by a variety of factors, including religion, ethnicity, and nationalism.
Scholars have identified a number of underlying factors that have contributed to the problem of polarization. A major factor has been the legacy of colonialism, the creation of artificial borders and the erosion of traditional social structures, leading to a sense of dislocation and disorientation among many groups in the region. This was exacerbated by the rise of nationalist movements in the mid-twentieth century, which sought to create new states based on ethnicity and language, often at the expense of minorities.
Religious divisions have also contributed significantly, with sectarianism fueling conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims and worsening sectarian tensions. Political factors, including authoritarianism and the lack of democratic institutions, have also exacerbated the problem, resulting in a sense of alienation and marginalization among many groups.
Economic factors- poverty and unemployment-have also played a role, in particular among young people who feel cut off from traditional social structures and denied the benefits of economic growth. Lastly, there are external factors, including foreign intervention and geopolitical rivalries, which have further destabilized the region and fueled its polarization.
In sum, the root causes of the problem of division and polarization in the MENA region are numerous and complex, stemming from a range of historical, political and cultural factors that have contributed to a sense of mistrust and animosity between different groups. Addressing these root causes requires a sustained and comprehensive approach that takes into account the unique dynamics of the region and seeks to promote dialogue, understanding and reconciliation among different groups.
The five most divided and polarized countries in the region can be listed as follows: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Yemen.
- Iraq: Iraq has been the scene of sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. This conflict has led to widespread violence and displacement, fueled by political and economic factors and external actors.
- Syria: Fueled in part by sectarian divisions between the Alawite-dominated regime and Sunni rebel groups, Syria has been torn apart by a brutal civil war since 2011. The involvement of foreign actors and the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS have also complicated the conflict.
- Lebanon: Lebanon has long been divided along sectarian lines, with power sharing between different religious communities. This system has been a source of political instability and gridlock, as well as ongoing sectarian tensions.
- Egypt: Since the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has experienced a wave of political polarization. This polarization has been fueled by a number of factors, including political and economic grievances, and has been exacerbated by the current regime’s crackdown on political dissent.
- Yemen: Since 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the country’s civil war, Yemen has been mired in conflict. Sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as political and economic grievances, have fueled the conflict.
These are just a few examples of the division and polarization problem in the MENA region, which varies in nature and intensity from country to country.
MENA VS EUROPE
Although the root causes and dynamics of these divisions are different, there are some similarities between the problem of division and polarization in the MENA region and the historical divisions in Europe.
One of the key similarities is the role of religion in the perpetuation of divisions. Religious divisions between Catholics and Protestants have been a major source of conflict in Europe, particularly in Northern Ireland, just as sectarian divisions between different branches of Islam have fueled conflict in the MENA region. The conflicts in Yugoslavia in the 1990s also had a strong religious element, with Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Muslims all being party to the fighting.
The role of nationalism in fueling conflict is another similarity. In Europe, conflicts such as the Balkan wars and the breakup of Yugoslavia were fueled by nationalist movements seeking to create new states or expand existing ones. In the MENA region, nationalism and the creation of new states based on ethnic or linguistic criteria have also played a role in conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There are, however, important differences between the two situations as well. In Europe, the post-World War II period saw the emergence of institutions such as the European Union. These institutions were designed to promote integration and reduce the risk of conflict between states. In MENA, by contrast, there has been little progress toward regional integration, and external actors have often exacerbated conflicts.
Furthermore, conflicts in the MENA region often involve multiple states and non-state actors, making them more complex to resolve, whereas conflicts in Europe were often between states or ethnic groups within a single country. Moreover, there is no comparable external factor driving the conflicts in the MENA region, whereas the Cold War played an important role in exacerbating divisions in Europe.
In short, although there are some similarities between the problem of division and polarization in the MENA region and the historical divisions in Europe, the root causes and dynamics are different, and each region has its own set of unique challenges and opportunities for managing conflict and promoting reconciliation.
SOME POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
- Dialogue and Reconciliation: The first step toward conflict resolution in the MENA region is for all parties to engage in dialogue and seek understanding of each other’s perspectives. This can be done through the establishment of formal or informal mechanisms for communication, such as peace talks or community forums. By engaging in sustained dialogue, it may be possible to identify shared interests and values and to work toward solutions that benefit all concerned.
- Inclusive Governance: The establishment of inclusive governance structures that provide representation for all communities is another key factor in reducing division and polarization. This may involve the decentralization of power, the promotion of the rights of minorities, and the creation of mechanisms for the participation of the people in the decision-making process. It may be possible to reduce tensions and promote social cohesion by ensuring that all voices are heard and that all communities have a stake in the future of their country.
- Economic Development: Economic development, by creating opportunities for marginalized communities and promoting social mobility, can also play an important role in reducing division and polarization. This may involve investments in infrastructure, education and health, as well as the creation of jobs and other economic opportunities. It may be possible to build more cohesive and stable societies by reducing poverty and inequality and promoting economic growth that benefits all communities.
- International Cooperation: Finally, international cooperation and support may be needed to address the problem of division and polarization in the MENA region. This may include providing humanitarian assistance, diplomatically supporting peace negotiations, and promoting economic and social development. Together, the international community can help address the root causes of conflict and support local actors’ efforts to build more peaceful and inclusive societies.
These solutions are just a few examples of approaches that can be effective in reducing division and polarization in the MENA region. The road to peace and reconciliation may be long and difficult. However, it is important to remember that conflict is not inevitable. It may be possible to build a more peaceful and prosperous future for all through sustained effort and cooperation.
Achieving lasting peace and reconciliation in the MENA region may be a challenging task, but it is not unrealistic. History provides many examples of societies successfully overcoming deep divisions and conflicts, and there are also examples of positive developments in the MENA region itself.
Of course, ongoing conflicts, economic instability, and the influence of external actors also pose significant obstacles to peace and reconciliation in the MENA region. However, it is important to remember that many of these challenges are rooted in historical and structural factors. Through sustained efforts and cooperation, these challenges can be addressed.
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