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Last week, someone asked me what the Middle East’s greatest problem was? My response: “It’s the unresolved Israel-Palestine impasse that been haunting the region for decades with no end in sight.”

That dark cloud of injustice still weighs heavily, but Israeli intransigence and land grabs cannot be blamed for the virulent infection of violence and turmoil bred from sectarianism, ethnic hatred and religious extremism prevalent in countries that rid themselves of strongmen, who kept a lid on dissent and were so unpopular that citizens joined hands on the premise of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Once those lids were removed from a Pandora’s box of pent-up emotions and grievances, chaos was unleashed.

Westerners tend to wonder why on the soil that nurtured monotheistic faiths, considered to be the cradle of civilisation, people not only don’t get along, but many seem bent on obliterating anyone whose political or religious ideology doesn’t fit in with their own.

Why don’t they simply adopt a live and let live attitude like in other parts of the world? Of course, this is a question with no easy answers. But, it’s safe to say that the divide-and-rule policies of western powers throughout this area have been a major contributing factor.

The CIA and MI6 have a lot to answer for; they worked to oust the Shah of Iran who was fed-up of being a puppet and actively supported the Ayatollah Khomeini during his exile in France. The BBC worked to disseminate his message within Iran to the extent that Iranians dubbed it “The Ayatollah BBC”.

Likewise, the CIA deliberately encouraged militancy in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by supplying school textbooks with pictures of weapons and soldiers — and paid for newspaper advertisements around the world to recruit battle-hardened fighters. Osama bin Laden and several of his associates that went on to form Al Qaida were known to have been CIA assets or collaborators.

That was an era when secularism tilted towards socialism and was associated with nationalist ambitions to rid the region of foreign powers. Likewise, Israel once supported Hamas to split Palestinians, who were united behind a stubborn Palestinian patriot Yasser Arafat.

There’s no doubt that the people of this region have been consistently manipulated and duped by nations obsessed with preserving their geopolitical and economic interests. Let’s face it, if the Middle East was peaceful and prosperous with a viable peace between Israel and all Arab nations arising from the emergence of a Palestinian state, the US would lose its sway.

Out of business

Governments would then tell US troops not to hit their heads on the door on the way out and the American military-industrial complex would see a hole in its profits from vastly reduced sales of weapons, missiles and fighter jets in a region where there was no more fear of the other. It seems to me that successive US and UK governments have left a terrible legacy since the day Sykes and Picot arbitrarily redrew the Middle East map.

Since Iraq was ‘liberated’ 10 years ago, democracy rings hollow. The Shiite-dominated Nouri Al Maliki government has made common cause with the clerics in Tehran permitting Iranian planes to use Iraq’s airspace to fly weapons to the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria. It has consistently discriminated against Sunnis, who refused to accept their new ‘second class citizen’ status without a fight.

Hopes for oil-rich Libya have been dashed by militias, secessionists, radicals and Al Qaida clones creating divisions; churches are desecrated, Copts abducted and citizens with dark skin and those who backed Muammar Gaddafi are persecuted.

Yemen’s Arab Spring looked like it might be a rare success story not so long ago, but the South complains of government neglect and secessionist rallies are being held in the port of Aden where disaffected youth are becoming radicalised.

Egypt is hurtling towards bankruptcy due to an increasingly unbridgeable violent rift between Islamists and secularists, many of whom are demanding a military coup to oust President Mohammad Mursi as a prelude to new elections.

And as the largely sectarian Syrian catastrophe, born out of people’s desire for political pluralism, continues unchecked by the international community, the contagion threatens to engulf tiny Lebanon which has had more than its fair share of inter-religious conflict in recent history.

Lebanon’s prime minister Najeeb Mikati has resigned, warning that the Syrian debacle is spilling over the border and pitting Lebanese Sunni and Shiite factions against one another and dividing the cabinet. “The region is descending into the unknown; regional fires are infecting us with their heat and internal divisions are leaving deep scars,” he said ominously before calling for a government of national unity to shoulder responsibility.

Unless the leaders of the Middle East and North Africa region can come up with a common vision of how they would like the future to look, and develop a collective will to work towards it, everyone will be consumed by the merciless swamp of mindless sectarian hatred. Left unchecked, it will leave in its wake once strong nations carved up into inconsequential sectarian enclaves.

 

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com