This week’s gathering of scholars from throughout the world at Ben-Gurion University to discuss and analyze the changing geopolitical map of the Middle East could not have been planned for a more appropriate time. The international conference, Borders at the Interface, convened as part of FP7 EU research project, Euroborderscapes, along with the establishment of the new university chair in geopolitics, focuses on Israel as the geographical and cultural interface between the Middle East, Africa and Europe in a rapidly changing world.
This interface is so much more than a geographic location. It is a meeting, and a clash, between cultures and religions. It is just over 20 years since Samuel Huntington published his book A Clash of Civilizations. At the time it was widely discussed and debated, but largely derided and pushed aside as being unrealistic and far fetched. In the light of recent events, the clash of cultures discourse has re-emerged, brought on and even strengthened by the forces of globalization.
Globalization is a two-way process. There are the positives of meeting beyond the interface and the creation of real multi-culturalism where difference is to be enjoyed and celebrated. But this is also offset by the ferocious clashes of beliefs and lifestyles which now take place within the newly shared, rather than the previously separate, spaces.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could only take the benefits of globalization and its ability to cross borders and boundaries without having to suffer the negative aspects? But life is far too complex for that and nowhere is that more apparent than at the border interface between Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
The new global cultural clash has become strongly rooted in religion, which has always been global in potential scope, long before the term “globalization” was invented. Religious fundamentalism has adopted a political extremity and exclusivity which would belie any alternative messages of peace and brotherly love. Religion in the name of fundamentalism, religion in the name of second- class status for women, religion in the name of beheadings, religion in the name of settlements, religion in the name of violence and terror – this is becoming a central plank in the new geopolitical global order.
Thanks, in no small part, to the forces of globalization, these ideas have diffused beyond the artificial boundaries which have held the Europeanized system of states together, as part of an international system which was created and self-legitimized by the colonial powers of the time.
The legacy of the borders superimposed upon the Middle East less than a hundred years ago, in the immediate aftermath of World War I and the final demise of the Ottoman Empire, is collapsing.
The political map of the Middle East resulted from the carving up of the region by the British and the French according to their own geopolitical interests, with scant regard to, or understanding of, the ethnic and religious realities. For better or for worse, it held together for the better part of a century, but is now breaking apart and fragmenting, under pressure from the spread of Islamic State (IS), the internal collapse of states such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and the grassroots changes which have been brought about by the Arab Spring (more like an Arab winter). All of these contribute to regional instability and uncertainty of a degree which has not been experienced in living memory.
Looking at the emerging political map of the Middle East today one is urged to ask whether the alternatives will provide any better solutions for the region. The short-term answer is an emphatic negative.
THE FUTURE holds a very uncertain prognosis.
None of us dare envision what the geopolitical map of this region will look like just 10 years from now, let alone in another century. Our world has become increasingly volatile and threatening. Uncertainty governs global events, none more so than in our own region, where religious fundamentalism and globalization have become the unlikely partners in global destabilization which is beyond the ability of states to control and manage.
If, in the past, we believed that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict would result in greater regional stability, then this is clearly no longer the case. In his visit this week to the US, King Abdullah of Jordan told President Barack Obama that the Palestinian issue is still the core issue in the Middle East, although he qualified this by saying: “You know, whether it’s true or not, that argument is still being used by the extremists.” Abdullah sought support from Obama to fight what he, and many others in the Arab world, see as the threat to regional stability from IS. The regional and global winds of change are far greater than what happens in Israel alone.
Those who attend synagogue will be aware that this week’s Torah readings from the Book of Genesis tell the story of Jacob coming face to face with his brother Esau as the former seeks to return home after many years living elsewhere. A major conflict is predicted but is avoided, at least temporarily, as they meet across their own interface and allow bygones to be bygones. Many of the biblical and scriptural commentators over time have argued that this placation is no more than a blip in time, but that in the bigger historical picture there will always be hatred between the respective cultures and lifestyles represented by these two opposites.
The irony should not be lost that it is in this same story where Jacob takes on an additional name: Israel. The name appears for the first time in the biblical narrative or Jewish history and signifies someone who is in struggle with an adversary, but emerges victorious. A metaphor for our time perhaps, although it can never be certain who, or which culture, will come out on top as the borders are crossed and interfaced between peoples who have no desire to live in peace with their neighbors.
One of the most famous quotations about borders is that of the poet Robert Frost who, in his poem “Mending Walls,” ends with the statement that “Good Fences make Good Neighbours.” The poem describes the meeting of two people at the boundary interface which divides them, each spring, to reset the wall following the ravages of winter. They keep the wall between them as they go. Despite the opening line which states: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” they nevertheless see the border as a necessity of life. The wall provides order and compartmentalization, enabling neighbors to live side by side without intruding upon the others’ culture and lifestyle.
This may be a particularly European way of looking at the world, but it would appear to be a necessity in regions such as the Middle East, creating a veneer of stability even as it plasters over the internal cracks of states composed of multiple religious and cultural groups.
As we survey the worsening geopolitical conditions of the region we live in, we are left to reflect on whether this cultural contest is the sad reality of what awaits the future generations destined to live at this complex historical, cultural and geographical interface.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and incumbent of the new chair in geopolitics, at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.