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Ramy Salama
A PEACEFUL future in which the countries of the Middle East region are stable and their societies thrive is within reach if the area's different religious groups and sects can work together to attain it in a spirit of pluralism, which has a long history in the region, according to journalist and author Nicolas Pelham.
Speaking at a session organised by the Brookings Doha Center under the title 'Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East', Pelham, a Correspondent on Middle East Affairs for the renowned publication 'The Economist' stressed that he has based this position on the region's history, especially during the Ottoman empire.
"What I am trying to do is to look at what were the values that the Middle East represented in the past, and how they can be resurrected in a way which will somehow address the sectarian divides which threaten the stability of the region today. So the question is, what can be derived from the old, practically, as a way of addressing the problems of the new," he explained.
"It's only when we can recognise that a number of different sects have lived together historically, and that what we're seeing now is an aberration, that an end of conflict comes through an acceptance of others, not from an exclusion of others, that the region will be able to sort itself out," he added.
Indeed, according to the author, the region is at a pivotal period of its history in which the countries of the Middle East have been especially empowered to carve out their own destinies due to the receding influence of the traditional colonial powers.
"This is an incredible opportunity which the region has, because for a hundred years, outside powers have been trying to remake the region. Now we're seeing a degree of withdrawal from the 'great powers' and this is a huge opportunity for the region to try and remake itself," he added on this note.
The position forms the thesis of a book which Pelham recently published, also under the title 'Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East'. In the work, the author argues that, while the news from the Middle East is predominantly negative these days, and even when it seems that whatever hope people may have for the region are being dashed over and over in country after country, yet there is a reasonable cause for hope.
Pelham has seen much of the tragedy first hand, but in the book, he presents a strikingly original and startlingly optimistic argument: the Middle East was notably more tolerant than Western Europe during the nineteenth century because the Ottoman Empire permitted a high degree of religious pluralism and self-determination within its vast borders.
Later, European powers broke up the empire and tried to turn it into a collection of secular nation-states; it was a spectacular failure. Rulers turned religion into a force for nationalism and the result has been ever increasing sectarian violence. The solution, Pelham argues, is to accept the Middle East for the deeply religious region it is, and try to revive its tradition of pluralism.
The session was moderated by Ibrahim Fraihat, a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Brookings and an Affiliate Scholar at Georgetown University, and also saw the participation of Abdelwahab El Affendi, Head of the Politics and International Relations Program at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, who praised the scope and position of Pelham's recent book.
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