03/31/2015, 00.00
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Fr. Samir: Arab military coalition possible peacekeeping force to guarantee pluralism

by Samir Khalil Samir
For the first time in history, a dozen Arab countries have decided to launch a joint military force to fight terrorism. The idea in itself good, in practice is sliding into a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia. Instead they could fight the Islamic state, ensure the return of Christians in Iraq and in Syria, push for peace between Israel and Palestine.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Two days ago the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, decided to launch a joint military force to fight terrorism. The problem is that the "proof" of this commitment is being revealed by the fact that it is not fighting terrorism, but the Houthi Shia of Yemen, who are trying to occupy areas important for maritime traffic (the Strait of Bab el-Mandel) and have ousted President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled first to Aden and then Riyadh.

This military coalition is primarily composed of Sunni majority countries. The question begs as to whether this force actually wants to unleash a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites.

An ambiguous alliance

On the one hand the birth of this force is a positive thing: that a dozen Arab countries are determined to take up arms themselves - and wait for the West to resolve their problems - is a rare instance in the history of the Arab world. The goal itself is to fight against the Islamic State. And this is another positive element because it shows that all are aware that it such a radical and inhumane version of Islam must not be spread.

At the same time, this new joint force was first deployed against Yemen, against the Houthi Shiite tribes. This is why the coalition has taken on a religious undertone.

Maybe not all the participating countries have this vision. Countries like Saudi Arabia or Qatar certainly target Shiites. And when they say "Shiite" they intend Iran. We know that Riyadh is not happy to see the growth of Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudi ambassador explicitly, said that they want to stop Tehran's influence, that it is developing its nuclear energy, and is accused of wanting to obtain it, from the very country that has had it for decades, Israel! But luckily talks between Iran and the West that are currently taking place appear to be finally bearing positive fruits ... after 30 years of conflict.

The need to overcome age-old religious animosity

Certainly there is a historical animosity that divides Sunnis and Shiites, embodied in enmity against the largest Shiite country, Iran.

The coalition wants to avoid tensions spreading from Yemen to the entire Arabian Peninsula. However, everything has been quite mixed up.

If, however, the primary purpose of combating terrorism is retained, and in the meantime they succeed in calming the Houthi rebellion, then the Arab world (and with it the Islamic world) will have made a huge step forward.

It must be said that to pacify the situation in Yemen, Houthi rights must be recognized: they are 30% of the population and want to have a share in resources and power. They feel marginalized. If a just peace, not war , is the true goal then this will require the ensuring of rights.  Yet this issue has yet to be properly perceived  in Yemen and throughout the Arab-Islamic world.

We need only think of Iraq under Saddam Hussein who retained power in his tribe and among the Sunnis, marginalizing Shiites and Kurds. When he fell, the Shia al-Maliki took  all the power and in turn marginalized the Sunnis. This is why Sunnis in Iraq have become supporters of ISIS. The capture of Mosul by ISIS was a stroll, because the Sunni population opened their doors.

The Arab world needs to rid itself of this clan mentality: I am in power and I share it only with those of my race, my ethnic group, of my religion.

When this mentality clan takes the color of religion is the worst thing: being the religion of the most intimate thing that defines my identity, I feel marginalized and suppressed, and this leads to a radical revolt.

I hope that sooner or later we will succeed in overcoming this mental block.

Combatting violence and those who practice it, not the minority

The military coalition is well resourced: it has money, because it includes oil rich nations;  people because Egypt is taking part, the most populous Arab country (90 million), with a good army. This bodes well for a good result: an Arab defense union to limit the terrorist movements that sometimes arise in the Islamic world: al Qaeda, the Nusra Front and now the Islamic State; but also to limit the fundamentalist movements that easily become terrorists, such as the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But there is one condition: you must fight against all violence, independent of its religious connotations.

Accepting diversity as a positive element

In history there has been a continuous struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. Sunnis dominate numerically; Shiites are only 15% of the Muslim population. But the Sunnis cannot tolerate difference. This has been Islam’s main problem from the beginning: everyone  must be Muslim; or believers (ie Christians and Jews), but tolerated at most; or else they should not exist. There is freedom of religion and belief. Islam was born in a desert environment, which radicalizes everything. The desert can be beautiful, but also evil.

The time has come to accept diversity, for a real pluralism. So far only a few have made steps in this direction. Lebanon, for example, due to its geographical mountainous terrain and the presence of Christians (protected by Western powers since the sixteenth century), gave birth to a coexistence that continues today.

Tunisia, thanks to the influence of French colonization and Habib Bourguiba, was able to admit a certain religious freedom and a distinction between religion and politics.

But in other countries it is still difficult. Egypt also has a certain coexistence, even if somewhat 'fragile given the existing imbalance between the communities (90% Muslim, 10% Christian).

It is a shame that this joint military force began operations with a battle against a Shiite group. I hope it does not result in a total injustice against the Houthis, but eventually more rights be given to these rebels. In any case, the biggest problem is the fight against terrorists - who are currently Sunni fundamentalists - to overcome the divisions on the basis of religion.

The important role of Christians

And Christians? Should they be worried? Here a third step that this coalition has to take emerges, the most important is reconstruction, especially thinking of Syria and Iraq. This means ensuring the protection and return of Christians to their homes. It would be a shame for the country, if the Christian minority in Iraq disappeared. All Muslims who have a some culture, say they need the Christian presence to maintain an openness to culture and to the world.

Moreover, Christians are seen only as a group linked to the West; but for the educated, they are a very important group for the openness, peace, development, the economy of the Arab countries.

A military cooperation between the countries of the Arab world is desirable and is a good step, provided that it is really against those who violate coexistence, democracy, justice and peace, be they Iran, Israel, or anyone else.

Fighting against terrorism could also be a way to work together and make peace with Israel, once and for all.

But we must accept diversity: this is the cost. Islam has a military-political vision of its mission: earth must be conquered by Islam. They leave behind the religious totalitarianism to give way to space for peaceful coexistence.

And I hope someday Sunnis and Shiites can be reconciled, because this mutual violence is a shame. Some Christians may think: So much the better if they kill each other! But it is wrong. In the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites the totalitarian mentality that excludes the other dominates. One which today targets Shiites, tomorrow another group.

Instead another vision is urgently required: to be brothers, each with the right to live and grow, learning to live together and find compromises. If the totalitarian mentality dominates, that of despising the other, there is no way out.

Last phase, the peace between Arab countries and Israel

This coalition is a hope: born of countries that are not exactly brothers, it could give birth to a new mindset of collaboration among all the Arab countries, for solidarity between rich and poor, and especially for greater justice and democracy.

The Arab League, founded in Cairo more than 70 years ago (exactly March 22, 1945), has done almost nothing constructive during all these decades. And they have done almost nothing to give rise to a Palestinian state!

In practice, almost all Arab countries have recognized the State of Israel, even if not legally. Even those countries that in words have sworn to destroy Israel, have not lifted a finger. The recognition of the Palestinian state by the UN, which should happen (hopefully) in the near future, would be a big step forward towards peace.

Finally what was established by the United Nations in 1948, namely the recognition of two separate and independent states would be realized: Palestine and Israel. There is no other way to peace in the Middle East, and it would be a huge step forward for peace in the world!

From the political point of view, the West is wary of this joint Arab military force, although the US is giving logistical support to the Saudis in their struggle in Yemen.

On the other hand, the nuclear deal that could be achieved in these days in Lausanne, between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, would pave the way for a new era in the region. Maybe neither the oil rich Arab, nor Israel are very happy about it, but it could restore some justice and legality in the region.

In short, this Arab coalition, if handled with diplomacy and common sense, and not with the usual fanaticism and violence, could be a first step towards a regional collaboration to be implemented over the next decade!

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See also
Unfinished: the Arab Spring’s Islamic winter
The springtime of the Arab world
Lebanon's nightmare of war: hostage to Israel and Hezbollah
Anatomy of fear. A Sunni democracy in defence of Christians
For Fr Tom, abducted in Yemen, Holy Thursday prayer and adoration for the martyrs
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