February 15, 2013

Peace and Democracy are Predominant Themes of Middle East Week

During the week of February 11th, Emmanuel welcomed two activist scholars of Middle Eastern affairs for Middle East Week at the College. Dr. Sadik Al-Azm and Dr. Ron Pundak spoke on topics related to "The Changing Middle East: Will it Bring Democracy and Peace?"

On Tuesday, February 12th, Dr. Sadik Al-Azm discussed "Civil Society and the Arab Spring" in the Janet M. Daley Library Lecture Hall. Al-Azm spoke of the "quasi-consensus" of the modern notions of a civil society in the Middle East, ideas of which began to formulate in the mid-1980s.  

"The most important [ideas] being the primacy of citizenship, some respect for human rights, something of an independent judiciary, and a more attentive attitude to things like civil rights and civil liberties," Al-Azm said.  

However, these ideas were not put into practice until the short-lived, but ill-fated, Damascus Spring of 2000-2001, which Al-Azm called "a prelude and a dress rehearsal for what we see now as the Arab Spring and the popular movements that have arisen, the values, demands and slogans that we have heard in the various Tahrir Squares."  

Al-Azm described the Arab Spring movement as the finest hour of the various youth Arab civil societies, as the masses defeated the dynastic principle of Arab presidents passing power to their offspring in favor of the more democratic principle of the electoral circulation of power. He noted that the traditional slogans and demands of Arab nationalism gave way to more typical aspirations of a civil society-freedom, rights, dignity, integrity, plurality, democracy, transparency and equality. Also remarkable for what Al-Azm called "conservative societies and prudish cities," was the participation of women and the presence of children, as well as the innovative types of art and expression, from music and dancing to satirical cartoons and critical graffiti. While many academics continue to look to the past for Middle-Eastern models of civil society, Al-Azm stressed the importance of starting with a clean slate.  

"The struggle for a functioning civil society in the Arab world is neither a restoration of something that was once there, nor an extension of the past, but the instituting of something genuinely new," Al-Azm said.  

Dr. Ron Pundak's talk, "Five Personal Stations in One National Conflict: Can Israel and Palestine Reach Peace?" took place on Wednesday, February 13th, in the Janet M. Daley Library Lecture Hall.  

Pundak framed his talk on the Palestenian-Israeli conflict with stories from his family's personal history-from the Jewish diaspora and strong anti-Semitic pogroms in the Ukraine in 1905 that lead to his grandparents' eventual migration to Denmark, to his father's service for the Jewish population in the 1948 War of Independence, which saw the end of the British Empire in the Middle East and the birth of Israel, all the way to Pundak's involvement in the Oslo peace process in 1993.  

The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict over territories, borders and the mutual recognition between two national movements in the 20 years since Oslo have seen both good and bad prime ministers, Pundak noted, some who have wanted peace and some who have not. But is an agreement between the Jewish and Arabic populations possible?   "Practically? Definitely yes," Pundak said, "For each of the core issues, there are practical solutions. The period of ideology, of everything is ours or everything is theirs of the last 20 years is over."  

Pundak said that the conflict needs a courageous leader on the Israeli side, noting that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not against peace, the most that he will offer to the Palestinians will not meet their basic demands. He called Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas "an honest, straightforward man of peace" and "the best Palestinian leader we can have."

"We have all the ingredients for peace," Pundak said, hoping that a third party, specifically U.S. President Barack Obama during his trip to Israel in March, will be the agent for change that the two states need.

On Thursday, February 14th, faculty were invited to a luncheon with the speakers, during which there was an active interchange of ideas on two themes: the momentous Arab Spring and the burst of energy on the streets of the Arab world demanding democracy, as well as the possible future of Syria; and the needs and challenges to reaching a final resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  

Dr. Al-Azm and Dr. Pundak were also invited to visit Emmanuel classes during the week to discuss such subjects as negotiation techniques in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the growth of Arab nationalism under the Ottoman Empire and the novels of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.   

Dr. Sadik Al-Azm is one of the most important scholars, human rights proponents and civil society activists in the Middle East today. He is currently a member of the political opposition to President Hafez Al-Assad, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.   

Dr. Ron Pundak played a decisive role in the Oslo peace process, first in helping to create the secret track of the unofficial negotiations at the beginning of 1993 and later as a member of the official negotiating team. He is currently co-chair of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum.  

Middle East Week was supported by funds from OneWorld Boston, an affiliate of the Cummings Foundation.