All posts by Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

Dr. Ghassan Michel Rubeiz is a Lebanese-American Middle East analyst with special interest in political sociology, social justice and democracy. He is a former professor of social work and psychology. He was Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches for the Middle East during the eighties and early nineties. He also served Eastern Europe for six years from the Geneva office of Christian Children’s Fund. Between 2000 and 2005, he was the Washington Liaison Director of CCF. He is now focused on public speaking and writing on the Middle East. Over the last five years, he has contributed a series of articles to the Christian Science Monitor online edition, the Lebanese Daily Star and the Arab American News. Currently, Rubeiz is writing regularly from his home office in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. His special interest is in politics and religion and in promotion of Arab American understanding.

Ghassan Michel Rubeiz: In Libya, Benghazi’s freedom fighters face a massacre

Authorized, decisive international intervention in Libya is urgent.

At the start of the Libyan uprising, demonstrators armed with freedom symbols faced soldiers armed with bullets. By cruelly suppressing its society, the Libyan regime has forfeited its legitimate sovereignty. As diplomats debate ending Gaddahfi’s rule , he is left free to murder the people demanding change.

The reaction of the US administration to events in Libya has been inconsistent. President Obama chose his words carefully when he said that Gaddahfi must leave office for the good of his people. But in a matter of days, as the ruthless colonel made territorial gains in fighting back the rebels, Obama sounded hesitant to expedite Gaddahfi ‘s departure. He said the “cost” for the removal of this despot maybe too high for the US.

Leaving Libya in the background this week, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visits Cairo and Tunis to promote “freedom and democracy”. She has softly rebuked Saudi Arabia for sending soldiers to defend the rulers of Bahrain and called for “restraint” from both sides. Libya’s rapid advance in crushing the revolution does not seem to alarm the US. Washington coldly figures that as troubles in Bahrain escalate, Libya could wait for more convenient and risk free intervention.

America’s fear for the eventual tumbling of the Saudi ally factors highly in every US action in the region. The implication of a rapid fall of Libya terrifies many in Washington. Not as purported, the coolness of Washington to intervention in Libya seems like a matter of conflict of interest rather than a lesson learned from the Iraq war. For many American policy hawks, the Iraq war was worth its heavy cost; but when it comes to desperate Libyan nation even authorized international intervention sounds risky for those same hawks.

Libya’s revolution is at risk of failure. The Libyan army is heading east for a decisive battle with the rebels. A bloody battle is expected in Benghazi. The army has the capacity to kill while the rebels have only the will to overcome injustice.

Given the lack of symmetry in power, the Benghazi confrontation may soon turn into a massacre. The crushed rebellion would leave Libya with tens of thousands of innocent victims, a destroyed infrastructure, a demoralized nation, an angry region and a world community in a state of collective guilt.

A failure in Libya’s bid for freedom is not only a tragedy for a single nation; it is a reversal for the cause of freedom in the entire region. Despite their heroism, the rebel’s failure in Libya sends a comforting message to the Arab despots: bloody force works in suppressing opposition. Defeating the freedom fighters reinstates people’s fear of the ruler, the root cause of political stagnation in the Middle East.

Regardless of who wins the Benghazi battle, at the end of the day, the Libyan regime is fated for self destruction. As Gaddahfi’s rule is soaked in crime, deep in theft of national resources, accountable for massacres, and despised at home and abroad, it is doomed.

While it is difficult to imagine the Libyan regime surviving for long, when the eventual change in regime occurs, how the rebels come to power is important. In a state which has subdued its opposition for so long, cosmetic transfer of power should not replace genuine reform achieved by an empowered and proud opposition.

The wavering international community must not wait for a massacre to justify authorized, decisive intervention. Gaddahfi must be forced to step down sooner rather than later

Rubeiz: As Arab regimes are shaken allies and foes ponder the future

[Palm Beach Gardens FL]–The Arab political coma is over. The spirit of Tunisia is in the Arab psyche. The knees of Arab despots are shaking in North Africa, West Asia and the Gulf states.

It is not only Arabs that are reviewing their priorities and thinking of the future. Israel, having for too long taken advantage of fratricidal regional politics, is now perturbed about Arab awakening. Israel should know that a reforming Arab world would ask for better terms in return for lasting peace.

Claiming to be neutral to Arab revolts, Washington is on the defensive. The White House gives pastoral advice to dictators, while it ignores its complicity in building intimate alliances with the most objectionable of regimes in the region.

Three contagious forms of change are at play today in the Arab world: a grassroots movement targeting oppressive rule in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan; a latent electoral shift in Lebanon and an authorized, electoral initiative to partition Sudan.

For the past five days, an unprecedented uprising has been taking place on the streets of Egypt. Egyptians call for the departure of their last Pharaoh, President Hosni Mubarak. This North African country is the center of the Arab world, a close ally of the US and a frustrated mediator of Arab-Israeli peace.

Mubarak will have to step down as his determined people demand. So far, his army has been friendly to the demonstrators. As the media exposes the scandals of this regime, it is anyone’s guess how long he can retain his post. However, if this revolution is infiltrated by elements paid to loot and spread chaos, the army might intervene and delay the departure of an expired rule.

Washington is hoping for Mubarak staying power. Obama calls on Mubarak to put “meaning into words” by introducing “concrete reform”. The White House should have gone further and stated that the people want real regime change rather than cosmetics. Obama looked so professorial in his televised message to Mubarak. The US president would do well to give “meaning” to his Middle East foreign policy by offering “concrete” steps to a derailed Arab-Israeli peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that Arabs will gain power as they reform. Israel now spins the argument that the only alternative to Arab secular autocrats is Islamic theocrats. Are we to assume from this strange logic that Arabs do not learn from the past?

Muslims ideologues are gradually learning that the Koran must not be used as a political handbook or an encyclopedia; that religion does not mix well with politics. The problems of Islamist politics are on display in Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. It is too early to tell for sure, but the spreading revolts appear to be essentially secular and non-ideological.

The course of revolutions is unpredictable; there is always a chance that political Islam will be dominant in some countries. There is no reason to assume that the less Islamic the regime, the better it is. Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia are Islamic states that allow ample distance between political and religious authority. Each society will learn from its own experience how to integrate religion with governance.

Indeed, if the West does not cooperate with and support emerging reform movements, extreme theocrats may have a better chance of wrenching power from secular parties, especially when state infrastructure is weak, the middle class is thin and civic organization is timid. In any case, people are entitled to shape their own political reform.

Washington is not showing the same neutrality in dealing with Lebanon and Sudan as with Egypt. When the Lebanese government collapsed last week, Washington was eager to dictate policy preferences in the management of a local crisis. Contrary to the US agenda, a populist opposition has already assumed leadership in the forming of the new government. The new cabinet is expected to distance itself from a US- backed, UN-sponsored Special Tribunal for Lebanon. This Tribunal is about to issue an indictment implicating Hezbollah in the 2005 murder of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The majority of the Lebanese consider the indictment of Hezbollah procedurally compromised and a threat to national stability. Some believe that Washington’s close attention to a six-year old assassination is politically motivated. Many consider Hezbollah’s militia a national defense force. A just solution to the Palestinian problem is a priority for Lebanon; the Lebanese shelter 400,000 Palestinians refugees.

If Egypt is about dethroning a tyrant, and Lebanon is about an ideological shift from the right to the center, Sudan is about the breakup of a country after a long process of ethnic polarization. The US has dominated Sudanese affairs for years through foreign aid.

A referendum has recently authorized the southern region of Sudan to secede from the North. For decades, a tyrannical theocratic regime has hijacked Islam by ruling irresponsibly. For 22 years, the mainly Christian and animist people of the South fought a bloody civil war against the forces of Khartoum. A peace treaty ended the civil war in 2005. The agreement gave the people of the South the right to determine their future. In early January, a referendum revealed an overwhelming desire of the people of the South to secede from the North. If the two sides of Sudan can learn to cooperate as separate entities, they could immensely improve the fate of their peoples. If they continue to work against each other, they will perpetuate agony.

As Arab systems evolve, lessons emerge.

Genuine foreign aid should focus on responding to deserving people rather than sustaining compliant regimes.

The ascendance of Hezbollah in Lebanon indicates that the smallest of the Arab countries can sow fear in Israel. The best way for Israel to deal with a political resistance which cannot be eliminated by force is by addressing its legitimate concerns.

Middle Eastern states with ethnic and religious divisions – such as Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Cyprus- point to a sobering phenomenon: prolonged unjust rule generates irreversible secession movements.

Political reforms will eventually empower the people of the Middle East. But reform will progress at varying rates and not without setbacks.

It is in Israel’s best interest, to embrace such inevitable reforms rather than opposing them. The Zionist state cannot count on perpetual Arab despair and disunity. In a new context of political reform, Israel will have to offer realistic terms for peace with Arabs.

A new order of global politics has just started.

Rubeiz: The human element

Jerusalem: sunset view from Mount of Olives, with Church of Mary Magdalene (Russian) and Dome of the Rock

East Meredith NY–During a historical visit to Jerusalem in 1979, late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt proclaimed that the Arab-Israeli conflict is largely psychological.

Inherited notions about history and deeply felt convictions about the injustices are so strong that when an Arab-American meets a Jewish-American socially they tend to avoid politics at all cost. Discussing differences might spoil a relationship between an Arab and Jew who may share a neighbourhood, a business, a classroom or a workplace.

However, though the majority swims with the current, there is a significant minority on each side of the Mideast divide, which challenges extremist views and works hard to promote understanding and a justice-based peace. There are people who endeavour to break through the barriers between the communities and engage in an open-minded exchange.

Examples are easy to find. I have a personal story to tell about our family’s meeting with a creative and peace-loving Jewish family. I am an Arab-American of Lebanese descent, and my wife, Mary, is an American who has lived a few years in Lebanon.

It started in late May, when Bruce Roter, a Jewish reader expressed appreciation for an article in which I appealed to the Arabs and Jews of America to work together for peace in the Middle East. Responding to my appeal, Bruce Roter said “I hear you”. He added, “I am the composer of a symphonic work… ‘A Camp David Overture (Prayer for Peace)’” and he shared with me the YouTube link.

Bruce is a professor of music at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. The late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Mrs. Jihan Sadat (Sadat’s wife) praised his 1996 composition. This work has been performed for the promotion of peace in several US cities over the last 14 years, in the hope, as Bruce puts it “that this music can foster cultural ties among all the people of the region”. When it was played in Washington three years ago, official representatives from Israel, Egypt, France and Canada attended the concert.

After hearing an excerpt of this inspiring work, I arranged a meeting with Bruce and his family, including his wife Monique, and three children.

The Roter family has had ample exposure to life in the Middle East. Monique’s parents emigrated from Egypt in the 1950s. Growing up in a Sephardi family, Monique has an inbuilt taste for Middle East food and the Levantine culture.

On a sunny day, in late July, Bruce and his family shared a meal with ours: “lubie blahmeh” over rice, a green bean stew with beef. We talked about all sorts of Mideast dishes with nostalgia: “Bamie”, “Mulukhia”, “Wara inab”. Over lunch, Monique told us that her parents were expelled from Egypt during the Nasser regime. I saw no anger on Monique’s face. I did not offer my perspective for the departure of so many talented communities from Egypt during the revolutionary period of Nasser; commentary on history to interpret a sensitive personal story may sound callous.

The meal provided an easygoing setting to share sensitive ideas. The Roters are strong advocates for Israel, but they see this state’s future security strengthened through the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Afterwards, we invited a small group of friends to listen to Bruce introduce and play the CD of his “peace overture”. We asked many questions and Bruce was glad to explain his approach to teaching music and creating it. He also talked about his latest work, a children’s peace opera, “The Classroom.” The setting of the opera is a classroom composed of two ethnic groups. The debut will take place this fall in an Albany elementary school, where the Roter children are enrolled. In the premier performance, the two groups will be Palestinian and Israeli children.

The Rubeiz and Roter families have established a new friendship born out of a common appreciation for coexistence of a secure Israeli state and a future Palestinian state. The two families feel strongly that conflict could either divide or bring people together. People unite when there is a common will to avoid war in solving problems. We hope that this friendship will deepen with time, regardless of how the political situation develops.

The Mideast has millions of stories – some sad, some happy, some of mixed affect. Yet it is the human element, I find, to be a key to understanding, explaining and solving the conflict in the Middle East.

Rubeiz: Did Arabs contribute to saving lives during the Holocaust?

East Meredith NY–The current hard-line legislation considered by Israeli lawmakers to ensure “loyalty” of Arab citizens reflects tensions and mistrust on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide. The climate is leading many to believe that maintaining equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel is unsafe or unnatural.

But this conclusion ignores the past.

Arab anger towards Jews has not always been there. Likewise, Jewish hostility towards Arabs is rather new. Muslims and Jews – both Semitic peoples – coexisted in relative peace for twelve hundred years. Many activists on both sides who work to bridge the widening gap between Jews and Arabs inside Israel and in the West Bank draw encouragement from positive stories of co-existence throughout history.

Most people are now unaware of this legacy. Stories of Muslims who have shown compassion towards Jews during the Holocaust should be more widely known but for some reason remain hidden. In a recent booklet titled “The Role of the Righteous Muslim Persons,” Fiyaz Mughal proudly documents stories of Muslims who sheltered Jews in their homes, their farms and their workplaces during the Holocaust. The heroes described in the book were from Arab North Africa and Eastern Europe. One example given by Mughal is that of Si Ali Sakkat: “In Tunis, 60 Jewish internees escaped from an Axis labour camp and knocked on the farm door of Si Ali Sakkat, who took the risk of hiding them until they were saved by the Allies.”

This should not come as a surprise, bearing in mind that there had been a thriving Jewish community in the Middle East up until the 1940′s and 50′s, when contemporary tensions eclipsed a history of co-existence.

In 2006, researcher Robert Satloff published a book entitled “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust in Arab lands,” which placed the good news about Arab compassion in a sobering context. In an article in the Washington Post, he stated that “the Arabs in these lands were not too different from Europeans: With war waging around them, most stood by and did nothing; many participated fully and willingly in the persecution of Jews; and a brave few even helped save Jews.”

Acknowledging those “brave few” is important. Although limited, such acts of heroism are inspirational and circulating them is an expression of hope. Stories depicting acts of moral courage across the religious divide are bound to promote good will among all people, particularly amongst Arabs and Jews.

Unfortunately, like any other Middle East issue, the behaviour of Muslims in the Holocaust is perceived through the distorting prism of the current Arab-Israeli conflict. Western media distorts the record further by incessantly highlighting the rhetoric of provocative Arab and Iranian politicians who deny or downplay the Holocaust. This creates a message that Muslims are anti-Semitic, thereby adding to an Islamophobic socio-political climate. As a result, many in Israel and the West conclude that reports of Arab moral bravery during the Nazi reign are mere distractions in today’s extra-charged political context.

Distractions such reports are not. According to the Jewish as well as the Islamic holy books, in saving one life, the entire humanity is saved. Moreover, inviting Arabs to think of the Holocaust outside the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be an act of healing for both Arabs and Jews.
We must remind ourselves that it was only in the past century that competitive state building and a heightened nationalism situated the Arabs and Jews in a deadly political conflict. Colonial manipulation of the two sides has also played a part.

Arab antagonism toward Jews is largely political; it is mainly the result of Palestinian suffering and political humiliation. Similarly, Jewish and Christian antagonism towards Arabs and Muslims has been fuelled by acts of terror of a few who affect the image of millions.

Both Arabs and Jews express their fears of the enemy to add credibility to their moral narratives with inappropriate and exaggerated references to the Nazi era. Some Jews rationalise their elaborate structures of occupation and build exclusionary walls and checkpoints to avoid an alleged future Holocaust. For their part, some Arabs rationalise acts of violence by claiming that they live in a Nazi-like occupation.

Yet there is another way to see the application of the Holocaust narrative to the present day. Stories of Muslims saving Jews in the Holocaust serve the peace process. The sceptic who challenges the significance of these stories is missing the point: these true stories are moral examples that have the potential to bring down some of the walls that have been erected between Arabs and Jews.

The moral heroes of today are those Arabs who forego pride to recognise Israel’s existence, Israelis who sacrifice settlements in the West Bank for a final settlement of the conflict, Jews who advocate territorial withdrawal to honour Palestinian national aspirations, and Palestinians who limit their dreams of unlimited rights of return to contribute to regional stability.

Stories of courage which occurred seven decades ago are comparable to the bravery of contemporary Arabs and Israelis who have learned to forgive and are toiling hard to make peace.

Rubeiz: Middle East reconciliation in the Diaspora

Palm Beach Gardens FL–In trying to save Israel and save Palestine, competing interest groups in Washington are “saving” no more than the conflict itself.

The efforts of the Jewish, Arab and Muslim communities in America should be harnessed for the resolution of the Arab Israeli conflict. So far, the Jews advocate for Israel and the Arabs and Muslims promote Palestine. This one-sided loyalty significantly slows down the peace process.

The boldness of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in arguing his case for building settlements is bolstered by the unconditional support he receives from much of the American Jewish community. In crisis situations, siding with Israel trumps any other position, regardless of whether Netanyahu is right or wrong. In seeking peace, the White House must work creatively with the Jewish community. Obama should also work with the Arab and Muslim American communities; they are an important factor in the promotion of peace.

Would the Jewish American community ever consider cooperating with the Arab and Muslim American communities (and vice versa) in the process of finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict? So far, the incentives on both sides have not been strong enough for such cooperation. But the three Diasporas may have to work together, sooner rather than later.

The relevance of the Jewish American community to the resolution of the conflict lies in its very powerful lobby and the history of American-Israeli relations. And while the Arab and Muslim American communities do not have strong influence in the Congress, they can potentially serve as a rich intellectual resource, with a freedom to pose daring ideas and an ability to mediate with the Arab and Muslim worlds-factors of great potential for the promotion of peace.

Could the Arab and Muslim communities extend the hand of reconciliation to the American Jewish community? This shift requires formidable moral and political courage. Jews need to be assured that Israel has a right to exist and be safe in the Middle East. Arabs could acknowledge that Israel has great potential in contributing to the development of the region.

Arabs often pose a rhetorical question: why does Israel need more assurance? The answer is largely psychological. Perceptions of Israel’s invincibility are, to a large extent, illusory. Although Israel is a military regional superpower, being a demographic minority, feeling regional isolation, observing a growing Palestinian population, dealing with the guilt of the occupation, watching the Muslim world adopting “Palestine”, looking at Iran’s military build up and regional alliances – all such factors make most Jews anxious to the core and worried about the future.

The Arab and Muslim communities could launch a campaign in Hebrew addressing suffering, condemning prejudice, incitement and fanaticism. Arabs could lead Jewish delegations to Muslim cities around the world to deal with stereotypes through dialogue. They could call for a worldwide conference of reconciliation and peace in Cairo, and then in Jerusalem. This conference would be an occasion to popularize the idea that social justice and forgiveness go together.

The Jewish American side could also reach out to Muslims and Arabs. Arab and Muslim Americans have felt vulnerable in America since September 11, have accepted Israel’s existence within its 1967 borders, have organised an American Task Force on Palestine – which is active in dialogue with Jewish groups – and have actively participated in interfaith programs all over America.

The American media campaign against Islamism should be discouraged. The Jewish community has a special role in calming the right-wing evangelical political forces.

The most important mutual gesture of reconciliation could be the drafting of a common peace proposal on behalf of the Jewish, Arab and Muslim communities. The experience of preparing such a historic document would generate healing and a potential breakthrough.

All three sides in the American Diaspora should discover that the adversary is thirsty for reconciliation; that each side is a potential mediator in the festering Arab-Israeli conflict; and that joint advocacy across the divide could generate real peace.

Rubeiz: Israel’s security lies in regional peace

Palm Beach Gardens FL – On March 22 Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu defiantly declared to the world that: “there will be no freeze on construction in Jerusalem. Everyone knows it.”

An enduring occupation requires a high level of arrogance and a poker face in rationalization of injustice. The international community is well aware that Israel may have reached its limits in “digesting” the occupation demographically. Washington, in particular, is worried about Tel-Aviv’s denial of reality: for every Jew there is an Arab within post 1967 Israel controlled land.

The Israeli government is nervous about a serious shift in the US administration’s attitude towards an extended, worsening and hazardous occupation. The White House expects Israel to freeze illegal building of housing in occupied Palestinian territories and to come to the peace table. But Israel insists that it is not ready to stop building on “liberated” land. Tension between Tel Aviv and Washington is mounting.

The US relationship with Israel has been exceptionally close for years. Many believe this relationship has in fact turned symbiotic; seemingly the interests of the two states are deemed to be identical. Recently, however, the leadership of the US military and national security has voiced concerns over this level of closeness to Tel-Aviv and over Washington’s handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Over the past six decades, Israel has partnered with the US, militarily and diplomatically, but the Zionist state has become too alienated from the region. Does Israel expect America to continue indefinitely to tolerate the occupation, offer massive aid, defend the Jewish state in the United Nations and ignore collective punishment of the Palestinians?

For their part, the Arab states have made a bad situation worse by irresponsible treatment of Palestinians, blaming Israel for all their troubles, refusal of much needed reform and counterproductive diplomacy. But Israel’s enduring occupation cannot be rationalized as a necessity for security.

Since its foundation in 1948, Israel has been in doubt about its future. The US has been supporting Israel unconditionally since the 1967 war, a cataclysmic event which bolstered Israel territorially but exposed it to endless risk.

Advocates of Israel interests call upon Obama to be “gentle” and “reassuring” with Israel, but advocates of Palestinian rights expect our president to be firm with a government which regards land annexation as land reclamation, sanctified by divine will. Building settlements on occupied land is illegal under the Geneva Conventions; for Palestinians, annexation is theft of their private properties.

Sentiment against Israel’s defiance of international law has been growing slowly within the US, and more so in Europe. In response, Netanyahu has been trying hard to shift world attention from Israel-Palestine to Iran. He has partially succeeded. By reviving the image of Iran as the center of the “axis of evil”, the Israeli occupation has been downplayed. This diplomatic diversion paints Israel’s land-grab as a “tolerable” infraction, when contrasted with Iran’s nuclear threat, purportedly aimed at “vulnerable” Israel. US sanctions on Iran are tightening.

For some unclear and disturbing reason, Israel’s possession of a large stockpile of atomic bombs has been ignored in dealing with Iran’s crisis. The nuclear crisis is regional and not a recent emergency; it started in the early seventies when Israel was permitted in secret by the US to acquire the bomb. For the Middle East, there is a double standard regarding legitimacy of occupying foreign land and the possession of weapons of mass destruction.

The Arab and Muslim worlds see Zionism through their own lens. Unconditional US support of Israel has tarnished America’s reputation in the Muslim world. In recent months, some of Israel’s own friends have had second thoughts about the cost of the occupation and defense of settlement policy. Many wonder if Israel is risking its future in holding on to the occupation. US intelligence predicts dire demographic consequences for a state that swells in power and yet shrinks in security.

The occupation of vast Palestinian and Syrian territory, annexation, settlements, a Berlin-wall like fence (deep inside the West Bank), endless check points and collective punishment (against a mixture of civil rebellion, military resistance and fading terrorism), all such measures erode Israel’s democracy. Should Israel become an apartheid-like regime, as is expected in a decade or so, reverse migration of Jews may take place. An alternative could be ethnic cleansing and expulsion of Palestinians. Both scenarios are nightmarish.

True friends of Israel should encourage the Jewish state to end the occupation by seeking peace. Israel’s security will not improve through a new war with Iran.

Likewise, true friends of Palestinians should encourage them to unite around a platform of democracy and human rights. Such supporters should also demand Arab political awakening to provide a climate in which a future Palestinian state could be viable and democratic.

An inclusive and comprehensive regional approach for US foreign policy should be based on treating Israel, Iran and the Arab world as equidistant stakeholders. Only such a balanced policy can help Israel to integrate within the region and relieve the US from the impossible task of securing a state with elastic borders.

Lasting security for Israel can only be achieved through peace with neighbors.

Rubeiz: Lebanon not ready for radical reform

Palm Beach Gardens FL–In attempting to reform their state, the Lebanese fear the unraveling of their nation. President Obama was well briefed on Lebanon’s fragile, “national unity” government, when he received the Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on December 14.

In private, the US president demanded from Suleiman to control Hezbollah’s growing military power. In response, Suleiman was advised, in advance, to raise the issue of Israel’s threats to Beirut’s sovereignty. Both sides agreed to ignore the negative. Obama is getting better and better at ignoring the elephant in the room. Remember? In dealing with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Obama smoothly shelved the unpleasant: Israel’s settlers in the Occupied Territories.

Washington is learning. Obama is aware that Hezbollah’s unruliness in Lebanon is a symptom of the sectarian power structure of the country. Hezbollah is both a Resistance and a Shiite political party. Hezbollah, like Hamas, is also a product of a festering peace process.

Lebanon is a nation of contradictions. This nation is ironically the most secular and the most sectarian country in the region. The Lebanese are socially integrated and politically segregated.

The Lebanese communities mix in daily living. However, political power is shared according to sectarian, demographic formulas.

Christians and Muslims in Lebanon attend the same schools; they do business and leisure together without much thinking of social background; they live in mixed residential neighborhoods. Lebanon demonstrates that human contact reduces prejudice.

On the other hand, the Lebanese vote, organize power and manage conflict in predictable sectarian patterns. Political systems which conceive society as categories of religious communities create, reinforce and deepen sectarianism in voting, running for office, forming parties and engaging in public service.

To fully integrate the Lebanese citizenry, electoral, personal and family laws have to change. It is the law that rationalizes prejudice and institutionalizes discrimination.

The Lebanese have worked hard to rebuild their country after the fifteen-year sectarian civil war that ended in 1990. Not surprisingly, the current system has its advocates; proponents of the status quo see it as a pragmatic solution, a compromise between Western democracy and widespread Arab autocracy.

But the system has to change; demography changes and undermines the equilibrium of power sharing.

It is easier said than done. There is no public trust that under a secular electoral system people would vote for the best qualified politicians and ignore leaders of their own sect. There is no agreement on the role of Lebanese Diaspora in nation building. Determining who should vote in future national elections could turn into a sectarian “fight”. Finally, secularizing implies loss of privilege to the religious establishment. The clergy wield immense political power; they profit from regulating daily life in education, politics, marriage, death and inheritance.

Nonetheless, the Lebanese can now take preparatory measures to soften attitudes regarding diversity.

Lebanon could rotate top leadership positions among the main confessional groups for a fixed period, say a decade or two. This measure equates the political status of communities and allows for reconciliation and frank exchange about past inequality.

Emigrants with Lebanese passports could vote and participate in the rebuilding and reform. When emigrants are allowed to vote, minority and emigrant communities would regain confidence in Lebanon, as being a society that values all citizens.

The school curriculum should offer national civic education and encourage respect for tolerance. In Lebanon, private schools generally offer better education than public facilities. Intensive privatization in education has side effects; some special schools impart conservative religious education and promote a biased understanding of national history. Public education should be an equalizer; its facilities and curriculum should be improved. Civic education should be uniform across the country.

Inter-religious and civil marriage should be accepted. Current Lebanese law recognizes civil marriage if initially registered outside the country. Religious laws are prohibitive in peculiar ways. A Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man; but a Muslim man can marry a Christian women. Christian men or women are prohibited from wedding Muslims. If mixed marriage is legalized as an “ecumenical union” or a civil union, the country would have a sea change in interfaith attitudes. Since personal and family statutes are based on interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, this aspect of legislation is hard to change; it may be introduced incrementally.

It would perhaps take a full generation to change attitudes and systems before the politics of secular voting could be introduced. Regrettably, the Lebanese are not yet mentally ready for a radical departure from their sectarian status quo.

Ghassan Rubeiz: Banning minarets in Switzerland

Palm Beach Gardens FL–The freedom to express symbols in the place of worship is an important part of religious rights guaranteed by all democratic societies. Now, Switzerland has one thing in common with Saudi Arabia.

The Swiss referendum vote to ban erection of minarets is reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s banning of church buildings. The Saudis do not mind Christians conducting worship services in school buildings but they do not tolerate church buildings. There is a strange parallel here: banning minarets in a country that celebrates diversity and banning church buildings in a country that celebrates cultural purity.

The Swiss vote was a result of fear rather than hate. This judgmental decision on Islamic architecture reflects society’s fear of a growing Muslim minority in the land of William Tell. The anxiety is not irrational or unique; Europe and the wider Western world worry about changing Muslim demographics and mobilize ethnocentric politics. While anxiety about integration of Muslim minorities in Western society is understandable, regressive policies to force integration of minorities or to slow immigration of foreigners will backfire. Provoking the hesitant immigrant reinforces his/her isolation.

To facilitate social integration, the host country must understand the culture of its minorities and respect their sentiments. Muslim immigrants are much attached to their religion, and why not. For Muslims, especially their migrants, religion may also be a way of life. Banning minarets in Western mosques would risk alienating Muslims from larger society in adopted countries.

The newly introduced minaret policy is problematic in more ways than imagined. The policy is provocative to the global Muslim community, is in violation of European sentiments on long standing religious freedoms and works against Western interests in the Muslim world.

Minarets are powerful symbols to all Muslims, even to the many adherents who do not habitually visit mosques. The result of this referendum is seen an act of cultural suppression, a slap in the face.

The Arabic word for Minaret is Mi’zana, which means tower for calling the faithful to prayer. The minaret is the equivalent of the church altar for Christians. In a sense, the Mi’zana is symbolically the face of the mosque.

The banning of minarets sends a special message of rejection to the tens of millions of European Muslims. The ban of this symbol adds the minaret to an expanding list of Islamic codes that evoke limitless debate in Europe. Europe is moving on an obsessive track of debate over non substantial issues: the veil, the Danish cartoon, the minaret and who knows what next? Xenophobic politicians and media anchors that lust for emotionally divisive issues have now a new story to spin, the minaret.

The social context is relevant in this story. Five percent of the Swiss are Muslim; Most Swiss Muslims are partially or fully naturalized refugees from the Balkans. They are largely of a secular mindset. Switzerland is the seat the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, UNHCR, and the United Nations Human Rights Commission, UNHRC. Switzerland is among the leading nations in religious tolerance and respect for human rights. The result of this referendum is at odds with the Swiss culture of tolerance.

The West works hard to secure military presence in the Middle East and elsewhere on Muslim territories. Western governments search with diligence for new ways to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The West invests heavily in public diplomacy to create a culture of exchange and understanding with Arabs and Muslims. Banning minarets in the heart of Europe undermines the strategic Western interests in the Muslim world.

Identity building promotes security and is the foundation of integration. Minarets are “flags” of identity that should enhance social integration rather than impede it.

The West must continue to honor its high standards of respect for religious diversity. Minarets are not threatening but banning them may have that effect. This ban will soon be challenged within Swiss society and by the European Union.

Ghassan Rubeiz: Profiling in America can only backfire

The September 11, 2001, events shocked Arab and Muslim Americans, and the recent tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas, in which Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 30, heightened their identification with the United States. There are signs that Hasan’s acts of terror caused Americans of Middle Eastern and Muslim origin to want to participate more actively in search of ways to combat politically motivated violence in their country.

Today, Arab and Muslim Americans are nervous; they do not wish to see racial profiling become the law of the land. For the state to curb the freedoms of Arab and Muslim Americans, especially the most vulnerable among them, would likely backfire both domestically and abroad.

In the aftermath of the Fort Hood killings, several Arab American publicists underlined the community’s rejection of violence. In The Arab-American News of November 20, Khalil al-Saghir offered this message: “[T]he line must be drawn … between opposing US foreign policies and adhering to ideologies that consider America as a satanic enemy.”

His implication was that explaining away terrorism through simplistic formulas was no longer acceptable. This is not to say that American foreign policy has become palatable to Americans of Middle Eastern or Muslim background. But what is emerging is a new attitude denouncing terror, regardless of political context. As Saghir noted: [T]he question … is what is being done by American Muslims to help identify and ferret out those who are among us who may be the next Nidal Hasan?”

This only echoed what another prominent Arab American, Dr. Philip Salem, had declared earlier in a different setting: “Silence is no more a choice. Muslim extremists are not only a source of danger to the Christian West but rather a serious danger to Islam itself.”

Arab Americans and those of Muslim background are irritated when their loyalty is questioned, and when their disagreement with Washington on the Middle East is confused with a lack of patriotism. Some 5,000 Muslims and Arab Americans fought on both sides of the American Civil War, while over 15,000 Arab Americans fought in World War II.

After Fort Hood, American Muslims’ denunciation of terror and their asking for a role in combating it was appreciated by most Americans. However, some still question the feasibility of fully integrating Muslims into American life. Many argue that the “Islamist” side of Hasan’s behavior could not be overlooked. These skeptics point out that Hasan saw himself as a Muslim first and as an American second.

This line of argument is unfair. I have difficulty imagining that Hasan identified with an Islamic community, or umma, and abandoned America. More likely, he had suffered a mental breakdown, the result of personal maladjustment, professional failure, and political alienation. His anger against US politics distorted his judgment. The war in Iraq, the failure of the peace process, the intensification of military activity in Afghanistan, his exposure to war casualties, a negative self-image, poor job performance, and the fear of his impending deployment to a war zone may have all explained his tragic, cruel and bizarre vengeance.

Fort Hood brought questionable ideas of policy into the mainstream. When Muslims listen to radio talk show host Glenn Beck, they see profiling creeping into mainstream thinking. When they hear Sarah Palin rationalizing profiling, their stomach turns. When they witness Reverend Pat Robertson denying that Islam is a religion, they come to the conclusion that America tolerates anti-Muslim sentiment.

Americans who believe that Muslim minorities in the US should be monitored, screened, and profiled are making their case more loudly today. During times of societal stress, the heightening of vigilance sounds like the remedy of choice in terror control. But exposing “suspect” communities to humiliating attention is morally questionable and counterproductive. The act of profiling interferes with the naturalization and socialization process of minorities. Applying different security standards to different communities is a violation of human rights.

How do we decide which groups are too risky? There are several minority groups in America with extreme elements who place the interests of their small community ahead of those of America. However, the differences within communities are often larger than those between communities. A moderate Palestinian-American has more in common with a liberal Israeli-American than with an American who admires Hamas. A Christian-Zionist has more in common with an Arab American who is an extremist Islamist than with a Presbyterian who supports Peace Now.

Even if society is morally comfortable with targeting a specific community for profiling, the act of singling out people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is likely to alienate them and transform moderates into radicals.

Society is not helpless in adopting policies to detect those who are likely to commit acts of terror. But, there are limits to the prevention of violence. There will always be openings for a few people to sabotage the security of a society and cause immense damage and cruelty.

Arab and Muslim Americans do not lack patriotism, and have shown this on countless occasions in the past. As serious as the Fort Hood massacre was, and it was very serious, it was more the exception than the rule in illustrating the be­havior of Americans from Middle Eastern or Muslim backgrounds. To ensure that it remains an exception, Arab and Muslim Americans must to be in on the solution, not viewed merely as the problem.