The lost key to peace in Middle East

Ceylan Ozbudak

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Over the past two years, as Libya went through a violent revolution, as Egypt exchanged dictatorship for civil unrest, as the buzz of drones drowned out the sounds of everyday life in Yemen and Pakistan, as Syria descended into a bloodshed not seen since ancient times, and most recently, as chemical weapons have begun to emerge as the most dire threat against open society since the onset of the nuclear age, the city of Brussels has been hosting peace talks between Serbia and Kosovo. With scarcely a mention outside the countries involved, these former sites of tragedy in the 1990s have managed to craft terms of independence for Kosovo, over coffee and scones.

Europe and North America in their attempts to solve the problems of the Middle East have always made the same mistake of ignoring the religious dimensions, the very fabric of these lands, and the people who represent those values.

Ceylan Ozbudak

The talks began with a petition before an international tribunal of competent jurisdiction, were facilitated by a neutral mediator, and appointed by mutual consent. This has been a textbook illustration of how a dispute can be resolved peacefully. We are all supposed to learn in elementary school lessons such as listening, then speaking, and then listening some more. Humankind has been capable of this high order of communication for many centuries.

Why has there been more media interest in slanders, fights, and insults than in such a successful process? The unspoken media mantra, “If you’re not going to fight, we’re not going to write” has simply pushed the majority of the good news aside. Still, if we don't pay attention to what is actually working, how will we avoid the mistakes, which made the 20th century the bloodiest century of recorded time?

For almost a century, the Western intelligentsia had a convenient assumption that public opinion is a lump of clay, to be informed and shaped by a certain class, and led to whatever narrative they promote. Whatever its past merit, this assumption is much more questionable in 2013 than it was in 1995 or even in 2005. Within ten years, we have seen social media open doors to personal communications and relationships which would have never been feasible before. The initial consequence is that public opinion is becoming less and less homogenous and increasingly articulate. That's not a good thing. It's a great thing.

Armenians and Turks

After this positive development regarding Serbia and Kosovo last week, another equally cheerful event went unnoticed by the majority of the media, which seems to thrive so much on perpetual conflict and sensationalism. Just last week, Aram Atesyan, the Deputy Patriarch of the Orthodox Armenian Church, granted a televised interview and answered the question ‘What does it mean for the Turkish Armenians to study in Armenia?’ This was his answer:

“Armenia represents father and Turkey represents mother. Because we call Armenia the father land and Turkey the mother land. We Armenians are children, left in between a mother and a father, who are fighting. The two are fighting and we are crying. And we are waiting in anticipation and impatiently for our parents to reconcile no matter under which circumstances, we are waiting for them to hug each other.”

The Turkish and the Armenian peoples are rejecting the path of perpetual accusation and recrimination in favor of peace, respect, and cooperation toward a brighter day. When we look at our shared history, we find the brotherhood and the trust we seek now in our past. Under many Ottoman sultans, there were Armenians serving as ministers, advisers and parliament members. Armenian generals led the Ottoman armies. When Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Istanbul, he brought an Armenian priest from Bursa with him. In 1461 he gave the priest a patriarchate in the new capital of the Sultanate. In that time, only the Greek Orthodox Church had a patriarchate in the city. While in the West the constant focus is on the past and allegations of genocide, we are looking toward a better future: than counting the bones of who died in 1915. Armenians and Turks.

How does it help us to accurately evaluate this nature of the region and then integrate it into a secular and democratic system? Public opinion is no longer a monolithic unit. Every individual is a distinctive voice within the chorus of humankind. Many of us cherish a deep desire to live happily, in fellowship with God. Consequently, we see that people do not always agree with their politicians and continue to hold the views of their religious leaders dearer. In most places in the Middle East, mosques are full during Friday prayer, and the whole community listens to the imam very intently. For religious Jews in Israel, the declarations published by the Sanhedrin Court are like orders. For Christian Armenians, the opinions of the Patriarch serve as advice, and they trust the Patriarchate. Likewise, Muslim opinion leaders are widely covered in the media. The great majority of the Turkish people look to their religious leaders for advice even concerning the pending negotiations with the PKK. Indeed it is not unusual to see tribal leaders or religious people even on the most secular TV channels. The dominance of religious outlook on the social mood clearly demonstrates the religious orientation of people in this region.

Europe and North America in their attempts to solve the problems of the Middle East have always made the same mistake of ignoring the religious dimensions, the very fabric of these lands, and the people who represent those values. This has always turned out to be a blind alley for them. It has become an exhausting pattern for many analysts now to see that their conventional policies and usual diplomatic maneuvers no longer work in the region. New people who do not exactly fit the standards of the Western world are on the rise in their careers as the rulers of these lands from Tunisa to Egypt to Turkey and more to come. It is time that our Western friends understand treating the Middle East with the values of the Western world and thinking every society has the same approach is not only wrong, but counter-productive. The failures of Western “democracy promotion” in Iraq and Afghanistan testify to that fact. People with the desire to contribute to the peace processes in the region need to include religious and intellectual leaders, which are strong voices of their communities. Secretary Kerry can gain new momentum for Arab-Israeli peace if he brings Jewish, Muslim, Christian religious leadrs around the table. Will he?


Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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