Beholden to the past and its tragedies
The past few weeks have been marked by historic anniversaries.
Western countries and Russia celebrated the anniversary of the end of World War II, in which between 50 million and 80 million died. The magnitude of that human toll is mindboggling and a reminder of what men can wreak upon fellow men. Among those who gave their lives were troops from the Middle East and North Africa, who took part as members of the colonial armies of the time. Their sacrifices have yet to receive full recognition.
The 70th anniversary of the war commemorated the defeat of the Nazis and the end of their atrocities, including the Holocaust. Hitler’s vile project to exterminate European Jewry was to have a tremendous impact on subsequent events in the Middle East.
April marked the centenary of the Armenian tragedy, which many (including virtually all Armenians) term a “genocide”, which others (including most Turks) deny. Lebanon commemorated the 40th anniversary of its bloody civil war, as well as the 10th anniversary of the Syrian evacuation of Lebanon. And April was the 12th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, the fall of Baghdad and the beginning of Iraq’s descent into the sectarian strife that still characterises it.
While these anniversaries were being commemorated, new tragedies are unfolding. The injustice and human folly that caused many of them have yet to be addressed.
Much of the Levant is engulfed in the flames of religious extremism and sectarian violence. Tragically, wars in the Middle East often do not breed wisdom. They just breed more war.
The peoples of the Middle East have a uniquely long memory, which too often uses narratives of past sectarian and tribal horrors as reason to perpetuate hate and revenge.
Beholden to the past, many people of the region have great difficulty grasping the opportunities of the present or the possibilities of the future. Compromise and reconciliation do not come easy especially to people who still have to live with consequences of past injustices.
May 15th marks the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, the tragic uprooting of Palestinians from their homeland when Israel was created in 1948. For Israelis, it is a celebration of independence; for Palestinians, it is a reminder of their tragic history and ongoing occupation.
Almost nobody disputes the right of Israel to exist in the internationally recognised borders of 1967. But Israel is yet to fully and clearly recognise that the right of Palestinians to a viable state of their own is the only way to achieve sustainable peace.
The remembrance of past tragedies can be a source of wisdom, but only if it serves as a reminder to do the right thing when the right thing can still be done.