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Photograph by Khalil Hamra/AP

The numerous stories and pictures of human tragedy surrounding the breakout of the Gaza-Israeli war in 2014 compelled me to seek better understanding of a region that had always seemed distant and foreign to me.

As an average first generation Canadian-Born-Chinese with no particular political or religious affiliation, I must confess that until recent years, the subject of the Middle East had merely been background noise to me. The controversy surrounding the various ongoing conflicts were so intimidating that I, like no doubt many others, often skimmed over the headlines or changed the channel whenever news about the region appeared.

However, after witnessing news reports and demonstrations regarding the Gaza-Israeli war, I finally decided to make more effort to learn as much as I could about the issues behind the conflicts of the Middle East. I attended many public lectures, panel discussions and documentaries, read countless books and articles, and even interviewed artists, academics and regular individuals. Unfortunately, almost every day new developments added further complexities to my studies and made my goal of comprehension ever elusive. Meanwhile, the rise of ISIS, the ongoing Syrian civil war, and the increasing political destabilization in Europe, the Americas and other places contending with escalating numbers of refugees fleeing the region, have expanded the “borders” of the Middle East and led me and many others to reconsider what was previously considered distant and foreign.

As many of us may be reflecting on our new year’s resolutions following the tumultuous year that was 2016, I am reminded of the key question that inspired my personal assignment: What can a by-stander do to promote peace on the subject of foreign (Middle East) conflict? Here are a few of my observations.

Objectivity is impossible                           

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”  — Friedrich Nietzsche

My first challenge, as a novice historian, was in determining the parameters for my research. According to Wikipedia, what we know today as the Middle East includes the transcontinental region located primarily in western Asia, as well as parts of northern Africa and southeastern Europe. At present there are 17 countries, 39 ethnic groups, 60 languages and at least 14 different religions.

The area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is also referred to as a “cradle of civilization” by the Western World for being one of the first sites where complex urban centers emerged. It was here that the Mesopotamian civilization is said to have originated from around 10,000 BC and produced some of what are considered the greatest advances of human civilization, including the invention of wheel, the planting of the first cereal crops, and the development of cursive script, mathematics, astronomy and agriculture. Among the many great empires that rose and fell in this area were the Sumerian (c. 5500 BCE – 1700 BC), Egyptian (3500 BCE – 2500 BCE), Assyrian (900 BCE – 612 BCE), Achaemenid Persian (550 BCE – 330 BCE), Umayyad Caliphate (661 CE – 750 CE) and the Ottoman (1299 CE – 1923). From this great tide of civilizations also rose the world’s three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – as well as numerous other religions, some of which have come and gone, and a few of which continue to survive today – if barely.

With such vast geographical, historical, political and cultural diversity, it is a wonder how a cohesive narrative for the region could ever be considered. Yet there is no shortage of accounts, from Arab to Zoroastrian, seeking to advance their own version of events.

It may be tempting to reduce all these claims to subjective conjecture and dismiss the disputes as immature contests between children in a sandbox. However, to do so would be insensitive to the very real circumstances of those individuals and families who have been forced to endure the disorienting effects of being uprooted from their homes and livelihoods to flee and wander to futures and destinations unknown. In the case of the children in a sandbox, the assumption is that some adult or outside figure might intervene to break up the senseless in-fighting and force a peace.

However, as David Fromkin illustrated in A Peace to End All Peace, there is no shortage of vested interests in the region among foreign powers. According to Fromkin, the modern Middle East is a product of “the Great Game”, a geopolitical struggle between European imperialists during the early 20th century which led to the eventual dissolution and partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. This situation has since evolved to include a global competition over the control of oil and gas resources.

Given the number of perspectives, with each filtering facts according to their own biases, I must admit that it made researching this topic incredibly frustrating. I have, however, acquired a greater respect for policy-makers faced with the unenviable challenge of trying to determine who and/or what to support. From a policy perspective, it can only be assumed that everyone has an agenda – even Canada – and thus, the process of building consensus based on common values and conditions must be painfully yet inevitably slow-going.

The dangers of “band-aid” solutions and desperate measures

“Only a fool would underestimate a man with nothing to lose.”  — Lance Conrad

For leaders, analysts and other activists with limited in time and resources, it may be tempting to choose simpler methods in the effort to untangle the Gordian knot of the Middle East. Unfortunately, such “band-aid” solutions often result in creating even more trouble.

Consider the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the first excursion of then-President George W. Bush’s “War On Terror”. While initial reactions among local Afghans were favourable towards the US-NATO army’s take down of the fundamentalist Taliban regime and eventual removal of the terrorist (al-Qaeda) mastermind, Osama bin Laden, tolerance for the presence of American soldiers unsurprisingly cooled as the war waged on. Despite billions in aid and military support provided to the dubiously-elected government under Hamid Karzai, the lack of any serious redevelopment initiatives due to widespread corruption, ongoing skirmishes with the Taliban, and rampant civilian casualties, led many – both locally and abroad – to question the value of the whole operation.

The Bush administration’s subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 is also frequently credited for further destabilizing the region. Following the US-Coalition’s removal of Saddam Hussein’s government, UN representatives failed to uncover the purported “weapons of mass destruction” that Hussein was alleged to be harbouring. Instead, the Western coalition’s mishandling of tensions between the Sunni and Shia Muslim communities may have been the principle cause leading to the emergence of the fundamentalist Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

It is worth noting that tensions between the two main branches of Islam – the Sunni and the Shia (or Shiite) – have been ongoing for over 1,300 years, principally over the question of who should have succeeded the Prophet Mohammad after his death in 632 CE. While the Sunni and the Shia are similar in their major tenants and beliefs, numerous differences in interpretation of those traditions and practices have resulted in a strong rivalry and the formation of fundamentalist worshipers on both sides. This is further complicated by regional competitions over political power and economic resources. Saudi Arabia and Iran, the dominant Sunni and Shia powers respectively in the Middle East, often take opposing sides during these competitions.

This leads us to Syria, where a bitter showdown between the Sunni-majority rebels and the Alawite Shia sect of the Bashar al-Assad regime is threatening the security of the whole region. According to researcher and policy risk analyst Primoz Manfreda, the conflict began as a popular uprising against the Assad regime, as inspired by the series of protests against corrupt, dictator-led government that sprung up across the Arab world in 2011 (known as the Arab Spring). However, the Assad regime responded brutally against the Syrian protesters, who then formed the “Free Syrian Army” in response. The conflict quickly escalated as the strategic importance of Syria drew Russia, Iran and the Lebanese-Hezbollah to join on the side of Assad, and Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to join on the side of the protesters-turned-rebels. Anil Hira, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, pointed out that Barack Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved in support of the rebels ushered an opening for extremists like ISIS and al-Nusra to intervene, further complicating the situation. At September 2016, a report from the European University Institute estimated that 11 million Syrians have been displaced since the outbreak of this war.

Finally, one cannot talk about current conflicts in the Middle East without mentioning Israel and Palestine. The founding of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948 was widely supported by the West following the atrocities of  the Holocaust. However, documentation of the human rights abuses against the local Palestinian Arabs by the Israeli State have led to widespread condemnation by international groups like Amnesty International and even the United Nations. The irony of the situation is not lost on many. That said, the difficulty of reconciliation between the two nations reminds me of the ongoing challenges faced by many states – including Canada – in handling relations with their own indigenous populations.

While this is not a comprehensive list of all the different conflicts and issues in the region, it should at least illustrate some of the contradictions with which the average civilian in the Middle East must contend. Faced with constant threats of violence, poverty and social unrest, it is no wonder that many turn to desperate measures (i.e. extremism, fleeing, suicide attacks).

Where is the war on terror really happening?

“Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.”  — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Unfortunately, the air of desperation and cynicism appears to be spreading well beyond the Middle East. Many will likely be watching as Donald Trump, who had called for a complete and total shutdown on all Muslims entering the US, is sworn in as the new 45th President of the United States on January 20.

According to Al Jazeera reporter Andrew Mitrovica, Trump represents a global movement towards the “incurable, ugly disease [of] far-right populism” that has been spreading around the world, including Britain, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary and Poland, particularly over the past year. Widespread Islamophobia, and other forms of discrimination are an unfortunate but unsurprising response to the increased demands on social services, competition for employment and resources, and challenges of cross-cultural relations that many of these countries are now facing following the reception of millions of refugees fleeing from the Middle East.

In the face of more hostility in the new host nations, the cycle of violence and terror thus continues. Sadly, there is no “quick fix” for the generations of fear and negativity that the victims of war and conflict have had to endure.

Even the efforts of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who urged Germans to fight terrorism with love and compassion, were regarded as simplistic and naive.

“Angela Merkel thinks we can stop terrorism with compassion. That is the stupidest thing I’ve heard so far. But Barack Obama has 19 more days left,” tweeted political analyst and US Navy veteran, Mike Doughty.

Merkel has been criticized for supporting the the European Union free movement, including the Schengen open borders policy. This policy has been blamed for the European migrant crisis and the 2015-2016 terror attacks in France, Belgium and Germany. In 2015, over one million refugees were accepted into Germany. On December 19, 2016, an incident at the Berlin Christmas Market killed 12 civilians, and has since been linked to ISIS.

With the terror thus internalized, how can we promote peace?

Not all wars are fought with guns

“In the information age, it’s not just whose army wins, but whose story wins.”  Joseph Nye

In his 2015 documentary, A Sinner in Mecca, New York-based filmmaker, Parvez Sharma, documented his pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, as an openly homosexual Muslim. Homosexuality is considered a sin punishable by death according to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam supported by the Saudi regime.

“Contemporary Islam is at war with itself, and I have fought hard not to be a casualty of it,” said Sharma.

Sharma is one of many other young Muslim artists seeking to find their own place and identity within their faith. Instead of guns and bombs, they pick up cameras and paint brushes in an effort to (re)tell their own stories.

“The Islam I love is one of peace and redemption,” said Sharma, who emphasized that there is not just one kind of Islam.

Indeed, the diversity within Islamic culture is evident from the range of what has been considered “Islamic art”. From the 8th century, Muslims travelling along the Silk Road from Spain to Southeast Asia actively traded in goods, cultural traditions, ideas and knowledge. This resulted in a vast array of works that are as varied in their composition as they are in media and subject.

To showcase this diversity, His Highness the Aga Khan opened a museum in Toronto, Ontario, on September 18, 2014, with a hope that the museum “will act as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance.”

This was a welcome reprieve from the Western media’s fixation on images of terror and violence in news associated with the Muslim world.

For Burnaby, BC-based curator, Taslim Samji, it is the focus on differences that fuels the conflicts in her community. To counter this, Samji brought together nine Ismaili Muslim female artists who have roots from East Africa, India and Pakistan, in an exhibition last year called Commonality.

“Within diversity there is a lot of commonality,” explained Samji, who was nominated in the 2016 YWCA Women of Distinction Awards. She was recognized for her efforts to promote more dialogue within and beyond the Muslim community on what it means to be Muslim in a contemporary landscape.

Samji justified her weapon of choice during an interview on April 16, 2016: “Art communicates in different ways…It goes beyond words and evokes emotion…and hope is an emotion.”

It is worth noting that Sharma, Samji and the Aga Khan do speak from relative positions of privilege, being away from the immediate struggles faced by those in the Middle East.

For those who might prefer more direct perspectives from inside the conflict, they may appreciate the work of Abounaddara, an anonymous collective of Syrian filmmakers that emerged at the onset of the civil uprising that led to the Syrian Civil War. The group produces short “emergency videos”, which are uploaded weekly to Vimeo, featuring individual Syrians from all sides of the issue.

Talal Derki’s Return to Homs is another inside-view of the Syrian civil war. This time, it is from the perspectives of 19-year-old national football team goalkeeper, Abdul Basset Al-Sarout and 24-year old Ossama, his media activist and journalist friend. The film follows the young men as they struggled with their adjustment from peaceful activists to rebel-in-arms in defense of their city.

Seeing the faces and hearing the hopes, dreams and fears of the people affected both directly and indirectly by all the controversies is an effective reminder that they– indeed we – are all only human.

Installation shot from “Milan”, a 2006 exhibition highlighting the works of Ismaili Muslims and their lives in Canada, curated by Amyn Sunderji. | Image courtesy of Amyn Sunderji

We are all accountable

“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”  ― Molière

Since November 2015, over 38,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted into Canada according to the Liberal Government’s Syrian Resettlement Program. In considering my role as a Canadian taxpayer and citizen, I am thus faced with the following questions: What are my values as a Canadian? What does freedom and multiculturalism mean to me? What am I personally willing to sacrifice to uphold these values?

While some may prefer to defer to the opinions of others, it is impossible to separate oneself from the impact of decisions related to such questions. A common complaint I often hear from peers and/or from some younger generations is something along the lines of the following: “Hey, I was not here when those bad things were done, so I should not be blamed for them.” However, the problem with this attitude is the confusion between blame and responsibility. Whether or not we are at fault for a wrongdoing does not preclude us from having to live or deal with the consequences.

The same lesson applies for the 12.9 million people who did not turn up during the Brexit referendum, and 90 million eligible voters who did not participate in the US election. Of course, it is important to acknowledge how many feel disengaged with the political process.

So perhaps we need to be reminded that none of us exist in isolation. With or without further investment from our parents after our physical birth, our very existence is the product and result of our ancestors’ struggles to survive through various natural, social, political and economic conditions. Whether we identify with them or not, we are the manifestation of all of the individual hopes and dreams of those that came before us. As we proceed with the baton that has been passed to us, it is up to us to decide which ideas to adopt or discard. We may choose to perpetuate the crimes committed by those before us, or we may chose to change and evolve. However we choose, we must still deal with the consequences – good and bad.


“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” ― Jalaluddin Rumi

From the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria and the 1960s Cultural Revolution in China, to the deliberate annihilation of sites of cultural heritage by ISIS, extremists have always sought to destroy the purveyors of ideas that may cause one to dissent from the prevailing order that they seek to the impose. Fortunately, in Canada, we are still able to enjoy a relative freedom in the exchange of ideas and opinions with respect for those that may differ from our own. It is, of course the responsibility of the state to provide the infrastructure to support such freedom. However, just as a highway will lose its funding if no cars are driving on it, so too a conversation would lose steam if no one is participating. Moreover, for engaged conversation, it is important that we not only speak up but listen as well. Such participation is integral to the democratic process and not only provides precious data to decision-makers, but may also inspire participants themselves to consider other perspectives or ways of being.

It is an unfortunate reality that most of us will have little opportunity to directly resolve the ongoing conflicts in places like Syria, Palestine and Iraq. However, by setting our own examples, at least we can prepare ourselves to provide appropriate support when and where it is needed, and thus, we might go from just being by-standers to standing by.


A note about my sources: 
I have included links to sources (or related information) throughout this article. Here are some additional resources in case anyone might be interested in doing a bit of their own research. (Please note that this not intended to be a complete bibliography).

Special thanks to Dr. Andy Hira, Kassie Sambaraju, Taslim Samji, Amyn Sunderji, Callan Tay and Mike Zozen for sharing their knowledge and experience!