THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Arsonists vs. firefighters

June 30, 2014 

The real struggle in the Middle East today "is between arsonists and firefighters," according to Nader Mousavizadeh, the co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners, a geopolitical advisory firm. There is a lot of truth in that. The sectarian and nationalist fires you see burning in the Middle East are not as natural and inevitable as you may think.

"These are deliberate acts of arson," argues Mousavizadeh, "set by different leaders to advance their narrow and shortsighted political, economic and security objectives." In the West, he warns, "a mix of fatigue and fatalism is in danger of creating a narrative of irreversible Sunni-Shia conflict. This is historically false and releases the region's leaders from their responsibility to wield power in a legitimate and accountable way."

To be sure, he added, the sectarian divides are real, but it is "not inevitable" that the region erupt in sectarian conflagration. It takes arsonists to really get these sectarian fires blazing, and, "unless they set them and fan them and give them fuel," they will more often than not die out.

How so? Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, is an arsonist. When confronted with a nonviolent, grass-roots protest against his tyrannical rule, he opened fire on the demonstrators, hoping that would provoke Syria's Sunni majority to respond with violence against his Alawite/Shiite minority regime. It worked, and now Assad presents himself as the defender of a secular Syria against Sunni fanatics.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is an arsonist. The minute America left Iraq, he deliberately arrested Sunni leaders, deprived them of budgets and stopped paying the Sunni tribesmen who rose up against al-Qaida. When this triggered a Sunni response, Maliki ran in the last election as the defender of the Shiite majority against Sunni "terrorists." It worked.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt launched a crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, killing, wounding and arresting hundreds, and then he ran for president as the defender of Egypt against Muslim Brotherhood "terrorists."

The Palestinian extremists who recently kidnapped three Israeli youths were arsonists, aiming to blow up any hope of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to embarrass Palestinian moderates. But they had help. Radical Jewish settler supporters in the Israeli Cabinet, like Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel, are arsonists. Ariel deliberately announced plans to build 700 new housing units for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem -- timed to torpedo Secretary of State John Kerry's shuttle diplomacy. And they did.

There are firefighters in all these places, but they are now overwhelmed by the passions set loose by the arsonists.

It is hard for people who have not lived in the Arab world to appreciate that Shiites and Sunnis in places like Iraq, Lebanon or Bahrain often intermarry. Those that do are jokingly called "Sushi." Sectarian massacres are not the norm.

There are more ties that bind than don't. You actually have to work at burning them up.

To be sure, harmony between different sects requires order, but it does not have to be iron-fisted. Iraqis just last April held fair elections on their own. They can do it. These societies need to go from being governed by iron fists "to iron institutions that are legitimate, inclusive and accountable, and strong enough to hold the frame of society together," argued Mousavizadeh.

That requires the right leadership. "So when the region's leaders come to Washington to plead for engagement and intervention, ask for money or ask for arms," he added, "Let them first answer the question: Are you an arsonist or are you a firefighter?"

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

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