Wednesday, July 17, 2013

169 - The Road to Damascus

These days few people “see the light” or any light at all, on the road to Damascus, like Saul of Tarsus witnessed when converting to the Christian faith. This is hardly surprising, but what is dangerous is that so few people see the light of reason. Apocalypse is occurring in the very places where humanity established the first building blocs of civilization, it is spreading fast throughout the entire region and there is not much that can be done to help.
The light that blinds
Many years have passed by, since the Age of Enlightenment pressed the use of reason to reform society, casting aside superstitious beliefs, fighting intolerance and curbing the excessive power of churches and states. It is absolutely appalling to observe, as late as this century, the revival of obscurantist and religious sects, zealots and extremists, bigots warring among themselves, bent on spreading terrorism all over the world. They cannot see the light of reason, their minds having been blinded by the light of conflicting faiths.
Mediterranean rot
Around the rim of the Mediterranean Sea, things are rotting fast. What used to be the center of the world, the middle of the Earth, has become nothing more than the crowded backwaters of old civilizations harboring even older resentments. Disgruntled peoples were left behind to live side by side, by a history of neighbors trying to annihilate neighbors.
The countries on the European side are on a descending curve of faltering democracies, discredited political parties, economic decline, towering financial debts, broken welfare states, raising unemployment and declining birth rates.
Those on the African side (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt) are making brave attempts, although not very successful, to establish less authoritarian regimes and independent institutions, modernize their societies and reduce crippling administrative corruption, develop the economy to keep pace with galloping reproduction rates by creating enough jobs for the new generations.
The Middle East is an expanding bonfire of pre-civil wars (Egypt, maybe Lebanon), civil wars (Syria), post foreign interventions (Iraq), decomposing theocracies (Iran) and sheikhdoms buying relative internal peace by bribing their citizens and financing terrorist groups outside their borders (Saudi Arabia and the other oil States of the Gulf). Then there is the case of Turkey’s surreptitious Islamization of the institutions, a regression from Mustafa Kemal’s reforms (yes, Turkey has one important toe in Europe, but most of its territory and the capital are in Asia).
Reason and fantasy
The dreamland that fills the minds of a large part of mankind is full of portents, prophets and supernatural beliefs, which provide an escape to the dreariness of daily life. Most of those beliefs originated in the Middle East and superstitions were a part of those building blocs that were the seeds of civilizations.
It is not easy to grow out of custom, some societies got stuck in traditional ways of life and progress reaches very slowly the old mindsets. Sadly, this is the present condition of some nations that were in the past beacons of brilliant civilizations (Pharaohs’ Egypt, Persia, the Ottoman Empire).
Progress and retrogress
Evolving towards democratic institutions is a long process, strewn with difficulties and pitfalls. Reforms are hard to implement and even harder to maintain.
The ancient Greeks had a first go at it, balancing between oligarchy and democracy. Still, their finest time came with the rule by Pericles, a populist oligarch, the golden age marking also the beginning of the end for Athens. They originality later vanished into becoming another Roman conquest, a source of teachers and philosophers for the aristocracy.
The Romans created a successful Republic and later turned it into an Empire. Everybody learns today that the assassination of Julius Caesar was actually intended as a last ditch defense of the Republic. The Roman Empire later fell under the invasion of the barbarians and the long night of the Middle Ages extended over the known world.
Although a couple of merchant city-states called themselves republics during this period, it was necessary to wait until the eighteen century for the American Colonies to revolt and become a democracy and a Republic. Then, the French Revolution also eventually organized itself as a Republic, before degenerating into an Empire and engulfing Europe in war.
The paths towards democracy, in Europe and elsewhere, have a very checkered history. In many countries democracy is still a work in progress, while in others it is already a decaying regime.
 Another hand of cards
All this to say that it is only natural for the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries (many of them being recent and artificial colonial contraptions), to go through the convulsions associated with the birth of democratic institutions. This is an important empowerment for their citizens, the majority of them still poorly schooled and with centuries of irrational beliefs embedded in their minds. It will take perseverance to overcome the odds stacked against success and accept the many inevitable failures.
 They will also need to see off foreign interventions and competing interests, as well as to exhaust the inertia of ancestral sectarian hatred. It will take a long time, they should have all the time necessary, but the world moves ever faster these days and everybody else has already lost patience with the laggards. Not that there is any alternative to make do with the world as it is.
JSR

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