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H. Ramzy: Conflict Resolution and Peace in the Middle East

Address to the International Leadership Conference
Seoul, Korea - February 9-13, 2014

In the name of Allah the most kind the most merciful. I greet you with the Islamic greeting of peace: Assalamu Alaykum wa Rahmatullah. May the peace and blessing of Almighty Allah be up on you all.

I would like to start with a question: Is peace possible in the Middle East? For decades, war and conflict have raged in the region, and no one has yet found a solution. It seems the more we try, the less we succeed.

So what are we doing wrong?

In order to answer this question, I believe we need to go back to the basics. The Middle East consists of 17 countries and is home to around 400 million inhabitants. On the surface this region appears to be a homogenous area, with the majority of the population consisting of Arab Sunni Muslims.

But here lies the problem. Often when the subject of peace in the Middle East is raised, it is spoken about as if it is one uniform area. This could not be further from the reality.

The Middle East is an incredibly diverse region. Its countries differ in religious make-up, language, economic outlook, ethnicity, history and culture. While 60 percent of the population of the Middle East are indeed Arab Muslims, the remainder comprises a great diversity of peoples including non-Arabs, Shi'a Muslims, Christians, Jews and other minor Islamic sects. We ignore this diversity at our own risk. We cannot group all those in the Middle East under the label “Arab” or “Muslim.”

In order for the answer to the question I posed at the beginning to be "yes," and in order to make progress and find real solutions, we need to understand the unique fabric of the Middle East and all the various threads that are woven together to make the intricate tapestry of the region.

It is the people of the region that make up these threads, not just governments. While we do need to work at a national and international level, looking for top-down solutions, we also need grass-root initiatives to ensure peace is sustainable. After all, governments and leaders come and go, but the people are what remain. Thus, I believe that in order for peace to reign in the Middle East, we need peace between peoples, not just politicians.

This is where the concept of cultural diplomacy has a role to play. Cultural diplomacy may best be described, in the words of the Director of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, Dr. Emil Constantinescu, as “a course of actions which are based on and utilize the exchange of ideas, values, traditions and other aspects of culture or identity, whether to strengthen relationships, enhance sociocultural cooperation or promote national interests.”

At the heart of cultural diplomacy lies the importance of understanding. Misunderstanding breeds conflict. But through mutual respect and understanding, one group will know how to handle the other group, and they will be able to meet in the middle and enrich their association through this understanding.

I believe it was Albert Einstein who said: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” This understanding needs to be present between not only the groups in conflict but also those coming from outside in order to offer aid and assistance. Without this we will get nowhere.

Let us take the Israel-Palestine conflict as an example. This tension differs from others in the region. Whereas the fighting in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other regions revolves largely around sectarian divisions, the Israel-Palestine conflict revolves around the issue of land. The UN resolution calling for a two-state solution, UN 1947, must be implemented if peace is to have a chance. Organizations such as the Inter Parliamentary Coalition for Global Ethics, of which I am a member, are working hard to ensure that these resolutions are put in place so that the political obstacles which divide the people of Israel and Palestine can be removed.

But it is not enough to remove these obstacles alone. Social barriers must also be overcome, and here I believe cultural diplomacy is the way forward. A peace that will last must come from within. The torn fabric of these ancient societies must be mended with care and understanding.

This, I believe, would have a ripple effect, with stability spreading beyond the borders into neighboring countries and the rest of the region.

To return to the original question: Is peace possible in Middle East? My answer is yes. But we need a different approach. We need diplomacy both at a political and a cultural level. There must be peace between parties and peoples, between nations and neighborhoods. We must have understanding between people at all levels, in all capacities, in order for a lasting peace to have a chance.

Nelson Mandela, a legend of our time, once said “I dream of an Africa which is at peace with itself.” I say we should dream of a Middle East which is at peace with itself. And I believe, with understanding, this is possible.

I pray that one day this possibility will become a reality, and that hatred will be replaced with friendship and love. And I pray that we all live to see this day. May Almighty Allah bless you all. Thank you for listening.