Middle East Panel

September 09, 2013

Yesterday, I attended a panel discussion  at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) on current events in the Middle East. Sponsored by EMU's Interfaith Initiative for Peace and Justice, the panelists considered issues in Egypt, Syria/Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel. The first speaker, Abdelrahman Rabie, talked about Egypt (the first photo is one I took of Rabie). An Egyptian-American who teaches science and technology at James Madison University (JMU), Rabie criticized the military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government. He added that democratic transitions takes time and so the elected government should have been allowed to continue even with mistakes. Although not completely defending the Muslim Brotherhood (the government removed by the military), Rabie argued that the group should not have been removed from office and that they are being falsely blamed for much of the violence. During the question-and-answer time, some challenged Rabie's perspective. The second speaker, T.J. Fitzgerald, spoke about the situation in Syria and Lebanon. A history professor at JMU, Fitzgerald has traveled several times to both nations as his research focuses on that region. He argued that the current conflicts in the region can be read as part of the continuing decolonization process and noted how many of the political dynamics in Syria and Lebanon were created by the French (the former colonial power) as they left the countries. Pointing to the situation in Lebanon - where many Syrian refugees have fled and where some violence has occurred recently - Fitzgerald argued that the Syrian civil war has grown into a regional conflict. He ended his remarks by criticizing President Barack Obama's plans to use military force against Syria, arguing that will increase human suffering. Fitzgerald also argued that the complexity of the situation in Syria demands more humility and less zeal.

The last third of the panel discussion featured the situation in Palestine/Israel. Two Palestinian-Americans, Raad Amir and Hasan Hamdan, spoke on this topic. Amir, who did his graduate studies at EMU, argued that for Palestine and Israel there is no peace, just a peace process (the second photo is one I took of Amir). He added that this process brought no new outcomes over the past 25 years. He also criticized international leaders - including Obama - for meddling in Palestinian democratic elections instead of allowing Palestinians to hold free and fair elections without outside pressures. Hamdan, who teaches math at JMU, briefly explained the problems created for Palestinians by the ongoing occupation. He also noted that many Palestinians used to hold high hopes for Obama to be a honest peace broker, but that they generally no longer feel that way. Although not the most hopeful of discussions, the panel brought interesting perspectives from those who have lived and studied these complex Middle Eastern events. The crowd, which flowed out into the hallway and likely numbered around 150, did bring some hope as it is exciting to see such a large gathering to engage in these critical issues. As we see news reports about complex events like recent ones in the Middle East, we should listen to informed voices like those at the panel.

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