Human behaviour is often closely linked to the social conditions and moral values. The further down the social ladder people find themselves, the more they are exposed to, and receptive to, social movements based on a certain religions, sects or set of values. Conflicts, war, the gap between rich and poor, the lack of social mobility and personal empowerment are also breeding grounds for a variety of movements that can have a positive as well as a negative effect on social progress.
There is no shortage of examples for the statements above. Just before the civil war broke out in Syria I visited Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra and Homs. I had good many discussions with people in the traditional Souk commercial centres. It was a history lesson that took me back to the period of trading and expansion along Palmyra, the Silk Route to China and Central Asia, as well as the churches and mosques that accommodated Christians and Muslims at different times. Places that are today being emptied of people and destroyed, and where centuries of history are being levelled to the ground.
Instead of developing trade and tourism, the Syrian regime chose to trail the same violence Bashar al-Assad’s father used against its citizens. Perhaps I, like many Syrians I met, believed that the young dictator would prove to be smart and choose to go down into history as the one that opened the Syrian economy and promoted social reforms. I can still remember the smile of two of the Aleppo carpet merchants that removed dollar and euro bills from their pockets and proudly said that the young Assad now allowed them to trade in foreign currency. Around the souks, there was widespread trust that the government would give the long awaited freedom to the class that for centuries constituted the fabric of Syrian secular society: its merchants.
Trade is the thread that enabled Christians, Jews and Muslims to live together for centuries. It has not been a past without tension and persecution, but trade interests helped foster a tolerance and a dialogue in Syria that one sees absent in most of the Middle East. Trade could have been the foothold on the path to democracy that I naively believed was about to emerge in Syria.
But Bashar al- Assad chose to kill Syrians and to destroy the faint tolerance and hope that strolled around the Souks until the war broke. On their fight for survival, Assad and his lieutenants have been blasting through centuries of history. His troops have shelled Crak de Chevallier, invaded Aleppo’s citadel and bombs are levelling cities to the ground.
When I read the news of the violence in Homs, I recall one night I was walking back from a restaurant in Homs centre with my family. On the sidewalk, there was a young man selling second hand books. My stepson, who at the time studied literature in England, engaged in a conversation with the bookseller. They spent a long time discussing Dickens and Orwell. The bookseller said he started the second hand book market in Homs and he felt very proud of his success. During the day he run a small bookshop and in the evenings he sold second hand books on the streets. He studied literature in Italy and like my son, loved books and art. Homs has been badly bombarded and what we now risk with this violence is that the young generation will just conform to an ism because the road towards education, commerce and democratic development has been destroyed. Read more about the revolution of opportunities – Revolution, Recession and Sustainability
As a Swedish national, I believe that society needs strong leaders who can balance and lead developments through greater pluralism and diversity, especially now that we are seeing increasingly complex societies with strong spheres of power where religion and politics are united or in conflict.
During previous trips to the Middle East, I also visited Palestinian townships and saw with my own eyes how Israel bombed them indiscriminately and left many families without a roof over their heads. This naturally became a subject of debate in discussions I had with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Perez, leaders at the time. Apart from the leaders, nothing much has changed in Israel in the past years.
Palestinian women in the townships still experience the consequences of Yaser Arafat’s prohibition that stopped them from forming cooperatives based on the Israeli Kibbutz model. Arafat was the one who forbid women from becoming self-sufficient by vetoing cooperative legislation and thus shutting the door to EU grants.
The older political and religious believers do all in their power to stop the winds of change, thus giving young people and women no voice. This takes me back to the 1990s when the National Council of Swedish Youth (LSU) invited Middle East young leaders to Sweden every summer, Palestinians, Israelis and Arabs all involved in conflicts on their home front. During a few summer weeks in Sweden the foundation was laid for progress talks with these coming generation of future leaders. Regrettably, these summer meetings were stopped by the senior leaders of the older generation who detain power and forbade the young to meet, as it posed too great a threat to the power position of the established order.
We need pluralistic societies with room for individual and collective interplay. Leaders who go down the single ism route can never create those.