By Martin Rejman, WAC-DC Emerging Global Leaders Intern
The World Affairs Council – Washington, D.C. had the honor to host Mr. Nicolas Pelham for an Author Series event to deliberate the cultural and political complexities of the Middle East. In his recently published book, Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East, Mr. Pelham believes that tolerance and pluralism within societies can resolve sectarian struggles.
Mr. Pelham pointed out that unlike the religious rivalries in the Middle East today, the paradigm of pluralism and diversity had once been very indigenous to the region. In the Ottoman Empire, the so-called “millet system” accommodated self-governed religious communities who shared the same public space, including some holy places. Religious laws maintained minimum tension among all sects until the turn of the 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Its consecutive parceling contributed to formation of xenophobic and chauvinistic sects that have been struggling to co-exist ever since, said Mr. Pelham. Like in Israel or modern Turkey, much of the transformation from religious communities to nation-states has been led by secular leaders who have often committed vast domestic violence. Instead of building state authorities, much of the effort has been directed into a sectarian power struggle.
Given that spirituality appears fundamental and deeply rooted in local culture, Mr. Pelham maintains that peace-making in the Middle East should be conducted primarily through appeals to religious leaders. Since Islam, Christianity and Judaism have more in common than not, reviving tolerance among them can go a long way towards stability. Mr. Pelham sees not doom, but rather a resurgence of pluralism as a means of popular shifts towards peaceable futures in the Middle East.
As The Economist’s correspondent on Middle East Affairs, Nicolas Pelham has covered stories from throughout Iraq and the Maghreb. He is also a contributor to The New York Review of Books, and is a Pulitzer Center grantee. Having spent over two decades working throughout the region, Nicolas has reported from Rabat, Amman, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and London.