Conference Livestream: Where is the Middle East heading? – Welcome and Keynote Speech

Begrüßung/Welcome by
Prof. Dr. Julius H. Schoeps, MMZ Potsdam
Dr. Rolf Hosfeld, Lepsiushaus Potsdam
Dr. Thomas Scheffler, Orient-Institut Beirut
Dr. Elisabeth Botsch, Europäische Akademie Berlin

Prof. Dr. Shlomo Avineri, Jerusalem
Nationalism, nation-states, minority rights, and historical identities in the post-Ottoman space

Since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” in December 2010, complex and dramatic transformations have taken place in the Middle East. Up to now, it remains difficult to assess their impact on the people, societies and governments in the region.  Previously stable forms of government, politico-territorial boundaries, and the entire Middle Eastern state system established after World War I are destabilized under the pressure of large mass movements, escalating violence, humanitarian catastrophes, and the bitter competition between national and transnational players and powerful international alliances.

One central seismographic component of this process is formed by the region’s numerous ethno-religious minorities who are facing an uncertain future and must reorient themselves in an extremely fluid and fragile socio-political environment. In a situation of decaying order, incompatible claims to power and a high level of manifest and latent violence, ethnic and cultural diversity is rarely understood as an opportunity to create overall shared social and cultural growth, but is rather seen as a security risk.

Depending on local interests and the power resources available, the various religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East are trying to deal with this contradictory and threatening situation at different levels and with different strategies.  Besides a trend of increased individual emigration, there are attempts to support the old regimes, create alliances with other minorities, and find secularist partners willing to engage in talks within the majority population, or defend the interests of their own community with arms if necessary.

The conference will explore and compare the conditions, political dynamics, survival strategies, and international networks of different ethno-religious minorities in the Middle East in the framework of the historical development spanning the end of the Ottoman Empire, the European Mandate period and the era of Arab nationalism up to the present.

 

Welcome address by Dr Thomas Scheffler, Orient-Institut Beirut:

Ladies and gentlemen, dear guests and colleagues,

On behalf of the Orient-Institut Beirut of the Max Weber Foundation, I would like to welcome you all to this notable event.

The Orient-Institut Beirut has an obvious academic interest to support this conference:

1)      Our institute is located in a country – Lebanon – in  which eighteen officially recognized religious communities are engaged in a fragile multi-communal power-sharing system that continues, on the one hand, the reform impulses of the late Ottoman Empire, but exhibits, on the other hand, the difficulties of post-Ottoman nation-state building in the Levant after World War I.
The fact that none of Lebanon’s communities holds an absolute majority, but that, nevertheless, the term “minority” is, with a few exceptions, rather avoided in Lebanese official political discourse, shows that one of the key terms in the title of our conference – “minorities” – surely deserves closer scrutiny.
According to a famous formula coined by Pope John Paul II, Lebanon is a “land with a message” for mankind, a kind of divine laboratory to teach people of different cultures how to live peacefully together. Part of this teaching and learning process seems to be to make people understand how challenging, complex and difficult this simple task really is.

2)      Our institute is situated in a turbulent regional environment. Since decades, Lebanon has been internally affected by all the major conflicts of the Middle East, and the so-called “Arab Spring” is no exception. Many Lebanese consider the so-called “Cedar Revolution” of 2005 as the most important harbinger of the “Arab Spring”, but today their country is desperately trying to absorb the shock waves of the conflicts in neighboring Syria and Iraq, most notably enormous streams of refugees with serious consequences for the country’s resources, security and long-term demographic and political set-up. None of these challenges, problems and conflicts can be attributed, in a mono-causal way, to the “Arab Spring” or its crisis alone. They are rather part and parcel of multilayered conflict configurations that are rooted in the region’s history and its absorption into larger international power struggles with an increasing global dimension.

3)       The OIB is part of the Max Weber Foundation, a legal entity, established in 2003, that currently comprises ten German humanities research institutes abroad.
A video camera team of the Max Weber Foundation will be present during our conference in order to record selected takes of this event for video streaming on the blog page of the OIB (http://oib.hypotheses.org).
Max Weber was a towering pioneer in the social sciences and humanities, famous not only for exploring the social and economic dynamics of religious ethics, but also the problems of group formation, domination, rule, and governability. Weber’s famous seismographic definition of the state as an institution that successfully exercises the monopoly of legitimate violence on a given territory highlights, in a condensed form, those key elements of political stability that are currently eroding or being transformed in many parts of the Arab world. Today and with a view on the Middle East, Weber’s thought-provoking approach to the forms of power and domination deserves perhaps to be complemented by a stronger focus on social and political structures in flux and under crisis and decay.
Considering the frequent disappointment about the hitherto “meager results” of the Arab Spring, it might perhaps be advisable to complement the once fashionable optimistic references towards a great “transformation” of the Arab world by more cautious terms like “transition” or “transitions”, leaving it open to what state of affairs these transitions might finally lead. After the media euphoria about the “Arab Spring” in 2011 and 2012 this may sound a bit sobering. But it shows that the leading question of our conference – “Where is the Middle East heading?” – is not only a thought-provoking concern for journalists but for academic research in the humanities and social sciences, too.


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