Saturday, May 07, 2005

Hind Kabawat and Marc Gopin Work for Peace

Marc Gopin a scholar of conflict resolution at George Mason University with a cultural background as a religious American Jewish scholar recently came to Damascus from Israel. He had given several seminars on conflict resolution in Israel. Then Hind Kabawat, a Syrian-Canadian attorney arranged for Gopin to come to Syria to speak on peace in the Middle East. Marc has recently written about his unusual visit:

The main public dialogue on January 6 - excerpts of which were nationally televised -was attended by 300 distinguished guests, government officials, artists, professors and professionals. It took place in the most prestigious building of Damascus, the Assad Library, and attendees included the American, Canadian and Swiss ambassadors, the Syrian ambassador to the U.S., assistants to President Bashar Assad and representatives of various ministries, especially the Information Ministry and the Expatriates Ministry, in addition to professionals and officials from Lebanon.

The atmosphere of the public dialogue, simultaneously translated into English and Arabic, was electric in many ways. I was treated with immense respect, but, at the same time, some in the audience had the opportunity to vent anger at what they saw as the victimization of Syria and the Palestinians. Others expressed deep appreciation for my willingness to come and listen. We had a great, tough dialogue. ...

Despite the obvious challenges of what the military supports, there are some winds of change at the heart of Syrian culture, winds that the West is missing. In fact, my biggest problem since I left Syria was that no one in Israel believed that the event actually took place, or that a religious Jew would be treated this way in the capital of Israel's fiercest foe.

Fortunately we made a videotape, and yet the sense of disbelief remains palpable. I said this to one Syrian, and she said in a generous way that is typical of her culture: "It's okay, we could hardly believe it ourselves; how could we expect others to believe it?"

Marc concludes his article by arguing:
What all parties need most now is not the immediate resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations, but a palpable thaw in relations, a firm direction away from support for terrorism accompanied simultaneously by significant gestures of cultural and economic rapprochement. This, combined with subtle American efforts to engage and support Assad, are key ingredients that would help bring Syria into the circle of an enlarged peace process, and this eventually will deal a final death blow to state-supported terrorism in the Arab Middle East.

Hind Aboud Kabawat gave the following talk at George Mason as a follow up to Gopin's talk in Syria. According to those who know her, Hind is a "real force to be reckoned with here" and a leading Syrian lawyer. She is also President of the Syrian Canadian Women’s Club and a Board member of the Syrian Public Relations Association.
Here is the talk she gave:

By Hind Aboud Kabawat
Thursday, April 14
Dear Friends:

As a Syrian national (and perhaps even as a Canadian citizen) I must admit I visit George Bush’s capital with some trepidation.

My homeland has not been at the top of the U.S. president’s list of most favorite nations in recent months (or is recent years) and I must admit it saddens me deeply the way in which Syria is frequently perceived (some might argue, caricatured) in the Western media and by Western politicians and opinion leaders.

Too often our whole society is dismissed as a renegade state populated by terrorists, or terrorist sympathizers, and meddlers in the internal affairs of other societies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But before I outline what I perceive to be a more balanced picture of Syrian society let me begin with one important caveat. Tonight I address you as a Syrian national with a deep and abiding love for my country and its ancient culture; I do not come here tonight to represent the interests, or point of view, of the government of Syria.

Indeed, I am a reformer who is committed to peaceful change in my country and a member of a Civil Society in Syria. Let me begin, first, with the whole issue of the role of religion and religious tolerance in Syria, specifically, and the Middle East, in general.

Too many people view the region as one of narrow-minded bigotry animated by deep antagonisms between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth and I know from personal experience.

My family are Christians and have been for hundreds of years. Not far from my home in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, near one of the gates leading into the quarter, is the Chapel of St. Paul, the very site where Saint Paul was lowered in a basket after his so-called “Damascene” conversion to Christianity. So you can see the Christian presence in my country goes back to Biblical days. And Christians have endured, even thrived, ever since, despite the emergence centuries later of Islam as the dominant religion in the country.

As an example of just how they much they thrived, let me give you an anecdote. Awhile back friend of mine Dr. Sami Moubayed gave me a historical textbook, which is sort of an early (1920) Who’s Who in what was then French-controlled Syria. In it there are small profiles of the leading figures of the period in business, government, culture, education and religion. Amazingly, individuals from all major religious groups were represented: Muslims, Christians and Jews. For instance, there was Fares Khoury a Christian Prime Minister, Catholic, Orthodox Priest and the Jewish
Rabai of Damascus.

Such diversity and religious tolerance squares with other more anecdotal evidence. Although almost everyone in the West believes that most Arabs and all Syrians are hostile to Jews and Jewish interests, nothing could be further from the truth. And that Western “bias” certainly doesn’t square with the historical record. Again, as a resident of the Old City of Damascus, I can tell you that Jews, like Christians, lived in this lively engaging community, in their own Jewish Quarter, peacefully and prosperously for a millennia. Indeed, while most European societies were practicing one form of exclusion or another on Jewish people, the “Children of the Book,” as Muslims call them, enjoyed great freedom and tolerance in Syria. Under the Ottomans, all religious minorities were treated fairly as long as they accepted the dominant role of Islam in the culture.

Arguably there was significantly more religious tolerance in the Muslim Middle East than there was in Christian Europe for hundreds of years. Indeed, Catholics did not even receive the franchise, the right to vote, in England, the motherland of democracy, until the mid-19th century. And we all know what terrible fate befell Jews, Gypsies, Catholic Poles, etc at the hands of Germans as late as the mid-20th century.

So, I would argue the historical record in the Muslim and Arab world for the greater part of the 19th and 20th century was quite good. And in many fundamental respects, superior to the record in Europe during the same period. It is this Ottoman legacy upon which the contemporary Syrian commitment to religious tolerance is built.

Which brings me to the present moment. The Baathist government in today’s Syria enjoys few friends in present-day Washington. Now I am no apologist for the entire record of the Baathist government but on one very important file, religious tolerance, they have an noteworthy record. From his first days as the leader of Syria, Hafez al-Assad was committed to making Syria an officially secular society, which many in the West would argue is one of the fundamental preconditions for the development of a democratic society. In contemporary Syria, all religious groups enjoy the rights to practice their religion independent of government interference or control. And indeed, with the emergence of the Christian right in the US, I would argue that the historically important separation of Church and State is under more danger here, on the banks of the Potomac, than ancient land of the Assyrians.

So believe me when I tell you, as a Christian, indeed as an Evangeslist, that religious tolerance is alive and well in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia. But skeptics might respond, what about the Syrian government’s long standing antipathy toward Israel. Well, this is a complex and delicate issue. But it is, fundamentally, a political issue. As I argued, earlier, Syria’s historical record viz a viz its Jewish minority, I believe, is as good, if not better, than most societies in Europe and North America. But frankly, there are many outstanding and complicated political and territorial issues between Israel and Syria, which have nothing to do with religion. Let us not forget that Syria remains an occupied country. And has been for over four decades.

Let us be fair and even-handed here. (I believe that if Israel withdrew from the Golan there would be a Syrian embassy in Jerusalem and an Israel embassy in Damascus in short order.) I have never been a supporter of a Syrian military presence is Lebanon. But, at least, initially and under the blessing of the United States and the International community we entered that country to prevent a sectarian genocide—and I think we succeeded in no small part. But there is no question our role, in this regard, long ago ended. And I, like many Syrians, applaud the decision of our government to withdraw from our neighbour. And I hope a new “culture of peace” will now emerge in our relations between ourselves and our Levantine neighbour. With
no interference what’s so ever in their society.

So let’s assume the Syria/Lebanon issue will shortly be normalized. The next big issue then becomes this: Can a “culture of peace” emerge between Syrian and Israel, in particular, and Israel and the Arab world, in general. Call me crazy, but I really do not believe it has much to do with religious intolerance. To repeat my earlier point, for most of the last two or three hundred years, there was much greater religious tolerance in the Arab/Muslim world than the Christian West. Thanks, perhaps, to the enlightened statecraft of the Ottomans. The heightened sectarianism, which has characterized the Arab world in recent years, is something of an aberration.

So maybe I am an optimist, but I truly believe a “new culture of peace” can emerge between the Jews and Muslims, Christians Arabs and Isrealis if we can summon the courage to overcome some very vexing and, to date at least, intractable problems.

Probably the first item on the agenda is to break the cycle of name-calling and blaming. Not long ago I was talking with my friend, Margaret Scobie, the US Ambassador to Syria, and she quite correctly noted that the time has come for some “Dramatic Gesture,” like Sadat’s famous trip to Jerusalem, or dare I say, Richard Nixon’s trip to China in the early 1970s. Back then, it was argued that only a longstanding anti-Communist like Nixon could reframe the relationship between China and the West. Perhaps it is time the leaders of Syria and Israel to reprise this historic rapprochement.

The great irony about the whole relationship between religion and a culture of peace is that all the faiths in the region—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have common roots and are all based upon a ethic of forgiveness and compassion. I honestly believe that a constructive approach for the United States is to work with those Syrians, both in the government and out of the government, who believe in peace, in religious tolerance in a New Middle East. The Americans know who we are, and I believe they know that my President is an ally in this, Support him! Help us on the tough road to peace and coexistence with our neighbors, especially by allowing us to prosper and become strong. I know this is hard, that American strongly dislikes what
some Syrians citizens have done. But look at the rest of us! Do not punish a whole country for the actions of a few! Give us a chance to build an alliance together in the search for a just solution to our problems and Palestinians problems with Israel and with the region. We can do it togethers peacefully, but if we move forward as enemies then truly extremist forces could take over my country, some religious and some secular. Let’s move together forward as allies, Come and visit us, visit
our great Syria, and see this great loving nation.

I believe the time has come for all parties, Jews, Muslims and Christians, to “walk the talk,” and truly create a culture of peace and compassion and forgiveness.

Once Pope John Paul II said” Let’s build bridges not walls” Enough is enough. Let us end this tragic cycle of violence for our children’s future.

Thank you for your time.

Hind Kabawat can be reached at: []


At 5/07/2005 05:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Syrian Embassy in *Jerusalem*?! I hope this was just a terrible mistake.

At 5/07/2005 10:32:00 AM, Anonymous Haidar said...

Tel Aviv would be more likely.

At 5/07/2005 12:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These dictators are ready to sell all in exchange to stay in the power .But it will not work ,after 25 years of "peace" israeli egyptian treaty only exist on the paper.Credible and true peace is only possible through people to people contacts and between 2 democratic states.

At 5/07/2005 03:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that I was saying this on the previous thread, but the dramatic gesture that Kabawat calls for could be the return of Ellie Cohen's remains.

"Credible and true peace is only possible through people to people contacts and between 2 democratic states."

I agree. Peace between peoples is more important, though more difficult to achieve, than peace between governments.

How about letting Israel should be compete in athletic events against the Arab neighbors with whom it has diplomatic relations? There's such a thing as good natured rivaly.

At 5/08/2005 07:45:00 AM, Anonymous sottovoce said...

There is something truly pathetic in the sycophantic appraise of Muslim tolerance towards Christians of Ms Kabawat. This is the attitude of the victim or the survivor at the end of the tether: denial; complete denial. She should perhaps read some History, beyond that single 1920 sheet and perhaps too, beyond the personal history of her family. This is not to say that there was no tolerance, or that one should not overcome past dramas, but some realism would certainly be more constructive for the future

At 5/08/2005 07:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But, at least, initially and under the blessing of the United States and the International community we entered that country to prevent a sectarian genocide"...!!!!and WHO started,instigated and kept fueling this genocide? Wasnt it the Syrian Baath government?We Lebanese have no hatred in our hearts towards the Syrian people who have suffered and still suffer under this regime .We hope that all the Baath in Syria will burn in hell!!

At 5/08/2005 07:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am Syrian, and I am christian too. and I am very blessed to be born and lived in Syria for 20 years before moving to the states. I never felt any problems experiencing my religion is syria. for those in the west , mostly in the U.S., christians and jews in syria have same rights as the majority muslims. you can go to a website and see for yourself, some of the ways, christians celebrate easter, christmas and other holidays... good fridays, palm sunday, and easter sunday, in particular, are well celebrated there.
Syria's image in the U.S. is the furthest from the truth. it is like if you want to talk about the united states, and just mention the bad alleys in some areas of the bronx in new york, where the only thing you find, is drug, and crimes.(sorry, bronx, but that is the reality), and i am just using it as an example on how narrow the view of Americans toward Syria and its society, and people.

At 5/08/2005 10:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir, you lose all credibility by expressing such racist outrage on a board.

Regarding the sports events, its ironic as even arab players on Israeli football teams must suffer insults and derogatory treatment from israeli fans and officials. What is the incentive?

For Anon7:49 you probably wouldnt be alive or have a country if it werent for the syrians. Yes, maybe they did fuel the "genocide" but the lebanese were still playing the game. You can have the puppet holders, but you need the puppets. And that was you my dear lebanese friend. The hatred you have toward one another is what fuelled the "genocide" coupled by Syria's apathetic view toward the situation and its view of the lebanese as "pathetic." You kill yourselves and for what?

At 5/09/2005 05:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Anon 10:15 "You kill yourselves and for what" you asked? Well, maybe so that you in Syria may not kill yourselves.

At 5/10/2005 01:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well that is reason enough isnt it?


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