The Middle East continues to be one of the most troubled regions in the world. What was once the cradle of our civilisation seems embroiled in eternal struggle, conflict, and, now, revolution.
For those who travel frequently to the region, the many problems – ranging from the political to the environmental – are self-evident. But, just as importantly, few come away without a powerful sense of the drama and the passion of the Middle East and without having experienced a seductive aspect of its human story. From the bartering in the spice souk of Aleppo to the tension at an Israeli checkpoint near Ramallah, nothing is sterile and coldly functional in this region; all is filled with excitement and emotion.
Bird merchants in Cairo’s Souq al-Gomaa, or ‘Friday Market’, in Egypt
It is in this heightened sea of emotion that we must first situate the larger problems of the Middle East. The region has more than its share of challenges, from severe water shortages to the well-known conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But these problems are being dealt with within a daily existence of excitement and an addiction to passion. This is not to suggest that a ‘passion-less’ life is more desirable – Western tendencies towards emotional alienation and limited social interaction are also damaging. However, the exaggerated emotional state that prevails in the region means that the mind is heavily preoccupied and fixated, and can neither shift gear to create the badly needed creative answers for urgent problems nor accept them easily if found.
This profound attachment to high emotion is generated at almost all levels of Middle Eastern society, from the family, to the public space, to the news and music on Arab satellite television, to, of course, the actual conflict between tribes and nations. Emotion may be so highly valued and regularly engendered in the region because the basic units of human bonding there – the family, the tribe, the sect, the nation – still rely on the ‘blood-link’ to ensure survival, bringing with it the emotional states of such relations: “We will all band together against the enemy; only in this way can we overcome”. This basic means of survival, essential millennia ago to stand against the marauder and the conqueror, has lasted into the 21st century and is today over-utilised, possibly even archaic.
The human givens approach to psychotherapy is a paradigm for understanding and managing our emotions. By identifying our innate needs and resources, it creates a clear reference point and a means of ‘auditing’ individual lives and the health of societies. For over a decade now, human givens therapists have been improving mental health for individuals; my purpose here is to examine how this paradigm may be of use in understanding, explaining and even resolving the conflict in the Middle East and assisting positive development. I will look at two major challenges in more detail: the unresolved Israeli–Palestinian conflict, now almost a century old; and the Arab revolutions of 2011, as possible springboards for the future development of the Middle East.
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict
A key Hamas official has said: “In principle we have no problem with a Palestinian state en- compassing all of our lands within the 1967 borders. But let Israel apologise for our tragedy in 1948, and then we can talk about negotiating over our right of return to historic Palestine.”1
A senior Israeli official was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “... if [Palestinian leader and co-founder of Fatah] Mr Abbas accepted – even privately when the two leaders meet alone – an end to the conflict with Israel and its Jewish identity, the whole conventional wisdom can change very quickly.”2
Since the creation of the State of Israel in British Mandate Palestine in 1948, hundreds of diplomatic initiatives have failed to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, for over six decades, we have witnessed a tragic rollercoaster in the name of this contested land: periods of ‘ceasefire’ followed by bursts of fighting ranging from local struggles (intifadahs) to regional wars.
Attempts to resolve the conflict may have suffered from a ‘missing piece’,3 an essential element without which it may be impossible to reach agreement, leaving the sides in a state of chronic suffering. Indeed, Israelis have become inured and regard the conflict as one only for management, not resolution. Palestinians, on the other hand, will not let go of their desire for freedom and an independent state – they view time as on their side and sumud (steadfastness) as their essential paradigm. Experience with both sides reveals a death embrace between the two; they are stuck together, un-willing to give in, ready to continue fighting until Kingdom come.
Pedestrian traffic near the main gates of the old city of Sanaa, Yemen Market’, in Egypt
For Jews, their political presence in the land of Israel today, after their defeat at the hands of the Romans two millennia ago, is viewed as an achievement, even a miracle, that will not be easily rolled back, especially given the horrors that Jews experienced in 20th-century Europe. The resulting need for a haven and a homeland became a sine qua non, as well as the attachment to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Holy of the Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, now stands as the ultimate symbol of Jewish presence on the land. Today, that site is also the Haram Al-Sharif, the third holiest of Islam, the site of Mohammad’s night journey to heaven and the locus of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque – the overlap of sites provides a powerful metaphor for the intertwined fate of the two peoples.
Many secular Israelis do not relate to this site in their daily life;5 however, the idea of returning it to non-Jewish control, after millennia of absence and the lack of trust with the Arab side, is anathema. Furthermore, after such an extended conflict and the many failures of peace talks, Israelis do not believe that the Arab side will ever accept their presence in the region, exacerbating the profound need for security that they brought with them to the region after the traumas of Europe.
On the Palestinian side, the story is equally poignant. As other Arab peoples rose out of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing European colonisation to create independent states, the Palestinians faced, instead, a movement from outside, in the form of Zionism, aiming to possess the same land. Through several wars and insurrections against the British, who then controlled Palestine and the Zionists, the Palestinians lost the battle and the ability to have an independent state of their own. They also suffered displacement by the hundreds of thousands into nearby states. These Palestinian refugees, today counting millions, continue to represent the loss and suffering of the Palestinian people as a result of the creation of the state of Israel. Recognition of their ‘right of return’, reflected in UN General Assembly resolution 194 from 19496 has become the symbol for restitution thousands into nearby states. These Palestinian refugees, today counting millions, continue to re-present the loss and suffering of the Palestinian people as a result of the creation of the state of Israel. Recognition of their ‘right of return’, reflected in UN General Assembly resolution 194 from 19496 has become the symbol for restitution and redress of the Palestinians’ plight.
Israelis refuse to recognise this right out of fear that this would mean a flood of non-Jewish refugees into their state. Furthermore, implicitly, this recognition would be an admission that Israel was ‘born in sin’, at the expense of another people, which stands in direct contradiction of the Jewish self-understanding as the victims of history deserving of a homeland.
Since 1967, and Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem, the Holy City has become another point of profound contention between the two sides. Not only do the Holy Sites overlap, but the city’s very names Yerushalayim in Hebrew and Al Quds in Arabic have come to signify respectively the physical return of a people to a land of divine covenant for Jews, and the most powerful symbol of past glory for Palestinians.
Beyond the many issues relating to security, borders, settlements, water and even control over the electromagnetic sphere, these issues – Jerusalem, the right of return of the refugees, and a Jewish need for security and a sense of acceptance in the region – are the ‘elephants in the room’ of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. These grand, emotional, even ‘sacred’ ideals that appear unnegotiable are certainly not tradeable like mere real estate, or a carpet in a market.
Diplomatic initiatives have managed to go some distance on all issues of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, except on these mythical and emotion-laden ones. It is in the inability to tackle these matters to the ground that the infamous intractability of the conflict arises: two peoples with profound traumas and emotional needs, unwilling or incapable of providing recognition to the other.
There is a very high human cost to these attachments. Israelis live in a chronic state of conflict and tension with their neighbours, spending billions on defence, and, in an ongoing version of their founding myths, are active in the settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, against the will of the Palestinians. Millions of Palestinians continue to live in refugee camps, often without proper political status or employment opportunity; millions more live under occupation by Israel without political independence or, often, much autonomy over movement or security, except in highly restricted zones. Each blames the other for the blockage while the West, especially the US, has mismanaged the file diplomatically to no end.
The human givens approach helps in understanding this conflict because it strikes to its heart by enabling the identification of the specific underlying needs on both sides that are not being met, fuelling human insecurity and conflict. For Israelis, a profound sense of insecurity arising from European history as well as a century of conflict in the Middle East, and an ongoing sense of rejection by the region, mean that two significant human givens (acceptance and security) are unmet. For Palestinians, having been the victims of the march of Zionism and continuing to live without an independent state, status, legitimacy and autonomy, all fundamental human needs, are unmet.
Tragically, neither has been able to provide these basic needs for the other. Both see themselves as righteous victims who would lose that status if they legitimised the enemy’s needs. Furthermore, an old Middle Eastern merchant culture and a focus on gaining power affirms the ‘zero-sum’ game: “If I’m ahead, why should I give in? If I’m behind, how can I give in?”7 Israelis can live in relative prosperity, with the occasional war, without treading into and questioning the comfort zone of their myths. Palestinians would rather wait for a future dream solution than give up some of their rights from the past. So far, these positions have proven to be stronger than the need for peace.
But the human givens approach, as well as putting these problems into perspective, also provides building blocks that could be incorporated into conflict-resolution processes. Imagine if, in contrast with the many failed approaches of the past, the two sides are first asked to agree to a common foundation before negotiating specific issues. If the two agree that they both have the same set of essential needs for legitimacy, belonging, security, autonomy and meaning, amongst others, this sets a baseline and reference point for demands and negotiations. As both consider each other’s demands, they can check whether these do indeed reflect basic human needs – needs that they themselves share – and therefore are legitimate to request.8 Once it is realised that human needs are basic and universal, it is much easier to agree that others also have them.
Damascus Gate, one of the main entry-points into the Old City of Jerusalem
The issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, legally considered occupied territories, is also instructive to look at from this perspective. Since the conquest of these areas in 1967, Israelis have created settlements in the West Bank for a variety of reasons, including security and access to water resources but also because many of the settlers believe this land to be a Jewish inheritance, even ‘God-given’. They view the Palestinian claim to the land, arising from having been there for centuries before Jewish settlers arrived, as a distant second to this Jewish need.
Many Jewish settlers derive profound meaning out of settling this territory, and require the Israeli army to provide them with security against the resistance of Palestinians or in order to secure the land itself. Palestinians, on the other hand, have their own security needs in terms of preventing the loss of land needed for private use or to create a future state. Furthermore, they feel a profound sense of illegitimacy and lack of autonomy for having land they consider theirs taken from them by fiat or by force.
One way the needs of both sides could be constructively met would be to permit Jewish settlers to remain in a future Palestinian state, retaining their sense of meaning, whilst ensuring their security either through arrangements made between the Israeli and Palestinian states or though third parties. Meanwhile, Palestinians would have a sense of control over a contiguous tract of land – a state – and no longer live under threat of settlement expansion. But many decry such a solution as unworkable because Jewish settlers would either refuse to remain in a Palestinian state, forcing a relocation by the Israeli government (a massive exercise, considering the settlers number in the hundreds of thousands) or would fear that they would be under constant threat. Fundamentally, the cynicism regarding such solutions, which meet human needs, arises from an ingrained perception in the Middle East that conflict and suffering are inevitable and that all other positions are naïve. To return to the theme of heightened emotion, it is only in a calmer state that one can more clearly entertain new notions that might ultimately be beneficial.
The Obama administration has demonstrated some signs of understanding that Israeli security and Palestinian need for autonomy and independence are crucial, and it frames solutions in that light, thus attending to some essential human givens (even if the US has not been ready to push the process forward). Nevertheless, other critical needs (acceptance and legitimacy by both sides), as articulated by the statements quoted from the Hamas official and from a member of the Netanyahu government, remain relatively unattended to. Discussions with such figures, however, reveal that the demand is for the other side to move first; simultaneous equivalence is not yet acceptable at the beginning: each side remains fixated on gaining maximum advantage.
It may very well be that each side prefers to remain attached to its own sense of righteousness, even at the cost of agreement and peace. In other words, finding a deal that would truly satisfy both may not be the goal. It may simply be that, for Israelis and Palestinians, each for their own reasons, attachment to an overriding myth is stronger, more desirable and more important for group cohesion than resolving the conflict. In many ways, and possibly tragically, they would rather maintain certain ideals than have a peace on the ground.
However, the lessons from the human givens approach may unexpectedly find legs elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Arab revolutions
“It is the first time in Egyptian history that people are taking part in running their own institutions and organisations. Democracy is not just about electoral ballots and politics at the national level – it is about how to run your organisation, how to run your small neighbourhood, it is about having a say in every aspect of your life.”10
The Arab revolutions have exploded onto the scene in 2011, seemingly out of nowhere. Although economic, social, and, above all, political conditions in the region have been stagnant or deteriorating for decades, no one expected this sudden, rapid and complete set of changes in so many countries at once.
Bedouin day-labourers from rural Jordan, in a foul mood after a morning failing to
Failure to have important needs fulfilled has accumulated over decades of tyrannical rule; some of the youth involved have known nothing but state oppression. Yet, at the same time, the modern age, with its free-ranging communications technology, has given them many glimpses of other worlds, and how other humans, not that dissimilar to them, can live. The very insistence and scope of the revolutions is a testament to the power of unmet needs, and what challenges can be overcome in their pursuit.
The events have come as a shock to many. Most ‘experts’ believed the Arab world was permanently dormant, inevitably the victim of radical Islamic ideology, and that an authentic Arab revolution was only a chimera. All this has been proven wrong; the Arab world has unfrozen after decades of stasis. In a sense, the Arab revolutions mark not only the return of the Arabs to political life, but the primacy of basic, normal and universal human needs in general: China banned internet searches for Egypt and revolution out of fear of its people imitating the revolts.
As such, these events are a massive vindication of an approach such as human givens, with its emphasis on emotional and intangible needs, and the impossibility of having individual or social stability without their being met. No one knows how the future will unfold for these societies: the risks are many; old approaches may prevail; and all were and are unprepared for the change. Nevertheless, in certain countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, there is now ‘space’ for new efforts, and for establishing a proper basis and foundation for societal development, where almost none existed six months ago.
First, the Arab revolutions have demonstrated certain qualities that may be conducive to such proper development. The events have been invariably pluralistic, cutting across socio-economic strata or ethnic and religious divides. This was most apparent in Egypt but was also the case in Libya and Syria, where tribal allegiance and ethnic divides play a role but have not in themselves propelled the revolts.
Second, the events have been non-ideological. They are not driven by a pre-determined formula for success, whether classical leftist thinking or the ideology of political Islam. Instead, they have been a straightforward expression of basic needs requiring to be met. The ‘how’ remains outstanding, and many see this as a harbinger of future chaos.
Third, and above all, the revolts have firmly aimed for the overthrow of excessive authority at the state level. The Arab world is particularly stifled by obedience to authority at almost every level of society, from the father at home, to the boss at work, to the state, to even more implicit un-questioned authority in religious figures and texts. The situation is aggravated by ‘outside’ authority and oppression, whether Israeli control over the Palestinians, American military power and action, or Western cultural domination. This massive and multiplied dependency has held back the Arab world from advancement by stifling individual creativity in favour of obedience to authority and, thus, failing to find solutions to new, rising challenges. The words of Egyptian psychiatrist Ehab El Kharat, quoted earlier, are a testament to the need for the new, and for much greater autonomy and political control in everyday life – a statement that is not only revolutionary in the Arab world but also in the purportedly advanced West. The upsurge today against the state aspect of this excessive authority is, therefore, highly salutary, and may ultimately result in demands against other kinds of authority, beyond the state.
These characteristics indicate that the Arabs have moved into an unknown space; they are not duplicating the ideas of the past but are meeting the future without a known formula for providing basic requirements. The challenge is, therefore, steep and volatility may ensue for years to come, but this is where the human givens approach may help provide a basic and sure foundation for political processes in these born-again nations. As a psychological paradigm, it may not be easily absorbed by political actors, because of their lack of exposure to such ideas. Its method of introduction will therefore be crucial.
One potentially useful approach will be to bring the idea forward as part of the process of ‘political education’ for younger leaders of the revolutions, many of whom are open to innovation, because of their exposure to new technology and its contents and their frequent exposure to other cultures, including the West. This can take the form of working with specific leaders from various countries to introduce them to new ideas of political management and policy development, including the human givens approach, perhaps through a ‘course’ designed specifically for this effort. Owing to their lack of experience and organisation, these young leaders may, however, have less to do with political management in the short term than they did in creating the revolutions. But the process of change in the region will take decades, making the investment in the right young figures today worthwhile.
Countries like Egypt and Tunisia, or Lebanon or Jordan (the latter two have not undergone revolutions but have had a high degree of outside exposure) make the best candidates for such an effort. Libya and Syria have suffered fragmenting and extremely violent revolts and will probably have to resolve the lingering political differences between groups before being able to focus on any proper foundation for the future.
Ironically, the Arab world may be the most ready to understand the idea of the human givens and emotional needs. As indicated, life in the Arab world is full of emotion, indeed, too much emotion. Arabs are very cognisant of the need for honour and dignity in their daily life, and will quickly assert that what caused the revolts was the lack of dignity bestowed on them by the state. The clarification and articulation of the human givens may, therefore, fall upon fertile ground, possibly more so than in the West, which focuses more on rational planning or ‘structures’ such as democracy, often unconsciously ignoring emotional needs and furthering emotional alienation, with debilitating consequences.
Difficulty in introducing and implementing the human givens paradigm in the Arab world will lie in the attractions of the old game of intense power seeking that still plagues the region. Although the revolutions were, as described above, not oriented simply towards gaining power but to having basic needs met, many existing structures in the region, from armed groups to oligarchs to ideologically based movements, will have power as their main goal. As with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the cynicism amongst Arabs regarding positive evolution may be one of the largest obstacles ahead. But one of the ways to get around this is to ensure that the process is not abstract but applied. Resolution of water scarcity and food security will be crucial for Arab countries to thrive, or even survive. It is possible to inject human givens foundations into practical, ongoing efforts of this kind – for example, certain projects for managing water resources which do not currently consider the needs of all stakeholders (consumers, farmers, neighbouring countries, etc) in either design or implementation. This could provide a new but essential dimension for design and decision making which, if it worked, could subvert the Arab culture of cynicism, bred by centuries of suffering and lack of control over their lives.
One can also ultimately project the possibility of a ‘charter’ specifically developed for the Arab world, either within each country or among a human network in the region, based on the Human Givens Charter.11 It may very well be that young politicised Arabs will be open to these ideas, and absorb them over time in their future work. Certainly, the old approaches, whether ancient Middle Eastern ways or modern Western structures, will not be able to deliver social stability, sufficient water and food, and ethnic tolerance to the region. The challenges are too steep – resources too few, populations too large, and tribal habits too deep set – to be met without a brand new approach based on human reality.
Why it may work
As described, the Middle East is swimming in a sea of excessive emotion. It is what marks out the region, and draws many towards it from the comparatively emotionally dry West. However, this high emotion, unchecked as it is today, leads to unbalanced, often impulsive and chaotic social (and individual) development. It is also profoundly associated with high-flying ‘causes’ and wounds from the past, sometimes with the added and empowering twist of divine power as part of the woof and warp of a group’s destiny and survival.
The good news, however, is that Arabs, and many peoples in the Middle East, implicitly understand and value the role of emotion in their lives. Therefore, an approach based on basic human psychological needs, many of which relate back to emotional states, may gain receptivity, if introduced in a manner that does not appear ‘foreign’, nor as if it is aiming to deprive people of their sacred cows or of the implicit high value placed on emotion in itself. What the human givens can provide is an ‘organising idea’12 for the sea of emotions; a means for Arabs and others to navigate it, so as to be able to understand and use emotion productively; and, potentially and ultim- ately, a new compact be- tween citizens, and between citizens and the state, based not on the Western notion of rights or on the fickle trade-offs of power, but on basic human needs. The human givens approach can serve as the bricks for the construction of a ‘new pyramid’ of achievement in the region.
The essence of this approach is expressed in the words of the Egyptian psychiatrist Dr El Kharat (quoted previously 10). His understanding of democracy is in some ways much more evolved than Western representative democracy, whose ways and processes are considered sacrosanct in Europe and North America, to be duplicated in the rest of the world without much reflection. Dr El Kharat’s aim is for what can be called a participatory democracy, one which would not only address the individual need for autonomy and control but also create a system where political actors would be much more informed of the actual needs of citizens, in place of current ‘macro-guessing’ from capital cities on health, education, social welfare, unemployment or a myriad of other matters.
A group of elderly Kurdish men passing time together in the city of Diyarbakir, in the Kurdistan region of Eastern Turkey
In some ways, the region that generated these cultures has been left behind by its own processes, whilst other areas of the world ‘ran’ with these highly creative beginnings. For reasons of conquest, resource deprivation or, simply, old age, the cradle of these civilisations became lost in the labyrinth of survival modes and cycles of trauma, effectively forgetting the living texture and purpose of its own heritage.
The Arab revolutions, frightening as they may seem in their scale and intensity, may again breed the space needed for real change, for effective human reform. Writing in the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen quoted Yeats’s words about the 1916 Irish Easter Rising against British rule, “Wherever green is worn ... all is changed, changed utterly ... and a terrible beauty born,”13 to describe, this time, the Arab revolutions’ enigmatic power. It may well be that Israelis and Palestinians cannot agree to share the same land, and that their defining myths are too powerful to be replaced by new visions and constructive compromise. Food security in Egypt, water threats in Jordan and ethnic distrust in Syria may indeed overwhelm many considerations. But the fact remains that, where human challenge stands, it is worthwhile to try to find the answers. After almost two decades of work on the Middle East, and in spite of the challenges, I have not come across any paradigm or organising idea that fits the bill for this effort in the Middle East today better than that of the human givens approach.
John Bell is a former UN and Canadian diplomat who has specialised in the Middle East and in finding solutions for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. He is today Director of the Middle East & Mediterranean Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace, Madrid, Spain.
1 Atran, S and Axelrod, R (2008). Reframing sacred values. Negotiation Journal, 24, 3, 224.
2 Bronner, E (2010). Outlines emerge of future state in the West Bank. New York Times, August 31.
3 See missing- peace.blogspot.com, a blog by John Bell and John Zada that discusses this ‘missing piece’ in understanding the Middle East and its politics.
4 Sometimes also called ‘sacred values’. See Scott Atran’s excellent work on this issue: http://sitemaker. umich.edu/satran/home
5 In practice, Jews pray at the Kotel, the remaining enclosing Herodian wall of the Temple Mount, and do not tread on the plaza itself.
6 www.mideastweb. org/194.htm
7 An idea discussed in Thomas Friedman’s book, From Beirut to Jerusalem (1990). Anchor, New York.
8 This idea was originally proposed to the author by Ivan Tyrrell and Joe Griffin. They recommended that “all parties involved would have to sign up to an agreement whereby it is understood by everyone that all people are born with innate needs that have to be met ... Every apparent sticking point could then be referred to the list of needs in the Human Givens Charter to see which ... needs ... are creating sticking points. Everyone is honour-bound by a common humanity to work to find fair solutions that meet everyone’s needs.” Personal communication, 2004.
9 A Canadian project on governance of the Old City (the “Jerusalem Old City Initiative”) used a needs- based approach to initiate its work and design a ‘special regime’ for the Old City of Jerusalem, a system designed to meet fairly the needs of all stakeholders in this complex space.
10 Ehab El Kharat, Egyptian psychiatrist organising a new party, the Egyptian Social Democractic Party. Quoted in the New York Times, April 7, 2011.
11 See http://humangivenscharter.com/
12 The Human Givens Institute: www.hgi.org.uk/ organising.htm “An organising idea pulls information together so the mind can make sense of it. The richer the pattern in the mind, the more ‘true’ the organising idea is.”
13 Cohen, R (2011). The Arab gyre. New York Times, April 25.
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