THE MIDDLE EAST exercises so much power over our world. The region obsesses policymakers, it drives industries such as arms and energy and it feeds the ideologies and counter-ideologies of global conflict. Yet, what sets the Middle East apart from other regions is its inability and unwillingness to speak for its own people. The Middle East is a concept with many of the drawbacks but none of the advantages of global impact.

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from Asia. In February 2007, at the third in a series of meetings that brings together concerned citizens of the Middle East, Asia and Europe, delegates in Islamabad proposed a binding social charter, drawing on similar initiatives in wider Asia.1 Such a charter could help tackle the democratic deficiency which lies at the root of many problems in the West Asia-North Africa region (WANA).

Despite very different political experiences and differing economic systems, Asia offers several useful models for resolving social and political imbalances in the Middle East and North Africa. We share common colonial experiences and social values based on common religious and cultural history. And together we comprise the world’s largest untapped market. In addition, WANA and greater Asia share many common problems including poverty, poor governance, and security threats posed by armed conflict as well as environmental challenges.

Two kinds of existing Asian initiatives provide a blueprint for future developments in the Middle East: evolving common markets for trade and improving civil society cooperation leading to better governance. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an obvious example, as are several free trade agreements, increasing intra-Asian trade and civil society initiatives such as the Asian Dialogue Society (ADS) and the Asian People’s Assembly (APA).

ASEAN may have failed thus far to push ahead with economic integration in South East Asia but it has succeeded in stabilising the region politically and, with the prospect of an ASEAN Charter later this year, its people will have a set of rules governments must abide by. ASEAN, therefore, provides a better model for developing cooperation than, for example, the European Union.

An internationally respected social charter for the WANA region must redefine the role of states in the governance of markets, which increasingly favour the strong over the weak. The judiciary across the region must become the watchdog, not an indiscriminate and passive prosecutor, while prerogatives that citizens of more developed regions take for granted – human rights, employment, shelter, education and poverty alleviation – must form a basis for a new social contract with states.

Events in the Middle East have shown that top-down reform alone cannot succeed in bringing peace to communities. Political leadership on all sides tends not to be bold and sticks to the status quo. It is no secret that when citizens are polled on all sides of the Middle East conflict, they agree wholeheartedly with the need to work for peace at all cost and improve their quality of life. Moderates are still the majority, but they remain voiceless. We must not underestimate the vital role of civil society in building critical mass and so influencing mindsets to build peace.

Institutions must therefore be formed to guarantee the involvement of citizens at grassroots in the future of the region. True human security – the right of all citizens to freedom from fear and want – can only be achieved when people enjoy the protection offered by full and effective citizenship.

The nature of our problems and, indeed, the nature of our changing world, mean states must work with non-state actors to ensure that lines of representation are true and fair. Ignoring those who speak for powerless communities plays a role in sustaining instability and disunity in the region. Building a credible framework for dialogue and conflict resolution is therefore essential to creating trust in the mechanisms of social cohesion and security.

With the help of Asian partners, governments and NGOs in the Middle East must promote the ideas of moderation through citizens’ movements. The initiatives discussed at Islamabad will require a blend of government and civil society involvement to ensure success. The growing rifts between ruler and ruled in the region are proof of this.

We must also remember that in the very near future, the great powers of the world will be Asian. Much as the region’s history and modern development is tied to Europe and the U.S., it is time to start diversifying. Major powers like China and India are becoming aid donors rather than recipients, and their help is less hostage to the ideological fixations of the West. If nothing else, economic and political architecture of the Middle East and North Africa region must reflect the growing demands for goods and services in South and South-East Asia.

The Middle East and North Africa is perhaps unique in its vulnerability to the impact of extra-regional powers. The Islamabad meeting showed that the powers of today and tomorrow concentrated in Asia would do well to invest in the people of the Middle East to ensure a new world does not carry with it the problems of the old.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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