The Middle East: The Match That Can Ignite The World
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 7 Oct 2004, p. 32-39
Stein, Professor Janice Gross, Speaker
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The Middle East as a tinderbox, and how that is so. Ongoing violence and broader threats to the region and the world. What the outside world can do. The need for fresh approaches and new strategies to prevent ignition. A summary look at the current situation. Possible futures. The growth of Islam. The factor of oil. Some suggestions as to what outsiders can do. Making space for political Islam as the challenge of the next decade.
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7 Oct 2004
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Full Text
Professor Janice Gross Stein
Director, Munk Centre for International Studies
Chairman: Bart J. Mindszenthy
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Kamal Hassan, Director, The South-East Asia Group and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Chelsea Shanoff, Grade 12 Student, Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute; Reverend Vic Reigel, Pastoral Staff, Christ Church, Brampton; Alan Broadbent, Chair, Maytree Foundation; Isabel Bassett, Chair, TVOntario; The Hon. William G. Davis, PC, CC, OC, Counsel, Torys LLP and Former Premier for the Province of Ontario; David Agnew, President and CEO, UNICEF Canada and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Jon Dellandrea, Vice-President and Chief Advancement Officer, University of Toronto; and Vivian Bercovici, Vice-President, Legal and Public Affairs, The Dominion of Canada General Insurance Company.

Introduction by Bart Mindszenthy

Distinguished head table guests, members of the Empire Club of Canada, ladies and gentlemen, I don't know about you, but I've always been fascinated by what we call "The Middle East."

It's a place that's flush with history, steeped in mystery, and vivid with conflict. A place where cultures and religions and values complement and clash, where we have witnessed so much turmoil, pain and strife. It is a part of our planet that's been the perpetual focus of the rest of the world for well over half a century. The birthplace of three of the world's great religions, the Middle East offers us a tapestry of riches, and at the same time slaps us full in the face with complex challenges that seem insurmountable.

Understanding the Middle East isn't easy. Yet there is one Canadian who has dedicated her career to not only understanding, but interpreting and explaining what is happening and why, and what that means to all of us. And that person is Professor Janice Gross Stein.

A Montrealer by birth, Professor Stein is publicly understated with her pride of her two sons, and even more unassuming about her pleasure in gardening.

But she can't escape acknowledgement or accolades for her respected insight as an investigator of events. This includes being Director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. As well, Professor Stein is the Belzberg Professor of Conflict Management in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Professor Stein has authored more than 80 books, book chapters and articles on intelligence, international security, negotiation processes, peacemaking and public policy.

She currently serves as Vice-Chair of the Advisory Board to the Minister of Defence and as a member of the Board of CARE Canada and one of the team charged with finding the University of Toronto's next president.

Professor Stein was the Massey Lecturer in 2001. The lectures were published as "The Cult of Efficiency," which became a national best seller. She also provides regular news commentary for CBC and TVO. Recently appointed a Trudeau Fellow, she was awarded the Molson Prize by the Canada Council for an outstanding contribution by a social scientist to public debate.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the podium of the Empire Club of Canada, Professor Janice Gross Stein.

Janice Stein

The Middle East is a tinderbox, with flames licking at the edges. As news stories report the ongoing violence, broader threats to the region and world are building. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, as well as widespread economic deprivation, militant Islam and the safety and security of the supply of oil are the tinder. Not only the current conflicts that capture the headlines, but also those that are emerging could ignite the flame. What can the outside world do? The international community requires fresh approaches and new strategies to prevent ignition.

A brief look at the Middle East is not encouraging. Violence between Israel and Palestine continues to escalate and to exact its grinding toll, with no end in sight. Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a war of attrition, which neither can win, but both have lost hope in negotiation and in peaceful solutions. They are locked in a deadly spiral and they see no way out.

The brutal regime of Saddam Hussein has been unmade--its instruments of repression and violence have been destroyed--but it is far from clear that Iraq can now remake itself. A population that has been brutalized for decades is now seething with humiliation and anger at the foreign troops in their midst. Their anger is unleashed in a context where guns and ammunition are available on every street corner. It is no surprise that Iraq is boiling over with violence, and that an insurgency against the United States is gaining in strength. Iraqis live daily with insecurity, vengeance, and death.

The challenges ahead are formidable as Iraq struggles to create a future. In the next decade, can Iraqis build a functioning society, bridge the deep divides among its Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish populations, and create institutions that will reduce the violence and the brutality that has been its history for the last 30 years? Can they build a politics which is authentically their own, but is free of violence and repression? Can they preserve their rich heritage and at the same time create a safe space to do politics?

Or will Iraq slide deeper into violence, descend into anarchy, and become a "failed state," an inviting home to those who seek to use terror to rid Iraq and the Middle East of the hated foreigner, the outsider, that has colonized the Middle East in the last 150 years? Will it become the new safe haven for networks of terror whose target is not Baghdad, but Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin? Will a failed Iraq provoke a region-wide conflict among Iran, Turkey, and Syria as they scramble for the spoils?

All these futures are real possibilities. Which future develops will matter not only to Iraqis, but to the Middle East and to all of us.

Across the border, Iran is proceeding with its nuclear program. It has acknowledged that it has begun the process of enriching uranium. Despite a year of multilateral engagement with European powers, Iran has not wavered in its determination to continue with its nuclear program. Iran's leaders insist that its program is for peaceful purposes, but for years it concealed its nuclear activities from international inspectors. It is possible that 10 years from now, or five, Iran may have nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would challenge Egypt, Syria, and even Iraq, to develop nuclear weapons of their own. Israel's finger would be constantly on its nuclear trigger. It is not difficult to imagine the terrible consequences that could flow from a nuclear arms race in this part of the world.

In Sudan, a human catastrophe of major proportions has exploded in Darfur. Over 50,000 people have been killed in the last 18 months, and 1.5 million refugees have streamed across Sudan's borders into Chad. Representatives of the United Nations have brought the crisis in Sudan to the Security Council, but after months of debate, the council has yet to take meaningful action. A tiny force of observers from the African Union patrols an enormous area, with little effect. African states stand ready to send additional forces, but they need logistical and communications support, and transportation. The United Nations has not been able to persuade any of its members to step forward. Unless a global response can be co-ordinated in the next few months, hundreds of thousands will die of disease and starvation.

These pockets of flames are embedded in tinder throughout the rest of the region. The combined gross domestic product of the 22 Arab countries--including the oil-rich--is less than that of Spain. From 1960 to 1990, labour productivity dropped in the Arab world, while it soared everywhere else in the world. The Arab Human Development Report, written by Arab social scientists, tells us that every second citizen in the Arab world is ready to emigrate. It finds no significant improvement in political openness, respect for human rights, or freedom of the press. The Middle East has slid backward while almost every other region in the world has moved forward.

It is no surprise that, in almost every Arab country, militant Islam is growing in strength as the only viable alternative to governments that have failed to deliver the most basic services, economic opportunities, and political responsiveness to grievance. To make matters even worse, most Arab countries have very young populations. In Egypt, over 50 per cent of the population is below 25 years old. As governments fail to deliver on their most basic promises, angry, frustrated, and often hopeless young people are ready recruits for militant Islam. I see them all over the Middle East. The gravest threat to global security is not weapons of mass destruction, or even rogue states, but unemployed, disenfranchised, angry young males. The Middle East will continue to export violence if it cannot meet the basic needs of its young people.

All this in a context where oil has never been more important--and more expensive--in the global economy. Energy-hungry China and India have only begun to push up world demand for oil. The strategic importance of oil can only grow over the next quarter century. Oil will continue to be the vortex which sucks great powers into the region, distorts its politics, and strengthens the autocracies that are in place. With only mild exaggeration, we can say that oil has been the curse of the modern Middle East. It draws outsiders in and allows insiders to avoid the difficult economic, political, and social choices that they would otherwise face. It is hard to conceive of a more explosive mixture of ingredients.

What can we do to change the trajectory of the Middle East? How can the outside world be most helpful? Another way of asking the same question: how can outsiders help to ensure that militant Islam does not become the dominant form of political expression in the Arab world in the next decade? If it does, the whole world will pay the price.

It is important to be modest about what outsiders can do, for outsiders have done far more harm than good in the modern history of the Middle East. In this spirit of restraint, let me make some unconventional suggestions.

First, we must work to create more flexible and more nimble international institutions that can help to provide order and security. The UN Security Council has failed, and failed badly, in Darfur. It is hard to conceive of this kind of failure only 10 years after Rwanda, but the UN has not protected civilians in Darfur. It is vitally important to make our institutions both more inclusive and better able to respond and protect. Reform of the Security Council and a change in the veto could help, but neither has been the obstacle in Darfur. Those who affirm the international community's "responsibility to protect," as Canada does, may have to go around the Security Council. Prime Minister Paul Martin has proposed creating the equivalent of the G-20 to deal with political and security issues. A new G-20 may not necessarily solve all the problems, but it is an initiative that moves us in the right direction. If we are to meet the challenges of the next decade, we desperately need to experiment and innovate to build more responsive and flexible institutions.

Second, the Arab world suffers acutely from a deficit in governance. Arab writers make this point again and again. Here, countries like Canada could do a great deal. We could work with journalists, political parties, electoral commissions, public administration, and jurists when we are asked to do so. I have been asked repeatedly by colleagues in the Arab world for help from Canada on governance issues. Often, unfortunately, the request goes unmet. Our government is not positioned to respond. We are not organized so that our people can be sent when they are invited to come. Often, a request is lost in institutional bickering or buried in reels of red tape, so that by the time we do respond, the invitation has been withdrawn. We cannot afford to continue to waste our best assets. Canada has much to offer--its values, principles and legal norms that underpin good governance, its federal experience, and its multicultural practice--when interested states come calling.

Finally, an important debate is now taking place in Europe on beginning a process to admit Turkey into the European Union. Turkey is a large Muslim nation, with functioning political institutions and an improving record on governance. Yet, some of the discussion we hear from Europe is, quite frankly, shocking. Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch member of the executive committee of the European Union, warned that Europe risked becoming Islamized if Turkey joined. If that should happen, he concluded, the battle of Vienna in 1683 when Austrian, German, and Polish troops pushed back the Ottoman Turks would "have been in vain."

Imagine how this conversation sounds to Arab ears that are also listening to Europe and North America as they preach good governance. Imagine how this conversation sounds to the millions of Muslims who are law-abiding citizens within the European Union. It is difficult to avoid a charge of hypocrisy. If Europe cannot accommodate Islamic governments within its political and economic institutions, the militant Islamists have won before the stakes have been engaged. A European Islam offers an unparalleled opportunity for pushing the conversation within the Arab world. But will Europe meet the challenge, or turn its face away?

Making space for political Islam is the challenge of the next decade. We do not have much time. The Arab world gave Islam to the world. If its gift is not accepted, if it is rejected and thrown back in its face, the angry young men, already facing little opportunity and with little hope, will find solace in the militancy that threatens them as much as it threatens us.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by David Agnew, President and CEO, UNICEF Canada and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Middle East: The Match That Can Ignite The World

The Middle East as a tinderbox, and how that is so. Ongoing violence and broader threats to the region and the world. What the outside world can do. The need for fresh approaches and new strategies to prevent ignition. A summary look at the current situation. Possible futures. The growth of Islam. The factor of oil. Some suggestions as to what outsiders can do. Making space for political Islam as the challenge of the next decade.