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September 27, 2001 A warning to us all, and a glimmer of hope




by Barbara Black

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Henry Habib has been speaking and writing about the tensions of the Middle East for many years, but never more so than over the past two weeks.

His message has been a wake-up call on a crisis of values and identity on a global scale. “I say that it’s a crisis of civilization that goes much deeper than people may think,” Habib said.

“A phenomenon is taking place not only in Islam, but in all religions, in which extremist groups are trying to take over. You see many manifestations of this, as people try to figure out where society should go.” An example is U.S. “moral majority” preacher Jerry Falwell, who called the World Trade disaster “divine judgment” on immoral Americans.

For many years chair of Concordia’s Department of Political Science, Habib retired two years ago, but he is currently teaching in McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies.

As recently as last spring, he gave a six-week course to a group of Jewish senior citizens on terrorism. In the days since the U.S. attack, he has heard from some of his former students who wanted to talk to him about the attack and what it meant.

He refers to an influential book, The Clash of Civilizations by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington (1996), as a “a book of the future.” In it, Huntington points to the Western, Judeo-Christian character of the U.S., and the danger of imposing its values on non-Western societies.

“There are two currents in the world today,” Habib said. “One is fundamentalism, in which people are looking for a lost identity, and the other is moving the world closer, the ‘global village’ phenomenon.” This trend, driven by technology, commercialization (the ‘McDonaldization’ of the world) and popular culture, is unstoppable, he said flatly.

However, he has always been optimistic about the conflict between Israel and the supporters of a Palestinian state, although his optimism was shaken by the past year of violence. One contributing element to the unrest was the end of Bill Clinton’s mandate as U.S. president, which took the steam out the peace process and let the extremists on both sides move into the vacuum.

Habib has developed his own peace plan aimed at addressing the outstanding issues on the table, and he feels it’s more relevant than ever.

His plan calls for a declaration of mutual recognition and non-belligerence, and an administration of Israel and Palestine Territories by a loose confederation of the two entities.

Jerusalem, which both sides see as exclusively theirs, would become a “co-capital.” The settlers on the West Bank would continue to be Israeli citizens, and Palestinians would have free passage to and from home if they worked in Israel, “as free as moving between Ontario and Quebec.”

This would settle the problem of frontiers; the other issue, of the right of return for four million Palestinian refugees, would have to be settled through compromise, probably involving financial reparations.

Habib even sees a glimmer of hope as a result of the shocking attack of Sept. 11, because it seems to have brought the leaders of both sides to a renewed realization of what they stand to lose.

“For the first time, these horrific events have pushed the negotiation process. Both Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat have just unilaterally declared that the talks would start again. They seem to want to get back together. They could make of that land a great country, building on the special qualities of both peoples.”