Feature Article: Emerging Patterns in the Middle East – The Thirty Year Itch for Lebanon and Iran October 2009 / Feature Articles

Elza S. Maalouf

Elza MaaloufMy first year of Law School in Lebanon, was a year to remember. I recall the heated political discussions I had with Shia students and professors alike over many long hours ranging from discussing the merits of Marxism to laws on women’s rights in Lebanon and the role religion plays in law. These same students who I played tennis with would return the following year with the trademark Islamist beard and buttoned-up white shirt and refused to shake my hand or establish any eye contact. It was in that academic setting that I witnessed the birth of the Hezbollah movement created and financed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. This new generation of educated Shia was empowered by Khomieni’s Islamic revolution and the hope of shaping Lebanon’s national identity into a “just” model of an Islamic Emirate. Many years have passed since and the model for both countries is now going through unprecedented challenges.

The Search For National Identity

On March 14th, 2005 one million Lebanese citizens gathered in Beirut’s Martyr Square, the symbol of Lebanon’s 1943 Independence from France. They were protesting against the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon. The Cedar Revolution, as it was called, ended the 30 year Syrian occupation of Lebanon which started in 1975 when Syrian Forces entered Lebanon as peacekeepers to protect the Christians and crush the Palestinian dominance in Beirut. Two years later, the Syrians managed to reignite the sectarian civil war by siding with the Palestinians when it served their regional interests then turned around and bombed them again when they felt they were out of control. In the absence of strong Lebanese leaders, the Syrians dominated every aspect of Lebanese life for 30 years. The one million Lebanese of the March 14th Cedar Rebellion were not only rejecting the Syrian occupation of their country, but also one of the worst economic conditions in the Middle East, which was brought about by one of the highest levels of corruption in the world. This was orchestrated by Lebanese power lords under the protection of their masters in Damascus.

This past June in Iran, one million Iranians gathered in Tehran’s Freedom Square to protest the ‘sham’ elections and demand their voices be heard. “Tehran Rising” is happening 30 years after Ayatollah Khomeini and a number of visionary young leaders who rejected the Shah’s elitist rule in 1979 and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mir Ali Mousavi had a role to play in that revolution, and a bloody one at that. His supporters, more so than Mousavi himself, currently are not fighting the principles of the revolution; they are fighting the collapse of Iran’s economy, corruption, and incompetency in government.

Memetic Side View of Both Cultures

As I looked, through my developmental lenses, at both events and the cultures that produced them, the patterns of emergence that are unique to that part of the world in the 21st century were becoming clear. Beirut, Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, and Cairo were some of the most progressive capital cities in the region at the dawn of the 20th Century. Those cities were compared to Paris in culture, modernity and uniqueness. However, such notions of freedom and progress were almost exclusive to the capital cities, and rarely spread to the rest of the country. Inhabitants of these capitals had access to Western education and progressive schools of thought while their compatriots lagged behind in the darkness of tribal norms and feudal dominance. A split cultural personality, we may say. That tension between modernity centered in the capitals. The strong hold of tribalism, poverty and illiteracy in the rest of the country created a large gap that eventually ended up being the primary cause of each culture’s downshift.

In Clare W. Graves “Emergent Cyclic Double-Helix Model of Adult Biopsychosocial Systems” theory that forms the basis for Dr. Beck’s Spiral Dynamics, the Double Helix gives us the key to evolution in cultures—as life conditions change, biopsychosocial systems within people and cultures have the potential to change to find solutions to their existential problems. Naturally, when people find solutions to their problems they create new ones, a process Graves elegantly called “the never ending quest.” Let’s explore the particular case study of Lebanon and Iran.


1. Asymmetry within the Culture: Tehran and Beirut became beacons of (closed loop) progress that stayed within the confines of the city, and communicated outward with the Western world. This was a complete disconnect from the rest of the country. Anybody who sought a progressive life moved into the respective cities, rather than having a strong central government with long-term development plans that bring progress to rural areas. That caused a gap in values between what was seen as elite, and the rest of the country.
2. Skipping Stages of Development: the principles of cultural development are similar to human development. Cultures cannot skip a stage; there are rites of passage that contribute to building cultural capacities similar to human capacities. In this case, in absence of institutions (public and private) that are in charge of designing and implementing long term developmental strategies for the whole country the rural country side would remain set back in time. This phenomenon left a gaping hole that invited extremist ideological groups to take control of neglected areas. Imagine France moving abruptly from monarchy to a capitalistic society ruled by an economic elite without going through the Revolution of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” that established the basis for a representative form of government where citizens are equal under the law. A principle that is still missing in the whole Middle East including Israel.
3. Extremists Brand of Islam became the Answer: Marxist brand of nationalism that was spread by Egypt’s Nasser in the 1950s to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots, was transformed into an Islamist brand of nationalism in both Lebanon and Iran. Khomeini’s Islamic revolution gained ground with the disadvantaged in Iran, especially the ambitious young generation that supported the needed change with vengeance. The same happened in Lebanon. Actually, Hezbollah’s previous name was The Disadvantaged, “Al Mahroumeen.” Young Shia men and women were the disenfranchised majority in Lebanon, neglected by the government and especially by their own Shia oligarchs.
4. Divided Loyalties: In both countries, while one million people asked to break away from extremist ideology, another million took to the streets in support of the extremists. Contrary to what the West thinks, these are not paid demonstrators. They have shared values and shared interests with the leaders of extremist movements. In part, they wish to preserve their jobs in cultures where there are few jobs and in another they do support the continued search for national identity that’s not defined by Western influence.
5. Corruption: In Lebanon’s case, the Syrian regime transformed a state, already ravaged with corruption and Barteel (primitive form of bribery) into a restriction-free zone for its illegal activities from drug trafficking to money laundering and out-right stealing through their Lebanese agents like Hezbollah and its Sunni and Christian cohorts. In Iran, the promise of an egalitarian Islamic Republic (Marxist style) turned into a repressive and incompetent regime where bureaucrats were replaced by the regime’s cronies who lacked the skills needed to perform critical government functions. The regime guaranteed loyal following by supporters by continuing these hiring practices that eventually took hold of most government institutions. As a result, Ahmedinejad was elected by a high percentage of Iranians to counteract the Aytullahs turned oligarchs like Rafsanjani and politicians like Mousavi.
6. Lack of Opportunities: In a 2007 report UNICEF gave this grim account of Lebanon’s dire situation: “Lebanese youth below the age of 25 years, who constitute more than half of the population, suffer from weak integration in the social environment and from the economic crisis. They are faced by unemployment due to lack of jobs, difficulty of getting into the work cycle and difficulty of securing a house or a place to live.” The same goes for Iran where more than half of the population is under 25, suffering the wrath of an incompetent government, high unemployment rates and rampant poverty.
7. The Wisdom of the Crowd Surpassed that of their Leaders: The discontent with the extremists suppression reached critical mass and empowered the reform crowds in both countries to lead their leaders; not the other way around. Mousavi and March 14th leaders became mere symbols of forward progress. They now have to implement the changes dictated by the collective intelligence.
8. Dissonance: Social tension and unrest is the critical wave through which the evolutionary pulse becomes alive. What is happening now in Iran and still going on behind the scenes in Lebanon is the dissonance needed for emergence to happen. Since the start of the unrest in Iran Ayatollah Khamenei blamed it all on Israeli and American spies, and refuses to surrender to the will of the people. These tactics have proven successful in a region ravaged by internal dysfunction and a distrusting image of Western interference as Ahmadinajad gets sworn in for a second term. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah coalition after being defeated politically is now mobilizing its military, PR and Intelligence machine to keep holding Lebanon hostage. Their propagandist argument is that the Lebanese military is not ready to defend the country against the “Zionist Enemy.”

Conditions for Change

These patterns have taken 30 years to unfold in Iran and Lebanon. Do I expect that every country in the Middle East will take 30 years to emerge? Of course not. Do I expect immediate change to take hold just because Bush is gone? Of course not. Are we seeing signs of an evolutionary change? Absolutely. Graves-Beck theory sites the following six conditions for change:

• POTENTIAL in the brain syndicate of the culture
• SOLUTIONS for problems at present level
• DISSONANCE about conditions & future
• BARRIERS to change identified & managed
• INSIGHT into alternative forms & means

Strong aspects of these conditions are present in both cultures. Change will not only affect Lebanon and Iran, but will culminate in a tipping point that will trigger change in the region. Over the decades, many factors influenced the underlying codes that cause change starting in recent history with the Israel/Palestine conflict, dictatorships, Marxism, the Cold War, Western interference, oil and many other factors. To the dismay of many, I have to give George Bush credit for focusing on what he called ‘democracy’ in the Middle East. Bush’s approach did not have a systemic strategy, but aimed at securing (not controlling) the oil reserve in the region. His hawkish Wild West-style philosophy created more dissonance, which is as I mentioned before is a critical condition for change. The pragmatists in the Middle East snatched the opportunity to distance themselves from the “American enemy” and raise their voices either against him or against their country’s oppressive regimes.

How the US can Play a Sustainable Role

As President Obama is now trying to give legitimacy to American interference in the region, he is seen as both, friendly and weak. His speech in Egypt termed historic by Western media, received mixed reviews in the Muslim world. Extremists adopted a wait-and-see attitude while progressives found many good points in his call for mutual respect and promise of no meddling. These same progressive thinking academic and community leaders were also critical of his constant reference to his Muslim background and quoting the Quran when the issues of extremism, pover

Assad & The Partition of Syria

assadBashar al-Assad’s latest speech is very telling of Syria’s future  in light of Turkish tanks pounding the Kurdish areas in northern Syria. It is very clear that the process of splitting Syria entered its last phase.

It wasn’t Assad’s words as much as his actions to  retreat in battle in order to justify the acceptance of Syria’s division, which has always been the Assad family’s “Plan B”.  Since his father Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, the backup plan in case of defeat was to “withdraw from less important areas of Syria to hold on to the more important parts”.  Today, it is clear that this is how the son is trying to justify the defeats and withdrawals without a fight as was done recently in Palmyra.

This is also how the loss of Syrian governorates in the north, east and south was justified in order to hold on to the most important region for the Alawites, the north-west. Assad declares implicit surrender by declaring that his army is facing a shortage of manpower and that he cannot fight on all fronts and must focus the most important areas. But where did the promise of bringing victory at the end of 2014 disappear?


On the eve of Geneva 3,  a peaceful settlement has already been rejected as Assad continues his retreat. The withdrawals can only be justified in the interest of retaining areas controlled by Assad’s religious sect the Alawites, which he calls the “State of the coast”.  What remains is the partition of what has become the Syrian cemetery, which Assad created with his own hands.

When Assad talks about Iranian support and the role of Hezbollah as crucial factors in this fight it is more like an advance declaration for the “state of the coast” which will form a strategic bridge to the Iranians linked by areas controlled by Hezbollah in Lebanon’s  Zabadani and Kalamoon down to Hermel and Baalbek and finally to Southern Lebanon. Assad’s sect, the Alawites are considered an offshoot of Shia. This is becoming known now as the greater Shia Crescent that will span from the shores of Syria all the way to Iran.

Turkey’s Recep Erdogan is not absent from these crucial developments in Syria. He knows very well that the state of “The Alawites” can open the door and provide opportunities for the establishment of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria as an extension of the already established Kurdish area in northern Iraq.

This is why Erdogan quickly entered “the deal of the brink”. To be more precise, when it comes to ISIS, Erdogan looked the other way as long as they were defeating the Kurds in northern Syria. After the Syrian Kurds reclaimed their territories from the Islamic State, things changed.  Erdogan threw ISIS under the bus and began to attack the Syrian Kurds.Obama-and-Erdogan

The military campaign by Turkish fighter jets and tanks against ISIS are now targeting the Kurdish areas where Turkey and the US agreed to set up  a safezone 50 kilometers in depth in order to help Erdogan repel Kurdish aspirations for independence.

By declaring the Alawite State, Bashar al-Assad made it clear that this will be the start of a war between Turks, Kurds, and Sunnis to claim their share of the rest of Syria.

All this is indicative of the developmental stages of the region, where it continues to go through the bloody stages of the 3rd level system of development (please see Spiral Dynamics terminology), and continues its revolution to reach that yet-to-be-determined law and order stage of development, (the 4th level in SD). From the power of the charismatic egocentric leader, driven by religious zealotry to the power of institutions where everybody is equal under the law. This will continue until women and Millennials rebel, not just through social media, but through the deep understanding of the complexity it takes to build truly nationalistic institutions.

Thanks to rajeh.khoury@annahar.com.lb at the Lebanese Daily Annahar for some of his original analysis in this article.


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The Middle East: From Saddam to ISIL to Nation Building

As the world becomes more outraged about the atrocities that ISIL is committing, the US and its Western allies continue to scramble for an effective strategy to stem the spread of this well organized and deadly movement. To a war weary American public it seems that no one wants to hear about a bloody return to Iraq. And, no one wants to hear that it was one fateful decision by the US that planted the seeds that created ISIL.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq Paul Bremer, the US Administrator for the country, made what I consider one of the worst US policy decisions in recent Mideast history. With a stroke of his pen, Bremer dissolved the Iraqi Army, rendering 300,000 battle-hardened soldiers and their commanders out of work. This was the only national entity that would have been able to control the violence that ensued in Iraq. Before it was weakened by our sanctions after the first Gulf war, the Iraqi army was feared by non-nationalist factions and respected by law-abiding Iraqi citizens. Saddam had sent tens of thousands of his soldiers to their death on the Iranian border with our CIA supplying them with sophisticated weapons. That decade-long war was fought in order to stop the Iranian nihilistic branch of Shia from spreading to the Arab Peninsula. No other Arab army had been shaped by trench warfare like Saddam’s army. After Bremer enacted the wishes of his superiors Rumsfeld and Cheney, the largest employer in Iraq disappeared. And the thinking was what? That the entire military apparatus can find jobs in the private sector where the old economy was on life support after 12 years of sanctions or in the new economy where US controlled everything? 2014-09-12-DickCheneyAP.jpg

By outlawing the Ba’ath party the US took away the still-emerging Iraqi national identity and its largest symbol, the army. Without jobs but with military knowledge and weapons, these soldiers turned their skills to destabilize Iraq and the foreign presence that took away their power and livelihood. Initially, they kept a low profile by working behind the scenes with militias that wreaked havoc everywhere. In the midst of the Syrian civil war, they found the Syrian desert to be the ideal place for expanding their reach for recruiting and training jihadis from all over the world. Military style training combined with a seductive ideology that promised the return to the rule of the Caliph helped young recruits find purpose and a sense of belonging through a cause that is far larger than themselves. This quickly became a new meme for every disenfranchised young Muslim. In a short period of time Saddam’s ex soldiers became the senior military leaders for these recruits that poured in from everywhere.

The appearance of ISIL is in large part, a reaction to the new Iraq and its new constitution that gave more power to the Shia. Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister has not acted out of nationalistic values of inclusion. Instead he acted out of tribalistic values to even the score against Saddam’s past treatment of Iraq’s Shia. Maliki had systematically marginalized the Sunnis since he came to power. Sunni militias, wanted to destabilize Iraq’s Shia government but needed better tactics than the suicide bombing that proved ineffective. As the training and the command and control structure of ISIL proved successful in Syria, Saddam’s Sunni ex soldiers took over Mosul for their expanded operations. According to Charles Lister, a Mideast terror analyst, within 12 month of establishing themselves in Mosul, the senior military leadership of ISIL began to reclaim its military professionalism. They reestablished old intelligence networks into local governments and security forces that has served them extremely well.

While Saddam hid behind the non-sectarian face of the Ba’ath ideology and did his dirty deeds from behind the scenes, ISIL wants none of that. They want the world to see their brutality and military skills that no other group can even come close to matching. This impressive display of raw power has accomplished two major objectives: 1. It showed that unless we can read the local social and political memes through a lens I call Indigenous Intelligence, nation building by the West will continue to be a failure, and 2. The re-emergence of Sunni power in Iraq, as brutal as it is, has inspired wealthy Sunnis in the Gulf region to provide them with vast financial support aimed at stemming Shia power. This is the real fight. As long as the motivation is sectarian the region will never know the next stage of development, or the nation building phase.

For the West to act surprised and plead ignorance about the quick rise of ISIL is like asking the reader to forget about the allies’ actions that led to this moment in history. The Middle East in not a place that forgets about cause and effect or the tribal mores of revenge and pride. Our leaders should know better. Most of all it seems that the West hasn’t learned from 100 years of failed policies in the region. From the arbitrary carving of nations by the British and the French to the blind support of dictators. It seems that the region has always been an after thought in our foreign policy. There has been no sustainable strategies to help the region build nations or build the right institutions that fit each society. If the West is serious about engaging in the future of the region our approach can’t be based our failed actions of the past. We have to engage the vast majority of the culture which are Millennials and women, through building human capacities that act as a natural detractors to terrorism and violence. We have to impose economic sanctions on nations with poor human rights records instead of turning a blind eye. We must encourage policies that can build an Arab middle class that is the heart and soul of first world countries.

This is the next frontier in geo-politics that requires far deeper understanding of the values that motivate cultures and what is needed to put each country on a sustainable development track. This is what makes humanity leave its violent past behind. Beyond ISIL and the current chaos in Middle East two questions remain: 1- Are the current leaders in the region ready to embrace the next stage of development or nation- building for their societies, and 2- Is the West ready for this vast change in perspective towards the region. The answer to both questions requires a conscious effort that recognizes the heavy human cost of policies that are misaligned with cultural values.

Europe’s New Frontier: From Social Democracy to Governance That Fits

The so-called experts have said it over and over again: Homegrown radical Islam is a result of the failure of the Muslim community to integrate into their adopted home countries. This seems to be a valid assessment on the causes of the problem, but the devil is in the details and the deeper analysis of the clash of value-system that continues to tare the continent apart. How can EU craft effective, values-based governance solutions?


Marco Vacca via Getty Images

I’m no stranger to the subject of Islamic radicalization in Europe. I was invited to France to speak on the issue on two different occasions. The reactions to my presentations were a telling sign of how the French continued to ignore the gathering dark clouds over their country. The most recent conference was held at the Sorbonne. After giving a presentation on the value-systems based model for governance, I warned the French how their form of Social Democracy was threatening the very pillars of what France stood for. I then urged the leaders to move to a more conscious form of governance that can defuse the terrorist threat and promote multiculturalism. This is the Functional Democracy model, or more simply put Governance that Fits which I describe fully in my recent book.

My presentation at the time didn’t receive as much attention as I thought it should. I wasn’t sure whether the French were living in a bubble and simply ignored the problem, or that creating another social program will solve the issue. The audience was more interested in listening to the next speaker, a Hungarian philosopher in his 80s by the name of Ervin Lazslo, who spoke about death, and the Akashic Field Theory. At a subconscious level, it seemed to me that the French had given up on addressing problems plaguing their existential reality and turned to the ethereal life for inspiration.

The earlier conference wasn’t that much different. Speakers ranged from a former Al- Qaeda recruit turned peace advocate to the former Israeli director of prisons. Many substantive recommendations were made but alas, most were dismissed on the premise that they don’t fit French values. The day was punctuated by the occasional bashing of American leadership. After the conference, a French born professor from Algerian roots expressed to me the envy many French minorities have for the American model of democracy. He was in awe of a system that elected a black president and was resigned to the idea that such a thing will never happen in France.

These experiences were symptoms of the deeper dysfunction that lies beneath many of the social democracies in Europe. It seems to me that after the end of WWII the entire continent abandoned old European prejudices and ideologies and with them, they abandoned any desire to assess capacities within cultural groupings on their levels of social and psychological development. Because of the heavy burden of guilt, these challenges were associated with religious, racial and ethnic profiling and had no place in modern day Europe. Adding to this side of the equation, the Europeans felt responsible for many of the atrocities taking place in their former Middle Eastern colonies. Thus, a new European experiment with egalitarian values began.

In a world of homogenous values and congruent levels of cultural development, integration is rarely a problem. Tribes can learn to co-exist with other tribes. The Enlightened philosophers of France can co-exist with their counterparts in Germany or England. The enterprising mindset of Americans can co-exist with so many others in Europe, Japan, and other industrialized countries. The problem comes when cultures that are realized in more complex values believe that non-Western tribal cultures can assimilate by the sheer act of placing them in more advanced surroundings. This is only partially true. There are other factors that should be considered, like the urgency on the part of the host country to instill the values of patriotism. It is in the nature of the egalitarian value system to make the lives of immigrants as comfortable as possible while ignoring the delicate balance between comfort and self-reliance. It is in the ethos of self-reliance within the safety of Western values that the hard work of assimilation happens.

To readers with progressive values, this is where the reading of this piece ends, but to those who are seeking a higher level of consciousness that moves beyond political correctness and arrested views, I urge you to read on. In the interest of full disclosure, I come from Lebanon. I have been a student of the Middle East’s political and religious culture for decades. As I studied the value systems model, I quickly came to the realization that there are no so-called nations in the Middle East. Tribalism, nepotism and feudalism are the values that rule the region today. Nation states require the belief in abstract concepts like the rule of law and the myriad of institutions that guarantee the equal treatment of all citizens. This is the fourth level of existence under the value systems model and historically the most difficult for a culture to enter into, but a necessary foundation on which higher value systems are built. Today, industrialized countries are somewhere in the 4th, 5th, or 6th level value systems. They didn’t emerge there by accident, but through decades of war and bloodshed that is identified with the 3rd level system of values.

The Middle East today is a collection of feuding tribes that were forced together by colonial powers under a common flag. They exist in the second and third level systems; the 3rd level historically has been the bloodiest of all stages of existence. As much as some in the West would like to blame the problem on Islam, in reality the whole issue is a value systems problem that uses Islam as a conduit to express itself. Just as European warriors in the Crusades used Christianity as a conduit to express their cultural presence in the 3rd level system. These transitions seem to be a rite of passage for all cultures as Karen Armstrong, a British scholar points out:

“Terrorism has nothing to do with Muhammad, any more than the Crusades had anything to do with Jesus. There is nothing in Islam that is more violent than Christianity. All religions have been violent, including Christianity.”

The 3rd level of values is the bloody phase of human existence. It is the human ego in raw form. It blames its misery on an enemy of mythical proportions. It can easily be weaponized as it seeks to go out in a blaze of glory. It hides behind religion to exact its ugly deeds until it gets to a point of “never again”. Although these are classical characteristics of the 3rd level of values, there are modern ways to channel their heroic raw energy.


Nationalism and patriotism is what’s next for cultures existing in the 3rd level system, not the egalitarian values of the 6th level system that most of Europe identifies with. The West must surround its non-Western immigrant population by values of this 4th level of existence, keeping in mind that many of these immigrants are – for the first time – living in cultures defined by a multitude of institutions, not the traditional tribal power brokers. This is an entirely new psychology that must be taught. It is crucial for the West to hire the right teachers who can accommodate this critical transition. These are the experts of both worlds, what I call the Indigenous Intelligence Experts. From Imams to social workers, the West needs to recruit an army of IIEs who speak the language, understand the background of these immigrants but are fully entrenched in Western values.

To diffuse the blaze of glory and the raw ego, the West must direct young immigrants into activities that absorb their energies, while containing it within Western 4th level values.

Meaningful sports tournaments that reward the winners with a patriotic achievement award is one example. Enrollment in a Peace Corps-like organization that builds benevolent values, then dispatches its graduates to express their heroism by helping Muslim villages throughout the Middle East and North Africa with challenges they face.

These are just a few examples that demonstrate how integration requires active and functional engagement of the adoptive countries. This is what’s needed not the passive values of the progressive 6th level system, which is dominated by the egalitarian view that misses the functional nuances that lead to better integration.

While the West has taken for granted the cultural complexity it has built over the centuries, it should not assume that everyone is ready to assimilate into it without proper guidance. Beyond Europe’s Social Democracy lies a world full of cultural complexity that requires a more inclusive form of Patriotism. This is humanity’s new frontier guided by the values of what I call Functional Democracy.