For the past ten years, my research and consulting work has focused on the basic pattern of all living systems. I see that same pattern at play in the Middle East now, and I think it offers an interesting lens for understanding what’s going on there.
The pattern is this (in very simplified form). All living systems require three basic conditions if they are to thrive:
(1) divergent parts
(2) within a convergent whole
(3) in dynamic relationship internally and externally.
The more that all of these conditions are present, the more the living system will be resilient, adaptive and creative. Optimizing these conditions is life’s basic urge.
For centuries, much of the Middle East has existed under less than fertile conditions:
- High levels of convergence (a coherent national/regional identity, a high degree of conformity),
- Low levels of divergence (limited individual rights and expression, limited individual access to information), and
- Low levels of relationship (constrained communication between men and women, limited access to outsiders).
But it wasn’t always this way. The Islamic world of the Middle Ages was highly advanced in its technological and artistic achievements, exhibiting high levels of divergence, convergence and relationship.
Then, according to Princeton professor Bernard Lewis in his book What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, their superior status in the world led them to close themselves off to the rest of the world around the 15th century, believing (perhaps rightly so at the time) that there was little to learn from their Western counterparts. Travel was discouraged. And knowledge came to be considered a thing to be treasured rather than a resource to use and expand. As a result, the European Renaissance, the Reformation and a period of great technological innovation “passed almost unnoticed” by Islamic nations. Islamic society began to stagnate and steadily fell further behind the West. Rather than encouraging openness, the situation fed increasingly into a sense of victimhood and further closure of society, says Lewis. Relationship and divergence diminished and convergence rose. And resilience, adaptability and creativity suffered from this imbalance.
In recent years, however, internet technology (in particular) has supported a rise in relationship and that, in turn, has fed individual access to information. Divergence has been bubbling under the surface, looking for an outlet. When no outlet could be found, people created one.
What we’re seeing now is the living system self-regulating. We’re seeing the basic urge of life to move toward conditions of resilience, adaptability and creativity.
This is my take on it. I’d love to hear from people with deeper expertise in the region – or from anyone with an opinion to share!