The Complexity of Change: Practical Ways Forward
August 24, 2020
‘‘Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,’’ wrote Arnold J. Toynbee. In our global context of unprecedented and mutually-reinforcing challenges, and as we drift further into chaos, uncertainty, and complex problems at an accelerating pace, we may feel entitled to fear Toynbee’s warning applies beyond any particular civilization to the future of humanity itself.
The global economic upheavals brought by the Covid-19 pandemic have compounded the catastrophic effects of climate change, with consequences affecting all forms of life. Across the wider MENA region, we see the Levant in crisis, Gulf state rivalries, civil wars, entrenched authoritarianism, and geopolitical tensions tearing the region apart. Amidst all this, civil society finds itself stretched to breaking point.
At the same time, nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise, while international governance is increasingly paralyzed and failing to tackle the globe’s inequalities and injustices.
In the face of all this, it would be easy for one to get into a state of despair.
When describing civilizational growth and decay, Toynbee used the term ‘Challenge’ to describe the major threats and events facing a nation or a population, and the term ‘Response’ to denote how people have chosen to mobilize in creative ways to deal with such a challenge.
In today’s interconnected and interdependent world; we cannot but realize that the challenge we all face is a common one – even if its manifestations vary between countries and regions. Every generation faces its own civilizational challenge, and its response can range from inaction to focused, purpose-driven collective effort. Whether the course of action is the right one becomes clear only in the fullness of time.
According to Toynbee, a Response requires vision, leadership, and action to overcome the threat and create a basis for survival and, in our case, a harmonious world we would be proud to leave for future generations. Accordingly, any Response must rise to meet the scale of the challenge we face — be it on climate action, a just transition to clean energy, sustainable modes of resource utilization, a just and equitable international order, or adoption of pluralistic and universal values at a state or local level — bringing together all of the ingredients identified by Toynbee.
Al Sharq Forum was founded on the premise that how we respond is a choice, and that, despite the scale of the challenges we face, our choice is to look to the future through a realistic but highly optimistic lens.
Today, Al Sharq Youth Network, is actively addressing local and regional priorities through several Hubs — based out of 15 cities stretching from Malaysia, to Turkey, to Tunis, to the UK — which form the core of our international network of passionate youth, who are committed to common values and principles.
Ours is a continuously learning network that aims to explore creative means of communication and inter-hub collaboration. Driven by our belief in solidarity and common purpose, our aim is to balance and integrate local, grassroot priorities with global ones.
In-line with the ingredients of the Response, and embedded within its international network, Al Sharq Youth’s approach is based on integrating three components — vision, leadership and action — to get them working in tandem and thus complement one another. This ensures our response is firmly focused towards key priorities and systemic challenges in their varying forms — all within our core ideals and principles of justice and inclusiveness:
From the occupation and continued injustices in Palestine, brutal political repression and dictatorship, or economic and intellectual stagnation, our region is crying out for a new generation instilled with the necessary awareness to transcend this dystopian reality — to think, act and imagine the world anew.
Such is the necessity of spaces like Al Sharq Forum. In Europe, xenophobia, nationalist populism and Islamophobia are on the rise, and gaining ground daily on the back of economic grievances inflicted by globalization and capitalism. In South East Asia, the issues of development, stability and prosperity are as pressing as ever — be it the injustices in Kashmir, the Rohingya refugee crisis, the identity law in India, or the Muslim Uyghur concentration camps in China. Yet many of these crises are meeting with only faint echoes in the Arab and Muslim-majority countries.
When asked about sectarianism in his home country of Lebanon, the author Amin Maalouf perfectly articulated the plethora of issues the region and the world must overcome in the years to come, and the urgency and radicalism of the efforts required: : “Overcoming such an issue requires lucid, courageous and voluntary actions, taking place over several decades.’’The prospect of a new global La Convivencia, bringing together the East and the West to realize the ideals of inclusiveness and pluralism, where authoritarianism and dictatorship are eradicated, xenophobia and prejudice are banished, and inclusive, equitable governance is the norm – in Damascus, Baghdad, or Belfast — can seem daunting and unrealistic from the standpoint of our polarized present.
And yet, equipped with imagination and ambition, and the right mental models and tools, we can transcend the constraints of our current thinking. We can build on the work of those who came before us and provide foundations for the generations to come. In other words, we can finally realize that a successful response to the challenges we face — however much patience and hard work it may require — is within our collective reach.
 Arnold J. Toynbee (1889 – 1975), the British historian best known for his work ‘’A Study of History’’ which is a 12 volume which traces the development and decay of world civilization in historical record, applying his model to each of civilization for phases: genesis (birth), growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration. Toynbee’s theory of Challenge and Response were developed in this context.
 Jurgen Schmandt and C. H. Ward – Sustainable Development: The Challenge of the Transition, Cambridge University Press.
 Interview with Amin Maalouf on his book, ‘’The Wreck of Civilizations’’: https://www.lorientlejour.com/article/1168245/amin-maalouf-i-was-born-healthy-in-the-arms-of-a-dying-civilization.html
 Convivencia, Spanish for ‘co-existence’, is commonly used to refer to the model of co-existence and religious pluralism which flourished in the Iberian Peninsula in the middle ages — when civilization and creativity thrived amidst the fused influences of the three Abrahamic religions.