Radical Islam and its Invisible Victims
The black flag: Middle-Eastern minorities are facing genocide (illustration by Michael Daley)
How we read the news is important. As far as the Middle East is concerned, the news is often slanted towards Western interests, whether commercial, military or security-related. It is not, of course, wrong to report and to interpret events in this way but, in doing so, we can miss something crucial that is going on in a nation or a region. It is even possible to say that what is missed could become crucial to international security or trade. That is not my primary concern here which is, rather, to ask what the events mean for the people living in these parts of the world, especially the minorities and the disadvantaged. That is to say, the "invisible" people.
Take Syria, for instance. Under Hafez al-Assad and then his son, Bashar, there was a trade-off: a modicum of social and religious freedom in return for acceptance of restrictions on political freedom. In the minds of the Ba'athist Assad regime this certainly had to do with a fear of radical Islamism but it was also rooted in the authoritarianism of Ba'athism itself. So what has been achieved by upsetting this particular applecart? Western, Saudi and Qatari support for a Sunni-inspired revolt against the Assad regime has led to greater and greater radicalisation, indeed to the birth of ISIS, a movement more extreme even than al-Qaeda. If the intervention was intended to reduce the influence of Iran in the region, it has failed spectacularly because Iranian support is now crucial to the stabilisation of Iraq after the significant gains made there by ISIS.
Perhaps more than any other country in the region, Syria has been a colourful patchwork of religious, ethnic and linguistic communities: the presence of Alawites and Druze, Eastern-rite Catholics and Orthodox, both Oriental and Chalcedonian, Sephardic Jews and Yazidis reveals the diversity of religions. As well as Arabic, Kurdish, Aramaic, Turkoman and Armenian are spoken there. Was it not possible to continue to engage with the regime of such a country and to encourage a process of reform, even if that involved setbacks and frustrations? Was it really necessary to support a movement for the overthrow of Assad, a movement which is now known to contain not only the most dubious but the most dangerous Islamists from all over the world? Is the only answer to Ba'athist dictatorship the creation of a monolithic Wahhabi-Salafi state next door to Israel?
And what can we say of Syria's neighbour to the East? Iraq is home to ancient religious and ethnic communities. There are a number of religions that survive only in Iraq and countries nearby. Many different languages are spoken, reflecting the population's ethnic variety. Under Saddam Hussein, the mutual animosities and hatreds of these communities were kept under strict control on pain of suffering genocide, no less, in order to maintain a unified Iraq. After the American and British-led invasion and Saddam Hussein's fall, the occupying powers dramatically failed to secure civil order and to find a system of governance that would suit Iraq. Given that it is a Western-inspired construct, cobbled together from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, it is doubtful whether Iraq can ever function as a unitary state. The only workable plan seems to be a loose confederation. With the Kurds already effectively independent, some modus vivendi needs urgently to be established between Shia and Sunni. Without formal power-sharing agreements, we are likely to see regular eruptions of violence continue and for there to be tactical alliances with unsavoury extremists like ISIS.
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