Back in 2007 I went to Syria and Jordan on holiday. I flew with a friend to Damascus, travelled to Hama and Homs, visited the astonishing Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, and wandered around the old city of Damascus with my jaw hanging down. I had long been interested in Byzantine history and the history of the Middle East and the experience of seeing everything first hand was unforgettable. We walked, took buses, ate in local restaurants, drank mint tea, and gaped at such a remarkable and historic country.
What struck me most was the hospitality with which we were greeted. That trip probably marked the beginning of my love affair with the Islamic world. Even in 2007 Syria was reckoned, at least in the West, to be a dangerous and hostile place – not quite noxious enough for Bush to include it in his notorious “Axis of Evil” speech but certainly worthy of an Honourable Mention. The reality we encountered was entirely different. On our first night we stayed at a Catholic guest-house run by nuns – and quite openly too, there being little to no hostility between Syrian Muslims and Christians. Armenian and Orthodox churches were everywhere. We walked down Straight Street in Damascus, site of St Paul’s historic meeting with Ananias, and were greeted warmly and with no fear whatsoever. We visited Christian monasteries which didn’t even bother to post security guards at the gate. Everyone we met was kind to us.
That was when I began to realise that we needed to start distinguishing between the politics of a country and the opinions of its citizens. The Syrian government was a long way from a democratic haven but I realised how unjust it was to connect those policies with the Syrian people. We Westerners affix labels to places like Iran, Syria and Pakistan and lazily assume that the labels are also transferable to the people of those countries – but this is not so.
And now I read the news and am heartbroken by what Syria has become. Millions of refugees forced from their homes by the barbarity of Islamic State. Thousands killed. A civil war that shows no signs of ending. Fundamentalists from around the world seemingly in competition with each other to reach new heights of murderous savagery. Who would have thought, in the aftermath of 9/11, that new evils would arise to make even that mass slaughter seem civilised by comparison?
I want to remember the Syria I encountered in 2007, a place of remarkable harmony and welcome, not the Syria that we see now. I also want to remember the words of Habbakuk, a prophet in the Bible, who looked at similar cruelty and barbarity and received consolation from God:
2 How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
3 Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
4 Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.
The Lord’s Answer
5 “Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.