Archive

Tag Archives: war

Over in the USA a bunch of ranchers were recently holed up in a wildlife refuge in Oregon, railing loudly against government interference.  Others are stocking up on guns: concerned by possible restrictions on the purchase of weapons, many people are buying rifles and pistols, resulting in the share prices of weapon manufacturers reaching new highs.  On the other side of the political spectrum people are railing against inequality, highlighting the plight of the American poor who drink poisoned water while men in suits take home unimaginably large salaries.

The current political situation is dominated by two men: one who criticises Muslims, who promises to ban refugees, and who pledged in a campaign speech to “bomb the shit out of Islamic State” – while the other, Bernie Sanders, is angry about inequality, about a culture based around the pursuit of wealth; one of his supporters said in an interview “I’m mad…you have to show some level of anger”.

us-income-inequality-record-breaking.jpg

It’s not just America.  In my town in the UK the organisation Britain First recently held a “Christian march” through an area of town populated largely by immigrants, including many Pakistani Muslims.  The anti-Muslim organisation Pegida is growing in strength throughout Germany and also the UK.  The National Front is on the rise in France.  Attacks on Muslims in the UK are increasing.  The political spectrum is diverging sharply, with an uncompromising left-winger in charge of the opposition and a welfare-cutting right-winger in charge of the country.

I wonder if this era will, in hindsight, be defined as the age of anger.  Everyone, it seems, is angry about something or other.  Political disagreement is nothing new, of course, but the breadth and depth of anger felt by ordinary citizens around the world feels different.

26862-full

I wonder if technology is partly to blame.  We live in increasingly segmented lives, cut off from one another by smartphones and laptops, expressing our opinions and sharpening our ideas through Facebook.  We seem to spend less and less time actually talking to people, and once the variety and individuality of human beings have been removed, people become one-dimensional caricatures: a right-winger, a gay rights campaigner, a liberal, a Muslim – all targets for dislike and anger, if you happen to disagree with them.

Or perhaps there is something deeper at work: the death of ideas.  Throughout history popular discontent has been followed by a proposed solution.  Anger at the inequality of 18th century France led to the French Revolution.  Anger at the injustice of imperialism led to independence and nationalism (as with the foundation of the Republic of Pakistan, for example).  Anger at the aristocracy led to Communism.  Anger at religion led to the state-sponsored atheism of Soviet Russia.  Anger at warfare led to the foundation of the United Nations.  Our present era is still unequal, still stained by warfare, still haunted by abject poverty and lavish wealth, and yet – and yet we have run out of ideas.  We feel a sense of pain, of simple wrongness, at the state of the world, and yet where do we go from here?  Tyranny?  Several steps back.  Organised religion?  Led to the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, to Islamic State.  Communism?  Nice idea, doesn’t work.  Nationalism?  It tore the world apart in the 20th century.  International cooperation?  It didn’t prevent the Rwanda genocide, nor the Vietnam war, nor the Balkan genocide of the 1990s.  Democracy?  Hamas were democratically elected, and Donald Trump may be as well.  Capitalism?  Doesn’t seem to promote equality, does it?

I wonder if modern angst stems from this simple fact: that we can see ever more clearly that the world is imperfect, that we deeply believe that it ought to be perfect, and that we have run out of solutions.  Inequality and strife lie at every turn, so we withdraw into our technological bubbles and feel a profound sense of unease.

Damascus: the Jupiter temple (III A.C.) in front of Omayyad mosque

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:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
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.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.

The Lord’s Answer

“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.