News Eoghan Harris

Saturday 23 August 2014

Standing idly by in Middle East means taking sides

Eoghan Harris

Published 01/09/2013 | 05:00

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LAST week, an amoral alliance of right-wing Tories and Labour Trots convinced the House of Commons to put Assad's atrocity aside. Some even privately quoted an adage attributed to Lord Palmerston: "Nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests."

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Let's be clear: I am against cosmetic actions. I am against the bluster-bombing of soft Syrian targets while proclaiming we are not taking sides. I believe the West should have taken sides against Assad from the start, that Obama should have stood by his 2011 call for regime change and armed anti-fundamentalist factions among the Syrian rebels.

I believe the West must take sides because Islamic fundamentalists want to foment widespread war. I believe they are no more Muslim than the Crusaders were Christians. I believe Islamism is less a religion than what Edmund Burke called an "armed doctrine". Like Nazi fascism, it could return East and West to the dark ages.

Accordingly, I believe the West must fight it to a finish – but without giving a green light to genocidal regimes.

That means the West should have supported the Egyptian army against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood – who tried to set up a dictatorial sharia state – just as we retrospectively support those brave German army officers who tried to take out the democratically elected Hitler.

Conversely, the West should have withdrawn support from Assad – even though many of the rebel fighters were fundamentalists – as soon as he started to shell civilian areas. At the same time the West should have given massive support to those rebel forces who rejected the fundamentalists – such as those still successfully operating on the southern Syrian front.

Admittedly, even Solomon would struggle to find a straight path through the struggle going on within Islam. That is why many Middle East pundits simply give up and advocate sitting on the fence.

We also have the anti-West hand-wringers. Every time a new episode in the internal war within Islam erupts, they argue that it is either all about oil or all the West's fault. They delight in Tony Blair's or David Cameron's discomfiture – although both men are driven by a decent desire to stand up to brutal dictators like Saddam and Assad.

But the political and media alliance between left-wing supporters of the so-called 'Arab Spring' and right-wing Tories who say "let the Arabs all kill each other" avoids any analysis of the twin causes of the current crisis in Islam.

The first is the theological-cum-tribal feud between the majority Sunni and the minority Shia. The West is not responsible for this lethal rift. But it still cannot stand idly by and watch Islam descend into mass rape and massacre.

Here we must not demonise Islam. From the Thirty Years war to the Holocaust, the West did far worse. But reminding ourselves of the foul deeds of Christian fanatics will not protect us from the foul deeds of Islamist fanatics.

The second cause of the crisis in Islam is far more intractable than the fissure between Sunni and Shia. It dates back to the crucial 19th-century Muslim debate in Baghdad between faith and reason – which reason lost. A sombre analysis of the tragic consequences is provided by Robert R Reilly in his book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind.

Reilly recounts how the majority Sunni theology, called Ash'arism, asserts that God is the first and only cause of everything. So there can be no secondary causes – such as natural law.

In the absence of natural law, as Reilly puts it: "Gravity does not make the rock fall; God does. Fire doesn't burn cotton; God does."

Reilly argues that the Sunni retreat from reason to faith resulted in a deformed theology and a dysfunctional culture. And I would add that one of the deadly marks of this dysfunction is an ambivalence about modernity.

Most Muslims seem to covet the exterior goodies of Western capitalist society, such as computers and smartphones. But many seem unwilling to pay the interior political price – parliamentary democracy, a free press, the emancipation of women.

After 9/11 I often debated these matters with "moderate" Irish Muslims. But at some point most baulked at publicly denouncing Islamist terrorism or began to blame the West. But of course ambivalence and blame-deflection are not confined to Muslims. Indeed, many "moderate" Irish Muslims remind me of "moderate" Northern nationalists during the darkest days of the Provo campaign.

Like many Irish Muslims after 9/11, northern nationalists would start out by saying they were against terrorism. But both groups would finish by blaming America or the Brits. Even after Enniskillen, northern nationalist voters preferred Sinn Fein to the SDLP.

By resisting this ambivalence, the UK and Republic finally forced the Provos to the peace table. Likewise, both morality and practical self-preservation dictate the West should support those Middle Eastern regimes which are the least ambivalent about fundamentalism. As a bonus we would get leverage against excesses by those regimes.

But in the crunch the West must put real people before real-politik. Samantha Power's Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell gives us a good moral guide. Ten years ago she warned: "When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act."

Power says that while Western governments "have generally tried to contain genocide by appeasing its architects. . . states that murder and torment their own citizens target citizens elsewhere."

Apart from the moral imperative of intervening to save innocent lives, Power says people who suffered persecution while the West wrung its hands will not be future allies. In Egypt, as in Syria, Western procrastination is turning potential friends into bitter enemies.

Lord Palmerston, was not a pacifist. His 1848 rebuke to John Bright, which prefigures the principled stand of Winston Churchill, is also a reprimand to today's appeasers.

"The Member for Manchester is so attached to his principles. . . that he thinks peace is, of all things, the best, and that war is, of all things, the worst. Now, Sir, I happen to be of the opinion that there are things for which peace may be advantageously sacrificed, and that there are calamities which a nation may endure which are far worse than war. This has been the opinion of men in all ages whose conduct has been admired by their contemporaries, and has obtained for them the approbation of posterity."

Sunday Independent

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