By H.A. Hellyer
29 June 2015
It’s Ramadan. Against the backdrop of
Muslims observing the obligatory performance of the fast, sheikhs and religious
authorities will remind the faithful of the saying of the Prophet: “There has
come to you Ramadan, a blessed month which God has enjoined you to fast, during
which the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, and the
rebellious devils are chained up.” Sages in the past would comment – and warn
believers that if there were sins they persisted in the month; they had to take
them seriously. For in this month, the whispers and murmurs, beckoning souls to
wretchedness – well, that’s all on them. Because the devils, as the adage go,
are locked up.
One would hope, then, that in this month,
there would be an absence of truly horrendous actions – if from no one else,
than from Muslims themselves, particularly those that claim to raise high the
banner of Islam. Alas, the last few days show that while some human beings
don’t require the murmurs and whispers of baser beings at all – they can do
rather evil things all on their own.
Where Do We Not Look?
Where do we begin to consider the nature of
the malevolence, the maliciousness, the malignity, the malice, of these cruel
and capricious acts that have occurred in recent days and weeks? Do we look at
Kobane? Do we look at Kuwait? Do we look at Tunisia? Where do we look? Where do
we not look?
But in truth, it’s not really about where
we do look – it is about where we do not look. For when acts like these occur,
we often ignore, far more than we pay attention.
When we decry the violence in one place, do
we remember the violence that takes place elsewhere – in the region, and
elsewhere? Are there really that many among us who see blood as blood –
civilian as civilian – or do we pay more attention to certain shades of blood,
or certain nationalities or types of civilians? Or worse yet – how many have
become utterly desensitized to the extreme violence in their countries –
whether that violence is perpetrated by domestic forces, or foreign? When we
think on Kobane and ISIS, do we think on Assad? When we think on Kuwait, do we
think on Yemen? Or do we think that the effect of violence is felt only when
perpetrated by non-state actors? Are we that mistaken in our compasses about
humanity? This entire generation of Arabs is progressing in a region where the
shedding of blood in such gruesome fashions has become so commonplace; it’s no
longer… odd. It’s no longer strange. It’s just another day. The effect of that
should not – must not – be underestimated.
As the dust settles, the dead are prayed
over, and those who have passed away are placed into the earth, we will
continue to hear a litany of condemnations – of censures and of critiques – and
they will all miss the point. Because the truth is, the violence does not come
out of nowhere.
An Idea Is Enough
All too often, we privilege context and
sociological circumstance to explain why people believe what they believe and
do what they do. But ideas matter to people. Indeed, the ideas are believed in
certain ways – or may be prioritized in certain ways – in ways that are highly
dependent on the milieu in which they are spread and developed. That’s entirely
true, and very real. Focusing solely on ideas and ideology, to the exclusion of
understanding how they are instrumentalised, or may just be excuses, is a
mistake of substantial proportions. But it is no less of an error when we deny
that ideas, indeed, matter to human beings. Indeed, sometimes, just sometimes,
an idea is enough.
There are good ideas and there are bad
ideas. Good ideas cause people to rise above themselves, and lead others away
from their more base instincts, pointing the way to a better future. Bad ideas,
and there are aplenty, do the opposite. When we look at the Arab world today,
we see both - most assuredly. I remember all too well the better days, with the
better ideas – particularly, while not exclusively, in those heady, but real
days in the early times of 2011.
But the bad ideas? The bad ideas are clear
– and this is where, unfortunately, far too many are slow to act.
Certainly, most Gulf state leaders have
come out publicly against the attacks against Shiites in Kuwait and Saudi. But
how many public figures, preachers and otherwise, have been censured from
actual supporting the radical sectarianism they promote or control, in the
context of conflicts in the region? Have all governments really taken the
necessary steps to curb the sectarianism that many in different parts of
officialdom do support, often materially, particularly via religious
establishments? Many Islamists condemned, by the same token, attacks on
Christians – but did that mean that those promoting anti-Christian sectarianism
on channels they control – or preachers they support – were censured? How many
public figures in the Arabian Gulf are quick to denounce sectarianism against
Sunni Muslims, which we have seen time and again being promoted in Syria and
Iraq – but who seemingly have little or no such abhorrence with regards to
sectarianism against Shiite Muslims? There will be some – but far too few.
Is the principle really ‘sectarianism is
bad’ – or is the principle ‘sectarianism is bad… until it is my side doing it?’
Is there anyone who will take seriously
within the region that be it Sunni on Shiite sectarianism; or Shiite on Sunni
sectarianism; or Sunni on Sunni sectarianism; or Muslim on Christian
sectarianism; that these are all just bad ideas? That differences of views can,
and should, be expressed – but that the incitement that finds itself in words
will, far too often, be eventually conveyed in acts of violence and terrible
consequences? Or have too few not reached the point of realizing that rotten
discourse does not have rotten consequences?
Are there leaders in these communities who
know they must rise, in order to be clear once and for all, not simply in
rhetoric but in action, to avert further catastrophe by declaring – if you will
seek to promote hate and incitement, you will not be tolerated? Are there
leaders who will pursue that path, not as a way to crackdown on legitimate
dissent and varying opinions that do not win favor with the palace – but as a
way to ensure and develop the health of their communities and societies?
Or are there only figureheads, among both
state and non-state actors, who will simply talk the talk… but walking the walk
is put off, indefinitely? Or worse yet – is avoided altogether, while promoting
hatred in other directions.
Indeed - it is intriguing how sectarianism
is bad – until, of course, it is your side that is inciting it.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the
Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School,
previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on
Twitter at @hahellyer.