There’s an old Seanachai tale they tell in Ireland, about a young couple and their children on a driving tour of the land. Their holiday coming to its end, they are trying to get to Dublin to catch the ferry home, but they’re lost. They stop and ask an old farmer if he can tell them the way to Dublin.
“Well,” he says to them, “if I was trying to get to Dublin, I wouldn’t be starting here.”
This latest atrocity in Paris is just one more incident in the war of attrition that is being fought between the scattered forces of militant jihad and the government forces who oppose them, the Western/ Christian/ Capitalist crusade as the jihadists would see it. Two implacable, and I would suggest, mutually undefeatable enemies fighting the permanent war that George Orwell predicted in 1984. Forget the religious angle. As usual, it’s all about power.
The problem, of course, is that everyone is in the wrong and they’re all in the right. It’s all a matter of point of view. Take for instance, the major, one might say seminal conflict in the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinians. Whether or not you accept the Biblical justifications of Israel’s claim to its current territory (and plenty of Zionists would like to lay claim to a lot more, to equal the land as described in the Old Testament), its creation in 1948 was an imposition on the Palestinian population who had been there for centuries and were forcefully dispossessed and displaced to allow the new State. My father was there, as part of the British Army enforcing the decree of the United Nations. He saw the anguish being caused then to the Palestinians (though he endorsed the right of Israel to exist), and it has yet to be assuaged.
The first and still fundamental mistake, the first and lasting contribution to the insolubility of the situation, I believe, was the pushing through of the single State agreement by the Israelis at the UN in 1948, leaving the Palestinians outcast and stateless. The Israelis concern was probably to do with the restrictions a two state agreement would impose on what we now know were their future territorial ambitions, which were and for many, unfortunately including the ruling party Likud, still are based on the promise that they believe God gave them, which was, after all, the land they occupied for many centuries themselves, although more than two millennia ago. By leaving the Palestinians stateless they created an eternal enemy, and set up the permanent war they now fight with the militant wing of the Palestinians (and many other enemies besides).
But promise of God or not, the rightful, legal existence of Israel, given that there remain details to work out on boundaries, should by now be accepted as a political fact by all the world, and they, in turn, should recognise the right of the Palestinians to a State. The forced removal of the Palestinians was a hurt inflicted on them without acceptable explanation or compensation, in their eyes at least, but also in the eyes of many around the world, and thanks in part to the willful mistreatment by and alienation from their Arab neighbours (themselves caught on the horns of the dilemma of whether Israel should be acknowledged or not), they have been homeless ever since (a situation, one might add, one would think the Israelis above all would empathise with, having spent millennia without a home).
All the rest of the struggle in greater Palestine comes down to this simple insoluble issue: does Israel exist legitimately or not? Imagine if the most extremely frightened and insecure Israelis could sincerely believe that no one was interested in attacking them or taking their home away from them, perhaps then they might concede the right of the Palestinians to a State.
But this can only happen if first the Palestinian resistance, armed or merely intellectual, accept that Israel has the right to exist, and admit the futility of all their vicious little campaigns to fire random rockets at no specific targets, or, as currently they are doing, pick off a few civilians, police and soldiers, a tactic that only earns them and their innocent citizens awful retribution and nothing else but condemnation from the rest of the world anyway. If these two provisos could be fulfilled, perhaps then there could be peace. Fat, as they say, chance.
It all seems so far off, doesn’t it? I’ve never grasped the logic of violence as a way to solve problems, but I do know this: once it starts it is hard to stop. Killing resistance fighters is like scattering dragon’s teeth. Particularly in the kind of conflicts that we are witnessing now, in Syria and Iraq and bordering territories, each death throws up a family ready to avenge it. In the old days of massive armies in conflict, each representing the pinnacle of industrial achievement and wealth of their nation, war could be relied on to end. One day the money runs out. But in this low level, nasty kind of battling, it is all tactics and little or no strategy, because the central strategic aim is to fight an enemy you both know is never going to go away. Terrorism has no need of strategy, which is why it is hard to form a strategy to combat it. We are living in and and it seems must continue to live in a world of high visibility policing, widespread surveillance, kept alight by the occasional atrocity.
There is, however, one gruesome but possibly effective war to be fought and that is the war they’re fighting now against Islamic State, the misnamed heathen army of disillusioned young men and women manipulated by the usual crowd of men and women greedy for power and the trappings of wealth.
Islamic State presents us with an enemy we have not dealt with before, and the solutions are quite different. They are only a theatre of war in the larger conflict between the crusaders of the West, who meddle in the affairs of the Arab world because they need the oil, and the militant jihadists, avengers of those slaughtered by the forces of the West, or simply those never allowed to take their place in the societies in which they live, as downtrodden natives or as disenfranchised immigrants, caught between cultures and thus susceptible to the siren call of holy martyrdom or just good old bloody revenge.
Islamic State, as said above, is not Islamic. It has purposefully and blatantly disobeyed some of Mohammed’s direct decrees. But it is likely that many of their recruits are faithful Muslims. I have a problem with the Q’ran, should any Muslim be reading this, an honest, I hope, if possibly infidel, argument. It stems from this: with one exception, all the great world religions have had two iconic characters at their foundation. The first is the spiritual leader, usually a somewhat mystical figure, as might be Jesus, or Moses or others of the Prophets, or Buddha, or Krishna, or Rama and so on. (It’s interesting to me, if digressive here, how much these so-called avatars or sons or messengers of God have much the same things to say, and use the same metaphors). So-called religious wars throughout history and no less now, are only politico-economic wars dressed in the robes of God’s blessing to keep the troops steady. Our leaders only send our young men and women to fight for wealth and power, or to prevent someone else getting any. One may be sure God has nothing to do with their leaders’ motives.
The second religious iconic figure is the political leader. In the case of Christianity, this was the Roman Emperor Constantine, who recruited that religion to his cause when, as a General, he was preparing to take his army into Rome, an action forbidden since time out of mind to any Roman General. Judaeism had its great kings who established and ruled ancient Israel, David and Solomon being the ones we hear most of (unless you’re Jewish or a theologian), two of a number of leaders who spread the ideas and philosophies of their beliefs (you have to read the Old Testament to get the full picture). I confess I am shaky on the political early history of Buddhism and Hinduism, but you can bet there were kings and generals and their armies involved.
The exception is Islam. Mohammed was both the spiritual leader who provided the belief system and he was the political leader who spread the belief system through political and military means. Indeed, he was a great war leader, a conqueror who united the Arabian Peninsular (there’s more to learn, but you will have to read it elsewhere).
And he wrote the Q’ran as he went along. It is clear from the civilisations that have arisen out of it that the spiritual message of the Q’ran is as good as they get. As I suggested just now, in line with all religions, its message is the familiar one of peace and goodwill, consistent with the teachings of all mankind’s spiritual leaders, love God, be kind to your neighbours, raise healthy families (so don’t eat pork if you live in the desert and their diet is your bodily waste, for instance), don’t kill, rob, or harm anyone, all that sort of thing.
From a lot of personal experience I can say Islam is among the most consciously socially generous of all religions, lots of rules of hospitality and a general disposition to greet a stranger as a welcome guest. There is a wealth of text in the Q’ran that exhorts Muslims to treat their neighbours well and respect other religions, and the huge majority are faithful to this view of Islam.
But, and one cannot help but be tempted to think it may have been on those occasions when he needed to exhort his men to war, he also included (or Allah, supporting his ambitions, told him to include. Yeah right, as my daughter would say) reasons to kill their men, women and children when dealing with their enemies, the infidels.
Christians, stuck with goody-two-shoes Jesus, who never told anyone to kill anything, in fact prevented Peter from doing just that, largely ignore their belief in God and their eventual salvation when considering any political or military issues, and vice versa.Not so Islamic warriors in need of a guiding word or two. One can forgive Mohammed the war leader that he used his position as spiritual leader when he felt he needed (or Allah told him) to convince his people they had Allah on their side even while breaking his commandment, and in a very real, personal way – “He spoke to me.” Can’t argue with that, or anyway, certainly not if you’re a sixth century desert Arab warrior dependent on Mohammed to provide your daily bread..
But I am an agnostic secularist with a degree in history and life has made me cynical of anyone who makes power his or her ambition, so please forgive any trace of irreverence in these statements. But now such men are everywhere, it sometimes seems, and they don’t need big armies to make an impact on the rest of us.
So, armed with the selected texts, the plotters and leaders running the guerrilla war against the West and those in command of Islamic State have any number of ways of enticing the angry youths at their disposal, be it 24 virgins and a bowl of honey to an ignorant young virgin boy whose family perished in an air strike, or some other, be it more venal or more sophisticated promise of Allah’s approval that they should die now and take a few infidels with them.
[It does rather make one hope that Allah will be there waiting for them, that he might have the chance to explain that he doesn’t, indeed, could not possibly take sides in the inept and limited attempts of mankind to explain what he is, when, if he exists at all, he must by definition be much, much more than our feeble human imaginations could ever conceive. And please let him tell them he despises what they just did, then turn away from them forever to embrace their victims]
Of course there is a clash of religions in all this, but it is more a clash of cultures, between the individualistic secular capitalist peoples and the fraternal religious Sharia world. But it is also, and again of course, for we are human in the end, mainly a political conflict, a struggle for power and wealth. The one good thing that IS is doing is to bring together in one convenient killing field all the angriest, most bloodthirsty of those young recruits, and even among them there are surely those who are not so nihilistic or murderous. A determined strike against their forces would at least weaken their ability to attack the world, though needless to say it will throw up new recruits because civilians will die, warriors will die, and their heirs will take up the cause. But as long as it assembles into armies it can be fought and defeated. The war may not end yet, but this battle could.
As to the larger political issues, one thing that came to me out of the Paris bombings was this. The day after that heinous and cowardly crime, all of the media around the Western world was full of it. All day. In October, more than a hundred people were killed in two bomb explosions in Ankara, in eastern Turkey, but this did not rate the same attention.
Turkey is a candidate for EU membership, but the French are our ancient neighbours, Caucasian cousins. It could have been, and may well yet be London or Berlin or Rome. It has already happened in London and Madrid. But Ankara? Well, that’s a bit far off, too far to feel more than sympathy, but not empathy or real grief. But what about New York in 2001? That warranted worldwide grief and launched the sad state of affairs today, because they’re basically seen as more of our Caucasian cousins.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Those closest to us will cause us more grief and concern in their pain and death. It’s natural. Though we make haste to point out the multi-national, multi-cultural spread of the victims of terrorism, it is our basic nature to feel more when the attack is against our immediate cultural cousins.
Nevertheless, the ordinary, politically run societies of the world (and please God they should all be secular, the only sensible way to run a modern country, but in any case non-idealistic) must unite against those who would kill us because we don’t believe in their God, whose existence cannot be proved, like it or not, and we don’t share their political, judicial, or, in particular, their punitive system of administration.
Why is it a problem if we don’t agree with them? And why, for that matter, are the Western powers so damn determined to make everyone adopt that particular euro-centric political system they call Democracy? The lowest peasant in Saudi Arabia can demand an audience with the king and get it. It’s another way of thinking and we should be wary of telling other cultures how to live. I don’t even tell my own children.
This use of violence to solve our arguments has got to stop. Right now as said above, fat chance, but I mean it. Immediate threats and problems aside, the fact is, this is the world we live in. It’s a global institution, a global business, and like it or not, we’re all in this together. As you may have surmised by now, I am an ardent supporter of secular government. Let people believe what they wish to believe so long as they let others make the same decision, and let government be the administration of things, as Marx put it, an organising centre for the smooth running of our daily lives and nothing to do with the way we live or think.
It is my considered opinion that the vastly greater majority of human beings just want today to pass pleasantly and for tomorrow to be much the same as today, with a few interesting or tragic variations thrown in so we know we are alive. These armed struggles for power only upset that routine. The singer Donovan once wrote a song blaming it on the warriors, the ones willing to take up weapons and use them, the ones who obey the orders of those who hope to gain by war. Even they are a small minority among us. Why do we give them so much power? Well, we don’t of course. They take it and we don’t stop them.
Cowardice is one reason. The elephant in the room in all discussions of the affairs of the Middle East and its diaspora is Saudi Arabia. The governing powers there tacitly allow their citizens to support such aggressive, violent forces as al Q’aeda and Islamic State, as a bribe to keep them away from the Kingdom. The other smaller Arab autocracies probably also have some similar agreement with militant Islamic armed forces, though not all directly aid them.
They’re fools, of course. If IS has its way, Saudi Arabia will be to it what Russia was to Napoleon and Hitler, the last target, the crowning conquest, the one you deceive with lies and treaties until you’re ready to strike. And Islamic State won’t have the Russian winter to defeat them.
But it is not going to be easy to fully isolate the pockets of vicious jihadist militancy from the rest of the Muslim community. Apart from anything else, it is always, as they say in the desert, me against my brother, my brother and me against the tribe, my tribe against the world. No decent Arab would ever voice a straightforward condemnation of a fellow Arab in public. They may call on their brothers to cease and desist, be merciful and spare any more victims, but still not condemn the crimes of the past. It’s an Arab thing, I guess. We have to learn it and get used to it, like we’ve got used to West Indians never saying please or thank you because in those societies it is considered unnecessary, everybody him me brother.
If only that were true of all of us. Do you know that the species Homo Sapiens is the most closely related species on the planet? We are all of us, black, yellow, brown or pink-ish white, and all shades in between, the descendants of one single mating pair. The human genome proves it. As my brother David remarked when telling me this fact, “Perhaps that’s why we fight so much, if our own family is anything to go by.”
Whatever they say, we can be certain that the militant jihadists and their supporters are vastly outnumbered by those same ordinary citizens in their nations that we all are. Hamas will exhaust its citizens and so will Zionist Israel. The Taliban, the multitude of al Q’aeda offshoots, Islamic state and its puppets, all of them eventually will become occupying armies, and as any American or British (or Roman for that matter) soldier can tell you, occupation doesn’t work.
If we’re honest, as we careen into the unknowable abyss of the future, we only have hope, but that’s always been the case, and we should reflect that, after all, this great, confused, beautiful, flawed family of mankind has 15,000 years of traceable history and we’re still here, if, as the song says, we’re still crazy after all these years.