While some Muslim religious figures have begun, finally, to speak out publicly against ISIS’ atrocities, there is no coherent explanation as to why the world is not protesting the atrocities in Syria and Iraq with the same vociferousness as that which marks protests over Gaza.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
– John Donne (Meditation XVII)
Most of people certainly can remember a time when, as a small child on a long trip with family, they kept asking their elders, “Are we there yet?” The answer always seemed to be, “Soon. But not yet.” For the journey in Syria and Iraq, surely the time has now arrived for the world community to say forthrightly that we have reached the critical moment for international revulsion over the behaviour of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as the Syrian government’s actions in its own conflict. And then, beyond just some moralistic clucking, the global community must now do something beyond just watching this appalling violence with horror, even if the energies of so many of the world’s political activists are now consumed by Gaza’s perilous circumstances.
On Tuesday, ISIS released an astonishing and disgusting video out onto social media that showed the beheading of James Foley, an American journalist who had been reporting from eastern Syria before ISIS had taken him captive – before murdering him. In their explanation of this barbaric act, ISIS’ video voiceover said his killing had been in retribution for American air raids against ISIS fighters that were designed to help roll back ISIS’ onslaught on northern Iraq – and against the Kurds and the Iraqi government. Foley’s murder is just the most recent barbaric act in pursuit of what ISIS has self-dubbed as a religiously motivated crusade to re-impose a caliphate across the Middle East.
In fact, from the moment it gained its initial military successes and resulting international public notice, ISIS has carried out a campaign of violent ethnic cleansing – murdering Shia Muslims in a most horrific ways imaginable, driving the ancient Chaldean Christian community from Mosul and a similarly ancient Yazidi community from its own home villages and towns and onto a forced exodus to Sinjar Mountain or refugee camps. It has slaughtered Iraqi army POWs – after their surrender – in violation of international legal norms in warfare; and they have carried out still wider roster of other atrocities against non-combatants that have yet to be fully documented. But if only half of these charges are true, ISIS’ campaign will still have been a vast human tragedy worthy of concerted international condemnation.
These are the people who used to call themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq, until even al-Qaeda themselves became too moderate for them.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and his cronies has largely been responsible for the deaths of nearly 200,000 Syrians, as well as driving some three million Syrians into a dreadful internal and international exile. Moreover, there has been the destruction of many of that country’s (and the world’s) irreplaceable historical and cultural treasures; and, just incidentally, it has almost certainly employed poison gas against its civilian populations. (And this tale of Mideast devastation does not include all the other current depredations in Nigeria, the Central African Republic or Burma in the name of religion.) But while these mind-boggling calamities have been taking place in Iraq and Syria, the hundreds of thousands around the world who have been marching and protesting against Israel’s actions in Gaza seems to have taken up virtually all the oxygen available for global outrage.
International broadcast television networks show striking visuals of columns of smoke rising up from Israeli air attacks on built-up areas, while the social media universe is inundated with horrific pictures of dead babies and grievously wounded women and children as a result of these attacks in a kind of near-hypnotic pornography of death. The social media space fills to overflowing with denunciations and debates over whether the Israel Defence Force’s actions constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity – or, even a special form of genocide. Given modern European history, that last charge, more than even the other two, has an especially wounding quality for Israelis. Meanwhile, the Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign to isolate Israel, to label it an “Apartheid state,” and to appeal for broad-based global pressure against Israel has firmly gained the global spotlight.
The impact of BDS’ campaign seems to have startled an Israeli leadership that has argued the threats to Israel from Gaza were unacceptable risks to the nation’s safety and security. Effectively, their argument that Israelis should not be required to live their lives within a minute of an air raid shelter has been trumped by the visuals of the Gaza casualty list.
The result has been a deep wound to Israel’s global image – and criticism of Israel’s actions on the part of some seems to be fusing with a broader creeping anti-Semitism. Not surprisingly, this has been awakening fears on the part of Jews in the diaspora that had largely been put to rest in recent years. This has been the case even as there has also been a wave of criticism from many in the Jewish diaspora over Israeli actions in Gaza – and even by some strong voices within Israel. Paradoxically, perhaps, strong Israeli military actions to bring to an end the rocket barrage and to destroy the tunnels has increased public support for Prime Minister Netanyahu and, in the process, weakened the peace wing in Israeli politics, despite the growing international criticism.
But what should be troubling for everyone is that the highly vocal international campaign on behalf of a beleaguered Gaza stands in stark contrast to a near-indifference over the vastly larger death toll from Syria’s civil war and amidst the chaotic shambles of what used to be Iraq – before George Bush’s fruitless search for those weapons of mass destruction.
While some Muslim religious figures have begun, finally, to speak out publicly against ISIS’ atrocities, there is no coherent explanation as to why the world is not protesting the atrocities in Syria and Iraq with the same vociferousness as that which marks protests over Gaza. Some supporters of the campaign against Israel argue the mere mention of events in Syria and Iraq are red herrings to deflect condemnation of the greater evil of the IDF’s actions in Gaza. But if there is any truth at all in the belief that no one life is more valuable than anyone else’s, by now there should surely be vast demonstrations in support of the victims (and against their tormenters) in these other Mideast cauldrons.
Where are the massed protests against Syrian Embassies worldwide or the broad-based calls from inter-denominational caucuses of religious leaders demanding ISIS cease its terrors – or highly-publicised, precisely targeted boycotts of those shadowy companies purchasing petroleum output under ISIS’ control – a resource estimated to be providing ISIS with $2 million per day – and largely funding their fighting. (There should similarly be massed protests against Boko Haram’s kidnappings and bombings and a constant vigil in front of Burmese Embassies over the persecution of its Muslim minority – and all the rest as well.) But there aren’t. Why have these humanitarian crises seemingly failed to merit strong condemnation and mass action against the perpetrators? Perhaps all the death and destruction is just too much and that the global community of the concerned now suffer from compassion fatigue.
Israeli actions in Gaza may have erased any lingering sense Israel can claim to be unique as a nation and, instead, its military now seems just as capable as anybody else’s to carry out acts that generate an inevitable deadly “collateral damage”. For the protestors, it sometimes seems their real complaint is that the Israelis are all-powerful and thus are incapable of the usual run of deadly military mistakes everybody else makes. Instead, every single death must have been deliberate and so, ipso facto, the IDF is somehow a body of deliberate baby-killers. But at the same time, all of those much greater depredations at the hands of the Syrian government and ISIS against their respective victims have been receiving little more than some loud tongue clucking. It is almost as if that whole vast array of death and destruction merits little more than an asterisk in contrast to Gaza. But surely James Foley’s senseless, brutal, public death can be the moment such a view is reversed.
The crucial question for moral philosophers and international social activists alike must now be why the opprobrium directed at the IDF and Israel as a whole should not now be equally extended to all the others – especially when their actions have a real whiff of the Dark Ages about them. If, as John Donne so crisply defined it, “…any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” there are a heckuva lot of bells to ring these days – and they cannot be limited solely to mark the travails of those who suffer so terribly in Gaza City. DM
Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a famous Johannesburg theatre and remains on its board, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Post-retirement, Spector has also been a Bradlow Fellow of the SA Institute of International Affairs and a Writing Fellow of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Only half humourously, he says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's increasingly cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music, and a dish of soto ayam (one of Indonesia's great culinary discoveries) will bring him close to tears.
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