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Default The first article of a two-part series on the Paris terrorist attacks and the refugee

Dance of death

Once again, the dance of death was played out before our eyes on international television networks. On 13 November 2015, some seven to eight terrorists struck Paris different targets and killed 130 people enjoying their Friday evening. They were either gunned down in a hail of automatic gunfire or blown up by suicide bombers in seven coordinated terrorist attacks. Some 350 were injured, of which nearly 100 were wounded critically. The next day, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility. It threatened more such attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe, including Russia, and as far as Washington DC and New York.

The attack in Paris comes in the wake of a number of recent outrages carried out by ISIS operatives outside Syria and Iraq – suicide bombers in Beirut killed 41 people in areas controlled by the pro-Iran Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, a bomb planted on a Russian aircraft flying out of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, killed 224 holidaymakers returning home and the crew, and in Ankara 102 people in a peaceful demonstration were blown up by suicide bombers. While the Ankara attack was not owned by ISIS, Turkish authorities have arrested suspects who they believe are ISIS operatives.

In the recent past, ISIS has distinguished itself as a terrorist scourge that made the crimes committed by Al Qaeda and Taliban appear to be modest exercises in the debasement of humanity. Destruction of historical monuments, beheadings of captured men and women, raping and selling of captured Yazidi and other minority women, and the special targeting of Shias – the list is long as it is gory. I checked newspapers and the Internet to find out if one could call this Sunni terrorism against all others. There is enough data that shows that ISIS has not spared the Sunnis who do not fall in line with its ideology and political objectives. Consequently, such Sunni clans of Iraq and Syria have been slain by ISIS with characteristic savagery.

As always, some Muslims have put forth conspiracy theories about a grand US-Israeli hand behind the Paris outrage. Those peddling them assert typically that Muslims do not commit such crimes, and if they do, they do not represent Islam – even when they do it in the name of Allah and invoke Quranic verses which they say sanction violence against the enemies of Islam. Some suggest that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is actually an Israeli masquerading as the pretender caliph of Islam. All this echoes the type of denial and cognitive dissonance which cropped up when the 9/11 attacks took place in the United States.

From the opposite direction, there is no dearth of objectification of terrorism with Islam. Such detractors allege that violent Muslim behaviour is derivative directly of Islamic scriptures and pristine Muslim history, and Muslims are therefore intrinsically violence prone. The Paris attacks have greatly strengthened the hands of those who would like to believe that all Muslims are living explosives ready to go off anytime and anywhere. Thus for example, several state governments in the United States have said they will not accept Syrian refugees. Republican presidential candidates, such as Jeb Bush, have said that the US should accept only Christian refugees. The maverick Donald Trump has promised to ban mosques in the United States and to invade the Middle East with a view to capturing the oil fields. President Barrack Obama, who does not take such a callous position, enjoys support among Democrats, albeit a split one.

President Obama has admitted that the current situation in the Middle East is the unintended consequence of President George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003. President Bush Sr has recently deplored that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Ronald Rumsfeld manipulated his son into adopting policies which were flawed and myopic and which have created the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has also admitted that invading Iraq in 2003 was a mistake. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan is on the record declaring the invasion of Iraq as unlawful. There is therefore a strong case for Bush and Blair being tried by an international tribunal for war crimes, but it would be difficult to prove that they intended to plunge the Arab world into a crisis of the sort which now exists.

In any event, George W Bush, his neo-conservative clique and Blair were hell-bent on removing Saddam Hussein. That he was a tyrant who had gassed some Kurdish villages was highlighted in the propaganda blitz that preceded the invasion. It was conveniently forgotten that Saddam had been armed by the West during the eight-year-long war with Iran. The immediate excuse for invading Iraq was that the Saddam regime possessed weapons of mass destruction, which threatened US and Israeli security. Such humbug did not convince the world. I remember the French and German foreign ministers objected to imposing a war on Iraq. On the popular level, protests and demonstrations took place in the weeks preceding the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. In Washington DC and in London, massive demonstrations took place. It was a cold February morning when I was among the more than 50,000 people in Stockholm who took part in a demonstration against starting another war in the Middle East. The 2003 protests against imperialism were the biggest such demonstrations since the Vietnam War protest marches. But all the efforts of peace-loving people went in vain.

Meanwhile, before the invasion of Iraq, American-led sanctions had already claimed the lives of more than half a million Iraqis, of which a majority were children. Saddam Hussein was defeated, captured and hanged, and that humiliation was displayed all over the world. The American and British forces occupied Iraq, during which considerable force was used against all resistance, Shia and Sunni. A constitution was adopted which retained the existing borders of the state, but the Kurds in the north were granted substantial self-rule, almost bordering on quasi-independence. The government too faced Al Qaeda terrorism. In 2011 all foreign troops left Iraq and in the elections held in 2011 a highly partisan Shia government headed by Nouri Al-Maliki came to power. For the first time since Iraq became independent, a government headed by Shia majority politicians was in power.

The Iraqi state emerged in 1932 under British tutelage, who favoured Sunni Arabs who constituted only 18 to 20 per cent of the Iraqi population. The 20 per cent Kurds and 55-60 per cent Shias had many complaints about the minority control of the state. It is to be noted that until the 19th century, Iraq had a Sunni majority, but then the marsh Arabs and other poor clans in the south were converted to Shi’ism as a result of the efforts largely of the Shia princely state of Oudh (Lucknow) in North India. Small Christian, Yazidi and Sabean communities were also to be found in Iraq.

Prime Minister Al-Maliki exploited state power to settle old scores with pro-Saddam elements and adopted patently hostile approach towards the Sunni Arabs. Sunni persecution became proverbial with the Maliki regime. Iran, which the United States had hitherto considered its main enemy in that region after Khomeini came to power, benefited most from the change in the balance of power. Not surprisingly, Al Qaeda and its affiliates carried out terrorist attacks in Iraq, but the systematic persecution of Sunnis in Iraq figured only casually. The most reactionary state in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, promoted its rabidly sectarian ideology and bolstered Sunni resistance against the Al-Maliki regime.

In 2011, the so-called Arab Spring irrupted in North Africa where dictatorships of different hues had been in power since freedom from colonial rule. An uprising against Colonel Qaddafi took place, which he crushed with a heavy hand. With the connivance of Arab leaders who found Qaddafi too erratic and radical, the West again stepped in to bring about another regime change. It was France which played the leading role in that external intervention. Russia and China were on board as well as a UN Security Council resolution that permitted military action against Qaddafi. The colonel was captured and brutally murdered and the whole world saw it on television.

Promoted by the popular sentiment against dictatorship a Sunni opposition rose up against the government of Bashar al-Asad. It is important to put the Syrian situation in perspective. Syria and Lebanon were placed under French mandate after the defeat of the ruling Ottoman Empire. French policy favoured the Alawite (which during the Ottoman era comprised of an impoverished minority of peasants) and Christian minorities. Lebanon was separated to create a distinct state in 1941, in which the Christians were favoured at the expense of the Sunni and Shia Muslims. Nevertheless, the power-sharing model of consociationalism gave all communities a share in the power structure.

Syria came into being as an independent state in 1946. In contrast to Iraq, the majority sect in Syria was Sunni, which constituted some 71-80 per cent of the population. However, historically it was the 11 per cent Alawi sect (a Shia sect different from the mainstream Twelvers or Ithana Asharis) which flocked into the army while the Sunnis shunned it and were mainly to be found in the nationalist movement led by the Ba’ath Party. Small Druze and Kurdish communities were also part of the Syrian population. From 1970 onwards, when Hafez Al-Asad became president, the Alawites consolidated their control further over the state, especially the military and intelligence apparatuses. Hafez Al-Asad ruled with an iron hand. In 1970, he crushed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. More than 20,000 people were killed – more than Israel had killed since the wars started in 1948.

In any event, Syrian Sunni Arabs started agitating for regime change. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states began to support the opposition, which lacked central leadership from the beginning, however. Different groupings emerged in different areas. Whereas France took the lead in the case of Libya and the US and Britain in the case of Iraq, Western involvement in the Syrian situation remained lukewarm, confused and limited. Moreover, Russia and China were no longer on board anymore. The destruction of Libya had unleased tribal wars and Islamic extremism instead of democracy. Moreover, since Khomeini had come to power, a Shia global strategy had been pursued by the Iranian state all over the world. It included attempts to proselytize Sunnis in the Muslim world, while it crushed any Sunni activism within its own territories. In the Middle East particularly, Iranian ambitions resulted in Hezbollah emerging as a powerful movement, which challenged both Israel and the status quo favouring Christians and Sunnis.

With Iran, Hezbollah and Russia now supporting Al-Asad militarily, it became clear that the so-called Syrian Free Army supported by the West was no match to the killing machine Al-Asad had at his disposal. The BBC, CNN and international channels covering the Syrian civil war began reporting war crimes committed by all parties, but it was crystal clear that the death and destruction caused by government troops far exceeded those committed by the opposition. The truth is that now when ISIS’s terrorism is sending shockwaves all over the world, 90 per cent of the casualties taking place are the result of the Al-Asad’s forces, backed by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. Syrian planes and helicopters lavishly drop barrel bombs on the cities and villages where the Sunni majority lives. Use of poison gas has also been reported, even in UN reports. There is ample evidence incriminating the Syrian regime. Some 12 million Syrians have been displaced and more than three million are living in neighbouring countries, while about one million are trying to get into the European Union.

Sweden, Germany and Austria have been the most generous in accepting the refugees of which the bulk are from Syria but also from other war zones such as Libya, Mali and Afghanistan. Human smuggling networks stepped in immediately to profit from such unprecedented movement of people into Europe, and economic migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh are also to be found taking a chance.

In mid-October I and my wife, Meliha, were on the Greek Island of Lesbos, which is only one and a half hour by boat from the Turkish mainland town of Ayvalik. Thousands of refugees were arriving by boat from the Turkish mainland, and they were to be found wherever we went. Since Meliha’s maternal and paternal grandparents had themselves left Lesbos in 1923 when the Turkish and Greek governments exchanged their populations – the Greeks from the mainland going to the islands and the Turks of the islands moving to the mainland – for both of us, the presence of those thousands of asylum seekers evoked deep concern. My research on the partition of the Punjab had made me acutely sensitive to the suffering of refugees, and for Meliha it was like returning to a lost homeland, but where another terrible human catastrophe was unfolding. I must say that Lesbos, which had several municipalities ruled by leftist and Communist parties, was doing all it could to cope with a population swelling by the hour.

It later turned out that among those who had joined the asylum seekers heading to Europe were ISIS cadres, and at least one of them was involved in the Paris terrorist attacks. The Swedish government had gone out of their way to accept refugees and the Swedish public joined the relief effort donating clothes, shoes, blankets. Some even opened their homes to take in Syrian families. The government panicked and said its capacity to take in more refugees had exhausted, while the people quietly shut their doors. For a long time, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim parties had been warning of the dangers of accepting Muslims. Now, their warnings seemed to have been vindicated. Voices were raised not to overreact or to treat all refugees with suspicion and fear. However, the damage has been done.

To be continued…

Author: Ishtiaque Amed
TFT Issue: 27th Nov 2015
Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible.
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