Reading the papers and listening to the news on radio and television, one hears a great deal of self-righteous rhetoric about 'red lines' and 'international law' being overstepped or broken from politicians who obviously feel they are obliged to 'do something' for one side of the conflict in Syria or the other. The truth is that they seem not to be listening to their own electorates here. A YouGov poll in this last week showed that less than 20% of the UK population supports the nation's involvement in any military action in Syria. A similar Poll in the US shows a somewhat similar picture. So why are the politicians still discussing miltary action?
One reason, I suspect, is because they think it makes them look like 'leaders'. The thinking is that by taking unpopular but, in their arguments 'necessary' decisions and actions, they show they are in charge and on top of events. The reality is that they are actually interfering in events and affairs of which they know dangerously little and understand even less. What they are doing is simply creating an even more unstable and dangerous situation in which fundamentalism can and will breed like the proverbial flies on a carcass. The problems there are extremely complex, the culture completely at odds with modern Western culture and some of the problem is deeply rooted in the very nature of Islam itself.
The so-called Arab Spring has descended into a blood bath, just as almost all revolutions do, but this one is probably more akin to the religious upheaval of the 16th and 17th Centuries in Europe. At its heart is a struggle for dominance between the religious fundamentalists and the modernisers who want a more open and liberal society. One which tolerates those who wish to live differently to the strict Muslim ideals of dress, listen to different music, perhaps tolerate other religions or lifestyles. Ranged against them are the fundamentalists who wish to take Islam back to their idealised version of the 7th Century. The dichotomy for Western Leaders is this. If they support regimes like Assad's, which was anti-fundamentalist, draconian, but at least enforced some freedom of choice and tolerance, they are damned for supporting the dictator. If they arm and support the rebels, we end up arming and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Fatah, Hamas and Al Qaeda.
There are some powerful voices of the permanently outraged moralists in the West who insist that only by intervening in some way, can we guarantee the emergence of a more tolerant western style society in Syria, Egypt, et al. Unfortunately, the majority of these folk are either anti-religion, agnostic, atheist or humanist and ignore the manner in which religion forms and moulds any society. Their vales are simply not shared by the vast majority of Muslims. Ergo, no matter what we do, it is unlikely a society like ours will emerge from this upheaval.
One article I have recently read suggests that some, at least, of the origins of the problems in the Middle East can be traced back to the progressive disintegration of the Ottoman Empire which started in the mid-19th Century and reached its conclusion with the sundering of its remaining territory in 1918. By that time many of its provinces had become the fifedoms of local warlords whom the western allies fostered, armed and supported because Turkey was then an ally of Germany. Post 1918, these same warlords became the various Kings, Sheiks, Emirs and so on that 'ruled' the newly created countries under League of Nations Mandates handed out to the British and French. Many of the boundaries between these new states owed nothing to population groups or ethnic allegiances, and everything to the need to protect oilfields or other 'international' interests. Thus were the foundations laid for the present conflicts, genocides and mass displacement of populations and even the suppression of other religions.
Since the various bureaucracies and political players whose forerunners created this mess, cannot now acknowledge their complicity in the first instance, and cannot now correct the original botch, they feel they need to address it. That will simply compound the original error and, if anything, make it worse.
At heart, this revolution comes back to the ideological. The city dwellers of the Middle East, by and large, wish to have the same things westerners have, stability, security, tolerance and the freedom to live their lives as they see is right. Ranged against them are large rural populations with a more fundamental view of how life should be lived, and that doesn't necessarily include tolerance of other religions, lifestyles or ideas. Behind that stand the vast throng of Muslim 'scholars' who see any diminuition of their influence - for instance, by allowing people to change religion, or at least hear another religious view - as a loss of power. The 'scholars' have their supporters as well, the vast army of ill-educated, disaffected and disempowered who flock to the fundamentalist rallying cry of 'defending Islam' from Zionism, Western Immorality and any concept of equality of the sexes.
I very much doubt that any of these revolutions will produce a liberal regime, at least in the short term. Our involvement will simply ensure that the regime which does emerge is even more fundamentalist than it could have been.
Iraq, Afghanistan and several other 'interventionist' adventures should have taught our leaders at least one thing - that the enemy of our enemy is NOT necessarily a friend. He may well be a far worse enemy taking advantage of the opportunity to advance his cause. Unfortunately, Whitehall/Westminster, Washington, Paris, Brussels and the UN never seem to learn from history. I suspect we are doomed to repeat the failures of the recent past here, but I hope and pray it will not be so.
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