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Daily the depth and breadth of conflict increases, people are killed and displaced, refugee camps expand as does an expressly archaic and yet perversely modern construct of Islam that the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) could surely have never foreseen. ISIS (known in the region as Da’ ish) sweeps its bloody cloak across the Syrian and Iraqi landscapes with swords and hammers obliterating people and artefacts that fall short of their exacting demands. ISIS is yet another child of Wahhabi based teachings, from an ultra-conservative Sunni school of Islam, nurtured in Saudi Arabia in the late 1800s, with children and cousins emerging all over the modern world, their ideas flying on wings of the world-wide-web, engaging and radicalising disenfranchised souls from all classes and creeds. East, West, North and South extremists proliferate, born out of corrupted unjust political structures that stumble from one lie to the next. Looking at Syria today, international military invasions have occurred for less. So called weapons of mass destruction led to an illegal 2003 Allied war tearing at the fabric of regional unity in what was a multicultural religiously tolerant Iraq – notwithstanding the forceful suppression of oppositional politics (imperfect, but surely better than what there is now).
Not far away in Yemen – truly the forgotten land, bounteous mountains reaching abundant seas, an ancient place where Arabs, Iranians, Indians and Africans met from early on. Lesser known is the Shia inspired Imamate that has existed since the eighth Century in Yemen. Western and Ottoman strategic interests in the region carved up this ancient land, divided for decades even in unity no peace to find, resonating in battles we hear little about today, creating yet more unstable places people want/need to escape. Religion and politics have created a toxic cloud darkening the region’s skies. At the 69th session of the UN General Assembly Netanyahu declared Iran to be a ‘global threat bigger than ISIS’ (Turner, 2015). A sentiment reiterated more recently in conversation with the Louisiana Republican Senator (CBS NEWS 29 may 2015) part of his continued attempts to muster world condemnation for Iran’s Nuclear energy. Iran’s supposed threat being the same argument used to hawk masses of military hardware to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some Arab states around the Persian Gulf (Law, 2012; Shanker, 2013) who are themselves busy funding ISIS and other terror groups, not to mention Israel’s not inconsiderable military might and nuclear arsenal.
In May whilst Netanyahu was beating his war drums, Lamb’s essay on Palmyra’s endangered state in the hands of ISIS points to an “unverified report” of Rabbi Nir Ben Artzi “preaching that ‘God has sent Da’ish to fight against nations that want to destroy Israel. You are our brothers!” (Lamb, 2015) The Rabbi cited verses such as “The day on which Tadmor (Palmyra) is destroyed will be made a holiday (Yeb. 16b-17a)” (ibid).
You begin to think that everyone has definitively lost the plot, but then Dan Glazebrook’s article in CounterPunch informs us that US government documents which were subject of a two year legal case (May 15, 2014, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that “far from being an unpredictable ‘bolt from the blue’, as the mainstream media tends to imply, the rise of ISIS was in fact both predicted and desired by the US and its allies from as far back as 2012” (Dan Glazebrook, 2015). His article further points to Hersh’s 2007 article in the New Yorker, where we learn of “the strategy…….. [in which] Bush administration officials were working with the Saudis to channel billions of dollars to sectarian death squads whose role would be to ‘throw bombs… at Hezbollah, Motada al-Sadr, Iran and at the Syrians” (Dan Glazebrook 2015).
As we look around today the Wahhabi (more recently also using the term Salafist) ideals are redefining Middle Eastern lands with fear and force, slaughtering Yazidis, Druze, Christians and anyone not conforming to their version of Islam including Shia, Ismaili and other Muslims groups, slayed without shame or remorse. Sort of terrifying when the U.S. Department of Internal Affairs’ annual report (referred to in Glazebrook’s article) exposes Western strategies such as “establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran)” (Dan Glazebrook, May, 2015).
These concealed misguided negative policies are by no means new. There was nothing hidden about the Dual Containment policy, announced in 2003, aimed at containing Iran and Iraq, or indeed the US government allocating US$85 million ‘to produce anti-Iran propaganda and support dissidents’ (Unger, 2007).
Decades on, enemies of enemies have become friends and allies with dubious human rights records are brought into the fold. Whilst the Iranian government is not the most exemplary in the world, its Iran’s military personnel who are assisting in Yemen and putting their feet on the ground with Iraqi and Syrian soldiers, as are the Kurds (they with their own nation seeking agenda, spawned when granted semi autonomy post Bush Senior Iraq war). Iran, Iraq and Syria all have sizeable Shia populations and various strands of Shia can be found across Middle East and North Africa, threatened together with others not suiting the Salafist frame of mind.
The divide is appearing everywhere and manifests itself in many a way, with ancient co-existing communities being driven apart through extremist preaching and acts. The Shia minority in Persian Gulf Arab states are repressed as witnessed in Bahrain where their demands for equality were brutally crushed; in Pakistan the ancient use of khoda hafez (khoda a Persian word for God) is being replaced with Allah Hafez and a bus full of Ismaili innocents, young and old were blown up in a bus; in Libya Shia sites desecrated until locals stepped in; and after a decade of bombing Shia mosques in Iraq, the newly formed Saudi branch of ISIS blew up two Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia over the last weeks. The Shia are not alone, the last decades has seen a steady, now accelerating, obliteration of the region’s multi-ethnic tapestry, the fissure deepens and widens hourly. On the eleventh hour America is making noises about helping to get rid of ISIS, akin to their efforts to fight the Taliban whom they originally sent in Bin Laden to train…. Sound familiar?
The saddest part of all is realising some people not only knew, but were writing future sagas with bloodied ink. As a solitary human amongst billions, in a little corner of the world, I really wonder are human lives, cultures and histories of so little value that they can be violated, dismantled and erased intentionally in so many places around the globe without it reverberating?
Then I see in the west the tragedy of a young off duty soldier massacred on the streets witnessed by people passing by that could be you and I. We mourned the blasts that decimated blameless lives nearby; whilst all around us counter terror police are searching for terror cells and turning off ticking bombs. Meanwhile, coasts and borders strain under the fleeing feet of innocents caught at the cutting edge, escaping the hellish chaos some politicians and religious leaders leave around.
It then becomes clear that indeed Syria and what’s going on in neighbouring regions is a serious situation for us all, wherever we are. And perhaps we should be more engaged and helping turn the tide…. just don’t quite know how?
Roya Arab is a UK-based Iranian musician and archaeologist. He is an Honorary Research Assistant, Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
Glazebrook, Dan, ‘The Fall and Rise of the West’s Death Squad Strategy: Murder, Inc. Returns to the Middle East’. Counterpunch, 27 MAY 2015
Hersh, Seymour. ‘The Redirection. Is the Administration’s New Policy Benefitting Our Enemies in the War on Terrorism?’ The New Yorker, 5 March 2007 .
Judicial Watch report, 18 may 2015.
Lamb, Franklin. ‘Is Islamic State Open To Deal On Palmyra? – OpEd’ Eurasia Review, 30 May 2015
Turner, Louise, 2015. ‘Win battle, lose the war: Netanyahu puts Iran over ISIS, slams Hamas’ . (Addressing the UN General Assembly September 2014)
Netanyahu, Benjamin. ‘Nuclear Iran 1,000 Times More Dangerous than ISIS ‘–. RT NEWS. Published: 27 May 2015.
Law, Bill. 2012, ‘Analysis: Selling Arms to the Gulf’. BBC News 9 January 2012
Shanker, Thom. 2013. ‘U.S. Arms Deal With Israel and 2 Arab Nations Is Near’. New York Times, 18 April 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/world/middleeast/us-selling-arms-to-israel-saudi-arabia-and-emirates.html?_r=0
Unger, Craig. ‘From the Wonderful Folks who Brought you Iraq’. Vanity Fair, March 2007.