Cataclysmic Purge in the Middle East: The Price of Inaction
WASHINGTON—All eyes were on Gaza when the recently self-proclaimed “Caliph” at the helm of the “Islamic State” of Iraq and Syria gave Christians in Mosul, Iraq, 48 hours to evacuate their homes and leave behind all their possessions. This was an act of “benevolence” committed against a people who had two millennia of continuous presence in their ancestral city. The edict noted that as Christians, they could choose conversion, submission as a protected minority, or death. The Christian leadership, it seems, had “failed” to enter into negotiations on the options for submission, and the authorities of the Islamic State said they were thus within their rights to proceed with a wholesale massacre. However, through the “mercy” of the Caliph, the Christians were ordered instead to leave the territory of the state, their belongings duly reverting to the “treasury” of the new order.
This absurdity notwithstanding, the Caliph had indeed displayed relatively “humane” restraint in his edict on the expulsion of Christians. No such consideration was accorded to the countless victims of the Islamic State in Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria, where public decapitations, amputations, crucifixions, flagellation, and stonings are common punishments for “convicts,” sentenced by “judges” who are often only teens. The historical, archaeological, and architectural record of this land, once the cradle of Western civilization, is now subject to systematic obliteration with acts of arson and sabotage, each meticulously documented by the perpetrators. Islamic thinkers and intellectuals can no longer absolve themselves and their faith of responsibility for these acts of horror. It is not the function of common adherents to Islam to refute transgressions against human decency committed in the name of their religion; it is, however, the duty of those who declare themselves custodians of the faith to refute the monstrous manifestation of depravity displayed in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, and locations in between.
The price of their inaction, or woefully insufficient reactions, over decades has been the debasing of their religion into a rationale for torture and mayhem. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria must each assume some direct responsibility for the current unfolding horror. The Saudi government is locked into a quasi-suicidal symbiosis with a bloated religious establishment to which much of the reductionism in ideology and regimentation in behavior can be traced. Through acts of commission and omission, Saudi Arabia continues to foster the global onslaught on the diversity and pluralism of Islamic heritage, manifested in its vilest forms today in the so-called “Islamic State.” Iran, with the diversion offered by the facade of reformers — possibly well-meaning, certainly powerless — is engaged in a historic revision of the Shi‘ia heritage of Islam along lines more compatible with the ideology of the Saudi religious establishment than with the tradition of dissent and pluralism with which it is conventionally associated. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran cynically utilize the fruits of their ideological outreach for immediate political advantage, but the damage to the texture and integrity of societies that host their respective vassals is permanent.
Of all four of the governments, Iraq may be the one with the strongest interest in countering the centrifugal effects of opposing Sunni and Shi‘ia radicalisms. Baghdad, under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, displayed abject short-sightedness in allowing the proliferation of both, in the process losing swaths of its territory to the dystopian “Islamic State.” The Damascus regime, on the other hand, in a deliberate policy of national destruction to shore up its waning ability to rule by fear, has cynically enabled the rise of the Islamic State as a third party in the corrosive civil war consuming Syria. In the regime’s calculus of horror, the damage to the opposition’s prospects far outweighs the certain destruction of Syrian society brought on by homicidal radicalism. The West is certainly not responsible for the terror show that is today’s Middle East. The transatlantic alliance, first and foremost the United States, could however have avoided much of it; none of the tragedies occurring in the region today, or those certain to expand when fighters steeped in radicalism return to their homelands, has come as a surprise. It is the unfolding of a script of escalating fear and radicalization, calling for increasingly costly outside intervention to disrupt it.
The excess in engagement and warfare after September 11 may have now caused a pendulum swing in Western public opinion toward a hands-off approach. The role of leadership is to explain to the public that interests, as well as values, will continue to require a measured but convincing engagement. The cost of inaction will continue to mount until such role is fulfilled.
Hassan Mneimneh is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.