By H.A. Hellyer
29 June 2015
It’s Ramadan. Against the backdrop of Muslims observing the obligatory performance of the fast, sheikhs and religious authorities will remind the faithful of the saying of the Prophet: “There has come to you Ramadan, a blessed month which God has enjoined you to fast, during which the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, and the rebellious devils are chained up.” Sages in the past would comment – and warn believers that if there were sins they persisted in the month; they had to take them seriously. For in this month, the whispers and murmurs, beckoning souls to wretchedness – well, that’s all on them. Because the devils, as the adage go, are locked up.
One would hope, then, that in this month, there would be an absence of truly horrendous actions – if from no one else, than from Muslims themselves, particularly those that claim to raise high the banner of Islam. Alas, the last few days show that while some human beings don’t require the murmurs and whispers of baser beings at all – they can do rather evil things all on their own.
Where Do We Not Look?
Where do we begin to consider the nature of the malevolence, the maliciousness, the malignity, the malice, of these cruel and capricious acts that have occurred in recent days and weeks? Do we look at Kobane? Do we look at Kuwait? Do we look at Tunisia? Where do we look? Where do we not look?
But in truth, it’s not really about where we do look – it is about where we do not look. For when acts like these occur, we often ignore, far more than we pay attention.
When we decry the violence in one place, do we remember the violence that takes place elsewhere – in the region, and elsewhere? Are there really that many among us who see blood as blood – civilian as civilian – or do we pay more attention to certain shades of blood, or certain nationalities or types of civilians? Or worse yet – how many have become utterly desensitized to the extreme violence in their countries – whether that violence is perpetrated by domestic forces, or foreign? When we think on Kobane and ISIS, do we think on Assad? When we think on Kuwait, do we think on Yemen? Or do we think that the effect of violence is felt only when perpetrated by non-state actors? Are we that mistaken in our compasses about humanity? This entire generation of Arabs is progressing in a region where the shedding of blood in such gruesome fashions has become so commonplace; it’s no longer… odd. It’s no longer strange. It’s just another day. The effect of that should not – must not – be underestimated.
As the dust settles, the dead are prayed over, and those who have passed away are placed into the earth, we will continue to hear a litany of condemnations – of censures and of critiques – and they will all miss the point. Because the truth is, the violence does not come out of nowhere.
An Idea Is Enough
All too often, we privilege context and sociological circumstance to explain why people believe what they believe and do what they do. But ideas matter to people. Indeed, the ideas are believed in certain ways – or may be prioritized in certain ways – in ways that are highly dependent on the milieu in which they are spread and developed. That’s entirely true, and very real. Focusing solely on ideas and ideology, to the exclusion of understanding how they are instrumentalised, or may just be excuses, is a mistake of substantial proportions. But it is no less of an error when we deny that ideas, indeed, matter to human beings. Indeed, sometimes, just sometimes, an idea is enough.
There are good ideas and there are bad ideas. Good ideas cause people to rise above themselves, and lead others away from their more base instincts, pointing the way to a better future. Bad ideas, and there are aplenty, do the opposite. When we look at the Arab world today, we see both - most assuredly. I remember all too well the better days, with the better ideas – particularly, while not exclusively, in those heady, but real days in the early times of 2011.
But the bad ideas? The bad ideas are clear – and this is where, unfortunately, far too many are slow to act.
Certainly, most Gulf state leaders have come out publicly against the attacks against Shiites in Kuwait and Saudi. But how many public figures, preachers and otherwise, have been censured from actual supporting the radical sectarianism they promote or control, in the context of conflicts in the region? Have all governments really taken the necessary steps to curb the sectarianism that many in different parts of officialdom do support, often materially, particularly via religious establishments? Many Islamists condemned, by the same token, attacks on Christians – but did that mean that those promoting anti-Christian sectarianism on channels they control – or preachers they support – were censured? How many public figures in the Arabian Gulf are quick to denounce sectarianism against Sunni Muslims, which we have seen time and again being promoted in Syria and Iraq – but who seemingly have little or no such abhorrence with regards to sectarianism against Shiite Muslims? There will be some – but far too few.
Is the principle really ‘sectarianism is bad’ – or is the principle ‘sectarianism is bad… until it is my side doing it?’
Is there anyone who will take seriously within the region that be it Sunni on Shiite sectarianism; or Shiite on Sunni sectarianism; or Sunni on Sunni sectarianism; or Muslim on Christian sectarianism; that these are all just bad ideas? That differences of views can, and should, be expressed – but that the incitement that finds itself in words will, far too often, be eventually conveyed in acts of violence and terrible consequences? Or have too few not reached the point of realizing that rotten discourse does not have rotten consequences?
Are there leaders in these communities who know they must rise, in order to be clear once and for all, not simply in rhetoric but in action, to avert further catastrophe by declaring – if you will seek to promote hate and incitement, you will not be tolerated? Are there leaders who will pursue that path, not as a way to crackdown on legitimate dissent and varying opinions that do not win favor with the palace – but as a way to ensure and develop the health of their communities and societies?
Or are there only figureheads, among both state and non-state actors, who will simply talk the talk… but walking the walk is put off, indefinitely? Or worse yet – is avoided altogether, while promoting hatred in other directions.
Indeed - it is intriguing how sectarianism is bad – until, of course, it is your side that is inciting it.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.