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Multiple Paths, Multifarious Scenarios?
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy - Martin Luther King, Jr

29 October   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)


Ever since publishing my latest article entitled ‘Afghanistan Today, Terrorism Tomorrow’, I have received a number of electronic ‘hits’ from a variety of readers! Quite a few were from men and women who were deeply upset that someone like me - ‘a peace-negotiating and westernised Armenian Christian from Jerusalem’, as one quaintly put it - could possibly condone let alone justify the loathsome ‘excesses’ perpetrated by Islam. Conversely, a smaller number of comments focused negatively upon my far-too-critical excoriation of the Muslim faith.

I must admit that I am somewhat bemused - or perhaps baffled - by both sets of responses. I would like to assume that my five-page article (published and hyper-linked simultaneously on 21 October2001 ) was not too abstruse for those people who are earnestly interested in the variables of the current conflict. Therefore, I wish to believe that the reactions I received were the result of the polarisation that this conflict has fomented within large cross-sections of society everywhere. From the United States of America and Europe to Central Asia and the Middle East, people have nourished themselves with their own sets of inorganic truths about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the war in the desolate lands of Afghanistan as much as about the ‘how’ and ‘wherefore’ of its consequences on our world.

I do not plan to write an apologetic today! Nor do I want to cover old ground! But I would like to push myself ever so slightly forward in order to focus on three key loci that still seem to be as attached to the conflict today as they are pertinent to its resolution tomorrow. After all, there is a modicum of listlessness (aimlessness perchance) taking hold of those allied operations that started as a clear assault against Usama bin Laden and the Qa’eda organisation. Not only is the war now aimed at the whole Taleban system, but even those achievable goals seem to be receding from the horizon and are being superseded by action for the sake of action. Mind you, this might be an overstatement of a case, but it is my own Eusebian attempt to overkill the message in order to make a point!

I. Islam: Epistemology versus Practice

I believe - and nothing in the past few weeks has helped revoke this belief - that there is a wide gulf of misunderstanding amongst many ordinary people between the true tenets and values of Islam as a monotheistic religion and some of its present-day manifestations. This is due to the actions or statements of some media-non-friendly Islamists who profess to speak in the name of this noble religion.

In its essence, the message that the Prophet Mohammed received some thirteen centuries ago is an inclusive one. This message is not one of horror, regression and fear as perceived by many people. If I were to refer to the Holy Koran - and I encourage many people to do so, a handy facilitator {for me} being the Summarised Version of Al-Tabari, Al-Qurtabi and Ibn Khatib, with Comments by Sahih Al-Bukhari - I would discover that Islam includes strong elements on forgiveness, on the struggle against injustice, on the killing of innocent human beings and even on assistance to refugees. Let me be bold enough to project a few random sources that some of the readers might wish to follow up on with further research in the comfort of their own homes, concordances and laptops.

  • Surah al-Baqarah or Chapter of The Cow (2:109) encourages Muslims to forgive Jews and Christians if they have committed injustices against Muslims. The verse includes, ‘Many of the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) wish that if they could turn you away as unbelievers after you have believed ... But forgive and overlook, till Allah brings this Command.’ The same message runs through Surah al-Imran or Chapter of The Family of Imran (3:159) which asks Muslims to forgive non-Muslims and consult them in the affairs. It adds, ‘O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice and do good.’ Surah al-Maedah or Chapter of The Dinner Table (5:85) talks about the reward gained by those who do good to others.
  • Surah al-Maedah or Chapter of The Dinner Table (5:32) stands out against killings. ‘If anyone killed a person, it would be as if he killed all mankind; if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.’
  • Surah al-Nisa’ or Chapter of The Women (4:135) encourages Muslims to struggle against injustice.
  • Surah An-Nur or Chapter of The Light (24:22) mentions that helping ‘refugees’ is a duty for Muslims world-wide. The verse adds, ‘And let not those among you who are blessed with graces and wealth swear not to give [any sort of help] to their kinsmen, al-Masakeen [meaning the poor, needy, homeless and displaced] ..’

Nonetheless, Muslims cannot stop here in their duties! It is not enough to quote chapter and verse from the Holy Koran in order to show that the faith is a solid one. The solidity of Islam is a foregone conclusion. However, its teachings are often interpreted too literally (akin to corresponding literal interpretations within bible-centric Judaism and Christianity). It is thus important to challenge ourselves beyond spouting time-challenged quotations if we are to manage in fusing the academic teachings of the faith with their every-day application in our practical lives. And here, I would like to make two observations - one less negative, the other less positive.

Islam is seven hundred years younger than Christianity. If we go back in our history, we Christians will probably realise that our own subscription to the Christian faith has been quite bloody, feudal, splintered and schismatic in its outlook. Islam needs more time to grow into the realities of the third millennium and twenty first century - as Christianity had to do ever since God revealed His will to the World in Bethlehem some 2000 fresh years ago

But this is not enough either - by a long chalk! Where I think things go awry with the populist - and perhaps popular - misperception of Islam is that leading and responsible Muslims are not all doing their job. It amazes me at the number of occasions when ‘moderate Muslims’ have not spoken out publicly for their religion. There is a culture of hatred and killing that is tearing away at the moral fabric of Islam. And yet, some Muslim scholars or practitioners seem to have become less mindful of their duty toward Allah and are more focused on the ‘other’. In pursuing the inferior jihad, are they sacrificing the superior Jihad? As I understand it, Islam is about mercy, virtue, sacrifice and duty. It pursues moral perfection, and nothing can be further away from moral perfection than the wanton slaughter of innocent - and unsuspecting - men and women. This applies to all peoples anywhere - from the Twin Towers of New York to the shantytowns of Afghanistan to elsewhere. There is indeed a culture of reliance -and a concomitant lack of modern-day jurisprudence - that has to be overcome soon. Murderous hatred is an extreme form of intolerance and an unacceptable instrument of faith. But so is inaction in the face of adversity.

Let me illustrate the point with one simple professional example. I have often stressed in the past that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is central to Arab and Muslim grievances against the USA. However, can someone count for me the number of Arab and Muslim countries that have truly helped those millions of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East? Despite the tall rhetoric of those worlds - and Koranic injunctions notwithstanding - how many countries have genuinely supported the Palestinian refugees and given them aid, succour and citizenship? To my mind, Jordan is the sole honourable and commendable exception to this gaping omission. It alone has helped Palestinian refugees in ways that transcend its political realities and financial capabilities. Is it any wonder that there is a growing popular disenchantment within the Arab world against some of their sclerotic hierarchies? And therefore, is it not high time that those Arab and Muslim leaders take responsibility to undo the damage of decades past? Is this burden not also a mandate? Can it not be equally viewed today as a formidable opportunity?

II. Women in Afghanistan

In a packed football stadium in Kabul, a woman in a blue burqa - the head-to-toe covering that the Taleban force every woman to wear in Afghanistan - is taken from a vehicle and made to kneel on the edge of the penalty area. A fighter struts forward with an automatic rifle and shoots her in the back of the head, then pumps more bullets into her prone body. This chilling story - narrated by RAWA on its web-site - describes the death in1999 of Zarmeena.

Indeed, one of the most gruesome tragedies of Afghanistan lies in its abominable treatment of women. Feminism has never gained much of a foothold in that country. The virtual imprisonment into which the Taleban have shoved women all over the country - never appearing unveiled before any man outside their immediate family, never going out unescorted by a male relative, beaten simply for laughing or other ‘immodesty’ in public, and certainly never seeing a male doctor in the proscribed absence of female doctors - has become the norm in this country.

Some rulers attempted to challenge these traditions at their peril. As far back as the1920 ’s, King Amanullah - fired up by the Ataturkist reforms in Turkey - announced a programme of sweeping modernisation. Condemning the subjugation of women, he even called on his queen to remove her veil before the assembled elders of Afghanistan. A revolt followed shortly thereafter, leading to the abdication of the king and his fleeing the country.

Later, in the1950 ’s, there were a few further modest attempts at liberalisation. However, unveiled women still risked having acid thrown in their faces by many zealots. In fact, the closest any Afghan woman ever came to enjoying Western-style social freedom was under the puppet governments installed by Moscow during the early nineties. But by the mid-1990’s, the Communists had left and the capital Kabul was ruled by the northern-based Mujaheddin - the forerunner of the Northern Alliance who are now seeking international help to oust the Taleban. Is this perhaps a subtle reminder that the pot could turn as black as the kettle has been in the past?

In the final analysis, regardless of the future political configuration of Afghanistan, women’s rights are unlikely to be foremost on the agenda of political reform. It will take long for some men’s attitudes to change toward women.

III. Possible Scenarios for War

It is often said that one can decommission armies much more easily than one can decommission mindsets. Indeed, military commentators seem to be at a loss today. In general, war aims are meant to be definable. They include the conquest of territory, unconditional surrender by the enemy, disarmament, or simply a truce if prospects daunt both sides. However, the world seems to find itself these days in a conflict whose declared aim - the elimination of terrorism - is so imprecise and ambitious as to carry little or no meaning anymore. And without clear aims, I suppose that many people are reduced to musing on various scenarios in the hope of discerning some satisfactory outcome to the conflict. So, let me offer you today seven [im]plausible scenarios.

  • There will soon be a swift ‘victory’ by the allied forces. According to this script, Usama bin Laden will be captured and brought to trial. The proceedings for such a trial would be drawn out over months and possibly even years. Should a conviction be secured, it would lead to numerous appeals that could last anything from twenty weeks to twenty years! During this time, many more hostages could be taken and many more demands be made for his immediate release. This disastrous scenario would raise the dispute to an even higher boiling point, and delight those who wish to foment religious wars.
  • Usama bin Laden will be shot by the allied forces. Such an outcome would eventually transmogrify him into a martyr in the eyes of many people, and might well produce more ‘terrorists’ avenging the death of this man. This is an awkward scenario that many politicians would prefer to avoid under the current circumstances.
  • Usama bin Laden will be shot dead by rival militias or Afghan enemies. In this scenario, the burden of culpability would lie less on the allied forces. Desirable from a Western viewpoint, it seems unlikely too.
  • The war will be prolonged into winter and well beyond. The ensuing upheaval would impact the Middle East more stridently and result in the possible overthrow of the House of Saud - and perhaps other regimes as well. But this scenario would also precipitate another crippling oil / economic crisis and remains also unlikely.
  • Israel will be pressured by the USA to make hefty concessions to the Palestinians to bring about some sort of a ‘peaceful settlement’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would allow the Arab and Muslim worlds to claim victory in the Middle East and encourage them to take a tougher line with terrorism. I believe this scenario is the least remote, but nobody can bank on it either due to the dynamics and personalities in that region.
  • Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will be overthrown - by direct or covert Western action - and his arsenal destroyed. Although this would be deemed as a big step forward by some politicians and military analysts, it could also boost Muslim popular hostility to the West and destabilise many regimes in the Middle East.
  • Despite its mobilisation, Britain - a close and over-flexed military ally of the USA - would succumb to terrorist attacks. This is also another all-too-possible scenario that could well escalate the conflict further.

In the final analysis, though, a maelstrom of all the above scenarios could well emerge as the likeliest outcome. And given the unseen strategic poker games being played out at all levels, it is wise not to declare one’s hand ..!

When the enemy has only two choices, he invariably takes the third - Marshall Von Roon, Prussian War Minister

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   29 October


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