Writing in recent days about the siege of Madaya in Syria, where 28 people were deliberately allowed to starve to death, made me ponder on the dark shadow of human cruelty that always hangs over our daily lives.
What is it that makes a presumably intelligent, well educated couple like President Assad and London-born wife Asma, who have 2 healthy children of their own, stand back and let other people’s children 30 miles away die from malnutrition and lack of food?
The Assads had the power to change that in an instant.
They could have supplied medical assistance that would have kept the starving alive, but chose not to do that either, because of politics and religion – the victims all belonged to wrong (Sunni) sect.
By contrast Alawite/Shia, supporters of the regime, trapped by an opposition siege in Kefraya and Al Fuah have received fairly regular airdrops of food and other supplies.
Similarly, what makes members of the Islamic State in sickening acts of cruelty, behead people, burn them alive or suicide bomb innocent tourists to death?
The acts of cruelty in war are endless. It’s as though the state of war “gives permission” for common humanity to be completely and illegally suspended – though the boundary between war combatants and non-combatants is becoming increasingly blurred.
And it is not just in war that cruelty manifests, we see it around us almost every day.
Take the cases of acid attack victims. More than 200 in the UK over the last 2 years and an estimated 1,000 a year in India, many of them there never officially reported or treated.
They also occur in the USA and South America and across Europa and Asia. In Bangladesh there have been 3,512 people attacked with acid between 1999 and 2013 alone, though annual numbers are at last reducing.
Acid attacks melt distinctive facial features like noses and ears that most of us take for granted, disfigures bodies, take away sight, cause deafness and ruin lives. The emotional and psychological damage is immeasurable.
Iqbal in Pakistan, a very handsome young man, was just 15 years old when he was attacked with acid.
He was a passionate dancer and danced professionally with his parents in wedding processions.
One night, Iqbal was approached by another man who sexually propositioned him but Iqbal said he wasn’t interested.
While sleeping at home along with his family, Iqbal had acid poured over his head.
He was left blind in both eyes by the attack and his lips and neck burned so badly that eating and drinking are extremely painful.
Iqbal is from a family of poor wood cutters, who dance to earn extra income.
Now aged 20 he is at last receiving treatment for the first time in 5 years. (You can read more and/or donate at Acid Survivors Trust International)
It is not just our fellow humans that human beings are cruel to. It is also animals.
The reports of animals starved and beaten to death are endless on the Internet, including many animals that were supposedly “pets” or destined for our dinner plates.
And then you have the bizarre phenomena of people who lovingly care for their pets but starve or are cruel to their children.
All of which goes contrary to our natural instincts.
From a biological point of view, newly born and young children and animals are “cute”, innocent and appealing precisely to trigger an affectionate and protective bonding response from those around them, particularly their parents.
We have all probably done cruel things to people, animals or insects at some time in our lives, however “good” we try to be.
I have to confess that I once worked in a zoo where we had to feed the owls and other birds of prey with day-old-chicks.
If we had put live chicks into the cages for the birds to kill there would have rightly been a public outcry, so every week a box of freshly hatched little miracles would arrive at the zoo – and one by one we killed them by breaking their necks and storing them in the fridge.
After a short while, a friend and I could no longer do it – every death felt like an emotional knife wound and eventually such cruel actions became impossible.
Human cruelty and lack of care, which in regard to the young or the elderly can also be cruel, is a result of a disconnect with our feelings to one degree or another. The less we truly feel, the more we can separate ourselves from and ignore what goes on around us.
And we stop feeling of course when we are so full of pain and distress ourselves that feeling it threatens our functioning. Depression, is precisely that, pressing down our painful feelings, but those suffering depression are more likely to harm themselves than be cruel to others.
The dangerous ones are those that are so disconnected from their feelings that they act them out without taking responsibility for those actions. Rage, jealousy, rejection, fear, feelings of inadequacy or other strong emotions can trigger acts of cruelty, often on the weaker and most vulnerable.
Facing up to cruelty of many kinds in our world is not an easy thing to do. It is noticeable with my blog that when I write about people “starving to death” for example, the views of the site immediately go down and when I write about “battles and victories”, the number of views goes up! (It will be interesting to see how this article fares)
Extraordinarily, at the other side of the human coin, sometimes out of cruelty, pain and suffering some good things come.
Laxmi Saa, one of the acid victims mentioned above, was attacked when she was 15 years old merely because she rejected an offer of marriage. Her attacker got just 3 years for disfiguring her for life.
Despite her injuries, Laxmi is well known in India for her campaign to get the sale of acid regulated, because it is far too easy to buy and misuse it.
Now a designer clothes company in India, Viva N Diva, is employing and empowering her as a model for its latest range. Kudos and respect to the company and to Laxmi for her bravery and determination. (You can read more at the BBC)
Finally, what can we do in our own lives to lift the dark shadow of human cruelty hanging over the world?
We can certainly challenge, report and remove cruelty from our own life in whichever form it appears.
As I always say, if you can’t be right, be kind. No-one, animal or human, deserves cruelty.
Firstly, I wish all my readers a Happy New Year plus good health, prosperity and lots of love and kindness throughout 2016. Many thanks to all of you who visited my blog throughout 2015 – 719,764 times to be precise! Which is a phenomenal increase on the previous year (244,133).
I started this blog on January 1st 2011, so today is my 5th anniversary. In those 5 years the blog has had in excess of 1.29 million visitors and was read by an average of 1,972 people a day from 198 countries in 2015.
For many though, will it be a happier new year in 2016?
Across the world there are now thousands affected by extreme climate change phenomena. In the US hurricanes and tornadoes have destroyed homes and killed householders, in the UK some people had their homes flooded for the 3rd time in a month and it will be months before they can get back in, and in South America tens of thousands are displaced after rivers 6 metres above their normal levels burst their banks. And that was only December.
There will, unfortunately, be a lot worse to come unless we get to grips with what we are collectively doing to the planet.
For Syria and Iraq, about which I have written extensively, things still look grim. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and more than 10 million have been displaced from their homes. Tens of thousands more have fled to Europe or eke out a desperate existence in a refugee camp. Thousands have died, including many children, trying to make it across the Mediterranean “to a better life” in the EU.
And it does not look to get better any day soon. While politicians and diplomats endlessly talk, on the ground the fighting continues all day, every day and thousands more needlessly die or are seriously maimed or injured. Add to that the appalling, unfeeling and devilish actions of the Islamic State, and there does not seem a great deal to be optimistic about.
But optimistic I am. Every bad and hateful action leaves a residue of energy which eventually builds to a good reaction against it. The worse things get, the greater the demand for a positive response.
Too often we feel helpless and that there is little we can do. But there is. If you have spare cash donate to those groups that are making a difference. If you don’t, give some time or energy to those groups. If you do not have those either, support the petitions of human rights groups across the world who fight against the false imprisonment of individuals and for suppressed and threatened communities irrespective of their race, sex or religion. There is no shortage of causes.
For my part, I will continue to highlight events which mainstream media often ignore once the ratings start to sag and do my best to angle everything towards human rights and an appreciation that we are all equally human ( unless, of course, like the Islamic State and other barbarians, people descend into inhumanity and madness). Plus, in the darkness, the odd spark of humour and stories to uplift and inspire.
I also hope to produce some other work to personally help and grow the confidence of everyone not functioning to their full capacity. Watch this space.
In the mean time, if you can’t be right – be kind. Stand up and be counted when its appropriate and right, and stand back and observe when it is not. And we will see if the world is a better place in 2017. But until then I wish you all ….
Peter Clifford 1st January 2016
Frankly, the world has little choice but to fight the Islamic State. So as 2015 ends I offer 7 strategies to defeat the Islamic State in 2016.
It is a movement that is violent, cruel, irreligious and without compassion and it cannot be left to dominate and destroy social structures in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Modern society in either the West or the East is not perfect. It is riven with failed attempts at equality, plurality, democracy and inclusivity – but it has progressed and most of us benefit to one degree or another from this stuttering progress.
I can write this blog because I live in a society which protects my right, by and large, to express my views.
Still not so in many countries in the world where some significant powers have poor human rights and lock up bloggers because they dare to expose an attitude that is contrary to that of the ruling elite.
But unless all of us stand up against the Islamic State (IS), then any rights we currently enjoy, however tentative, will be swept away.
IS administers by rules of its own creation, fear and demonstrations of violence to subdue opposition. It is not interested in negotiating compromise.
Personally, I am against war and violence and I hate bombs and guns. But when your family is threatened do you hold to those feelings as “inviolate principles” or do you defend your family?
Although it clearly may take more than a year, I therefore put forward (in no particular order) these 7 strategies to defeat the Islamic State in 2016.
1. Moslems – Stand Up For the Society in Which You Live:
All those Moslems who oppose the actions of the Islamic State need to stand up for the countries and society’s in which they live.
It is not enough just to condemn the dreadful actions of IS and their misguided adherents in Paris, Tunisia, the US and across the world. It is necessary for Moslems to shun fear of persecution and stand up and say, “We oppose this obscenity. We support and are part of this community and will defend its right to exist and its values”.
And be willing to question Islamic attitudes to violence and religious beliefs.
In the Tennessee town of Chattanooga in the US they have set an example by doing just that.
Last July four Marines and a Sailor were killed in Chattanooga, recently described as America’s “most bible-minded city”, by a young Moslem who grew up there and who went on a mindless rampage.
Mindful of President Obama’s call for Moslems to both condemn violence and build stronger ties to their non-Moslem neighbours, Bassam Issa, the president of the “Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga”, has been giving talks in local schools and colleges.
In them Mr Issa tells students that “What’s happening right now is not religious, even though IS and Al Qaeda are covered as a religious thing. In reality, it’s political.”
And he is right. It’s the politics of domination through control, violence and murder rather than the ballot box.
Dr. Mohsin Ali, a child psychiatrist and another member of the Chattanooga Islamic Society, said “We can’t ignore the fact that violent extremists use an interpretation of the very same books and texts that we use. I feel like the Muslim community does need to do more”.
The day after the killings in Chattanooga at a memorial service for the killed servicemen, Dr Ali told the congregation that he and other Moslems in the city were grieving alongside everyone else.
He then asked the Moslems in the Baptist Church to stand as a sign of the allegiance to Chattanooga and to peace. When dozens of Moslems stood, the rest of the congregation applauded loudly.
That’s the way forward. Coming together rather than tearing apart.
We are all in this – our religious or non-religious beliefs are irrelevant.
2. THE REST OF US – STAND UP FOR MOSLEMS:
Using the events of IS and its followers to justify anti-Moslem beliefs, actions and opinions is just ignorance and blind stupidity.
It’s a sign of the immature using their inadequacy and personal anger (whatever the origins) to dump on others. If you feel that way, look deep inside yourself – not at scapegoats.
Apart from which Moslems are not hereditarily more violent than the rest of us.
The whole history of Christianity is full of violence against “non-believers” and non-conforming sects. Buddhists (the supposedly “peaceful religion”) are accused of dreadful atrocities against the Rohingya in northern Myanmar (Burma). “Spreading atheist thought” is a crime punishable by imprisonment in Saudi Arabia.
At the end of the day we are all fellow human beings put on this planet presumably to exercise our individuality and creativity. Therefore, our diversity should be celebrated and respected as our community’s strength – not undermined or attacked and made into its weakness.
3. OPPOSE SECTARIANISM:
Sectarianism, the belief that my sect (of the same religion) is better than your sect, is about as bright as the stupidity of anti-Moslem feelings described above.
And it is probably the biggest problem affecting the Middle East today, polarising the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, on one side and the Shiites (Shia), led by Iran, on the other.
In fact, the rise of the Islamic State can be traced back to Sunni suppression and sectarianism in Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussain, a Sunni who had persecuted the Shia (and Kurds) for years, Shiite politicians gained power in Iraq and excluded the Sunni.
Some of the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq were taken over by former Sunni military officers in Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, who fanned the flames of Sunni dissent, and hey presto the Islamic State emerges with an extreme Sunni orientated philosophy.
Considering the difference between Sunnis and Shiites is based on who they revere as the family leaders of Prophet Mohammad’s legacy and all the clashes, deaths and abuses that have followed, it’s up there with the Inquisition which the Roman Catholic Church imposed on others in various forms in Europe between the 12th and 19th Centuries, killing and torturing tens of thousands.
Pointless abuse which seeks to impose thought control on others.
4. KEEP ATTACKING ISLAMIC STATE FINANCE:
According to research at the beginning of December, the Islamic State rakes in about $80 million a month, $1.1 million a day coming from oil sales alone. The rest of their income comes from emptying banks, selling antiquities, ransoms and local taxation (“zakat”).
According to the report an IS “Emir” known as Abu Fatima Al-Tunisi ran off with $25,000 worth of “zakat”, leaving a note on Twitter for his “comrades” saying, “What state? What caliphate? You idiots.”
Then there is the problem of “50,000 ghost soldiers”, with commanders drawing salaries for say 250 men a month, when in fact they only have 150 in their brigade.
To deal with the problem IS sent round administrators who paid the salaries in person, but then they made deals with the commanders to get a cut, with the same result.
In other words, corruption within the Islamic State is rife, again saying much about the spiritual nature of the organisation – or lack of spirituality in general.
At the same time, the Coalition and Russia should continue dismantling IS oil processing plants, tankers and well heads, making them unusable, and the world’s financial markets should block any attempts to do business with them or seize any transferred funds where they are identified.
Turkey, Israel and Assad have all been accused of buying IS oil and it is probably true as it comes through middle-men who ship it around the Middle East for a profit until its origins are obscure.
Easy to say that people should stop paying ransom bribes – but more difficult to adhere to when members of your family and community are imprisoned and brutalised by members of this loathsome organisation.
5. CONTINUE PRECISION BOMBING ON THE ISLAMIC STATE:
As I said at the beginning, I am no lover of military solutions – but sometimes there is no choice because IS and their followers are bloodily killing anyone they can.
Precision bombing by Coalition aircraft has done a remarkably good job with few collateral civilian deaths, hitting IS military targets time after time and empowering groups like the Kurds to advance and take territory away from the Jihadists.
Preferably there should be no civilian deaths at all but clearly IS hangers-on do know by now what they are in for if they stay.
By contrast, random and indiscriminate bombing by the Assad regime and now the Russian Air force too, has killed thousands of innocent civilians in the last 4 years and Assad’s Air Force are by far and away the biggest killers of civilians in Syria, far more than IS.
6. BATTLE THE ISLAMIC STATE ON MANY FRONTS:
In 2015 the Kurds in northern Syria have nearly tripled the territory they control, while at the same time they have helped to reduce the size of the IS caliphate by 14%.
One of the reasons that the Kurds (YPG/YPJ) in Syria have been so successful, apart from their innate determination and passion to survive, is that IS have found themselves stretched on too many fronts fighting too many battles and the Kurds have taken advantage of that.
According to analysis by the security company IHS Jane’s, IS activity in areas it controls has recently been most intense around Baghdad in Iraq and Damascus in Syria and much less near Kurdish controlled areas, suggesting they were overstretched.
When the Kurdish YPG for instance launched a campaign to retake Tal Abyad in northern Syria near the Turkish border, the forces of the Islamic State were widely spread elsewhere fighting battles in central and western Syria and in Iraq.
“The remaining forces in Tal Abyad were so depleted that they had to be re-enforced with… religious police units from Raqqa,” says IHS Jane’s.
While IS will continue no doubt to use the strategy of surprise, popping up unexpectedly in the most unlikely places, all other sides battling them on multiple fronts will put their fighters and their command and control structures under severe strain. That tension can’t be maintained indefinitely.
Along with this, arm, train and equip those who are most effective against IS and send in special forces not only to guide and help forces like the Kurds with air support but to conduct raids to take out the IS leadership.
7. GIVE IT TIME TO SELF DESTRUCT:
As long as everyone keeps up the pressure, time itself will see the Islamic State degrade and self-destruct.
Firstly, disillusion will set in, with the foreigners in particular discovering the caliphate is not the “earthly paradise” it was cracked-up to be. Living in dirty, and uncomfortable, dangerous conditions with bombs raining down and expensive food and electricity in short supply is probably not what they signed up for.
Escaping is not so easy either. A 17 year old Austrian girl who travelled to Syria to join IS last year, Sabra Kesinovic, is thought to have been beaten to death as she tried to escape in November. Many other potential escapees have been caught near the Turkish border and shot.
Secondly, a number of Sunni tribes who originally gave their allegiance to IS have also changed their mind and some have paid a terrible price for their “disloyalty” – around 900 members of the Al-Shaitat tribe in eastern Syria are believed to have been executed, crucified and beheaded.
The Islamic State’s aim with this is to spread terror and prevent further physical desertions, but it won’t prevent the loss of hearts and minds, it will only accelerate it.
Thirdly, the Islamic State is also riddled with corruption, as mentioned earlier. That will only increase as those in a position to take advantage of it will recognise a “sinking ship” when the see it and get out with their booty while they can.
Fourthly, IS was very successful in winning hearts and minds initially in areas it went into by providing food handouts and community services including financial support. With time that will become more and more difficult to sustain and be outweighed by its cruel and unjust treatment of those it believes have transgressed their rules.
And with time, those who were attracted to IS for “spiritual” reasons will eventually see that the whole organisation was cynically built around a religious philosophy to justify its actions, when in fact almost everything it does is against all modern definitions of decency and humanity and decidely “unspiritual”.
Can the Islamic State be eliminated completely? Probably not. Like Al Qaeda it will linger on in the warped minds and heads of those with vengeful personal agendas looking for an excuse to justify themselves.
But like Al Qaeda, it can be contained.
There is no shortage of problems in the world that need solutions, but this is the most pressing and like the Nazi threat of World War ll it must be met head on. Implementing the above 7 strategies to defeat the Islamic State in 2016 will go a long way to make that happen.