Giving the gift of sectarian hatred

Charities and aid-agencies are the glue that holds many societies together. Without them many societies would collapse, largely because of the failure of the state, which may be due to various reasons – ideological, economic status, incompetence and corruption, or war. In acute situations, such as exists in war-zones, charities mediate between life and death for civilian populations. They are the last line of refuge for food, shelter and other basic necessities to sustain life. But such agencies navigate a difficult and often dangerous terrain. Such agencies are the subject of much criticism – from the right-wing for being activists and taking sides; and from the left for not taking political positions and benefitting from the status quo by not questioning the fundamental causes of poverty, inequality and violence. So being in this critical line of work is not only dangerous, but also fair game for criticism.

Aid agencies must not be neutral, they must take sides. However the only side they must take is the side of the oppressed and innocent victims. However in the execution of their work they must minister to all without fear or favour. A friend of mine who heads Islamic Relief in the USA recently told me how they have to fend off sectarian pressures in their work in Syria in order to maintain their neutrality and provide services to all sectors of the population, including fighters from all sides.

Thus it is surprising that one of South Africa’s most prominent charities promotes sectarian interests in Syria. Curiously, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman of the Gift of the Givers Foundation has embarked on a countrywide tour inflaming sectarian hatred, for which I criticized him on Facebook and eliciting varied responses. My point is this: that Syria is a quagmire; the Assad regime and many of its opponents have committed atrocities against local populations. Bashar al Assad, like his father Hafez al Assad is a brutal dictator. Thus one would expect the local populations to support the opposition forces in their fight against this dictator. Therein lays the problem: the behavior of many opposition groups alienated the local populations and weakened them. This, for example, resulted in the Assad forces winning in East Aleppo. So this situation consists of protagonists divided into the bad and the worse, with the civilian population bearing the brunt of this conflict with no clear end in sight. The brutality of Assad is more evident because of his indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas. One cannot also discount the role of the media in framing a particular narrative.

My second and fundamental criticism against Sooliman is where he frames this conflict as a religious conflict – Sunnis versus Shias – and going on his anti-Shia diatribe, even describing Hezbollah as Hizbo-Shaytaan!  What this kind of senseless rhetoric does, is essentialise what is a war against a brutal dictator, to a large extent a civil war, and what has become a geo-political conflict into a religious war. This simplistic rhetoric entirely ignores geo-politics which has brought in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah, Russia, the USA and Israel into battle. Moreover this also feeds into the anti-Shia diatribe that has been spewing from our pulpits for decades. But it also ignores the fact that the Syrian army and the opposition have a mixture of Shias, Sunnis and Druze, and attempting to neatly characterize one as Sunni and the other as Shia is analytically flawed.  The flip side of this is that there has been a deafening silence on the atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia (Sunnis) against the Yemeni population into what amounts to war crimes, or the suicide attacks against Shias in Pakistan and Iraq. The sub-text is that Shias are fair game.

Let me provide an example by quoting Imtiaz Sooliman directly:

‘I’m not talking as Gift of the Givers here, nor am I making this a sectarian issue, but the Syrian people – our Sunni brothers and sisters, your Sunni brothers and sisters – are getting massacred, and by whom? The Alawites and the Shi’ah’s. Iran plays this game of the Islamic Revolution; there’s nothing Islamic about Iran. Say it like it is ….when you can cause conflict by sending arms to kill women and children, there is nothing Islamic about you! We think it politically incorrect to mention other names. But they’re not shy. They’re not embarrassed to send weapons to kill Sunnis. So why should we hold back in mentioning their names? What political correctness is this? This is political expediency that has got nothing to do with Islam.”

Sooliman’s claims of being apolitical or neutral are contradicted by this kind of inflammatory rhetoric which demonstrates that he has abdicated any sense of neutrality and has firmly embedded himself into a sectarian discourse that only provides relief to those who gorge themselves on Sunni triumphalism and hubris. While he acknowledges that this Syrian conflict involves ‘political expediency’ and has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, he contradicts himself by pitting Sunni against Shia, thereby characterising as a religious conflict.

My third criticism of Suleman is the quote he uses to express his own opinion that the ‘Israeli’s have more compassion than Assad’. Any such analogy is fraught with problems and should be avoided. But this kind of thinking is what informs people who say that living under apartheid is better than living under the current government. It ignores a whole set of factors while playing into the hands of the white right. Besides being wrong and ignoring the history of massacres and continued ethnic cleansing in Palestine and that many of Assad’s victims are Palestinian refugees, this kind of narrative plays into the hands of the Zionist lobby who counter any criticism of Israel with the claim that Syria is being ignored and focusing on Israel is the result of some inherent anti-Semitism. It undermines the Palestinian struggle.

So if Imtiaz Sooliman and the GOTG want to enter into the political terrain the least we expect is an informed opinion about the conflict – and being on the ground in Syria does not mean that you become an expert. We also expect balance, in that you cannot enter the political terrain in one conflict and remain silent in others. And last, but certainly not least, such organisations should desist from inflaming sectarian hatred lest this inflames the conflict even further and brings it to our shores where all communities live in harmony. It also detracts from the valuable work that GOTG does in providing relief in desperate situations.

However, if the GOTG want to give up their neutrality then they become fair game as well.

Published in Al Qalam, January 2017

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