Mideast nightmares one has lived long enough to see

Hisham Melhem

By: Hisham Melhem

These scenes belong to previous centuries. Long lines of people shuffling in the scorching heat along dusty and winding roads seeking shelter and safety behind the next hill or the next expanse of desert, looking back in fear and yearning to their ancestral homes from which they just had been uprooted. Their death marches and burned out homes are reminiscent of similar calamities that befell other communities in the Middle East in the last two centuries; Armenians, Christians in Lebanon and Syria, Palestinians and Kurds to name a few.

These are the modern day refugees of Iraq; Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Turkmen and members of other smaller religious sects. They are fleeing from the marauders of a religious cult that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria which is bent on establishing a Caliphate of nihilism on earth. In this Caliphate which sits astride large swaths of two once important states, Syria and Iraq, the real and imagined enemies of the austere, puritanical, turbaned and masked brigands are beheaded, with the severed heads planted on sticks and posts, others are crucified for a slow death, and conquered women were sold into slavery or taken as “brides” or prizes for the warriors of the cult.

The incredibly diverse archeological treasures of these ancient lands which gave birth to Western civilization are being laid to waste at the hands of a new breed of conquerors

Hisham Melhem

The rich, old cultural and religious heritage of these communities such as Churches, monasteries, Husseiniehs (Shiite Mosques), religious shrines (including those that are revered by Jews, Christians and Muslim alike, such as the site where it is believed that the biblical prophet Jonah was buried) and statues of Arab/Muslim poets and philosophers have been destroyed, blown up or raised to the ground. The incredibly diverse archeological treasures of these ancient lands which gave birth to Western civilization are being laid to waste at the hands of a new breed of conquerors that leave in their wake scarred lands, cultures and souls. And it was my misfortune to live long enough to see this nightmare.

‘Today, America is coming to help’

For days and weeks, the world watched with astonishment, then with apathy, then with denial. The fate of the victims is sad, but with a collective wringing of hands the chorus added: what is to be done? And as always people looked to the U.S. for a rescue effort, a remedy or for those who still believe that the U.S. is still capable of doing great things, a solution. A partial rescue was on its way at the time of this writing, in the form of humanitarian relief to thousands of Yazidis who sought refuge on Sinjar Mountain, and “targeted” areal bombings of assets belonging to the Caliphate. Citing a lone desperate Iraqi voice crying to the world earlier in the week that no one is coming to help, President Obama said “today, America is coming to help”.

When societies come undone

The U.S. limited military response reflected President Obama’s reluctance to be “dragged” back into Iraq for another war. President Obama, the fourth consecutive American president to do battle with or in Iraq, may have been too late and may have been doing too little to reestablish American deterrence in a region where both powerful non-state actors, and weak ruling regimes, are not swayed by rational balance of power calculus. The continuing threat of ISIS and the broader conflagrations in Syria and Iraq, the slow descent of Lebanon into civil strife and Egypt’s sluggish attempts to regain its bearings, and a region made more sullen following another war in Gaza, all cry out for a different American approach to the region beyond the occasional putting out of fires.

The U.S. bears some moral responsibility for the plight of the minorities of Iraq particularly the Christians. The 2003 invasion unleashed the dark forces that were the antecedent of ISIS, and the U.S. even when it had more than a hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq could not stop the campaign of terror against the Christians that forced half of them to flee Iraq. Today Syria and Iraq are paying the terrible price of three generations of “secular” repression and military rule that literally and figuratively gutted these two societies, and planted the seeds of virulent sectarianism and left them ripe for the plucking by the desert brigands of ISIS.

Even following the urgency that the Obama Administration felt acutely after the fall of Mosul in June and the advance of ISIS towards Baghdad, the Administration continued to think about Iraq as a functioning unitary state with a central address in Baghdad as if the events of the last year or so did not show the absurdity of that claim. Given that Syrian and Iraqi societies are coming unglued at the seams it no longer makes much sense to use “Syria” and “Iraq” as accurate categories of analysis. After all how many people in the two entities define their overwhelming identity as Syrians or Iraqis, and not as Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, Christian, Turkmen or others…And it was my misfortune to live long enough to see this nightmare.

Marked for death

The hordes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria first came after the Christians in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and in Qaraqosh a historic Christian city in Northern Iraq. The ancestors of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, who survived foreign conquerors and local despots, were given impossible choices; convert, flee or die. Their homes, even before they were abandoned were designated as “Property of the Islamic State” and marked with the Arabic letter “N” ( ن) the first in the old Arabic word for Christian “Nusrani.”

President Obama, the fourth consecutive American president to do battle with or in Iraq, may have been too late

Hisham Melhem

These chilling marks were reminiscent of the Nazi campaign against the Jews of Germany marking their homes and clothing with the Star of David or the word Jude for their impending killing. Then ISIS came after the Yazidis, then after the Shiite Turkmen, then after the Shabak and always after those Sunnis who disagreed with their twisted visions. In this brutal new world the atavism of the message coexists with the slick website, and the flashy videos documenting their depravities.

A numbed Muslim World

After weeks of trails of tears, of forced marches, mass executions and religious cleansing, all done in the name of puritanical Islam, You would expect some Muslim scholars and clerics, or Muslim institutions like Al-Azhar in Egypt to be up in arms denouncing such barbaric acts. But that was not to be. There was barely a whimper in a numbed Muslim world. Before the American attacks, the plight of Iraq’s minorities was not a major story on many Arab websites, and did not dominate the headlines of leading Arab newspapers, and only a handful of commentators addressed it politically and morally or raised questions about the long term impact of the demise of these minorities in Iraq, particularly the Christians on the fate of other Christian communities in the region. The apathy, was another reminder that many Muslim societies have been deeply scarred by violence in their midst, including violence and discrimination against non-Muslim minorities as well. From Pakistan to Nigeria, from Mali to Sudan, to Syria and Yemen groups of radical Muslims are debasing their religion in the name of protecting it, while the majorities are intimidated or live in denial.

The moral bankruptcy of such silence in the face of horrific violence in Iraq (and Syria) looks so stark when compared with the unbridled passion and violence some Muslim communities exhibit around the world when someone in the West defame a copy of the Quran or write something deemed insulting to Prophet Muhammad and his lineage. But Muslim on Muslim violence, or the persecution and killings of non-Muslim minorities does not illicit similar outrage. One would suspect that among the reasons for such attitude has a lot to do with the autocratic natures of most Muslim governments… And it was my misfortune to live long enough to see this nightmare.

A plea of mercy

The scene was eerie and the deliberations were somewhat chaotic, when Vian Dakhil, the sole Yazidi representative in the Iraqi Parliament stood in the back of the hall surrounded by fellow women to begin a heart wrenching appeal to the world on behalf of her co-religionists who are threatened with extermination. Her voice was quivering and she was sobbing, but even in her agony she was articulate and passionate. Her’s was a plea for mercy from the depth of despair. She did not allow the speaker of the parliament to dismiss her, and kept saying “Mr. Speaker we are being slaughtered, The Yazidis are being subjected to a genocide in the 21st century!”

She was not only pleading for the Yazidis, members of an old local religion, and reminded her colleagues that Christian, Shiites, Sunnis, Turkmen and Shabaks have been killed. Many Parliamentarians stood with their backs to her with some of them just gazing stoically. Her voice became stronger when the Speaker kept interrupting her, saying “We are being exterminated! An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the Earth. In the name of humanity, save us!” I cannot believe anyone who speaks Arabic could endure her plea with dry eyes. That night I lamented on twitter “O God, why did I live to hear this horrifying plea in the language of my forefathers? What have we done to ourselves?”

The killing fields next door

While the world was transfixed on the war raging between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and when the world began to get a sense of the enormity of the expulsion of Christians and Yazidis, Syrian despot Bashar Assad was intensifying his campaign of barrel bombing anything that resists him. It was estimated that the last week of July was one of the bloodiest weeks since the conflict began.

Last week the Congress of the United States got a sense of the horrific human toll of Assad’s war on the Syrian people. A defector named “Caesar” meticulously documented the torture and killings of 11,000 innocents in Assad’s dungeons, and showed the stunned members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee the compelling evidence. While working for the government “Caesar” took more than 55,000 photos showing how the prisoners were tortured, starved or hanged. There are countless photos of emaciated, contorted and naked bodies of dead men strewn on the floor. If they were not in color, you would think you are watching photos of dead men who had similar fate in Nazi concentration camps. The hope is that this damning evidence would be used one day to charge the Assad regime of committing war crimes. Fredric Hof, a former State Department official who dealt with Syrian affairs testified that the briefing “illustrates the moral inadmissibility of any American collaboration with {the Assad} regime.” And it was my misfortune to live long enough to see this nightmare.

A planet called Gaza

Much has been said about Israel’s callous disregards for Palestinian lives in its war with Hamas, just as much was said about Hamas’ recklessness in endangering civilian Israelis, but more to the point endangering the lives of Palestinian civilians since Hamas knows well that firing unguided projectiles indiscriminately will inevitably invite ruthless Israeli reaction. Before the war Gaza was destitute, isolated and walled off from the rest of the world as the huge internment camp that it has been in recent years because of an Israeli siege that has been strengthened by a helping hand from Egypt, which sees Hamas as an offshoot of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Israel controls Gaza’s borders, coastline and airspace, and determines everything Gazans import from medicine to food to fuel. To create the impression that symmetry exists between a modern and powerful state like Israel and Gaza under Hamas is to do injustice to the people of Gaza. More than 1800 Palestinians were killed most of them are believed to be civilians in an unnecessary war that is not going to solve any of the political causes of the conflict.

Yes, the Israelis will have a respite, and yes the Palestinian will have more reasons to be angry and alienated. Israel uses Hamas’ recklessness and shocking endangerment of Palestinian lives to absolve itself from any moral and legal responsibility for its disproportionate attacks and retaliations. After the war, the land is so pulverized physically that it is next to impossible to resume social, educational and medical services any time soon. Life was brutish before the war; life will be more hellish after the war.

What is especially distressing is the almost total absence in Israel of any moral or political sense of responsibility for the civilian deaths or even a hint of remorse at the gutting of the few Palestinian symbols and institutions that the population needs. What is more distressing, is the political and moral ambivalence of many Arabs regarding the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, as if the thorough demonization of Hamas by Israel and a growing number of Arabs has been transformed also to the Palestinian people… And it was my misfortune to live long enough to see this nightmare.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem



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