A decade ago we listened to former Commander of NATO, General Wesley Clark, recounting his story of how the politicians around George W. Bush Jr. in 2001 planned to destroy the governments in seven countries in five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.
The following year, Obama was elected, sweeping the Democrats to power, and we forgot all about Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and the rest of that malevolent gang. It was a brave new world. The dawn of hope. A time of “yes we can!” and presumptive Noble Peace Prizes granted antecedently.
A couple of years later the Arab Spring began. The world rejoiced. Another brave new world was born. Another dawn of hope. A time of “yes we can” all over again.
A year later, we witnessed the NATO intervention in Libya. It was not about regime change we were told, but a humanitarian mission to protect civilians demanding democratic change. The jihadis against Gaddafi were good guys then, to be freely given arms and military training by our allies. It was a brave new world.
Intervention in Syria, two years later, should have been easy. We had had two years of news reports telling us of Assad’s barbarity. Our Prime Minister repeated the same arguments about a humanitarian mission to protect innocent citizens from regime brutality. Assad had used WMDs against his own people, after all! But Parliament said no, memories of the Iraq misadventure still all too fresh in parliamentarians’ minds.
Outside the debating chamber, however, we the people were thoroughly persuaded by the dominant narrative that we had heard since the earliest days of the Syrian uprising. Mosques across Britain, whose new young imams and teachers had spent years studying under scholars in Syria, had an emotional bond to the mistreated land. Many had friends and contacts there, and their scholars called for action on behalf of people wronged by that inhuman regime.
Combined with heartbreaking video footage on the evening news, these appeals were compelling. Though usually critical of individuals with ties to the Henry Jackson Society, whose patrons include authors of the notorious Project for the New American Century, in news coming out of Syria, every briefing counted.
In our emotional state, driven by the suffering of innocents, we were uncritical in our acceptance of presented facts. We had no reason to doubt our sources. Nobody ever told us that the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights quoted in nearly every media report was based in Coventry. We asked no questions, because we trusted other sources intimately.
And anyway, Syria was the land of the righteous: a place of legend, to which the prophesied Chosen One would come. It was a sign of the times. The students of the scholars loved to recount those tales, urging each other to believe. Soon the chosen one would be with them, to bring about his rule of justice and peace! Syria was the land of nobility and truth, and light, and beauty (although history is less kind).
In 2015, our Prime Minister would try again, with an all-new narrative and new target in sight, though the aim remained the same: to launch air strikes against Syria. Daesh, it turned out, was a far more attractive enemy, their blood-curdling intimate barbarity far more chilling than tales of chemical weapons and two hundred thousand dead. A summer of atrocities of the worst kind, from the execution of aid workers to the rebirth of slavery, ensured that parliament voted in favour of action this time around.
The compassionate rejoiced. Those scholars who once called on their followers to support the moderate opposition in their armed struggle against the regime, now went on tour, lecturing about the evils of Daesh and their actions. Everybody agreed that something had to be done. How could we not? We were compassionate souls, moved by a whole people’s grave suffering. Only a callous, cold-blooded fool would turn away from such suffering and refuse to take a stand.
And so the war wore on, with its ever worsening accounts of civilians deliberately targeted by the regime and now its Russian ally too. We heard of war crimes, crimes against humanity, attacks on aid convoys, state sponsored massacres and rape at the hand of pro-government militia.
On Tuesday that narrative culminated with an outpouring of grief on social media, as news spread of a massacre of hundreds of civilians and the prospect of mass rape to come as the last streets of east Aleppo fell to the regime. The BBC and CNN broke the news, pushing it to the top of their agenda, broadcasting multiple clips of activists announcing that this was the end: potentially their last message ever. Unusually, even the Daily Express and Sun made room to cover the story prominently, suddenly benevolent voices in the face of ruthless inhumanity.
Other sources, meanwhile, claimed that there had been no massacre. Some commentators pointed out that while the BBC had reported that the UN said there were massacres, the UN’s actual press release stated that they had received unconfirmed reports of massacres which they hoped were not true.
In information emerging from the last rebel stronghold in Aleppo, there were claims and counterclaims. The majority view emphasised in the press and on social media was that the regime was targeting civilians in its indiscriminate war on the rebels. Other voices claimed that the regime was liberating the locality from terrorist groups, which had been using civilians as human shields. Russia claimed it had been parachuting aid into areas recently liberated from the rebels; rebels claimed it had been parachuting bombs.
For those of us far away, unable to verify the situation on the ground, there were two responses: to continue to read only sources that confirmed what we believed to be true, or to say we did not know. In those hours of heightened emotion, the latter position was treachery: not just infidelity at its worst, but cruel harsh repugnant apathy. The doubters were guilty of a far greater crime: of not believing when it mattered most.
But those who said they did not know already knew that they had no influence on the situation. They were not in a position to change anything. Their not knowing could not change what had or had not happened, other than effecting the emotions of those around them. Their not knowing only meant that they could not form an opinion, upon which they might base the actions they took thereafter. But perhaps their acknowledgement of not knowing had a basis; perhaps it was founded on caution, in a desire not to cause greater harm by calling for revenge or further intervention or another imperial misadventure in an already broken land.
Perhaps they had taken a verse of guidance to heart:
“O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful.” — Quran 49:6
Perhaps they were wary of those who freely mix truth and falsehood:
“And do not mix the truth with falsehood or conceal the truth while you know it.” — Quran 2:42
Not because they were evil partisans supporting the wrong side of the sectarian divide. Not because they have not a sinew of compassion in their bones. Not because they were unsympathetic to the plight of innocents caught up in this horrendous war. But because “I do not know” was a truthful reaction to half a decade of mixed up truths, half truths, errors and lies. An acknowledgement that there was no way they could personally and independently verify any claim that reached them from afar. An admission that “I believe because I heard it from a scholar” no longer has any meaning.
I am sorry. I do not wish to disbelieve. I do not wish for doubts. But from my earliest days walking this path I have always been told, “Verify it!” Whole sciences of this religion are based on this premise: “Verify it!” When we receive a report, the chain of narrations does not say, “he said”, but “it was reported that he said”. A clear and important difference. “Verify it!” we have always said, but over the years ever since I have learnt that many people have no interest in verifying anything.
On social media, people share photos and videos without a moment’s pause, even when we have tools at our disposal to at least determine their history. On Tuesday in the midst of reports of slaughter in Aleppo, photos were circulated of the scene of carnage that followed Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in a suicide bombing in Islamabad in 2007. Other photos were recycled from earlier in the conflict. One was of victims killed in Gaza.
Stories are regularly shared and forwarded that fall into the “I cannot verify it” category, whether of made up fatwas or tales of the misdemeanours of the Other. Sometimes the truth comes out within hours, sometimes within days or weeks, and sometimes years later when nobody cares anymore. We share and (sometimes) ask questions later. “Verify it” is the last thing on our mind.
But I do not know. It is like that agnosticism of old. I do not know. Not, “I believe in one side against the other.” Not, “I believe that the other side is telling the truth”. No, just “I don’t know.” It is plausible that it is true. It is equally plausible that it is untrue. It is plausible that it is partially true, or mostly true, or just complicated and complex and murky. And, of course, the doubts apply to the claims of both sides, or multiple sides, in this conflict. I give no blank cheques. I make no claims. I simply say, “I don’t know.”
What we can be certain of is that innocents have been caught up in this vicious conflict. That militants on all sides have been guilty of appalling crimes. That the refugees fleeing to Turkey and Lebanon, and into Europe, are desperate and in need. What we can be certain of are the generalities. The hows and whys and who is to blame is obscure and hard to trace. The precise details, exactness, verifiable fact: all of this hard to divine. But the immense suffering is there for all to see.
“I don’t know” is not abdication of responsibility to those in need. It is just an affirmation that we cannot let high emotions drive us headlong into further war, destined to bring about only much more suffering and pain. We need to keep our heads and try to be objective and sane, in the hope that those with true influence in the world do the right thing, now and always.