This weekend marks four years since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. While Assad is hardly ever mentioned today, up until last summer the western media were feeding us a constant litany of his regime’s atrocities. For good reason, the Syrian conflict registered on everybody’s radar: terrible suffering, 180,000 people killed, 3 million refugees.
In light of the suffering in Syria, many a conversation amongst friends turned to the need to do something. Hundreds of people joined aid convoys to Syria, delivering ambulances, blankets, medical supplies, food and money. We witnessed great fund-raising efforts and incredible generosity.
Others, of course, took it upon themselves to go over to fight, in the tradition of the Spanish Civil War – much like those Englishmen now praised for joining the Kurdish Peshmurga against ISIS. They did not see themselves as extremists waging Holy War, but as sincere helpers of the oppressed.
Whether as doctors helping refugees, drivers delivering aid or the rich donating their own money to the destitute, everybody wanted to “do something”. Everybody wanted a piece of the action: to make a sacrifice for others less fortunate than them, and some paid the ultimate price. An orthopaedic surgeon, who went out to treat injured civilians, was killed in a Syrian prison. A taxi driver who delivered an ambulance was kidnapped and later executed. Aid workers, who travelled to Syria to serve others had their lives mercilessly extinguished.
Many people did immeasurable good in the face of the most heinous of crimes. They went with good intentions to benefit others. To have sympathy and concern for oppressed people is not radicalism, but worthy, compassionate empathy. The problem is how that concern is channelled into action. Many individuals put themselves in very dangerous positions when they didn’t need to, and the situation is only getting worse.
Was is really necessary, we might ask, for young men and women from High Wycombe, Bradford and Manchester to risk their lives driving ambulances filled with aid across two continents, when they could simply have donated the money to established organisations like Islamic Relief, Save The Children or the UNHCR, who were well placed to source vehicles and supplies in Turkey and get aid directly to those in need?
It is true that many well-meaning individuals had personal links with people in Syria. Indeed the Syria conflict may have gained greater significance than other equally appalling conflicts for many, precisely because Western students of knowledge have been travelling to Syria for the past 20 years to sit with the scholars of Damascus. Western Muslims have developed an emotional attachment to this land because the new generation of young, English-speaking Hanafi imams spent years of their lives studying Muslim theological traditions there; their fondness is ever apparent in their speech.
Who am I to belittle those efforts? May our Lord reward them for the good they did. Nevertheless, sometimes it is necessary to ask hard questions about the wisdom of our actions, even when they are seemingly good. The Muslim community is known to be extremely charitable and generous, but delegation is not our strong point: every individual, mosque and community group seems to set up a charitable foundation in times of need, rather than relying on established routes and means to address those needs effectively.
Was it necessary, we might ask, to personally carry thousands of pounds of cash in aid convoys, only to have it seized by UK Border Police on suspicion that it would be used to support terrorism, when it could have been given to established charities already operating on the ground, whose transparent accounting and audit processes would have ensured it reached only those in need?
Instead, a lot of people put themselves in danger, when they did not need to. Professional organisations undertake risk assessments to avoid harm and minimize the risk to the lives of their volunteers and workers. They also operate within the law, both local and international. Well-meaning individuals might pray and hope for the best, but there is no substitute for planning. The desire to “do something” needs to be tempered by a rational assessment of the situation and the abilities of those involved.
Media commentators may be suffering from amnesia, but I clearly remember the discussions on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, on BBC Newsnight and in The Guardian and The Independent concerning the need to support the rebels against Assad between 2011 and 2014. The British government announced it would be providing them with non-lethal military support in 2013. Anyone minded to go out to fight alongside them during that period, might reasonably have concluded that their actions had been sympathetically sanctioned by our governments, much like those of today’s anti-ISIS volunteers.
I have no doubt that many who went out during that period had absolutely no sympathy with a groups like Da’ish or Jabhat al-Nusra. They did not see themselves as terrorists or supporters of extremism, but as freedom fighters, taking on the tyranny and brutality of Assad, as it had been reported by the BBC for months and months. But war is murky: a poisonous environment which nobody in their right mind would expose themselves to. On their arrival, these naive young men would have encountered the reality behind the propaganda: sectarian, gangster-like militant groups slaughtering one-another in battles not for the ultimate establishment of peace and justice, but for power and control.
On his release from captivity in Syria, the French hostage, Nicolas Henin, told journalists that he believed many of the fighters had started out with a genuine desire to help victims in Syria:
“These are fragile people. As soon as they arrive, [their recruiters] hook them and push them to commit a crime, and then there is no way they can turn back.”
Muslims may have been caught off guard by the sudden change in narrative on the part of government and the media – not that this kind of switching of alliances is anything new. Up until last summer, the focus of all efforts and attention was on Assad and our governments were openly supporting the rebels against him. Those who went to fight on the side of the good may be surprised to learn that, now that the official narrative has reversed with the apparent emergence of Da’ish, they are considered dangerous terrorists and radicals. But this was entirely predictable and many of us saw it coming.
It is not that the conflict in Syria was benign. Turkey is housing 1.9 million refugees and asylum-seekers, of whom 1.7 million are Syrian refugees. It is not that the destruction was not real, or that it did not happen. It was and is a human catastrophe of immense proportions, about which the world should be ashamed. The international community and the United Nations have once again failed in their mandate to protect the innocent from harm.
The problem is that the actions of well-meaning souls might have made the situation worse. Governments with their own ambitions in the region have flooded the country with money and arms. Individuals who wanted to “do something”, to go to the aid of innocent women and children brutalised by war, have themselves been brutalised and broken. Many of them have been forced to commit atrocities of their own, to take actions which were the exact mirror of those they had set out to prevent. Well-meaning men left comfortable lives to assist unknown others in a foreign land they had no real connection to, out of a feeling of faithful brotherhood alone, and have ended up killing farmers, shop keepers and anyone else in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Our communities need to have a conversation about doing good: about channelling that desire to “do something” in a positive, constructive direction. About tapping into that wellspring of compassion and empathy for the good of society, not its destruction. Our advocacy groups and those associated with them need to change the direction of our discourse: from hyping us into a frenzied, angry, vulnerable state, to setting out a positive vision of engagement in society.
We should be inspired by initiatives like Charity Week, which saw Muslim students nationwide raise well over £730,000 for Islamic Relief projects during a single week last autumn. We should contemplate what we can do, as children of Britain, to make the world around us a better place. Our communities need to engage in the conversation on everyone’s lips: we want to do something, but what exactly should we do?