Those who wield power expect us to have very short attention spans. We are meant to suffer a collective amnesia which renders us blind to anything that happened just months ago. Thus our storytellers spin us new yarns, creating new narratives which counter every account of the world that went before.
This week we are to forget that for the past thirty years, our own governments and militaries have invaded numerous sovereign states under the pretext of liberating their people. We are to forget all of that shock and awe, celebrated by our newspapers, which razed entire residential neighbourhoods under the pretext of fighting terrorists and an insurgency. We are to forget that everything we now accuse Putin of, we perpetrated before him.
Could anyone imagine the jingoistic reporting witnessed on last Friday’s News at Six, wherein we learned that the Ukraine government was handing out rifles to civilians and teaching them to make petrol bombs, for the residents of Baghdad or Kabul twenty years ago? Surely not every resident of Ramadi, wiped off the map in 2015, were really ISIS terrorists. Who now remembers our silence when our allies blew up entire blocks of residential housing in pursuit of a single man? Who recalls wedding parties blown to pieces by remote control?
A decade ago, the Syrian civil war began in the same way as this one. The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 would spend whole segments for weeks on end interviewing government officials about the need to arm the rebels. Young British men were given tacit approval to head to Syria to fight. A whole generation was encouraged to do something, only for the earth to shift beneath them. Rest assured, those Ukrainians in Europe encouraged to head home to defend their country today will be reclassified and stripped of their citizenship in times not that far off.
Another generation has just learned that war is very bad indeed, in which innocents suffer needlessly at the hands of stupendous weaponry. Another generation has learned what so many others learned before us, that peace is fragile, so easily shattered by megalomaniacs demanding access to strategic resources. Sometimes the megalomaniacs are ours, sometimes they are the enemy’s; how we report on them depends on whose side we are on.
I was raised on the Gospels, which I have always taken to heart, even through a quarter of a century walking a different outward tradition. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” we were taught. Over the past two decades it was easy to see that we mostly weren’t the peacemakers, but rather the arrogant tyrants causing immeasurable suffering to some of the poorest people on earth. “Blessed are the poor,” we learnt, as we amassed vast wealth at the expense of nations only recently liberated from our imperial designs.
Today I follow a tradition which acknowledges that war is sometimes a grave necessity, deployed as a means of repelling greater evil.
Permission to fight has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, God is competent to give them victory. Those who have been evicted from their homes without right, only because they say, “Our Lord is God.” And were it not that God checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.Quran 22:39-40
That is not a permission for total war, however, indiscriminately targeting civilians and non-combatants. The Quran frequently petitions us: “Do not transgress the limits.” It begs us to pursue peace: fight those who fight you alone, but do not transgress the limits, and if they incline to peace, incline to peace.
War is not the ideal state for humanity; peace is. To say this does not make me a Quaker, although I have always admired their tradition. It does not make me a pacifist, although pacifism ought to be our default state. It is in fact the way of the Prophets, who called their people to humility. Terrorism and aggression is the tool of imperialism, which should forever be opposed.
My enemy’s enemy is not my friend, nor is my friend’s friend. This is is not our gauge. Our measure is another prophetic adage, taught by the Gospels and my tradition: “By their fruit you shall know them.” We don’t side with tyrants, because they are of us or are our allies. The Sikh tradition has this too:
The Dark Age of Kali Yuga is the knife, and the kings are butchers; righteousness has sprouted wings and flown away.Guru Granth Sahib
No, we oppose tyrants whether they are of us or against us, whether they are our leaders or the enemy’s. We measure the world not against the reasoning of the Daily Mail or Al-Jazeera, but by the rays of that prophetic lamp, still lighting the way for the meek, who walk on the earth lightly, who still reply to the ignorant, “Peace!” Never side with those who rain down missiles and bombs on innocents, be they in Ukraine, Iraq or Yemen. Always side with the furqara, the poor and needy.
The sweetness of life is in the company of the fuqara,Sidi Abu Madyan
They are the sultans, the masters and the princes!
Never support a tyrant, friend or foe.