Thursday, December 14, 2006

A postcard from hell.

Are the West and Israel becoming a sideshow in the East?

Observers and historians of the middle-east accept that the religious divide between Sunni and Shiite goes back some 1300 years. In modern history when the Europeans first show up on the doorstep of the Arab world they do so with the promise of democracy in one hand and the threat of the gun in the other. Looking back, the scene of chaos is evident. And worse, instead of history fading away it seems now to be catching up with the present.

CNN this week displayed a map which graphically portrayed the Sunni factions of Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and a portion to the east of Iraq where Sunnis dominate lined up against the Shiite strongholds represented by Iran and the majority of Iraqis who are themselves Shiite. For simplicity’s sake we in the West have to discard the hundreds of sub-factions which exist within the Sunni and Shiite parent groups. And for the sake of sanity we are forced to ignore the near futile struggle of the men, women and children who are maimed or killed by the dozen each day in the region as though helpless on the conveyor belt of human conflict and mayhem as it continues its unstoppable journey through their lives.

We look for justification and see only religious disagreement, the hunger for wealth via control of the region’s oil and gas resources and third the raw fear that drives all war, the fear of being dominated by another, the fear of losing self-reliance, the fear of not being in control of one’s life. Ask a slave or someone living under a dictator about that particular fear, they will explain it.

Looking back on the history of the West we have not been without conflict and looking back we can consider ourselves fortunate that things, well, worked out the way they did. It has been painful, true. Yet in a melancholy way, we are doing as best we can. And it is no wonder we feel that our own experience at stitching together the various nations and factions of the West could point to solutions in the East. It is, from a distance, an odd way in which we pretend to want to help. First we try to impose our religious beliefs on the Arab world (and not the Arab world alone) and just as the prospect of conversion fades the prospect of oil wealth raised its head and in no time the West arrived yet again in the middle-east.

For some reason the West has never been able to shake or rid itself of the notion that it had some tenure or the other in lands and cultures far away. Not alone, the Moors and others down history have proven also to covet the resources of lands far afield. In today’s world we understand that pitfalls of foreign invasion. Saddam Hussein learned in his ill-planned invasion of Kuwait that the world is not accepting of military bullying. And in fairness to the US it did well to respond as it did through Desert Storm in coming to the aid of Kuwait. And for the cynical, yes one can argue that the US acted as much in self-interest as it did in human interest.

All along throughout the passage of these events and conflicts, the 1300 year battle for supremacy in the middle-east between Sunni and Shiite has smoldered, bubbled and lingered in the hearts and minds of sullen and mistrustful leaders who saw no other end to the battle but victory over one another. In 2006 we see in graphic horror the burned and bloody victims of this conflict each day. And in the West we are forced – or we force it upon ourselves out of a sense of duty or perhaps somewhat less honourable reasons – to embed ourselves in this conflict in the hope that as a world coalition we may somehow influence the outcome of the Sunni-Shiite wars of this century, the 14th straight century of non-stop war. Are we in the West being realistic?

Where, for instance, Israel and the US, North Korea and Iran dominated our airwaves and the internet for decades, the talk now is reduced, thanks in part to sentiments coming this week from Saudi Arabia’s rulers, simply to the fact that the middle-east will never be at peace until either the Sunni or Shiite dominate or divide.

Dominate or divide. It is hard for the US and coalition forces to accept themselves as no more than a meddling irritant in the affairs of the Muslim universe, specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand the upheaval we see in the middle-east becomes less of a conundrum when one views it as being a result of the fact that the peoples of the middle-east are today straddling the past and the future. Nowhere is this more evident than where democracy as we understand comes in contact or attempts to blend with religious beliefs in the middle-east.

Many, many men and women aspire to the perceived order that we believe we have built for ourselves in the West. Just as many feel as certainly, that the West has evolved as a result of hundreds of years of corruption and avarice and sin into a hell from which there can be no salvation. Head and shoulders above all of this the Sunni-Shiite conflict will dominate the world scene for many years to come.

Some of us may recall the days prior to the US forces entering Baghdad and remember the words that made us scoff? Saddam Hussein and his seemingly demented information minister threatened that the US would, to paraphrase their threats: “enter the gates of hell if they entered Iraq…….” Now that George W. Bush has ‘decided’ to stay the course, years after having declared his mission complete, one is tempted to first to put more authority into Saddam Hussein’s threats and perhaps reflect on the sequence of George Bush’s statements. He may well have chosen to first stay the course and once that had been achieved then declare that the mission was complete.

It is hard to believe that the US and coalition forces and the good people of Iraq do not feel that they are now well past the gates of hell and deep inside hell itself. And neither Shiite nor Sunni can guide them out. What to do, what to do?

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