An Australian woman has died in Raqqa, in DAESH-held Syrian territory, after having surgery for appendicitis. She left her five young children orphaned, the eldest being a 14-year-old girl. Their father, Khaled Sharrouf, died earlier, but not before he was photographed making his son hold aloft the severed head of a murdered Syrian soldier.
Some people are now calling on the Australian Government to try to bring the children home. Their plight is horrible, but how could they possible be rescued? Surely DAESH will not give them up. They will be indoctrinated, if this has not occurred already, and used as cannon-fodder. Sending in a special forces team to find them and bring them out would be unjustifiably risky. Ransoming them would a) put money in the hands of the wickedest people on the planet; and b) encourage future kidnappings and efforts to entice gullible people into DAESH’s clutches, to be traded with their distraught family members or governments.
This case is a tragic one, we cannot always save children from the folly or criminality of their parents. Many thousands of children’s lives are being ruined by parents who use illicit drugs, drink to excess, fail to send their children to school, feed them junk food, and subject them to sexual abuse or violence.
I don’t know if Barak Obama came up with that label for DAESH himself, or if a PR consultant pulled a focus group together and workshopped it. But it’s a good one. Militant islamism is a cancerous growth in the body of humanity. That tells us what kind of treatment it calls for.
Someone sent me this temporary set of rules of the Richmond Golf Club, dated 1940. They illustrate perfectly the kind of stoicism that people are capable of in the hardest of times – and that will be required of us all now and in the coming years as we confront an evil enemy.
I’ve read and heard several commentators lately, either advocating an islamic version of the Christian Reformation or arguing that such an event has already happened and the results are not pretty.
Former Australian PM Tony Abbott leads the advocacy pack, implying that a reformation would be a modernising influence, moving Islam away from the beliefs and practices that make it barbaric in many people’s eyes. I don’t want to put words into Mr Abbott’s mouth, but I assume he would share my hope that modernisation would do away with animal sacrifice, pointless dietary rules, punitive mutilation, oppression of women, suppression of other beliefs, contempt for infidels, and capital punishment of individuals categorised as blasphemers, apostates and heretics.
Waleed Aly, a young Australian Muslim who has become my second favourite radio journalist, argues that “Islam’s own version of the Reformation already occurred in the 18th century” and led to Wahhabism, a form of Sunni Islam which is enforced in Saudi Arabia and is the philosophical platform for al-Qaeda, DAESH and other extremist organisations.
Paul Monk disagrees with Waleed Aly in many things but agrees with him in this. I commend his article in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The UK’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, also agrees. In a recent interview on Australian radio he pointed out that the Christian Reformation was a reaction against corruption in the Catholic Church. The reformers wanted to return to true Christian values. This is how Md ibn Abd al-Wahhab saw his 18th century reformation: a return to true Islamic values.
It is as erroneous as it is understandable that we tend to equate ‘reform’ with ‘improvement’, ‘progress’ and ‘becoming more like us’.
During the past week Mrs SG and I have attended two carol-singing events organised by local councils. People of all ages brought folding chairs and picnics and sang along with some very talented choirs and bands. Santa Claus found time to drop in on both occasions.
I am an atheist, but brought up in a Christian cultural environment. I don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, any more than I believe in the existence of God, but I was moved nonetheless by The Christmas Story and even felt my eyes moisten during Good King Wenceslas.
The same moistening happened when I read the last chapter of Watership Down, when the Black Rabbit of Inlé came for Hazel. I was on a Liverpool-bound train to visit my mother for the first time since my father died. And I was shedding tears for a dead fictional rabbit.
It also happened every time I read the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner to our elder son – the chapter where Christopher Robin tries to explain to Pooh that he’s going off to school and things won’t be the same. It’s the end of childhood, the end of innocence.
So I sort of understand people who have been brought up in other religious and literary traditions for whom the stories they heard when they were very young resonate deep within throughout their lives. Sometimes that resonance cause them to do irrational and even – in my eyes – wicked things.
The news has just come through – the UK Parliament has voted in favour of bombing DAESH in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a victory for common sense as well as a boost for British self-respect. The civilised world is confronting the closest thing to pure evil that we are likely to see in my lifetime. For a nation with such a proud military history – not always a glorious one in moral terms, I concede – to stand back while others are stepping forward would have been a disgrace.
By the way, for the sake of balance, here’s a link to an article asserting that using the term ‘DAESH’ or ‘Daesh’ is silly.
I understand, I really do. Nutella offers to print special labels with their customers’ name on them, but the marketing people don’t foresee a request to personalise a jar for a little girl called Isis. Nutella refused to print the label, as they would refuse to print a label for someone called #&%@ or %&?!.
Until very recently Isis was most prominent as the Egyptian goddess of health, marriage and wisdom, and an Oxford student magazine. Any child called Isis could have been proud of her name. Now it is soiled. It could happen to any of us with a short name.
There is a much-loved comedienne in Australia called Magda Szubanksi. She recently revealed that her father, when a boy in Poland, had killed Nazi collaborators as an assassin for the Polish Resistance. This was considered shocking news. I was not shocked at all, however. Magda’s father was quite rightly fighting to free his country from a cruel invader. He was a hero.
A couple of years ago there were shock-horror stories in the British press because Prince Harry revealed that he had undertaken missions as a pilot that involved killing Taliban fighters. But what the hell do we pay military pilots for, if not to kill the enemy?!
Now we have a similar reaction to the news that David Cameron authorised drone strikes that killed UK citizens fighting for Daesh in Syria. To my mind, if a British citizen joins a terrorist organisation and goes abroad to fight on its behalf, the British Government has a responsibility to take all possible steps to prevent that citizen from doing harm.
How is the British Government to achieve that? They could send in a team of highly trained soldiers to capture the renegade citizen and drag him home to face trial. But the risk of failure and consequent injury or death of team members would be high. A drone strike, based on good intelligence, is low-risk and much more likely to succeed.
Admittedly a drone strike carries the risk of civilian casualties. But a civilian living in an area that is under Daesh control, or under Daesh attack, is already in extreme danger of death, injury, kidnap, rape, enslavement or dispossession. And who knows how many innocent lives may be saved by the death of a single terrorist?
Drawing the threads of these three stories together, it seems to me that there are times when the opprobrium usually directed toward the act of killing is undeserved.
I just read an alarming article in the Guardian Weekly. It was about a series of murders of Bangladeshi atheists by Muslim fundamentalists. Mrs SG and I met and married in Bangladesh (or East Pakistan as it then was) so we have a soft spot for the country.
We also have some understanding of Bengali cultural traditions, which are characterised by love of learning and literature, intellectual inquiry, openness to ideas. It is especially painful, therefore, to read that intellectual fascism is gaining ascendancy in that land.
Horrible though the murders are, the effect of intimidation on others is just as serious. People emigrate, stay silent or pretend belief they do not hold, to protect themselves and their families.
Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This is an eternal truth. All of us, whether writers, politicians, judges, police officers or teachers, have responsibility to resist evil wherever we find it.
This is easy for me to say, of course. I live in a leafy suburb in Adelaide. I do not meet terrorists, murderers or drug-dealers on my way to the post office. The only religious fundamentalist I know is Peter, the Jehovah’s Witness who comes to chat to me once a month in the dim hope that I will one day see the light.
But I hope that, if confronted by raw evil such as now afflicts Bangladesh, I will find a kind of courage that I have never had to call on before.
The photo of a drowned 3-year-old lying face-down on a Turkish beach suddenly became visual shorthand for the miserable situation in Syria and the desperation of people seeking refuge.
It is an admirable human trait that our sympathy is aroused by the sight of a child in distress. Indeed, if we did not react that way very few children would make it into adulthood. But I am uneasy about the kneejerk-ism that such sympathy provokes. Complex issues should be addressed thoughtfully and with full understanding of causes and effects.
At the moment nothing is more complex than the tangle of superstition, competition and ancient hatred that characterises the Arab world. I want my government and other governments to behave rationally. I do not want them to be pressured by compassionate electors to take heart-warming, headline-grabbing decisions that buy short-term popularity at the expense of actions that could, perhaps, lead to long-term solutions.