OPINION – PARVEZ ASAD SHEIKH A LEADING WRITER ON WORLD AFFAIRS, AS WELL AS A RESPECTED WORLD COMMENTATOR.
There is a book that was published by an American anthropologist, apparently fascinated, about the old Punjabi families of Kenya. Within the chapter on my particular clan there is a wonderful anecdote, recounted by a then-young man who I am sure is now distinguished in age, about my great-grandfather. The words paint the imagery of the young man seeing a distinguished man, half trader and half adventurer, sitting in his quarters and pensively thumbing his prayer beads while puffing on a hookah pipe. One day, during his habitual travels to the Arabian Peninsula, my great-grandfather made a detour to Syria and returned home with a beautiful bride who took residence in her own section of the family estate. The bride later returned to Syria with her two children. As is the nature of family, being the nexus of all politics, news slowly stopped flowing back from this Syrian branch. I do not know their current situation, nor do I know on which side of the battle they have found themselves. All I can do is pray that they are safe and that they are protected.
We are in crisis. Our collective humanity is in crisis and the manner in which we form our political and, ultimately, social myths have left us acutely unsure of ourselves. And so we run to the obvious and the simple in order to define our world. But man is complex, so the obvious and simple are fantastic simulacra of an anarchic reality. Politically speaking, this crude aggregation of reality has manifested itself as a swing to the edges of nationalism and populism, regardless of the position on the now-outdated political spectrum. There is a quote from Napoleon that my Mentor uses; ‘Les extremes se touchent’. (the extremes touch, in other words they are the same)
We give importance today not on the facts of events but, rather, the interpretation.
The ‘Brexit’ vote was a vote for a mythical Britain that cannot even be found prior to 1066. Donald Trump’s victory is the result of the same basic and crude construct of nationhood; the land of the rugged Frontiersmen of yore. Bernie Sander’s dreamy progressive populism helped to ensure that the stiff and unnatural Clinton camp saw their traditional base eaten away. A Nazi-founded political party came within inches of power in Austria. Political events are non-linear, however, and the event itself is merely a harbinger of a dangerous potentiality.
The element that is missing from all of these events is a defined and common reality or truth. We give importance today not on the facts of events but, rather, the interpretation. As such, everything is hyper-subjectivised and relativised: the earth is floating through the universe on the back of a giant turtle. This inevitably leads to a sense of paralysis when the time comes to offer a realistic and strong alternative and way forward. I dare say that our inability to grasp the traumatic reality of the war in Syria lies at the core of this paralysis.
Given this context it was possible to witness the vapid exchange between the representatives of the United States and Russia during a recent emergency U.N Security Council session on events in Syria. Both sides took the moral high ground, both sides had their interpretation of events, both were correct but neither was true. If power today more than any time in the past decade and a half, at least, lies in the ability to define reality based on an interpretation that suits an actor’s political interests, then let us for a moment avoid all interpretation in the interest of reality. Let us discard the complicated dialectics at play in the Syrian Conflict and the relativising of fundamental political concepts such as legitimacy. Rather, we shall lay down the indisputable before ourselves so that we may at least absorb the reality of events.
Since 2011, at least 400,000 have died as a result of the Syrian Civil War. A great part of this number represents civilians; the elderly, women and children. At least 12,000,000 people are now refugees either in their own country or in unknown lands. These are lives lost and lives irreversibly disrupted. Events such as Aleppo have been happening constantly for more than five years now, every day. Every time these numbers increase, we as humanity are affected. If we ignore this reality in the interests of interpretations, we drive ourselves further to the political extremes. If we can come to terms with this reality and demand a concerted means to stop the killing, we will find peace. What happens to the innocent people of Syria happens to us all. The real challenge of our time is to take responsibility.
PARVEZ ASAD SHEIKH