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Syrian airstrikes: why Hilary Benn’s speech left me cold

robert-downey-jr“Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”

— Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials

So earlier this week, our illustrious leaders decided to go ahead with airstrikes in Syria. I woke up the morning after hearing the news, feeling broken, deflated and hopeless. As I glanced at my three-year-old son, all I could think about was the innocent children and civilian casualties that will suffer as a result of this hasty, ill-thought-out military campaign.

The sheer hypocrisy and lack of human empathy in this whole situation is infuriating and staggering. I listened to Hilary Benn’s so-called “electrifying” speech in the House of Commons, but failed to understand why the media was raving about words that seemed so empty, so disingenuous, and so well-rehearsed. It is the rhetoric of Tony Blair all over again.

Almost two weeks ago, in an interview with the Independent, Benn argued against bombing Syria. So it is difficult for me to really believe in the weight of his words, since he seemed to change his mind pretty quickly about the whole situation.

This is politics without principle; without humanity and without empathy. In his speech, Benn spoke of the recent attacks in Paris, noting that: “If it had happened here, they could have been our children.” This is the rhetoric of pro-war propaganda. There should be no such thing as “our children” and “their children”. It should just be about our shared humanity. Does it matter who these children belong to, or which nation they happen to be born in?

The language used seems to imply that certain lives are just deemed less important than others. When talking about civilian casualties, Benn sought to distance himself from ISIS, saying: “Unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh, who target innocent people.”

The fact that this needs to spelled out is telling and worrying. Not having the intention to kill innocent civilians is empty and meaningless when you know  that military action will inevitably harm them. It is truly shocking that civilian casualties are talked about in such a flippant and casual way, as if their lives are somehow expendable.don't bomb syria

If the government was truly concerned about the civilian population of Raqqa, they would formulate a coherent military strategy to not only minimise the loss of life, but also have a long-term plan to deal with the consequences of airstrikes. It is blindingly obvious that nations that carry out military activity have a responsibility for the fallout and must know how to deal coherently with the aftermath of war. But what we’re hearing from our politicians is only about the immediate airstrikes with no consideration of what happens next.

Our politicians feel that they have to be seen to be doing something, anything, without really thinking about the effectiveness of airstrikes against Isis. As Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, said in his speech to the Commons: “If what the government were proposing today, would in any way, not simply or not totally get rid of Daesh, but weaken them in a significant way so they would not go on behaving in the abominable fashion we see, I wouldn’t have any difficult in voting for this motion today. But there is absolutely no evidence of any kind that any kind that bombing Daesh, that bombing Raqqa, will result in an upsurge of other people in the region to get rid of them.”

In fact, there is mounting evidence that going to war is playing into the hands of Daesh and giving them exactly what they want. The French journalist, Nicolas Hénin, who was held hostage by Mohammad Emwazi, said that military action was a trap that would only strengthen and benefit Isis.

During the Iraq war, politicians talked about winning the hearts and mind of the Iraqi people, though it never really developed much further than talking. It’s clear that a military solution hasn’t been effective in the past, so maybe it’s time to try something else. Hénin argues that the surest way to defeat Isis is to engage with the Syrian people, stating that “as soon as the people have hope in the political solution, then Islamic State will just collapse. It will have no ground any more. It will collapse.”

Today, The Independent reported that at least five Syrian children have been killed in an airstrike on a school in Raqqa. If you needed any more evidence of the emptiness of politicians’ intentions not to harm civilians, here it is. Despite assurances from Cameron, it is obvious that in such a densely populated area such as Raqqa, children and innocent people will inevitably be killed.

Some ten years ago, I joined a million people to protest against military action in Iraq. It was one of Britain’s largest anti-war demonstrations to date. The casual dismissal by the government of the voice of the people helps to explain some of the apathy and cynicism we see in politics today.

Today, as back then, it seems that politicians are not interested in listening to the British people. It’s a tragedy that Britain has learnt nothing from its mistakes of the past; today the British government will do what it has always done; bullishly enter a conflict without a coherent military strategy and without due consideration of the loss of life and resulting humanitarian crisis. It really does seem as if nothing changes.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

— George Orwell

Image credits: Neil Schofield via Flickr;
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

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To Paris With Love; In celebration, Hope And In Memoriam

by Nazia


Image courtesy of Jean Jullien

Image courtesy of Jean Jullien

Luc‘s mum was a favourite friend of mine in the primary school informal mummies club. She was kind, interesting, chatty and easy to get along with. We had met in the playground through our children who were in the same class together – little sweet five year olds. She had a son who I will name Luc and I had a daughter – let’s call her Amira. Luc’s family were from France but that did not put up any barriers for interaction and friendship (and why should it?). The children spent a year as classmates until Luc’s mum announced they were to return to France. I remember we were all saddened by the news.

In the weeks leading up to their departure I overheard my son teasing Amira about Luc. Amira was angrily arguing with her brother and I decided to step in and enquire about the topic of discussion. My son announced in a mocking singsong manner that Amira had a boyfriend named Luc.

“Amira has a boyfriend na na na na naaa na!”
Amira denied this of course and lashed out at her brother – but (I know it was a bit naughty of us) we all laughed and wanted to know more! However, realising how embarrassed Amira became we backed off and chuckled in private.

The next day I approached Luc’s mum to chat about the funny and sweet news. This is where the story of my daughter having a little sweetheart becomes somewhat serious and a lesson in challenging ideas, beliefs and perceptions. I happily approached Luc’s mother and before I could finish my sentence she laughed and confirmed the story of Luc’s affection for Amira. She continued to explain Luc had felt this way for a while and had announced to his family he would grow up to marry Amira! The entire tale of unrequited love between two cute five year olds melted my heart and I asked her why she hadn’t mentioned it to me before. She answered that she was afraid we would not approve. Those words instantly made my heart freeze and feel sorry that a mother, a friend, should feel this way. I knew where her concern came from. She had an awareness of the conservative nature of my cultural background – even though I don’t recall ever expressing any labels or affiliations. I could have been from any myriad of cultural/religious heritages I mused. She had felt weary of disturbing the friendship because of my potential disapproval of playground love. I reassured her it was fine and that my family found the friendship to be a wonderful part of Amira’s childhood. Indeed it was heart-warming and a pleasure to witness the hilarity and the depth of the bond that existed between the two.

She answered that she was afraid we would not approve.

In the final days leading to Luc’s farewell we dealt with heartbreak and tears from our daughter and watched her be chased around the playground by a cheerful Luc expressing his love with hugs and laughter. Amira was hurt that Luc was leaving along with her favourite music teacher and showed this by crying furiously. This was the first time as a mother I found myself having to step up and read the emotions accurately and effectively. Another group of amused watching mothers came to my aid. The mums helped me work out the confusion and realise Amira was acting out her pain at losing two individuals who meant a great deal to her.
The tale of their love has now become a favourite family story to tell and retell forever to my daughter’s embarrassment. It also forced me to consider how others perceive my family, my faith and cultural heritage and ultimately me. I have to acknowledge the wider impact of such perceptions on the relationships we all forge with those of opposite identities. I wanted Luc’s mother to be comfortable and free with me. I did not want her to be afraid to speak with me about any given topic however controversial. In friendship we should all feel free to express thoughts and emotions – that is the mark of a good friendship. The question that turns in my mind since those days is whether our religious, cultural differences hinder our friendships/relationships? I leave this question open but I would say that many of us in multicultural/faith societies find ways to compromise, cooperate, coexist and love one another.

There are no answers to be found in shutting down free speech and stepping up barriers to free movement of humans, ideas, friendship and love.

I never thought I would share this story with anyone outside my immediate circle of family and friends. The recent Paris attacks have again cast a pall over my sense of what it is to be a person in our super modern fantastic times especially in Europe and the developed world. I am a person at peace with my identity, at peace within my soul. All the rhetoric, all the vitriol after the attacks cannot bring justice to those who lost their lives. There are no answers to be found in shutting down free speech and stepping up barriers to free movement of humans, ideas, friendship and love.
When I think of Paris I want to remember the cool story of our children’s love. A natural love not blinded by restrictions imposed by humans. I want to ask those who are empowered by society to build strong inclusive and safe nations to protect our civil rights in the fight against hate, terror and retribution. I would ask our authority figures to think of our children across the globe and try with all their might to find solutions to the conflicts that were brewed by careless actors.
Living in a multicultural/religious society challenges us to leave behind our preconceptions and take an opportunity to feed the senses with alternative sights, sounds and life. It’s tough to break away from convention, to be a rebel and be different. I imagine Paris is a city like London steeped in history and proud traditions but also a bastion of social experimentation, forward thinking and downright exciting. The reactionary forces who inevitably seek to damn those who seem awkward, ill-fitting, wrong must not succeed. The violent choices of those who view the world through a narrow political/military prism must not taint the lives of innocents.
Luc and Amira didn’t think of the existential hand wringing worrying questioning that adults bother with. In times of sadness and crisis, in happy moments too, the children stand up as ambassadors for life.

Nazia is  a mother of three children. She has a degree in History (focus on modern Europe, Russia, Ottoman Empire, Origins of Islam, Mughal Empire, Middle East) from School of Oriental and African Studies London.

Image courtesy of Jean Jullien; the original painting is posted on Instagram

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.