Shouldn’t every religious leader be decrying the slaughter in Syria?
Religion, race, ethnicity become irrelevant when we see children under rubble
Aleppo residents stand next to a Syrian Red Crescent ambulance, while arriving in western rural Aleppo on December 15th. Photograph: AP
Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the dangers of what she calls a single story. She has in mind the way we think about our lives, our world, and the temptation of succumbing to single narratives that appear clear, comfortable or predictable.
So, we start to think of all Muslims as terrorists, or of all Africans as poor, and so on. Yet stories overlap in a myriad of ways, and identities are multilayered.
The danger of the single narrative, Adichie argues, is not that it is incorrect but that it is incomplete.
On December 13th a truce was called in Aleppo, and it was reported that civilians would be evacuated from the remaining rebel-held section of the city. Since then the evacuation has been marred by disruption, but people are being allowed to leave by degrees.
However, the war in Syria is far from over, and events in Aleppo raise serious questions for the international community.
Aleppo – indeed Syria – is a complex narrative. No single story can adequately capture the extent of what is happening there. Deep political motives fuel this conflict.
Narrative of terrorism
Assad’s rule is now strengthened by Russia. Both Syria and Russia have consistently presented the narrative of terrorism to justify their actions in Aleppo and elsewhere.
Internally, there are ethnic and religious factors to be considered, and regional interests have emerged, with Iran sending militia groups to Syria.
Islamic State remains in control of large parts of the country. The rebels themselves are comprised of several different splinter groups, including jihadi fighters.
And Syria is one of the sub-narratives in what became known as the “Arab Spring”. That is a story of dictatorships, military governments, young unemployed, disillusioned Muslim men, religious and ethnic tension.
It has evolved into a narrative about failed Arab governance, of political vacuums, and of groups such as Isis who are willing to take advantage of political uncertainty.
But what of Adichie’s warning? Although the obvious danger is to give in to “single stories”, there are some that must be told.
There is the single story of the direct and intentional killing of civilians, a clear violation of international law. Religion, race, ethnicity become irrelevant when we see dead children under mountains of rubble.
Despite the insistence of Russian and Syrian authorities that civilians are not being targeted, one cannot credibly overlook the staggering evidence to the contrary.
One cannot seriously suggest that the persistent bombing of hospitals, schools and homes was either accidental or unintentional; one cannot credibly reject the weight of evidence of civilian atrocities; one cannot claim that the “double tap” strategy of bombing is morally licit; and one cannot accept that the bombing of the last remaining areas in Aleppo was necessary or justified.
There is the single story of the West’s failure to intervene. This is partly because western governments do not want to take the politically unpopular decision to commit troops on the ground.
The UN Security Council has once more appeared impotent, thanks in no small part to an outdated veto system.
We have heard UN officials passionately call for ceasefires, for the evacuation of civilians, for a cessation of the direct killing of innocents. But, however eloquent the outcry, it matters little if meaningful action cannot be effected on the ground.
Failure of hospitality
And there is the further failure of hospitality on the part of so many European governments, including Ireland. Simplistic rhetoric has emerged within some political circles that strengthens unjust stereotypes and feeds on national fears.
There is the single story of the failure of religious leadership also.
Should not every Imam, Rabbi, Christian religious leader, every Buddhist monk be crying out at the slaughter in Syria?
Here, again, multiple narratives emerge in the shape of religious difference and division, and we lose sight of our single common humanity.
But there are narratives of hope and courage too: the courage of countless people who cared for the sick and dying in horrific conditions; the hope that fighting will soon cease, and that the people of Syria will be allowed to live without fear.
That depends on what is perhaps the deepest hope of all: that we, as a global community, can somehow learn to live – flourish – in communion rather than in division. Not an easy thing, but surely human intelligence and the reasonable hopes of humanity demand that we try.
Suzanne Mulligan is a lecturer in moral theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth