Photo Credit: Freedom House on Flickr, used under Creative Commons License
By: Erika Jahan
Tuesday, Oct. 15 was celebrated by Muslims worldwide as Eid al-Adha. The festival is one of the two biggest holidays in the Islamic tradition, embraced by all sects of the religion. Eid al-Adha follows immediately after the annual holy pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorates Abraham’s obedience to God as demonstrated by his willingness to kill even his own son. Today, Muslims honor Abraham’s devotion by sacrificing an animal such as a lamb or a cow. The meat is then divided into thirds: one third is enjoyed by the person making the sacrifice; another third is shared with family, friends and neighbors; and the last third is given to the poor. This way, Eid celebrations reach every corner of the Muslim community, and even the poorest person can partake in the feast— except this year. This Eid, Muslim leaders issued a fatwa (a religious ruling) allowing starving Syrians reported to eat cats, dogs and donkeys. The Al Arabiya News Channel aired footage on Monday, Oct. 14 in which leading Syrian clerics expressed their shock that the rest of the world could go about its business and Muslim families could sit down to feast while Syrians are not only being slaughtered as a product of war, but are dying as a byproduct of it.
When the Syrian uprising began two and a half years ago, the American media initially covered the events with the high hopes surrounding the “Arab Spring.” Optimism soon turned to alarm, as reports came in regarding the Assad regime’s violently oppressive measures against protesters. Over time, protestors have been reclassified as rebels, and the uprising has transformed into a full-fledged civil war with over 100,000 casualties. While the media have touched on the massive civilian death toll (estimated at around 40,000 people) over the course of the conflict, attention to the human face of the Syrian problem has shifted most notably with President Obama’s recent call for a military strike.
Images and videos suddenly flooded social media and the news, portraying the atrocities of chemical warfare executed by the regime. The fact is, however, that while Sarin gas may leave children convulsing in their parents’ arms, children have been losing their limbs and lives from the beginning of the war through more traditional (and apparently more acceptable) means of bombs and bullets.
The fatwa issued on Tuesday by clerics highlights the culmination of two and a half years of human suffering. Within Syria, there are an estimated 4.25 million people displaced, many of whom have migrated to the western side of the country. Meanwhile, another 2 million have fled to neighboring states. In some countries, including Jordan and Turkey, the government has attempted to create temporary refugee camps and facilitate access to both resources and much needed medical attention. In other places, such as Lebanon, no official camps have been built by the government and refugees seek shelter wherever they can.
The refugee problem has not gone unnoticed by the broader international community. In addition to the efforts of neighboring states, international players such as France and the United States have worked to provide relief for the victims from the start of the crisis. Organizations involved in the efforts include government agencies such as USAID, various UN committees, Red Cross, Red Crescent, Doctors without Borders, and many others. The United States has been the largest donor towards humanitarian efforts. President Obama announced another $339 million to be allocated for aid on Sept. 24, bringing the total to $1.3 billion. So far, however, very little has been formally or informally demanded of Assad’s regime or rebel forces regarding the refugee crisis and the hardships faced by ordinary citizens caught in the middle.
In light of the recent exposure of chemical warfare in Syria, Assad has been threatened with military action by the United States. For a while, “war” seemed imminent: media coverage was inescapable, and conversation over the issue common. Now, with the insertion and successes of the chemical watchdog group, both the American government and the public seem to be somewhat appeased. It appears that dissimilation of chemical sites will be enough to deter any military strikes. The threat at least does not seem to be hovering so palpably in the air for now, and media coverage has mostly shifted to other issues.
Tuesday’s fatwa, however, screams out to the world exactly why taking chemical weapons out of the picture is not enough. When examining global issues, there has long been a tendency, among both analysts and the general public, of failing to view people as human beings and more so as problems to be solved. The media and the government have played conscious and explicit roles in presenting them as such. Often, the faces of people and the disruption of their lives are brought forward as a marketing tool exactly and only when public support is needed to proceed with political, economic and military actions to fix the problem. And once a dent has been made in the problem, or at least the illusion of a dent can be seen, the faces of people fade once again into the background. Their plight, however, continues: in Syria, people are still being shot, bombed, deprived of medical attention, and starved even with chemical weapons steadily being removed from the equation.
Thus, policymakers should not be appeased by Assad’s acquiescence to relinquishing chemical weapons. While public support seems low for military action, awareness has been achieved. Moreover, the fatwa issued on Tuesday has further extended media coverage of the topic to really focus on refugee issues and provide insight into the particular difficulties aid workers face in the region and within Syria. Now is the time to utilize public awareness and take advantage of the momentum gained— to demand that both Assad and rebel forces make concessions that will actually affect the daily lives of Syrians. If we are to show outrage over war crimes, let us really demand that human decency be extended, even in the middle of war. Let the dead be buried; more importantly, let both sides make room for aid workers to do their jobs and for the living to have access to the necessities of daily life. It is not too far-fetched to assume that if the threat of military action is enough to extract concessions regarding chemical weapons, it should certainly put weight behind a demand for concessions on humanitarian grounds from both sides. This is not the time to be modest in demands, or to be pacified by a few tokens of cooperation.
If the world fails to drive a hard bargain now, the fate of the Syrian people will be no better off despite the absence of chemical weapons.