A dirty war’s casualties
More attention needs to be paid to the Syrian Grand Mufti’s charges that the Middle East is being destabilised by Western forces
I met the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, in Damascus a few months after he had lost his son in a terror attack in 2012. Impeccably turned out with his turban and flowing robes, he looked understandably distraught. Those were the early days of the Syrian civil war and there was a struggle to interpret and analyse why violence was sneakily spreading in a secular country where President Bashar al-Assad was visibly popular. The Grand Mufti, who is considered one of the top three people in Syria, was uncertain why assassins targeted his 21-year-old son who was still studying in university, and was to get married the day he was killed. The answers came to him when he finally met his son’s killers. In one of his media interviews, he revealed how the two killers had no clue to either the identity of his son or motive. They were given the registration number of his car and a paltry amount of British pounds—350 each. His son’s life was worth only 700 pounds, the Mufti had said ruefully.
After meeting his son’s killers, who were barely out of their teens, the Mufti pleaded with the authorities that they should be freed, but they had to face due process of law. Since then, the Mufti has seen his beloved country bloodied by a war heaped on its people by competing regional and global ambitions. He was recently in Delhi where he grandly announced that the five-year war, which has left more than 4,00,000 people dead and dislocated millions of others, was about to end. With relief and joy written on his face, the Grand Mufti described in detail how the secular Syrian Arab Army with the help of allies had defeated terrorists from over 40 countries. He blamed some of Syria’s neighbours and world powers for the endless war that the Middle East region had been subjected to.
He claimed that these terrorists belonging to Daesh and other outfits like Nusra were recruited from different countries. There were many women, too, who were lured into this mythical Islamic State led by a Khalifa through Facebook or other social media platforms.
The Mufti said that the fighters had abandoned the women from Chechnya, Tunisia, Jordan and some European countries after they began to lose their hold over towns in the last few months. He also hinted that some fighters had been mysteriously air-lifted by helicopters to safe places. Perhaps the Grand Mufti was lending credence to the allegations by Russian armed forces that before the fall of Dier-al-Zor, Syria’s seventh largest city, unmarked aircraft had pulled out hardcore Islamic State fighters to safer havens.
The implications of the Mufti’s charge and that of the Russian armed forces are serious. There are obvious suggestions that the Islamic State was able to attain much success due to the support it received from covert operatives belonging to Western powers and their allies in the region.
Another example of this relationship, as pointed out by the Russian Defence Ministry, is the circumstances in which a three-star General was killed while on military duty in Syria. The Russians claimed that the location and coordinates of the General were provided to terrorists working together with US troops.
There have been no denials of these charges, but the bizarre manner in which the Arab Spring became a reason for regime changes in the Middle East by reviving old ethnic and sectarian fault lines has lessons for many societies, according to the Grand Mufti. He wanted India, a secular society that was under colonial rule like Syria, to remain vigilant about forces that wanted to disrupt settled societies. He gave the example of the Rohingya crisis that, in his reckoning, was getting inordinate publicity in the Western media. He believed the crisis was being used to destabilise not just Myanmar, but also China and India. Interestingly, the Mufti also visited Lucknow, which is a major centre of Islamic learning. Here he spoke about the need to rise above the sectarian divide between Shias and Sunnis, and look ahead and not backwards for inspiration.
In these times, when sectarian issues are reordering the Islamic World, the Mufti’s message gains great importance. The big question is—will he be on the winning side?