Reacting in moderation: How not to let the death of those in Gaza be in vain

Smoke, SyriaBy Mehdi Rifai

First off, an easy confession for me to make is that what is happening in Gaza appalls me, and makes me rethink a lot of my former “moderate” opinions concerning Israel. It has been my opinion for some time that Arab grief over Palestine has been stuck too long in the “anger” and “denial” phases, and that perhaps it is time to move on to some strong bargaining and get what we realistically can out of the whole situation. The recent events, however, while only proving once again the disdain Israel has for the international community and their conventions regarding the rules of war and proportionality, does make me wonder how much we can achieve negotiating with a people that have become so incredibly fascist and over-reactionary. The age of leaders in Israel who, while we might hate them, we can respect is over. Israel has become as tactless and inefficient as the Americans in their recent war efforts, and therefore deserve nothing but contempt.

That said, how we phrase our contempt should be a matter of extreme study. Right now, all eyes are on us, and the international community seems to finally agree that the Israel situation is completely out of hand. It’s therefore a little disturbing for me when I receive, as I had this morning, a mass email falsely claiming to feature quotes from Hollywood stars talking about the situation, fabricating quotes like “Arabs are dirty creatures that must be annihilated.” One of those quoted, Keanu Reeves, was born in the American University Hospital in Beirut and has always been proud of it. Another, Harrison Ford, an Irish Catholic, is quoted as saying that “We the Jewish people are the chosen ones, and therefore need to destroy the Arab stain on Jerusalem.”

These blatant lies only serve to make us look ridiculous in the eyes of the people who can help us overcome this situation with a gain, and who can finally make the Israeli government revise these murderous tactics. You don’t think that these emails are noticed, or they have no effect? I’ll tell you about another forwarded email I got when I was in Canada. These were of a real protest in London, one I had actually seen on the news a few days earlier, and was embarrassed to see what some people had decided to write on the signs. “Behead all the enemies of Islam,” said one, while another claimed that soon, an Islamic wave would wash over Europe, wiping it clean. The caption under all these pictures was “Do you still think the war on terror is not necessary?”

“I wish people would keep Islam out of it,” says one friend of mine, who prefers to remain anonymous. “There are plenty of reasons to be angry with Israel, but when people propagate stories like all Muslims will one day march on Israel and wipe them away, except for those who hide behind sycamore trees, since those were always Jewish trees, people stop taking us seriously. I don’t hate Israel because I’m Muslim. I hate them because they kill indiscriminately, and don’t use the technology and weaponry that they’re so proud of, and claim is so precise, to minimize casualties. I hate them because they cut off aid, and don’t recognize the conventions that allow personnel like UN and Red Cross and Crescent workers safe passage to heal and help the injured and the helpless on both sides. I hate them because they block every agreement that would ban certain weapons, such as WMDs or, on a much smaller but practically deadlier scale, land-mines. I hate them because as a supposedly democratic country, they allow the people that represent them to commit atrocities like this unhindered. It is not my religion that makes me angry with them; it’s my human decency.”

What we say and how we react to these situations is most definitely noticed, which is why our reactions must be studied and educated, not emotional and unbridled. Many I have told this too say, “Well, it’s impossible to control all your reactions, and we need to “Fish Khilq” (blow off steam) somehow.” To this, I say, no, you don’t need to blow off steam; you need to take that steam and use it to power some kind of motion forward. Use your emotions to finally make some headway in a situation that has kept us down as a people for so long. Israel has finally lifted its mask to reveal its true, and ugly, face; now is the time to make progress.

Grave reflections this Remembrance Day

Many in Syria don’t know this, but in the West, November 11 is the day where we remember wars past in order to prevent them in the future. “Lest We Forget” is a slogan often repeated but seemingly seldom understood, as though we remember past atrocities on this day, it seems we cannot stop ourselves from committing new and fresh ones today, and plan on doing so again tomorrow.

Grave of an unkown soldier. His sacrifice is not forgotten.

Grave of an unkown soldier. His sacrifice is not forgotten.

Still, it is encouraging that, for at least one day, we stand against war and denounce it wherever it may take effect. Remembrance Day, or Veteran’s Day in America, is also the day we honor fallen soldiers, those who put their lives in the hands of generals and presidents, and were sent to their deaths in the belief that those generals and presidents were guiding them to a brighter tomorrow, and that their actions would protect their loved ones back home, wherever home may be. Their bravery is exemplified, as it should be, and the sacrifice that they made is highlighted for these brief moments before we move on with our own daily lives.

Today, a Remembrance Day service was held at the memorial cemetery at the end of Mezzeh, where foreign service men and women from countries around the world are buried here in Damascus. The grounds are beautiful, and the up keep is an example to the rest of the city, truly an area where you can contemplate the enormity of these young people’s sacrifice in the wonder of nature. These brave soldiers gave their lives defending their country, and the world, against those who would threaten their sovereignty and security of their homelands and ours. In World War I, it was the Ottomans that had long oppressed the Arab peoples, and had joined forces with the Germans. World War II saw the arrival and stranglehold of the Vichy, Nazi Germany’s French arm.

All in all, 1165 men and women are buried here, laid side by side regardless of their faiths and nations, in death as they were in life, one strong united front. Also present were diplomat, members of the international community, priests and imams. Especially touching was how Father Elias Fransis and Sheikh Hassan Mohammad al-Jamal took turns honoring the dead soldiers and their sacrifice in the city where, as Colonel Roy Forestell, Canadian Defense Attaché and officiator of the ceremony, said, “by tradition, has fostered understanding and tolerance between faiths for many centuries.

After the ceremony, we were allowed to wander the grounds, and take a solemn look at all those who lay there beneath us. As I was observing the grave of an unknown soldier, or as his epitaph put it, “known unto god,” I recognized and welcomed Ambassador Simon Collis, who appears in this month’s FW. “What’s always shocking when you visit these grave sites is how young they all were,” he told me, as we observed a fallen serviceman, who left us when he was only 23. As I near birthday 27, I realize how much I have to live for, but for this one soldier, 23 was all he was ever going to see.

Many doubt the sincerity of this gesture, but I’m here to tell you that for many this is truly a day of condolence and repenting past transgressions. When I was living in Toronto not too long ago, I used to sing with the Toronto Choral Society. One of the concerts we put on was for Remembrance Day, and as we were singing the Agnus Dei set to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, I remember looking around and seeing many of the sad and tear stained faces in the audience. When the cynical voice inside my head subsided (“God, do they have absolutely no self control?”), it really affected me that there are people in this world who, though they have no true experience of war, but the mere thought of it saddens them to the point of tears.

It is too bad these people haven’t been in power these past eight years. It seems to me that the folks in Washington have had too many leaders that were gun happy and reason shy. This latest incursion on Syrian sovereignty, especially, seems a criminal attempt by a retreating Republican administration to instate a scorched earth policy as it slinks back to Hades, worsening relations between Syria and America before President Elect Barack Obama even has the chance to reach out to us and change the broken US foreign policy. Vice-President Elect Joseph Biden did say America was going to face a test, and this one seems tailor made by George Bush and his cronies. The Republicans are counting on what they perceive as the planet’s stupidity and lack of memory, and hope that as the situation overwhelms Obama, they can call him a failure before he even reaches office. We are not stupid, however, and we will not forget the face of our true enemies, and one day, justice may prevail, and those who attacked us in Syria will be made to pay dearly for what they dared to do.

Today is a day of forgiveness and reflection however, and on the 90-year anniversary of the end of World War I, the Great War, I remember something I read in the late Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” No one would believe that this funny little book has influenced nearly every aspect of my life, from my belief in God, personal responsibility, desire, and family relationships. The image that most stands out to me, however, is something that was in the prologue of the book, where Vonnegut wrote, “When I was a boy, …, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day [now Remembrance Day], which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in 1918, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So, we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”