The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Aleppo is about the sanctity and dignity of each and every human life

Girls who survived what activists said was a missile attack by forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hold hands at Aleppo’s Bab al-Hadeed district on April 7, 2015. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

This opinion piece is by Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. 

The tragedy — no, the genocide — in Aleppo is unfolding before our eyes. Less than a generation after the Srebrenica massacre and Rwanda, after “never again.”

Here we are again.

And yet there is also something different about this genocide. I don’t recall another that had so many ardent supporters on the two sides.

A Turkish friend wrote on my Facebook wall: “May Allah destroy all who help this massacre happen — Iran.” I reminded him that the destruction of a whole country is tantamount to genocide, but there was no retraction.

An Arab friend, a leading scholar of Islamic law, has gone on repeated anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian and anti-Family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt) rants on his Facebook wall. Again, no retractions.

Some Iranian Shiites have not fared any better, resorting to anti-Sunni, anti-Arab rants. No retractions.

As a Muslim, I am particularly agonized by this. We are a people who have been raised to speak out for justice, even if our voices shake. We are a people who are to speak the truth and stand up for justice even if it is against ourselves, against our parents and against our community. What a lofty and beautiful moral stance, and how short we have fallen of that moral high ground.

Washington Post editorial: The bloodbath in Aleppo will haunt humanity

I see most of us supporting the “side” that lines up with our sectarian affiliation and geopolitical interests. The Muslims who view the crisis of Aleppo as primarily a Russian/Iranian/Bashar al-Assad genocide of a defenseless population have been sharing the “Final Messages” of people of Aleppo like posts here and here (viewed more than 33 million times).

On the other side, Muslims who have celebrated Assad’s victories as “liberating” Aleppo from Islamic militant groups (Nusra/Jaysh/FSA) have resorted to quoting Eva Bartlett here, viewed almost 2 million times and featured on Russian-backed sites and Sputnik. They have taken to questioning the “final messages” from Aleppo.

Something about all of this seems rotten. We are determining our moral stance on a genocide based on our geopolitical commitments. Somewhere we were told that every human life is sacred, that every life has the breath of God inside. Somewhere we were told that to take one human life is as if to take the life of the whole of humanity, and to save one human life is as if to save the whole of humanity. Somewhere we were told that the life of a human is more sacred than the Ka‘ba itself.

And all along, hundreds of thousands of Syrians die.

If your stance on Syria is shaped by whether the killing is being done by Russia/Iran/Assad’s genocidal government, or by Nusra/Jaysh/FSA genocidal forces, you still haven’t gotten the part about the sanctity and dignity of each human life.

If we cry out against the victims for one side, and have not a mumbling word to say about the other victims, our partial mourning is rooted in a flawed sectarianism.

It’s not the identity of the killers that makes it a crime. It’s the humanity of the victims, the dignity that each of us is afforded by the virtue of having the breath of God inside us.

The battle for Aleppo, explained

Let us never succumb to lining up our moral commitments with geopolitics of a nation-state. It’s the geopolitical politics that have to line up with dignity of human lives, not the other way around.

May it be that we stand up not for Iran, not for Turkey, not for Saudi, not for Russia, not for the United States, but only for justice. This is not about Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Iranian. It’s about right and wrong. It’s about human dignity.

As a Muslim, I find my community in selective outrage. The same desire for moral consistency applies to us as Americans. Today I watched with admiration the powerful words of Ambassador Samantha Powers speaking at the United Nations, addressing Russia and Iran:

“Are you truly incapable of shame? …
Is there no act of barbarism against civilians,
no execution of a child,
that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out,
just a little bit?”

Yes, these are powerful words. I found myself nodding in agreement. Yet I wonder where the same moral outrage was in our own country’s use of drones against Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraq and Syria. Where was the same outrage when we bombed wedding parties and blew grandmothers to smithereens? Where was this moral display in Abu Ghraib and the forced feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? Where is the moral speaking to power when we destroyed Iraq and Afghanistan, enable the Israeli occupation of Palestine by providing both military and political cover for Israel, and expedited shipment of weapons to Saudi Arabia to wreak havoc upon Yemen?

As an American, I find the United States in selective outrage. We are shocked that the Russians would interfere in U.S. elections, when Americans have a long history of regime change in Iran (1953), Chile (1973) and elsewhere. We are aghast that the Russians would bomb defenseless populations, when we have bombed civilian populations for so long in so many places that it is not an aberration: It is tradition.

As the home to both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the United States has always been both a dream and a nightmare, particularly toward poor and marginalized people inside U.S. borders and in the global South.

I want us as Muslims to be a moral people. I want us as Americans to live up to the meaning of our creeds.

No, I don’t know how to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Yes, we feel helpless, angered, sad, devastated.

Let us do whatever we can to alleviate the suffering of Syrians. And let us become a moral people who put human dignity above geopolitical and sectarian interests.

Omid Safi is director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, one of the leading institutions for research on Islam and promoting publicly accessible scholarship on Islam and Muslim communities worldwide.

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