3 Sep 2013

In Dependence on Causes: Buddhism and Political Engagement

As I write this Western politicians are striving to convince their colleagues that we must begin a "limited" military action against Syria for the use of chemical weapons (though doubts emerged from the USA today about what "limited" might mean). Few if any Western politicians are mentioning the International Criminal Court which was set up to prosecute war-crimes. It's as though a violent assault in the UK or the USA was dealt with by dragging the alleged perpetrator into an alley and giving them a beating. In other words it is extra-judicial punishment. The fictional lawyer Horace Rumpole was frequently made to say that the right to a trial before a jury of one's peers was a "golden thread" that runs through British justice. If Assad is a war-criminal, and on balance I think this is the most likely conclusion, then there is a process we can go through to bring him to trial and justice. Slow though it may have been, people like Slobodan Milošević were brought to trial. The more we use this means, the more resources we give the court, the more effective it will be as a deterrent. If we subvert it, then we subvert our very civilisation.

All this political upheaval and conflict in the Middle-East is often presented without any sense of historical context. For example how many of us realise that the USA has taken action against Syrian governments in the past, including the toppling of an elected leader and his replacement with a violent military dictator? In living memory. Does this sound familiar? It ought to, because it has played out time and again in the history of Western imperialism in the Middle East. 

As Buddhists we are taught to seek the causes of events and phenomena. Ultimately, we are told, our own minds are inextricably linked to the creation of our world. On the one hand the search for causes leads us to question the status quo, but on the other the idea that it is our own minds which determine reality, leads us to naval gazing and indifference to the world. Indeed I've argued that most Buddhists are stuck in an unhelpful kind of mind/body dualism which makes the physical world, the world of human endeavour, ugly to us. We constantly seek to get beyond the human realm, to create "sacred spaces" in which we are insulated from that ugliness. When that ugliness follows us into the sacred space we can become quite vicious in response (as I have discovered to my great personal cost over the years). 

At present the idea of causes and conditions ought to be at the forefront of our attempts to understand the present. Why is what is happening, happening? If we don't understand why it is happening, how can we respond effectively? And as Buddhists claim to be the masters of this kind of analysis, we ought to be at the forefront of the public discussion, pointing out how past actions have lead to current consequences. But Buddhists are nowhere in the public discourse. Indeed we are mentioned in recent times only in connection with Buddhists taking up arms against their Muslim neighbours in Burma, egged on by 'fully ordained' bhikkhus (funny how we drop that phrase 'fully ordained' when the PR is negative). 

When it comes to history, Buddhists often simply shrug and make an oblique reference to the faults of saṃsāra. Political disengagement is casts a dismal pall over public life at present, and Buddhists are leading the retreat. Compare fundamentalist Christians in the USA and the power they now have to install presidents and lead policy. If we are going to change the world, it won't be by naval gazing.

In any case we could do with some historical perspective on the Middle East. The Arabic speaking peoples of the world don't hate the West without reason. For a couple of centuries most of the Middle East was under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. When presented with an opportunity to throw off their oppressor with British help during World War One, they overcame sectarians divides and fought together. The person who brokered the alliance was T. E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence, on behalf of the British Government offered the Arabs self-rule if they would help fight the Turks. An Arab state, under Prince Faisal with it's capital in Damascus was the prize they fought for. 

This vision of self-rule and freedom from Imperial power inspired the Arabs who drove the Turks back. When the Brits arrived via Egypt, the Arab forces had already liberated Damascus. It was a great victory and they were on the verge of a new world. However the British government had no intention of honouring the agreement made through Lawrence. They hung him out to dry and with the French divided Arabia up and took over. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement the British got the south: Egypt, Jordan and the, then new, oil fields of Southern Iraq. France took control of Northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. A number of artificial boundaries were set up. Straight lines on maps that cut through religious and ethnic communities. The Kurds fared worse than average being scattered through 3 or 4 of the new 'countries'. This happened in 1916, with the blessing of Imperial Russia. 

Not many Westerners remember the Sykes-Picot agreement, but I gather it is still a hot topic of conversation in the Middle East. Having thrown off the Turkish overlords, they got landed with Western European overlords instead. Imperial Britain has seldom been any better than any other imperium, and at times as bad as any empire in history. 

The various new countries gained their freedom and by the early post-war years Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt were all democratic to some extent. Well, elections were being held, though they were widely corrupt. Much like Britain in the early 1800s, wealthy landowners controlled the power and forced people to vote for their choices or bought votes where force won't work. The story of the USA's secret and not-so secret attempts to subvert the political processes in Syria are recounted in a book called 'The Game of Nations' (1968) and more recently in Adam Curtis's blog from 2011: The Baby and the Baath Water. At first they tried to nudge Syria towards a freer society. When that did not work they engineered a military coup which put a violent military dictator in power in 1949. He had promised to support American interests before the coup d'etat but immediately reneged. For several years Syria was racked by political unrest and coups. 

Then in 1954 democracy was restored. However: 
"The politicians - and most of the Syrian people - were now terrified of America, not just because of the interventions and the coup, but also because of their support for Israel. In response the new government turned to the Soviet Union for economic aid and friendship."
Already we start to see why Russia is reluctant to endorse the use of military force in Syria. In 1957 another CIA plot to overthrow the democratic government of Syria was uncovered. The plot was real. 

The vision of a Pan-Arab nation had not died with Sykes-Picot. President Nasser of Egypt nurtured such dream. So did the secular and modernising Baath (or Renaissance) Party. Amongst the Baathists in various places were a young Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad. The recent history of military coups and the dream of a united Arab republic helped the Baath Party to come to power, just as the recent instability helped the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt, only to be thrown out in a military coup. Across Arabia the people are looking for an alternative to the past. That past is dominated by sectarian divides, military coups, and US interference. Is it any wonder than people look to Islam to unite them and bring stability? 

The Ba'athist vision was submerged in sectarian politics and power plays. In Iraq Hussein was manipulated by the CIA into attacking their enemy, Iran (and Western nations sold arms to both sides of that war). In Syria Assad eliminated opposition and consolidated his power. He brutally put down a rebellion by the Sunni majority, lead by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. 

As Adam Curtis says:
"Back in the 1950s America set out to create democracy in Syria, but it led to disaster. It was by no means the only factor that led to the violence and horror of the Assad dictatorship, but its unforeseen consequences played an important role in shaping the feverish paranoia in Syria in the late 1950s - which helped the Baath party come to power. And while the Western powers no longer remember this history, the Syrians surely do."
One can read a similar story in the history of Iran where CIA plots put the Shah in power for 25 years only to be replaced in an Islamic revolution. And in most countries of the Middle East Western powers have played a deadly game of manipulation and greed. 

Actions have consequences. For complex actions in complex situations there are almost always unintended consequences. The conclusion for Buddhists seems to be a determined step away from the world. In the early days of my involvement in Buddhism I asked why we did not contest elections and try to influence decision making. I was told that the world of politics corrupts people. Twenty years on I can see that it does. Witness the great liberal hope, President Obama, condoning drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan and now urging US politicians to subvert International legal processes and, to use the buzz words of the day, "degrade the Assad regime". 

I submit that even if we only drop bombs on Assad himself we won't win any friends in Syria. US bombs dropping on Syria will be a long-term disaster because people in Syria have not forgotten the reasons Assad was able to come to power and the role of the US in that rise. 

With respect to the Middle East the problem is not so much that the people are incapable of participating in a democracy, but that the powerful, both locally and internationally, won't let them participate. In the UK the gradual release of power to the disenfranchised was a long, painful process. Women got the vote in the UK less that a century ago, and then it was only for women over 30. Almost a century later women are chronically under-represented in public life, at least in part because the powerful are slow to relinquish power. Indeed in the UK we can say that the powerful have made a substantial grab for power in the last 30 or 40 years and that democracy has been seriously undermined and even compromised. Wealthy international business empires, controlled by a smallish group of men with no loyalty to anyone but themselves, have far too much power at present. They collude with professional politicians from privileged backgrounds, whose road to power is smoothed by nepotism, to subvert the will of the people, to directly manipulate that will using powerful psychological techniques via the mass media. We're caught up in the technological spectacle of multimedia entertainment while we are gradually being disinherited and disenfranchised. We sold our soul for another season of The Wire. Frank Zappa presciently said decades ago that government is the entertainment wing of the military industrial complex. 

I complained about the disadvantages of our Western Buddhist demographic recently, but one of the advantages of our demographic is that we are more than averagely educated and articulate. Without much effort we can all write to our MPs and tell them what we think. I don't presume for a moment that there will be a single Buddhist view of things, but I can hope that we will reflect on causes and conditions and understand that our previous interventions have gone awry most of the time. We can articulate our views to politicians and decision makers. As voters our sole advantage of the wealthy and powerful is that we out-number them. If we consistently speak up in our millions then we will carry the day. If the Buddhist message is going to make a difference beyond the confines of our tiny lives then we must actively engage with society and argue for change. 

It's been said that "all it takes for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing". And most of us are not even good, we're just ordinary. I guess that most people see no other option at present, which may be why anti-depressant prescriptions are so popular. Thoughts of hopelessness are a key symptom of depression. 



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Keep is seemly & on-topic. Thanks.