Summary of the discussion October 6th
In his letter to the congregation at Philippi, Paul talks about people in the Church who “are seeking their own interests” (Phil 2:21). Part of Theresa May’s final speech to the Conservative Party Conference was an attack on those in society (business leaders and others) who do not have the interests and needs of the wider society in mind. It was clearly a bid for what she called the “centre ground” of UK politics, because of the sense that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has moved well to the “Left”. If serious, it represents a break from the traditional view that Capitalism functions best when everyone pursues their own interests, leaving the market to allocate resources and rewards. So how will this vision be translated into practical policies?
It was surprising that in her speech she made no mention of Syria, perhaps the most significant question involved in being “A Global Britain” (the title of one section of her speech). There is a Jewish principle (known as “Pikuach nephesh”) that the saving of life takes precedence over all commands in the Torah, except for the prohibitions against idolatry, murder and adultery. Has the Syrian situation now reached the point that this must be the priority, which could mean removing any threat of regime change, prosecution for war-crimes etc? Would either side accept this? Is it sometimes necessary to set aside “justice” in order to achieve peace, or is this wrong? (In the recent referendum in Columbia the agreement to end the civil war was narrowly rejected because it included amnesties necessary to bring the rebels to the negotiating table).
The Syrian conflict is sometimes characterised as a “Sunni-Shia dispute”, but this is to over-simplify. The population is majority Sunni Arab (about 60%), but with substantial minorities- Christian 13%, Alawite Shia 12%, Kurdish Sunni 9%, Druze 3%, other Shia 2% etc. (For a description from 2011, see http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Struggle_For_Syria.pdf).
Until 1918 the country was part of the Ottoman Empire, with a system of local provinces and semi-autonomous administrations for each religious group (known as “Millets”) which tried to preserve each group’s identity within the State. But after the defeat of Turkey in WW1 the Middle East was divided into “Mandates” given to Britain (Iraq, Jordan and Palestine) and France (Lebanon and Syria). The discovery of oil gave these countries greater strategic importance to Europe and the US
Syria’s instability is rooted in the minorities’ fear of what majority rule by the dominant Sunni Arabs might mean for their future. This allowed the Assad family (who are Alawite Shias) to gain power through the army, and helps to maintain their position today. There has also been a decline in Syrian cities of the influence of Sufism, an interpretation of Islam that stresses personal faith in God rather than political structures, and a corresponding growth in Salafism, which insists on a return to the origins of Islam in Qu’ran and Hadith (records of the actions and sayings of Mohammed), and is strongly influenced by Saudi Wahhabism (Al-Wahhab was a reformer in 18th century Arabia who was important for the development of the Saudi monarchy).
It seems clear that societies which value uniformity (of language, religion or culture), as did many European nations in the past, can become powerful in the short term, but risk creating conflict, internally or with neighbours. On the other hand societies that welcome diversity and help different groups to feel a part of the whole (as the Ottoman Empire tried to do) can appear weak but can also be very creative. This is perhaps something to be remembered in a post-Brexit Britain.