I made a mistake. I had been thinking about the confused and confusing situation in the Middle East, and about in particular a Kurdish man called Mahmoud whom we met in Turkey, and who had said with some bitterness that people (us) talk about “The Middle East” as if it were some sort of abstraction on a map on a screen. “But we are living here.” he told us, and repeated it several times. I was reading an article that mentioned the Syrian city of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic Caliphate, and I wanted to find out a bit more about the place.
I asked Wikipedia, which supplied the picture above. I discovered that the city was founded on the banks of the Euphrates some time around 230 BC by Seleucid king Seleukos II Kallinikos, who naturally called the place after himself. It had a brief name change when the Emperor Leo called it Leontopolis, but it seems people preferred Kallinikos, so it reverted to that name. The place was sacked in 542 by the Persian Sasanid Shahanshah Khusrau I Anushirvan, and was rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian. It became a centre for Christian monasticism. In the year 639, just seven years after the Prophet’s death, the Muslim conqueror ‘Iyāḍ ibn Ghanm took the city. After that it was called Ar-Raqqah (الرقة). The following year the first mosque was built.
Because of its central situation in the expanding Muslim world, (see above, click to enlarge) the Abbasids built a big garrison there. In the years 796 – 809 it was the Imperial Residence of Sultan Haroun Al Rashid who features so prominently in the Arabian Nights. After that it went into decline, was occupied by Bedouin tribes, and had a brief resurgence in the late 12th to early 13th centuries before being destroyed by the Mongols in 1288. For a while the ruins were a Bedouin camp, an Ottoman customs outpost. The Ottomans resettled the city from 1864 onwards, where they settled Bedouin Arabs and Chechen refugees from the wars in the Caucuses. In the mid-20th century it became a centre for cotton production. The ruins were almost entirely covered over by settlements.
After that, the Wikipedia article gets to the role of Raqqa in the Syrian civil war. It was liberated from Assad by Al Nusra Front militants in March 2013. Islamic State took over in June of that year. In January 2014, in total control of the city, they closed all educational institutions. In July they overran the nearby Syrian Army base, and executed many soldiers. There were air-strikes against the headquarters in September 2014 by the US and others, and these appear to be continuing and intensifying.
With Mahmoud’s words in mind, I wanted to know what the place looked like. What I expected to see was a middle-eastern town similar to places I had seen in south-eastern Turkey, not far across the border. The picture in my mind was a bit like the image above, though with more minarets and cell-phone towers, and presumably now full of rubble and broken buildings, like some picture from the Blitz. But I wanted to get some actual pictures of Raqqa. Without really thinking, I went to Google Images, entered the city’s name and pressed return. That was the mistake.
Google dutifully went off and retrieved a huge number of pictures that it has associated with the word “Raqqa”. Instead of images of a city, or of the wartime ruins of a city, what flooded the screen were photographs of mind-wrenching cruelty and death. Horrified and mesmerised my eye scrolled down the screen. Image after image of deliberately inflected suffering; backs whipped raw, crucifixions, beheadings, mass and individual executions by bullet, knife, stone and so on and on and on down the screen. The victims included men and women, the aged and the young. The things that are being done to them are not unimaginable because each of us has a human body, and can only too well imagine the experience of suffering depicted. Do not look at these images. They will lodge in your mind.
I managed to break free by closing the browser. What I had seen, I told myself, were images of hell. I thought of Hieronymus Bosch, and went to remind myself about his depictions of hell.
When it comes to depicting hell and cruelty, the Renaissance masters are amateurs. Bosch’s hells are hellish, but they are nowhere near as hellish as Raqqa. The bodies of the Bosch sufferers are whole, they hardly bleed, their faces are composed into resignation. Their torments are obscure, their tormentors are not human, but have the faces of beasts both real and imaginary. The whole thing is an artwork, shrouded in symbolism and allegory, and its creator is not in sympathy with the depicted events. Hell in Raqqa is different. More horrifying and with the banal reality of digital photos.
The crucifixions on the Raqqa page were worse than the Grunewald crucifixion. The outrage to the flesh is the same, but their victims have none of Christ’s depicted dignity, and are not surrounded by apostles bearing the apparatus of a church. Their suffering has no redemptive dimension.
The pictures of scourged people are not lightly whipped like Titian’s Jesus. They lie unconscious, looking more like lumps of freshly-butchered meat, while the blood runs beneath them. The beheadings are not beautifully lit like Caravaggio’s picture of Salome.
I don’t know what to do with so much horror. I can’t un-see it. I’m quite good at taking a detached view of things but this visceral stuff goes straight to the unconscious and stirs. The words of J M Coetzee in his 1988 clash with Nadine Gordimer over COSAW’s disinviting of Salman Rushdie to a conference in South Africa after local Muslim organisations had put pressure on them, came to me:
“Islamic fundamentalism in its activist manifestation is bad news. Religious fundamentalism in general is bad news. We know about religious fundamentalism in South Africa. Calvinist fundamentalism has been an unmitigated force of benightedness in our history.
“Lebanon, Israel, Ireland, South Africa, wherever there is a bleeding sore on the body of the world, the same hard-eyed narrow-minded fanatics are busy, indifferent to life, in love with death. Behind them always come the mullahs, the rabbis, the predikante (ministers), giving their blessings.” (from the Guardian)
Perhaps Coetzee had no idea how bad the news could get. He was after all protesting over the exclusion of a single writer from a conference. But he could correctly see the thread that connected the threats of violence implied by the local fundamentalists all the way to an as-yet-unrealized Raqqa.
I am aware that Iraq and Syria are populated by huge numbers of disaffected youth, denied entry into modernity, traumatised by Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, then by repeated wars waged on Iraq; by the realities of living under Assad followed by years of bloody civil war. If blame is being apportioned, the US military-industrial machine must take a fair share of it.
There was an analogous situation in South Africa – Apartheid created a huge sector of disaffected youth, denied entry into modernity, traumatised by ceaseless oppression. The Apartheid State, its ideology and activities, were squarely to blame. But we worked it out, and continue to muddle through without turning our country into the most literal manifestation of hell on earth that I have seen.
It is clear that the Islamic State is carrying out crimes against humanity. They are gleefully boastful about it, using the images to attract other like-minded psychopathic fundamentalists (now legion in the wake of the melt-down in the middle east) to their cause – offering participation in the exercise of power and subjugation instead of being at the receiving end, and all justified in the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate, by a Wahabism-on-steroids ideology.
The American response has been to bomb. That didn’t work last time, and seems unlikely to work again unless circumstances change significantly. More probably it will perpetuate the cycle of violence. One difference is that the Iraqi state seems desperate for the bombing to take place, and have invited it. Several Arab despots have joined in. Assad has not, to my knowledge, protested the violations of Syrian airspace. The Islamic State threatens everybody, and has made a large number of enemies as a result. Perhaps the they have made so many that Raqqa’s future will be like that of Homs, and Kallinikos will again become a ruin, a Bedouin encampment, a garrison.
I have no idea what a “correct” response to the Islamic State should be, if one were possible. Brought up as I was in the shadow of the Second World War, I have long been comfortable with the idea of a “justified war” – and although many aspects of Allied conduct were highly questionable, it seems obvious in retrospect that WWII was necessary. There is no such comfortable hindsight with the Islamic State, and nor is it obvious that a conventional war could succeed. But there is still the matter of the crimes against humanity being carried out. Genocide is only a part of their intentions, and they are putting their intentions into practice daily and posting pictures of it on the internet.
When those with power (the UN etc.) did nothing in Rwanda, a genocide resulted and people were understandably unhappy with the lack of intervention. Just exactly how should the Islamic State be dealt with? What is the rest of the world’s responsibility to the victims?