History provides an opportunity to recall the evolution of events in order to understand their current nature. The conflict in Gaza is one that, unfortunately, is between the Children of Abraham – a claim to a common religious ancestry. That common bond has some religious connotation and religion is a stimulus for emotions that goes beyond rationality.
The three main monotheistic religions have all emanated from the same area in the Middle East. It is interesting that they all have very similar fundamental concepts about the life of the human being on earth. In all of them, apart from providing guidance to the spiritual development for mankind, there is a God Who will always guide and save mankind by sending a messenger to deliver this special creation from oppression (by Moses a.s.), from the original sin (by Jesus a.s.) and from ignorance or Jahiliya (by Mohammed s.a.w.).
In all these deliverances, the road to spiritual emancipation has always been arduous. The messengers went through unimaginable hardships and sacrifices, not for themselves, but for humanity. They all emphasized the importance of justice, equality and compassion. Some even laid down the rules of war based on compassion for the adversary – women and children, even economic trees. In other words, there can’t be any victory or retaliation in any war that can be justified by a wanton destruction.
Nonetheless, history also has records of human brutality – be they religious or simply an expansion of hegemony – ranging from the pillages of Genghis Khan to the conquest by the Crusaders. From the human sacrifices of the ancient clans around the world, the appalling conditions of slavery of an entire race to the modern-day wars based on the concept of an end justifying the means, humans have consistently lost the outstanding traits that make them different from the other species – rationality and compassion.
Unfortunately, rationality can sometimes work against compassion as it can always seek to justify the means to an end. Compassion is very often defined as having pity or feeling sorry. It has a much deeper spiritual or ethical meaning which goes beyond being sorry for someone but rather it is a feeling of putting oneself in the shoes of the other.
An honest sentiment about events can be ridiculed by others because of the defects in their understanding them. That is because the biases of rationality can overcome the genuine feelings for compassion and thus, justify whatever means is used to attain the end. Compassion can be alienated when rationality completely takes over to justify whatever the outcome of actions may be. Such situations particularly arise in instances that are only viewed from a political and ideological perspective.
In considering the protracted conflict in Gaza or Palestine in general, it seems that it is not enough to state an opinion on the events. The perspective that is taken in arriving at any opinion seems to have a great influence on the outcome of the opinion. The debate and perspective the on Palestine have evolved into a balancing of security with freedom.
Emigration is another common feature of the three monotheistic religions – Moses a.s. from Egypt, Jesus a.s. from Judea and Mohammed s.a.w. from Mecca. Apart from being an important part of spiritual development, emigration has been a way of divine direction in seeking security from persecution.
The Jews have had a long history of being tormented in all sorts of atrocious manner. For the Jews, this culminated into an advocacy for a settlement (that’s a long history). Thus, security, for the Jews, is an optimum need and objective for a people who have been wondering the face of the earth from almost time immemorial.
However, the desire for a specific homeland was never initially a political or religious objective. Uganda was even considered as an allocation for settlement. The religious and political concerns were later developments as objectives. In fact, the first wave of Jews to move to Palestine from other parts of the world was in 1882. They settled amongst their brethren of Abraham, the common ancestor, with no animosity amongst them.
The idea of a formally recognized settlement only arose in later years. But it was never a well thought out process. It was more out of a political expediency at a time of seeking international support for an imminent world war and in the carving of the globe into hegemonies – a way of gaining a foothold in the distant Middle East. Thus, was born the Balfour Declaration – a recognition of a Jewish “national home” (not a state), for which some advocates openly declared their dissatisfaction that the declaration was short of establishing a state.
Good intentions do not always have the desired outcome, especially when implemented without the consideration of would-be affected persons and beneficiaries. Hence, in modern day politics, it has become generally understood that consultation is a fundamental part of diplomacy. That was lacking in the Balfour case.
Over the years, the belief in settling on the land of their forefathers began to develop political undertones and security concerns. The sense of insecurity heightened with the objection of the Arab states to the carving of a settlement without the authority or consent of the indigenes. For a people who have had thousands of years of persecution and attempts of being exterminated, living within an enclave of threats can arouse severe depths of existential fear.
It appears that this heightened fear has adversely grown to the point of turning the table of oppression. Life for the Palestinians becomes equated to the implementation of security measures by the relatively more powerful. Gaza (Palestine) became generally seen as an open prison where life is totally and meticulously controlled from outside and is now even commonly classified as a state of apartheid.
The people of Palestine came to be on the receiving end of the wielding stick of security and are struggling to hang on to a tenuous straw of a fading freedom. Thus, the case of Palestine has become as case for realizing freedom – a freedom that is being gradually and severely eroded and restricted.
How does one reconcile the two – security and freedom? Does the means justify their attainment – the heinous loss of life (women and children), extermination of entire families, bombing of schools, hospitals and ambulances and kidnappings? Yes, wars have consequences, but they indeed have rules too. These days, it has become difficult, if not tortuous, to watch the TV during these tense and emotional days, especially with the kids around.
Back to religion. It makes one wonder if the apprehension that was sincerely expressed by the angels to God for creating a being called a human is indeed real – that the human being would wreak havoc on the face of the earth. God assured the angels what they didn’t know – the provision of knowledge to mankind. What has not been made clear is how knowledge would and should be used for the continued and sustainable existence of mankind. It could and is indeed being misused.
The little evidence can be found in its impact on climate change, the very environment that is essential to the existence of life on earth. In other words, the misuse of knowledge is amply found in the sometimes-ephemeral lack of compassion in decision making on issues of an existential threat to mankind.
It appears that mankind always falls back on its base instincts of survival anytime there is a perceived threat. The building of walls with ultra-modern surveillance systems just to deter a fellow human seeking some security of livelihood and life itself is nowadays an unabashed common feature around the world; sometimes the attempts to turn away sinking migrant boats with desperate survivors occasionally fill the television screens whilst suicide bombings, even in places of worship of the same religion that is being advocated, seems to be a banal occurrence.
Compassion seems to vacate the hearts and minds of political decision makers, to the point of even being unable to even faintly pronounce the word “ceasefire” (much more to say “stop”) in the conflict of Gaza despite the public outcry of their constituents.
Life requires to be looked straight into its eyes of reality. Reality being that of seeing and appreciating things as they are – apolitical. Where such events are of a painful nature, seeing reality can generate compassion – having some feeling of what it means to be under similar circumstances. In any case, history remains what it has always been – recording events as they occur and more glaringly than ever before with the advancement of technology that makes memories last more vividly.
For those voices that may not be heard and who avoid talking about current events as it may be considered taboo to do so openly, in this part of the world, their stoic response that resonates with the feeling of compassion lies in the traditional of expression of empathy – an emotional and consistent whisper of the word “ndey-saan….” with the addition of “….daw-na yaram” or “…ah-balafa warata”. The last two phrases express a feeling of helplessness but with a wholehearted compassion. (NB: the word “ndey-saan” is common to several local languages in the Sene-Gambia region).
Security cannot be reconciled with freedom from a political perspective. Compassion must be the foundation of decision making to free the hostages, stop the war and attain a common peace for everyone.