Most people who saw the photo of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Kurdish-Syrian toddler lying face down on a Mediterranean beach, might also remember the ensuing public outrage. Politicians and average citizens around the globe joined in a show of sympathy for the plight of Syrian migrants, an issue that until then had been a political impasse over which European cabinet ministers were quibbling.
It roused heartfelt commiserations everywhere. Yet that was when the Syrian war was in its fourth year, having already led to hundreds of thousands of casualties and nearly 4 million Syrians fleeing their homes. And if one were to look for the root causes of the Syrian instability, they went back decades before Alan Kurdi’s death to colonial French and British rule.
Why the general indignation over Kurdi’s death? And why the relatively quick resumption of indifference soon after – not only toward Syrians, but also toward many others facing violence and displacement and despite the overwhelming evidence that more Alan Kurdis might be dying daily because of man-made events?
Part of the reaction in Kurdi’s case might lie in the effect of art – the photo taken by Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir. And the general indifference before and after Kurdi’s death regarding the Syrian migrants can be explained by the modern habit of browsing through countless news reports, which weakens the ability to distinguish between the important and the trivial, programming the reader’s emotional reflexes based on continuous shifts and successive events.
A more serious reason might be the propensity for insular thinking regarding those lying outside our national boundaries, or regional, ideological or social group. In other words, the attitude of placing “others” outside our range of humanitarian empathy. The disposition nurturing this attitude, conscious or unrealized, dominates our thinking until something becomes too obvious to ignore, generating a moral pang that leads to a rush of sympathy toward the victims. But this occurs piecemeal, and often too late.
This is something that must be avoided regarding an upcoming potential target of a military aggression, Iran. The moment for anti-war protests, sit-ins and activism is right now when pre-emptive action can sway political decisions – Donald Trump’s, to be precise. Anti-war activism should act as though war with Iran is already inevitable.
Organized activism can challenge the current hostile provocations and prevent them from further escalation. Without such opposition, it will be left to the Trump administration to decide whether millions of Iranians should face tragedy or not.
Humanitarian corrective action to remedy the effects of war is usually ineffective once war sets in and assumes its ruinous logic
Humanitarian corrective action to remedy the effects of war is usually ineffective once war sets in and assumes its ruinous logic. I know this out of personal experience as an Afghan, many millions of whom have been dealing with war for four decades.
The situation in Afghanistan where I’ve lived most of my life is by now well known. The country has become a byword for the “long war” and is known as an infamous center of the narcotics trade. Its people are commonly understood as disorderly ethnic groups thanks to perfunctory 19th-century chronicles written by British colonial agents, who were willing to fight one another as readily as any foreign invader – a reputation that sustains the now growing belief that Afghanistan is a hopeless cause.
While the physical or psychological taint of war is difficult to remove entirely, raving xenophobia and racism abroad are an added offense, actively trying to prevent the Afghans from sharing in the borrowed prosperity of the East or West. In short, what can be done for Afghans to lessen their pain, although necessary, is often too little too late.
This is largely the case with war-torn societies everywhere. Iranians shouldn’t become the latest victims.
Anti-war activism remains the strongest residue of hope to stymie the possibility of war with Iran. Sadly, global organizations guaranteeing peace like the United Nations are becoming increasingly irrelevant under a US administration that derides globalism.
Even when bodies like the UN mattered, principled opposition against war by the international system in the second half of the 20th century largely failed to include much of Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Latin America, South Asia and Southeast Asia, casting them as fair play for big-power rivalry and in effect excluding them from the core constituency of international politics – and were widely ignored in mainstream media until some part of it became worthy of attention, like Afghanistan after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, in the US. War was appalling if it affected the core. This exception might be applied on Iran no matter the stance the UN takes, as it was on Iraq in 2003.
After walking away from the Iranian nuclear deal, which closed the door on diplomacy, the pretext by the Trump administration of freeing Iranians from authoritarianism is similar in tone to previous such cases, including Iran itself once before in the 1950s, which overthrew a democratically elected government in the country that could have proved inimical to US interests – an incident that opened the way for the current clerical regime to gain power in the absence of alternatives. A regime that the US now wishes to coerce.
The growing pressure to force the Iranian regime to bend to US demands might soon overpower the ability of civic activism to tame its course. Open hostility with Iran is imminent because the chance of accidental misjudgment has been dangerously increased by the US, in ways eerily similar to previous cases of such provocation.
Recent wars by the US have been waged often with the illusion of being able to control its aftermath and followed by debilitating failures to do so, endangering the lives of those who become its unwilling victims – ordinary civilians. Iranians may become the latest victims of mindless violence if global public opinion remains indifferent. If anti-war activism is to have any effect, it’s now, and not when Iranian Alan Kurdis become collateral damage of Trump’s military aggression.