Setting the Middle East ablaze

By Savi Hensman
September 18, 2012

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire,” wrote James two thousand years ago, in a letter read in many churches last Sunday. He warned that “every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”

Modern means of communication have brought benefits to humankind but also increased the incendiary potential of hate-filled and malicious words. This has been demonstrated by the violence that has erupted over a crudely offensive, badly-made anti-Muslim film on the internet.

Through inflammatory words and images, extremists of various faiths and none have literally set parts of the Middle East alight, seeking power for themselves at the cost of deepening divisions and destroying lives. Nigeria, Pakistan and other countries too have been affected. Wiser leaders of various faiths and none have sought to restore peace and rebuild relationships.

Yet far worse may lie ahead.

In recent weeks, controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme – which its government insists is for energy purposes only but critics fear may lead to nuclear weapons – has intensified. Benjamin Netanyahu, the hardline prime minister of Israel (which itself has nuclear weapons), has claimed that Iran may be only six months from having atomic weapons, which would be a danger to Israel.

Though the US government has tried to persuade him to tone down his rhetoric, he has urged it to draw a “red line” and hinted that Israel may act if it does not. A senior commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, has warned that “nothing would remain” of Israel if it were to attack Iran and that US bases, too, would be hit, given its close alliance with Israel and likely complicity.

Given the fragility of the international economic situation, even low-level conflict could damage prospects of recovery, quite apart from the political and human cost. The UK government reportedly sent a high-ranking envoy to Israel about three weeks ago strongly warning against any unilateral strike on Iran. But the UK is closely allied with the USA, and in turn is a European Union member.

Likewise, Iran’s allies, and sections of the public even in hostile countries, might react strongly to anything perceived as aggression. There is a risk that any conflict could escalate.

The USA and its allies, including the UK and France, have embarked on a major naval exercise in the Gulf that they say shows a global determination to keep oil shipping lanes open. There are concerns that Iran – which is planning its own massive military exercise in October – might seek to disrupt these if conflict breaks out.

Fiery speeches and macho gestures may bolster leaders’ ratings in certain quarters. But they carry serious risks in the current volatile situation.

An Israeli military offensive against Iran would be “unacceptable,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, voicing concern at the fierce rhetoric. “An attack against a country is unacceptable and the idea of a counter attack isn’t acceptable either.”

As James pointed out, “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for* those who make peace.”


(c) Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious issues. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate.

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