Can Assad Hold Back The Arab Spring Tide In Syria?

More than a year since the start of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ it has become clear that the predicted collapse of the numerous dictatorships throughout North Africa and the Middle East will not be happening at the pace some had hoped. It certainly has not happened in the same way the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe changed in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. With hindsight, it is clear why this could not have been the case. Almost all (Yugoslavia excepted) of communist Europe relied heavily on the central authority of Moscow for military, security and financial support, as was shown by the responses to various popular uprisings in the 1950s and1960s, most notably Hungary in the Autumn of 1956. This created an atmosphere of mistrust among the citizens of the country, with the state feeling no need to curry popular support from any section of society. With the start of Perestroika in the USSR during the middle to late 1980s, the governments of Eastern Europe were left with an empowered populace determined to change the status quo and little state power to prevent them. This has not been the story in North Africa and the Middle East. There is no single dominant central power dictating and enforcing policy in the region, much of the income of the region is dependant on the export of natural resources to foreign markets (most notably crude oil) rather than heavy industry, tending to empower an autocratic despot still further by not relying on near full employment levels for economic stability. The history of European communism since the death of Stalin seems to suggest that ruling by committee without an unchallengeable tyrant was the government of choice (Yugoslavia & Romania excepted), this gives greater stability when the state is strong by spreading the strain or pooling resources and loyalties but once cracks appear under severe pressure, the lack of a central authority figure for those in power to gather around can lead to further rifts and fragmentation, possibly precipitating governmental collapse.

However, the overriding factors in the success or fall of governments under popular revolt seem to be:

  1. Does the current government accept there must be a change and will they go without being forced?
  2. Has the current government lost control of the military?
  3. Do the rebels have adequate resources to fight or do they have any outside (foreign) aid?

When we look at this list in this order and compare them with the list of states to have had successful rebellions in the ‘Arab Spring’ and the order in which they fell (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) we can see that as soon as a ‘no’ answer appeared to a question, the government fell. It may seem fairly obvious that if the government has no will or resources to hod on to power they will lose it but it is also quite unusual for those in power to relinquish it easily and not to have contingencies in place to support them, especially within the military.

Clearly, Syria has not reached any of these points yet. Assad will not go anywhere willingly and excepting a few deserters, the majority of the armed forces are still under his control. The international community is wary of supporting a dispersed and disorganised rebel army whose leadership, power and political polices are largely unknown. Currently, the situation appears to be unwinnable for both sides, the uprising is too powerful, numerous and widespread to be crushed by Assad and his government forces but without outside assistance the rebels have little chance against a trained, organised and well equipped army. The current trend in the international community is to look for a peaceful solution based on government reform and more popular representation. However, many of the diplomats pushing these ideas are from The ‘Arab League’, whose membership consists of states who are (in the most part) dictatorships. Clearly instability in the region is bad for all of them but the thought that another of their number could fall victim to a revolutionary movement that still threatens them must surely be a worry. It is stability and peace that concern them, not liberty and justice.

In Libya, the geography and demography of the country made rebel support fairly simple and almost risk free. Almost all the population centres and military installations are near the coast, using modern aircraft carriers and battleships to provide air support for the rebel fighters proved an effective way of removing a largely unpopular dictatorship without the use for ground troops. This could not happen in Syria. With many of the population centres far inland and at altitude, effective air support for untrained guerilla fighters would prove difficult and would be unlikely to succeed without providing active ground troops to support the rebel forces. Given the close political links between Syria and Iran and the incredible worldwide unpopularity of the war in Iraq, ground troops are really not a viable option.

Nor should they be. One of the major failures of Western foreign policy in recent years has been the underlying belief that governments in the developing world should be encouraged, coerced or cajoled into running their economies for the benefit of us rather than their own citizens. The conviction that what is good for them cannot be good for us and vice versa is a long-held misconception that is prevalent in the corridors of power throughout the Western world. The conservative short-termism implicit in this belief is undeniable. Flourishing, developed economies need partners to trade with, the more equal or near-equal trading partners you have the stronger you will all be. Imposing Western-dependant governments, even if those governments are democratically elected, in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan is not a long-term solution. Propping-up pro-Western despots like the Shah in Iran or Mubarak in Egypt may provide temporary stability but only at the expense of long-tem development. Allowing (Egypt) or enabling (Libya) the citizens of a country overthrow their own government and giving them the choice to run their state affairs for their own benefit is the only long-term solution. Much of the political and religious instability and fanaticism throughout the region could be tempered and moderated by fair and equitable development. Treating them as political equals rather than noisy, troublesome peasants who deserve to be tricked into selling their prized assets on unfair terms will only exacerbate the ill-feeling towards the West many of these people feel.

It’s not the decadent, modern lifestyle that we lead that leaves many Arabs feeling resentment towards us. You only have to look at the popularity of many aspects of Western culture and technology throughout the region to see that. Its our arrogant belief that only we deserve it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as I can.

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Capping Benefits Will Not Cause Child Poverty

One of the main stories in the news this week is the government proposal to cap the total amount payable in state benefits to a family with children at a maximum of £26,000 per annum (or £500 per week) and the House of Lords attempts to block this cap. This amount has not been plucked out of the air, it has been chosen because it is the amount of money (after tax) that an average wage earning family would have available to spend. Families receiving out of work benefits to do with disability or illness will be exempt from the cap. Currently, the amount of benefit received by a family is not limited in any way, more children means more money, as do higher housing benefit costs.

The idea of a cap set at a fixed, arbitrary level seems to have strong public support, especially among those working but earning low salaries, who appear to be working to support their families yet find themselves unable to provide their families with a lifestyle that may be available to them if they were not working. However there are sections of society who are resisting having a limit to the amount payable to some families, with their main objections to the bill being that all cases should be assessed separately and that families with high housing costs or large numbers of children in the household should not be punished by the state for being out of work.

Many people (me included) believe that having an income equivalent to that earned in an average working household is quite enough for any family to live on, regardless of size. If a family’s housing benefit costs are so high as to be eating up a huge proportion of their total benefits cap, they are free to move to a cheaper area, that is after all what all working families have to do. I cannot see this being the huge, nationwide problem reported in some parts of the press. London has much higher housing costs than all other parts of the UK and also happens to have the most comprehensive transport infrastructure (meaning the move would be less disruptive) and the most buoyant jobs market (meaning less excuses for being out of work long-term), those claimants living in London may experience most of the problems associated with these changes but also have the most chance of being able to deal with them easily.

I have heard it said that these changes may push many children into poverty. I think this is entirely the wrong attitude to have, the parents of these children need to look at themselves if they are unable to provide what they believe their children need. The government is not preventing them from working and it is not the government’s responsibility to pick up the tab for ever-increasing family size. Most people do not choose to have families they know they will be unable to support, this is called ‘being responsible’. The idea that it is a ‘right’ to have as many children as you like, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer (you & me) will foot the ever-increasing bill, while the majority struggle to provide our families with what they need with little or no outside help is clearly not ‘right’ or ‘fair’ (incidentally these are the very terms used by those who disagree with me) .

What exactly is the definition of ‘Child Poverty’? The existing social infrastructure prevents all forms of absolute poverty in all but the most extreme of cases. We do not have children starving to death or dying of easily treated illnesses (cases of child neglect excepted) as happens in some countries in other parts of the world. The poverty we are speaking about here is known as relative poverty, measured against other members of the society in which they live. While a family can be judged as being in poverty based on numbers and statistics, when it comes to individual members within a family unit it is not so simple. Not owning a smartphone, iPod or trainers with air bubbles and flashing lights may be a sign of not having much money but does it really mean you are so poor as to be deprived of what is necessary for your general well-being? If judging poverty from a child’s point of view, do the societal norms of the childs immediate surroundings get taken into account? I was lucky enough to be sent to a private school, yet among my peers I was considered relatively poor, clearly not poor when placed in the setting of society at large but given the socio-economic background of the English public school system my family were near the lower end of the income scale. Even in families with a bare minimum of expendable income, children need not go without things they need, as long as all the family do not spend what little money they have on things they merely want. Relative poverty is supposed to indicate when a person has to go without things that most members of society take for granted. I may take for granted being able to turn the heating on or being able to afford to eat meat every day but I certainly wouldn’t put foreign holidays or subscription TV into this bracket.

The fundamentals of this argument over who is to blame for a child’s poverty boil down to whose responsibility you believe it is to ensure a child’s well-being. In the first instance this should surely be the parent’s, I would not imagine many people thinking it a good idea for the state to install surveillance cameras in a home after a child’s birth to monitor the parenting skills on show but most would see it as the state’s responsibility to step in if the care given was seen to be inadequate, abusive or neglectful. It is also the case that it must be first the parent’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of their children. Given that the vast majority of parents manage to provide for their children perfectly adequately, even with many having much lower incomes than the cap under current proposal, any form of poverty or deprivation evident in the child’s upbringing cannot and should not be seen as being caused solely by a change in government policy.

If you have a child who you are unable to raise, stop looking around for others to blame. You are not the only one in your circumstances, others are managing. If you can’t, don’t blame them, or the government, or me. Blame yourself.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as I can.

Seeing is not believing

I was recently speaking to a man who believed he had a guardian angel on the basis he had witnessed this angel saving his life. He had fallen asleep at the wheel of his car and awoke to find his angel sitting in the passenger seat holding the wheel straight. I presume that this sight shocked him into full consciousness at which point his angel disappeared and he resumed driving himself. I don’t know the full details of the story as I didn’t want to press him into trying to remember the finer points of what was clearly a dream. I have enough trouble remembering any dreams I have, even at my point of waking. He knew I didn’t believe that he had actually had an encounter with an angel but he was convinced that had I witnessed what he had, my own conclusions and beliefs would be similar to his.

The phrase “Seeing is believing” has become entrenched in common parlance with reference to events or occurrences that are uncommon or even miraculous. It rests on the biological fact that humans use sight more than any other sense for knowledge of their surroundings, leading us to trust our eyes even with other sensory information to the contrary. As a human, if you see something but do not hear or smell it, you will still be convinced of its existence. This does not work the same way for other senses, we have all heard, smelt and tasted things that weren’t there, even things that couldn’t have been there. Touch can be confused when used in isolation from the other senses and is of little use (except for vibration) when witnessing events not intimately close to you or for anticipating their outcome. This is certainly not true for all mammals, a child may be tricked by a convincing model or statue but this is not normally the case for a dog, who will rely on its sense of smell far more than sight, or indeed an echo-locating bat, who rarely (if ever) uses sight at all. We, as primates are genetically programmed to recognise parts of patterns and reconstruct the missing pieces in our mind to be aware of the whole. Safer to see the non-existent wolf than to miss the real one. This is extremely helpful in avoiding predation from semi-camouflaged animals in the forest or long grass and in our increasingly intelligent minds became an important tool, enabling us to predict aspects of the future based on previously witnessed events such as the coming of spring with the movement of celestial bodies or the fertile regrowth of certain plants following a wild-fire.

Given that these psychological aspects of us underwent positive genetic selection pressure (those who could see these patterns would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes than those who could not), it is not surprising that with time they became more acute, with people not just seeing the physical events but also superimposing divine action on top. This would appear to be the start of many worldwide pagan religions based on the “spirits” that reside in or control many aspects of the natural world. This gave people the ability to explain away the unpredictable aspects of the climate, giving reason for the dried up riverbed or failed seasonal floods. Aspects of humankind’s genetic make-up that had helped them survive for so long were now causing them to invent false superstitions (are there any other kind?) and divinities with ulterior motives. Sacrifice and reverence were needed to placate these malignant forces (if we want these items why wouldn’t our god?), now our genetics were starting to work against us as a sacrifice to a god can only be seen as a waste if that god is not there. As people moved from transient hunter-gatherer societies to settled farming communities, the exchange of knowledge and ideas continued and accelerated, enabling more complex religious belief systems to develop.

Sorry for going off on an historical tangent there but I hope it helps to illustrate the innate human ability (or indeed need) to see patterns and meaning where there are only physical forces acting on circumstance. We now know enough about meteorology to be able to explain droughts and floods without recourse to supernatural powers. However, people often see patterns & shapes in random markings (Jesus in a slice of toast), which is how the cliché of psychiatrists showing ink blottings to their clients came about.

Could this well-known psychological phenomenon really be the cause of so many people’s divine experiences? It must surely be a contributing factor and seeing as most ghosts and aliens are seen at night by people on their own who are often in highly emotionally charged or intoxicated states, it would appear to me to be the natural way our bodies would “make sense” of the experience. The cultural and historical aspects of a person’s account must also be explicated when referencing their experiences. In centuries past, nobody reported seeing or being abducted by aliens although many people had experiences with ghosts, spirits and demons. In the developing world, these supernatural encounters are still much more common than those with beings from outer space.There is also the fallibility of human memory to take into account, often conspiring against us, forcing us to remember things that did not happen and forget those that did. Have you ever discussed a memory with a family member, only to be disappointed that their recollection of events was different from yours? Chances are you were both wrong, people rarely remember things completely accurately without some sort of prompting or hard evidence.

It is for all these reasons (and some others) that scientific experiments must be repeatable by those not connected with the original experiment and verified by peer review before becoming accepted as scientific fact. A single person’s testimony can never be considered to be infallible and even a group of people can be manipulated into witnessing events that did not happen. This is why magicians and films with special effects are so popular, just because you saw the lady being sawn in half then put back together again, doesn’t mean it really happened.

None of this means that you shouldn’t believe anything you see until externally verified, you don’t need someone else to read this before you believe that I’ve written it. However, if something supernatural happens to you don’t expect me to believe it. There’s a big difference between thinking and knowing. The difference is subtle and not needed for everyday occurrences but the more unusual or unexpected the event the more scrutiny is required. Nothing about a personal experience can be truly known as factual but it doesn’t need to be in order for life to go on as normal. I don’t need to stand by the kettle to make sure it boils or get up at dawn to check the sun is rising. If I was up at dawn and it didn’t rise, then I would need to start checking. It’s the events that haven’t already been scientifically verified that need scrutiny.

As no religious experience (almost by definition) can ever be externally verified as true, I cannot belive in any.

Thanks for reading.

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as possible.

Belief is not a Choice

The festive period is often a time for many non-attending Christians to go to church, possibly the only service they attend that year. In fact, in the UK, most of those who call themselves Christian only go to church for births, marriages and deaths (or the occasional midnight mass). While not exactly being the most devout bunch, I think it would be wrong to call most of these people agnostic. Some of them may be but most would profess a belief in the Christian god even if not agreeing with all of their church’s teachings or policies. You could argue that not agreeing with the teachings of the church prevents you from being a member but it seems clear to me that most people appear to pick and choose which pieces of their chosen religious text(s) to adhere to and which to ignore. Can you be a gay Christian? Or a Christian moneylender? Surely not a Christian soldier? It seems to me that you can be all of these as long as your chosen biblical teachings do not contradict your own core beliefs.

In all 3 of the major monotheistic religions, the single core belief that you cannot choose to ignore is the existence of a god. It follows from this that this god must have had a hand in creation. Whether starting the ‘big bang’, guiding the path of darwinian evolution or full on creationism, you cannot have a belief in an omnipotent god without also believing that our existence is not just a result of physical laws but that god had at least a part to play (from the interventionist god of Genesis to Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’). In Christianity you’re also supposed to believe in the divinity of Jesus and most (but not all) would say this includes a reading of the New Testament as fact rather than allegory or metaphor.

Given that these beliefs, at least the looser versions, need not directly affect one’s life unless you wish them to. You don’t need to go to church or stop charging interest on loans to call yourself a believer. Jesus died such a long time ago that whether he was divine or not doesn’t really change much now (he doesn’t seem to be here anymore). It takes a lot of effort and devotion to be a religious fanatic but to have nothing but a belief in god, a god who in modern times seems to have very little direct access into people’s lives, seems to be fairly easy. Indeed it is probably easier to believe than not, given the shared religious heritage of monotheistic cultures from Alaska and Buenos Aires in the West to the Hindu Kush and Jakarta in the East.

Of course you may believe that a person can choose to believe in god, in much the same way as one chooses who to vote for in an election or what to have for breakfast. History would suggest that this is not the case. If it were truly a simple choice, one would expect an even or random grouping of citizens in nations granted freedom of religious expression. If x% of people in Europe are Roman Catholic and y% are Greek Orthodox, there should be the same percentages in all European countries, this is clearly not the case. History has affected culture, schooling and parenting, making it much more likely a child growing up in Madrid will be Roman Catholic than a child growing up in Athens. Clearly the credibility or validity of a religious position plays second fiddle to the veracity of its teaching. History has also shown us that forcing people to convert does not (in the short-term) make them believe. They may, given time, teaching and repeated practise come to believe anything they are told. You can force a person to act but forcing them to believe instantly is impossible, it takes time. Much like it takes time to teach your children table manners. A child’s belief is about training and teaching rather than any choice on the part of the child. An adult is the same except that an adult can choose to lean about that which is not thrust upon him or her (although most do not).

What about religious conversions? I hear you ask, many people in Europe and North America have ‘chosen’ to convert to Islam despite having no ethnic or historical links to any Muslim country. Nobody can convert to any religion without first attending some sort of educational class to learn about what the conversion will mean for their life. Here lies the choice, they have chosen to listen to another point of view, to find out about another way of doing things. A conversion normally follows a feeling of unease, either with the current religion of the future convert or with the way of life they currently follow. At least a smattering of knowledge of the proposed religious conversion must be present to give the convert an idea that it may be for them. They choose to listen, conversion may follow but only if the core values of the new religion are already present in the convert. It is more a conversion of behaviour than belief.

These factors are also present in a person’s rejection of belief. I do not believe in any god, not because I was told or taught in a secular way, indeed I attended religious schools until I was 16. Reading the bible then witnessing the behaviour of people who called themselves Christians opened my mind to the possibility of other belief systems. The more I read of the bible and other religious books the less I believed in any of them, it was once I started reading history however, that my ‘conversion’ to atheism was complete. I made a choice, my choice was to learn, to educate myself. The result of this education was my current belief system. Through this experience, I have learnt that however much I may want to through facts at believers and shatter their pre-held misconception, I know this is not possible. They need to be educated before they can learn the truth, but they have to choose to learn first.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll do my best to answer as many as possible.

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