Gaza: The dictates of conscience or dictated conscience

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"War is organized murder, nothing else."

- Harry Patch, last survivor of the First World War

The recent painful round of hostilities in Gaza followed by efforts to restore peace in the area, have resulted in a temporary but highly inflammable ceasefire. The month-long conflict telecast a live dance of death and destruction on TV screens around the globe. The terrible tragedy has created a challenge for all who love and respect human life, irrespective of colour, cast and creed.

The miseries, sufferings and violation of human rights in Gaza have taken the precious lives of nearly 1,900 Palestinians, mostly civilians, along with 70 Israeli soldiers and four innocent Israeli civilians.

Before delving into the history and politics of the Middle East, we should try to seek answers to the following questions, raised after the slow response of the Western world and strange silence of Israel and Palestine's Middle Eastern neighbours.

Have we learnt nothing from the horrors of two World Wars and the wars fought before and after them?

Do we want to snatch the basic right of survival from some human beings, because they look and live differently from us?

How can peace-loving people on both sides of the line of fire and around the globe change world opinion and compel decision-makers to create an environment of lasting peace and harmony between the warring parties?

The Arab-Israel confrontation in the Middle East is not new. Since ancient times, the three main followers of the Abrahamic faiths have been claiming ownership of the Holy Land, called Palestine, with Jerusalem as its capital. Palestine is a geographic region in Western Asia between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. This is also known as the Land of Israel, the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity.

Muslims claim that the Holy Land has special significance for them, because it contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. This mosque is the site from which the prophet of Islam (pbuh) is said to have ascended to heaven, and Muslims offered prayers facing Al-Aqsa Mosque before turning their faces to the Holy Kaaba in Mecca.

Principles of human rights across faith

Leaving aside political and religious affinities, affiliations and affections, the international community should concentrate on the humanitarian aspect of the issue immediately. We know that war is a scar on the face of humanity and we have seen vast destruction from it.

A fundamental Jewish principle is the equality and unity of humanity. We all have one Creator. Judaism is a universal religion that condemns discrimination based on race, colour or nationality. God endows each person with basic human dignity.

The prophet of Islam (pbuh) in a letter to Christians of his state wrote: "As a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them."

A famous seventh century saying of Imam Ali, the first imam and the fourth caliph of Muslims, says: "We have two kinds of relationships with all other human beings, either we are brethren in faith or we are brethren in humanity."

The United Nations adopted these basic principles after many centuries in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Voices in opposition to tyranny

The surprising silence of Middle Eastern neighbours, the slow acknowledgement of the international community and the reaction of the Canadian government suggest that we are not taking the events in Gaza very seriously. Only a few Canadian leaders have raised their voices against the tyranny and defended the right of survival and protection for those in the battle zone.

Tom Muclair of the NDP said: "As we watch images of Palestinian civilians suffering and dying and Israeli civilians living in fear of rockets, no one can remain unmoved by a conflict that has killed thousands and left millions living in fear and safety."

Dow Marmur, rabbi emeritus at Holly Blossom Temple in Toronto, in his recent column in the Toronto Star, described an event in which Muslims and Jews came together in different parts of the world to break the fast together at the beginning of Ramadan and fasting on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. He emphasized the importance of unity and similarities of practices between the two religious groups.

Elizabeth May of the Green Party said: "I am heartbroken to watch such death, destruction and violence and I firmly believe that Israeli and Palestinian children have an equal right to grow up free of bombardment."

We saw strong protests in cities around the world expressing support for the oppressed and demanding immediate help for those who were injured and killed in the conflict. Some Canadian organizations and the government of Ontario are also trying to bring the injured to Canadian hospitals for immediate treatment.

The dictates of conscience

In every community, the majority of people believe in some kind of value system and this system engraves the dictates of conscience somewhere inside our existence. The dictates of conscience form the driving force behind all human actions. To follow the dictates of conscience, we have to adopt the moral principles that control or inhibit the actions or thoughts of an individual or nation. As a civilized nation, Canadians will have to review our parameters and practices.

The cries of innocent children asking for help will follow the conscience of those who are making this precious life hell for them. We can't forget the reality that many soldiers experience deep depression when they look back at the death and destruction they carried out.

Are we following the dictates of conscience or dictated conscience? This is the biggest question that arises when we try to apply the principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the current situation in Gaza. When principles and practices don't match, we see a contradiction. This shows that we are not following the dictates of conscience -- instead it's a dictated conscience, dictated from abroad.

The United Nations should make serious efforts to find a permanent and respectable political solution to the problem, keeping in mind basic human rights, religious sentiments of all, the right of existence for Israel, the rights of Palestinians, and the economic and social needs of both groups.

People around the globe want peace. Peaceful demonstrations and ongoing efforts can change world opinion and compel decision-makers to create an environment of lasting peace and harmony in the land of Abraham, who holds great respect for the faiths of all groups involved in the conflict.

"Empathy is more powerful than hate and our lives should be dictated to making it go viral." - Zak Ebrahim

Thanks to Vajiha Sipra for contributing the concluding quote.

Mehdi Rizvi is a former member of the Community Editorial Board, Toronto Star and an affiliate of the Center of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement, which is a consortium of three Toronto universities.

Photo: helga tawil souri/flickr

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