Compassion and Solidarity: Les Miserables and the Plight of Syrian Refugees

President Francois Hollande of France announced yesterday that his country will continue to honor its commitment to settle 30,000 refugees over the next two years. This is in stark contrast to the bigoted and racist responses from various U.S. Governors and GOP presidential candidates, many of which have called for Nazi era registration ID cards for Muslims and the closing of mosques, effectively torching the First Amendment on the spot.

Navigating through all of the hate and ignorance towards the millions of people that are fleeing war can be depressing. In this moment it seems appropriate to invoke some lessons from the literary masterpiece that is France’s own, Les Miserables. 

At the beginning of the book the noble peasant, Jean Valjean, is leaving the galleys after spending 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s seven children. He spends 5 for theft and the rest for repeated escape attempts.

Jean Valjean

After many miles of traveling on foot seeking refuge he is taken in by the gracious Monsieur Myriel, the Bishop of Dinge. What happens next is one of the most beautiful acts of compassion and goodwill in all of literary history:

The bishop, who was sitting beside him, touched his hand gently and said, “You didn’t have to tell me who you are. This is not my house; it is Christ’s. It does not ask any guest his name but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And don’t thank me; don’t tell me that I am taking you into my house. This is the home of no man, except the one who needs a refuge. I tell you, a traveler, you are more at home here than I; whatever is here is yours. Why would I have to know your name? Besides, before you told me I knew… your name is my brother.”

One would like to think that somewhere deep in the French spirit and the spirit of the world the words of Victor Hugo reverberate from the past and continue to have a lasting effect on the way we treat one another. Whether we have read this book or not; whether we live in the West or the Middle East or South Asia, our humanity shines brightest when we show compassion and solidarity in the darkest of times, this is something that Victor Hugo illustrated so well in his grand epic about a poor peasant that stole a loaf of bread.

Photo: Frontispiece of Les Miserables via archive.org

Reading of this section available here at Awesome Stories

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Syria, Obama set to pour gasoline on the flames of war.

Photo: theaustrailian.com.au

Photo: theaustrailian.com.au

by Louis Michele

NEW YORK – As the drums of war continue to beat lounder, the U.S. government continues to ratchet up its rhetoric against the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria. On Saturday, August 31st, Obama announced that he would seek congressional approval before he took military action against  Assad  for the alleged use of banned chemical weapons in the country’s civil war. And on Tuesday the odds seem to be increasing that the U.S. will unleash the hounds of hell into yet another conflict in the Middle East that will have grave consequences not only for Syria and the millions affected in the surrounding region, but for the U.S. as well.

After the gross fabrication of evidence in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq one would think that the burden of proof would be extremely high on the Obama administration to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Assad regime is responsible for using chemical weapons on its own citizens, or any citizen for that matter. However, this seems to be far from what is happening. Either the bar that congressmen and the public writ large has set for the proof that the Assad regime is responsible is very low or we have a president and Congress that is anxious on intervening, or both. There is a compelling case that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime but there is still no conclusive case that government forces are responsible.  And even if Assad was responsible beyond any doubt what would the consequences be  not only for Syria and the United States, but for the various regional players in the conflict.

Despite the talk in many news outlets about the legality of military action or the legitimacy of such action by the United States and its allies, there seems to be little talk of what the consequences and implications would be in a region where the sectarian tensions are already high. The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the colonial legacy of the Western powers still resonates in the collective consciousness of many people in the Middle East and once the Western bombs start dropping on Damascus the political and sectarian lines will sharpen even more. This has the potential to vastly destabilize the region and lead to more countries becoming embattled in the war. After all, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia have a definite stake in the conflict and if their interests feel threatened then there may be an escalation that could have catastrophic consequences for the everyone involved. Furthermore, a military strike by the U.S. will potentially embolden Assad even more because he will be seen as someone who stood up to foreign intervention and prevailed.  Assad himself said that foreign military intervention in Syria could set off a “powder keg” that could very likely spark a terrifying regional war.

So just like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is anxious to involve itself in a conflict it has no long term plan, resolution or exit strategy from, not to mention any moral claim to.  And just like the conflicts of the past the United States will continue to use the rhetoric  and hubris of humanitarianism and human rights while at the same time, as Martin Luther King said, retaining is position as the largest “purveyor of violence in the world.”

Navigating the Recent Egyptian Military Coup

by Cliff Burton

On July 30, the then Defense Minister, Abdel Fatah El-Sissi announced that the Egyptian military had deposed and detained the elected President, Muhammad Morsi. El-Sissi described this move as a response to mass protests against Morsi that had been taking place for several weeks prior.

He suggested that the Egyptian military was simply responding to the will of the people, and that it was protecting the revolution that deposed the then dictator Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

Despite efforts by the US government to paint the situation otherwise (Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that deposing the democratically elected leader of the country was necessary to save democracy), it is clear that this was a coup, and not another revolution. The elected President is under detention, while unelected leaders rule the country (El-Sissy and the prime minister he appointed, who is former judge from the Mubarak era).

Secondly, despite the large protests that preceded the coup, the military did not take action in order to respond to the mass protests. Instead, the military had been planning the coup for roughly a full year (from the time Morsi was first elected president in the summer of 2012). The Tamarrud (Rebellion) Movement that organized the mass protests was bankrolled by the military and by business elites tied to the old regime. Once the protests were big enough, the military felt they had the popular cover to carry out the coup.

The strategy for preparing the ground for the coup also included deliberately causing shortages in gasoline and electricity through out Egypt. Pro-Mubarak bureaucrats made sure that shortages would arise to discredit Morsi, then “magically” restored these services to remedy the shortages the day after Morsi was deposed.

The private Egyptian press, army, and judiciary (all loyal to the former regime) also engaged in a smear campaign against Hamas (immediately accusing Hamas of killing 16 Egyptian soldiers in a base near the Gaza border in the summer of 2012) just as Morsi was attempting to soften the embargo on Gaza and open the borders for additional trade and allow Gazans to freely travel to and from Egypt. If Hamas could be discredited, this would discredit Morsi as well due to their close relationship.

Despite the fact that Morsi and the Brotherhood did not attempt any type of heavy handed crack down once the Tamarrud movement protests reached very large levels (including when protesters attacked and burned down several Brotherhood offices), the Egyptian military is now planning to try Brotherhood leader Badia for inciting Brotherhood members to kill protesters (for example, when attempting to protect themselves from protesters attempting to burn down Brotherhood offices, with these Brotherhood members still inside).

At the same time, the Egyptian military has now committed three separate clear cut massacres against peaceful Brotherhood supporters, who had established camp cities in Adu Rabia and Nahda squares to press for the reinstatement of Morsi as president. In the first massacre on July 8th, the Army killed 51 people, and on July 27th the second massacre killed at least 65 people. The third massacre occurred yesterday, August 14, early in the morning. Using Israeli style tactics, including the use of bulldozers, live ammunition and snipers, the Egyptian Army violently cleared Raba’a al Adawiya and al Nahda squares. Early reports from 278 dead and many thousands more wounded.

All the while, US President Barak Obama has refused to call the ouster of President Morsi a coup, in order to keep $1.3 billion in US aid flowing to our friends in the Egyptian Army. Despite the fact that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been in frequent telephone contact, and despite warnings from the Egyptian military that a crack down on Brotherhood supporters in the two squares was coming soon, both he and President Obama happened to be on vacation today.

This brings back memories of when Algerian Islamists won elections in the 1990’s. The secular Algerian military, with the backing of France and the US, promptly canceled the elections, leading to a brutal civil war that led to the loss of between 44,000 and 200,000 lives.