So there I was, in our Shia mosque on Friday 10 days back, when a worshipper, a man, bounded up full of smiles. We had met briefly once before. As I was rushing to the prayer hall he made me promise I would talk to him afterwards. And so I did. And wish I hadn't. Instead of feeling spiritually renewed I experienced ungodly fury and left the beautiful space filled with despondency. We had an argument about Syria and my vocal opposition to Assad's regime. I didn't understand anything, said he, and was being deceived by the lying Western media. He was a businessman in Syria with factories employing many people, Shias in particular, he stressed, as if that would sway me. The rebellion, he claimed, was a plot by outsiders and backed by Sunnis because they want to crush minority Muslim sects, including the Allawi-Assad family.
The man wasn't stupid, wasn't a Devil worshipper. He was just short-sighted as he looked across a vista steadily reddening with blood. All he wanted was tough control, good for business, just as apartheid was in its heyday. Such pro-Assad émigrés are terrified of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood or Wahhabi Islam. But the terror of regime change has expelled mercy and human fellowship, emotions instinctively aroused when we see a child's tortured torso, a mother's loss, an old man's bewilderment as his home is burnt. For Assad supporters the spot in the brain where empathy lives has been voided.
Syrian migrants are under pressure on all sides. An Amnesty report reveals intimidation of protesters by the London embassy and "punishment" meted out to families back home. On Saturday in London there were two demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the unrest. They faced each other, argued noisily, waved their separate flags. Families are divided and some were there on both sides. Something else was visible, just as tragic. Everyone was as distanced from their troubled land as the haranguing man in the mosque. That is the recurring tragedy of exile. You can watch, send cash, but whatever happens you are for ever the outsider, the one who wasn't there.