The speed with which the Baghdad church massacre by al-Qa'ida has frightened the peoples of the Middle East is a sign of just how fragile is the earth's crust beneath their feet.
Unlike our Western television news, Al-Jazeera and Arabia show the full horror of such carnage. Arms, legs, beheaded torsos leave no doubt of what they mean. Every Christian in the region understood what this attack meant. Indeed, given the sectarian nature of the assaults on Shia Iraqis, I'm beginning to wonder whether al-Qa'ida itself – far from being the centre/kernel/font of "world terror" as we imagine – might be one of the most sectarian organisations ever invented. Nor, I suspect, is there just one al-Qa'ida but several, feeding off the injustices of the region, a blood transfusion which the West (and I'm including the Israelis here) feeds into its body.
In fact, I'm wondering if our governments don't need this terror – to make us frightened, very frightened, to make us obey, to bring more security to our little lives. And I'm wondering whether those same governments will ever wake up to the fact that our actions in the Middle East are what is endangering our security. Lord Blair of Isfahan always denied this – even when the 7/7 suicide bomber carefully explained in his posthumous video that Iraq was one of the reasons he committed the slaughter in London – and Bush always denied it, and Sarkozy will deny it if al-Qa'ida fulfils its latest threat to attack France.
Now, for al-Qa'ida, it is "all Christians" in the Middle East who are to be the targets as well, scattering these threats like cluster bombs around the region. Up to two million of Egypt's Christian Coptic community are having to be protected at their two-week Luxor religious festival, surrounded by hundreds of state security police after al-Qa'ida's claim that two Muslim women are being held against their will by the Coptic church. That this may have originated with a decision by the women to divorce their husbands – and thus by conversion to end their marriages since the church in Egypt does not allow divorce – is merely incidental.
Now the contagion has spread to Lebanon where Shia-Sunni tensions have already been heightened by Hezbollah's demand to reject the accusations of the UN tribunal into the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. What might have passed for an act of vandalism at any other time – the desecration of a Christian grave – now has statements of passionate, brotherly love from every clergyman in the country lest it is suggested that Muslims were responsible. In Jiyé, a rather pleasant coastal town south of Beirut, someone broke through five doors of the vault at St George's Church and heaved the body of George Philip al-Kazzi – deceased of old age on 23 July 2002 – out of his grave, leaving it with a smashed skull. It turns out to have been the third attack of its kind in the town in 10 years.
Father Salim Namour of the Saint Charbel monastery – named after the long-dead Maronite priest who allegedly cries once a year – claimed that his town was a model of co-existence and uttered words which might be prayed in every church and mosque across the Middle East. "We cannot think this way," he said. "We bury the dead of our fellow Muslims and they bury our dead." The vice president of the higher Shia Islamic Council, Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan, called it "barbaric", an act which "relates to no religion or humanity and cannot be logically accepted." The Lebanese Maronite bishops then condemned the Baghdad bombing as a "useless criminal act".
The West is powerless to help those fearful Christians. The actions of "faith-based" politicians – the Christian faith, of course – has brought about a new Christian tragedy in the Middle East. (The fact that I met several Americans in California recently who thought Christianity was a "western" religion rather than an eastern one probably says more about America than Christianity.)
No one in their right mind would think that al-Qa'ida would burn its energies on such a petty – though revolting – act in Lebanon. But al-Qa'ida does exist in Lebanon. We have President Bashar al-Assad's word on that. Indeed, it's interesting to hear what Assad actually said on the subject last week – since his relationship with Shia Hezbollah and Shia Iran makes him no friend of bin Laden's outfit. In an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper, he said "We talk about al-Qa'ida as if it exists as a well-structured, unified organisation. This isn't true. It acts more as a current of thought that calls itself al-Qa'ida. This organisation is the result (of a situation) and not the cause. It is a result of chaos, of weak development. It is a result of political errors and a kind of political direction." To say that this organisation "exists everywhere, in Syria as in all Arab and Islamic countries, does not mean that it is widespread or popular".
Yet Assad can't absolve his own regime or those of the other Arab states whose security laws ban any political meetings – other than those approved by state officials – and thus long ago forced Muslims to discuss politics in the only institution they regularly visit: the mosque. And of course, the supreme irony this week has been to hear our lords and masters praising the helpfulness of the Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia for alerting the West to the aircraft package bombs when it was this same Saudi Arabia that nurtured Osama bin Laden and his merry men over many years.
Because the Middle East's dictators also like to scare their populations. Egypt's poor are disgusted by their ruling elite but that elite wants to ensure there are no Islamic revolutions in Cairo. And the West wants to ensure that there are no Islamic revolutions in Cairo, or Libya, or Algeria, or Syria, or Saudi Arabia. (You name the rest.) The immediate problem is that al-Qa'ida is trying to undermine these regimes as well as the West. And so they lump Iraq itself – whether it is a democracy is a bit irrelevant when it doesn't have a government and is too busy executing its old Baathist enemies to protect its own people – along with the country's Christians and its Shias. And we are continuing to stage drone attacks on Pakistan and bomb the innocent in Afghanistan and tolerate the torture regimes of the Arab world and allow Israel to steal more land from the Palestinians. I'm afraid it's the same old story. Justice will bring peace – not intelligence wars against "world terror". But our leaders will still not admit this.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies