Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people is both a catastrophe and a crime against humanity, but also an object lesson for the West. A chemical weapons attack, Sarin gas if the UN report is credible, carried out at a time when he felt threatened, illustrates both how decisions are made in the Middle East and the logic Islamist leaders use to solve problems and resolve conflicts. It is also an opportunity for Western leaders, with their tragic difficulty in understanding Arab and Islamic social and religious norms, to get a glimpse of what it might cost the people of the free world if mistaken perceptions lead to serious errors in judgment.
To understand how Assad, considered the Father of the Syrian People, could kill his own civilians, one has to know that in our part of the world, an angry Arab father will behead his own daughter, whom he held as an infant and watched grow up, if she has been accused of immodest or immoral behavior. He -- or her brothers -- will kill her because she rebelled, humiliated the family in the eyes of society and tarnished the family honor -- especially if she has been accused of having premarital sex.
If a father can act this way toward his daughter, why should the Father of the Syrian People not do the same thing to his Syrian children? If the average Arab father can kill his own flesh and blood in situations of stress or for religious reasons, why would an Arab leader not use chemical or atomic weapons to destroy the children of his country, let alone the children of his enemies? As Bashar Assad attacked his own people, so can the leader of Iran attack Arabs or Israel; that is the nature of Islamic leaders in the Middle East.
The legacy of the Middle East teaches the individual that there are situations that demand an instant, violent reaction. Anything related to loss of face or deterrence of one's enemies demands an immediate response, or, at the very least, using the first opportunity to take revenge. The West's patience for the leaders of the Middle East is interpreted only as weakness.
There is an old Bedouin story about the aged head of a Bedouin clan who lived in the desert. In preparation for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that ends the Muslim religious month of Ramadan, the old man personally fattened a chicken and spent his time thinking about eating it. But when the chicken was to be killed and cooked, it was nowhere to be found -- someone had stolen it. The old man assembled his sons and ordered them to find the chicken and punish the thieves.
The sons brought their father a different chicken, larger and fatter than the one that was missing. "No," he said, "I want my chicken." The following night, his daughter was kidnapped and raped. He called his sons to him and again demanded the chicken. "Father," they said, "our sister was kidnapped and raped, and you are asking for that chicken?" "Yes," he said, "I want my chicken." The following night, their tent was burned down. "You see?" he said to his sons. "If you had brought me my chicken, your sister would not have been raped and our home would not have been burned down!"
Lack of moral fiber lies behind corruption and depravity all over the world. But in the Middle East, Arabs and Muslims also manipulate and interpret Islam to suit their own agendas. For decades Qur'an verses and religious traditions have been the raw material from which Islamic sheikhs manufacture theories, often issued as fatwas [religious edicts] to: incite and support terrorist attacks, murder civilians, assassinate moderate leaders, plunder and destroy -- all in the name of Islam.
There are fatwas enabling Muslims to use weapons of mass destruction; they say that was what Allah did to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and what Muhammad did when he used projectiles as weapons of mass destruction when attacking the city of Ta'if.
Men, such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who say they want to kill every Jew and "infidel" on earth, use the hadiths [the Islamic oral tradition] to justify attacks as we have seen in Pakistan, Iraq and Kenya this week. Anyone who wants to attack Christians, and loot and burn their churches, will use a hadith to justify his actions. And hadiths are used to justify the murder of Jews on the grounds that they are treacherous, enemies of Allah, and the descendants of monkeys and pigs. According to the hadiths, even if a Jew hides behind a rock, the rock will speak and reveal him. Misinterpretations of the Islamic tradition have turned it into a weapon that can be used for any enterprise, all in the name of Allah.
During the recent upheaval in Egypt, this double standard could be seen in the arguments between Sheikh Qaradawi, the senior religious authority for the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sheikh Muhammad al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University.
Sheikh Qaradawi, supported by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claimed that al-Tayyeb was not a genuine sheikh but an idiot and a faker, appointed by the Egyptian army, despite his lack of knowledge of Islam, to provide a religious cover for the Egyptian army against the regime of President Muhamed Morsi. Al-Tayyeb and a cadre of sheikhs had quoted a hadith to convince Egyptians not to participate in demonstrations, and to give religious support to the soldiers and police.
According to his enemy, Sheikh Qaradawi, however, Sheikh al-Tayyeb, had justifed the army's "slaughter" of demonstrators. Sheikh Qaradawi claimed the head of the army, General Sisi, and all his supporters were infidels according to the Sharia [Muslim religious law], for having raised their hands against the "legitimate Islamic regime" of Muhamed Morsi, who had been elected according to Sharia law.
That argument is an example of how for decades the religion of Allah has become a tool in the hands of sheikhs and other Muslim leaders responsible for the deaths of innocents.
Unfortunately, there is the same kind of amorality and hypocrisy in the rhetoric of Western leaders when they relate to the Arab-Muslim world. All of them, the U.S. included, have so far turned a blind eye to the Assad regime's murder of more than 100,000 Syrian civilians and the forced exile of more than two million. But when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons to kill 1,400 civilians of all ages in Ghouta near Damascus, the hypocritical leaders of the Western world suddenly called for action against Syria. What difference does it matter what kind of weapon of mass destruction is used? Where were the moralists until now?
Examples of the world's apathy and hypocrisy are legion, most based on personal and national interest. People who ignore and are unaffected by murders carried out far from home seem not to believe that they, too, might eventually pay the price -- when the cost in both life and treasure will be even higher.
The use of weapons of mass destruction to kill civilians in Syria is merely the preview for the main event, which, as soon as Iran's nuclear project has been completed, will, in the name of Allah, be destruction of entire nations, especially those with oil -- as the Saudis see better than anyone.
For stability in the region, the Iranian bomb must be eliminated -- while it is still a chicken.
Ali Salim is a scholar based in the Middle East