ONE might think the recent reports of Australians recruited as jihadist fighters for the rebel cause in Syria would have been given front-page coverage and top billing on the nightly news bulletins. It is cause for alarm about fanaticism in our midst - much more alarm than the actions of an unruly mob a few weeks ago.
However, there are two angles to this story. First, on the home front it shows
how opportunistic are the leaders of this particular brand of Islam. Second, it tells us something about what is actually happening in Syria.
Amid the chaos, another strand of the story is beginning to emerge, part of the wider story happening all over the Middle East. It is the fate of the Christians of the Middle East. We have already witnessed in one generation the decline of the Christians of Palestine, the original home of Christianity.
We have seen, despite the so-called Arab Spring in Egypt, the dire situation of the Coptic Christians, the original inhabitants of Egypt who speak the closest living language to pharaonic Egyptian. Now in Syria we see the threatened purge of another even older Christian group. The Syriac Christians are the Christians of Antioch, the oldest Christian church in the world, and the only speakers of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Despite the threat to these large minorities, the story of Syria is being interpreted and exploited by the fundamentalists with the unwitting connivance of SBS, which gleans most of its Middle East coverage from the al-Jazeera network. According to this interpretation, the Syrian uprising has been simplistically presented as a populist movement against the oppressive Assad regime, which is inexplicably murdering its own people.
It is obvious that minorities are often caught in the middle. But the story also reflects on the interpretation of the Syrian uprising. Forty per cent of Syria's population is made up of minorities. There are Christians: Catholic (of various rites) and Orthodox; Muslim: Shia, Druze and Ismailis; and non-Arab Sunni: Kurds. Sixty per cent are Sunni Muslim.
The departure of the Assad regime and a new government in Syria run by extremist Salafists, al-Qa'ida or the Muslim Brotherhood is a daunting prospect for the minorities, and for a majority of the Sunni population, who have flourished under the tolerance of the Alawite regime. The US State Department and the West generally are, oddly, not impressed by Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III's statement that "there is more religious freedom and tolerance in Syria than in any other Arab country".
Last week I interviewed Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix. A highly educated Carmelite nun, she has fled Syria under threat of abduction from her home, the sixth-century Monastery of St James the Mutilated. Her version of the truth about Syria is very different from the version we get from European and American leaders, and from al-Jazeera.
According to Agnes-Mariam, the initial uprising was a benign protest against the monolithic and ideological Baathist regime of which, after almost 50 years, people had tired. The protest was helped by some of the very advantages that the regime had delivered, such as equality of religion and a high standard of education, particularly for women. However, the protest had hardly begun before it was hijacked by Islamist mercenaries and turned into violent jihad.
This is only beginning to emerge now as people query the number of foreign fighters among the insurgents.
According to Agnes-Mariam, only about one in 50 is actually Syrian. The rest are jihadists from elsewhere in the Middle East and abroad, even from Australia. What is worse, many of these fighters have had support in money and arms and morale from the West.
In a vain hope of controlling the situation, Western governments, including our own, with the media in tow, are blithely going along with the "murderous Assad" interpretation. Just as the West optimistically fostered a democratic "Arab Spring" in Egypt that has turned, with the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood, into a pretty miserable Arab winter for the sizeable Coptic minority, so in Syria the media, fed by Arab media outlets, has been manipulated to present a totally false view of the situation, and has blithely ignored the large Christian and non-Christian minorities.
In recent article entitled "What's going on in Syria?", Father Paul Stenhouse, an Arabic scholar, has pointed out that the media is easily manipulated. He quotes two incidents that illustrate this:
"A delegation of foreign journalists went to the Alawite neighbourhoods of Homs. Expecting to see peaceful demonstrations, they saw security forces under siege from unidentified gunmen, and impact damage from rocket-propelled grenades. They were able to gather testimonials from the local populace who had suffered atrocities at the hands of the insurgents, but 'they did not publish these facts on their return, fearing they would be criticised by the mainstream media for breaking with the accepted narrative'.
"A television journalist reported that he had seen 15,000 people demonstrating against the regime in the forecourt of the mosque of Kenj, in the village of Kusayr. Kusayr is a small village on the Damascus-Homs road only a few kilometres from the Lebanese border. The forecourt of the mosque is 12m long and could never hold 15,000 people."
Patrick Cockburn, in Britain's The Independent newspaper, has remarked on the wide use of YouTube footage: "People understandably believe that if the BBC and other channels were not convinced of the truth of YouTube pictures, they would not be using them as their main source of information about Syria ... (But) television companies are not going to reject or underline the stage management of film that is free, dramatic, up to date - and which they could not match with regular correspondents and film crews even if they spent a lot of money."
Agnes-Mariam and many other Syrians are warning the West against intervention, because the insurgency is now bent on a religious and cultural purge of Syria, and indeed the whole Middle East. Ironically, some of the Sunni Wahhabist ideologues were already ensconced and unwittingly protected by the regime, particularly within the secret service, to counteract American influence during the Iraq invasion.
As Stenhouse says: "The Syrian (tolerant) model of an Arab society offends extremist and closed Muslim societies. It now seems to offend the USA and its allies. If they have their way, it will disappear along with the Assad regime. That will be a sad day for the Middle East, and a worse one for the Western powers, who will have unleashed an uncertain future on millions of defenceless non-Muslims and non-extremist Muslims."
As for Australia, a few weeks ago the violent demonstration in Sydney by outraged Muslims was the talk of the town and the airwaves. There was outrage at the violence and mystification over the intrusion of what seems an alien religious and political sensibility into our society. Australians are not particularly religious, nor is religion a passionately motivating force here, as it still is in most of the world. Aridly secular Australia is woefully ignorant of religion and the sensibilities of the religious. However, religion is one thing; fanaticism is another.
That demonstration shocked most people, but with our own citizens being recruited for jihad, perhaps we should be prepared for worse.