Syrian sniper offers thoughts on life, death and faith

Anyone who has been to the Middle East, or who has spent much time talking to natives of that troubled region, knows that there is much more to its conflicts than religion.

At the same time, anyone who has visited the region, and talked to Jews, Christians and Muslims from its lands, knows that there are few subjects there that can be discussed at length — especially controversial issues — without religious beliefs and traditions coming into play.

That’s just the way things work over there.

Now, when these topics show up in the mainstream press, it seems that the conflicts and horrors that plague the Middle East are rooted in everything EXCEPT religion. Oh, journalists will mention Islam, Judaism or Christianity from time to time, but it seems that the issues that are really real are all economic, political or ethnic. Those that are linked to religion are referred to as “sectarian” conflicts and that is that.

Your GetReligionistas, through the years, have urged journalists to let the people involved in these conflicts speak for themselves and then turn to a variety of insiders to help readers understand what the words mean. When people in Syria, for example, talk about the revolution that’s going on there, one of the first things they talk about is the need to defend Islam and to stand up for justice (often expressed in Muslim terms). Meanwhile, members of religious minorities often talk about the need to protect themselves and the right to live their faiths in daily life.

However, rather than criticizing yet another mainstream report for a lack of human voices, I’d like to note that Time magazine recently ran a piece (to my amazement in this firewall age, I eventually found it online) that let one participant in the Syria speak for himself. The result is both fascinating, moving and, at times, appalling.

The headline: “The Confessions of a Sniper: A Rebel Gunman in Aleppo and His Conscience.” Here is the lede that sets the stage:

To the other men in his Free Syrian Army unit, he’s simply known as the Sniper, a 21-year-old army-trained sharpshooter who defected on Feb. 21 and joined their ranks. Few of his colleagues know his first name let alone his surname — and that’s the way he wants to keep it.

He hails from a Sunni military family in a town on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital. His uncle is a serving general in President Bashar Assad’s army, several of his other relatives are also high-ranking military officers. Apart from his parents and siblings, his relatives all think he’s dead — and that’s the way he wants to keep it. …

He may look calm, but he’s deeply troubled. After some nine months of fighting with several Free Syrian Army units, first on the outskirts of Aleppo and then in the city itself after the rebel push into it in late July, he has grown disillusioned with the fight and angry with its conduct. “I did this when it was clean,” he says. “Now it’s dirty. Many aren’t fighting just to get rid of Bashar, they’re fighting to gain a reputation, to build up their name. I want it to go back to the way it was, when we were fighting for God and the people, not for some commander’s reputation.”

The sniper expects his land to be torn into warring camps, with the new reality being “many Somalias in every province.” At the time the article was written, this young man said he had killed 34 people — including, possibly, a childhood friend who as “dearer to me than a brother.”

That’s the setup.

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