Thousands of British Muslims and many more concerned citizens from the wider society thronged to London's central Mosque at Regent's Park on Boxing Day (26th December 2013) for the funeral prayer of the 32-year-old British orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Abbas Khan. The mood was sombre but proud and sad but dignified. To a packed gathering of a pensive and resentful audience, his brother Shahnawaz Khan said: "My brother, to us, was 'our star' - his star shone on our family."
The massive funeral was a fitting tribute to this courageous physician who left his comfortable London life and endured a year-long incarceration by one of the most brutal regimes in the Arab world. The British society, particularly the Muslim community, can feel proud of Dr Khan who put the lives of ordinary people above his; he paid the ultimate price by giving his own life.
Dr Khan was arrested in November 2012 after arriving in Syria to work in a field hospital in a rebel-controlled area near the ancient city of Aleppo. His incarceration was about to be over and he was on the verge of being released, but the young British surgeon suddenly and inexplicably died on 17th December. The Syrian government said he had committed suicide; his family believes he was murdered.
From the Syrian prison Dr Khan complained about torture and humiliation inflicted on him since his arrest. He was held in an underground cell and lost half his body weight due to his brutal treatment. Amnesty International's Syria Campaign Manager Kristyan Benedict said: "We know all too well that the torture of detainees is widespread and committed with impunity by the Syrian authorities, with detainees often crowded into vermin-infested cells, denied urgently-needed medical treatment and even abused by medical staff."
Putting politics aside, what kind of regime can keep an unarmed civilian medical doctor for so long in the prison and treat him in that manner?
Syria, once famously known as Bilad al-Sham, has in reality gone back to the stone-age and nobody knows where it is heading. Inspired by the then Arab Spring, the first uprising against the Bathist President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. It was unexpected for the dictator, so rather than tackling the national crisis through political means the regime resorted to extreme violence. Opportunists from the opposition also resorted to arms. Since then this beautiful land has seen an armed conflict of unparalleled cruelty, from both sides. Forces loyal to the regime and the armed opposition have turned Syria into breeding ground of intolerance, hatred, extremism and cruelty.
The armed conflict initially was asymmetrical, with clashes taking place in towns and cities only across the country. But the regime decided to play a political trick by releasing 'Jihadists' from the country's prisons. As things were getting worse, the regime continued to get military support from Russia and Iran. On the other hand, some Gulf countries were also supplying weapons to the rebels. A 2012 UN report described the conflict as 'overtly sectarian in nature' between deadly Alawite shabiha militias on one side and Al-Qaeda on the other. In May 2013, when the Assad regime was losing grounds to the opposition forces the Lebanese paramilitary group, Hezbollah, committed to an all-out fight to save Assad. Many foreign fighters had, in the meantime, entered into Syria and are now fighting a proxy war; Bilad al-Sham is now a shadow of its past.
The situation in Syria is dreadful. More than four million Syrians have been displaced, over 2.3 million Syrian refugees have now fled into neighbouring countries and thousands more are pouring across the border each day. Millions are left in poor living conditions with a shortage of food and drinking water. Tens of thousands Syrian refugee children and their families are suffering in freezing temperatures. From the UNHCR's Syria Crisis Urgent Appeal, this is one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history.
According to the UN, the death toll had reached 120,000 by September 2013. Tens of thousands of protesters have been imprisoned. International organizations have accused both government and opposition forces of severe human rights violations. Chemical weapons have also been used in Syria on more than one occasion, triggering strong international reactions; however, with Russia's help the regime averted a NATO attack Syria.
To the political advantage of Syria and its allies, Al-Qaeda has been dominating the opposition armed struggle; as such, the West has no appetite to put serious pressure on Syria to come to the negotiating table. Cynics say this has been all stage-managed from super power capitals to maintain the status quo in the Middle East political structure. With the Arab spring now fallen flat and Egypt turning a full circle with its violent counter-revolution, the only country that has benefitted through the political turmoil of the Arab Spring appears to be the state of Israel. The Arab world, after showing a glimmer of hope, has plunged again into an uncertain political darkness.
Is there any future for Syria or for that matter the Middle East? The answer is apparently 'not' in the short term, particularly not with the current generation of bigoted and corrupt secularists or politically naive conventional Islamists. The gloom can only be reversed by a new generation of youthful people with fresh thinking in social and political regeneration.
This part of the world now desperately needs statesman-like social and political leaders who would have the ability to see the big picture, beyond their short-sighted selfish political goals. These people would be allied with their own people, not their enemies, and they would fight for the basic needs and rights of ordinary people - such as education, economy, human rights, freedom of expression and human dignity. All these, in fact, chime with majority people's historical and religious principles as well.
The Middle East is now at the cusp of history. The sooner these new people arise, the better for the Middle East and for the rest of the world.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist and writer. He was former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). Follow him on Twitter: @MAbdulBari
The views expressed in this article are the author's own