June 24, 2009

Crazy Mullahs?

“The real meaning of President Obama's recent address to the Muslim world in Cairo,” writes Jeffrey Kuhner, “is that he is turning his back on the Jews at a time when they face another possible Holocaust.”

Turning his back on the Jews? President Obama? Whose chief of staff twice served as an Israel Defense Forces volunteer? Whose special advisor for the Persian Gulf formerly chaired the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute? President Obama? Who supports increasing military aid to Israel? Who promised, “I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally, Israel”? Who promised, “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon—everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon—everything”? President Obama is turning his back on the Jews?

Yes, claims Kuhner, best known for starting a January 2007 smear campaign against then Senator Obama. He continues:

Mr. Obama is repeating Chamberlain's tragic mistake—except this time, the Israelis are to play the role of the Czechs, the sacrificial lamb at the altar of appeasement. Senior Israeli intelligence officials admit the Obama administration has privately told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington can live with an Iranian nuclear bomb. Mr. Obama believes it is only a matter of time”…

The Obama administration argues that Israel's nuclear arsenal can serve as a strategic deterrent to the Iranian bomb, similar to how mutually assured destruction (MAD) between the United States and the Soviet Union kept the peace during the Cold War. But the Soviet Union was a rational, atheistic power. Iran's mullocracy is a messianic, apocalyptic Shi'ite regime, willing to sacrifice millions of Iranians to achieve the Final Solution.

Now, first of all, it’s debatable whether Obama actually told Israeli officials that “Washington can live with an Iranian nuclear bomb.” But, even supposing he did, it’s not clear what he meant by this. Did he mean that his administration didn’t really care if Iran acquired nukes? Or did he mean that, even if, worse case scenario, Iran acquired nukes, it wouldn’t be the end of the world?

Either way, let’s suppose that Iran obtained nuclear weapons. Would it then try to destroy Israel? The answer, it seems to me, is a resounding no. Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni feels the same way. As do 80% of Israelis, as a recent poll conducted by a Tel Aviv University think tank reveals. But Kuhner sees things differently and provides the following evidence:

Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a so-called "moderate" and a predecessor of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has vowed that Tehran will not be deterred by the fear of Israeli nuclear retaliation. "If the day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in its possession," he said, ". . . application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world." In other words, the mullahs believe Iran can survive a nuclear exchange, while Israel can't.

These are the words—and ideas—of madmen. Mr. Obama lacks the courage and will to confront America's deadliest enemies.

Now the most important thing to note in the above Rafsanjani quote, pulled from a speech he gave back in 2001, is the ellipsis. An ellipsis, of course, tells us that some words are missing. And in this case, the missing words are quite significant. For, by inserting those three dots where he did, Kuhner makes it sound like Rafsanjani is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and use them against Israel. But if we take the time to read Rafsanjani’s entire speech, it becomes clear that nowhere in it does he claim that either Iran or any other Islamic nation should develop nuclear weapons and that nowhere in it does he say that, if such a nation obtains such weapons, it should use them against Israel.

Rather, Rafsanjani simply attempts to explain why Israel is a hegemonic power. The answer, he believes, is that the U.S. and Britain (“the imperialists”) believe that Israeli hegemony serves their own interest and have therefore supplied it with weapons of mass destruction. If an Islamic nation also acquired such weapons, he continues, then there would be a regional check on Israel’s power, thus forcing the American-British pawn to lose its hegemonic status. As he says (and notice how the meaning of his words changes without Kuhner’s ellipsis): “If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy [of maintaining Israeli hegemony] will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world.” For this reason, he notes, the U.S. and Britain don’t want any Islamic country to acquire nuclear weapons.

So, whatever else we might say about the speech, it’s simply absurd to conclude, along with Kuhner, that Rafsanjani has advocated nuking Israel. We can object to Rafsanjani’s reasoning. We can object to his hatred for the Israeli government. But we can’t conclude that he has advocated nuking Israel. Because all he has done is explain why he believes Israel is a hegemonic power. And an explanation, of course, is not a call to jihad!

And, oh by the way, it’s worth noting that Iran has a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Commission. And that the International Atomic Energy Commission continues reporting that Iran is not diverting its nuclear energy for non-peaceful uses. And that even the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. Not that I expect any of this information to get in Kuhner’s way. After all, he has important propaganda to write.

Now I’m not defending Rafsanjani or the other mullahs. As the recent, probably fraudulent, election reminds us, Iran is a brutal dictatorship. I certainly don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons. (Just as I don’t want any nation to have nuclear weapons.) But, as awful as the Iranian government is, there’s no evidence that it’s led by apocalyptic “madmen” hell-bent on bringing about the Final Solution. In fact, everything I’ve read has led me to believe that they’re fairly rational, calculating men who, like most politicians, are above all else intent on preserving their own power. If there really was evidence that they were a bunch of suicidal crazies, it’s hard to imagine why a seemingly intelligent man like Jeffrey Kuhner would feel the need to distort the actual record.

June 12, 2009

Finally…Some Change I Can Believe In

Obama Tells Israel No More Settlement Growth.

President Obama’s insistence that Israel halts all settlement growth, even “natural growth,” has upset many. Charles Krauthammer, for instance, bemoans:

No "natural growth" means strangling to death the thriving towns close to the 1949 armistice line, many of them suburbs of Jerusalem, that every negotiation over the past decade has envisioned Israel retaining. It means no increase in population. Which means no babies. Or if you have babies, no housing for them -- not even within the existing town boundaries. Which means for every child born, someone has to move out. No community can survive like that. The obvious objective is to undermine and destroy these towns -- even before negotiations.

What Krauthammer fails to mention is that Israel had no right to build these settlements in the first place. You see, there’s this thing called the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has ratified. And according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

And it’s simply ridiculous to claim that a halt in settlement expansion would cause any sort of human catastrophe. As Gershom Gorenberg, a Jerusalem-based writer, points out: “West Bank settlements aren’t ancient communities in isolated valleys hundreds of miles from the nearest town. They are recently established bedroom communities, within commuting distance of Israeli cities -- where many settlers in fact work.” He continues: “Inside Israel, as in other developed countries, it’s perfectly normal for people to change neighborhoods as their families grow.”

Now it’s true that past peace talks have envisioned some sort of land swap, whereby Israel would retain some of the settlements in exchange for Israeli land. But such peace talks have also envisioned the creation of a Palestinian state, something which the ruling Israel government outright opposes! So it makes little sense for Israel apologists like Krauthammer to criticize Obama for failing to adjust his foreign policy according to future peace talks when the Israeli government has precluded the possibility of such talks.

Israel’s continued occupation, it should be noted, violates international law, as well as the international consensus on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Regarding international law, the International Court of Justice, in a 2004 ruling on the legality of the separation wall, affirmed the illegality of acquiring land through force and emphasized that the Palestinians have the right to self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza. Regarding the international consensus, every year the UN General Assembly votes on the “Peaceful resolution of the question of Palestine.” And every year, the vast majority of nations agree that Israel must withdraw to its pre-1967 borders and allow for Palestinian self-determination. The yearly vote is never even close. Last November, for instance, the following nations voted in favor of the resolution:

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cambodia, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, China, Colombia, Comoros, Congo, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Thailand, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Timor-Leste, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Viet Nam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
While the following nations voted against the resolution:

Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia (Federated States of), Nauru, Palau, United States of America.
So, given this current state of affairs, given Israel’s continual defiance of international law, given Israel’s continual defiance of the international consensus, given the continual suffering of the Palestinian people, we should applaud Obama’s demand that Israel halt settlement expansion. Undoubtedly the President, who seems genuinely committed to bringing about a two-state solution, realizes that the more settlements Israel builds, the more difficult it will ultimately be to pressure it to give up the West Bank. We can only hope that he remains true to his professed ideals and continues pressing for an end to the occupation.

June 5, 2009

Stop Blaming Religion

For humanity’s sins.

A central tenant of the “new atheism” is that religion is the single greatest threat to humanity. This view has been advanced by such writers as Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), as well as comedian Bill Maher, who concluded his 2008 documentary, Religulous, with the warning that, given religion’s ”power to divert man to destructive courses,” the fate of humanity might very well depend upon our ability to “grow up” and abandon our belief in the supernatural.

In their indictment of religion, such individuals generally point to two main culprits: Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. Christian fundamentalists, they note, tend to be especially jingoistic and militaristic, while Islamic fundamentalists lead the way in terrorist attacks. It therefore follows—or so the new atheists conclude—that religion (especially Christianity and Islam) is the cause of jingoism, militarism, and terrorism. Therefore, our best hope of ridding the world of these evils is to rid the world of religion. Q.E.D.

Now I happen to think that these individuals are dead wrong. Yes, it’s true that many Christians use the New Testament to rationalize their own belligerent nationalism, and it’s true that many Muslims use the Qur’an to rationalize terrorism. But so what? Just because one uses religion to justify violence, it doesn’t follow that religion causes violence.

The source of Christian belief, the New Testament, in no way promotes the belligerent nationalism that characterizes so many modern Evangelicals. Far from laying down the stipulations for “just war,” Jesus preached non-resistance. And although the Apostle Paul seemed to believe that “the governing authorities” were justified in using force against wrongdoers, his ethical teachings echoed Jesus’ message of self-giving love.

The problem with modern Christians, it seems to me, is not that they have too much faith but that they have too little. The average churchgoer is guilty of serving two gods: God and Country. If such idolatry ended, if Christians started loving the Lord their God, and Him alone, then it’s hard to imagine how they could continue down the path that so much of the world finds deplorable.

Unlike the New Testament, the Qur’an doesn’t teach pacifism. (Or maybe I should say, unlike the New Testament, the Qur’an doesn’t teach an almost-but-perhaps-not-quite-pacifism). But, as Bernard Lewis writes, neither does it justify the type of violence that Americans witnessed on September 11th. Lewis, a professor of Near East Studies at Princeton University, is hardly a proponent of Islam. In fact, he’s well known for his neoconservative positions, perhaps most notably his support for the Iraq War. And yet he acknowledges: “At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder. At no point—as far as I am aware—do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders” (The Crisis of Islam 39).

It’s true that many Islamic terrorists claim that they are doing God’s will, but just like their Christian counterparts, their religion is seldom to blame. This point has been made by Robert Pape, who teaches Political Science at the University of Chicago. After compiling a database of every suicide terrorist attack from 1980 through 2003, Pape discovered that there is no causal connection between Islamic fundamentalism and suicide terrorism. (Pape updated his database in early 2008 and again reached the same conclusion.) In fact, he found that the group committing the most suicide attacks was a secular Marxist organization, the Tamil Tigers.

So what then motivates suicide terrorism? Pape summarized the answer in a 2008 interview: “What over 95% of suicide terrorist attacks around the world have in common since 1980 is not religion but a specific strategic objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists consider to be their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon to Chechnya to the West Bank to Sri Lanka to Kashmir and to Iraq and Afghanistan today, suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign military occupation.”

Yes, many Muslims use the Qur’an to rationalize terrorism, just as many Christians use the New Testament to rationalize their own warmongering. But corrupt humans will use just about anything to justify their behavior. This is hardly the fault of religion, which has been a tremendous boon to humanity, the source of untold acts of love and kindness. Contrary to Bill Maher, it seems that our fate might very well depend on our ability, not to rid ourselves of God, but to start taking him seriously.