How Not to Make the World Go Away


First a couple of bits and pieces:

• Rep. Jeff Fortenberry has publicly rescinded his pledge to anti-government activist Grover Norquist to oppose any tax increases (see the last “Speaking our Peace”). He deserves our thanks for this gutsy act. May the other members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation soon follow his example.

• Four NFP State Board directors met with Sen. Mike Johanns about the need to cut military spending. The senator told us that the climate in Washington is ripe for reducing the military budget, but did not say he would do anything. With Congress looking to slash $1.2 trillion in federal spending over the next ten years, the annual $1.2 trillion we spend on national security should be the first item to be cut.

Now the main course: the Mideast

The Obama Administration has supported the relatively nonviolent ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia and Egypt; supported the violent version of that Spring in Libya; called for Assad to leave Syria without calling in NATO troops; and sent ambiguous signals about the rebellions in Bahrain and Yemen. We ought to congratulate Obama for his policy on Egypt and Tunisia; condone his intervention to prevent massacres in the Libyan city of Benghazi while condemning his support of NATO’s intensive air war against the rest of Libya; and affirm his unwillingness to intervene in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. We do not know what the CIA and Special Forces are doing in these areas, but clearly we should commend Obama’s willingness to consult with the United Nations and other international bodies. For all his faults, he is not George W. or Dick Cheney.

The ferment we now see in the Middle East is the product of two movements:

1. The partial modernization of Middle Eastern and North African countries through the impact of the oil industry, trade in other minerals, the proliferation of ‘social media,’ and the education of many Middle Eastern students in the West—all of which have finally coalesced into a movement seeking to extend political control in these nations beyond the old elites and Western-installed dictators; and

2. The increasing effort of Shiite and other religious elements to establish the primacy of an anti-Israel ideology within Islam—and the corresponding reaction of Israel and the traditional Sunni power brokers to this new trend.

Because of Israel’s territorial claims (made on the basis of religious claims), Palestinians living in the Palestinian Territories are a people without a country whose lands can be confiscated at will for ‘settlements’ by Israel.

Both Arab as well as Israeli ideas of nationhood, however, have failed to allow meaningful participation by religious minorities within their respective states. Israel insists on Jewish control of Israel, relegating its Palestinian and Berber residents to second-class citizenship. But the Muslim countries of the Middle East are also increasingly torn by sectarian factions.

Syria, for instance, has an ‘Alawite’ Shiite movement trying to control its much more numerous Sunni population without sharing power. Lebanon’s bloodbaths have almost all had a political-religious basis in the conflicts between Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and various forms of Christianity.

Bahrain, with its majority Shiite population, is rebelling against its Sunni rulers. The Shiites in Iraq, brutalized by Saddam Hussein, have now taken over Iraq and made it a client of Shiite Iran without guaranteeing full rights to Sunnis. Hamas and Hezbollah—Israel’s militia opponents—both profess Shiite affiliations.

The Sunni record is no better. Egypt had a pretty good reputation, over a thousand-year period, of allowing Coptic Christians and Muslims to live side by side, but it is increasingly seeing anti-Coptic barbarism. Saudi Sunni religious intolerance is legendary. Christians have not had an easy time under the largely Sunni Palestinian authority. But Christians, concomitantly, have no room to talk. Christian treatment of Muslims—first under the Crusades, then colonialism, and now globalization—has been despicable and unconscionable.

All members of the United Nations subscribe to the “U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights” which says, in Article 18, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” And in Article 15 the declaration states: “(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

The United States has made almost no effort to see that these articles are honored in this part of the world, let alone enforced.

The U.N. will soon take up the issue of Palestinian statehood. Without diminishing the offenses of either the Israelis or the Palestinians in their generations-old conflict, we believe that Palestine deserves to be recognized as a legitimate fully self-governing state, with clear borders and the rights accorded all other states. No Palestinians should be persons without a country.

In addition, we believe that the U.S. would be well-served in its international pronouncements to speak for the rights of religious minorities in all Middle Eastern countries. We can do this without pretending to massive ‘nation-building’ or democratic moralism. For the most part in the Arab world, we have given sanction to Arab regimes that have no understanding of religious pluralism—who have encouraged religious fanaticism not out of spiritual devotion but rank political opportunism.

If we speak clearly to principle, we may not change the world, but we may begin the process of rethinking things... Perhaps back to the kind of pluralism that much of the Arab world enjoyed in the Middle Ages when, as the Prophet exhorted, all ‘people of the book’ were to be respected.

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