Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Letter to Senator Corey Booker (D, NJ)



Dear Senator Booker,

            I write as your constituent to urge you to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated between the P5+1 nations and Iran. The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is one of the greatest challenges to the peace and security of our nation and the world at large, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan effectively forecloses that possibility for the foreseeable future. With so much hanging in the balance, it is imperative that the accord be implemented.
            Your senior colleague, Senator Menendez, has declared his opposition to the plan, as has Senator Schumer of New York. You have come under intense pressure from civic groups here in New Jersey to join them. Please do not capitulate to such pressure. In terms of policy, the accord clearly serves the public good. From the perspective of politics, your adoption of an independent stance would affirm what initially motivated so many of us to support your election to the Senate.
            The arguments in support of the plan are clear, and may be summed up in the simple formula of “if not this, what else?” Opponents of the plan can not offer an alternative that will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons within three months of the accord’s failure. In light of that fact, all objections to the plan become moot. As a Jew, a Zionist, and someone deeply concerned with the security of Israel, I understand that preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is the first priority in defending those interests, and that the Joint Comprehensive Plan offers the best and only hope in that regard. Moreover, as an American I know that this accord is not only vital to our national security, but that the prestige of our nation and the future effectiveness of our diplomacy hinges upon its implementation. All things considered, the failure of the Joint Comprehensive Plan would be a policy disaster of the highest order.
            You have shown great courage and integrity, both as Mayor of Newark and U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Please continue that legacy, and lend your voice to one of the most consequential policy debates of our lifetime thus far. Though such boldness may stir up some discontent in the short term, in the long run true leadership will galvanize your support, both here at home and nationally. In any case I thank you for your attention on this matter, and hope that this letter finds you well.

                                                                        Sincerely,


                                                                        Andrew Meyer

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Letter to Senator Robert Menendez (D, NJ)

Dear Senator Menendez,


       I write as your constituent to urge you to give your support to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated between the P5+1 nations and Iran. You have been admirably diligent in querying our diplomats and military personnel on this matter, and have expressed reservations about the plan’s implementation. It would be a misuse of your office, however, to allow those reservations to mature into outright opposition to the plan.
       In assessing the merits of the plan, it must not be weighed against some hypothetical ideal, but against the actual conditions of the current situation. Thus though the plan’s critics complain that the inspection regime it establishes does not provide the U.S. and its allies with enough access or information, one can not deny that it will provide us with vastly more access and information than we have right now. If we have managed to monitor and mobilize against Iran’s nuclear program under current conditions, it stands to reason that we will be that much more empowered to do so under the framework the plan would establish.
      In like manner, though the plan’s critics complain that it does not create sufficient restrictions on Iran’s refinement of nuclear material, it in fact creates greater restrictions than have ever been imposed up to this point. It is thus not true that, as you said to the press, “in time…they will have the option if they choose to ultimately move toward a nuclear weapon, and our choices then will be even more limited than they are today.” If the Iranians choose to ramp up their refinement of uranium after the restrictions imposed by the Joint Plan expire, the U.S. will be in a better position to detect such action because of the inspection regime established by the accord. Moreover, because the accord mandates the surrender of stockpiled uranium and the dismantling of centrifuges, if Iran moves toward a nuclear weapon after implementation of the Joint Plan it will require a full year to do so rather than three months as is currently the case. At that point the U.S. will thus have more information, more time, and the support of the same allies that joined in the negotiation of the Joint Plan. How then can you argue that the accord leaves the U.S with fewer options rather than more?
        In point of fact, the only way that the U.S. can limit our options is to scuttle the Joint Plan before it has been given an opportunity to work. This accord required the building and maintenance of a broad and diverse coalition of allies. If it is abandoned now the U.S. will never be able to reconstruct those ties, and will find all of our future efforts at diplomatic leadership hampered by well-deserved skepticism and disenchantment on the part of the international community.
            The Joint Plan is the best hope to foreclose the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran through diplomatic means. It is thus imperative that it be implemented, for the sake of the peace and security of the U.S., of our allies, and of the world at large. I urge you to mobilize the full power of your office in support of this initiative. In any case I hope that this letter finds you well, and I thank you for your attention on this matter.


                                                            Sincerely,


                                                            Andrew Meyer

Friday, August 07, 2015

Letter to The Honorable Chris Smith (R, NJ) on the Iran Nuclear Program

                                                                                                                                      August 6, 2015


Dear Mr. Smith,

            I write as your constituent to protest your opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated with the government of Iran by the Obama administration and the other P5+1 nations. This plan represents the best hope of peace in the Middle East; it is one of the most significant diplomatic efforts of our lifetime. It deserves the full support of the U.S. government, thus your call to obstruct it is neither prudent nor statesmanlike.
            Your arguments against the plan are not sound. The inspection regime it establishes is among the most intrusive ever instituted by a non-proliferation agreement. Even with the concessions made to Iranian security concerns, there is no possibility that the Iranians could secretly develop a nuclear weapon given the monitoring network the plan would put in place. Moreover, the proposed inspection regime would provide the U.S. and its allies with vastly more information than we currently have, so the idea that “gaps” in the plan pose a greater threat than the status quo is a patent fallacy.
            Likewise, since the provisions of the inspection regime never expire, it is simply not true, as you claim; that once “restrictions [on the refinement of nuclear material] expire, Iran could enrich on an industrial scale and the U.S. and its allies will be left with no effective measures to prevent Iran from initiating an accelerated nuclear program.” If Iran were to do as you envision, inspectors would immediately be aware of this activity, and the U.S. and its allies would possess all of the means currently at their disposal (both military and non-military) to put a halt to such ambitions. Moreover, because the Joint Comprehensive Plan, by mandating the immediate surrender of enriched uranium and the destruction of the majority of Iran’s centrifuges, increases the “breakout time” for a nuclear weapon from three months to a full year, even once the most severe restrictions of the plan expire, it provides the U.S. with greater resources and more time to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon than it currently possesses. Thus, again, the provisions of the plan are vastly superior to the status quo.
            Even if one accepts that, despite its profound improvements on the status quo, the Joint Comprehensive Plan is not ideal, this would not redeem your obstruction. In order to justify setting the perfect in opposition to the good, one would need to demonstrate that there are practical means to improve upon the current plan. Anyone who has paid attention to world affairs for the past decade knows that this is not so. The Joint Comprehensive Plan was only achieved through the painstaking cultivation and maintenance of a broad coalition of allies that imposed punishing sanctions on Iran at great cost to their own people. This deal represents the outer limit of what that coalition was willing to sacrifice in the cause of diplomacy. If the U.S. walks away from this plan we will never marshal that degree of support again, and on our own we will never be able to apply the level of economic and political pressure that has forced this set of concessions from Iran. In that case the only means left to achieve a more comprehensive solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear program will be military. Since those military means are destructive and unpredictable, and since the plan does not forfeit any of them in any case, it would be utterly foolish to refrain from giving this plan a chance to work before rushing into another foreign war.
            As an American citizen, a Jew, and a Zionist, I am deeply concerned with the security of both the United States and Israel. A nuclear-armed Iran would pose the greatest threat to those interests since the end of the Cold War. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action effectively forecloses the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon and thus neutralizes that threat. It is the duty of all U.S. officials to lend the authority of their offices to its implementation. I urge you to do what is right for America and the world. In any case I hope that this letter finds you well, and I thank you for your attention on this matter.


                                                            Sincerely,


                                                            Andrew Meyer

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Real World: Iran Nuclear Program Edition

In online discussions in which I have participated since the first announcement of the P5+1 agreement concerning Iran's nuclear program, the most incisive analysis I have encountered was from my friend, colleague, and mentor, John Major. He summed up the situation by asking, "what real-world outcome would be preferable to this agreement?" Answer: "There isn't one."

Since then, much of the criticism I have read of the agreement, especially coming from GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates, has reminded me of the fabled quote by a Bush administration aid dismissive of the "reality-based community" that "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." The same kind of magical thinking that led us into the invasion of Iraq seems to be at work in the jeremiads being hurled against the P5+1 deal. We are told that we should have achieved a deal that eliminated Iran's nuclear program altogether, or that disabled Iran's ability to wage war by proxy. What we are not told is how those goals might have been achieved diplomatically, because there is no way that might have been accomplished.

The punishing level of sanctions that brought Iran to the bargaining table required the full and compliant participation of China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and other countries aligned with the P5+1. The maintenance of such a broad and diverse coalition in an era of so much geopolitical strife was a near miracle, and the idea that the goal of foreclosing Iran's development of nuclear arms could have been expanded to include its support of Hezbollah or its use of peaceful nuclear power is a total fantasy. In this respect President Obama's foremost rejoinder to the deal's critics is unimpeachable: this deal represents the outer limits of what was achievable through diplomacy.  Anyone who insists that this deal is inadequate is arguing that the problem of Iran's nuclear program could only be redressed militarily.

This brings us to the point on which the "reality-based community" has not been vocal enough: there is no military solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear program. This is demonstrable on a number of levels. One is by appeal to prima facie common sense: if there were a military solution to the problem, it would have been exercised already. Similar threats in Syria and Iraq were dealt with by the Israeli military and intelligence community. These operations were done in the face of strong international objections, thus the notion that the Israelis have been restrained in the case of Iran is not credible. Iran is larger, has more resources, and is better equipped than either Iraq or Syria, and it has the examples of those two countries to serve as warning. Despite cyber attacks and the assassination of Iranian physicists their nuclear program has proven resilient. Given the level of international opposition demonstrated by the P5+1 to an Iranian nuclear weapon, it strains belief to assert that a swift covert solution to the problem would not have been undertaken by some party if such means existed.

With respect to a more conventional assault upon Iran, that is a solution forfeited more than a decade ago by the Bush administration. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq, American foreign policy interests became much too tied to the stability of Baghdad to ever allow the risk of war against Tehran. The US has built the largest and most expensive embassy compound in the world in Baghdad, staffed by more than five thousand American personnel. A war against Iran would most likely enrage the Shi'ite Iraqis who currently control the government in Baghdad, potentially setting off a crisis to make the 1979 hostage affair in Tehran pale by comparison. Even if this worst case scenario did not come to pass, war between Washington and Tehran would so destabilize the US position in Iraq as to make none of our policy goals in that country at all tenable, a contingency that American leaders simply can not risk. 

For the last decade the world has lived under the threat of Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, a prospect that portended even greater instability and strife than is already being experienced in the Middle East. Today, thanks to the P5+1 negotiations, it has become virtually impossible for Iran to become nuclear-armed, and that will remain true as long as this deal is in effect. Anyone who does not acknowledge and welcome that outcome is not living in the real world. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Just How Bigoted Are We?

Between September 1980 and August 1988 Iraq fought the longest conventional war in twentieth century history. The struggle was against Iran, a nation with almost three times Iraq's population and a military that had been trained and supplied for decades by the United States. Despite the fact that the Iranians were animated by religious revolutionary fervor and that a majority of Iraq's population shared the Shi'ite faith of their Iranian enemies, the Iraqi military fought resolutely. The war ended in stalemate.

Given this history, the tenor of American discourse concerning current military affairs in Iraq is infuriating. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter declares that the Iraqis have "no will to fight." Major editorial pages such as that of the New York Times concur with this assessment. Late night wits like Bill Maher wonder why the Iraqis need "Uncle Sugar" to do their fighting for them. What is wrong with all of these people? To believe that Iraq, having fought Iran to a standstill, would need assistance under normal circumstances to redress the threat of ISIS is utterly fantastic.

We are confronted with a stark disparity. In 1980 the Iraqi military fought tenaciously against an army of hundreds of thousands armed with US-made M60 and M47 battle tanks and F-4 and F-5 fighter jets. In 2014 it folded against a force of twenty thousand militants armed with humvees and grenade launchers. Faced with this anomaly, one would expect an educated person to investigate its causes vigorously.

No such inquiry has been forthcoming anywhere in the American commentariat. Everywhere pundits and leaders have defaulted to a common explanation: the Iraqis do not want to fight. They need more training. Their soldiers are unreliable, compelling dependence on sectarian and ethnic militias.

The absurdity of this view is difficult to exaggerate. To demonstrate this one need only transpose the Iran-Iraq war to the current day. If the Iran-Iraq war had begun in 2014 instead of 1980 it would not have lasted eight days, much less eight years. The Iraqi army of 1980 had 950 combat aircraft, including more than 300 fighter jets. Today it has 12 Soviet-era Su-25 fighters and 13 Russian-made attack helicopters. During the Hussein era Iraq had more than six thousand battle tanks. Today it has 237 tanks, about half of them first- and second- generation Soviet models that are at least 50 years out of date.

Iraq today does not have the military of a sovereign nation. The United States is refusing to allow Iraq to become fully armed, keeping it in a state of quasi-colonial dependence. That is the reason that the Iraqi military can not maintain the peace throughout its territorial domain, and any other explanation is ludicrous.

America has various reasons for constraining the Iraqi military, and though none of them are justifiable in abstract principle, some of them do have a pragmatic rationale. What exactly will transpire in the aftermath of the restoration of full Iraqi sovereignty is impossible to predict. Allowing the Iraqi military to fully arm, for example, might (in the short term) invite a civil war even more destructive than the conflict already raging. Thus the US muddles along with a deplorable and morally indefensible status quo rather than risk an unknown and uncontrollable future.

While the state of US policy might have complex causes, the state of American discourse can be explained much more simply.  The universal acceptance of a narrative of Iraqi cowardice and incompetence; the ubiquitous refusal to acknowledge the material reality of American colonialism: these phenomena can have no other explanation but bigotry. Listening to commentator after commentator swallow the story about Iraqi lack of "combat readiness" without pausing to ask how a nation that once had the fifth largest military in the world could fall into such a state of ineptitude, one can only conclude that a pervasive prejudice is at work.

As long as Americans remain so blinkered, we will never be able to make sense of our own foreign policy. Until Iraq is sovereign, it will lurch from crisis to crisis, producing ever more violent and destructive threats. We may fool ourselves that continued paternalism is the most prudent course,  but if we allow our policy to be guided by our bigotry, we will learn that the trouble colonialism invites ultimately vastly surpasses any it might forestall.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Ramadi and Palmyra Blues

As we remember our fallen soldiers today, the capture of Ramadi and Palmyra by ISIS presents a grimly ironic prospect. In the face of this debacle US leaders are predictably divided. Opponents of the Obama White House want to turn the clock back to 2007, and deploy US ground forces to address the threat. The President blames the crisis on the Iraqi army's lack of combat readiness, proposing that more training is needed. Both propositions are demonstrably absurd.

The idea that US ground forces will be of help ignores the problem of working towards a coherent "end game" in that scenario. Given a large enough commitment of blood and treasure US forces could no doubt drive ISIS from its territorial stronghold and end its aspirational "caliphate," but this hypothetical leaves us with the unanswerable question of "what next?" American troops would be left occupying large swaths of western Iraq and eastern Syria, most likely under constant attack from fragmentary groups of nationalists and Islamist militants. The US would be faced with the choice of declaring war on the Assad regime and occupying Syria in the style of Iraq 2003, or of formally partnering with Damascus and turning over ISIS strongholds to the army that has recently used poison gas on its own people.

Just as US ground forces will be of little help in the current situation, more training for the Iraqi army will produce no good results. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. military (army, navy, and marines) had less than 350,000 personnel. By 1945 the U.S. had more than 12 million men and women in arms and had defeated some of the best-equipped and most experienced armed forces in the world, deploying citizen-soldiers that had been given roughly seven weeks of training on average. US advisers have been training Iraqi soldiers for more than ten years. Why would the nation that produced more than 12 million fighting personnel in less than 4 years during WWII fail to achieve an operational force many times smaller given a decade in which to accomplish that feat? Beyond this, if training is so key to military success in this conflict, how can we possibly explain the career of ISIS itself, whose soldiers lack virtually any formal training of the kind lavished upon the Iraqi army?

If US ground forces and more training are not the answer, what would help in the fight against ISIS? As I wrote almost a year ago, the Iraqi military lacks the basic equipment and combat capabilities of that of a genuinely sovereign nation. At the time that ISIS captured Mosul, the Iraqi Air Force had two Cessna prop planes modified to carry Hellfire missiles. One year later, the Iraqi military can field a dozen antiquated Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-25 combat jets. A dozen jets represents a vast expansion from two Cessnas, but it is still an infinitesimal fraction of the more than 950 aircraft that the Iraqi military could deploy at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. The US has sold Iraq 36 F-16 fighters, but has withheld delivery of the planes, citing security concerns. Even if the Iraqis had taken delivery of this shipment the Iraqi military would be a paper tiger, incapable of defending itself from comparably sized neighbors that can field hundreds of fighter aircraft (Iran, for example, has more than 600 jets in service).

Compare the state of Iraq's air defense with that of of the Republic of South Vietnam in 1975. When the US withdrew from that country, it left South Vietnam with the fifth largest air force in the world. The VNAF possessed more than two thousand aircraft, including more than five hundred transport and attack helicopters and more than 150 F-5 Freedom Fighter combat jets. If all of that firepower produced utter military collapse in 1975, can we be surprised that the Iraqi military has demonstrated poor esprit de corps when it has been equipped with only the smallest fraction of its operational needs?

The Iraqi army does not fight poorly because it lacks training, but because its officers and men know that it is not a real army, and that the government it serves is a client of the US and Iran. The possibility that the government in Baghdad might fall if ISIS prevails is not enough to motivate discipline and resolve, as it is clear to all concerned that Baghdad does not have final control over the lives and destinies of the Iraqi people, but must defer major decisions to Washington and Tehran. This situation will only change when the Iraqi military is fully armed and given the combat power to put it on a par with the military forces of Iraq's neighbors.

The Iraqi military has not been fully armed because the US government has forbidden it. The reasons for this are manifold, but they all boil down to a single overarching reality: no one knows what will happen when Iraq becomes truly sovereign again. When Baghdad no longer needs to depend upon Washington or Tehran for its defense it will be free to construct its own foreign policy. It might pursue partnership with Tehran to the exclusion of Washington (or vice versa). It might strike out on its own and abandon both of its prior patrons. It might cancel all oil contracts made under the current regime. It might elect for war with a neighbor, or with the autonomous enclave established by the Kurds.

Moreover, it is not only the foreign posture of Baghdad but its own internal dynamic that will be transformed by genuine sovereignty. The Iraqi military's lack of a credible air wing does not only make it more pliable to the will of the US, but also to the authority of its civilian masters. An army that can not defend itself against that of its neighbors has little scope to rebel against the civil executive, as its ultimate security can only be effected diplomatically. Once the Iraqi military is fully armed it may slip the leash and produce a new Saddam Hussein, whose whims would be anyone's guess. If the army rebels Iraq could be plunged into a civil war that would make the current state of unrest pale by comparison. Any of these scenarios could end with scenes very reminiscent of 1975, as US helicopters lift desperate embassy employees out of the Green Zone.

Restoring full sovereignty to Iraq is thus a serious gamble with an array of potentially terrible consequences. It is the inevitability of arriving at this juncture that made the initial invasion of Iraq such a criminally foolhardy idea to begin with, and that should restrain any thinking person from contemplating another massive deployment of US ground forces to the Middle East. One thing, however, is for certain. The Iraqis will not fight ISIS until they have a real army, and until that happens the Islamic State is here to stay.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Iran in Historical Context: the Case of Japan

If the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program bear fruit in an actual diplomatic agreement it will be one of the hallmark achievements of Barack Obama's foreign policy, and may well shape the legacy of his administration for good or for ill. Much ink has been spilled arguing for or against the wisdom of the deal as it is taking shape. Since there are no precedents that exactly match the current circumstances confronting U.S. leaders, it is difficult to plumb history for lessons that might apply in this case. I would argue, however, that America's relations with Japan provide a context that might inform current policy toward Iran.

As I have written before, Iran is a state that, given slightly different circumstances, should have emerged from the twentieth century in much the same condition as Japan. Both nations were possessed of the same assets: a well-educated populace, long traditions of central state institutions, and a robust experience of democratic political life. Though Iran is beset by ethnic and linguistic divisions that were not matched in Japan, it also possesses oil reserves and other natural resources that Japan lacks.

The chief factor differentiating Iran's fate from that of Japan was geography. Because Japan is an archipelago separated from the Asian mainland, it was shielded from the worst influences of the Cold War. Iran, contrastingly sandwiched between the Soviet Union and the Anglo-American sphere of influence in Arabia, became a key battleground of ideological war by proxy. The success of the Islamic Revolution is thus due principally to the fact that the Shi'ite clerical establishment was the only institution in Iranian society with sufficient political capital to resist the machinations of the both the Soviet Union and the U.S.

What guidance can the contrasting outcomes in Japan and Iran offer us by way of assessing the current policy initiative? How one answers this question hinges on one's understanding of the role of U.S. power in twentieth century Japan. In 1941 Japan was in the grips of a regime as dysfunctional and malignant as that of Iran's mullahs (perhaps more so). It only became a prosperous, stable democracy in the wake of defeat and occupation.

If one believes that the U.S. broke down the Japanese state and rebuilt it in America's image, then one must be very leery of current diplomacy in Iran, as it embodies compromise and flexibility rather than the forceful assertion of U.S. power. But such an assessment fundamentally misunderstands the nature of U.S. power and its effects, whether in Japan or elsewhere. The postwar reconstruction of Japan did not represent an "Americanization" of Japanese state and society, but a rejection by the Japanese people themselves of the xenophobic militarism of the early Shōwa era (the 1930's) in favor of the liberal cosmopolitanism of late Taishō reign (the 1920's).

The Japanese people did not comply with the policies of the U.S. occupation out of fear or awe of U.S. power, but out of a deep sense of disenchantment with and betrayal by their own leaders. By 1945, every political, religious and civic institution of the Japanese empire had failed the Japanese people, bringing misery and suffering on a scale not experienced since medieval times. The Japanese understood that their misfortune had been avoidable; that it was not the result of Allied aggression but of poor choices by imperial leaders. Since all of the institutions of the imperial order had been radically discredited, the Japanese were ready to facilitate a complete overhaul of their system.

To demonstrate that this is true, one need only look to the empirical evidence of the second Gulf War. American victory over Saddam Hussein's Iraq was much swifter and more unequivocal than that over imperial Japan. If U.S. military power was the key factor underpinning nation "rebuilding," the leverage enjoyed  by the U.S. in Iraq should have been many times what it was in Japan. Iraq's actual development demonstrates that the internal dynamics of a nation are much more determinative than external military pressure of its evolution in the wake of a crisis. Iraq could not be made to conform to the Bush administration's plans because the Iraqi people themselves were not (are still not) ready to put their trust in a newly reconstructed order. Though a majority of Iraqis felt sorely oppressed by Saddam Hussein, many Iraqi Sunni Arabs remained loyal supporters of his government, and even those Iraqis who were not continued to have faith in other institutions (Shi'ite or Sunni clerics, tribes, pan-Arabic or Kurdist nationalist movements, etc.) that were opposed to U.S. occupation. The U.S. invasion was thus never well disposed to produce outcomes in Iraq resembling those of late twentieth-century Japan.

How do these lessons apply to Iran? In brief, we are wiser to rely on the internal dynamics of Iranian society to effect change than to try to force change through external pressure. Sanctions have brought Iran to the bargaining table, but if continued they are not likely to compel a fundamental restructuring of Iranian government or policy. The future shape of Iran will be determined by the desires of the Iranian people themselves and the success (or failure) of the regime in Tehran to fulfill them. While it is clear that Ayatollah Khamenei and his government are weakly motivated to conclude a deal with the U.S., it is equally clear that the Iranian people themselves feel very differently. The expressions of glee that have gone out over social media in anticipation of a deal demonstrate that, for many if not most Iranians, the current diplomatic initiative represents the eager hope that they might rejoin the community of nations and reenter commerce with the U.S. and its allies. If Tehran disappoints the Iranian people in this regard they will have a problem on their hands much more urgent than the stress of sanctions.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has not gone the way of the Japanese Empire because it still retains some critical part of the trust of the Iranian people. As the Green Movement of 2009 showed, however, that trust operates within discrete limits. The people of Iran are deeply nationalistic, and they assent to the legitimacy of the mullah regime because it has successfully defended the sovereign autonomy of Iran. However, Iranians are also very cosmopolitan and democratic in outlook. Many would like to see a return to the open and liberal policies of the Mossadegh era in the same way those of the Taishō reign were revived in Japan. If those desires are sufficiently frustrated, change will come to Iran as surely as it did to postwar Japan. For these reasons, the current diplomatic initiative of the Obama White House, despite risks, is nonetheless the wisest course.  Though the deal has entailed compromise, if Tehran acts in bad faith or does anything to preclude delivering upon the promise of this initiative to yield the benefits of openness and prosperity for the Iranian people, the mullahs will find that they have bargained for just enough rope with which to hang themselves.  


Monday, March 23, 2015

Plan Bibi

The most recent Israeli election compels Zionists to examine our principles. If the right of the Jewish state to exist is taken, as I and others hold, to entail a concomitant right of a Palestinian state to exist, Benjamin Netanyahu's victory is a distressing watershed. Given his declarations prior to the vote, what can Bibi's triumph mean except that a plurality of the Israeli electorate has rejected a two-state solution?  That being the case, Zionists both inside and outside Israel must radically rethink their commitments and weigh the relative importance of their priorities.

Herzlian Zionism has always been a conceptually vexed enterprise. The marriage of Jewish nationalism and liberal democracy is a shotgun wedding at best.  There is no practical way to perfectly reconcile the dual imperatives of maintaining a Jewish majority and safeguarding the equal rights of all citizens, thus under ideal conditions the Zionist state was foreordained to be beset by virtually perpetual civic turmoil and identity crises. This is why, before 1948, many of Zionism's most salient and intellectually astute spokespersons, such as Albert Einstein and Martin Buber, rejected the basic precepts of Theodore Herzl's state-Zionist vision.

This is not to declare, as anti-Zionists do, that Zionism is intrinsically illegitimate (or that it is, as the phenomenally malicious 1975 UN resolution deemed it, "racism"). The Holocaust proved Theodore Herzl's arguments for the need of the Jewish state to be prophetic and the idealism of anti-state Zionists such as Einstein and Buber to be naive.  However, the legitimacy of the Zionist state is contingent upon its continued and robust commitment to grappling with the contradiction between its liberal democratic and Jewish nationalist imperatives.

Since 1967, moreover, the strains upon that legitimacy have been egregious. The slim chance to maintain basic fairness for all living under the aegis of the Jewish state that would have existed under ideal conditions has been effaced by the occupation of 2.4 million Palestinians on the West Bank and the enforced deferment of sovereignty for 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza. Under those conditions, the Zionist project can only legitimately persist under the onus of an eventual end to the occupation and establishment of a Palestinian state. In the absence of a formal commitment to those ends, Israel devolves from a state of effective to constitutional apartheid. The legitimacy of the Zionist state thus hangs by a very slender thread.

No one understands this better than Benjamin Netanyahu. This is why his pre-electoral repudiation of a two-state solution was followed so swiftly by a post-election volte-face. The critical awareness evinced by his verbal gymnastics testifies to the rashness of his tactics. He knowingly gambled the international standing of the Zionist project on a bid to rescue his political career, a move that must mark him as one of the most un-statesmanlike politicians of recent times.

In the shadow of the Janus-faced prime-minister elect, Zionists across the globe, Jews and non-Jews alike, are compelled to reassess their positions. We are forced to reconcile our secular Zionist creed with the increasingly incontestable  and immutable reality that Israeli troops will never be withdrawn from the West Bank. One possibility is the embrace of a so-called "bi-national state." In this scenario, all current residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza (and potentially many members of the Palestinian diaspora) would receive full citizenship in Israel (then Israel-Palestine), which would no longer be the unique sovereign representative of the Jewish people, but would jointly embody the sovereignty of both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples.

This would be a fair resolution of the crisis. Yet even if the many practical obstacles to such a resolution could be overcome, Zionists might well resist the formation of a "bi-national state" as an inadequate agent for their political needs. Having witnessed the sheer malevolent destructiveness of modern anti-Semitism, the world should need little further demonstration of why the Jewish people desire a uniquely sovereign advocate among the community of nations, and why they might feel that a state whose focus was split between the Jews and any other people would be insufficient to the task warranted by the post-Holocaust world.

Are Zionists then forced to choose between a grudging (or hypocritical) endorsement of the status quo and continuing lip-service to an ever less-plausible two-state solution? A drastic re-conceptualization of the Zionist project is in order. If the occupation can not be ended, and a bi-national state is not acceptable, we are forced to imagine an alternative future in which Jewish sovereignty and Palestinian rights both find just expression and fulfillment.

Such ends might be served by a "two-state nation." That is to say, a single contiguous national territory (constituting all of pre-1967 Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank) housing two sovereign governments, that of Israel and Palestine, respectively. Israeli citizens living within the space would participate in the governing institutions of Israel, which would continue as they do now. Palestinian citizens would vote for and pay taxes to the Palestinian government, which could remain in the Palestinian Authority's current residence at Ramallah or be moved to some other location. The jurisdiction of both governments would run through the whole of Israeli-Palestinian territory, and the citizens of both states would have unrestricted freedom of access, able to work or reside at any location from the Golan Heights to the southern Negev, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. 

Before enumerating the obvious obstacles to this concept, let me list the problems it would solve. First and foremost, it would (at least notionally) end the occupation. As long as Palestinian forces were allowed to jointly patrol the streets of Tel Aviv, it would no longer be an impingement on Palestinian sovereignty for Israeli soldiers to protect Jewish settlers in the West Bank (or even the Gaza Strip). As long as religious Zionists respected the rights and property of Palestinian citizens, it would no longer pose a problem that they desire to reside within "Judea and Samaria." Congruently, the issue of the "Palestinian right of return" would no longer pose an existential threat to the Zionist project. Since geographic residence and citizenship would be disaggregated, it would no longer matter how many Palestinian refugees returned to homes within the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel, as they would do so as citizens of the new Palestinian state.

The practical complexities of such an arrangement are obviously rife. How two sovereign governments would share revenue, jointly police crime, divide the burden of national defense, and maintain the peace within the same territorial space are problematic questions, especially given the long-simmering resentments and destructively violent conflicts that roil the communities to be joined under this scheme. The concept may thus seem absurd, but it only appears more so than the status quo because we have become acclimated to the latter through long acquaintance. If we are forced to choose between absurdities, we are compelled toward those that are more just. The burden of living with the status quo might seem easier than that of grappling with a radically new future, but Benjamin Netanyahu's machinations have presented Zionists with an intractable conundrum. To call oneself a Zionist in the post-Bibi age is to be faced with a choice: either assent to the perpetuation of a manifestly unjust system; or explain how the dual imperatives of Jewish sovereignty and human rights can both be fulfilled given current realities on the ground in the Middle East.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Radical Islam and the "War on Terror"

As a Jew and a Zionist, I often appeal to a particular thought experiment to illustrate the ill-wisdom of forcing American leaders to declare that the U.S. is at war with "radical Islam." Like other left-wing secular Zionists, I abhor the West Bank settler movement and the damage it has done to the prospects of peace in Israel and Palestine. Even so, slight variations in the rhetorical frame within which such opposition is voiced can elicit very different responses. A declaration that "those settlers are causing trouble in the West Bank" invites my support. The statement that "those Jews are causing trouble in the West Bank" awakens my suspicion and fear.

Much well-founded criticism has been leveled at the claim that the perpetrators of jihadi terror "are not real Muslims." As is true of the relationship between Judaism and the West Bank settlers, the goals and methods of groups like Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS can not be understood except by reference to Islam, thus any effective response to this threat must account for the role of Islam in its formation. But it is precisely because they and other jihadis are real Muslims, and will be recognized by millions of other Muslims as co-religionists, that their non-Muslim opponents must be extremely circumspect in invoking their Islamic identity.

A community in crisis naturally inclines to affirm the elements of their shared identity, especially in the face of outsiders, even at the cost of political liability. As an example, we can see that this principle has shaped the evolution of Zionism from its inception. Though the early Labor Zionist founders of Israel were thoroughgoing secularists, they knew that no movement for Jewish empowerment could achieve critical mass or strategic purchase without the participation of some part of the faithful. There has thus, extending back before 1948, always been a religious Zionist tendency at the fringe of Israeli politics. This state of affairs was reinforced by the experience of the Holocaust. If Zionism is a movement dedicated to defending the value and dignity of every Jewish life in the face of genocidal hatred, then that social compact must extend even to those misguided and malicious enough to desire the death of Yitzhak Rabin or the destruction of Muslim holy sites.  The messianic Zionism of the settler movement redounds to the detriment of all Jews. But, because they openly embrace and affirm the identity for which all Jews have been arbitrarily stigmatized, no Zionist of any stripe can wholly disown them or deny kinship with them.

An analogous principle is at work in the relationship of the advocates of "radical Islam" to the larger Muslim world. Though the global Islamic community is vastly larger than that of the world's Jews, and though Muslims have not been subject to a campaign of general extermination, much of the Islamic world today is nonetheless in crisis. This does not arise from a single threat or easily reducible problem. Rather, a complex of powerful forces and historical experiences- colonialism, commercialization, industrialization, the tensions of the Cold War (and its sudden end), the spread of new political forms and ideologies (nationalism, socialism, communism, fascism, republicanism, democracy, various forms of Islamism), the digital revolution, invasion, revolution, civil war- have radically destabilized the basis of society in a large part of the Islamic world, to varying degrees.

This complex of crises impacts every aspect of social and cultural life. The reactions it has evoked are multifarious and unpredictable. It is foolish, however, given the nature of human social life, to expect a majority of Muslims to abandon or ignore their commitments to Islam in the face of radical (and often destructive) change. Islam is implicated, for good or ill, in almost all of the power structures within which most Muslims live and with which they must interact on a daily basis. In societies ranging from Morocco to Indonesia, the position of, for example, a man within his family, or a wealthy women within her community, or a political activist in relation to the state, are all profoundly informed by the participation of these individuals in Islamic institutions and traditions. Even in cases where Islamic doctrine and practice is not clearly of benefit, such people can not openly break with Islam without abdicating any sense of normalcy and predictability in their social affairs, a prospect that few people will risk while they can feel the sands of history shifting beneath their feet.

Because maintaining one's position within the Islamic community requires that one acknowledge fellowship with all others that profess the faith, most Muslims will be hostile to any attack upon other Muslims as Muslims, even those to whom they are politically (even violently) opposed. Groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram are counting on this fact. The more that they can make the various conflicts in which they are engaged about Islam, the more support (active and tacit) they will draw from the communities in which they operate.

Al Qaeda, for example, has shown itself very clever in the manipulation of identity politics with the most recent attacks in France. The murder of the satirists at Charlie Hebdo was deliberately designed to make the fight about Islam. The perpetrators knew that many Muslims and non-Muslims would interpret the event and its aftermath differently. Non-Muslim citizens of industrial democracies were horrified by this assault on free speech. But many Muslim observers, not equipped to understand why the freedom to profane a sacred icon is so cherished in France and elsewhere, misinterpreted the intensity of anger evoked by the attack as a paroxysm of collective Islamophobia.

A similar principle was at work in the attack on the kosher grocery in the Ponte de Vincennes. Those who ordered this crime knew that they were opening the guilty wound of anti-Semitism in European memory. But they also knew that the many expressions of sympathy that went out over social media would be susceptible to different interpretation in Muslim communities. The millions of tweets of "Je suis Juif" were deeply appreciated by those like me who were made to feel most vulnerable by the Ponte de Vincennes attack. But just as I can not forswear all kinship with the radical settlers that have intruded in the West Bank, I can not claim surprise if many Muslims misinterpret "Je suis Juif" as a statement of at least tacit support for the form of religious Zionism I so vehemently oppose.

Because these cultural dynamics are at work for any non-Muslim who would fight against groups like Al Qaeda, it behooves the U.S. and its allies to refrain from making this conflict about Islam in any regard. Narrowing the focus to "radical Islam" might seem to clarify the issue, but this is false. If the U.S. is at war with "radical Islam," is it at war with Iran? With Hezbollah? With Hamas? Unless one can come up with a coherent explanation as to why these groups fall outside of the ambit of radical Islam, the category loses all strategic value. Conversely, to insist that the U.S. is, in fact, at war with these groups is to construct a war so ambiguous that it loses all strategic logic.

The greatest strength of groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram is rooted in the same source as their greatest weakness. Islam provides them with a framework within which to make claims on the fellowship and appeal to the sympathies of other Muslims. This is a very powerful and versatile mechanism, especially in nations like Afghanistan or Nigeria riven by deep ethnic and linguistic divisions. But in the same way that the messianic ideology of the West Bank settlers puts them hopelessly out of step with the practical conditions of the twenty-first century, the adoption of Islam as a political program renders jihadis strategically impotent along any long-term trajectory of global affairs. Jihadis offer prospective followers and subjects a teleology plotting all near-term purposes and solutions along a path that leads toward a world caliphate that, in the face of current conditions, can never and will never exist. Thus they are rarely able to initiate or effect any constructive project that cogently serves their ideological ends. They can (and must, if they are to credibly claim any relevance) kill or destroy anyone or anything that offends their dogmatic vision, but they can never build or establish any structure or institution that clearly and necessarily embodies their particular (ultimately phantasmal) world view.  Apart from tendentious appeals to bonds of Muslim fellowship, the only short-term traction that jihadis can achieve is to co-opt issues about which Muslims care independently of their commitment to Islam. Thus Al Qaeda and ISIS claim to fight on behalf of dispossessed Palestinians, or for the oppressed Sunnis of Syria, or against the oligarchs and aristocrats that collaborate with Americans and Europeans, even though there is no obvious logical connection between these goals and the establishment of a caliphate.

If the U.S. and its allies would exploit the greatest weakness of jihadis and deprive them of their greatest strength, we should avoid all formulations, logical or rhetorical, of a war on "radical Islam." The only way that a group like Al Qaeda can defer their inevitable arrival upon the scrapheap of history is to persuade as many people as possible that they are fighting in the cause of Islam, thus it would be supremely misguided of their opponents to corroborate that narrative in any way. The raw fact is that the U.S. is not facing "radical Islam" or "terror" in the abstract, but is embroiled in an asymmetrical war with specific groups (Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, etc.), each of which is pursuing power for its own purposes and within its own particular context. As is true in all asymmetrical conflicts, victory will depend much more on the skillful execution of political and ideological strategies than on battlefield success. In this regard, the politics of a war on "radical Islam" will invite military disaster.

What strategy, then, can succeed moving forward? Since any jihadi group can only sustain traction and momentum as long as it can make the fight about Islam, their opponents should do everything in their power to make the fight about something else. On the surface, this might seem easy, given the urgency and complexity of the crises ensuing in much of the Islamic world. Many millions of devout Muslims are mobilizing in support of women's rights, democracy, freedom of speech, economic justice, and religious tolerance. Each of these commitments puts multitudes on the opposite side of jihadis, despite their shared commitment to Islam. If jihadis' opponents (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) can make the struggle about these issues, the temporary lease on life that groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda have bought with the coin of Islamic piety will run out very quickly.

The difficulty, however, is in finding the ways that the U.S. and its allies, as outsiders, can meaningfully participate in these contests without adversely distorting them. Given the history of colonialism and exploitation that mars relations between large parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world, any move on the part of a nation like the U.S. to champion, for example, women's rights, is vulnerable to being perceived as paternalism or cultural imperialism. This is not, however, an argument for inaction, but a caveat that any success in this arena is bound to be provisional, and an imperative for maximum sensitivity as to means. Both the invasion of Iraq and the award of the Nobel Prize to Malala Yousafszai, for example, might have evoked some ill will, but the latter is clearly a more effective way for non-Muslims to champion liberal ideals in the Muslim world.

As the last juxtaposition suggests, the military is a very blunt instrument, the effectiveness of which is chiefly limited to the tactical realm. This is not to minimize the military dimensions of the conflict. Asymmetrical war is still war, and anyone who argues against fighting jihadis when and where they take up arms has a difficult empirical task. I would argue, for example, that whatever sins of excess are embodied by the U.S. drone program in Pakistan are more than matched by our errors of deficiency in Nigeria.

Moreover, while the use of the military is chiefly tactical, it is not exclusively so. Our air campaign against ISIS in Syria might kill personnel and destroy equipment, but it is making no headway in the struggle to defeat that group. Because the human and material needs of an insurgent group are light, the power lost to casualties and destroyed equipment can easily be restored. Meanwhile, by tacitly partnering with the hated Assad regime, the U.S. has effectively reduced itself to the role of a partisan player in a sectarian conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis. We have thus allowed ISIS to make the fight about Islam, when we should be working to make the fight about democracy and human rights. As long as the U.S. cedes opposition to the Assad regime to jihadis, no amount of American technological supremacy or tactical destructiveness will make real headway against ISIS.

In the horrifying and often surreal dance that has played out since 9/11, Americans and jihadis have viewed one-another as if through a glass darkly. "America" is not a real place in the ideology and rhetoric of ISIS or Al Qaeda, it is a symbol upon which they can project all of their complaints against the entire economic and social matrix of the twenty-first century. In the same way, America has served and continues to serve as the "Great Satan" for all types of groups pursuing imaginaries incompatible with current realities, from the partisans of "Greater Serbia" in the 1990's to the settlers trying to revive the "Kingdom of Judea" on the West Bank today.

Likewise, "radical Islam" is not a real or coherent entity. It is a peg upon which we Americans can hang our fears of enemies operating in distant circumstances, whose means and rationale we are not entirely equipped to understand. "Radical Islam" will exist so long as an unhappy, unfortunate, aggrieved, or simply alienated individual can co-opt Muslim doctrine to serve violent ends. That is to say, "radical Islam" will be here forever. If we want to fight a war that we can win, we should not fight a war against something that will never go away. Rather, we should fight to defeat ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and the other specific groups that are violently assaulting the U.S. and its allies. The most important tools we have for the conduct of that war are political, and the first task we must undertake in activating those weapons is to establish that the fight is not about Islam, but about the rights, lives, and autonomy of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Friday, January 09, 2015

A War of No Visible Prophet

The heinous murder of artists, journalists, staff and police officers at the offices of Charlie Hebdo has opened a new phase in the global paroxysm that began on 9/11. The Paris attack marks the emergence of a new and potentially dangerously effective strategy for the jihadist movement. As at 9/11, U.S. and allied leaders stand at a watershed moment, and their response to this crime will impact the course of global affairs for the next decade or more.

One of the problems that has most vexed observers and analysts of our post-9/11 world is that of the context in which jihadism should be understood. Who are the jihadis? Why have they emerged in the times and places in which they operate, and what drives them? Formulating an effective response to the challenge obviously resides in first answering such questions.

The answer that most profoundly shaped the initial international response to 9/11 was that posited by the White House as a corollary of the "Bush Doctrine."  President George W. Bush was careful to avoid identifying jihadism with Islam more generally, declaring that "[o]ur war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith," and that groups like Al-Qaeda had "hijacked a great religion in order to justify their evil deeds."

But in formulating its rationale for the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration situated jihadism into an expansive context much broader than that of the material operation of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In this view, jihadism was an expression of a deep social pathology afflicting many Islamic nations, but particularly those of the Arab Middle East. If freedom and democracy could be forced to take root in that region, the effects would reverberate outward, eliminating the underlying causes of terrorism more effectively than the simple pursuit of terrorists where and when they act.

Whatever one's opinion of this concept, subsequent events have undermined its traction as a principle of policy. The human and material costs of spreading democracy in the Middle East through military occupation have proven politically unsustainable.  Though debates over the wisdom of ending the occupation of Iraq are likely to continue indefinitely, until some dramatically ameliorating effects are felt (in other words, until there are no more heinous terrorist attacks like that just perpetrated in Paris), there is virtually no likelihood that the U.S. or its allies will ever embark on a similarly conceived venture in the future. The chapter of post-9/11 global affairs in which the Bush Doctrine informed the response to jihadism is thus at a close.

From the outset, a dissident answer to the conundrum of jihadism was exemplified by critics like Michael Scheuer. A former CIA operative, Scheuer argued in his book Imperial Hubris that the Bush administration's analysis of jihadism as a sociocultural pathology was misguided. Terrorism, in his view, was motivated by anger at U.S. foreign policy, and the actions of a group like Al-Qaeda should be viewed as "blowback" for the meddling in and exploitation of Middle Eastern countries by the American government and American corporations.

Though this view has held sway in many parts of the American left (and libertarian right), it has never made a real impact on U.S. policy. It has arguably been waning in influence, moreover, and the recent tragedy in Paris will no doubt undermine its persuasive power as much as it does that of the Bush Doctrine. If we follow Scheuer, the root causes of terrorism could (and should) be alleviated by changes in the foreign policy of the U.S. and its allies. But the attack on Charlie Hebdo can not plausibly be interpreted as "blowback." Would the murderers of Stephane Charbonnier and his colleagues be any less motivated to "avenge the Prophet" if, say, the U.S. withdrew its support from Israel or stopped drone attacks in Pakistan?  The logic of blowback does not help us make sense of this crime, or formulate a meaningful response.

Another alternative explanation of the phenomenon of jihadism is exemplified by critics such as Samuel Harris. Harris is an atheist and a self-professed liberal, but ideas analogous to his can be found on all parts of the political spectrum- right and left, secular and religious, moderate and extreme. Though varying widely in tone and logical coherence, these formulations commonly reject President Bush's assertion that "our war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith." In this view, the origins of terrorism can not be disaggregated from the doctrine and practice of Islam. Islam exhorts its followers to violent jihad against the infidel, thus on some level a struggle against groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS will inevitably and irreducibly be a struggle against Islam itself.

Unlike the "blowback" view, this perspective on the causes of and response to jihadism has been growing in influence, and is, understandably, likely to gain even more currency as a result of the murders in Paris.  The standard apologist response to the indictment against Islam, that jihadis like the murderers at Charlie Hebdo "are not real Muslims," is not credible in more than rhetorical terms. As Harris notes, many millions of Muslims, when polled as to whether transgressions such as defamation of the Prophet should be punishable by death, answer in the affirmative. Though there are scriptural and traditional precedents upon which one can draw to suggest that this view misunderstands the doctrine of Islam, there are likewise such resources that its proponents can cite in its defense. If, as we are forced to acknowledge, Islam is as Muslims do (and say), there is no way to completely acquit Islam of implication in the Paris murders and similar crimes.

However, though jihadis may be real Muslims, and though understanding and engaging their Muslim identity is necessary for anyone who would effectively oppose them, reconfiguring the struggle against jihadism as a response to "Islam" is fundamentally misguided. This is not because of some ethical imperative for religious tolerance or multicultural sensitivity. Rather, trying to defeat jihadism with a "war on Islam" ignores the basic logic of how religious traditions operate in human society and politics.

Any religious community, especially one as ancient, populous, and geographically dispersed as Islam, contains within it (in its scripture, rituals, literature, art, traditions, and institutions) a complex array of diverse and often mutually contradictory trends and imperatives. Is Islam a religion of "peace (the Arabic cognate of Islam- salaam)" or violent jihad? The only meaningful answer to this question is "yes."

At any given time, given the intrinsic volatility of human nature and the human condition,  almost all the potential tendencies of a religious tradition may be found in some part of its community. Thus in Christendom today we see Pope Francis I bathing the feet of prisoners in Rome while Terry Jones burns Korans in Florida, the Sisters of Charity nursing the sick in New York while the Lord's Army slaughters innocents in Uganda.  Parsing out which of these figures are "real Christians" is a futile exercise, and it is only slightly more so than trying to isolate the role of Christianity in their social conduct and profiles. Would any of these figures have acted in exactly the same manner if they were not Christian? Almost certainly not, but predicting how that difference would manifest itself is impossible.

The raw fact is that religion, pace the perspective of atheists like Samuel Harris, is an irreducible dimension of human social life. In everything we do, from the most mundane quotidian work to the most sublimely quixotic enterprises, we are faced with questions of ultimate value. Why does the world exist? What is life's purpose? How should we confront death? An individual may be able to go about his or her business without plumbing these questions too intently, but as soon as two or more people come together to attempt a project of even moderate complexity (build a house, start a family, found a city, wage a revolution) they require some sort of roughly consensual framework within which answers to these questions may be at least provisionally situated.

Every aspect of social life thus has at least a latent religious dimension, and every social project or conflict into which a community enters will implicate all of the religious commitments they have already made and any of the religious traditions they already inhabit. A Christian society that experiences some sort of trauma will respond in a way that expresses Christian values and traditions. But because Christianity is itself so multifaceted, and because people are ultimately free to select from, interpret, and transform their religion in ways that serve their perceived social interests and needs, the "Christian" responses to a crisis that emerge from the same community will almost invariably be numerous and mutually divergent. Every such moment of change thus constitutes three types of negotiation simultaneously: 1)a struggle over the new shape of society; 2)a struggle over the new relationship of religious to other social institutions; 3)a struggle over how the doctrines and practices of the religion will be interpreted moving forward.

Many cases could be taken to illustrate the point. That of Girolamo Savonarola, the charismatic Dominican friar who rose to become theocrat of fifteenth century Florence, is instructive. Italy at the time was in the throes of the Renaissance, a period of dramatic dislocation similar to our own age of globalization. Commercialization, urbanization, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the flourishing of humanist art and literature were radically transforming the shape of Italian society. As all such revolutions, it benefited some groups and individuals disproportionately, creating winners and losers. Savonarola gave voice to all those who felt left behind by the new order of things. He preached a return to fundamental Christian values of austerity, humility, community, and faith, a turning back of the Renaissance tide. He famously ordered a "bonfire of the vanities," in which all of the humanist art and literature Florence had created were set aflame.

Unfortunately for Savonarola, the Catholic Church had by that time become an enthusiastic participant in and beneficiary of the Renaissance revolution. His tirades against ecclesiastical wealth and worldliness set him at odds with Pope Alexander VI, who was busy employing artists and sculptors to adorn the Vatican. Both men were wholly and authentically Catholic. If one had used today's empirical methods to test them one might have found very little daylight between them on points of doctrine. For example, if asked in a survey "Is luxury a source of sin?" both men would almost certainly have answered "yes." Yet Alexander felt no qualms about issuing an order for Savonarola's excommunication from the splendor of his palace in Rome.

So did Christianity create Savonarola or destroy him (he burned at the stake on the orders of a clerical tribunal in 1498)? The answer, again, can only be "yes." He and Pope Alexander were engaged in a struggle over the shape of both Italy and Christianity. If Savonarola had won, the Reformation might never have occurred, and the Sistine Chapel might look more like a Quaker meeting house than the ornate masterpiece that stands today. The more secular among us may dismiss him as a figure who was hopelessly out of step with modernity, but his writings continue to be studied and respected by Christian theologians of all denominations today.

The position of jihadis in relation to the greater world of Islam today is an analogous case. The vast majority of victims killed by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadi groups were (and are) fellow Muslims. Some of this violence can be put down to sectarian or ethnic strife, but just as much of it is rooted in a contest over how Islamic values should be realized in society and politics (should civil law be taken from shar'iah? on whose authority? does Islam preclude the education of women, etc?), a conflict that is playing out among Muslims themselves much more intensely than between Muslims and "infidels." In the same way that one can not deny the authentic Muslim identity of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one can not do so for that of Benazir Bhutto or Malala Yousafzai.

Given that we are witnessing a struggle for Islam within global Muslim society at large, it is supremely ill-advised for the leaders and citizens of the non-Muslim world to embark upon a struggle against Islam. Such a strategy can only strengthen the hand of those most hostile to pluralism and tolerance, and weaken those in the Muslim community most committed to peace and shared prosperity.  This fact is made clear by the jihadi strategy embodied in the most recent Paris attack.

Why target satirists?  Today's industrial democracies constitute a world in which "nothing is sacred," which is to say, one no longer inhabited by figures or institutions possessed of the total and unrestrained power wielded in the fifteenth century by Pope Alexander (or more recently by figures like Hitler or Franco). The postmodern denizens of this world can no longer venerate any symbol or value with complete sincerity, in part out of suspicion of possible abuse. Thus matters of ultimate significance can only be genuinely cast in ironic and satirical terms,  and the freedom to lampoon icons or institutions has become one of the last unequivocally cherished ideals of the social contract. 

For those living in countries like Syria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, this state of affairs is an inscrutable enigma. It is not merely the suppression of free speech that gives rise to this incomprehension, but the cultural dynamics of power with which many Muslims have to contend. To someone living under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, or Saddam Hussein, the sacrosanct status of Muslim icons and institutions provided the little latitude for safe movement and communication to be found in an otherwise lethally repressive society: some slight shelter from the secret police and the torturer could be sought in the mosque. The failure of such protections, moreover, was invariably cataclysmic and deadly serious, as when thousands were slaughtered in Hama, Syria to punish local Islamists in 1982.  We might hope that those living in this environment would yet object to the murders at Charlie Hebdo, but it would be a far stretch to expect them to understand the reasons for the anguish and outrage occasioned by this act in France, the U.S. and elsewhere.

This is the pernicious logic underpinning the Paris murders. On this issue in particular, many Muslims and non-Muslims are viewing one-another as if through a funhouse mirror, ill-equipped to understand one another's perspective. The terrorists who planned and ordered the Paris attack have discovered a perfect leverage point at which to drive a wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim society. Because the power of jihadis requires the maximally illiberal configuration of social and political forces in their own countries, and because they understand that Islamic identity is one of the few sources of personal empowerment experienced by multitudes throughout the Middle East, jihadis hope to enlist non-Muslims to broadcast the message that liberal values and Islam are fundamentally incompatible. Groups like ISIS are confident that people forced to choose between Islam and liberal ideals will choose Islam, and that the Islam that emerges from that negotiation will perfectly facilitate jihadi control of state and society.

This is a trap that the U.S. and its allies should obviously avoid. But how, then, to respond? In the short term, we should protect our artists, journalists, and entertainers from further attacks, as there are bound to be more. Even if fear dampens the impulse to satire, jihadis are likely to search out any expression that can be construed as offensive to Islam and make its authors a target. We should not allow such provocations to be fulfilled. Every threat must be treated seriously, every care taken to prevent tragedy.

In the wider scheme of things, America and its allies should refuse to engage the jihadis on their own terms. ISIS and Al-Qaeda declare that the goals Muslims care about- Palestinian independence, the liberation of Syria from the Assad regime, a fairer distribution of the Middle East's wealth- can only be realized through a holy war to establish a particular kind of restrictive religious order. As long as these goals remain unrealized and out of reach, jihadis are empowered to exploit the resulting disaffection, disunity and strife to seize control of the societies in which they operate. If the U.S. uses its political, economic, and (with due deference to the lesson of the failures of the Bush Doctrine) military power to effect meaningful change in these arenas, the support Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadi groups currently enjoy will erode out from under them. A holy war is a war that jihadis will invariably win. To defeat the jihadis, we should not undertake a struggle against Islam, but work to foster the conditions that will secure a positive outcome in the ongoing struggle for Islam.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Murdering Laughter

The murder of twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, is an unforgivable crime. Ten of the twelve victims- Frédéric Boisseau, Cabu, Elsa Cayat, Charb, Honoré, Bernard Maris, Moustapha Ourad, Michel Renaud, Tignous, and Wolinski, were artists, editors, columnist and staff members in the employ of the magazine. Two policemen, Merabet Ahmed and Franck Brinsolaro, were also killed in the line of duty.  Humor has always been the chief target of those who purvey hatred and oppression, as laughter is one of the most powerfully subversive of human faculties. But humor is also one of the dimensions of our world that makes life most worth living. It thus takes a uniquely vicious sort of monster to destroy laughter. The images that Charlie Hebdo published were transgressive and provocative. But they were also funny in the most profound way. I post two of them here in memory of the slain.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Islam, Modernity, and Culture

I have occasionally found myself in arguments over the question of whether Hitler was an atheist. These conflicts usually stem from the larger proposition that religion is a unique source of human woe, without which society would be much improved. Those who take this view are often deeply invested in the proposition that Hitler was a "believer" of one stripe or another. The question should be moot, as even if Hitler is retired, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others are waiting in the wings to exemplify atheistic mass-murder. But the Nazis so prepossess our collective imagination (ergo "Godwin's Law") that the state of Hitler's belief looms large in the universe of empirical tests.

In the years since 9/11 the greater question of religion's social role has tended, in the discourse of pundits and politicos, to focus ever more narrowly on the subject of Islam, a trend that has accelerated as groups like Boko Haram and ISIS began seizing headlines with lurid acts of terror. Commentators such as Sam Harris have made a cottage industry of critiquing Islam as a political and historical force.  The quality of such commentary has varied widely. As Kenan Malik observes in today's New York Times, "this debate remains trapped between bigotry and fear."

Malik insists, however, that the problem must be substantively addressed. As a cultural historian I agree with him on that score, though I depart from what I see as his implied conclusions.  Malik rejects liberal apologists, declaring that each recent act of terror "tells us something about the character of contemporary Islam and of Islamism..." More specifically, Malik views groups like ISIS as the aberrant legates of earlier militants: "Anti-imperialists of the past saw themselves as part of a wider political project that sought to modernize the non-Western world, politically and economically. Today, however... it is radicals who often regard modernity as a Western product, and reject both it and the West as tainted goods....The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage against modernity...[I]t is radical Islam that has become the lightning rod for this fury."

Islam would thus appear culpable in Malik's analysis, either for turning its adherents against modernity, or at least for lacking the wherewithal to constructively confront modernity: "What jihadism does not possess is the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements. Shorn of that framework, and reduced to raging at the world, jihadists have turned terror into an end in itself."

Malik is no doubt right that groups like ISIS "have turned terror into an end in itself," but one may still ask whether this malignancy expresses a particular flaw in the culture of Islam. In this regard (pace Godwin's Law) I would argue that the case of Nazi Germany is a relevant comparison. Nazism (and Fascism more generally) expressed pent-up anger against social and economic trends that had been building for decades or centuries and that continue today. Many of the discontents with modernity that Malik ascribes to modern jihadists ("from individualism to globalization, from the breakdown of traditional cultures to the fragmentation of societies, from the blurring of moral boundaries to the seeming soullessness of the contemporary world") were likewise complaints of Hitler and the Nazi party.

The question of whether modern jihadism embodies some deep structural flaw in Islam is thus exactly analogous to the question of whether Nazism embodied some deep structural flaw in German culture or religion. In both cases one is confronted with an obvious empirical conundrum. These flaws, if they exist, do not express themselves similarly in others partaking of the same traditions, such as the Muslims of New York and Kuala Lumpur or the Germans of 1850 and 2015. 

Such questions, in the final analysis, misconstrue the way religion  and culture more generally operate in human society. It is true that a religion like Islam shapes peoples' outlooks and influences their choices. But at the same time any tradition, especially one as venerable and diverse as Islam, presents the community that perpetuates and uses it with an exquisitely complex array of resources for the structuring of personal and collective life. The choices particular communities make in activating and mobilizing those resources completely transform the complexion of the tradition from era to era or from place to place, potentially making it a force for peace and prosperity in one instance, strife and despair in another. Any critique of a tradition like Islam must thus proceed with sensitivity to this dynamic process always at work: the community shaping the tradition even as the tradition influences the community.

In this respect, Malik's assertion that "jihadism does not possess...the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements" is inaccurately intransitive, at least as "jihadism" relates to Islam more generally. If jihadism lacks such resources it is because leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have deliberately excised the ideas of Islamic reformers such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and Mahmud Shaltut, in the same way Hitler disowned German liberals such as Dietrich Boenhoeffer and Martin Niemöller.

In understanding the political misuses of tradition, the comparison between modern jihadists and the twentieth-century's Nazis is instructive. In the same way that jihadists idealize terror as "an end unto itself," the Nazis treated industrial murder as an ultimate purpose, requiring no justification beyond mass extermination for its own sake. It is this similarity that intuitively upsets anti-religious polemicists at the suggestion that Hitler was an atheist. The commonality in the political programs of these groups, however, is not rooted in some basic affinity between Nazi and Muslim "faith," but in the ways in which Nazis and jihadists appropriate and utilize German and Islamic traditions.

Ironically, the most striking similarity between Nazis and jihadists (and other similarly malevolent historical actors) is their understanding of culture itself- what might be called a "meta-cultural affinity." Both groups attribute the origins of culture to forces beyond human agency, to God in the case of jihadists, to "race" in the case of the Nazis. This is why both groups make such a fetish of annihilation. It does not matter that great wonders like the Bamiyan Buddhas are blasted to smithereens or that whole civilizations are wiped out. Since we bear no ultimate responsibility for cultural works, our role here and now is only to destroy, God/racial forces can be trusted to replace whatever is lost.

This is the lesson that history affords. Since any tradition, religious or otherwise, is a vital process continually reshaped by our choices, any can become a malignant force, and none more so than when we choose to abdicate our responsibility for and ongoing role in its shape and growth. It is in this light that I find the perspective of Islam's current critics, even one as sophisticated as Malik, unproductively reductionist. A religious tradition arises through a negotiation, not only among its adherents, but also with those outsiders amidst whom they live and with whom they interact. If we non-Muslims rest complacent in propositions like "contemporary Islam lacks a framework for dealing with modernity," we minimize the human agency of Muslims in ways common in kind (if not degree) to the doctrines of ISIS and Boko Haram. Better to expose and condemn the philosophical errors of particular Muslims than to lend fuel to their delusions with a blanket condemnation of the entire tradition that they misuse.

 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Kim Jong-un Can Kiss My Tuchus

I am distraught over the decision by Sony executives to cancel the release of "The Interview" in the face of North Korean intimidation. If it were only an issue of free speech or free commerce that would be bad enough. The shame of belonging to the generation that folded in the face of hacked emails and veiled threats while Pearl Harbor and Omaha Beach are still living memories is hard to bear. But it is the precedent that this capitulation sets that is truly intolerable. If North Korea can get everything it wants and more from this piddling act of terrorism, to what lengths will the next bully that doesn't like some aspect of U.S. culture go? A great American once warned against the capacity of fear to feed upon and perpetuate itself, and I wonder if our cravenness in this instance will plant a seed that will bear terrible fruit in years to come.

The custodians of the marketplace have failed us in this instance. It is up to us as individuals and citizens to redress this wrong. I hesitated to write this blog, as I am as vulnerable as anyone to cyber-mischief. But that hesitancy itself reinforced my distress at the insidiousness of this attack. So many of us now live, in part, on the internet. Thus, in subjecting Sony to digital retribution the North Koreans deliberately telegraphed that they can get to anyone.

There is only one answer for it. It has become the patriotic duty of every American (indeed, every citizen of the world) to publicly insult Kim Jong-un. If enough people do it, in blog posts, Twitter feeds, Facebook statuses, and other media, it will be impossible for the North Korean gestapo to retaliate against everyone.

I deliberated over whether I should title my blog "Kim Jong-un Can Kiss My Ass." It is true that the English insult is more immediately recognizable, so perhaps I have cravenly bought myself some cover by hiding behind a less widely familiar phrase. But it is not my fault if the North Korean espionage community is both vicious and clueless. Besides, if they are going to try to police comedy they had better buy themselves a Yiddish dictionary.