Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Worldwide Terrorism

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a microcosm of the larger war on terror. After over half a century of fighting terrorism with a few billion a year and the moral support of the largest superpower in the world, the Israelis are no closer to peace, or to killing all the terrorists. Now they have embarked on walls and partition as a better way of addressing the problem.

The withdrawal from Gaza and a few settlements in the West Bank is looked upon by the West as progress in the conflict, and a move closer to the roadmap prescribed by the US. This is an illusion.

In a recent Newsweek interview Sharon was asked the following question and gave the following answer.

WEYMOUTH: Why did you decide that disengagement is the right thing to do?
I never thought there would be any possibility that a small Jewish minority in Gaza—seven or eight thousand Israelis, [living] among 1.2 million Palestinians, whose number doubles every generation—might become a majority or [establish] a place that could be an integral part of the state of Israel.”

In other words, there was no illusion that this was motivated by any desire to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It was simply to partition off a section of Israel that would clearly always be dominated by Palestinians. The Israelis don’t envision a state. They intend to control access to Gaza. The Palestinians in Gaza are precluded from having an airport or a seaport to engage in free commerce with the outside world. They insist the border with Egypt be controlled by the Egyptians to their liking. They insist that the Palestinian authority eliminate Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This is impossible, since these organizations comprise nearly half the Palestinians in Gaza, meaning any attempt to eliminate them will mean civil war. They have also indicated continuation of any terrorist activity will mean a severe military response, in other words they will fight terrorism in the same way as they have always contended with it, by at least an equal destruction of lives and property. But, now this destruction will not be occurring in Israel, but in Gaza, essentially a prison camp for Palestinians.

Will partitions and walls eventually end the conflict? It may afford somewhat better protection for Israelis but the conflict is unlikely to end for the same reason the war on terrorism is unlikely to end through the way it is now being prosecuted. First, the lot of the Palestinians, contained in Gaza and the West Bank without commerce with the outside world will not improve. It will probably get more hopeless than it already is. Having nothing to lose and valuing their religion more than their lives they will continue to fight the endless battle of overcoming Israeli dominance with terrorism, the only weapon available to them. And the battle will continue as a war of attrition. Since the Palestinians have a birth rate higher than that of Israel, the end is not in site. Eventually, only the diehard fundamentalists in Israel will be left to fight the battle alone. The Jewish progressives will realize that they will not want to burden future generations with the fate of constant terror and marginal progress and join the Diaspora in countries where they are accepted and can prosper.

Unlike the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the US, perceiving itself a victim of a similar terror has more options. Isolated by two oceans it only has to worry about terrorists in its midst. If the will is found to protect its land borders and identify its citizens, as Israel does, it can be secure from all but the most rare of terror attacks. But, the international problem of terrorism will continue as long as there are extremists that value their religion more than life, and the tactics used to combat terrorism generate more terrorists or more sympathy for terrorism than they eliminate. I think we have shown that cooperation among countries in tracking down terrorist leaders and destroying infrastructure and communication necessary to their activities reduces terrorism, but that military action can have a positive or negative effect, depending on what specific military action is taken.

The long term solution to terrorism is likely to come when Islamic countries follow the example of Qatar, converting their monarchies to democracies more like the UK, and when Western countries realize that they have a role in encouraging this transformation, but that they must respect the sovereignty of other countries and treat them as equals, rather than attempting to control or use them to their own advantage.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Religion and Civilization

This discussion is not about the validity of religion, but about the consequences of religion. If you want to understand the futility of arguing the validity of religion a good place to start is the PBS series, The Question of God. Or on the subject of religious wars throughout history, the Penn State site on Holy Wars and the Western Cultural Tradition.

A New Modern Era

It is somewhat uncanny that the first George W. Bush presidency intersected with the events of 9/11/2001. For the previous several decades religion in America was ever present but relatively uncontroversial and threats from external religious sources were not taken with any degree of seriousness, although many incidents should have awakened the American public and its government.

Essentially all American presidents have claimed some form of religion, it being a necessity to become an American president. But, George W. Bush was unique in his claim of being born again in the Christian faith and not only embracing it, but promoting it as a star in his resume for the position he sought. Indeed, in a presidential town meeting he cited Jesus Christ as the philosopher who most influenced his life. To the religious in America this must have seemed like a gift from God, finally having a candidate to support that identified with their deep seated religious beliefs.

His performance in office showed that he was no pretender to religion. His championing of social issues based in religion, his black and white identification of good and evil, his support of faith based government initiatives, and his strong identification of religion with patriotism and American exceptionalism proved he was the genuine article.

So along comes 9/11, an attack on primarily Christian America from Islamic extremists, justifying their actions on the basis of the Quran, and the interference of the West in their practice of Islam.

And the rest is history.

The War on Terror

The administration was quick to assure Americans that the subsequent wars were not wars on Islam but a war on terror, since the West is a civilization of countries made up of many religions, whereas Islam likes to think of itself as the true world religion existing in many countries.

But we are not fighting terrorists from the IRA, the white supremacist movement, communist guerilla groups, or an other form of terrorism than that perpetrated by Islamic extremists. So it is really a war on Islamic extremism.

Religious Extremism and Changes in American Attitudes

Religious extremism comes in many stripes. We have our own home grown religious extremists like Pat Robertson, accepted as a legitimate candidate for president, indeed winning the Iowa caucuses in a recent primary election, and now advocating the assassination of a Latin American president and praying for the death of Supreme Court justices so they can be replaced with people more to his liking.

And of course we have al Qaeda, with megalomaniacal leadership primarily based in politics rather than religion, but supported by a wide swath of religious sympathizers to their cause in the Islamic street.

In both these cases we have people whose beliefs dominate their actions. The people they approve to lead are not selected for their secular qualities but for their positions on upholding religious beliefs on a myriad of social issues.

There is no doubt that America has rich religious traditions, and that over the years the country may have strayed from them since we approved the constitution. But, we also had a tradition of slavery, of women being subservient to men, of championing the rights of those immigrating from abroad over those who originated here, etc. In all of these cases we have put these traditions behind us in favor of what seemed a better path for a nation whose advance in knowledge and understanding had changed our perspective. Indeed, our countries of origin abroad have moved in the same direction, some much further than our own.

Since the start of the Bush administration and the events of 9/11 we seem to have moved back in the direction of greater religious involvement and outspokeness, even to the extent of integrating religion more in the public arena, education, and government. The theory of evolution is now being put on a par with faith based “intelligent design” concepts. Re-restricting abortions, increasing animosity toward unusual sexual orientation, introducing prayer back into the classroom, and increasing the presence of religious symbols in the public square all seen be in the ascendant. This has caused a backlash among the secular community where they may soon become less tolerant of the privileges offered religious practice in the form of tax breaks on religious property and deductions for religious contributions. Since the majority of Americans have some form of religious affiliation or personal dedication, secular people fear a tyranny of the majority could develop.

Meanwhile, our new pride in American exceptionalism and patriotism, now extended to preemptive military actions, has caused concern among our long standing allies and a changed view of Americans around the world. It is difficult to identify the degree to which these changes are due to our change in diplomacy or to renewed pride in religion, American exceptionalism or patriotism, but the reelection of George W. Bush seems to indicate to those abroad that the American people and not just the administration support the changes. This has compounded our conflict with the views of other nations.

Religious Belief and Freedom of Action

When people base their decisions on religious tradition, or in the extreme, on the dictates of the literal interpretation of ancient writings, they have less freedom of action in adapting to changes in population, culture, and scientific and intellectual advancement. This is apparent from examination of the degree and rapidity of change in rural and urban environments. Where people experience less change, less contact with others of different cultures and attitudes, and less opportunity for learning or advancement, cultural traditions seem to be sustained over a longer period. Urban areas tend to be concentrated on the coasts or at the intersection of natural terrain where traffic is greatest. What we are now calling red and blue states are really red and blue areas, urban areas being more blue and rural areas being more red. Rural areas remain more steeped in religious tradition and urban areas more secular, although many traditions and habits are sustained for multiple generations in the migration to urban areas.

Urban areas are growing, while rural areas are shrinking. But new exurban areas are now developing where primarily successful urban people are migrating to previously rural areas and carrying the urban attitudes along with them. The question that arises is whether religious traditions can be sustained over generations, and this depends on the degree to which religion is a learned behavior or whether it is something inherent in the human psyche. The experience in other, older countries seems to indicate that less developed countries are more religious and vice versa.

If we retreat to earlier and more fundamental religious traditions we will have less freedom to adapt to changing circumstances, since we will be guided in our actions by the restrictions and limitations of our religion. It appears clear that the western enlightenment was a major factor in our advancement at a more rapid rate than Islamic countries that once dominated the world. Is religious extremism likely to become more virulent in our society as it has become in Islamic society? Are we more likely to succeed in our struggle against Islamic extremism by becoming more religious in our own society? These are questions that will determine our future as a country.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Clash of Theism and Human Rights

The human rights tradition sprung from the enlightenment, was solidified during the French Revolution in the publishing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and is documented in its modern context in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations after World War II, on 10 December 1948. ( It embodies concepts which are at odds with the Bible and the Quran, the primary sources of religious doctrine of the three most prominent modern theistic religions. These governing religious documents tolerate, and sometimes even prescribe inequalities that are not tolerated in the human rights documents.

There is a fundamental difference in the documents underlying religion and those underlying human rights. The former are immutable, the latter subject to change as circumstances change. Civilization has changed dramatically since the Bible and the Quran were written. Is it to be bound to principles and laws that are a product of a time when knowledge and understanding of human and natural phenomena were primitive? Or are we to benefits from generations of study and enlightenment?

Until recently, modern religious practice has mitigated these conflicts by accepting some of the tenets of human rights. Countries have precluded conflict by prescribing separation of religion and state, while others have a state religion, but nevertheless accept human rights principles, while still others incorporate religious law into their governing law.

The continued coexistence of religion and human rights depends on either a compromise of religious principles or human rights principles, in some cases. In the past decade we have seen a rise in religious fundamentalism which shows less tolerance for human rights and a greater demand for obedience to religious principles enumerated in the Bible and the Quran. In the case of Islam, this has resulted in Islamic extremism which condones terrorism to achieve its ends. In the case of Christianity it has resulted in the election of a born-again Christian president, and increased demands from the Christian community to accept a greater degree of Christian influence in government and a renewal of tensions between the human rights and religious communities. Many of the conflicting issues now before the American people have religious roots, including abortion, stem cell research, attitudes toward and rights of homosexuals, toleration of religious symbols in public places, and use of religious organizations as instruments of government activity. If the trend continues we can expect to see protests against tax exemptions for religious institutions, and income tax deductions for individual giving to religious institutions.

We live in a very pluralistic world of many cultures and religions. Our foreign policy is dependent on an understanding and appreciation of other cultures. If our country becomes bound by religious traditions and customs even more than it is now it will complicate our role as a citizen of the world or isolate us from countries that don’t accept our religious principles. We must deal with countries that have even more deeply held religious beliefs and where religion governs the society. Will we be better able to change or accommodate these countries if we are bound by an equally restrictive set of beliefs. Or will we be better equipped to handle foreign diplomacy by keeping religion a private matter and out of the arena of government?

Discussion of religion and its consequences has been somewhat taboo in American society because a large majority of Americans have some religious affiliation or sentiment. Most religious people turn away from any discussion of their beliefs, considering it a private matter and out of bounds to anyone else. But, it is becoming less of a private matter and more of a public matter when religious people demand more than their right to practice their religion and defend it. When religious dogma begins to infringe on human rights and affect other people it is an open subject for discussion and legislation. It’s time for a frank discussion of religion, particularly in the context of its conflict with human rights.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Nature of Current and Future Conflicts

The Lessons of the 9/11 Attacks

On September 11, 2001 the country was traumatizing by an attack by Islamic extremists, after many years of not taking the threat seriously. It was natural for us to strike back at such enemies immediately and take all measures necessary to prevent future attacks. But doesn’t there come a time when we must examine the nature of the conflict we are in, the reasons for the occurrence of such events as 9/11 and the best way to protect ourselves and achieve our long term goals for a peaceful and prosperous world?

Since the attack was by air, our first impulse was to keep such an attack from being repeated by securing aircraft and preventing hijackers from getting on planes. In this endeavor we went overboard, to the extent of scrutinizing babies and old ladies and inconveniencing air travelers in a major way while the remainder of our infrastructure remained largely unprotected and our borders as leaky as ever.

But, the event has heightened our awareness and we are getting our house in order, slowly but surely. We are finally taking border security and identification of our citizens seriously and making a major effort to secure our homeland. Four year without another attack has proved that we are no longer an easy target of opportunity.

Now we have adopted a military posture towards terrorism, even taking nearly unilateral actions in the face of world criticism, to protect ourselves. But, are these actions in our best interest or is it now time to examine other ways that might achieve our goals at less cost of human life, treasure, and reputation?

The War on Terror

Terror is many things. Tim McVey was a terrorist. The Weather Underground were terrorists. The IRA engaged in terrorism. Palestinians engage in terrorism. Israelis engaged in terrorism to establish the state of Israel. Then there are eco-terrorists that put steel shards in trees to injure loggers. And finally there are Islamist terrorists. All attack civilian targets in their attempt at revenge or to further a cause.

We call everything a war in modern times; the war on poverty, the war on drugs, and now the war on terror. In the former there were no military operations, in the latter there are. When is a war not a war requiring military operations, or requiring more than military operations? If the enemy has a well defined force and command structure and fights back militarily it may be a war. If the is no military response from the enemy, only stealth attacks from unknown sources, possibly widely dispersed or spontaneous, is it really a war that can be won by military operations?

If we are going to call the current threat a war then it is more a war on Islamic extremism than a war on terror. Just as there has been no winner in the Palestinian-Israeli “war” there is not likely to be a winner in the “war” on Islamic extremism. This conflict, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will likely require a political solution. Calling it a war will only cloud the search for a real solution.

The Nature of Islam

The Islamic religion is different from other religions in that it prescribes how Muslims should live their lives and govern themselves according to what is called Sharia. This is fundamentally different from other religions and from western constitutional democracy, where constitutions and the legal framework are decided by the majority of the people and leaders are democratically elected. Necessarily, societies governed by Islamic Sharia are democratic only to the extent that a majority decides to adopt Sharia as law. In this case western concepts like human rights are precluded to some extent. Women, are by definition, treated unequally and non-Muslims are viewed as inferiors.

Imposed on the concept of Islamic Sharia is the view by Islamic extremists that any measures to achieve it are legitimate, including terror. If local dictators or western societies somehow interfere with achieving the goal of Sharia they become targets of terror and any other measures necessary to achieve it.

So there are really two questions to be answered. Can western cultures coexist with Islamic societies electing to adopt Sharia as their governing law? Or, is only the use of terrorism to achieve it to be contested?

Modern warfare

Can modern warfare methods defeat terrorism? Or are only political solutions possible?

In the 18th century armies lined up in rows of bright colored uniforms and fired volleys at one another. Then someone discovered that it was more effective to not wear a uniform and fire from behind a tree or hill. The regular armies cried fowl and dismissed the new tactics as unprincipled and inhuman, but to what end. It was only their opinion. The other side saw it as the only way to achieve success. Now we have a similar change in modern warfare. We send in the people in uniforms with jets and tanks and cruise missiles. Sure we can break things and kill people, but to what end. The enemy uses what ever tactics are necessary to achieve the result they want, irrespective of our opinion about their tactics.

The use of high tech weapons and fully equipped troops at great distances from the homeland is very expensive, while the use of large numbers of basically equipped local guerillas is not. The proliferation of small lethal weapons in the hands of large numbers of people can result in losing all the battles but winning the war if they can persevere while the superpower wearies of the expense and duration of a protracted conflict.

A New Assessment

At some point modern western societies must ask, is it worth it, or is there another way. This is the conclusion that Israel and the US have come to in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It’s the conclusion we came to in the Vietnam. We could claim victory in skirmishes in El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, Grenada and Panama with military power. But these were small and in our back yard. But we went home from Lebanon and Somalia, when confronting actions there, probably because to result didn’t justify the cost.

Now we have to ask ourselves again, does the result justify the cost in the confronting Islamic extremism primarily with military power? Is there another way than military power that will achieve a better result? We have to step back even further and ask ourselves what our long term political goals are. Do we want to continue being the lone international superpower at all costs, even if we have to go it alone? Do we have the capacity to do this in the face of growing economic power in China, India, Russia, Europe and other Asian countries? Or are we better off being one of the key members of the world community and addressing conflicts only as a member of a world wide alliance?

Other western countries share our dilemma of deciding whether a potent and aggressive Islam can coexist with western democracies, and under what circumstances. Will moderate Muslims join the West in confronting Islamic extremism, or do they secretly favor societies governed by Sharia and sympathize with the goals of the extremists?

Are we better off with less democracy, royal families and even dictators in Islamic countries as long as they don’t abuse the populace and are willing to advance the rights of women and minorities? Or should we step back and allow Muslims to live under Sharia, possibly even helping them to achieve it? What course will advance our interests the most? What will best ensure the safety of world commerce, prevent the outbreak of nuclear catastrophes, and minimize terrorism against peaceful neighbors? These are the questions that must be answered by future government leaders. We hope they are up to the task.

“Fend for Yourself and Don’t Look Down”

Judging by the results, our motto “In God We Trust” isn’t serving us very well. Approximately half or working America is doing quite well, with comfortable salaries and fair prospects for improving their lot. The other half has stalled for the last several decades with few prospects for improving their lot. While the cost of living has increased wages have barely budged, while many jobs no longer include good fringe benefits or full time employment. More and more households are kept afloat by having two or more occupants employed.

A metaphor for the situation might be depicted as a giant ocean with many boats afloat, many planes overhead, and many people straining to remain afloat or submerged beneath the waves. Those in the small boats are envying those with the big boats and those with the big boats are envying the jet setters flying overhead, all envisioning someday achieving their status. No one above water seems concerned about those sinking fast into the surf or submerged in the deep.

Meanwhile, government actions are more and more decided by those willing to sponsor representatives. Districts are gerrymandered to ensure one or the other major party stays solidly in power while economic performance is judged on aggregate measures so as not to disclose who is succeeding and who is failing.

All in all it appears a better motto would be “Fend for Yourself and Don’t Look Down”.