In the wake of this year’s MLK Day, a colleague shared with me a short sermon that was recently delivered in a church and asked what I thought about it. As I read the sermon, I realized that I had rather strong opinions about the ideas expressed in the sermon, and that I would very much like to share those opinions, not only with the colleague who asked for them but with anyone who might be interested in the topic. I also realized it wasn’t going to be enough to just say “I don’t like it,” but that I would also have to back up that judgment with some arguments and evidence. Hence this lengthy post.
The Pastor begins his sermon as follows:
Back in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were two very different leaders of the civil rights movement.
King was an African American Baptist pastor. Who used nonviolent strategies to try to change religious, social and political systems from within.
Malcolm X was a Black Muslim revolutionary. Who believed in extreme tactics. Who rejected the mainstream movement championed by King.
A little later, the Pastor has this to say:
The stark differences in leadership style are not that unusual in social or religious movements. Any time you are trying to change something, there are advocates who want to quietly work with the current power structure.
But those frustrated with the status quo often want things to change quickly and dramatically. King and Malcolm X are extreme opposites in the way they acted as change agents of their time.
Toward the end of his sermon, the Pastor offers a prayer in which, among other things, he explicitly identifies King as the model for his preferred leadership style.
Based on the above quotations, I understand the Pastor as conveying the following ideas:
- King and Malcolm were polar opposites in terms of their leadership style. This is clear from the phrases “two very different leaders,” “stark differences in leadership style,” and “extreme opposites in the way they acted.”
- Given that King and Malcolm were polar opposites, if King “used nonviolent strategies,” it follows that Malcolm must have favored violent strategies. The wording that Malcolm “believed in extreme tactics” reinforces the idea that he believed in violent tactics.
- Given that King and Malcolm were polar opposites, if King tried “to change religious, social and political systems from within,” it follows that Malcolm must have tried to bring about the desired change from outside these systems.
- It was probably because Malcolm wanted “things to change quickly and dramatically” that he became a “revolutionary,” chose “extreme tactics,” and worked from outside the systems he wanted to change.
- King was an “African American Baptist pastor” who used “nonviolent strategies,” while Malcolm was a “Black Muslim” who favored”extreme tactics.” Draw your own conclusions.
- As “change agents,” leaders tend to fall in two categories: (1) those “who want to quietly work with the current power structure,” and (2) those who feel so “frustrated with the status quo” that they “want things to change quickly and dramatically.” King belonged to the former category and Malcolm to the latter.
- We should emulate King, not Malcolm. People should not become “so frustrated with the status quo” as to take a “revolutionary” approach, use “extreme tactics,” and try to change the systems “quickly and dramatically.” What people ought to do is use “nonviolent strategies,” work “quietly” in collaboration “with the current power structure,” and always “from within” the systems they want to change.
What follows is my response to the Pastor’s thoughts and suggestions.
First of all, I wonder where the Pastor is getting his information about King and Malcolm. How familiar is he with the writings and speeches of these two men? Has he read any of the numerous biographies of King and Malcolm? Has he done any research into the African American struggle for civil rights? Has he studied social movements and leadership styles? How informed is he about race and racism in American history? The reason I ask these questions is because the very idea of King and Malcolm being polar opposites is based on outdated stereotypes and has been conclusively debunked. Yet, it keeps coming back, like a zombie. And the reason that this myth refuses to die is because it serves a useful function—it helps justify racism.
When Discipleship is Too Hard
The King/Malcolm binary is not just historically incorrect; it is also part of a problematic narrative that is favored by certain sections of the White population—specifically, by the type of liberals that King referred to as “White moderates.” These were people who opposed racism in theory but believed that King’s nonviolent movement to end racism was too extreme. This way of thinking is alive and well today, and it is often justified by a fictional narrative about King and Malcolm being mutually incompatible figures.
Consider the fact that during his life-time King was a controversial figure who was despised by a majority of White Americans. At the time of his death, King had an approval rating of only 25%. It was only in subsequent decades that King was gradually appropriated by mainstream American culture, which turned him into a larger-than-life hero, an iconic representation of liberal or “American” values, and the very symbol of polite respectability. In the process, King’s sharp critiques of American capitalism and imperialism were forgotten; his disillusionment with White liberals and the political establishment was buried away in an unmarked grave; and his radical agenda for justice and liberation became practically unmentionable. Today, the King of popular imagination is a great but harmless figure who cannot offend anyone, for his ideas and aspirations have been so thoroughly erased from our collective mind that they don’t pose any serious threat to the status quo. This is part of the secret of King’s posthumous popularity. Everyone—especially those who have the most to lose if King’s wishes were to come true—can now “celebrate” his life. In effect, the mainstream culture has essentially declawed and defanged much of King’s legacy.
I don’t want to digress, but it’s probably worth considering whether the memory and legacy of Jesus of Nazareth has suffered a similar tragedy. Worship, literal or metaphorical, is a powerful strategy that allows us to continue identifying with someone after we’ve decided that discipleship is too hard.
One particularly egregious way in which King has been domesticated is through a spurious comparison between him and Malcolm. In this story, Malcolm is imagined as a wild and dangerous revolutionary precisely so that this scary bogeyman would make King look gentle and docile in comparison—a safe alternative to the unhinged Malcolm. Among other things, this narrative allows King’s aggressive nonviolence to be re-branded as civility, patience, and even passivity in the face of oppression. In effect, Malcolm is demonized and King is deified—but not for anything that either of these two leaders actually stood for.
Every time I come across this narrative of “Bad Malcolm” vs. “Good King,” I know exactly what will come next—what inevitably follows in the wake of this comparison is unsolicited advice for how the oppressed are supposed to behave: Don’t be like the crazy Malcolm. Be mild and mellow. Don’t rock the boat. Now is not the right time. Don’t be in such a hurry. Change will come if you ask for it nicely, so try to be patient. Work to change the system quietly, in small increments, and from within. Be like [the safe version of] King.
This may sound like sincere advice—until we realize that it’s the same advice that was repeatedly given to King himself, who rejected it outright, and until we learn that King and Malcolm were nowhere near as different as this narrative would have us believe.
Violence vs. Nonviolence
Let’s begin with the heart of the purported contrast between King and Malcolm, i.e., the issue of violence. The notion that Malcolm supported violence while King advocated nonviolence is based on a grossly oversimplified view of the civil rights movement and a lack of understanding of what these two men were trying to accomplish.
Below are some of the most important points to keep in mind:
First, the suggestion that Malcolm “believed in extreme tactics,” with the implication that he advocated violence, is not only preposterous; it’s also offensive, especially when uttered by a White person. When it comes to Blacks and Whites in the United States, it is no mystery as to which side has perpetrated violence and which side has suffered from it. Anyone even slightly informed about the past and present of racial violence in this country should be able to see just how ignorant and insulting it is to accuse Malcolm of believing in violence when his entire struggle was aimed at ending the centuries-old violence against his people.
Second, Malcolm never suggested that Blacks should initiate violence against the White population. Instead, he merely told the victims of racist violence to do whatever was necessary to protect themselves. He promoted self-defense. From an ethical viewpoint, the violence perpetrated by the oppressors and the powerful does not belong in the same moral category as the violence that the oppressed and the powerless may commit to defend themselves. Malcolm had seen White brutality against African Americans all through his life, starting with the murder of his own father. He refused to accept that being victimized in this way was a normal part of being Black in America. He therefore urged his Black audience to stop being doormats, to not let White people walk all over them. He taught them to develop the courage to stand up against bullies, to recognize their self-worth even when others don’t, and to defend themselves against racist violence by any means necessary—because their bodies and their lives were worth defending.
Malcolm himself did not carry a weapon and he was not known for acting violently toward anyone. By advocating for self-defense, Malcolm was trying to establish the full humanity of African Americans. The gist of his argument was as follows: If White people have the right to defend themselves, and if Black people are equal to them as human beings and as citizens, then they must also be able to enjoy that same right. Here is Malcolm making this exact point in his 1963 speech, “Message to the Grassroots.”
If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it’s wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it’s wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.
If a White man doesn’t approve of “extreme tactics” when they are used by African Americans to fight racism, then what I would like to know is how often does he condemn our nation’s military adventures around the globe?
The point, of course, is that many people who insist that oppression must only be fought through nonviolent means tend not to criticize the violence perpetrated by the oppressors, especially by the groups and institutions they identify with. Such individuals would invoke King’s name to argue that any demonstration against police brutality must be peaceful, but the trigger for such demonstrations—i.e., police brutality itself—doesn’t seem to offend them as much as protesters blocking traffic or burning tires. This puts a huge question mark on their commitment to nonviolence.
Third, the Pastor approves of the fact that King used “nonviolent strategies” but does not approve of Malcolm’s support for “extreme tactics” (i.e., violence); this may seem logically consistent, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a glaring contradiction. That’s because King’s advocacy for nonviolence and Malcolm’s encouragement of self-defense were closely located on the same strategic and ethical spectrum. King’s own source in this matter, i.e., Mahatma Gandhi, did not reject all violence in absolute terms; in fact, he thought there were worse things than violence.
According to Gandhi, the best option in the face of oppression is nonviolent resistance. However, he also believed that violence was preferable if the only other option was to surrender, feel humiliated, or lose respect for oneself: “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” Elsewhere, he said that it is best to “cultivate the cool courage to die without killing,” but if one cannot muster that sort of courage, then “I want him to cultivate the art of killing and being killed rather than, in a cowardly manner, flee from danger.”
On self-defense, Gandhi had this to say: “I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honor by nonviolently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor.” Furthermore, “Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defense or for the defense of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission.” Unlike the Pastor, Gandhi didn’t think that he had the right to tell the oppressed how they should fight oppression: “Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.”
I am sure that Gandhi would strongly favor King’s approach, but I am equally certain that he would also appreciate Malcolm’s perspective as a courageous and honorable response to oppression.
Fourth, people in our country have the right to bear arms. In an ideal world, weapons wouldn’t exist because no one would need them. But so long as they do exist, society is going to need some mechanism to prevent one group from dominating another simply by virtue of being better armed. There is still a double standard in the United States around gun ownership: A White man holding an assault rifle is a patriot but a Black kid holding a toy gun is an imminent threat. Yet, the U.S. Constitution allows every American citizen to possess weapons, including guns, and to use such weapons if it becomes necessary for defending oneself, one’s family, or one’s property. In fact, one reason why someone might refrain from initiating violence is the fear of retaliation. White folks who perpetrated violence against Blacks in American cities were able to do so precisely because of the confidence that comes from being heavily armed; they didn’t fear retaliation from their victims and they knew their racial privilege protected them from any meaningful prosecution. In that situation, when Malcolm would urge African Americans to purchase guns, he was neither advocating aggression against Whites nor a revolution against the government; he was simply telling the brutalized to do what they had every right to do as American citizens—to legally own weapons. The purpose of encouraging gun ownership was not to harm White people but to discourage them from harming Black people. This isn’t what the Pastor might call “extreme tactics.” It’s deterrence.
Moreover, it is absurd to even suggest that Malcolm would have wanted his people—a racial minority in the United States—to pick up arms against the White majority, a significant portion of which had a long history of getting away with brutal racist violence, including lynchings. Does anyone really think that Malcolm was so dense as to not understand that it was his people who would have suffered annihilation had they started a race war in America?
Fifth, the common belief that African Americans achieved civil rights (to the extent that they did) through entirely nonviolent means isn’t correct either. In the South, it was common for Blacks to own guns. They had to be willing to shoot in case the KKK were to visit their homes or farms. Black ownership of weapons and their determination to use them if necessary played a major role in the civil rights movement. Among other things, it allowed King to make the argument that the White establishment ought to listen to his movement, for otherwise they might have to face possible uprisings from desperate African American who had lost all hope and had nothing left to lose. The Pastor may want to consult the work of Charles E. Cobb on this topic.
The history of the civil rights movement is complex and multifaceted. Reducing its many dimensions and nuances to a single strategy or a single leader is an act of carelessness that shows a lack of genuine interest in the topic.
The King/Malcolm Binary
In his sermon, the Pastor claims that Malcolm was a “revolutionary” while implying that King, being the polar opposite, was not. This is not only historically inaccurate; it also reveals a lack of understanding of what it means to be a “revolutionary.” In fact, both Malcolm and King were revolutionaries in their own ways. It was precisely because of their revolutionary tendencies that both Malcolm and King were attracted to certain specific aspects of their respective faith traditions and were not interested in other aspects. Indeed, King and Malcolm weren’t “religious” in some generic sense of the word; they were religious in particularly radical and revolutionary ways that matched their personal and social contexts.
King was a Christian, but he didn’t agree with many strands of Christianity, such as those that supported slavery, segregation, and warmongering, which he openly criticized; instead, he identified with some of the most radical and liberationist elements in the Christian tradition. In fact, he was more than willing to claim such elements as his own regardless of which religious or secular tradition they came from.
The connection between King’s Christian faith and his use of “nonviolent strategies” is not as simple or straightforward as the Pastor might have led his congregation to assume. King was initially attracted to the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose theology of “Christian Realism” taught that political violence was ethically justifiable and that Christians should not be pacifists. As he acknowledged in “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” (1960), King as a young seminary student “had almost despaired of the power of love in solving social problems,” and thought that the whole idea of loving one’s enemies was only relevant for interpersonal conflicts while racial or national conflicts required “a more realistic approach.” While he did not believe that war could be a “positive or absolute good,” he thought it could be “a negative good in the sense of preventing the spread and growth of an evil force.” It was only after King attended a talk in 1950 by Dr. Johnson, President of Howard University, on the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, that his mind started to change. He eventually met many proponents of nonviolence during his doctoral studies at Boston University, and that’s when he fully outgrew Niebuhr’s influence.
It was after King had discovered nonviolence by way of Gandhi that he began to appreciate it in relation to Jesus’ life and teachings: “I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” King didn’t know that “love” could be a revolutionary force until he encountered Gandhi. It was for this reason that King, in a 1959 sermon, declared Gandhi to be “the greatest Christian of the twentieth century.”
In contrast, Malcolm’s lived experience had taught him that religious faith wouldn’t restrain the racist tendencies of American Christians; he knew that Christianity had been complacent in White supremacy and Black oppression, and he had no reason to believe that this tradition could offer anything positive to his people. In fact, Malcolm initially had no interest in religion. In the prison, he couldn’t bring himself to pray because it required him to be humble, and his life experience up to that point had showed him that humility would only make you a target for bullies. He did learn to pray, however, and joined the Black religious movement called the “Nation of Islam” while still in prison. Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam because it offered him a powerful opportunity for meeting his needs and serving his values—he found meaning, purpose, acceptance, belonging, confidence, dignity, self-respect, and direction. The teachings of Elijah Muhammad appealed to Malcolm’s revolutionary tendencies and his passion for justice, for the leader of the Nation of Islam was willing to openly condemn White supremacy while showing the path towards Black dignity and Black liberation.
It is interesting to note that the sermon quoted above doesn’t give any details about Malcolm’s religion; it simply says that he was a “Black Muslim.” This is problematic, even for a brief sermon, since the phrase is ambiguous and can be easily misinterpreted by an uninformed audience. The author of the sermon doesn’t clarify to his audience that the phrase “Black Muslim” can either mean “an African American person who is an adherent of Islam” (where “Islam” refers to the global religion founded in the 7th century) or it can mean “a member of the Nation of Islam” (where “Nation of Islam” refers to an African American sectarian movement established in 1930 and led by Elijah Muhammad and later by Louis Farrakhan). Nor does the Pastor explain that the overlap between these two meanings of “Black Muslim” is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. This convenient omission is likely to activate some of the stereotypical fears that White people often associate with the words “Black” and “Muslim.” It’s a subtle effect, and it can happen instantly as well as unconsciously. But not recognizing this possibility and not doing anything to prevent it still count as irresponsible negligence.
What complicates the matter is that the term “Black Muslim” applies to Malcolm in both senses of the phrase, but not simultaneously. Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam around 1948 and announced his break from this movement in March 1964. Before the break, Malcolm was a “Black Muslim” in the latter sense of the phrase; after the break, he became a “Black Muslim” in the former, and more commonly understood, sense of the phrase. From that moment until his death in February 1965, Malcolm was busy “reinventing” himself, as Manning Marable would say, renouncing many of his previous beliefs and charting a new direction for his life and public career. This process of reinvention included his conversion to mainstream Islam, as epitomized by his participation in the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or the Hajj. All of these developments, as well as the nuances in the evolution of Malcolm’s thinking, seem to be irrelevant to the author of the sermon who seems to suggest, instead, that all we need to know about Malcolm is that he was a “Black Muslim” who believed in “extreme tactics.”
The Pastor also believes that King worked from “within” the systems he wanted to change, and that this was a better option than what Malcolm chose. That astonishing claim fits right into the “Bad Malcolm” vs. “Good King” narrative. The reality is that King was willing to take any route that would help his cause; he worked with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to get civil rights legislation passed and to help implement Supreme Court rulings, but that doesn’t mean that he was somehow against working from outside the system. In fact, King is best known for his leadership in mobilizing African Americans in order to force the status quo to change at a time when it was particularly stubborn in its support for racism. Most of King’s strategizing was around marches, boycotts, protests, civil disobedience, and direct actions. Knowing this should be enough for anyone to recognize that much of King’s movement was about putting popular pressure on deeply entrenched systems from the outside. King would never have used such tactics if he were committed to working “quietly” and incrementally and entirely from “within” the established order.
The Pastor suggests that working in collaboration with “the current power structure” is the best option for “change agents,” and that this is exactly what King did. In reality, working with “the current power structure” is only one strategy among many others; depending on a variety of factors, it may or may not be the best option. That’s why King used this strategy on some occasions but not on other occasions. For King, working with “the current power structure” was only a means and never an end in itself. Consider the fact that taking a strong stand against the Vietnam war meant that King had to sacrifice his relationship with President Johnson. King took that stand because he had a greater commitment to his conscience than to collaborating with the government. King knew that collaborating with “the current power structure” can sometimes help solve a problem, while at other times such collaboration is itself part of the problem.
It is also worth considering that King’s activities frequently involved breaking laws, which is why he was arrested almost 30 times in the span of ten years. The FBI was constantly running a surveillance operation against King. According to FBI’s official assessment, King was “the most dangerous Negro leader of the future.” King received a constant barrage of death threats throughout his public career, and eventually died of an assassin’s bullet. None of this is compatible with the proposition that King wanted to change things by collaborating with “the current power structure” and by “quietly” working from “within” the existing systems.
We shouldn’t forget that the only avenues for change from “within” that the political status quo offered at the time involved either the ballot box or the courts; the former was effectively blocked by systemic disenfranchisement, while the latter was too slow and inefficient. Of course, King wasn’t opposed to using these avenues—and he did use them whenever he could—but he also knew that entrenched systems did not alter their course until they absolutely had to, and that this often required pressure from the outside. It is worth recalling that King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to the clergymen who were insisting that racial segregation should be fought only in the courts—that is, from “within” the system—and not in the streets.
The Pastor’s suggestion that King’s leadership style involved working “quietly” is not a compliment; it actually diminishes his stature. King had been accused of many things, including that he was a “demagogue” and a “communist,” but no one in his life-time ever accused his of working “quietly.” Try to imagine how far we have come from the historical King—a man who was viewed by the establishment as a radical trouble-maker and a threat to national security—all the way down to this uninspiring portrait of a tame and innocuous individual who wouldn’t even raise his voice.
The idea that Malcolm wanted things to change “quickly and dramatically” whereas King was content with making slow and incremental progress in collaboration with the political establishment is total nonsense. Yet, this fake praise of King can be fixed in only a few words: Just ponder the title of King’s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, and then contemplate this powerful passage from King’s 1967 sermon “Beyond Vietnam.”
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.”
The element of urgency and impatience in King’s rhetoric is no less than what we find in Malcolm’s speeches.
The Pastor describes King’s movement as “mainstream,” implying that Malcolm and his followers were a fringe element. Not true. Outside the southern states, Malcolm had immense influence. Even today, Malcolm continues to attract both scholarly and popular attention. As evidence, consider the number of books and articles that have been published about Malcolm in just the last twenty years.
To say that Malcolm was “frustrated with the status quo” implies that King wasn’t. This claim is intended to elevate King over Malcolm by suggesting that the former could manage his emotions better than the latter. The implicit assumption, however, is that the main problem was not so much that American racism was awful and so dealing with it would have been immensely frustrating for anyone, but that Malcolm was being too sensitive. The implication that King never become “frustrated with the status quo” is obviously unfounded, for he did receive plenty of harassment, opposition, and animosity throughout his public career, and, as a result, experienced strong feelings of anger, disappointment, and righteous indignation. But it takes a privileged White man to accomplish the virtually impossible task of failing to imagine what any Black person fighting racism in American must feel every day.
The Sermon’s Approach
Having addressed some of the specific issues, I would now like to identify three major problems that characterize the approach behind the sermon, any one of which would’ve been fatal on its own.
First, it appears that the Pastor is not familiar with what nonviolence means. He seems to believe that nonviolence is about (1) not acting in violent ways, (2) being calm and agreeable, (3) not engaging in conflict, (4) being patient and willing to compromise, (4) being content with slow and incremental change, and (5) never getting frustrated with the status quo. He would be surprised to learn that other than the first one (“not acting in violent ways”), none of these features have any connection to nonviolence as understood and practiced by King. Contrary to the Pastor’s naive assumption, nonviolence is not synonymous with “absence of violence.” This error is so basic that it damages the credibility of the entire sermon.
The second major problem I see is that the sermon’s portrayals of King and Malcolm appear to be based on rather superficial impressions that were probably formed at a particular point in the distant past and were never expanded, corrected, or updated.
Basically, there are two main ways of thinking about a person—we can either take a synchronic approach or a diachronic approach. In the former case, we look at how a certain individual was at a particular moment in time, without considering the past or the future. In the later case, we consider an individual as a dynamic being, and try to understand how this person grows, evolves, and transforms over time. The synchronic approach is analogous to taking a snapshot of a river; the river is in constant motion, but the camera freezes it into a two-dimensional static image. It may be a high-resolution image, but it is devoid of the temporal element and therefore incapable of conveying any sense of change over time. Of course, the same river can also be studied using the diachronic approach, but that requires a lot more work and a much greater commitment to the subject matter than just pushing a button.
The Pastor’s approach to King and Malcolm is entirely synchronic. It takes two highly complex and dynamic human beings with freedom and agency, seeks to capture their essence at a single moment in time, and then attempts to convey that essence in a few short sentences. No wonder this approach produced two flat, static, and oversimplified images that bear little, if any, resemblance to the persons in questions.
If we compare the two leaders as they might have appeared to most White Americans in the early 1960s, we would notice that Malcolm was angrily denouncing the nightmare of being Black in America while King had high hopes that the nation would fully embrace its Black citizens. Recall that King’s most optimistic speech—“I have a dream”—was delivered during the march on Washington in 1963. Malcolm wasn’t impressed, for he could see no point in trying to integrate Black people into what he saw as an incorrigibly racist White society. If the story of Malcolm and King had ended that year—and if there were no resources available other than what was shown on television at that time—a relatively uninformed White person would have readily assumed that Malcolm and King were totally different. However, the story did not end at that point and significant changes in the lives of both leaders continued to take place in the following years.
I don’t dispute the fact that Malcolm and King were very different individuals. What the Pastor gets wrong is not that they were different but that they were opposites. In fact, I think the biographical factors that account for some of the differences between the two men are worth knowing. These include social class, family, education, life experiences, attitudes toward Whites, and approaches to the problem of race in America. Much of the following account is based on James Cone’s 1991 book, Malcolm & Martin & America: Dream or Nightmare. This background is necessary for understanding how these two individuals evolved in the last years of their respective lives.
Let’s start from the beginning. King was raised in a relatively affluent home. His father was an influential and well-known pastor who personally knew many powerful individuals. King belonged to the southern, upwardly mobile Black professional class, and had therefore absorbed from his immediate surroundings a sense of optimism about racial progress.
In contrast, Malcolm came from a poor working class family. After his father was murdered by the KKK when he was still a child, Malcolm spent several years being tossed from one foster home to another with various White foster parents. Unlike King, Malcolm did not grow up with older Black individuals around him who could serve as positive role models. Malcolm’s very skin tone (“red”) was a constant reminder to him of White brutality, as his maternal grandmother was raped by a White man. In contrast, King was “black,” which means his immediate ancestors hadn’t experienced White sexual violence.
Malcolm faced intense racial discrimination from his teachers, and ended up dropping out of school in the eighth grade. He eventually taught himself to read and write all over again while he was in prison, and went on to educate himself on every conceivable topic by reading books from the prison library. In contrast, King’s mother was a school teacher who taught him to read before he entered school. King did not encounter racial discrimination in the course of his schooling, for this was the era of segregation; he attended two public schools in Atlanta, GA, before going to Morehouse College. King had access to enough family support and cultural capital to be able to skip grades twice, which is how he ended up in college at age 15 without formally graduating from high school, and eventually earned a PhD at the age of 26.
After dropping out of school, Malcolm had to learn how to survive on the streets. He was a thief and a hustler, until he ended up in prison. Malcolm eventually transformed himself into an orator, a preacher, and a leader through self-discipline and determined effort. In contrast, King got his first job as a pastor at age 25 when he was still finishing his dissertation; he never had to struggle financially. By becoming a pastor, King was following in his father’s footsteps and in some ways he was simply continuing the family business. Malcolm had to win his sense of self-worth through a hard struggle against internalized racism; in contrast, even as a child King never doubted that he was a worthy individual despite being Black.
Malcolm had no reason to believe that African Americans would ever be fully accepted in White society, for he hadn’t had many positive experiences involving White people. King too had acquired strong anti-White sentiments while growing up, which he was only able to overcome through his interaction with White students who were involved in interracial organizations at Crozer Theological Seminary, which was the first integrated school that King attended. Towards the end of his life, however, King was rapidly losing his initial faith in the ability of White people to overcome their racist tendencies.
Integration vs. Independence
Ultimately, however, Malcolm and King had different leadership styles because they were attracted to two distinct Black traditions. These traditions represent two different answers to the question that African Americans have repeatedly asked themselves: How do we find justice? One answer has been “integration,” the other “independence.”
According to the first tradition, African Americans can establish positive relations with White people and win equality and dignity by appealing to the common American values of freedom and democracy. According to second tradition, African Americans must practice unity and solidarity within their own communities and learn to stand on their own feet, without being dependent on White society. The first tradition is optimistic about integration and equality, whereas the second comes out of a collective sense of despair. The first tradition is associated with figures like Frederick Douglass, and that’s the tradition to which King subscribed. This hope for integration is based on the assumption that the American commitment to the idea that “all men are created equal” is sincere and genuine, and that the problem has only been in its faulty implementation. In contrast, the desire for independence and self-sufficiency is associated with figures like Marcus Garvey, though it can be traced all the way back to the earliest slave revolts, and that’s the tradition that made most sense to Malcolm. This tradition is based on a hermeneutic of suspicion; it asserts that African Americans shouldn’t gamble their lives and future on the unproven and risky idea that White folks actually mean it when they say that “all men are created equal.”
Of course, it would be too simplistic to say that there are just two traditions. Rather, there is a spectrum of viewpoints between integration and independence. The relevant point here is that while King remained loyal to the integrationist approach, by the end of his life he had started to recognize that a certain level of despair was justified, and that the Black tradition that insisted on achieving independence without any help from White society wasn’t completely misguided. Similarly, Malcolm remained a staunch supporter and advocate of Black independence, sometimes referred to as “nationalism,” but in the final year of his life he had started to appreciate the value of the integrationist tradition.
In 1964, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and joined the mainstream Muslim community. At that time, Malcolm announced that he wanted to work with other civil rights leaders, something he hadn’t done until that point because Elijah Muhammad had prohibited such cooperation; but now he was free to pursue his own instincts. In the last year of his life, Malcom become increasingly global in his outlook and critical of capitalist exploitation. He started to recognize the necessity of building solidarity among all oppressed people. He also began to notice that the Black/White dynamic was part of the larger, and more salient, Oppressor/Oppressed dynamic.
Malcolm, of course, was assassinated in February 1965, while King lived for another three years—until he too was murdered in April 1968. These three years are immensely relevant for our story, for it was during this time that King began to appreciate what Malcolm had been saying all along. King grew increasingly frustrated as White racism started to wake up to the challenge posed by the civil rights movement and quickly succeeded in reducing the pace of racial progress. As King tried to take his movement into the northern states, he was increasingly met with sophisticated forms of White opposition that proved harder to defeat than the overt racism of the South. With the passage of time, King became more and more pessimistic about the ability of White people to give up their power and privilege for the sake of a moral imperative. Like Malcolm, King also expanded his vision, became increasingly global in his outlook, and start to openly talk about the intersection of racism, capitalism, and militarism. Today, the mainstream culture tends to be exclusively focused on King’s most optimistic words, especially his “I have a dream” speech, but if King had lived just few more days, the world would have heard him deliver a sermon with the provocative title “Why America May Go to Hell.”
The conclusion should be obvious: During the final years of his life Malcolm had shown significant progress in moving closer to King’s viewpoint, whereas King, during the last years of his life, had moved a great deal toward Malcolm’s perspective. On the days of their respective deaths, therefore, it is fair to say that Malcolm and King had very similar ideas, hopes, fears, and concerns. I like to imagine that if they hadn’t been assassinated during the prime of their lives, by the early 1970s Malcolm and King would have succeeded in bringing their followers together into a single, world-wide movement for human liberation. I believe this is a reasonable conjecture based on how their respective viewpoints were evolving in the final years of their lives.
The Pastor’s Dilemma
The third major problem in the sermon’s approach, and perhaps the most fundamental one, has to do with its reliance on bad logic. The Pastor seems to believe that difference is synonymous with opposition, but that is incorrect. It is possible for two propositions, A and B, to be true at the same time, and if that’s how we choose to think of the leadership styles of Malcolm and King then we can appreciate how both were perfectly valid despite their differences. The alternative is to imagine two propositions, A and not-A, which by definition cannot both be true at the same time, for the truth of one logically requires the falsity of the other. As the wording of the sermon demonstrates, the Pastor is not approaching the two leadership styles in question as merely different from each other; he is thinking of them as opposites and therefore mutually exclusive.
According to this reasoning, if King’s leadership style was valid then Malcolm’s must be invalid, and if Malcolm’s leadership style was valid then King’s must be invalid. By assuming that difference in this case is identical with incompatibility, the Pastor is making a fundamental error. As a result, if he affirms something for King, he must negate it for Malcolm; if he affirms something for Malcolm, he must negate it for King. Trapped by faulty logic, the Pastor cannot bring himself to see the many overlaps, interconnections, and similarities between the two men and their leadership styles; it also makes him uninterested in how these leaders had started to move toward each other’s viewpoints. The Pastor then expresses an unequivocal preference for King, over and against Malcolm, expecting that everyone else will agree with him. Yet, he is actually putting his congregation in a dilemma by creating an unnecessary choice.
It is indeed true that Malcolm and King had different leadership styles. These two men came from different backgrounds, had different temperaments, and experienced different forms of racism. As a result, they were attracted to two different Black traditions: King sought integration while Malcolm pursued independence. Yet, none of this means that Malcolm and King were opposites.
While they only met once in person, Malcolm and King were in constant dialogue. They kept each other sharp and honest. Malcolm was strong in the areas where King was weak, and King was strong in the areas where Malcolm was weak. While neither of them would have have admitted it, Malcolm and King were dependent on each other. Their viewpoints were not mutually exclusive; they were complementary. America needed both men, and still does. There is no need to pick one and reject the other.
On White Privilege
The dilemma created by the Pastor is not only unnecessary; it is also based on historically inaccurate images—caricatures, really—of the two men, which makes the comparison false and the choice pointless. This means that when the Pastor picks King, he is only picking what he thinks King represented; and when he rejects Malcolm, the Pastor is simply rejecting what he believes Malcolm represented. In the sermon, King and Malcolm are like two blank screens on which the Pastor projects his own likes and dislikes, respectively. Given how uninformed the Pastor is regarding King and Malcolm, we end up learning more about him than about the two towering figures.
Yet, there is value in studying this sermon that goes far beyond its particular author. We can study the sermon for it unintentionally reveals regarding how racism adapts and reproduces itself in American society.
The sermon can also give us a glimpse of how White racial privilege works. For instance, I can’t imagine myself getting up on stage, let alone standing behind a pulpit, and speaking confidently on a topic about which I know next to nothing. I can’t imagine doing this because I have a healthy fear of being challenged and contradicted in public for saying something dumb, insensitive, or ignorant. The Pastor who delivered the sermon on King and Malcolm had no such fear. What could have been the source of his otherwise unreasonable confidence except the privilege that comes from being White and Christian in a society that views these characteristics as normative?
This post has been long overdue!
Even as I wrote “Iftar at the White House” (1) on August 11, I knew I wanted to write a sequel—for there were several things that needed to be clarified regarding the position I was taking. At that time, I was pretty sure I would be able to write the sequel over the next few days. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Now that more than two months have passed, I can barely recall exactly what I wanted to say!
Blogs usually contain commentaries on current affairs, and it is fair to say that my original topic is no longer “current.” For all practical purposes, the issue of American Muslims participating in a White House iftar is now ancient history. As such, I doubt that it is of much interest to anyone anymore. The topic is already obsolete by contemporary standards—like Windows 3.1—and therefore any further discussion would probably seem quaint and pointless to most readers.
Yet, there are larger issues at stake—issues that cannot be rendered obsolete or irrelevant by the passage of time. Instead of trying to recall what I had originally planned to write in this post, I would therefore try to say something useful about those larger issues.
Let me reiterate that I had no intention of issuing a fiqhi ruling when I wrote the original post, nor did I mean to condemn anyone for their participation; rather, I was expressing my sense that there was a deep-seated contradiction in the whole affair that somehow seemed to escape our attention. What I tried to do in that post, and what I am trying to do now, is to shed some light on that contradiction in order to make it more visible.
Why did I think there was something “wrong” with some American Muslims attending an iftar dinner at the White House? I promise I will answer this question, but I can’t give an honest answer without digressing for a little while. This is because I don’t think we can deal with this question in the best possible way without first dealing with another, more fundamental question: How does one know whether a particular choice is moral or immoral? There are many ways of answering this question, and I have no reason to reject any of those methods or theories. For my present purposes, however, I think it would be most beneficial to draw upon the approach that Max Weber described in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). According to Weber:
We have to understand clearly that all ethically oriented action can follow two totally different principles that are irreconcilably opposed to each other: an ethic of “ultimate ends” or an ethic of “responsibility.” This is not to say that the ethic of ultimate ends is identical with a lack of responsibility, or that the ethic of responsibility is identical with lack of conviction. There is naturally no question of that. But there is an immeasurably profound contrast between acting according to the maxim of the ethic of ultimate ends—to speak in religious terms: “The Christian does the right thing and leaves the outcomes in God’s hands,” and acting according to the ethic of responsibility: that one must answer for the “foreseeable) consequences of one’s actions.
In this passage, I think Weber is making the following points:
1. There are two types of actions: (a) actions that we do out of habit or routine, and (b) actions that we undertake consciously and deliberately, believing them to be justified on ethical grounds. Only these latter ones are “ethically oriented” actions.
2. There are two main standards that we can use to judge our actions on ethical grounds. These may be called (a) the ethic of ultimate ends and (b) the ethic of responsibility.
3. The ethic of ultimate ends can be summed up in the following principle: Always, and under all circumstances, you must choose only that action which you know to be right, and pay no heed to the consequences that may follow.
4. The ethic of responsibility can be summed up in the following principle: You must choose only that action which will lead to the most desirable results, for you are fully responsible for the foreseeable consequences of your actions.
5.In any given case, I can either follow the ethic of ultimate ends or the ethic of responsibility, but not both at the same time.
Take, for example, the issue of truth-telling vs. lying. In theory, everyone agrees that truth-telling is moral while lying is immoral. But what if I find myself in a situation where telling the truth will lead to an innocent person’s persecution or even death? Suppose, for instance, that I am a French Catholic living under German occupation during WW-II, and I am hiding a Jewish person in my attic to save him from arrest and deportation. If Nazi soldiers were to knock at my door and ask whether I am trying to protect any Jews, what am I supposed to do? If I believe truth-telling to be the right thing, then, according to the ethic of ultimate ends, I am obligated to tell the truth to the Nazi soldiers, regardless of the consequences.
As Weber notes, the ethic of ultimate ends is not “identical with a lack of responsibility.” Following the ethic of ultimate ends does not mean that I am acting irresponsibly; rather, I see myself as responsible only for my choices and not for the choices that other people make. Telling the truth or lying is a decision that I must make myself, and therefore only I am responsible for making that choice. What the soldiers do or don’t do is their choice, and only they are responsible for making it. From this viewpoint, I am not responsible for any harm that my Jewish neighbor may suffer at the hands of the Nazis; rather, the individual soldiers will be responsible for any such harm.
But if I follow the ethic of responsibility, I am going to view myself as responsible not only for my own actions but also for all the consequences of my actions—direct and indirect—that I am able to foresee. I know exactly what the Nazis would do to the man hiding in my attic, and so I see myself as responsible for the harm that he is likely to suffer as a result of my truth-telling. Since the foreseeable consequences are unacceptable to me, the ethic of responsibility requires that I ought to lie to the soldiers. Again, this does not mean that the ethic of responsibility is identical with a lack of commitment to ultimate ends. I do believe that truth-telling is a moral virtue, but in this case I am willing to act immorally in order to ensure a desirable outcome.
The above example may suggest that the ethic of responsibility is somehow superior to the ethic of absolute ends. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to Weber, neither ethic is inherently better than the other. In effect, every individual person must make his/her own moral choices according to his/her own conscience. Whether a particular choice is based on the ethic of responsibility or the ethic of absolute ends is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the choice is “right.” A great deal depends on the nature of the particular circumstances in which the choice is made, as well as who is making the choice.
To clarify the last point, let’s take another example. Yasir and Summayya, along with their son Ammar, were three early converts to Islam. They were particularly vulnerable to persecution because of their low social status in Makkah. Islamic sources report that all three were brutally tortured, their tormentor demanding that they renounce their new faith and return to the pagan beliefs of their ancestors. Clearly, one of the highest moral virtues for these Muslims was to remain steadfast despite all the pain and suffering. After weeks of torture, Yasir and Summayya were killed by their tormentor while Ammar saved his life by renouncing his faith. A Qur’anic verse (16:106) later absolved Ammar of any wrongdoing, since he was forced to renounce his faith in God even though his heart was in the right place.
What is a person supposed to do in a situation depicted above? The conduct of Yasir and Summayya is no doubt exemplary, representing the highest possible standard of commitment, perseverance, and faithfulness that any human being can demonstrate. In contrast, what Ammar did seems to fall short of that standard—and yet the Qur’an insists that he did nothing wrong when he renounced his faith only to save himself from torture.
This example shows, far more clearly than the first one, that the choice between the two ethical approaches is neither obvious nor unambiguous. Yasir and Summayya followed the ethic of absolute ends—holding on to their faith and refusing to lie, regardless of the consequences. Ammar followed the ethic of responsibility—lying about his beliefs in order to save his life. Since we can defend both approaches as ethically sound, it would seem that the individual person must consider his/her values and the particulars of the given situation before making a particular choice. Some times, for some purposes, and/or for some people, the “right” answer is found in the ethic of absolute ends. At other times, for other purposes, and/or for other people, the “right” answer lies in the ethic of responsibility.
With this background, I think I am ready to tackle the original question.
Should American Muslims participate in the civic and political affairs of their country? Yes, by all means. Should American Muslims maintain channels of communication with local and national authorities? Yes, certainly. Should American Muslims work with the White House in order to ensure that their civil rights are protected and that they have a voice in the policy-making process? Yes, definitely. Should American Muslims share an iftar dinner with a leader who is responsible for killing countless innocent Muslims, including children, and who is very likely a war criminal? Well ….
If you were to ask me, I would choose the ethic of absolute ends in this case and give a single, straight-forward, and unapologetic answer: no.
But if you were to consider the matter for yourself, in light of your own values, your own priorities, and your own assessment of the needs of American Muslims, it is certainly possible that you would decide to follow the ethic of responsibility. In that case, you may not see anything particularly problematic or questionable in enjoying an iftar dinner with President Obama and other dignitaries.
If you were to answer the above question with a yes, I can certainly understand your reasoning. But do you understand mine?
It started innocently enough.
It was late last night and I was looking at my Facebook news feed. I noticed a picture posted by someone who was attending the Iftar dinner at the White House. I knew this happens every year, and not seeing anything unusual in the picture (except the very large number of “likes”), I quickly scrolled down. Few minutes later, I decided to glance through my Twitter timeline, where I saw the following tweet:
I confess that I was shocked, but only for a brief moment. Of course, this was a valid critique. Why didn’t I think of this when I first saw that picture on Facebook? I felt a slight disappointment for not noticing the moral implications of attending a White House Iftar. I knew I had to atone for my complacency.
How would I respond?
First, even though I believed that the moral critique contained in the tweet by @irevolt was powerful and valid, I could also anticipate that at least some Muslims would become easily distracted by the quasi-fiqhi tone of the tweet and, therefore, they would fail to appreciate the real point. (I’ll have more to say about this issue in my next blog post.)
Second, I decided that I would not say anything too negative or harsh about the folks who attended the White House Iftar. I knew some of them personally, and I knew they were not bad people by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I knew that according to the usual criteria they were far better Muslims than I was. Clearly, I had no reason whatsoever to doubt their faith, and I was certainly not going to claim that I was somehow better than they.
Third, I thought about their possible motives. Why would they do such a thing? Since I had already decided not to attribute any immoral or hypocritical motive to them, the only option was to assume that they didn’t know the full implications of their choice. I had to assume they were sincere. I must be as gentle and generous with them as possible, because they couldn’t possibly have known what they were doing. We all make mistakes while having the best of intentions.
Fourth, I tried to put myself in the shoes of those who attended the White House Iftar. What would I had done if I was in their position? I decided that the only justification for visiting the President would be to speak the inconvenient truth to him. But that required courage. Did I have that courage? I thought about a recent experience in which I had failed to speak an inconvenient truth in front of people who were far less powerful than the U.S. President; I had remained quiet out of sheer cowardice. I decided that I didn’t have the courage needed to speak the inconvenient truth in a formal White House dinner, where such behavior would also have required breaking all etiquette and protocols, leading to rather unpleasant consequences. I knew I had no reason to demand that other folks must have the courage that I lacked.
Fifth, if I didn’t have the courage to do the right thing, what would have been my options if I were actually invited to the White House? I could have attended the Iftar with the President, followed the required etiquette and protocols, and afterwards enjoyed a celebrity status among my peers. But this would have injured my soul and done serious violence to my conscience. Therefore, lacking the necessary courage to rock the boat but also wanting to preserve my soul and conscience, the only thing I could have done under those circumstances would have been to decline the invitation. Sorry, I would have said to the White House, but I can’t come to your dinner.
In view of the thought process described above, I hope that the tweets I sent out would make better sense:
To summarize, here are the main points I’ve been trying to make:
1. It was not a good idea for any conscientious American Muslim to attend an Iftar in Barack Obama’s White House during Ramadan 2012. The reasons for this should be obvious to anyone who has not been living in a cave, but I will list them anyway in my next blog post.
2. Without questioning the faith or sincerity of a fellow Muslim, the least that can be said about his/her participation in the above program is that it must have been the result either of ignorance or a lack of critical reflection.
3. Cowardice in itself is not a moral defect. If you lack the courage to speak the inconvenient truth in the face of the powerful, you can do the next best thing and avoid being in the company of the powerful.
Comments are welcome, as always 🙂
On May 24, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to a joint session of the US Congress, a speech that I find endlessly fascinating. I previously posted four installments of my analysis of this speech, trying to decipher (with some help from George Orwell) Netanyahu’s use of such words as “peace,” “friend,” “security,” and “state.” If you assumed that my discussion of Netanyahu’s speech was over, you were not alone; I too thought that there was nothing more to be said — until I realized that I hadn’t addressed the crux of the matter.
There is one last point that I still need to make, and that point relates to the original context of Netanyahu’s speech, i.e., the Palestinian initiative to get United Nation’s recognition for a Palestinian state. It is precisely this possibility, this “threat,” that motivated the Israeli Prime Minister to visit the United States in the first place and to speak not only with the US President but also address the US Congress. There may not have been such a flurry of diplomatic initiatives if the United Nations’ recognition of Palestine were not a real possibility that his government genuinely feared.
If your opponent advises you not to use a particular strategy, you can be sure that that’s precisely the strategy you need to use!
This is what Netanyahu said about the Palestinian initiative:
The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace. (Applause.) It should be forcefully opposed by all those who want to see this conflict end. I appreciate the president’s clear position on these — on this issue. Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated. (Applause.)
Notice the word “impose.” According to the dictionary, the word “impose” means to force (something unwelcome or unfamiliar) to be accepted or put in place. To paraphrase Netanyahu, Palestinians are trying to force a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that Israel is unwilling to accept. If anyone wants to see the end of this conflict, Netanyahu says, they must oppose the Palestinian initiative since it “will not bring peace.” This is because, he goes on to emphasize, “Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated.”
I find this to be a very convincing statement, and I don’t know if any rational person would disagree with Netanyahu on this issue. A peaceful settlement of any conflict must be one in which the needs of both parties are satisfied, so that both parties have equal stakes in ensuring the success of the settlement. In contrast, any settlement in which the needs of one party are met at the cost of the needs of the other party will never lead to a lasting peace. Sounds like a perfectly fair and just principle.
Several problems arise, however, as we look at this matter closely.
First, whenever there is a conflict between two unequal parties — especially when one of them is many, many times more powerful than the other — it makes perfect sense to use the word “impose” with respect to the stronger party, but it makes no sense to use it with respect to the weaker one. If anyone has been “imposing” its will in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can only be the party that has the ability to do the “imposing.” For the stronger party to blame the weaker one for trying to “impose” its own brand of settlement is not only unjustifiable, it is also disingenuous. This use of the word “impose” distracts the audience from the issue of the difference in power between the two sides. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can neither be understood nor resolved if the issue of unequal power is kept off the table. In many ways, the entire conflict is about power. The belief that it’s a conflict between equal parties is itself the result of an unfair exercise of power; such an assumption is not conducive to a just settlement.
Second, consider the word “negotiation” which is used by Netanyahu in contradistinction to “impose.” The Israeli Prime Minister is adamant that you cannot unilaterally “impose” a settlement and thus achieve peace. You must, on the contrary, enter a process of “negotiation” with the other side and arrive at a mutually agreed-upon settlement, for only such a settlement can produce peace. The two concepts are mutually exclusive. If you are trying to “impose” your will, you are obviously not trying to “negotiate,” and vice versa. As a general principle, most people would agree that it is always better to “negotiate” than to “impose.”
Yet, the text of the same speech reveals the main reason why the two decades worth of “negotiations” between the Israelis and the Palestinian have been unsuccessful: the Israelis are not truly “negotiating,” mainly because they are the stronger party and can get away with “imposing” their will. As the Israelis continue to “impose” their will, Palestinians are being asked to give up more and more of their rights through “negotiation.” If it’s true that “imposing” is the exact opposite of “negotiating,” then Israel is guilty of “imposing” its own version of the settlement for several decades while blaming the Palestinians for not “negotiating” (i.e., for not being sufficiently submissive).
In reality, there is no such thing as “negotiation” unless there is a relative parity between the two sides. In cases where one side is significantly stronger than the other, we need a third-party, a mediator, to ensure that no bullying or “imposing” takes place. This is precisely the principle on which our legal systems are based. If a stronger party, such as a government agency or a corporation, is perceived as “imposing” its will on a weaker party, such as an individual or a group of individuals, the latter cannot possibly have any hopes of receiving justice through direct “negotiation,” and must, therefore, take its case to a third, objective party, i.e., the courts. At least in theory, the courts are supposed to act in an impartial way and to ensure that no one’s rights are violated. In other words, the disparity of power between the two sides in a given conflict is precisely the reason why we have set up legal systems in the first place. A conflict between unequal sides is the breeding ground for injustice, for unfair consequences are likely to result through one side “imposing” its will without the other side’s consent. Given the tendency of unchecked power towards corruption, the impartiality of the judiciary is meant to level the playing field by empowering the weaker party, so that genuine “negotiation” can become possible.
In the case of “negotiations” between the Israelis and Palestinians, the problem is that the mediator has traditionally been United States, a superpower that is hardly a neutral party in this conflict. If it is true, as Netanyahu says in the same speech, that “Israel has no better friend than the United States,” then this “special relationship” between the two countries already puts an end to any hope that the US can act as an impartial mediator. Consequently, Palestinians have every right to take their case to an authority that they believe is capable of acting impartially, i.e., the United Nations. They would do so not to “impose” their will on Israel but to ensure that Israel is not able to “impose” its will on the Palestinians.
Third, Netanyahu is demanding the Palestinians to follow a principle that he would himself find unacceptable should it be applied consistently. Take a look at the history of this conflict. The state of Israel came into being not through a process of “negotiation” but as a result of a unilateral declaration that was, literally, “imposed” on an unwilling population against their will.
According to Netanyahu, the problem has always been the Arabs’ refusal to accept a “Jewish state.” He said the following in the same speech:
In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.
Here, the Israeli Prime Minister is referring to the United Nations resolution 181, also known as the “Partition Plan,” that was adopted on November 29, 1947. The resolution was adopted by the General Assembly, not by the Security Council. As such, it was a non-binding recommendation, which meant that its legal status depended on acceptance by the relevant parties. It so happened, as Netanyahu informs us, that the Arabs categorically rejected the resolution. Consequently, according to Netanyahu’s own standards, such a resolution should never have been implemented. Since only one party to the conflict accepted it and the other did not, the resolution had obviously failed to meet the needs of both parties. To implement such a resolution meant that one party would have to “impose” it on the other, unwilling party.
But isn’t “imposing” something that Netanyahu dislikes a great deal? That depends on who is doing the “imposing.” While the Israeli Prime Minister abhors the Palestinian initiative to “impose a settlement,” he seems to have no objection against Israel having “imposed” (its own interpretation of) the “Partition Plan” on an unwilling population.
This brings me to my final point. Netanyahu knows his history but is playing games with logic; yet, truth has a tendency to make itself known, loud and clear. To repeat his statement: “The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace.” How does he know? Netanyahu is implying, inadvertently and unconsciously, that the Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace just as the Jewish attempts to impose a settlement on the basis of a United Nations resolution have failed to bring peace. Yet, he would not dare to make that comparison. His implied but unacknowledged reasoning goes like this: The Palestinian attempt in 2011 to “impose a settlement” will not work because Israel is unwilling to accept it; this is almost identical to the case that the Israeli efforts to impose a settlement since 1947 have failed to work because the native Palestinians have been unwilling to accept it. What can we infer from this line of reasoning? Both sides must accept a settlement in order for it to work. This is a compelling argument, except that it goes against everything that Netanyahu publicly stands for. The argument is present in the very structure of his reasoning, but he won’t acknowledge it mainly because he is a politician.
In effect, it is grossly illogical for Netanyahu to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state on the basis of a UN resolution while denying the feasibility of the same process in case of the Palestinian state. Here, Netanyahu’s reasoning runs into what must be the bane of all political discourse — consistency. If it’s wrong for the Palestinians to seek a unilateral settlement through the United Nations, why has it been right for the Israelis to claim that privilege since 1947?
Let’s read the above statement once again, and this time let’s look for unacknowledged assumptions:
In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.
The connotations of this statement are clear as daylight: In 1947, when the Jews said “yes” to the UN resolution, they were making the right choice; when the Palestinians said “no” to the same resolution, they were making the wrong choice. This is the plain sense meaning of Netanyahu’s statement. Now the question that remains unanswered, and even unmentioned, is this: Why? Why was accepting the “Partition Plan” a good thing and rejecting it was a bad thing? It was, after all, a human document that was produced through imperial politics and much arm-twisting. If a group of people thought that the recommendation of the UN General Assembly did not meet their needs, what could possibly be wrong with rejecting it? Netanyahu does not answer this question explicitly, and neither does any of the other pro-Israel commentators who keep referring to the UN resolution of 1947 as if it were as sacred and infallible as the tablets of divine law.
It is crucial to understand this aspect of Netanyahu’s reasoning. What, exactly, made the Jewish choice right and the Palestinian choice wrong?
Let me suggest two possible assumptions, one of which must underlie the Israeli Prime Minister’s reasoning. Netanyahu either believes that (a) the UN is a legitimate authority and its resolutions should always be accepted by all parties; or he believes that (b) you should accept the UN resolutions if they are in your interest and reject them if they are not.
If we assume the former, then it contradicts Netanyahu’s position against the Palestinian initiative. Obviously, if Netanyahu believes that the UN is the legitimate authority in international conflicts, then he should have no objection against the Palestinians taking their case to the UN. In fact, he should be eager to accept whatever the UN decides. If the UN General Assembly gave the right verdict in 1947, it can give another right verdict in 2011.
If we assume the latter, then it contradicts Netanyahu’s position that the Palestinians made the wrong choice when they rejected the UN resolution back in 1947. Obviously, if Netanyahu believes that you should only accept those resolutions that are in your own interest, then he cannot criticize the Palestinian choice since they had found the UN resolution 181 to be against their interest.
As we can see, both of my attempts to answer the “why” question run into irresolvable contradictions, suggesting that there are some deep problems with Netanyahu’s reasoning. But is it really possible that a leader of this stature is illogical in his thinking? I find such a conclusion difficult to accept.
Thankfully, we don’t have to believe that Netanyahu is being illogical. Here’s my solution.
The Israeli Prime Minister believes that his nation is unique and special, so much so that the difference between right and wrong does not depend on any moral or legal principles, but entirely upon whether or not something is in the immediate interest of his people. Consequently, (a) the Palestinian choice in 1947 was wrong because it was against the interest of Israel; similarly, (b) the Palestinian initiative in 2011 is wrong because it is against the interest of Israel. In both cases, the interest of the Palestinian people does not count.
I know that this sounds really harsh, but I can’t think of any other way of explaining Netanyahu reasoning. He is either inconsistent and therefore illogical; or he is fully consistent and therefore a racist. I will go with the latter option, since I find it hard to believe that a Prime Minister of Israel is unable to think logically.
When politicians speak, we ought to listen — but we must listen attentively, critically, and with the understanding that their language is designed to mask the truth rather than reveal it. I am beginning to realize that listening to a politician’s speech is probably as much of an art as speaking like one. Neither of these is my expertise, but this handicap is not preventing me from enjoying the process of dissecting and deconstructing Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. As I continue in my effort to comprehend, to the best of my ability, exactly what it is that Netanyahu is saying in this text, I am also learning some of the rules for interpreting political texts in general. One rule says that we should always look for unacknowledged assumptions, subtle or tacit suggestions, and assertions that are disguised as arguments. According to another rule, we should pay close attention to keywords, determine the speaker’s implied meanings, notice any inconsistencies, and try to discern the role such words may be playing in creating specific suggestions or motivations in the audience.
Let us now return to the text before us.
In his speech to the US Congress on May 24, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly emphasized that his country has always sought “peace” with the Palestinian people. The fact that this highly desired “peace” has not yet been achieved after more than sixty years is not due to Israel’s fault. Rather, this lack of “peace” is the result of the stubbornness of the Palestinians, their irrational hatred for the Jewish people, and their preference for conflict. Here is what Netanyahu said:
If the benefits of peace with the Palestinians are so clear, why has peace eluded us? Because all six Israeli prime ministers since the signing of the Oslo Accords agreed to establish a Palestinian state, myself included; so why has peace not been achieved?
Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.
You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state; it’s always been about the existence of the Jewish state. (Applause.) This is what this conflict is about. (Extended applause.)
So the real obstacle to “peace,” from Netanyahu’s perspective, is not that Israel is unwilling to recognize a Palestinian state; the real obstacle is that the Palestinians are (and have always been) unwilling to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Is this claim true? Netanyahu has been a member of Israel’s Likud Party since 1988, and the Likud party’s official Platform includes several provisions that may appear to be inconsistent with his position regarding Israel’s willingness to accept a Palestinian state. Here are a few samples of what the Likud Party believes:
The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values. Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting.
The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.
The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state. Thus, for example, in matters of foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology, their activity shall be limited in accordance with imperatives of Israel’s existence, security and national needs.
Jerusalem is the eternal, united capital of the State of Israel and only of Israel. The government will flatly reject Palestinian proposals to divide Jerusalem, including the plan to divide the city presented to the Knesset by the Arab factions and supported by many members of Labor and Meretz.
Can Netanyahu reconcile his own position with that of the Likud Party regarding the question of a Palestinian state? The answer to this question is in the affirmative, but with certain qualifications. Yes, a Palestinian state is quite acceptable to Israel (1) so long as this state does not include the West Bank or East Jerusalem; (2) so long as it is understood that this state will be neither independent nor sovereign; (3) so long as it is agreed that this state’s “foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology” will remain under Israeli control; (4) so long as Israel gets to decide precisely where the borders of this state will be drawn; (5) so long as the Palestinians accept that their state will be completely de-militarized; and (6) so long as it can be ensured that this state will be “without control of its airspace.” This last point is from Netanyahu’s 2009 speech, in which he first announced his embrace of the two-state solution.
Israel and its Prime Minister are indeed willing to accept a Palestinian state — provided that the six conditions mentioned above are satisfied. Looking at the conditions, however, one must ask the obvious but crucial question: What kind of state would that be?
I would like to suggest that in Netanyahu’s use of the word “state,” we are faced with yet another Orwellian situation.
The Israeli Prime Minister frequently mentions “Jewish state” and “Palestinian state” in the same sentence or the same paragraph, implying through this juxtaposition that he has in mind a single, straightforward definition of the word “state” that applies equally to the two cases. A casual listener is likely to assume that both phrases refer to the same, unproblematic concept of “state,” with the only difference that the “state” happens to be “Jewish” in the first case and “Palestinian” in the second case. In view of the six conditions that Israel wants to apply to any future “Palestinian state,” however, such an assumption would be a serious error. But notice how the speaker encourages his audience to accept that assumption as true.
Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples — a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state.
The phrase “two states for two peoples” suggests that there will be parity between them. An even stronger impression is created by the word “alongside,” which evokes a visual image of equality, and perhaps of cooperation. As we have seen, however, Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing a Palestinian “state” any kind of parity or equality vis-a-vis Israel. He is merely conveying a vague but positive idea because it makes his position appear more rational and altruistic than it actually is.
The Israeli Prime Minister then goes on say:
We seek a peace in which they’ll be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people living in their own state. (Applause.) They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish.
These remarks are supposed to show the speaker’s generosity and sincere goodwill towards the Palestinians, while reinforcing the assumption that the meaning of the word “state” is perfectly stable. Notice the succession of emotionally positive words that Americans are especially likely to find appealing: national, life, dignity, free, viable, independent, own state, enjoy, prosperous, creativity, initiative, flourish. Yet, in light of the conditions that must be fulfilled before Israel will allow a Palestinian “state,” an attentive and critical listener should be able to see through Netanyahu’s rhetorical screen of smoke and fog.
In using the word “state,” Netanyahu is performing a sleight of hand, a magical trick. When Netanyahu utters the phrase “Jewish state” he has one particular definition of “state” in mind, but when he uses the phrase “Palestinian state” he is implying an entirely different definition. Using the same word twice, so close to each other, while implying — but not acknowledging — two drastically different meanings is nothing short of deliberate deception. Only a politician can pull this off so effectively.
Since the meaning of the word “state” is so unstable in Netanyahu’s text that it doesn’t remain the same even within a single sentence, we have every reason to be suspicious of his claim that Israel is willing to recognize a “Palestinian state” but the Palestinians are unwilling to accept a “Jewish state.” According to the Israeli Prime Minister’s own position, there is no comparison between the “state” that he wants to have for the Jewish people and the “state” that he is offering to the Palestinian people. The two entities — one real and the other proposed — are so different from each other that they cannot possibly belong to the same category or be given the same title. If we take a car and remove its engine, seats, doors, wheels, tires, and windshields, is it still okay to call it a car? After we take into account the full impact of the debilitating conditions that Israel wants to impose, we cannot escape the conclusion that “state” cannot be the right word to describe whatever it is that the Palestinians are supposed to receive with gratitude. Perhaps “slave colony” would be a better substitute.
As we notice the deceptive way in which Netanyahu uses the word “state” with two incompatible meanings, the hollowness of his claim becomes apparent. It is not the case that the Palestinians are unwilling to accept a”Jewish state.” What they are unwilling to accept — and quite rightly so — is the Israeli concept of what a “Palestinian state” should look like. They are refusing to be content with eating bread crumbs off the floor and are demanding a seat at the dinner table just like everyone else. Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians are being unreasonable is tantamount to the claim that the few crumbs they are getting are as nutritious as the seven course dinner that he himself is enjoying at the table. They are both “food,” aren’t they?
Thus, in Netanyahu’s view of history it is the Palestinian people who have been the single most important obstacle to “peace.” He finds it incredible and pitiful that they have missed so many golden opportunities for improving their lot. In his own words:
In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.
In recent years, the Palestinians twice refused generous offers by Israeli prime ministers to establish a Palestinian state on virtually all the territory won by Israel in the Six Day War. They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.
Let’s try to recognize the unacknowledged assumptions behind these statements.
Netanyahu is claiming that for more than sixty years the Palestinian people have been consistently acting against their own best interests. This assertion raises important questions: Why have the Palestinians preferred “conflict” over “peace” for so long? Why did they miss so many opportunities to establish their own state? Why have they behaved in such self-defeating ways?
Netanyahu does not answer these questions directly, but the sentence at the end of the last quote may offer us a clue to his thinking: “They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.” Note the connotations of the word “simply.” We often use this word to express a sense that a given phenomenon is beyond our capacity to fully grasp or explain; that it is just the way it is — there is nothing anyone can do about it and there is no point in asking why it is so. It simply is.
Hence, to say that the Palestinians were simply unwilling to do the right thing is meant to suggest that they had no reasonable grounds for the choices they made. They simply made them — as if they were simply incapable of rational thinking or they were simply ignorant of what was happening around them or they were simply caught up in their stubborn hatred for the Jewish people. Netanyahu’s use of the word “simply” is also intended to absolve Israel of any and all responsibility, since everyone knows that Israel has sought nothing but “peace” with its neighbors. In other words, whatever may be the explanation for the puzzling behavior of Palestinians, it is absurd to even think that it could have any causal connection with anything that Israel had done or was doing to them.
Read the sentence again: “They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.” I can see at least three unacknowledged assumptions underlying this sentence: (1) continuing their conflict with Israel was never in the best interest of the Palestinian people; (2) the Palestinians were always fully aware that continuing their conflict with Israel was not going to help them get what they wanted; (3) the decision and power to either continue the conflict or to end it immediately was always and entirely in the hands of the Palestinians. Once these tacit assumptions have been brought to light, the speaker’s message becomes crystal clear: The Palestinians could have ended their misery at any time, simply by choosing to end their conflict with Israel, but they simply did not. Incomprehensible as this behavior may appear to Israelis and Americans, the regrettable fact is that the Palestinians are simply their own worst enemies.
Once again, we can notice the imperial arrogance in Netanyahu’s tone and choice of words, as well as his contempt for the non-European gentiles. In his view, the Palestinian people are so bereft of commonsense that each time they are offered an opportunity for statehood they deliberately squander it without any good reason. By not giving any explanation for the behavior of the Palestinian people over more than sixty years, while describing that behavior as completely stupid and self-defeating, Netanyahu is relying upon, and perpetuating, the old Orientalist dichotomy between a rational West and an irrational East. The irony is that the same dichotomy was used in the nineteenth century by European gentiles to justify their own disdain for the Jewish people!
There is an additional significance to Netanyahu’s use of the word “simply” — it suggests that the whole Israeli-Palestinian issue is itself very “simple” (as opposed to complex, multidimensional, or contested). This reading is consistent with his view that the entire credit for seeking “peace” goes to the Israelis and the entire blame for maintaining the conflict belongs to the Palestinians. Apparently, the Israeli Prime Minister is convinced that his own way of interpreting the problem is the only rational way of doing so, which is why he sees no point in trying to understand the predicament of the Palestinian from their viewpoint. He can find no valid reason why, as he puts it, the Palestinians are “unwilling to end the conflict.” It does not occur to him that Israel’s “offers” of statehood may have been “generous” from the Israeli viewpoint but they were not so from the Palestinian viewpoint. I am allowing these people to eat all the bread crumbs that fall from the table, and they do not find this generous? What’s wrong with them?
A close reading of Netanyahu’s own words can help expose the real causes behind the continuing conflict in the Middle East. First, his refusal to make any effort to understand the Palestinian perspective — or to even entertain the possibility that they may have legitimate grievances and demands — indicates his unwillingness to treat his neighbors as equal human beings; the same conclusion can also be reached by looking at the six conditions he wants to impose on any future Palestinian state. Second, his inability to comprehend why any Palestinian in their right mind would reject Israel’s “generous offers” of statehood indicates his unwillingness to empathize with the very people who are supposed to be his negotiation partners.
It seems to me that if the stronger party in a given conflict refuses to empathize with the other side’s viewpoint, and if that stronger party also insists on treating the weaker side with contempt, then I need not look anywhere else to explain why the conflict is not coming to an end.
One last point. Notice the phrase “territory won by Israel in the Six Day War” in the passage quoted above. Netanyahu’s nonchalant use of the word “won” in relation to “territory” is quite significant in that it reveals, perhaps inadvertently, an otherwise unacknowledged element of imperialist and colonialist thinking. In premodern times, it was indeed the case that kingdoms and empire could “win” new territories through war and conquest; moreover, this was believed to be a legitimate enterprise by the colonizing empires of Europe well into the twentieth century. However, with the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations, and especially with the signing of the Fourth Geneva Conventions in 1949, acquisition of land by means of conquest is no longer considered a legitimate way of expanding one’s dominion. This legal reality makes Netanyahu’s phrase “territory won by Israel” an illegitimate euphemism for “territory occupied and annexed by Israel in violation of International Law.” More ominously, Netanyahu’s total lack of self-consciousness as he said the words “territory won by Israel” suggests certain dangerous assumptions on his part, including “ends justify means” and “might is right.”
As I continue a close reading of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress, I am learning to appreciate just how relevant George Orwell is for our understanding of contemporary politics. In this post, I will draw upon Orwell’s work once again in order to explain what Netanyahu really means when he uses words like “peace,” “stability,” and “security.” But first I would like to expand upon a theme that I had mentioned in an earlier post, i.e., the way in which Netanyahu’s speech creates a stark dichotomy between “our side” and “their side.” This discussion will set the stage for an Orwellian analysis of Netanyahu’s political language.
In the following passages, notice how the speaker introduces in quick succession a number of very strong binary oppositions.
Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel. (Applause.) We stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace. We stand together to fight terrorism. Congratulations, America. Congratulations, Mr. President: You got bin Laden. Good riddance! (Cheers, applause.)
In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability. In a region of shifting alliances, Israel is America’s unwavering ally. Israel has always been pro-American. Israel will always be pro-American. (Applause.)
My friends, you don’t have to — you don’t need to do nation- building in Israel. We’re already built. (Laughter, applause.) You don’t need to export democracy to Israel. We’ve already got it. (Applause.) And you don’t need to send American troops to Israel. We defend ourselves. (Cheers, applause.)
The rhetorical purpose of these binary oppositions is to set up a stark choice for the audience. From Netanyahu’s viewpoint, the United States must choose between favoring Israel and favoring other Middle Eastern nations (including the Palestinian people). The assumption is that if Americans possess even a tiny amount of intelligent, they will obviously choose to favor Israel. In effect, the Israeli Prime Minister is suggesting to the members of Congress that the United States has only two options in this matter; that these two options are mutually exclusive; and that one of these options — favoring Israel — represents the correct choice. In reality, of course, there is a third option as well, i.e., the United States can choose to treat all sides in a fair and just manner and in accordance with International Law. This third option is not in Israel’s best interest, as Netanyahu sees it, which is why he keeps this option off the table.
Netanyahu constructs his dichotomy by claiming numerous virtues for Israel while attributing the corresponding vices to the Arab nations. This part of his speech resonates deeply with his audience, since he is deliberately confirming most of the negative stereotypes of Arabs and Palestinians with which Americans are already familiar. In Netanyahu’s view of the contemporary Middle East, Israel stands for democracy (while others are undemocratic); Israel wants to promote peace (while others prefer conflict); Israel fights against terrorism (while others promote terrorism); Israel is a stable country (while other countries are unstable); Israel has been an unwavering supporter of the United States (while others have often shifted their allegiances); Israel is already a nation (while others need American help for nation-building); Israel is capable of self-defense without the help of American troops (while others need American troops to defend them).
After introducing these strong binary oppositions, Netanyahu goes on to add a few more.
This path of liberty is . . . paved when governments permit protests in town squares, when limits are placed on the powers of rulers, when judges are beholden to laws and not men, and when human rights cannot be crushed by tribal loyalties or mob rule. Israel has always embraced this path in a Middle East that has long rejected it. . . . We have a free press, independent courts, an open economy, rambunctious parliamentary debates . . . .
Notice how the above statements consolidate the dichotomy that places Israel and all the other Middle Eastern countries on the opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide. Israel allows protests in its town squares (while other countries do not); Israeli judges are unbiased in applying the law (while other countries’ judges are corrupt or partial); Israel protects human rights (while others governments crush human rights); Israel has a free press (while other countries suffer from censorship); Israel has an independent judiciary (while other countries’ lack free courts); Israel has an open economy (while Arab economies are state-controlled); Israel has a free parliament that allows unrestrained debate (while the Arab countries are either ruled by autocrats or their parliaments have very limited freedom).
The reader can see that by presenting a long series of strong binary oppositions, the Israeli Prime Minister is painting a portrait of his country that is very similar to the sanguine image that most Americans have of the United States. He is saying, in effect, that Israel is almost identical to the United States because they are both exceptionally virtuous. The two nations have the same values and enjoy the same freedoms, which makes them natural allies. In sharp contrast, other Middle Eastern countries do not have the same values as the ones shared by Israel and the United States, nor do they enjoy the same freedoms as “we” do — their failures and deficiencies place them firmly on the other side of the fence.
Notice what makes the above argument so seductive. If Americans agree with Netanyahu’s description of Israel, they receive an immediate psychological reward — a warm, happy feeling resulting from a sense of their own nation’s moral superiority and righteousness. Netanyahu is offering his audience a deal that is too pleasurable for them to refuse: he is allowing them to admire Israel while simultaneously admiring themselves.
There are at least two unacknowledged, not to mention questionable, assumptions underneath his argument: First, countries or nations can be categorized into two non-overlapping camps (democratic/undemocratic; freedom loving/freedom hating; peaceful/violent; modern/anti-modern). As I have already suggested, this dichotomy has an inherent appeal to the American audience, partly because it builds upon the West/East dichotomy that has a long history in European and American cultures, and partly because it allows “us” to feel good about ourselves — we are led to believe that we are more virtuous, more legitimate, and more blessed in comparison to all of “them.” Second, in supporting Israel, Americans need not concern themselves with the particularities of Israeli policies, let alone the moral and legal justification for those policies. Israel, after all, is a mature and responsible nation that can make its own decisions. By favoring a nation that is so similar to their own, Americans are not supporting a foreign country; they are simply lending a helping hand to what is practically a sibling, for Israel is just like one of the American states.
I would now like to analyze certain keywords that appear in the passages quoted above, and to show how these keywords help consolidate the us/them dichotomy that forms an important premise in Netanyahu’s argument. Perhaps the most important of these is the word “peace.” One reason for its importance can be noted by doing a simple word count. In the text of Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress, the word “peace” appears no less than fifty-two times. It follows that if we do not understand what the Israeli Prime Minister means when he utters the word “peace,” we would completely miss the significance of his speech.
To find out the implicit definition of a given word, we must begin by looking at how that word is used in different contexts within a particular text. For starters, let’s examine a sentence that I have already quoted.
We [Israel and the US] stand together to advance peace.
I believe that the above sentence reveals as much about Netanyahu’s understanding of “peace” as all the remaining fifty-one instances combined. Netanyahu is suggesting that his definition of “peace” is identical with the United States’ own understanding of this word. When the Israeli Prime Minister proudly proclaims to his American audience that both nations “stand together” in their commitment to “advance peace,” he is suggesting, at the very least, that Israel and the US agree on the nature of whatever it is they are trying to advance. This tacit suggestion of a common understanding of “peace” implies that Israel has been trying to “advance peace” with its neighbors, especially the Palestinian people, in exactly the same sense in which the United States has been trying to “advance peace” throughout the world. What a scary thought!
Here is another sentence from Netanyahu’s speech that seems to confirm the above observation:
The peace with Egypt and Jordan has long served as an anchor of stability and peace in the heart of the Middle East.
Notice the close proximity between the word “stability” and the word “peace.” In Netanyahu’s mind, the concept “peace” is semantically linked with the concept “stability.” I find this linkage very unusual. If someone asks me to guess the missing word in the phrase “peace and _______,” I would respond: “justice.” Now, I confess that I may be completely wrong on this point, but I am inclined to think that most English speakers will probably give the same answer. I am assuming, of course, that in the minds of most people “justice” is the concept that is most closely linked with that of “peace,” and that this connection is probably due to the cultural influence of Biblical religion. On the contrary, modern political language assumes that the concept “peace” is most closely related to the concept “stability.” And it’s not just Netanyahu. The words “peace” and “stability” frequently appear together in the statements and speeches of US Presidents and other representatives of the US government. This is hardly insignificant, since Netanyahu believes in advancing “peace” in the same sense in which the United States has been advancing “peace.” Yet, neither in Netanyahu’s speech nor in the statements of various US administration do “peace” and “stability” mean anything close to what the majority of English speakers think these words mean.
As Noam Chomsky has pointed out in his book The Fateful Triangle, the word “stability” is a political euphemism whose actual meaning is “the maintenance of specific forms of domination and control, and easy access to resources and profits.” I suspect that something equally sinister is going on with the word “peace.”
To find out what the wizard is doing behind the curtains, we must expand our view and take into account the political situation of the speaker who is using the word “peace.” As George Orwell has said, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues . . . .” This is particularly true of language; the way we speak, the words we use, and the meanings we imply — all of these are shaped and colored by our political realities.
Now politics is a matter of distributing power among groups of people. A political structure that is significantly asymmetrical in how it divides power between two groups of people constitutes what is called a “domination system.” In a domination system, the powerful and the powerless are, by definition, the oppressors and the oppressed. Because of the intertwining of politics and language, the meaning of “peace” in a domination system depends on whether the person who utters this word is at the top of the hierarchy or at the bottom, whether the speaker is an oppressor or an oppressed.
From the viewpoint of the powerful, “peace” is that desirable state of affairs in which there is little or no resistance, opposition, or rebellion on the part of the powerless, nor is there any significant danger that such a threat might arise in the near future. On the other hand, from the viewpoint of those who are victimized by a domination system, “peace” is that desirable state of affairs that holds for them the promise of a more or less complete freedom from oppression, exploitation, and violence. Thus, whereas the powerful think of “peace” as the absence of any challenge to their quest for maximizing their narrowly defined self-interest, the powerless think of “peace” as resulting from the fulfillment of their needs for freedom, safety, dignity, and equality. To put this point more bluntly, the difference between those who define “peace” in terms of “stability” and those who define it in terms of “justice” stems from the fact that the former possess a great deal more power than the latter. In the end, whether we prefer “stability” or “justice” depends on whether or not we wish to maintain the present distribution of power. Interestingly enough, the word “justice” does not appear anywhere in the text of Netanyahu’s speech.
Despite what I would like to believe, the above interpretation is not at all original. In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), “War is Peace” is one of the three slogans inscribed on the “Ministry of Truth” (the other two being “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength”). In modern political language, Orwell is saying, the word “peace” often refers to its exact opposite, “war.” As a telling example, we may recall that the Israeli military invasion of Galilee in 1982 was called “Operation Peace for Galilee.” This phenomenon can be easily noted in the word “pacification.” On the surface, “pacification” is supposed to mean “making peaceful” or “peacemaking.” The actual meaning of “pacification,” as used in the colonial and neocolonial discourse, involves forcing a population into submission by subjecting it to organized violence; the purpose of such violence, which is often carried out on a large-scale and/or a long-term basis, is to crush rebellions and to terrorize the conquered or occupied people with the aim of showing them who’s in charge. For instance, the French military operations in North Africa from 1835 to 1903 were called “Pacification of Algeria.” The word “pacification” was frequently used to describe the US war in Vietnam.
It should now be clear why the so-called “peace process” and “peace talks” between the Israelis and the Palestinians have failed to produce any progress in resolving the conflict. The two sides cannot come to a consensus on how to achieve “peace” between them, primarily because they do not share the same understanding of “peace.” What Israel believes to be the essential requirement for “peace” is that the Palestinians promise to become docile and submissive; to the Palestinians, this Israeli condition sounds absurd because it demands them to give up what they see as the very basis for achieving “peace,” i.e., their right to resist injustice.
To show that Netanyahu’s view of “peace” is incompatible with the Palestinian view, I would like to direct the reader’s attention to the following excerpts from his speech.
But you know very well that in the Middle East, the only peace that will hold is the peace you can defend. So peace must be anchored in security. (Applause.)
“Peace must be anchored in security.” Fair enough. Note, however, that Netanyahu is referring to “security” for the Israelis only; not for the Palestinians. He goes on to assert:
But Israel under 1967 lines would be only nine miles wide. So much for strategic depth. So it’s therefore vital — absolutely vital — that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized, and it’s vital — absolutely vital — that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River. (Applause.)
To paraphrase, Israel and Palestine will be two separate states in Netanyahu’s vision, with the following caveat: Israel will “maintain a long-term military presence” in the region while Palestine will not be allowed to have a military of its own. Why this discrimination? In Netanyahu’s mind, and in the minds of the US Senators and Representatives who were his primary audience, the justification for this asymmetry is so obvious as to be self-evident. This explains why the Israeli Prime Minister did not feel any need to justify his point, and why his audience wasted no time in showing their agreement by cheering and applauding. It seems to me that the meeting of the minds between the speaker and the audience was total: Military strength is not a right that everyone enjoys, but the privilege of the responsible few. Now, it goes without saying that “we” are far more responsible than “they” can ever be; we cannot expect the other side to show the same self-restraint and calm rationality that we routinely exhibit. After all, “they” cannot be trusted with a military because they hate us for no good reason; on the contrary, “we” are perfectly trustworthy because, as already established, we happen to be pro-democracy, freedom-loving, rational Westerners — just like the Americans.
Aside from the imperial hubris and a strong contempt for the “natives,” there is a far more important reason for Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel needs “security” to defend itself against the Palestinians while the Palestinians do not need any such arrangement to defend themselves against Israel. This Israeli condition may seem unfair and arbitrary at first glance; it makes perfect sense, however, if we take into consideration the fact that Netanyahu is speaking from his exalted position at the top of a domination system.
What is Netanyahu’s implied definition of “security”? From the viewpoint of the powerful within a domination system, it is in the best interest of all parties that the system itself is protected at all costs, that it remains out of the reach of any rebellion that might challenge its legitimacy. The word “security” is therefore a political euphemism which really means “a mechanism for surveillance and organized violence whose sole mandate is to protect the asymmetry of power on which a political system rests.” In order to ensure the preservation of a domination system, it is necessary to keep the oppressed in their proper place. This requires two things: first, an apparatus for collecting information and keeping a close watch on the movements and activities, even thoughts, of potential rebels (i.e., everyone who is at the bottom of the hierarchy), and second, an apparatus that can be used to threaten the population with, and occasionally subject them to, organized violence. The scientific term for the latter, as the reader may recall, is “pacification.”
A domination system can function only as long as it is able to preserve itself; hence survival is its highest priority. As such, a domination system can allow “peace” only to the extent that its own survival is not jeopardized. A permanent asymmetry of power is therefore indispensable for maintaining such a “peace.” Once we take into account this political reality, Israel’s “absolutely vital” need to maintain a “long-term military presence” does appear as entirely justified and self-evident. Similarly, it will be suicidal for a domination system to allow the people it victimizes — the potential rebels — to have at their disposal any means of self-defense. Consequently, it is “absolutely vital” that the future Palestinian state must be “completely demilitarized.”
It is easy to conclude from the above analysis that Netanyahu’s vision, should it be implemented, will not lead to a “just peace,” but that it will definitely produce a “stable peace.”
In my previous post, I commented on Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated use of the word “friend” during his speech to the US Congress. I tried to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion in order to reveal what is really going on when he says something like “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel.” I would now like to draw upon George Orwell’s work to further illuminate the Israeli Prime Minister’s use of the word “friend.”
In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), Orwell points out how certain kinds of words are “often used in a consciously dishonest way.” He explains that “the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” As I continue to reflect on Netanyahu’s speech, it becomes apparent to me that Orwell’s insight is particularly helpful in reading that text. There are several keywords in the speech that Orwell would have recognized as “consciously dishonest” use of language, e.g., peace, democracy, terrorism, security, compromise, modernity. I intend to discuss each of these words, but for now I want to highlight that the word “friend” falls in the same Orwellian category. The Israeli Prime Minister has in his mind a very peculiar definition of “friend,” a definition that the vast majority of English speakers do not share with him, but most US Senators and Representatives do.
The common understanding of the concept “friend” necessarily involves the presence of goodwill, i.e., if a person is my friend, then, by definition, he or she desires my well-being. In other words, my friends would not want anything for me that, from their viewpoint, is likely to harm me; if they do, then they cannot be my friends. Consequently, if I was about to make a choice that, in the opinion of my friends, is bad or harmful for me, I fully expect them to do everything in their power to prevent me from making that choice. For instance, if I ask my friends for rat poison because I want to commit suicide, not only would they not comply with my request but they would also take other steps to keep me safe from myself. Similarly, if I ask my friends to lend me their handgun because I want to rob my neighbor, I will get the same reaction. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine scenarios in which they will actually fulfill my requests while still remaining my friends, i.e., if, for whatever reason, they sincerely believe that committing suicide by drinking rat poison is in my best interest, or that robbing my neighbor at gun point will enhance my well-being.
The lesson is clear. A commitment of unqualified support cannot be reconciled with the condition of goodwill towards the other that is inherent in the concept “friend.” If a person says to me that he or she will help me do anything that I choose to do, including acts that are immoral and/or criminal — acts that will harm me either immediately or in the long run — then that person cannot be my friend. In fact, it’s a good guess that such a person is my enemy.
In sharp contrast to the common understanding of “friend,” Netanyahu seems to believe that the United States is a friend of Israel if, and only if, it supports Israel in all its choices, including those that violate International Law. As evident by their cheers and applauses, the US Senators and Representatives are also operating with the same definition of “friend.”
Let’s look closely at a concrete example. During his speech to the US Congress, the Israeli Prime Minister made the following statement:
The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv. Now these areas are densely populated, but they’re geographically quite small. And under any realistic peace agreement, these areas, as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance, we’d — be incorporated into the final borders of Israel. (Applause.) . . . Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967. (Cheers, applause.) So I want to be very clear on this point. Israel will be generous on the size of a Palestinian state but will be very firm on where we put the border with it.
Notice the phrase “beyond the 1967 lines.” It’s a political euphemism that Netanyahu uses in place of the more accurate but politically inconvenient term, “occupied territories.” The purpose of such euphemisms is to avoid naming, and therefore confessing, one’s own crimes and misdeeds by giving them a neutral or pretty title, e.g., “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of “torture.” In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell has a particularly scathing passage on the menace of political euphemisms. Orwell notes:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Countless instances of politically deceptive euphemisms can be found in pro-Israel texts, and, as expected, I found many brilliant gems in Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. Thus, when the Prime Minister says “Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines,” what he is referring to are Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and in the Golan Heights. These areas (along with Gaza Strip) were conquered by the Israeli military in the June 1967 war, and are considered “occupied territories” under International Law. Even more inconveniently, an international consensus exists on the illegality of these settlements since they are in brazen violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions (1949), which include the following provision: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” (Section III, Article 49). The settlements are also illegal according to the verdict of the International Court of Justice.
In the passage quoted above, Netanyahu’s true intention cannot be more explicit, even though he tries to soften the blow by introducing several euphemisms. He uses the vague word “incorporate” since the appropriate term “annex” will sound like an illegal and indefensible act — which is precisely what he is proposing. Similarly, the phrase “other places of critical and national importance” is meant to suggest an element of rational and scrupulous decision-making, but is really a respectable sounding substitute for “any areas we like.”
Allow me to translate Netanyahu’s Orwellian statement quoted above in straightforward English: Israel is going to annex most of the occupied areas in which it has built illegal settlements since 1967, as well as any other areas that it believes to be useful or desirable. Israel has a fully justified monopoly over deciding its own borders; it will not consider anyone else’s rights, needs, or demands in doing so. The Palestinians are welcome to establish a state in the areas that will be left over after Israel is completely satisfied with its own borders.
The problem, obviously, is that the intentions expressed here are in open violation of International Law. The annexation of occupied land is prohibited according to the Hague Conventions of 1907-09 as well as the United Nations Charter. Such annexation is categorically illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Conventions (Section III, Article 47):
Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory.
There you have it. Israel has been violating the International Law at least since 1967, the same year in which the United States and Israel became each other’s best friends. On Thursday, the Israeli Prime Minister announced to the US Legislature that his country will commit even more egregious violations of the International Law, while also claiming that Israel has no better friend than the United States. Through their cheers and standing ovations, the US Senators and Representatives declared their unanimous and enthusiastic approval for Israel’s intention to further violate the International Law; and they too believe that the United States is the best friend that Israel has ever had. Neither the speaker nor his audience seemed to have recognized any irony in this whole affair–such as the fact that lawmakers are cheering for the lawbreakers.
What can we say about a friend who does nothing to stop you from committing immoral and criminal acts but actually supports you in violating the law? The very least we can say is that this is not how the vast majority of English speakers understand the word “friend.”
On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the US Congress. His performance, while not worthy of an Academy Award, does seem to deserve whatever is the topmost prize in the world of political chicanery.
Watching the speech on C-SPAN, I experienced a wide range of feelings, including (in no particular order) surprise, amusement, pity, distress, rage, disappointment, hopelessness, and exasperation. Most importantly, I felt a sense of clarity and understanding that bordered on enlightenment. I felt inspired, almost compelled, to say something meaningful in response to that speech.
Not being a political analyst, I will attempt to approach Netanyahu’s speech as I would any other piece of literature. Most people understand that poetic and religious texts do not disclose their full significance if they are taken superficially or literally; I would like to suggest that this insight is applicable to political texts as well, but for different reasons. As George Orwell taught us, political language is intended to conceal rather than reveal. When it comes to interpreting persuasive texts, such as political speeches or advertisements, a little hermeneutic of suspicion can go a long way in exposing what the text is seeking to hide. My hope in this venture is that such deconstructive activity will at least be a cathartic experience, even if it doesn’t accomplish anything else.
One more point. In his lengthy treatise titled “Rhetoric,” Aristotle had said that the art of persuasion relies on three main elements: ethos, pathos, and logos. Even a basic understanding of these elements can make us perceptive interpreters of political messages as well as commercial advertisements. Ethos deals with presenting one’s character to the audience for the purpose of establishing one’s credibility. Pathos deals with influencing the audience by appealing to their emotions. Finally, logos has to do with constructing arguments through cogent reasoning. All three elements are present in Netanyahu’s speech, though we are likely to find a greater emphasis on pathos than logos.
Let’s turn to our text.
Netanyahu began his speech by establishing himself as an old and trusted acquaintance. He spoke with the confident assurance of a man who knows that everyone in his audience is already, and whole-heartedly, on his side. The persona he adopted was meant to convey warmth and friendliness. Notice how quickly he took care of the ethos part of his speech.
Mr. Vice President, do you remember the time that we were the new kids in town? (Laughter, applause.) And I do see a lot of old friends here, and I see a lot of new friends of Israel here as well — Democrats and Republicans alike. (Applause.)
Later in his speech Netanyahu will use the word “nostalgia” and say that he “came to Washington 30 years ago as a young diplomat.” References like these are typically intended to establish one’s credentials, to show one’s inside connections, or to convey the sense that one is not really a stranger. Notice how Netanyahu places himself and the Vice President in the same category by using a typical American expression “the new kids in town.” More broadly, this use of the pronoun “we” should be appreciated as a rhetorical device to reinforce the tacit understanding between the speaker and his audience that both of them are on the same side of the fence. As Netanyahu will later elaborate, “our side” has certain unique characteristics that distinguish it sharply from “their side.”
Netanyahu’s reference to “Democrats and Republicans alike” is quite significant. As he will suggest once again in his speech, Democrats and Republicans hardly ever agree on anything; yet, these bitter ideological and political rivals are completely united in being “friends of Israel.” Throughout the speech, he will assume and emphasize a connection between certain values (democracy, freedom, and peace) and a specific policy (support for Israel) that transcends petty divisions. It is this connection that will eventually emerge as the defining feature of “our side.”
Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel. (Applause.)
In the first four sentences, Netanyahu has already used the word “friend” four times. This is obviously one of the keywords in our text, since the speaker uses it so often. The word “friend” appears a total of nine times in Tuesday’s speech; it is meant to evoke feelings of mutual goodwill between the speaker and the audience, but without giving any impression of blatant manipulation.
Notice that Netanyahu prefers the word “friend” (which has a warm glow of affection, informality, and congeniality) over words that may reveal the economic and political motives behind the US-Israel relationship: words like patron and client, business partners, or strategic allies. Of course, Netanyahu will be somewhat reluctant to use language that actually corresponds with reality: words like abettor, accessory, accomplice, co-conspirator, partner in crime, etc.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the following four denotations for the word “friend”: (a) one attached to another by affection or esteem: acquaintance; (b) one that is not hostile: one that is of the same nation, party, or group; (c) one that favors or support something; and (d) a favored champion. The first definition (a) is the most widely understood meaning of the word, but it applies to the relationship between two individuals, rather than two nations. Regarding the second meaning (b), while the United States is not hostile to Israel, most other nations of the world can also legitimately claim that status. This leaves us with the last two meanings, (c) and (d). We may conclude, then, that Netanyahu is employing “friend” in the sense of a supporter and a champion.
Consider now the connotations of the word “friend,” with particular reference to its third and fourth meanings. When we hear or see the word “friends” — as in “Friends of the Chicago Public Library” or “Friends of the Dolphins” — we assume that the persons being referred to are sincerely championing a policy or supporting a cause, on the basis of nothing but their own values. We make this assumption mainly because of the subconscious influence coming from the positive connotations surrounding the word “friend.” In a rhetorical situation where the word “friend” is repeatedly mentioned, these positive feelings may be expected to keep at bay any doubts or suspicions that we may otherwise entertain. In effect, our attention is diverted away from any consideration of ulterior or mundane motives, vested interests, or less-than-noble aims. We do not think that the support in question may have been given in exchange for money, privileges, and other advantages, nor do we think that deception, coercion, and threats, either explicit or implicit, may have encouraged certain persons to act in a “friendly” manner.
Referring back to Aristotle, it is easy to notice that Netanyahu’s repeated use of the word “friend” falls in the category of pathos. This can be seen rather clearly in the sentence quoted above: “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no above better friend than Israel.” Notice that this sentence is completely free of any rational argument; no evidence is needed, and none is given. What purpose does this sentence fulfill? It doesn’t convey any information; it doesn’t offer any promises; it doesn’t ask the audience to do anything. It is uttered, rather, for its sentimental value. The sentence is poetic because of its symmetrical construction, and this is precisely what makes its emotional appeal so effective. It sets the mood and defines the context in the speaker’s favor. It’s classic pathos.
If we remain conscious of how the connotations of certain words and the internal rhythms of certain sentences influence our feelings, then we may be able to see much more in a political message than merely its shiny surface. As a typical politician, Netanyahu uses the word “friend” in order to obscure, rather than reveal, the true nature of the relationship in question. He uses this word to portray the self-serving relationship between a few key players in the Israeli and American centers of power as if it were a sincere and affectionate relationship between the ordinary people of these countries. Perhaps most importantly, this rhetorical strategy serves to mask the tremendous diversity of American and Israeli opinions by projecting an illusion of consensus and unanimity.
According to the US Code (Title 5, Section 6103) the fourth Thursday in November is to be celebrated as a national holiday, otherwise known as “Thanksgiving Day.” The exact origin of this tradition is a matter of some debate, though we know that it was President Abraham Lincoln who first gave it official recognition in 1863. The exact date of the celebration has moved around a bit, until it was fixed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941.
Like its date, the meaning of Thanksgiving has also underwent some changes. At a time when the majority of American population was directly involved with farming, Thanksgiving meant a community-wide celebration of the fall harvest. In the technicalized industrial society of today, the holiday’s agrarian roots are difficult to keep in view. With the rise of industrialization, people are much less attached to ancestral lands and communities are much less stable due to increased mobility; as a result, the harvest festival of a bygone era is now experienced in the travails of long-distance travel, traffic jams on highways, long lines at the airports, and awkward reunions among estranged relatives. Despite the troubles, however, it is impossible to argue against the idea of taking time off from work in order to enjoy the company of friends and family, while also being extra grateful for our many undeserved blessings.
According to the elementary school legend, the site of the “original” Thanksgiving was Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts and the year was 1621. The Wampanoag Native Americans helped the recently arrived European settlers (the “pilgrims”), who had suffered several deaths during the previous winter, to cultivate the land and catch the fish, thereby saving them from starvation and death. The bountiful harvest was jointly celebrated by the two Peoples in a three-day feast.
The historical credentials of this story are strong, but its archetypal status as a defining moment for inter-cultural cooperation is rather flimsy. No direct link exists between the contemporary holiday of Thanksgiving and the joint European-Indigenous feast of 1621. On the other hand, there is evidence that points to the contrary. Later in the same century, at least one group of European settlers thought that a day should be reserved for thanking the Heavenly Father for, among other things, their victories against the natives. On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, MA, discussed the best way to express their gratitude for God who had allowed their community to become securely established. The council decided to make June 29 as the day of thanksgiving, making the following proclamation:
The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land . . . reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed . . . .
Today, the United States is thriving as an amazingly diverse, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic society. Alongside those of European descent, there are substantial minorities of people from virtually every corner of the world. For all practical purposes, “Thanksgiving” today is an American holiday that is widely celebrated by a large number of people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, and culture of origin. Even new immigrants feel quite happy to be part of this long-standing American tradition. Indeed, who could be so silly as to reject such good things as family, friends, feasting, fowl, and festivities?
And yet, as Americans celebrate another “Thanksgiving Day,” it is clear who won’t be invited to the dinner table, both literally and metaphorically.
The endless repetition of the Plymouth narrative tends to obscure a few pieces of relevant information. For instance, European contact with Native Americans did not begin in 1620, it began in 1492. Before Massachusetts there was Hispaniola, and before Mayflower there was Santa Maria. The heart-warming story of a joint feast enjoyed together by natives and settlers may be true, but it is overshadowed by the harsh and brutal truth of what had preceded and followed their “happy meal.” The first inhabitants of this land have suffered five hundred years of violence and dispossession at the hands of European settlers; ever since Columbus, their condition has been marked by massacres, enslavements, Old World diseases, and the organized thefts of gold, silver, and sacred lands at an unprecedented scale. Their cultures, languages, and religions have all but disappeared, and their population figure has dwindled to a tiny fraction of what it was on the fateful eve of Columbus’ arrival.
This can hardly be a matter of celebration or gratitude; if anything, this is an occasion for mourning and lamentation, apology and repentance, public confession and reconciliation.
The Plymouth story may be fun to draw, color, and perform if you are an innocent child. On the other hand, continuing to believe as an adult that this is what we celebrate on Thanksgiving Day is more than a little ironic.
By now everyone has heard about Israeli military response to the Freedom Flotilla that was brining humanitarian aid to the besieged people of Gaza. While the Israeli actions are being condemned all over the world, let’s look closely, and somewhat objectively, at the Israeli government’s official position. In doing so, I am interested in finding out not what is false in the official position, which is easy enough to detect, but what is right in it. I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to take a consistently wrong position, to lie all the time. Even in the worst forms of falsehood, there is usually a kernel of truth somewhere, and it is always instructive to locate and examine that kernel of truth. The following quotes are from the online version of The Jerusalem Post (June 1, 2010).
Israeli Defense Minister believes that the responsibility for the deaths does not fall on the Israeli Defense Forces.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a press conference on Monday that while he was sorry for lives lost, the organizers of the Gaza-bound protest flotilla were solely responsible for the outcome of the fatal IDF raid earlier in the day.
An Israeli military chief agrees.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said Monday that the violence aboard the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships of the Gaza-bound protest flotilla, was instigated by those aboard the ships and that soldiers who opened fire were defending themselves. Ashkenazi noted that the Mavi Marmara, the only ship on which violence took place, was different than the other five ships of the flotilla. He said that five ships carried humanitarians and peace activists but the Mavi Marmara was sponsored by the extremist organization the IHH and those aboard acted in “extreme violence.”
Another military leader makes the same point.
Israeli Navy commander Vice-Admiral Eliezer Marom said Monday that IDF soldiers that raided Mavi Marmara acted with “perseverance and bravery.” Marom said that the soldiers lives were in danger and that they fired their weapons in self defense. He added that given the situation, many more than ten people could have been killed if the soldiers had not acted with the proper sensitivity.
The basic position that emerges from all these statements is that Israeli actions were justified because they were based on the principle of “self-defense.” Each of the above quotes makes exactly the same point, though each emphasizes a slightly different aspect of the situation or uses a slightly different set of words. I am inclined to think that Israeli government’s spokespeople are, in fact, fully convinced that the deaths and injuries were justified in view of the fact that, like any other nation, Israel has a right to defend herself. I am also inclined to think that this belief is sincerely held, with no intention of deceiving or misleading anyone. As such, it can’t be a lie; a particular false statement is a lie only when the speaker is consciously aware of its falsehood. Since the spokespeople for the Israeli government actually believe that their government and its military acted only out of self-defense, their official position must be seen as an honest expression of truth–as they see it.
Incidentally, this is not a new position. If we go by official positions, it is clear that at no point in her history did Israel ever act out of malevolent or aggressive motives. The state of Israel was even created in defense of the Jewish people who were facing the threat of annihilation in much of Europe. Official positions, it seems, are self-serving by definition. Hence, whenever Israel used deadly force, it did so only because others left her with no other choice. And because self-defense is an inalienable right of every community, Israel cannot be blamed, charged with a crime, or made to pay reparations for any harm that may come about as a result of any military action it may take. In the present case as well as in all previous cases, Israel stands innocent according to its own official position. Unlike her enemies, Israel never resorts to the use of force except in self-defense. This seems to be the default position which is held a priori by the spokespeople for the Israeli government. As such, it constitutes a belief that cannot be challenged by facts, but facts have to conform themselves to this belief.
The appeal to self-defense is natural and expected; this is partly because the charter of the United Nations recognizes self-defense as the only legitimate reason for using deadly force without the approval of the Security Council. Article 51 of the charter recognizes the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” in case of “an armed attack.” This means that regardless of the actual motives behind an act of organized violence, the accused party has no recourse but to claim self-defense. Any other official position would constitute a public relations disaster. The only alternative to claiming self-defense, of course, is to admit one’s wrongdoing and guilt–but this is not a real option in politics. The idea of self-defense, however, cuts both ways. In any given conflict, both sides can and do claim that they were acting in nothing but self-defense. Since truth in these matters is rarely investigated and/or established in an impartial manner, it’s usually the side with greater public relations skills whose version enters into conventional wisdom. In the process, the concept of self-defense is made to stretch so far and in so many directions that it becomes practically unrecognizable. When it is abused like this, the very idea of self-defense loses its meaning and usefulness, having become one more tool in the hands of the powerful.
But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find another level of truth hidden underneath the official position. What does this emphasis on “self-defense” say about the community that constantly appeals to it? First, that community is obviously very concerned about maintaining the integrity of the “self,” so concerned, in fact, that it wants to live even at the cost of denying the right of life to “others.” The desire for self-preservation and survival is one of the most fundamental of biological instincts; it becomes problematic, however, whenever a “self” decides that it cannot guarantee its own survival except by reducing, restricting, harming, enslaving, or eliminating the “others.” The basic fear that animates such a strategy is the result of a scarcity mentality, the idea that there is “not enough” for everyone to enjoy. In this scenario, the “self” is only able to remember its own needs and is unable to see the needs of the “others.” In fact, it creates an artificial separation between “us” and “them,” forgetting that humankind is an interdependent ecology in which everyone’s needs ought to be the concern of everyone else. In the case of Israel, this creates the further illusion that Jewish and Palestinian needs are mutually exclusive.
Second, that community obviously feels very unsafe and insecure, so much so that it can even perceive unarmed ships in international waters as representing a mortal threat. This is a tricky issue, because there may be a good reason to feel concerned about one’s safety. The line between reality and fantasy, however, is easy to cross. One can inflate a small possibility of harm into an enormous threat simply by focusing one’s attention on it for a very long period. Paranoia is a psychological phenomenon, but it can have consequences in the objective world as well. If I see everyone as my enemy, I would act suspiciously towards them; I would even launch pre-emptive attacks just to make sure that no one is capable of causing me any harm. By acting as if everyone is my enemy, I am likely to turn potential friends into adversaries and mere rivals into mortal enemies. I would also miss–or deliberately reject–all possibilities and offers of reconciliation that may come my way. Furthermore, it is relatively easy to start believing in one’s own propaganda or diplomatic rhetoric, so much so that I may start seeing myself as a little kid surrounded by giant bullies, forgetting the uncomfortable reality that I am the only bully in the neighborhood.
Third, that community seems to have a relatively narrow understanding of the concept of “self.” The act of defining a “self” necessarily involves drawing a conceptual boundary that excludes a variable number of persons. Every time I draw such a boundary, I circumscribe a “self” in one way or another–a family, a tribe, a race, a nation–while also excluding everyone else. A “self” can be construed very narrowly, such as a tribe or race, or very broadly, such as the entire humanity, the entire biosphere, or the entire cosmos. Depending on how narrowly or broadly I define the “self,” my actions would result in different levels of harm to the excluded “others” every time I engage in “self-defense.” As my viewpoint matures, I may be able to increasingly extend my conceptual boundary of “self” and, accordingly, cause the zone of exclusion to shrink. If I reach a very high level of maturity, I may finally see everyone as simultaneously distinct as well as constituting a single and uninterrupted “self,” with no one left to be designated as the “other.” Short of that, I would be willing to sacrifice any and all “others” for the sake of preserving and protecting the “self.” The narrower my understanding of “us,” the wider will be the zone of “them” who can potentially become dispensable.
Continue digging, and you’ll discover a still deeper truth. The peculiar nature of the Israeli political and military establishment–including the brutal repression of Palestinians–constitutes a very interesting case of what is called a Domination System. When the Israeli spokespeople say that their government and its military has only acted in self-defense, they reveal a far greater truth than they consciously recognize. To appreciate that truth, all we need to do is understand the true meaning of “self” in their usage of “self-defense.” What is this “self” whose defense requires so much violence? It’s definitely not the Jewish people; it’s not even the state of Israel. The “self” in question is none other than the Domination System and its structural violence.
By definition, a Domination System hurts everyone; in this case, the victims include both Israelis and Palestinians. Even when it appears that one side has the upper hand, a Domination System never allows anyone to benefit in the long run. It only produces losers; there are no winners in this game. Furthermore, a Domination System is maintained only by large-scale violence or threat of violence. It also tends to elicit violent reactions from its victims, which the Domination System then seeks to suppress with even more violence; it does so, obviously, to defend itself.
What kind of threat did the Freedom Flottila represented? It was unarmed and carrying humanitarian aid. As such, it did not represent a threat to anyone’s life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. The self-defense allowed by the UN charter did not apply in this case, since there was no risk of “an armed attack.” However, it is obvious that the ships carrying humanitarian aid did represent a threat to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza. In other words, the Freedom Flottila represented a threat to the Domination System that maintains the brutal and unjust blockade. The military assault on these ships, then, could not have been aimed at defending the Israeli people, or even the sovereignty of Israel; it could only have been aimed at defending the Domination System that is punishing the people of Gaza for electing the “wrong” political party several years ago. There was nothing surprising here; that’s exactly how Domination Systems defend themselves.
Read the statements quoted above once again, and look for the specific features of a Domination System. Recall, for instance, that a Domination System instills the sense that people lack the freedom to choose and are therefore not responsible for their actions. In patriarchy, which is a form of Domination System, a man would say that he shouldn’t be held responsible for beating his wife, since “she made me do it.” This is also a frequent defense put forward by rapists, i.e., “she was asking for it.” Such a refusal to take responsibility is an inherent part of any Domination System. In the case of the assault on the Freedom Flotilla, it has been claimed that the heavily armed and combat-ready Israeli commandos who invaded the ship had no choice but to open fire–they were forced to do all these killings against their will because the unarmed aid workers and peace activists were using “extreme violence” against these helpless soldiers. The responsibility for the deaths and injuries falls on those who organized this initiative for delivering humanitarian aid; the soldiers, on the other hand, only acted with “proper sensitivity.”
The rhetoric itself reveals that what is being defended here is not a community of human beings; rather, it is an impersonal structure of oppression and violence, a Domination System.
A brand new controversy is blazing on the “Islam versus West” front. Many people on both sides are busily throwing fuel into the fire, trying to keep the flames of this sizzling dispute going as high and as long as possible. If you have not been keeping up with this story, check out Wikipedia’s entry here. Details are uncertain and identifying the characters is irrelevant. The phenomenon, however, is real enough to be observable.
Given this background, I would like to explore the following questions: Why is it that some individuals can find nothing better to do than draw caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)? Why is it that some Muslims can find nothing better to do than get the world’s attention focused upon what they consider blasphemy?
I would also like to examine some related issues: Why would some people deliberately act in ways that they know would trigger unpleasant reactions in others? Why would some people react in unpleasant ways when they know that these reactions are precisely what their tormentors are trying to elicit?
And while we are at it, let’s also figure out why Muslims have no sense of humor and what makes them so easily offended by harmless jokes. What’s the big deal, anyway, with making light-hearted fun of some guy who lived fourteen hundred years ago? In a time when every community’s holy people have been repeatedly depicted in a variety of ways, why should Muslims remain exempt?
Or, alternatively, why is it that the oppressive and hypocritical West is trying to destroy Islam by desecrating what is most dear to Muslims?
Since these are all why questions dealing with the esoteric subject of intents and motives, I must reveal in advance my view of human nature. Let’s start with three working assumptions: first, human motivations are ultimately rooted in universal human needs; second, there is potentially an indefinite number of ways in which human beings can try to fulfill their needs; and third, some strategies for meeting human needs are more effective than others, while several may be entirely useless or even counterproductive.
Leaving the task of unpacking these assumptions for another day, I will now proceed with the topic at hand.
Those who initiated and organized the campaign, and those who enthusiastically contributed their drawings, were obviously trying to meet one or more of their needs, but which ones? Perhaps they were trying to meet their need for artistic expression. This need, however, could have been met much more satisfactorily through any of the virtually infinite number of other subject matters, several of which may have been more suitable for their artistic talents. So why did they choose this particular subject, knowing perfectly well that it will trigger unpleasant reactions?
Perhaps they were trying to meet their need for making a positive contribution; if so, they may have believed that Muslims were too uptight about pictorial representations of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and so they decided to break the taboo once and for all in order to get these over-stressed Muslims to chill out. The strategy they used, however, did not help them achieve their purpose. Instead of chilling out, a large number of Muslims reacted to this public breaking of the taboo by turning even more hostile–more suspicious, angry, cynical.
Or perhaps the campaign really was a protest against the tendency of certain Muslims to issue death threats and/or carry out violence against those who depict their Prophet in ways that they would judge to be less than appropriate. If so, then perhaps these individuals were genuinely feeling unsafe and insecure, in which case they were only trying to fulfill their needs for safety and security. Their strategy, then, was based on the idea that the threat of extremist violence could be eliminated by raising the number of possible targets to a ridiculous height.
At least in theory, the idea seems quite risky to me. It is true that if millions of people were to participate in the campaign, Muslim extremists cannot possibly threaten or kill all of them (assuming, of course, that all Muslims are not extremists). And yet, the possibility remains that these extremists will threaten or kill at least some of these “artists,” or–if they were to feel sufficiently irritated–perhaps a great many of them. A strategy like this, I suspect, would hardly bring safety and security to those seeking freedom of artistic expression; quite the opposite.
But there is one more possibility. Perhaps these individuals were suffering from some kind of intolerable pain, and the unconscious purpose of their campaign was to overcome their own pain by making sure that they would seriously hurt other people. The need to reduce or overcome one’s suffering is genuine enough, but the futility of this strategy is also equally obvious. Hurting others does not diminish one’s own pain but only makes it many times worse; it also escalates and accelerates the cycle of mutual hurting.
As of today, I am inclined to believe that the last explanation is closest to the truth. Initially some individuals may have been motivated by a passionate desire to defend the First Amendment rights, but they obviously lost control when this semi-serious and half-baked suggestion caught the attention and ignited the imagination of certain reckless characters. The phenomenon then took a life of its own, as so often happens in the volatile realm of cyberspace. It then became a world-wide channel that was used by an increasing number of individuals to express their respective sufferings; unfortunately, most of them expressed their pain in the most unhealthy manner possible, i.e., by deliberately hurting “others.”
And the Muslim reaction? While there have been a few sane voices here and there, the most strident ones dominated the airwaves . . . reinforcing the stereotype of the “Muslim Mind” as irrational, medieval, fanatic, ready to murder at the slightest provocation.
Like the cartooning campaign itself, the Muslim reaction is most likely a tragic expression of pain. Taken in isolation, the extent and intensity of the Muslim rage may appear to be out of proportion to the supposed insult. What is rarely appreciated in the United States, however, is that sarcasms and other forms of ironic humor that are deliberately designed to humiliate and hurt Muslims on account of their well-known religious sensibilities are by no means a laughing matter, for they add insult to injury. The insult may be slight, but the fact that it happens on top of a long series of injuries makes it a highly sensitive and potentially explosive matter.
There is widespread grief among Muslims that remains unrecognized in the Western world, grief that has been caused by the experience of political subjugation at the hands of European colonialism–not only political subjugation but also social disintegration, economic deprivation, cultural collapse, institutional destruction, and intellectual mutilation. In the postcolonial period, the memory of this violence and the resulting sense of undeserved loss still lingers in the Muslim psyche; the pain of this wound is frequently exacerbated by neocolonialism’s thinly disguised attempts to continue the exploitation initiated by classical colonialism.
Since the end of the Second World War, and even more so after the end of the Cold War, the United States has been rising not only as a self-proclaimed benevolent leader but also as the inheritor of all the darkness perpetrated by the former European empires. In the background of the US hegemony in world politics, trade, and culture–most of which is neither earned by fair means nor employed for just causes–a demeaning series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) could hardly have been received as a harmless joke.
A single straw does not break the camel’s back. It is a single straw added on top of an intolerable burden that cracks its spine.
For those unfamiliar with the history of European violence in the Old World, perhaps a reference to the history of the New World would be helpful. Consider this: Why is it that many older Hollywood movies about Cowboys and Indians are now considered offensive? The nature of their offensiveness cannot be understood merely by watching these movies. To appreciate why they are so objectionable, we must watch these movies in relation to the history of the destruction of American Indians at the hands of European invaders and settlers. The films in question are not repulsive in themselves; they are repulsive because they add insult to injury. Had there been no injury in the first place, these movies would have offended no one.
Let us look more closely at the Muslim reaction. Our angry reaction to the perceived desecration of the image of our beloved Prophet may be understandable, but did it constitute an effective strategy?
I am inclined to believe that those who were angrily protesting in Muslim countries across the globe were suffering from intolerable pain, and, as such, they were trying to reduce or overcome their suffering through these protests. Questions still remain. What was the nature of their pain? What kind of strategies did they use to meet their needs?
Perhaps they were feeling powerless to control their own destiny, and decided that this was as good an issue as any to experience some empowerment. They chose a poor strategy, if this was indeed their goal, for it was one that disrupted normal life and business, distracted them from more immediate and practical problems, and allowed their leaders to gain political advantage by making a public display of piety.
Or perhaps they were feeling unhappy because their need for fairness was not being met. They may have thought it was unfair that the Western ideal of free speech was frequently used in a selective manner–that it was invoked to protect all varieties of speech that may be hurtful to Muslims but was never invoked in defense of their own right to freely express their viewpoint. Whether or not this strategy of public uproar and angry protest would help them achieve their goal of establishing fairness remains to be seen, though this is unlikely to happen. The unfairness in question has roots in the massive asymmetry of power and economic advantage that defines the present global reality–a reality that does not respond to sporadic and explosive displays of resentment. If anything, such displays of resentment only accentuates a win/lose mentality and, as a result, tends to elicit identical reactions from the “other” side; just as violence breeds violence, resentment only produces more resentment.
Or perhaps they were not trying to change anything; perhaps they were feeling upset at their relative weakness and disadvantage, and were only trying to vent some of their anger so that they could feel better. This, again, was an ineffective strategy, for anger does not dissipate by its uncontrolled expression, nor does such an expression help remove the underlying causes of this unpleasant feeling. These demonstrations only increased the total amount of anger, frustration, and hate in the atmosphere of the planet.
It seems that neither side was able to get any degree of analgesic relief from this entire sordid affair. Part of the reason was a lack of willingness, or ability, to grasp the deeper issue.
As the famous historian of religion Mircea Eliade has taught us, the reality of the “Sacred” must be taken into account if we are to appreciate the nature and intensity of religious sentiments. The ability to experience the Sacred–as distinct from the mundane, the ordinary, and the profane–is the very essence of human religiosity. The Sacred, while mysteriously hidden and beyond human reach, can nevertheless manifest itself in any part of the experienced reality. A place, a time, a person, a book . . . virtually anything can be a locus for the manifestation of the Sacred. For example, Mt. Sinai and the Temple Mount are sacred places for the Jewish people and Easter is a sacred time for Christians. Eliade argued that the “modern man” (by which he meant the secular viewpoint of Western modernity) has become incapable of experiencing the Sacred; this is a new and unfortunate development in human history, for the entire period of human existence prior to the advent of modernity shows unmistakable evidence that all human cultures everywhere did recognize the Sacred as such. The everyday lives of those who recognize the reality of the Sacred necessarily revolve around specific manifestations of the Sacred, also known as “hierophanies.” And yet, this profound truth makes little sense to the “modern man.” From a modern, secular viewpoint, the Temple Mount is no different from any other piece of real estate, Mt. Sinai is no different from any other hill in the desert, and Good Friday is no different from any other day of the year. According to Eliade, the “modern man” is tragically incapable of appreciating, let alone personally experiencing, the power and glory of a particular hierophany. This ability, of course, is natural and native to the “religious man.”
Two of the most important manifestations of the Sacred for Muslims are (1) the Islamic Scripture, or the Holy Qur’an; and (2) the Arabian prophet named Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). When we approach either the Qur’an or the Prophet, we ought to remind ourselves that we are approaching a glorious hierophany that has had a tremendous impact on the course of human history. We ought to exercise supreme caution and extraordinary care as we move closer to these manifestations of the Sacred. For Muslims, it is obvious that the holiness, power, and significance of this particular book and this particular person can never be matched by anything else in the entire cosmos. For non-Muslims, if they hope to understand and appreciate the faith of world’s 1.5 billion people, it is highly advisable to take the Muslim perspective with utmost seriousness and respect, even if–or, rather, especially if–it makes little or no sense to them. They may take the Muslim perspective seriously, not because there is any legal or moral requirement that Muslims must remain exempt from offensive humor, for there is none, but because they may want to develop real and authentic connections with the adherents of a monotheistic tradition constituting no less than one-fifth of humanity.
As for Muslims, what would be our best strategy in the face of deliberate attempts at the desecration of what we hold most sacred?
First, we must win the inner struggle before we can carry out any outer struggle successfully. More specifically, we must win back our inner freedom, so that, whenever we are provoked or attacked, we do not react automatically in pre-conditioned ways but are actually able to choose our response. Being offended, for instance, is not an event but a choice. If we develop inner freedom, we may choose not to be offended.
Second, we must establish channels of communication with a wide range of other communities with whom we share this planet. More specifically, we must have ongoing exchange of ideas with open-minded individuals and organizations in the Western world, so that, whenever a moment of crisis occurs, we do not have to take to the streets but are able to get our point across in a more civil manner.
Third, we must do everything possible to get over the win/lose mentality. More specifically, we must recognize that all human beings have the same needs as we do, and that understanding the viewpoints of “others” is at least as important as getting them to understand ours.
Fourth, we must communicate our grievances in a manner that has the greatest possibility of resonating with “others.” Instead of demanding special treatment or exemptions, we must defend the right of all religious communities to be free from insulting and humiliating speech. In this respect, it is obvious that we have to clean up our own house first.
Fifth, we must learn to disregard the behavior of immature individuals; so that, instead of arguing with the ignorant and focusing on their worst deeds, we may choose to direct our attentions elsewhere, towards more virtuous and beautiful pursuits. Controversies like these thrive on public attention; Muslims can choose to withhold their attention from unpleasant things, thereby allowing them to wither away into oblivion. As the Qur’an teaches, the best response to people who act in childish and provocative ways is to simply peace out:
وَإِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ الْجَاهِلُونَ قَالُوا سَلَامًا
My final thought on this subject is as follows.
Muslims should remember that cartoons and caricatures are nothing more than attempts at representing some aspect of reality. Representations do not perfectly mirror particular aspects of objective reality as much as they reveal the inner lives of the individuals who produce the representations. Artists can only show us what they themselves are able to see; and, as is well-known, we do not see things as they really are but we see things–to a very large extent–as we are. This means that disrespectful portrayals of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) convey very little about his real personality or his actual teachings; they do say a lot about the sad inner lives of the “artists” who draw such portrayals.
While this understanding may give us some consolation, it can also open the doors for a grim and critical analysis of our own lives and deeds. All that some immature individuals can accomplish is produce a few transient and ultimately inconsequential images; in the larger scheme of things these images will count for nothing substantial. Muslims, on the other hand, are in a much more serious predicament simply by virtue of claiming adherence and loyalty to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Through our actions and inactions, it is we who most powerfully represent the Prophet to the judgment of history. We are his heirs and the self-appointed defenders of his honor; as such, our lives and deeds are the only substantial clues that the world is going to use for making judgments on the Prophet’s personality and teachings. The world has every right to look at our characters and behaviors, and wonder as to what kind of seed would have produced such fruits? We are–for the most part–representing our Prophet in ways that are less than honorific; unlike the creators of disrespectful cartoons, however, we do so while claiming to be his most loyal followers.
We have seen the culprit, and it is us.
In his Oslo speech delivered after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the US President Barak Obama emphasized the need for warring nations–especially the United States of America–to follow the rules of war. These rules, sometimes collectively referred to as jus in bello, deal with the limits of morally acceptable conduct between belligerent parties during periods of armed hostility. In the contemporary context, nations are bound by specific rules governing the humanitarian treatment of war victims; these rules are found in the four Geneva Conventions (1864; 1906:1929; 1949) and the three additional protocols (1977; 1977; 2005), as well as the two Hague Conventions (1899; 1907) and other internationally recognized documents. President Obama was referring to these very rules in his Oslo speech. In emphasizing this point, however, the President also managed to make three additional claims that deserve closer scrutiny. Here is what he said:
Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.
At this point in the speech, Obama had already established to his own satisfaction that the use of violent force is sometimes acceptable, even morally imperative. Leaving aside that discussion for another day, let us focus here on the question of the rules that govern wartime conduct.
Obama acknowledges that there are, indeed, “certain rules of conduct” that govern the behavior of warring nations; he then goes on to contend that the United States has “a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves” to those rules. This wording says a great deal about Obama’s ethical reasoning . . . perhaps more than he wants to reveal. Notice the word “interest.” Obama is saying that the United States should follow the rules of war because it is in our “interest” to do so. This may have been an appropriate argument in front of the US Congress, but it was out of place at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Given the international nature of that forum, Obama’s assertion of “our interest” appears both rude and imperialistic. But perhaps that was exactly what he wanted to convey, and he did so in a manner that was considerably more pleasant, sophisticated, and palatable to his audience in Oslo than the clumsy threats characteristic of the previous occupant of the White House.
In addition to the word “interest,” Obama’s use of the phrase “binding ourselves” is also significant. It implies that any constraint on our (i.e., United States’) wartime behavior can only be the result of our own voluntary decision, rather than the result of international pressure, criticism, or judgment. Read this statement in the context of the US refusal to join the International Criminal Court. We are, effectively, our own judge . . . and we shall always find ourselves “not guilty.”
Obama’s message to the international community was sweet and clear: Don’t think that we are agreeing to follow the rules of war because we owe you anything, or that you have any influence on our policies and decisions, or that we are recognizing any standard on which you can hold us accountable that is higher than our own self-defined “interest.”
There is, of course, a place for “interest” in any ethical reasoning, but it would be a highly volatile, not to mention dangerous, foundation for the moral commitments of world’s most powerful nation. After all, anything can be justified in the name of “our interest.” What happens to the Geneva or the Hague Conventions when someone determines that it is no longer in our “interest” to follow them? The answer seems obvious. These conventions would meet the same fate as that of the countless treaties that the White settlers had signed with Native Americans. As a nation with a Manifest Destiny, we lost interest in those pieces of paper.
Obama’s use of the word “interest” is deliberate. To be fair, it would be wrong to target the President as if he were a monster, an aberration in a nation of saints. The mindset behind the sacred idea of “our interest” represents the general sense of entitlement that many Americans hold as one of the basic tenets of our civil religion. Obviously, all nations are expected to keep their own “interest” at the forefront of decision-making; what makes the United States stands out in the international community is that we, literally, stand far above the laws that lesser countries must abide by. We can hold them responsible for not following the rules and even punish them at will, but they are in no position to hold us accountable in the same way. Even the vast majority of the nations of the world, acting together, cannot make us agree to what they belive is the right thing to do, so long as we determine that it is not in “our interest.” The history of our use of the veto in the United Nations Security Council is a case in point. We are supremely able to defend “our interest” in a manner that no one else can, which is a good definition of a “superpower.”
The trouble with this state of affairs is that we routinely defend and promote “our interest” in ways that destroy the chances of other nations to do the same with their “interests.” More recently, we have been safeguarding “our interests” even at the expense of the planet. We would rather hold on to “our interests” than ensure that the earth survives as a habitable place for humans and other living beings. It’s like we are standing with loaded guns in our hands and preventing anyone from trespassing our luxury suite . . . when that luxury suite happens to be located on a sinking Titanic.
It is strange that Obama linked the idea of “interest” with the adjective “moral.” What, exactly, is the “moral interest” of a nation? Who is the moral voice of a nation? More importantly, what makes the state the sole interpreter and custodian of a nation’s “moral interest”? The idea of our “strategic interest,” on the other hand, makes somewhat better sense, being an abstraction that usually goes by the name “national interest” and seems to be almost worshipped as the highest form of good. We are willing to sacrifice any moral standard, any ethical value, any commitment, any promise, and any treaty if we decide that holding on to it would hurt our “national interest.” On the other hand, virtually any policy measure, however unpopular inside or outside the country, can be adopted if we decide that it will promote our “national interest.” We are still refusing to sign or ratify such international agreements as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Criminal Court, the Convention against Enforced Disappearance, the Mines Ban Treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty . . . for one reason or another, all these seem to threaten our “national interest.” Compared to these, however, our behavior at the recent UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen broke all records of imperial hubris. Apparently, we follow the rules on two conditions: first, we should be making the rules, and, second, the rules must serve “our interest.” Too bad Obama did not say this in Oslo . . . but then again he didn’t need to.
Moving on to Obama’s second claim, that “we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules.” By the phrase “vicious adversary” the President is presumably referring to the so-called “terrorists” against whom the United States has been waging war at least since 9/11. There are, obviously, individuals and groups that are determined to harm American lives, and perhaps it is even fair to call them “vicious.” It is also obvious that such individuals and groups must be prevented from carrying out their murderous intentions. The problem, however, is located in Obama’s claim that this “vicious adversary” does not abide by any rules. In fact, Obama argues that this is precisely what makes us different from our enemies. What distinguishes us from them is simply that we abide by the rules of war and they do not.
What, exactly, are these “rules” that we obey but they do not? Obama did not elaborate on this subject, but one would guess from the rest of his speech that he was referring to the internationally accepted rules of wartime conduct as found in the major agreements and treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions. The “terrorists” that Obama is talking about, however, are entities that function either below or above the level of nation-states. These entities have never signed the Geneva Conventions nor have they requested to join the United Nations as sovereign states. On what grounds do we expect them to abide by our rules?
There is, on the other hand, a sense in which the “terrorists” do, in fact, abide by the same rules as we do. At the core of the International Humanitarian Law is the requirement to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and to refrain from attacking or harming civilians. Conventional wisdom says that violation of this core principle is what constitutes “terrorism.” The problem, of course, is that even the most powerful and sophisticated militaries in the world have serious difficulty following this principle.
The last sentence was an understatement.
In referring to the “rules,” Obama may have in mind some fundamental difference between how terrorists operate and how the military of a modern nation-state operates. As I tried to show in a previous series of postings (Religion and Organized Violence), no such difference actually exists. There are some trivial contrasts, of course, such as the soldier wears a uniform while the terrorist wears civilian clothing, or that a soldier drops or throws a bomb while a terrorist plants a bomb. On the other hand, we can identify a number of crucial points on which these two sides are very much in agreement. The terrorist and the soldier are identical in their adherence to the following — usually unacknowledged — assumptions:
- The only power worth having is the power to destroy.
- The side that kills more people is usually the side that wins.
- An essential discontinuity exists between us and them.
- We are morally superior, which makes them unworthy of life.
- Sometimes you must sacrifice your own life for the sake of your people.
- The more scared they are, the better they will listen to reason.
- There is no such thing as too much violence.
- The only language they understand is the language of force.
- An abstraction can be more real than flesh-and-blood human beings.
- There are no innocent people on the other side.
- If my cause is just, I can do nothing wrong in serving it.
- Destruction is sometimes necessary for renewing the world.
- Killing can be the highest expression of altruistic love for one’s people.
- My duty is to listen and obey, and I do not question my superiors.
The only significant difference that I can think of at this moment is the difference in scale. The soldiers of a nation-state are capable of causing harm and destruction on a colossal scale, one that the “terrorists” can only watch with awe and envy but can never hope to achieve themselves. Indeed, if “terrorism” is defined as the deliberate cultivation of overwhelming fear in a given population in order to obtain its obedience, then the nation-state must be acknowledged as one of the topmost perpetrators. Restricting the word “terrorist” to non-state entities obfuscates the fact that the overwhelmingly majority of terrorizing acts are traceable to the modern state. Edward S. Herman uses an alternative vocabulary to expose what he calls “the absurdity of this definitional system.” He argues that terrorism comes in two forms, “retail” and “wholesale.” According to Herman, “Dissident individuals and groups kill on a retail basis (that is, on a small scale, with limited technological resources to kill and with small numbers of victims); states kill wholesale.”
Finally, let’s consider Obama’s third claim. He argues that our commitment to follow the rules makes us strong vis-a-vis those who refuse to do so. We abide by the rules, the President asserts, and this fact is a “source of our strength,” and, he seems to imply, a source of weakness for the adversary. Given that our abiding by the rules does not give us any overt military advantage, one would think that the President is referring not to material strength but to moral and/or spiritual strength. He is telling us that we are not only different from our enemies, but also, and more to the point, we are better. We are, in other words, morally and spiritually superior to the “terrorists” because we are committed to following the rules whereas they have no such commitment. It’s not only that our cause is just; we ourselves are just too. By contrast, their cause (if they have any) is clearly unjust, and since they obviously don’t follow the rules, this makes them unjust as well . . . in effect, “vicious.”
This claim is supposed to make us feel better; it is meant to show an improvement over the previous President’s policies, who is said to have broken many rules. And yet, the dichotomous good vs. evil scenario of George W. Bush is alive and well in the much more educated vocabulary of the new President. We are fighting evil, which makes us good by definition. They are vicious, which makes us gentle by contrast. We abide by the rules, which clearly makes them the worst kind of rule-breakers. We are everything they are not. It’s Cowboys and Indians all over again.
Strangely enough, the words that we use to condemn them are the same words that they use to condemn us. However, if the above list of basic assumptions shared by the terrorist and the soldier is any indication of the reality of violent conflict, then claims of moral superiority should be seen as the very fuel that helps keep the flames of violence going. The belief that “we are better than them” is not a legitimate justification for the use of violence; it is, on the contrary, part of the causal chain that generates and maintains the violent conflict.