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Archive for the ‘Disputes/Dialogues’ Category

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.

White House Iftar 2012

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?

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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 🙂

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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.

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