Earlier this month, I heard a wonderful broadcast on a National Public Radio program hosted by Krista Tippet and featuring Rabbi Sarah Bassin, who serves at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, and Imam Abdullah Antepli, the first Muslim chaplain at Duke University. The warmth and friendship among the speakers was evident as was their affinity for each other’s faith. There was a sense of “religious kinship” among them. I encourage you to listen to the podcast
and especially to Imam Antepli’s condemnation of anti-Semitism among Muslims and Rabbi Bassin’s condemnation of Islamophobia among Jews. As a Christian, I am keenly aware of both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia among my fellow Christians and very much agree with Imam Antepli that such hate and fear undermine any effort to build a moral community; a community that by definition must rest on courage and love.
Terrorism is a weapon of the weak and cowardly. The single most important thing to do in confronting terrorism is to avoid making it stronger by pursuing a vision of perfect security through military force that will only make matters worse and strengthen the hand of our enemies. This is one of the most important lessons of the invasion of Iraq: it made us less safe. Even the Obama administration’s drone strikes—while preferable to having large numbers of American soldiers on the ground in the Middle East—probably generated far more terrorists than they killed while making us guilty of terrorism of our own toward the many innocents frightened of our drones or actually killed by them as “collateral damage” in attacks that have stoked anti-American sentiment and so strengthened the terrorists.
The entire “War on Terror” rested on a misunderstanding of the problem which primarily requires good policing and good detective work in conjunction with smart diplomacy to be contained and minimized. The idea that perfect freedom from terrorism is possible in the short run, and that this can be brought about by military means, is the idea that led to the invasion of Iraq. Beyond its alleged concern with Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Bush administration was seeking to transform the politics of the Middle East—to make the region a peaceful sea of democracies—by invading Iraq. The United States had tried something similar in Latin America during the first third of the twentieth century—to promote democracy with military invasions—with similarly counterproductive results. By the end of the twentieth century, the United States had come to rely on local democratic allies in Latin America and, when it was helpful to these allies, was mostly helpful by lending them nonviolent support. This should be our long-term approach in the Middle East as well.
The one exception in Latin America—the only time in which American military intervention did more good than harm—was in the invasion of Panama in 1989-1990. In that case, the United States found in Guillermo Endara and his supporters strong local allies whose recent victory in a free election had been stolen from them by the dictator Manuel Noriega, and who were willing to accept American intervention. Without such strong local allies, military intervention is doomed to failure.
The best allies the United States has in the fight against ISIS are the more than a hundred and twenty Islamic scholars who crafted and signed an open letter to Baghdadi, the leader of the so-called “Islamic State,” which concludes: “But as can be seen from everything mentioned, you have misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder. As elucidated, this is a great wrong and an offence to Islam, to Muslims and to the entire world” (
). We should seek to make it clear to the peoples of the Middle East that we see our pursuit of our own ideals and interests as perfectly compatible with respect for what Islam genuinely teaches, as explained by these Islamic scholars, as well as with respect for the national sovereignty of all the peoples of the Middle East (the people of Israel and the people of Kurdistan included).
The United States should not ally ourselves with dictatorships in the Middle East, whether the current “pro-American” authoritarian rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia or the current “anti-American” authoritarian rulers of Iran and Syria. These dictatorships will sooner or later be overthrown by those they are oppressing, by people who might otherwise be won over to viewing the United States and perhaps democratic self-government with sympathy. We should seek to maintain civil relations with every established government. And we should remember that terrorism thrives on anti-American sentiment and seek to avoid increasing support for terrorism by allying ourselves with oppressive regimes.
On my webpage, in an essay on providing for the common defense, I say a little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “I believe that the Jewish people have a right to national self-determination through the state of Israel, but I also believe that the Palestinian people have a right to a state of their own. Moreover, I believe that the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have been established in violation of international law. The time has passed when they could be considered as a mere bargaining chip to be surrendered in negotiations, and partially accommodated by land swaps under United Nations Resolution 242, and it is clear that they are part of a misguided and unlawful policy. The United States, in the interest of peace, should offer to help pay for the resettlement of their inhabitants in Israel proper as part of a comprehensive agreement, an agreement that would also formally include a Palestinian relinquishment of any claim on a ‘right of return’ to Israel proper. Such an agreement would mean both sides accepting loss and vulnerability in return for peace. This is the nature of what is normally required to pursue peace in this world.”
Because one cannot coerce a people into accepting loss and vulnerability, I am opposed to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The impulse to sanction Israel is understandable. It is violating international law and does not seem to be serious about pursuing a two-state solution. If I thought BDS would strengthen the progressive and peace-loving forces in Israel, I would support it. But I think the opposite is true. An Israeli friend of mine has argued eloquently on his blog why he considers BDS to be a mistaken strategy (
). I would encourage any who support BDS to read his posts on the subject.
The Trump administration’s effort to coerce the Palestinians into accepting loss by moving our embassy to Jerusalem—as though east Jerusalem will not also be the capital of a future Palestinian state—strikes me as similarly counterproductive. It is an effort to dictate an outcome rather than to reach that outcome through negotiations. It is an effort that can be expected to further alienate the Palestinians whose lives are already embittered by Israeli oppression. The willingness of some Palestinians to embrace terrorism is abhorrent and is repudiated by all decent people. Here, again, the impulse to sanction is understandable. Yet further immiserating a poor people, as is being done in Gaza, is only a recipe for future violence.
All too often in international politics, the effort is to get other states to do something through sanctions or even physical violence rather than through diplomacy and compromise. The United States, to its credit, has sometimes acted out of a concern for the common good—even at the sacrifice of some of its interests—in the correct belief that in the long run this would make everyone better off, including the United States. Now the world is faced with a Trump administration that wants none of this sort of civility—or “political correctness”—because it believes that we are entitled to more than we have received, and that seeks to be served by others rather than seek to serve them. Such a greedy and shortsighted approach to world politics cannot be expected to do the United States, or the world, or the cause of peace and justice in the Middle East, or anywhere else, any good.