Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Cry from Iran

There's an assumption some people have that non-Western peoples aren't truly interested in democracy. This is a widespread belief of the Arab and Muslim states. But, in truth, most of the residents of these places would welcome democratic reforms, but there are two challenges: dictators allied with western powers, and religious opposition. But, even this opposition must be considered in context. Islam is not antithetical to democracy: in many ways it is very democratic, holding political leaders subject to the same religious laws as commoners, but there are 'trappings' of democracy that are problematic. An open democracy, for example, means more western influence on fashion and food, and more diverse books and magazines for sale.

We think of democracy as putting a ballot in the box every few years. People in the Middle East look at democracy and they see a bigger picture. Yes, it’s putting a ballot in a box. But it’s also giving rights to women, rights for children to marry whom they want, when they want. The freedom to be secular. The right to have free speech. They look at democracy and they see a civilization that has lost many of its family values, consumed by drugs and alcohol, full of sexual promiscuity. They don’t want that. I don't blame them.

Iran is interesting. Iranians have good reasons to distrust the West. So do I. But, that's a separate issue from seeking democracy; the problem is that in much of the world, especially the Middle East, any form of democratization is seen as Americanization. Western countries who advocate democracy then are perceived as 'colonizers' whose goal is to blanket American hegemony over the region. And because some aspects of democracy are problematic (ie: sexual freedom), there is a tendency to reject the whole, rather than seek, for example, a uniquely Islamic form of democracy. There is also a tendency across the region to blame others (Arabs, in particular, believe conspiracy theories well above normal levels) rather than self-criticize and self-correct.

Iran's Persian populace is different. Iran has a young population that is well-educated, essentially western in attitude, and which has privately expressed disapproval of the country's Islamist President and clerical rulers. The problem has been that this group has seemed more interested in skiing and doing drugs than overthrowing a radical government. Let's be fair: this is a problem that is prevalent in the Middle East and endemic, I think, to Islam. By definition, Islam means submission. It's contrary to Islam to defy religious and familial authority figures. This is still, in many ways, a tribal culture. As long as young Iranians have been unwilling to rise against their parents and Imams, nothing has changed.

Today's reaction to allegations of voter fraud might be the beginning of a democratic revolution in Iran, or not. Revolutions, like forest fires, often start small and smolder for awhile before the big conflagration. But, these revolutionaries face the ultimate foe: Iran's leaders were themselves the revolutionaries of a previous generation. They can anticipate the strategies and actions of the protesters and prevent the spread of anti-government riots. They've already cut cell-phone service and blocked access to social media sites like Twitter. There are reports that police have arrested opposition leaders. Foreign media have reported that they're being prevented from covering the protests.

Furthermore, it will take more than a few riots to bring down this government; it will require the involvement of the military and police, and a willingness to fight and die for reform. And even a change in Presidents will only bring about small change. Regardless of who really won this election, the real power still lies with 'the Mullah behind the curtain', Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranians will not know democracy until his absolute authority is expunged.

Has the revolution begun? We can only hope. The fall of Iran's fascist, Islamic government would have positive repercussions across the region. At the very least, it could prevent a conflict between Iran and Israel.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Lebanon Dream

After the war in Lebanon in 2006, I suggested that it's "impossible to know the long-term benefits of this conflict. There are many that believe the conflict will only fuel more terrorism; I don't believe this is true."

The first positive result of this attitudinal change was the lack of response from Hezbollah to Israel's operation in Gaza. Although there were many who claimed Hezbollah had only grown stronger after the war in 2006, this claim was mostly based on Hezbollah's own propaganda machine. Nothing is quantifiable. Hezbollah CLAIMS it's stronger. Is it? There are reports that it has more rockets. Does it? This has yet to be seen. Is the group more popular? Yes, according to polls, which are notoriously unreliable in the Middle East, and of course, Hezbollah itself.

What IS quantifiable is that there hasn't been a single rocket, or kidnapping attempt by Hezbollah since the end of the war. In fact, when rockets were fired from Lebanon in June 2007 and January 2009, Hezbollah quickly denied responsibility! Say what you will about Israel's failure to destroy Hezbollah, they were still smacked hard enough they have yet to use whatever rockets they have, even as their so-called Palestinian brothers were being bombed in Gaza. They haven't even sought revenge over last February's killing of their number two guy, Imad Mughniyeh, in Syria.

I also proposed that there would positive political repercussions.

I wrote: “Lebanon's sectarian population has always been split, with Christians and Druze generally supporting Israel's efforts to remove militant forces (thousands of Christians actually fled to Israel in 2000 fearing a rise in militant Islam in the south, and possible retribution against Christians who supported Israel after 1982). Shiite Moslems have generally supported or condoned both the PLO and Hezbollah because they see these groups as armies in a larger conflict: Pan-Arabism (until 1982) and Global Jihad (after 1982). I don't believe this current conflict will increase support, and its likely that many Lebanese, of all stripes, will blame Hezbollah for their recklessness (even if they hold Israel responsible for the deaths.) The Arab street traditionally display public support for its leaders and their military exploits, even when privately they may be critical. It's quite possible that Hezbollah will now lose some of the political support they've enjoyed, and their seats in parliament. We'll know with the next election.”

Well, that election has now been held and lo and behold, the Lebanese responded exactly as I expected, voting along sectarian lines while denying Hezbollah the victory it predicted.

Official results issued by the Interior Ministry on Monday confirmed that the March 14 Forces achieved victory in the elections, with 71 seats against 57 seats for the opposition forces. Lebanese President Michel Sleiman expressed his satisfaction over "the transparent elections, and the high spirit of democracy.

The Lebanese parliament will now have to deal with Hezbollah demands to continue the veto vote it earned through violence. It also must continue to deal with Hezbollah's state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, election results indicate at least some anger with Hezbollah's partisan politics and continued advocacy of violence against Israel.

Lebanon has suffered through a civil war, a consequence of religious and political fragmentation, but today enjoys some semblance of democracy and normality. Hezbollah's ongoing attempts to derail this balance may yet bear fruit, and the Lebanese would be well-advised to consider the long term benefits of conciliation and compromise. And they should strongly consider extending that attitude toward her southern neighbour, Israel, a move that would further push Hezbollah and its sponsors, Syria and Iran, into the margins, and contribute to the economic and political health of the region.

Monday, June 01, 2009


It seems like as soon as there's any conflict involving Israel, I begin to hear the word 'anti-Semitism' a lot more often. Either it's an accusation against anti-Zionists, or an accusation by anti-Zionists convinced that they'll be accused of anti-Semitism for any criticism of Israel.

I think these accusations need to be considered more carefully. I'm well aware of the debate within Jewish circles and in the press. But the argument is never - well, let's be fair and say rarely - that Israel is being criticized, but how it's being criticized, and the absence of fair criticism of the other side, or even of other countries. For example, I'm very careful with my criticism of other nations because I'm very aware of Canada's abuse of Natives; our treatment of our indigenous people is shameful. And Canada's not alone, sadly. So, the complaint from some people is when Israel gets singled out, and is criticized in a vacuum - it's not the criticism itself. Perhaps this is a subtle difference, but it's also crucial. When Israel is cited by the UN Human Rights Committee endlessly without a mention of China, Syria, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, etc, that's anti-Semitism. When newspapers put Israel on the front page, but ignore hundreds of thousands of deaths in Darfur, that's anti-Semitism. When Churches and Universities advocate boycotts of Israel while ignoring the persecution of Tamils, or basic human rights abuses in dictatorships from Libya through Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, that's anti-Semitism. Unless someone has another explanation.

It's pretty obvious to me when anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism. I don't often make the accusation, because your average anti-Semite simply can't recognize it in himself. I've met a lot of Christians like that; they claim to love Jews, but will turn around and call us 'incomplete, 'Pharisaical,' and 'stiff-necked.' Criticism of Israel is even worse, as I've pointed out, and often suggests an unfair double-standard is at play (ie. if you're going to call yourselves the Chosen People, you must do better than every other people on the planet); or there's this sense that the Jewish emergence from powerlessness that occurred after the Second World War has really thrown a wrench in some people's plans. WE weren't supposed to restore Israel ourselves; we weren't supposed to even survive the Holocaust intact let alone more powerful than before. There are a lot of folks out there, and I'm including quite a few Jews, that are very uncomfortable with Jewish power - and I don't mean just political power - I'm talking about Jews running around with guns, God Forbid, defending ourselves, asserting our right to self-determination, reclaiming what was taken from us by force, well, it's enough to make secular, bagel-loving American Jews blush with embarrassment (and fear of being accused of being Communists, or spy or Fifth Columnists or whatever else could undermine their hard-earned assimilation.)

Speaking of racism, anti-Zionists also love to accuse Israel of abusing its Arab citizens. Show me a country that doesn't have race (or for that matter, gender) issues. When Israel was liberating Gaza (and yes, I used that word deliberately because it was Israel in 1967 that for the first time since 1948, permitted refugees to travel to the West Bank and beyond and work in Israel), the US was engaged in race riots across the country that left hundreds dead and injured. When Israel was permitting Arab women to vote for the first time anywhere in the Middle East, Swiss women still couldn't vote or participate in parliament (they got the vote in 1971). Some would say hatred and anger are pervasive in this part of the world, but we don't judge a society on its faults alone (after all, who is faultless?); we judge it on its actions to correct these faults, through prevention and corrective laws.

And it's worth noting, anti-Jewish and Christian racism isn't just condoned in most Islamic countries: it's actively promoted and funded. That's the difference. While Muslims wail about cartoons featuring Mohamed, images like this regularly appear in state-funded Arab newspapers: Source: Al-Watan (Qatar), April 2, 2007

Then again, maybe the problem isn't anti-Semitism at all? Perhaps it's not Israel being held to a higher standard, but the Muslim world being held to one much lower? Either way, it's hard not to feel that the great experiment, the United Nations, which aims to to, "reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small," has failed.