“Today’s serious challenges cry out for concerted action. But the president’s fine, well-written speech runs once more the risk of being badly understood or misunderstood, if it is even heard at all. In the name of democratic transparency, should we not be asking that it be accompanied by something resembling coherence?”
Almost two years after his June 2009 speech in Cairo, American president Barack Obama once again addressed the Arab populations of the Middle East and North Africa. This time, he was responding to two major events: the revolutionary upheavals that have shaken the region, and the death of Usama bin Laden. The election of a first “African American president” raised high hopes in majority Muslim countries, due less to Barack Obama’s roots than to a perceived renewal of America’s vision and policies after the dark years of the Bush regime. Where do these hopes stand today?
The current chief executive has proven himself an adept orator and a skilled manipulator of symbols. A change has clearly come about in the United States; the final page of a sinister era has been turned. But optimism has its limits; deeds must be measured against words. Candidate Obama promised to bring the lawlessness exemplified by Guantánamo to an end; to reform discriminatory legislation and to abolish the degrading practice of torture (legitimized in the name of the War on Terror); to wind down the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan; to advance the Middle East peace process; and, ultimately, to inaugurate a new era in multipolar international relations.
But, as we look beyond the words and symbols, we realize that little has changed. In fact, America’s obsession with security has increased: Guantánamo remains a shameful reality, under new anti-terrorist legislation certain politically or religiously “sensitive” citizens face arbitrary and discriminatory treatment (from imprisonment to deportation based on mere suspicion), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on and the peace process is nothing but sound and fury signifying nothing. What then has changed, and what, in fact, must change?
Barack Obama’s silence is as significant as his words, and reveals the true substance of his message. He faces two principal challenges: on the international front—the core of his speech—and in domestic politics (about which he has maintained total silence one year before the presidential election). Political considerations determined his timing. His speech came hard on the heels of the “legal” operation against Usama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The execution of the alleged chief revealed once more the breadth of the chasm that separates the American administration from Muslims in the United States and around the world. Compared with the Western media, which played the event as a victory over the “symbol of terrorism”, reactions to bin Laden’s death amongst Western and Eastern Muslims, not to mention in the Global South as a whole, were muted. The absence of images and of proof, the hasty disposal of the body at sea raised questions and reinforced doubts. Most of all, they underscored the gap in perceptions. For the al-Qaeda leader never commanded the respect of the masses never galvanized the hearts of the Muslim peoples (with the exception of a minority of violent extremists). By its behavior the American government proved once again how poorly it understands Muslim hearts and minds. Barack Obama’s announcement of the elimination of bin Laden may have been eloquent, but few Muslims heard it and fewer still appreciated it. The president’s audience was strictly American. He demonstrated presidential resolve, readiness to act to protect his country and to make the hard and dangerous decisions incumbent upon a military leader. Often criticized for hesitation, his ratings shot up twelve points: a successful operation on the eve of an election year.
The time had thus come for a new message, pitched this time to Arabs, democrats, and Muslims in general. Mr. Obama had realized that he was not being understood, that he had failed to win over his target audience. But behind the American president’s seductive image and fine words stands an administration concerned neither with principle nor troubled by its incoherent domestic and foreign policy. Promised American support for the pro-democracy movements in North Africa and the Middle East is marked by radically different approaches (between Libya and Syria, where the indispensable Bashar al-Asad, whose forces have opened fire on unarmed civilians, is expected with the wave of a magic wand to reform his despotic regime) or by guilty silence from its allies the petromonarchies (such as Saudi-backed Bahrein) that repress and kill civilians and non-violent opponents. We heard a clear appeal to end the sufferings of the Palestinians and to recognize their rights. But the Obama government’s policy for the last three years has been one of silence: silence during the Gaza massacre, and over the killing of dozens of unarmed civilians during the commemoration of the Nakba on May 15 2011. It is all well and good for Mr. Obama to pay lip service to the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But American inaction in the face of the ongoing Israeli policy of colonization and of ‘facts on the ground’ reveals his position as not only as inconsistent, but inapplicable. Once again, words are employed to make Palestinians and Arabs dream, while Israel is given a free hand to implement its long-term strategy behind the media façade of tensions between the American and Israeli governments.
Guantánamo and torture are a fact of life in Barack Obama’s America, where the basic rights of prisoners are systematically denied and where the blood of Iraqi and Afghan civilians appears to count for nothing. Less, certainly, than that of Libyan civilians. Why? Is American policy in North Africa and the Middle East driven exclusively by economic considerations? Everything points in that direction. Barack Obama’s messages—spoken and unspoken—are unlikely to provide the Arab street with much reassurance. In his speech, the president emphasized the economic dimension of the Arab revolutions. There can be no true democratic process without economic stability and development, he argued. The formula is sound, the equation seductive. Barack Obama then went on to announce debt reduction, increased investment and American financial support to the region in collaboration with Europe, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It would seem that the region’s democratic opening is contingent on the opening up of lucrative new markets. The American administration, and the multinational corporations it represents, appear less committed to democracy, justice and freedom than they are to profit and to promoting the ideology of consumerism. Mr. Obama presented American economic support in terms of solidarity and generosity toward the peoples of the region, while uttering not a word about his country’s decade-long record of neglect. Noteworthy too was his failure to mention new regional economic powers such as China, South America and Turkey. Do American and European strategists consider them as negligible factors? Most unlikely, now that we have learned to decode Barack Obama’s silence. Regional economic benefits (in North Africa and the Middle East) may well prove more important than bringing democratic norms to political life. The emerging model promises superficial political independence with a handful of freedoms tied to greater economic dependence with all the restrictions it implies. Economic liberalism is liberal for only a select few. Barack Obama enjoys repeating that, “America has nothing against Islam and Muslims” while failing to add “as long as they, whether democrats or autocrats, do not stand in the way of our interests.” A new face speaks the same old words. Only concrete action can be the motor for change. Muslims can hear perfectly well what is being said, and what is not being said. And in terms of a truly new policy, they are still waiting.
At the same time, Islam is emerging as an issue in the upcoming American elections. The Tea Party movement and their Neocon allies are warning against the dangers of Islam and the “islamization” of America. Eighteen American states are currently adopting surrealist legislation that would prohibit the application of the Shari’a, which is invariably presented as the epitome of barbarity. No longer is extremist and violent Islam the target, but Islam as a religion. Building upon controversy, the movement is gaining strength; a noxious atmosphere is being created. From the Park 51 (so-called “Ground Zero”) mosque to “Burn a Qur’an Day”, from local initiatives against Muslim activities or the building of mosques, tensions are rising, based on the same arguments and slogans that have surfaced during recent years in Europe. Muslim baiting and Islamophobia have reared their ugly heads, and are being used to isolate a large segment of the American population on the basis of their religious beliefs (in addition to long-existing racism against African-Americans). The policy draws on the same mix of fear, suspicion and rejection used by European populists like Geert Wilders who plays to full houses in the United States, confirming the new xenophobia’s popular appeal.
Paradoxically, the election of Barack Obama has provided these movements with an opening to advance their agenda by discrediting him, his origins and even his religion (23% of Americans believe he is a crypto-Muslim; 42% think he is not a good Christian, for a total of 65% skeptical Americans). Criticism of the president has become more strident; rumor and innuendo are used to undermine his credibility. It is all well and good to assert that Islam is an American religion, but his administration, in its domestic policy, must do more than mouth pious wishes. It must confront the islamophobes and their xenophobic allies with greater determination—and more egalitarian policies.
The president’s fine words have produced scant results at the grass roots. The upcoming elections are unlikely to lead to any significant change. Yet firm action would certainly be the best way for Mr. Obama to position himself as the president of renewed hope, capable of winning on a just and reasonable platform in 2012. The stakes are high. On the question of rekindling relations with Islam and Muslims, international and domestic politics go hand in hand. President Obama can no longer limit himself to an intelligent (and unfailingly open) dialogue with Muslim leaders and intellectuals. On the streets of the Middle East, as in America’s inner cities and recession-hit suburbs, ordinary Muslim citizens care little about his words and images. They continue to listen closely to the silences that reveal much more, and to certify the inaction that defines the critical inadequacy of Obama’s policies over the last three years. Like all peoples, those of the Islamic world are aware of the high irony of awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to a man that talks much about peace but does nothing to bring it about.
Today’s serious challenges cry out for concerted action. But the president’s fine, well-written speech runs once more the risk of being badly understood or misunderstood, if it is even heard at all. In the name of democratic transparency, should we not be asking that it be accompanied by something resembling coherence?
“To learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of the torture tactics, without their consent or knowledge, is horrific. It’s anti-American”
“REM, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor are among the musicians who have joined a new campaign pressuring US politicians to close the Guantánamo Bay detention centre. Many of these artists joined the movement after discovering their music had been used to torture those held there by the American military.
Launched yesterday, (20 October), Close Gitmo Now is a coalition of activists, artists and retired generals who back president Obama’s plan to close the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba. Besides the acts listed above, its backers also include Billy Bragg, Roseanne Cash, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Jackson Browne, Steve Earle and Bonnie Raitt.
“At Guantánamo, the US government turned a jukebox into an instrument of torture,” said Thomas Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research institute that is one of the campaign’s main backers.
Several references to music as an interrogation tool appeared in a US senate report last year. Records were used to “stress” Mohamedou Ould Slahi during questioning in 2003, including repeated plays of a song by hard-rockers Drowning Pool. Other tracks that were reportedly played at high volume near prisoners include David Gray’s Babylon, Metallica’s Enter Sandman, Don McLean’s American Pie, Queen’s We Will Rock You, songs by REM, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Bruce Springsteen, and even theme tunes from Sesame Street, Barney the Dinosaur and the Meow Mix commercials.
While Drowning Pool have not objected to the use of their music at Guantánamo, other acts were not so accommodating. “We have spent the last 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice,” REM said. “To now learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of the torture tactics, without their consent or knowledge, is horrific. It’s anti-American, period.” The Roots agreed. “Just as we wouldn’t be caught dead allowing Dick Cheney to use our music for his campaigns, you can be damn sure, we wouldn’t allow him to use it to torture other human beings,” they said.
According to a spokesperson for the Joint Task Force Guantánamo, loud music has not been in use at the prison since autumn 2003. And even then, a CIA rep told the Associated Press, the music was usually used for security purposes, blocking prisoners from communicating with each other, rather than for “punitive purposes”. This position has been disputed by human rights groups, including Jayne Huckerby at the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice in New York, who described the use of music “to humiliate, terrify, punish, disorient and deprive detainees of sleep, in violation of international law”.
Nevertheless, president Obama has met with increasing resistance over his pledge to close Guantánamo by the end of January 2010. Washington Republicans have dug in their heels, while groups like Keep America Safe argue that the prisoners held in Cuba are dangerous to US interests. In the meantime, Close Gitmo Now and its musical endorsers are filing a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to find out more about the use of music at Guantánamo Bay.
“I traveled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and hear with my own ears the screams of the bereaved and the orphans”
Here I am, free. But my country is still a prisoner of war.
Firstly, I give my thanks and my regards to everyone who stood beside me, whether inside my country, in the Islamic world, in the free world. There has been a lot of talk about the action and about the person who took it, and about the hero and the heroic act, and the symbol and the symbolic act.
But, simply, I answer: What compelled me to confront is the injustice that befell my people, and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by putting it under its boot.
And how it wanted to crush the skulls of (the homeland’s) sons under its boots, whether sheikhs, women, children or men. And during the past few years, more than a million martyrs fell by the bullets of the occupation and the country is now filled with more than 5 million orphans, a million widows and hundreds of thousands of maimed. And many millions of homeless because of displacement inside and outside the country.
We used to be a nation in which the Arab would share with the Turkman and the Kurd and the Assyrian and the Sabean and the Yazid his daily bread. And the Shiite would pray with the Sunni in one line. And the Muslim would celebrate with the Christian the birthday of Christ, may peace be upon him. And despite the fact that we shared hunger under sanctions for more than 10 years, for more than a decade.
Our patience and our solidarity did not make us forget the oppression. Until we were invaded by the illusion of liberation that some had. (The occupation) divided one brother from another, one neighbor from another, and the son from his uncle. It turned our homes into never-ending funeral tents. And our graveyards spread into parks and roadsides. It is a plague. It is the occupation that is killing us, that is violating the houses of worship and the sanctity of our homes and that is throwing thousands daily into makeshift prisons.
I am not a hero, and I admit that. But I have a point of view and I have a stance. It humiliated me to see my country humiliated. And to see my Baghdad burned. And my people being killed. Thousands of tragic pictures remained in my head, and this weighs on me every day and pushes me toward the righteous path, the path of confrontation, the path of rejecting injustice, deceit and duplicity. It deprived me of a good night’s sleep.
Dozens, no, hundreds, of images of massacres that would turn the hair of a newborn white used to bring tears to my eyes and wound me. The scandal of Abu Ghraib. The massacre of Fallujah, Najaf, Haditha, Sadr City, Basra, Diyala, Mosul, Tal Afar, and every inch of our wounded land. In the past years, I traveled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and hear with my own ears the screams of the bereaved and the orphans. And a feeling of shame haunted me like an ugly name because I was powerless.
And as soon as I finished my professional duties in reporting the daily tragedies of the Iraqis, and while I washed away the remains of the debris of the ruined Iraqi houses, or the traces of the blood of victims that stained my clothes, I would clench my teeth and make a pledge to our victims, a pledge of vengeance.
The opportunity came, and I took it.
I took it out of loyalty to every drop of innocent blood that has been shed through the occupation or because of it, every scream of a bereaved mother, every moan of an orphan, the sorrow of a rape victim, the teardrop of an orphan.
I say to those who reproach me: Do you know how many broken homes that shoe that I threw had entered because of the occupation? How many times it had trodden over the blood of innocent victims? And how many times it had entered homes in which free Iraqi women and their sanctity had been violated? Maybe that shoe was the appropriate response when all values were violated.
When I threw the shoe in the face of the criminal, Bush, I wanted to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people. My rejection of his plundering the wealth of my country, and destroying its infrastructure. And casting out its sons into a diaspora.
After six years of humiliation, of indignity, of killing and violations of sanctity, and desecration of houses of worship, the killer comes, boasting, bragging about victory and democracy. He came to say goodbye to his victims and wanted flowers in response.
Put simply, that was my flower to the occupier, and to all who are in league with him, whether by spreading lies or taking action, before the occupation or after.
I wanted to defend the honor of my profession and suppressed patriotism on the day the country was violated and its high honor lost. Some say: Why didn’t he ask Bush an embarrassing question at the press conference, to shame him? And now I will answer you, journalists. How can I ask Bush when we were ordered to ask no questions before the press conference began, but only to cover the event. It was prohibited for any person to question Bush.
And in regard to professionalism: The professionalism mourned by some under the auspices of the occupation should not have a voice louder than the voice of patriotism. And if patriotism were to speak out, then professionalism should be allied with it.
I take this opportunity: If I have wronged journalism without intention, because of the professional embarrassment I caused the establishment, I wish to apologize to you for any embarrassment I may have caused those establishments. All that I meant to do was express with a living conscience the feelings of a citizen who sees his homeland desecrated every day.
History mentions many stories where professionalism was also compromised at the hands of American policymakers, whether in the assassination attempt against Fidel Castro by booby-trapping a TV camera that CIA agents posing as journalists from Cuban TV were carrying, or what they did in the Iraqi war by deceiving the general public about what was happening. And there are many other examples that I won’t get into here.
But what I would like to call your attention to is that these suspicious agencies — the American intelligence and its other agencies and those that follow them — will not spare any effort to track me down (because I am) a rebel opposed to their occupation. They will try to kill me or neutralize me, and I call the attention of those who are close to me to the traps that these agencies will set up to capture or kill me in various ways, physically, socially or professionally.
And at the time that the Iraqi prime minister came out on satellite channels to say that he didn’t sleep until he had checked in on my safety, and that I had found a bed and a blanket, even as he spoke I was being tortured with the most horrific methods: electric shocks, getting hit with cables, getting hit with metal rods, and all this in the backyard of the place where the press conference was held. And the conference was still going on and I could hear the voices of the people in it. And maybe they, too, could hear my screams and moans.
In the morning, I was left in the cold of winter, tied up after they soaked me in water at dawn. And I apologize for Mr. Maliki for keeping the truth from the people. I will speak later, giving names of the people who were involved in torturing me, and some of them were high-ranking officials in the government and in the army.
I didn’t do this so my name would enter history or for material gains. All I wanted was to defend my country, and that is a legitimate cause confirmed by international laws and divine rights. I wanted to defend a country, an ancient civilization that has been desecrated, and I am sure that history — especially in America — will state how the American occupation was able to subjugate Iraq and Iraqis, until its submission.
They will boast about the deceit and the means they used in order to gain their objective. It is not strange, not much different from what happened to the Native Americans at the hands of colonialists. Here I say to them (the occupiers) and to all who follow their steps, and all those who support them and spoke up for their cause: Never.
Because we are a people who would rather die than face humiliation.
And, lastly, I say that I am independent. I am not a member of any politicalparty, something that was said during torture — one time that I’m far-right, another that I’m a leftist. I am independent of any political party, and my future efforts will be in civil service to my people and to any who need it, without waging any political wars, as some said that I would.
My efforts will be toward providing care for widows and orphans, and all those whose lives were damaged by the occupation. I pray for mercy upon the souls of the martyrs who fell in wounded Iraq, and for shame upon those who occupied Iraq and everyone who assisted them in their abominable acts. And I pray for peace upon those who are in their graves, and those who are oppressed with the chains of imprisonment. And peace be upon you who are patient and looking to God for release.
And to my beloved country I say: If the night of injustice is prolonged, it will not stop the rising of a sun and it will be the sun of freedom.
One last word. I say to the government: It is a trust that I carry from my fellow detainees. They said, ‘Muntadhar, if you get out, tell of our plight to the omnipotent powers’ — I know that only God is omnipotent and I pray to Him — ‘remind them that there are dozens, hundreds, of victims rotting in prisons because of an informant’s word.’
They have been there for years, they have not been charged or tried.
They’ve only been snatched up from the streets and put into these prisons. And now, in front of you, and in the presence of God, I hope they can hear me or see me. I have now made good on my promise of reminding the government and the officials and the politicians to look into what’s happening inside the prisons. The injustice that’s caused by the delay in the judicial system.
Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you
“Tragically, the international community largely ignores the cries for help, while the citizens of Gaza are being treated more like animals than human beings”
Thank you for inviting me to Gaza. Distinguished guests, children of Gaza, I am grateful for your warm reception.
I first visited Gaza 36 years ago and returned during the 1980s and later for the very successful Palestinian elections. Although under occupation, this community was relatively peaceful and prosperous. Now, the aftermath of bombs, missiles, tanks, bulldozers and the continuing economic siege have brought death, destruction, pain, and suffering to the people here. Tragically, the international community largely ignores the cries for help, while the citizens of Gaza are being treated more like animals than human beings.
Last week, a group of Israelis and Americans tried to cross into Gaza through Erez, bringing toys and children’s playground equipment—slides, swings, kites, and magic castles for your children. They were stopped at the gate and prevented from coming. I understand even paper and crayons are treated as “security hazards” and not permitted to enter Gaza. I sought an explanation for this policy in Israel, but did not receive a satisfactory answer—because there is none.
The responsibility for this terrible human rights crime lies in Jerusalem, Cairo, Washington, and throughout the international community. This abuse must cease; the crimes must be investigated; the walls must be brought down, and the basic right of freedom must come to you.
Almost one-half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are children, whose lives are being shaped by poverty, hunger, violence, and despair. More than 50,000 families had their homes destroyed or damaged in January, and parents are in mourning for the 313 innocent children who were killed.
The situation in Gaza is grim, but all hope is not lost. Amidst adversity, you continue to possess both dignity and determination to work toward a brighter tomorrow. That is why educating children is so important.
I have come to Gaza to help the world know what important work you are doing. UNRWA is here to ensure that the 200,000 children in its schools can develop their talent, express their dynamism, and help create the path to a better future.
The human rights curriculum is teaching children about their rights and also about their responsibilities. UNRWA is teaching about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the struggle for these rights all over the world, Gaza’s children are learning that as you seek justice for yourselves, you must be sure that your behavior provides justice for others.
They are learning that it is wrong to fire rockets that may kill Israeli children. They are learning that arbitrary detention and the summary execution of political opponents is not acceptable. They are learning that the rule of law must be honored here in Gaza.
I would like to congratulate both UNRWA and the children who have completed the human rights curriculum with distinction. They are tomorrow’s leaders.
In addition to the tragedy of occupation, the lack of unity among Palestinians is causing a deteriorating atmosphere here in Gaza, in Ramallah, and throughout the West Bank.
Palestinians want more than just to survive. They hope to lead the Arab world, to be a bridge between modern political life and traditions that date back to the Biblical era. The nation you will create must be pluralistic and democratic—the new Palestine that your intellectuals have dreamt about. Palestine must combine the best of the East and the West. The Palestinian state, like the land, must be blessed for all people. Jerusalem must be shared with everyone who loves it—Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
With our new leaders in Washington, my country will move into the forefront of this birth of a new Palestine. We were all reminded of this renewed hope and commitment by President Obama’s recent speech in Cairo.
President Obama’s resolve to resume the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process based on the principle of two states for two peoples must be welcomed. This vision of two sovereign nations living as neighbors is not a mere convenient phrase. It is the basis for a lasting peace for this entire region, including Syria and Lebanon.
We all know that a necessary step is the ending of the siege of Gaza—the starving of 1.5 million people of the necessities of life. Never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself. The issue of who controls Gaza is not an obstacle. As the World Bank has pointed out, funds can be channeled through a number of independent mechanisms and effective implementing agencies.
Although funds are available, not a sack of cement nor a piece of lumber has been permitted to enter the closed gates from Israel and Egypt. I have seen with my own eyes that progress is negligible.
My country and our friends in Europe must do all that is necessary to persuade Israel and Egypt to allow basic materials into Gaza. At the same time, there must be no more rockets and mortar shells falling on Israeli citizens.
I met this week with the parents of Corporal Gilad Shalit, and have with me a letter that I hope can be delivered to their son. I have also met with many Palestinians who plead for the freedom of their 11,700 loved ones imprisoned by the Israelis, including 400 women and children. Many of them have been imprisoned for many years, held without trial, with no access to their families or to legal counsel. Rational negotiations and a comprehensive peace can end this suffering on both sides.
I know it is difficult now, surrounded by terrible destruction, to see a future of independence and dignity in a Palestinian state, but this goal can and must be achieved. I know too that it is hard for you to accept Israel and live in peace with those who have caused your suffering. However, Palestinian statehood cannot come at the expense of Israel’s security, just as Israel’s security can not come at the expense of Palestinian statehood.
In his speech in Cairo, President Obama said that Hamas has support among Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a full role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, accept existing peace agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
I have urged Hamas leaders to accept these conditions, and they have made statements and taken actions that suggest they are ready to join the peace process and move toward the creation of an independent and just Palestinian state.
Khaled Meshal has assured me that Hamas will accept a final status agreement negotiated by the Palestinian Authority and Israel if the Palestinian people approve it in a referendum. Hamas has offered a reciprocal cease-fire with Israel throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Unfortunately, neither the Israeli leaders nor Hamas accept the terms of the Oslo Agreement of 1993, but the Arab Peace Initiative is being considered now by all sides.
I have personally witnessed free and fair elections in Palestine when Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas were elected president and when legislative members were chosen for your parliament. I hope to return next January for a similar event that will unite all Palestinians as you seek a proud and peaceful future.
Ladies and gentlemen, children of Gaza, thank you for inviting me and for sharing this happy occasion with me. Congratulations for your achievements.
Nobel Peace Laureate and former President Jimmy Carter delivered this speech at the June 16, 2009 graduation ceremony for students who completed an UNRWA human rights curriculum.
Stocking up on lunch snacks at Costco, I saw a book that immediately grabbed my attention. It had a picture of a woman wearing a niqab, a face covering worn by a minority of Muslim women.
Intrigued, I bought the book, mentally congratulating the publisher for having squeezed $20 out of my pocket. They know only too well that the niqab sells, grabs headlines and diverts attention. It is also a lightening rod for emotions and fear.
A few months ago, the debate raged among Canadian politicians whether wearing the niqab and voting could jibe, and whether women would be allowed to wear the veil in legal proceedings. It has been discussed in Quebec, England, the Netherlands, Italy and many other parts of the world, usually spun to create false controversy by right-wing politicians.
Predictably, this issue is making the rounds again, this time in France, a country in the midst of identity crises. President Nicolas Sarkozy is making the burqa — a full-body covering with a screen over the face — his flavour of the month to deflect attention from his plunging popularity. Amid raucous applause from his fellow parliamentarians, he said:
“In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity … it is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.”
They know that fear will easily buy votes among a population who feel increasingly vulnerable to the growing number of Muslims, and who will embrace laws which provide a false sense of security in preserving their identity. In 2004, Muslim women were the targets of this strategy through a law banning headscarves from French public schools.
U.S. President Barack Obama addressed this in his Cairo speech two weeks ago: “… it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”
In defending his words, Obama stated, “I will tell you that in the U.S., our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”
He gets it. Unfortunately, the people who lash out at the niqab or burqa are usually those who feel the most uncomfortable with it: journalists, politicians, intellectuals and feminists. Under the pretense of defending freedom of thought, they are actually legitimizing hate, thus generating the exact opposite of what they claim to defend.
Ironically, they don’t seem to be particularly attentive to those whom they are supposedly defending. In speaking for these women, they assume they are oppressed idiots who can only be spoken to, about, or for but never with.
Muslim women wear the face covering for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, we never hear their voices, their stories, their choices, how they negotiate the challenges, how it impacts their integration and how they feel.
Sahar Ullah, a Chicago graduate student, voices her experience of wearing the niqab in an online blog, “Most people who had an opinion about niqab never asked me why I wore it although they were willing to express their opinion …” adding “It was actually Muslims that were the cruelest. They insisted that niqab was wrong, I felt more defensive about having the right to make my own choices.”
The laundry list of assumptions people had about her intentions included: ideology; adherence to law; a method of escape; entrapment; pretentiousness; performance of piety; heroism; fear of men; desire to seduce; covered naughtiness; anti-social behaviour; a vain call for attention; a passport to marriage; desire to be silent; an oppressive father; and the classic — anxiety about being too dark.
Perhaps it is time we reassess the biases that are fuelling this debate. To fear means that we lack confidence in ourselves and in others. By allowing this fear to infiltrate our societies, we are entertaining the most serious illusions about our freedom, putting in danger our notions of what a truly democratic society is.
The organization Human Rights Watch concurs: “The ban on the veil violates human rights and stigmatizes and marginalizes women who wear it. The freedom to express religion and freedom of conscience are fundamental rights … and such a ban would send a signal to many French Muslims that they are not welcome in their own country.”
It has been announced that an official commission in France will be created to assess the question of the burqa over the next six months. It smells suspiciously patriarchal.
In looking at the context and origins of the niqab, the majority of Muslim scholars do not view it as compulsory. For the minority who see it as a religious requirement, they should be, under freedom of religion provisions, afforded the right to wear the niqab.
Within Muslim communities, there are growing discussions about Islamic feminism — the struggle for women’s rights within the Islamic terms of reference, against cultural discrimination and a literalist approach to the texts.
These grassroots conversations are an important avenue to reiterate that women should not be forced to do anything against their will. But also that choices made through personal conviction need to be respected — a right embedded in most democracies.
This dialogue had already started during the Prophet Muhammad’s time. He strongly encouraged the active role of women in early Islamic society, insisting that they should never confuse modesty with disappearing from the political, scholarly, religious, social, economic or even military sphere. In other words, Muslim women were the actors of their own destinies.
In concluding his speech, Sarkozy stated that the burqa “will not be welcome on our territory.”
Hopefully he will come to understand that a potential law banning a piece of clothing won’t change anything except outward appearances. True emancipation and empowerment of Muslim women to be free, autonomous and engaged will only occur when they are afforded the right to speak on their own terms, not for someone else’s political agenda.
Shelina Merani is the spokesperson for the network Muslim Presence and has recently launched the local/global website www.muslimpresence.com.
The issue of Palestinian suicide bombings has become a familiar topic to many people throughout the world. It is easy for people to either quickly and forthrightly condemn it as a primitive and barbaric form of terrorism against civilians, or condone and support it as a legitimate method of resisting an oppressive Israeli occupation that has trampled Palestinian dignity and brutalized their very existence.
As a Christian, I know that the way of Christ is the way of nonviolence and, therefore, I condemn all forms of violence and terrorism, whether coming from the government of Israel or from militant Palestinian groups. Having said that clearly, it is still important to understand the phenomenon of suicide bombings that tragically arises from the deep misery and torment of many Palestinians. For how else can one explain it? When healthy, beautiful and intelligent young men and women set out to kill and be killed, something is basically wrong in a world that has not heard their anguished cry for justice.
The Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip took a very important turn since the early 1990s. Young Palestinian men, and more lately women, started to strap themselves with explosives, make their way to Israeli Jewish areas and blow themselves up, killing and injuring dozens of people around them. Between the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 and February 22, 2003, Palestinian militants carried out 69 suicide bombings in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank including Jerusalem, as well as inside Israel, killing, according to Israeli statistics, 341 Israelis including soldiers, men, women, and children. In the same period, the Israeli army killed 2,106 Palestinians including police, men, women and children.
For the last 35 years, the Palestinians have been engaged in resisting the occupation of their country. For many years they have worked through the international community to bring an end to the Israeli occupation, but they have been unsuccessful.
Historically speaking, the Palestinians did not begin their resistance to the occupation with suicide bombings. There were no suicide bombings before the Oslo Peace Process. It is the result of despair and hopelessness that started to set in when an increasing number of Palestinians became frustrated by the deepening Israeli oppression and humiliation.
Breeding ground for suicide bombers
Besides the basic political injustice and the oppressiveness of the occupation, there are four major areas that constitute the breeding ground for suicide bombers. To begin with, many young men have become permanently unemployed.
Moreover, it is the young men more than others who are humiliated, harassed and provoked by the Israeli soldiers.
Furthermore, there is hardly any Palestinian family in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that has not experienced some kind of pain or injury. Many families have lost their loved ones. Almost every aspect of Palestinian life is controlled by the Israeli army and many people have lost the ability to dream of a better future or envisage a better life.
There is another group of young Palestinian men and women that must be mentioned. Many of these have been arrested and tortured in Israeli prisons and “concentration” camps. In fact, Israeli prisons have become the “factories” for creating and “manufacturing” collaborators. Young men are detained for indefinite periods of time and are pressured into becoming spies and collaborators. They are simply trapped and some of them do not know how to shake it off. This phenomenon causes some of them to exist in constant self-contempt and scorn for having betrayed their own people. They are ready to become suicide bombers in order to purify and redeem themselves and express their utmost loyalty and patriotism for their country and people.
For these young people, daily life has become an experience of death. Indeed, many of them feel that Israel has practically pronounced a death sentence on them. They feel they have no options and very little to lose. Consequently, they are willing to give themselves up for the cause of God and the homeland (watan), believing that with God there is so much to gain.
From the perspective of those who believe in and carry out these suicide operations, there is a simple and plain logic. As Israeli soldiers shell and kill Palestinians indiscriminately, Palestinian suicide bombers strap themselves with explosives and kill Israelis indiscriminately.
The suicide bombings become a more powerful phenomenon when their religious underpinnings are emphasized. It is difficult to determine whether the religious dimension followed and enhanced the political decision for its use or whether the religious significance preceded and prompted it. It is most likely that both went hand in hand, since any Palestinian killed by Israel, whether a militant or an innocent bystander, was regarded as a martyr. Consequently, groups like Hamas were referring to these acts not as suicide bombings but as “martyrdom operations” and “martyrdom weapons.” Nationalism and faith have been fused together and imbued with power. People regarded the suicide bombers as martyrs and believed that paradise awaited them.
Other Muslims argued strongly that Islamic law forbids the killing of non-combatants and, therefore, the killing of innocent Israelis is wrong.
Effects of suicide bombings
Although Israel was deeply hurt by suicide bombings, the consequences that the extremists were hoping would happen did not take place.
First, Israel had many more options than the Palestinians thought they did. As it turned out, Israel had a good number of military options; and due to its successful media campaign, everything it did was justified as self-defense.
Second, the West Bank is not southern Lebanon. Hizballah was, indeed, successful in driving the Israeli army from southern Lebanon after 22 years of occupation (May 25, 2000). The West Bank is different. Religious Jewish settlers and right-wing Zionists find strong biblical and historical roots in the West Bank and it will not be easy to evict them from there. The presence of the illegal settlements is one of the most difficult issues in the struggle for peace.
Third, the U.S. is the only great world power today and has an unflinching commitment to the well-being and security of the state of Israel. It will come to its rescue politically, militarily, and economically whenever it is needed.
Fourth, Israel was successful in its media campaign internationally. Many countries in the world are against suicide bombings.
Fifth, the Israeli society did not crumble economically in spite of hardships.
And sixth, the vast majority of the Israeli people, perceiving the struggle as a fight for the very existence of the state of Israel, supported Sharon and his right-wing policies.
Although suicide bombings were condemned by some Palestinians, including the Palestinian Authority, they were accepted popularly by many as a way of avenging the Israeli army’s daily killings of resistance fighters and innocent Palestinians. And while the American government rushed to condemn suicide bombings and expected the same from the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s killing of Palestinian leaders and ordinary civilians did not abate and was not condemned publicly by the U.S.
Be that as it may, it is important to reiterate clearly that the Palestinian community is not totally in support of the suicide bombings. On Wednesday, June 16, 2002, 58 Palestinian men and women, Muslims and Christians, among whom are well-known personalities, signed a public statement published by the most read Arabic daily, Al-Quds, asking for a halt to all suicide bombings. They made it clear that such operations only widen and deepen the hate and resentment between Palestinians and Israelis. They also destroy the possibility for the two peoples to live in two states side by side. The statement mentioned that the suicide bombings are counterproductive and will not lead to the fulfillment of the Palestinian national aspirations. They only allow Israel to justify its increasing vicious attacks on Palestinian towns and villages. The statement was published in the paper on five consecutive days before it was transferred to the website with hundreds more signatories.
There were voices inside Israel that were calling for more drastic and severe measures to curb the suicide bombings. One of those was Gideon Ezra, the deputy public security minister who openly on television on August 19, 2001, called on his government to execute the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. He argued that if potential suicide bombers know that their families will be wiped out then they will refrain from committing the act. Apparently, Ezra was basing his suggestion on a Nazi practice that used to arrest and inflict suffering on the families of those who were suspected of undermining the state. Shockingly, Ezra’s words did not draw any protest or criticism from the Israeli government.
By contrast, there are courageous voices that called on their Israeli government to examine its harsh policies against the Palestinians that breed suicide bombings. In one case, Rami and Nurit Elhanan lost their 14-year-old-daughter who was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in September 1997. In spite of the tragic loss, the parents became actively involved in peacemaking. They blamed the Israeli occupation, saying, “Our daughter was killed because of the terror of Israeli occupation. Every innocent victim from both sides is a victim of the occupation.” The couple established the Bereaved Family Forum with Izzat Ghazzawi, a Palestinian whose 16-year-old son Ramy was killed by Israeli troops.
Was Samson a suicide bomber?
In discussing suicide bombings from a religious perspective, it is worthwhile to reflect on the story of Samson in the book of Judges (13—16). It is a story of a strong young man who rose up to save his people who were oppressed by the coastal powerful neighbor, the Philistines. Obviously, from the perspective of the Israelites he was regarded as a hero and a freedom fighter while from the perspective of the people of power, namely the Philistines, he was, in today’s language, a terrorist.
According to the story, Samson was very successful in his brave adventures against his enemies. Eventually, he was captured by the Philistines and tortured. They pulled out his eyes and kept him in jail. In order to celebrate their victory over their archenemy, Samson, the Philistines brought him to a big event attended by 3,000 men and women, including their five kings. His final act of revenge took place when he pushed the two main columns of the building and pulled it down, killing himself and all the attendees. Samson’s final prayer seems very similar to the prayer of a suicide bomber before he blows himself up. “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.”
Read in the light of today’s suicide bombers, how do we evaluate the story of Samson? Was not Samson a suicide bomber? Was he acting on behalf of the God of justice who wills the liberation of the oppressed? Was God pleased with the death of thousands of men and women of the Philistines? Is it legitimate to tell the story today by substituting the name Ahmad for Samson? Is the dynamic under which God operates that of Jew versus other people or is it that of oppressor versus oppressed? Is the story of Samson legitimate because it is written in the Bible while the story of Ahmad is rejected because it is not and therefore he is condemned as a terrorist? Do we have the courage to condone both as acts of bravery and liberation or condemn both as acts of violence and terror? Or do we hold a theology of a biased God who only stands with Israel whether right or wrong?
Why we condemn suicide bombings
Although some people in our Palestinian community admire the sacrifice of the suicide bombers and although we understand its deeper motivation and background, we condemn it from both our position of faith as well as a legitimate method for resisting the occupation.
First, we condemn suicide bombings because they are a crime against God. Ultimately, it is only God our creator who gives us life and who can take it. Those who love God do not kill themselves. Moreover, those who love God do not kill themselves for the sake of God. Indeed, they should be ready to die and even be killed for God’s sake, but they will not do it themselves.
Second, we condemn it because we believe that we must refrain from inflicting suffering or death on others. From a Christian point of view, the tragedy lies in the fact that these young men and women do not only kill themselves, they cause the death of others, many of whom are civilians and innocent. We must hasten to add that we equally condemn the state of Israel’s killing of Palestinians. Indeed, it constitutes the underlying cause of the conflict. Be that as it may, from our position of faith we say that even when the cause for which a person kills himself/herself is noble, as it is in the case of Palestine, nothing justifies the killing of innocent people. Christ accepted suffering on himself and did not inflict it on others. In fact, from a New Testament perspective, when Christians suffer, it should make them more compassionate for the suffering of others rather than bitter and vengeful. In the struggle for civil rights in the U.S., Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized the heavy price that needs to be paid for freedom but refused to accept any violent method to achieve it. He said, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.” King insisted on the teaching of Jesus and Gandhi that unearned suffering is redemptive. Furthermore, for the Christian, suffering endured can serve as evidence of Christ’s victory over suffering and death. It can also be a way of exposing the evil and the injustice that must be resisted.
Third, we condemn it because we believe that when we are confronted by injustice and evil, we must resist it without using its evil methods. We bear it but do not accept, submit or succumb to it. Some Christians have developed nonviolent direct action as a method of resisting unjust governments and systems. Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed it well when he wrote: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”
It is our faithfulness to God that drives us to work for justice and for the ending of the occupation of Palestine. But it must be carried out through nonviolence, no matter how long it takes. It is only nonviolence that can guarantee the restoration of the humanity of both sides when the conflict is over. Moreover, nonviolent resistance contributes to a speedier process of reconciliation and healing because it does not violate human dignity.
Fourth, for the Christian, the supreme example is Christ. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1Peter 2:23). This is not passive resignation. It is total surrender to the God of justice who established this world on justice and who is going to make sure that injustice does not have the last word.
We condemn suicide bombings because they are trapped with the same violent logic exercised and perpetrated by the Israeli government. It is based on the law of revenge expressed in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Although it is very difficult for us as humans, we are still encouraged as Christians to seek a higher law.
Fifth, it is probable that Prime Minister Sharon (and the right-wing religious extremist ministers and settlers around him, including some Christian Zionists) believes that the war against the Palestinians can be justified biblically because he is doing exactly what Joshua did in the Old Testament. Therefore, as Joshua’s actions (Joshua 1—11) pleased God so must Sharon’s actions. Similarly, the suicide bombers believe that by blowing themselves up and killing those around them they are fighting in the cause of God by ridding their land of the injustice inflicted on it by “infidels,” and so earning for themselves a place in paradise.
Our basic problem with both lies in their concept of God. We reject any understanding of God that reflects war, violence or terrorism. God is a God of justice, but God’s justice is not expressed in violence or in terrorizing people. God’s justice is expressed supremely in love, peace and forgiveness.
Sixth, in the midst of the injustice, suffering and death inflicted on us, we believe that God in Christ is there with us. Christ is not in the tanks and jet fighters, fighting on the side of the oppressors (although many Jewish and Christian Zionists believe that). God is in the city of Gaza, in the Jenin camp and in the old city of Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem suffering with the oppressed. God has not abandoned us. We reject suicide bombings because, from a Christian perspective, they reflect feelings of total despair and hopelessness.
Seventh, we condemn suicide bombings because they practice, in essence, collective punishment against people, many of whom are civilians. They are guilty of the very things Palestinians detest in the Israeli government. When suicide bombers commit collective punishment, they become what they loathe. When the Israeli army incarcerates whole towns for long periods of time or a suicide bomber blows himself up in a market place and indiscriminate killing ensues, both are collective punishment directed at largely innocent people.
Eighth, although people may be ready to die for their faith or even for their country, they need to do everything they can to stay alive and witness in life rather than kill themselves. So long as they are alive, they have the opportunity to witness to the truth. Indeed, they need to remain faithful until death but they must not give up on life and kill themselves. We reject suicide bombings because we believe in life before death as well as life after death. In spite of the despairing situation, these young men and women deserve to live.
There cannot be room for hate if we want to live together. And live together we must. Ending the occupation will certainly end the suicide bombings. All peace-loving people, whether people of faith or not, must exert greater concerted effort to work for the ending of the occupation.
The Rev. Naim Ateek is often called the “Desmond Tutu of Palestine” for his leading role in promoting Palestinian nonviolent resistance. Rejecting the misuse of scriptures by Jewish and Christian Zionists, he has written a new book offering theological insights to biblical texts that help Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation.
His most recent book, A Palestinian Christian Call for Reconciliation presents a very human Jesus who will appeal even to non-religionists (if they are peaceful ones), while also honoring the Jesus Christ of the Christian faith. Ateek also reaches back to Old Testament figures to debunk problematic Christian and Jewish theologies and uncovers ancient biblical teachings relevant to today’s Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
This article was originally published in 2005
One man spoke to the world, and the world listened.
He walked onto the stage in Cairo, alone, without hosts and without aides, and delivered a sermon to an audience of billions. Egyptians and Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, Copts and Maronites – and they all listened attentively.
He unfolded before them the map of a new world, a different world, whose values and laws he spelled out in simple and clear language – a mixture of idealism and practical politics, vision and pragmatism.
Barack Hussein Obama – as he took pains to call himself – is the most powerful man on earth. Every word he utters is a political fact.
“A historic speech”, pronounced commentators in a hundred languages. I prefer another adjective:
The speech was right.
Every word was in its place, every sentence precise, every tone in harmony. The masterpiece of a man bringing a new message to the world.
From the very first word, every listener in the hall and in the world felt the honesty of the man, that his heart and his tongue were in harmony, that this is not a politician of the old familiar sort – hypocritical, sanctimonious, calculating. His body language was speaking, and so were his facial expressions
That’s why the speech was so important. The new moral integrity and the sense of honesty increased the impact of the revolutionary content.
And a revolutionary speech it certainly was.
In 55 minutes, it not only wiped away the eight years of George W. Bush, but also much of the preceding decades, from World War II on.
The American ship has turned – not with the sluggishness everyone would have expected, but with the agility of a speedboat.
That is much more than a political change. It touches the roots of the American national consciousness. The President spoke to hundreds of million US citizens no less than to a billion Muslims.
The American culture is based on the myth of the Wild West, with its Good Guys and Bad Guys, violent justice, dueling under the midday sun. Since the American nation is composed of immigrants from all over the world, its unity seems to require a threatening, world-encompassing evil enemy, like the Nazis and the Japs, or the Commies. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, this role was taken over by Islam.
Cruel, fanatical, bloodthirsty Islam; Islam as the religion of murder and destruction; an Islam lusting for the blood of women and children. This enemy captured the imagination of the masses and supplied material for television and cinema. It provided lecture topics for learned professors and fresh inspiration for popular writers. The White House was occupied by a moron who declared a world-wide “War on Terrorism”.
When Obama is now uprooting this myth, he is revolutionizing American culture. He wipes away the picture of one enemy, without painting another in its place. He preaches against the violent, adversary attitude itself, and starts to work to replace it with a culture of partnership between nations, civilizations and religions.
I see Obama as the first great messenger of the 21st century. He is the son of a new era, where the economy is global and the whole of humanity faces the danger to the very existence of life on the planet Earth. An era where the Internet connects a boy in New Zealand with a girl in Namibia in real time, where a disease in a small Mexican village spreads all over the globe within days.
This world needs a world law, a world order, a world democracy. That’s why this speech really was historic: Obama outlined the basic contours of a world constitution.
While Obama proclaims the 21st century, the government of Israel is returning to the 19th.
That was the century when a narrow, egocentric, aggressive nationalism took root in many countries. A century that sanctified the belligerent nation which oppresses minorities and subdues neighbors. The century that gave birth to modern anti-Semitism and to its response – modern Zionism.
Obama’s vision is not anti-national. He spoke with pride about the American nation. But his nationalism is of another sort: an inclusive, multi-cultural and non-sexist nationalism, which includes all the citizens of a country and respects other nations.
This is the nationalism of the 21st century, which is inexorably striving towards supranational, regional and world-wide structures.
Compared to this, how miserable is the mental world of the Israeli Right! How miserable is the violent, fanatical-religious world of the settlers, the chauvinist ghetto of Netanyahu, Lieberman and Barak, the racist-fascist closed-in world of their Kahanist allies!
One has to understand this moral and spiritual dimension of Obama’s speech before considering its political implications. Not only in the political sphere are Obama and Netanyahu on a collision course. The underlying collision is between two mental worlds which are as distinct from each other as the sun and the moon.
In Obama’s mental world, there is no place for the Israeli Right or its equivalents elsewhere. Not for their terminology, not for their “values”, and still less for their actions.
In the political political sphere, too, a huge gap has opened up between the governments of Israel and the USA.
During the last few years, successive Israeli governments have ridden the wave of Islamophobia that has spread throughout the West. The Islamic world was considered the deadly enemy, America was galloping grimly towards the Clash of Civilizations, every Muslim was a potential terrorist.
Israel’s right-wing leaders could rejoice. After all, the Palestinians are Arabs, the Arabs are Muslims, the Muslims are Terrorists – so that Israel was assured a central place in the war of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness.
That was a Garden of Eden for racist demagogues. Avigdor Lieberman could advocate the expulsion of the Arabs from Israel, Ellie Yishai could enact laws for the revocation of the citizenship of non-Jews. Obscure Members of the Knesset could grab headlines with bills that might have been conceived in Nuremberg.
This Garden of Eden is no more. Whether the implications will become clear quickly or slowly – the direction is obvious. If we continue on our path, we will become a leper colony.
The tone makes the music – and this applies also to the President’s words on Israel and Palestine. He spoke at length about the Holocaust – honest and courageous words, full of empathy and compassion, which were received by the Egyptians in silence but with respect. He stressed Israel’s right to exist. And without pausing, he spoke about the suffering of the Palestinian refugees, the intolerable situation of the Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinian aspirations for a state of their own.
He spoke respectfully about Hamas. Not anymore as a “terrorist organization”, but as a part of the Palestinian people. He demanded that they recognize Israel and stop violence, but also hinted that he would welcome a Palestinian unity government.
The political message was clear and unequivocal: the Two-State Solution will be put into practice. He himself will see to that. Settlement activity must cease. Unlike his predecessors, he did not stop at speaking about “Palestinians”, but uttered the decisive word: “Palestine” – the name of a state and a territory.
And no less important: the Iran war has been struck from the agenda. The dialogue with Tehran, as a part of the new world, is not limited in time. As from now, no one can even dream about an American OK for an Israeli attack.
How did official Israel respond? The first reaction was denial. “An unimportant speech”. “There was nothing new”. The establishment commentators picked out a few pro-Israeli sentences from the text and ignored all the others. And after all, “these are just words. So he talked. Nothing will come out of it.”
That is nonsense. The words of the President of the United States are more than just words. They are political facts. They change the perceptions of hundreds of millions. The Muslim public listened. The American public listened. It may take some time for the message to sink in. But after this speech, the pro-Israel lobby will never be the same as it was before. The era of “foile shtik” (Yiddish for sneaky tricks) is over. The sly dishonesty of a Shimon Peres, the guileful deceits of an Ehud Olmert, the sweet talking of a Bibi Netanyahu – all these belong to the past.
The Israeli people must now decide: whether to follow the right-wing government towards an inevitable collision with Washington, as the Jews did 1940 years ago when they followed the Zealots into a suicidal war on Rome – or to join Obama’s march towards a new world.
Uri Avnery is a Jewish peace activist, a outspoken critic of official Israel. He lives in TelAviv.
Image entitled: music note, hope 2
To go to Uri Avnery’s blog, Gush Shalom, click here:
If hopes were made of glass, the sound of their shattering since Jan. 20 would be deafening. In dealing with a worldwide depression President Barack Obama has adopted innovative solutions substantially different from those of his predecessors, but in dealing with the equally dire situation in the Middle East he seems committed to a policy that has consistently failed.
The change of American presidents will not mean a foreseeable end to the war in Afghanistan or even to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, where 50,000 U.S. troops will remain until 2011 and possibly later. Even more disappointing is the absence of any change in policy toward Israel. When pro-Israel zealots objected to the nomination of Ambassador Charles Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council because he had criticized Israel, Obama scuttled his director of national intelligence’s nominee (see p. 10). Despite Amnesty International’s charge that Israel had committed “serious violations of international law and human rights abuses,” Obama renewed George W. Bush’s pledge to send Israel $30 billion for weapons over the next 10 years.
That pledge means continuing to send Israel the equipment it used to kill 1,434 Gazans between Dec. 27 and Jan. 19, weapons that included F-16 bombers, Hellfire missiles, attack helicopters, white phosphorous bombs, and an anti-personnel device known as “Defense Inert Metal Explosive” (DIME). The new missile is similar to but more lethal than cluster bombs. On explosion the DIME spreads micro shrapnel throughout the body, causing multiple fractures that can’t be dealt with surgically. A patient who survives is almost certain to suffer septicemia and a deadly form of cancer. Congress approved a $77 million sale of 1,000 DIMEs to Israel in 2008.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set the tone for administration policy at an international conference in Egypt held to raise funds for the relief of Gaza. She expressed deep sympathy for the suffering of the Gazans, but laid the blame for it on Hamas. When she visited the West Bank during her trip she told a Palestinian audience that in order for a child in Gaza to have the same right as other children to “go to school, see a doctor and live with a roof over her head,” they must “break the cycle of rejection and resistance, [and] cut the strings pulled by those who exploit the suffering of innocent Palestinians.” What she meant was: Get rid of Hamas.
Clinton paid lip service to the Arab peace proposal of 2002, which offered full peace with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders, but instead of chastising Israel for not accepting it, she called on the Arabs to “begin signalling through words and deeds that the spirit of the peace initiative can begin to govern attitudes toward Israel now.” In other words, the obligation to make peace lies with Arab leaders, even as Israel remains unyielding in its rejection of their proposal.
International donors pledged some $3 billion in aid to Gaza, and Clinton promised an additional $600 million, with most of the money going to the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. How much aid will actually reach Gaza is questionable, since contributors stipulated that no money may be given to Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, when it put down down an attempt by U.S.-trained Fatah forces to oust it from the unity government.
Efforts to funnel aid to Gaza through nongovernmental organizations face obstacles set up by Israel, which refuses to permit entry of cement, steel, and other materials necessary to rebuild the police stations, public buildings, health care centers, science laboratories, businesses, and thousands of homes it destroyed. The Israelis allow in only a trickle of necessities such as food and medicine.
Obama and Clinton have vowed to pursue peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but their refusal to include Hamas in the negotiations promises to doom their effort from the start. Given the respect Hamas won from Palestinians for standing up to Israel’s military might, and Abbas’ demonstrated weakness, Hamas will have to play a role in drawing up any peace agreement acceptable to all Palestinians.
Hamas’ popularity in the region increases with every act of cruelty inflicted by Israel. It has long abandoned its goal of destroying the Jewish state and is willing to talk peace. Its leaders insist only that Israel withdraw completely to its 1967 borders. Since almost all Palestinians support this demand, which is based on U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, there is no reason why the Obama administration shouldn’t recognize Hamas as a legitimate negotiating partner. The British government recently showed the way by announcing it was re-establishing contact with Hezbollah, acknowledging that the organization is “part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon.”
The one-sided demand that Hamas recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist in order to take part in negotiations became even more untenable in March with the formation of an Israeli government that opposes even a semblance of a Palestinian state. The platform of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party asserts that “The government of Israel rejects the establishment of a Palestinian State west of the Jordan River…Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel…The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values.”
Netanyahu’s governing coalition includes two additional right-wing parties, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, both of which represent nationalist settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews who declare any return of Palestinian territory an offense against God. Shas’ chairman, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, claimed Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for Bush’s support of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Shas was given the Housing Ministry and will supervise settlement construction.
A Labor Alternative?
The Labor party became the third member of the coalition when Netanyahu agreed to reappoint its chairman, Ehud Barak, as defense minister. Barak is a member of the hawkish wing of the party, which split 680 to 507 to join Netanyahu’s government. At Camp David in 2000 then-Prime Minister Barak offered the Palestinians a truncated “state” composed of a chunk of West Bank territory surrounded by Israeli settlements, military bases and highways. He walked out of follow-up negotiations in Taba, Egypt, days before Israel’s Feb. 6, 2001 election in which he was defeated by Ariel Sharon—and when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reportedly were close to agreement. As defense minister, Barak planned Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza that shocked the world with its massive destructiveness.
Netanyahu caused a ripple abroad when he named an outspoken hawk, Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, as foreign minister. Lieberman favors action against Iran to stop its nuclear activities, and proposes that Israeli Palestinians be required to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state or be deported. His appointment is in line with Netanyahu’s emphasis on Iran’s nuclear program as the greatest danger Israel faces, with the Palestinian issue of far less importance. Lieberman’s appointment may be a signal that Israel and its supporters will press hard for a tougher U.S. policy toward Iran.
Javier Solano, foreign affairs chief for the European Union, reacted to Netanyahu’s election with consternation. “Let me say very clearly,” he said, “that the way the EU will relate to an Israeli government that is not committed to a two-state solution will be very, very different.”A Haaretz editorial commented that “The ascent of politicians like Avigdor Lieberman is always an indication that a democracy has lost its direction and seeks to channel its fear and hopelessness into hatred.”
The election outcome reflected the overt racism that pervades much of the Israeli population, especially settlers, police and members of the army. Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass visited Gaza after Israel’s invasion ended, and found walls covered with graffiti saying such things as, “We came to annihilate you,” “Death to Arabs,” and “We came to liquidate you.” Families forced to evacuate their homes returned to find their furniture and other possessions smashed and used as toilets. Haaretz reported on March 21 that soldiers were ordering T-shirts showing bombed out mosques and dead Palestinian babies. One shirt bore a picture of a pregnant woman with a bulls-eye imprinted on her belly, saying “1 shot, 2 kills.”
Soldiers in the West Bank are often equally brutal. After a recent increase in military raids, The Guardian reported that soldiers were storming into homes in the middle of the night, destroying furniture and other goods, and either making arrests or threatening to return. At least 10 high-ranking Hamas officials have been re-arrested, along with hundreds of other Palestinians. Most are accused of taking part in protests against the separation wall that intrudes on village land.
Although these demonstrations are almost entirely nonviolent, Israeli troops routinely fire tear gas, rubber bullets and sometimes live ammunition at the participants. They have killed at least four Palestinians in the past year, including a 10-year-old boy. Such behavior went unnoticed by the U.S. media until mid-March, when an American, Tristan Anderson, took part in a protest in the town of Ni’lin and was gravely injured by a tear gas canister fired at random by an Israeli soldier.
The powerful influence of right-wing settlers no matter which government is in power was illustrated in March when the previous Ministry of Housing announced plans to double the number of West Bank settlers by building 73,000 more units. Settlement construction increased by 60 percent after Bush’s peace conference at Annapolis in November 2007.
Just before Clinton’s visit to Ramallah in March, the government also began tearing down the first of 1,500 homes in Arab East Jerusalem to make way for historical parks, claiming the owners lacked permits. Clinton called Israel’s actions “unhelpful,” but when she was questioned about Israel’s continued settlement expansion, declined to give a direct answer. Like Israeli officials, she noticeably avoided using the word “settlements.”
Clinton was similarly vague on the issue of Gaza’s border crossings. “We have obviously expressed concern,” she said, but implied that Hamas’ continued rocketing was to blame. Her spokesman, Robert Wood, dismissed as “biased” a report by the U.N.’s human rights investigator, Prof. Richard Falk, on the desperate plight of Gaza’s population.
The Kadima government under Tzipi Livni did everything possible to prevent creation of an independent Palestinian state while maintaining the fiction of seeking a two-state solution.The Israeli government is now dominated by right-wing nationalists whose avowed goal, as Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell of Hebrew University describes it, is “a colonial state that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.” Obama therefore has to choose between ending U.S. support for Israel or subsidizing Israel’s efforts to achieve permanent dominance over the Palestinians.
The president must make equally crucial decisions regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. His declared plan is to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011, as the Status of Forces Agreement requires, but that document can always be amended if the security situation worsens and a weak Iraqi government asks for continued protection. Obama has not mentioned removing from Iraq the 190,000 private contractors or the dozen or more U.S. military bases that resemble self-contained American cities.
Obama’s decision to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan and extend the war into Pakistan could entrap him in an open-ended conflict that could deepen ethnic and political divisions in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and pose a threat to U.S. security. Brian Urquhart, former U.N. undersecretary-general, has pointed out that Operation Desert Storm in 1991 “created a permanent U.S. military presence in the Gulf, which, in Saudi Arabia, provided the proximate cause for the birth of al-Qaeda.” A continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan could have similar consequences.
The administration’s strategy is now aimed at ending the use by the Taliban and al-Qaeda of safe havens in Pakistan to launch their attacks, and strengthening the central government in Kabul. But that plan faces several obstacles. Air attacks and ground raids by U.S.-led forces inevitably kill civilians and account for much of the anger that has turned most of the Afghan population against the war and sparked anti-government violence in Pakistan.
A strong national government runs counter to the Afghan tradition of tribal and village leadership and is additionally suspect in view of the Karzai government’s corruption and failure to improve life for ordinary Afghans. According to Oren Tripp, who has spent the past two years in Afghanistan as a Truman National Security Fellow, the Kabul government has failed to provide even the most basic services or maintain a minimum of stability. It has consequently left a vacuum that “the Taliban is filling, one village at a time.”
Many foreign policy analysts suggest that the sensible way to counter extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to isolate al-Qaeda from the Pashtun tribesmen and other diverse groups that come under the heading of “Taliban.” These fighters bitterly oppose the presence of Western armies, but have no interest in exporting terrorism. Many members of the Taliban are not religious fundamentalists, but farmers and unemployed laborers who joined the Taliban in order to earn $200 a month. The message from Tripp and other experts is that restoring the economy would bring about peace far faster than drone-fired missiles.
The Bush administration proved at great cost that a nation cannot impose its will on another people through military force. Obama will succeed in Afghanistan only by withdrawing all U.S. troops and providing aid for agriculture, schools, and roads. He will make America and the world safer if he takes into account the grievances that cause terrorism, and abandons the policy of blind support for Israel.
Abe Foxman of the so-called Anti-Defamation League (ADL) attacked Bill Moyers for trying to create a moral equivalency in the Middle East. That is expected, of course—but the ADL head also claims that George Mitchell is too fair to be a broker between Israel and the Palestinians.
I guess that Foxman, in denouncing President Barack Obama’s choice of Mitchell for Middle East negotiator, shows that he is accustomed to such impartial mediators as Dennis Ross—who, when he left the Clinton administration, returned to the Israel Lobby—in the incarnation as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—from whence he came. Or Foxman possibly could be making a comparison between Mitchell and Alan Dershowitz, the famed Israel propagandist. (I once called Dershowitz a “snake” on Al Manar TV, which prompted him to write a column in the Jerusalem Post calling me an anti-Semite. My mistake was to forget to apologize to the snakes.)
I’m sorry to say that, as much as I admire George Mitchell for the public service he has provided over the years, being fair will not be enough to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the brutality that accompanies it.
The gyrations of various administrations over the years, all of whom have put on great shows of “settling” the conflict, have done nothing but waste a great deal of newspaper ink and television time reporting peace efforts, as though the media believed what snake oil salespeople, such as Condi Rice, were selling to the American public. What someone in our government should have realized by now is that Israel absolutely does not want to give up the West Bank for a Palestinian state, even though there are warnings that if a “two-state solution” is not reached, the Palestinians will be forced into a state of apartheid for the rest of the century. Certainly, the Israelis have no intention of allowing the Palestinians to outvote them in Israel, which leaves South African-style apartheid as the only solution.
One can count all the reasons given by the Israelis for not achieving the “peace” that Israel claims it wants, reasons such as:
We have no negotiating partner.
The Palestinians have to recognize Israel’s right to exist first, before we talk to them.
They have to end terrorism first.
We made the Palestinians the best offer they could ever have gotten, but they turned it down.
These are just some of the shopworn excuses trotted out to avoid cutting a deal.
It seems that very few people have caught on to this scam, even though it really has been exposed for many years. So, as the establishment continues to dream about achieving “peace,” Israel continues to swallow up Palestinian lands, beating up, imprisoning and massacring Palestinians on a daily basis.
It is very clear to me, as well as to anyone else who declines to see the conflict solely through an Israeli prism, that until an American president flatly tells the Israelis that they must move the settlers out of the West Bank there will be no peace—only more occupation, more brutality, more violations of international law, and more bloody massacres of civilians such as the one we only recently witnessed in Gaza. Anything short of that leaves the Israelis in complete control, and it will leave America with more and more enemies not only in the Middle East, but around the world.
President Obama mentioned recently that if he doesn’t get the economy turned around in his first term, he most likely will not have a second term. What he has not yet calculated, however, is that the occupation of the Palestinians results in angry terrorism against American interests all over the world. Obama is faced with the choice of either angering the Likud Lobby by demanding that the Israeli settlers be kicked out of the West Bank, or of continuing the heavy spending required to maintain Israel’s occupation against the wishes of the people they are occupying. What is your guess as to what he will do?
By now we should have learned that America can no longer afford to listen to the Abe Foxmans and Alan Dershowitzes of the world. As a nation, we are out of money, bereft of ideas, and incapable of curbing the moral and financial corruption in Washington, DC—which includes the corruption brought about by the Likud Lobby.
The result is that the rich get richer and the poor and the middle class become more and more desperate, searching for jobs that no longer exist, and for homes they no longer can afford.
The likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have brought the world down around our collective ears—and, after having done so, have ridden off into the sunset, happy in the knowledge that they’ve taken care of their rich friends who have profited from the wars they have started. The oil price fluctuations and the conflicts in the Middle East, which have brought about the surge in military spending—all paid for by the people of this country—have created fortunes for their cronies. We are, unfortunately, not finished paying the price for Mr. Bush’s costly—in terms of human lives and of money—puerile adventures of the past eight years. We will be, for a long time, reaping the hatred and the violence caused by their wars, in addition to reaping the economic fallout resulting from their policies of greed and corruption. And we have not yet counted the kinds of misery and poverty and corruption these two heroes have spawned as a result of the Iraq war.
The cowardice of our presidents and of our Congress keeps Israel in the driver’s seat so far as continuing its occupation. Brutality is the natural product of an occupation that is necessary to keep the land they’ve stolen from the Palestinians. We are in desperate need of “change,” and we hope and we pray that Mr. Obama will have the courage to bring it about. Without that kind of commitment, there is no hope for a return to civilization.
James G. Abourezk is a former U.S. senator (D-SD) and founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He currently practices law in Sioux Falls, SD.
As the planet goes slowly insane, we were treated this week to a sorry vignette from the lunatic villas of our own country. George Galloway was finally and officially refused entry into Canada. The bureaucratic reason was that the British MP is a security threat.-What was he planning to do, kick a Mountie in the shins, sneak into a hockey game without a ticket?-
The real reason is that he opposes this country’s one-sided policy with respect to Palestine and the war in Afghanistan.-
Galloway did have a few supporters though, including Conrad Black, who now covers the Inmate Beat for the National Post. Black wrote that although Galloway was “a magnificent absurdity” he would provide good “entertainment” value if allowed in.-
Now that Conrad has made such a fine contribution to the Post, readers are wondering: Are theatre reviews from Garth Drabinsky next, perhaps investment tips from Bernie Madoff? Maybe Martha Stewart could do a nice behind-the-bars feature after taking the boys some home-made cookies?
While we were denying free speech to a five-times elected British MP, we were extending it to a convicted felon who renounced his Canadian citizenship before being caught with his entire body in the corporate cookie jar.And there is this little item for those who think Galloway really is a security threat. We gave security clearance and a job to a guy at one of our airports who was straight out of the Sopranos. As Auditor General Sheila Fraser pointed out, this choirboy was being investigated for a murder related to drug smuggling at a major airport! But rest easy. We would surely have weeded him out if he had planned on giving a speech.
No, George was just too much of an embarrassment to Canada’s shameful behaviour toward the Palestinian people. After 1,453 of them were slaughtered in Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces, including more than 400 women and children, Canada had nothing to say about it.
We had nothing to say about it when the United Nations condemned Israel for its super-violent Gaza operation, noting the verified reports of Israeli abuses were “too numerous to list.”
We had nothing to say when Israeli newspapers published accounts of IDF soldiers who reported that there was a “permissive” attitude toward killing civilians during the assault. As one IDF squad commander put it in the New York Times, “What I felt was, there was a lot of thirst for blood.”
We had nothing to say about it when the Israeli military was forced to condemn as “unacceptable” shocking images printed on T-shirts ordered by some IDF recruits to commemorate the end of basic training.- As was reported at the time, “One of them bore the image of a pregnant Arab woman with a bull’s-eye superimposed on her belly, along with the slogan, ’1 shot, 2 kills.’ “-
The Israeli army condemned the practice, sort of: “This type of humour is unacceptable. Commanders are instructed to use disciplinary tools against those who produce T-shirts of this type.”- Humour?
As for Afghanistan, where our soldiers are dying so that certain sectors of that society may legally rape their wives, George might have had a few things to say about the kind of democracy we are spreading so sanctimoniously.
I look forward to that great champion of free speech, Jason Kenney, demolishing this troublesome fellow in a public debate.