Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

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Ahmadinejad at Columbia (abridged)

President Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran spoke at Columbia University recently.

You'll find it included below, as well as considerably commentary that includes a fair amount of analysis that expresses how I see global politics (and a bonus picture of an Iguana):
Umm.. sorry, Livejournal won't actually let me make a post that big, even behind a cut. That's pretty disappointing. If you want to see it formatted nicely, please hop on over to my actual blog entry on it on the non-LJ side of the mirror. Sorry. In the meantime, you can just find my comments on the discussion below:

I think that Bollinger overdid his intro, both in length and in tone. The time would've been better used to press Ahmadinejad carefully on the points he raised, and some of his raised points were unbalanced:
  • On executions, as Ahmadinejad points out, the United Statess executes people as part of its justice system as well.
  • To our shame, America also detains people in Guantamino and eastern Europe as part of the War on Terror (extraordinary rendition), and has a history of a certain amount of similar detainment in certain situations on a fairly continual basis over the years, dating back at least to American placement of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in WW2 based on the idea that they would not be loyal to the United States were Japan to do a land invasion. Compared to Iran's situation where the United States (and Britain) actually managed to topple the government of Iran a number of times and otherwise interfered overtly in their politics, detaining people believed to be tied to foreign states and interests that would overthrow the government is more reasonable than past American domestic policy
  • The claim that Ahmadinejad is a cruel and petty dictator lacks credibility. No electoral system is perfect, but Ahmadinejad was elected to head the Republic of Iran, as have their last few people in his position, and we can expect the transition to the next leader to go similarly. Ahmadinejad is, while the head of state of Iran, not the entirety of its government or its society. Claims of his being either a dictator or particularly cruel are at least not made in his statement.
  • I wish he had quoted Ahmadinejad's claims about the holocaust with enough context that Ahmadinejad would've been forced to talk more about what he said
  • His claims about Iran's support for terrorist groups is not careful enough, and the difference between the current "government" of Iraq and other groups that would be a government are not clean - al-Sadr's group isn't clearly very different in principle from the other groups that would exercise state power. Nor do i think the criticisms of the American efforts at statebuilding are based on anything other than identification with American ends - why should Ahmadinejad face criticism for backing other groups that would form a state in that power vaccuum? If the American-picked government can fight for dominance, perhaps the Iranian-picked viers can do so as well, with little criticism possible on an abstract level. If we don't accept the American-Iraqi government as legitimate, Bollinger's point on the proxy war lacks any bite.
  • The daring him to answer honestly is in poor taste.

On to Ahmadinejad:
  • I am uncertain that the references to Islam or quoting the Qur'an is likely to win much sympathy with Americans, although quoting the Evangil or Torah would probably both be wandering into an area of hostile interpretations and be seen as deceptive over the fact that Islam, while closer to Judaism than Christianity, is still a belief system with its own traditions. Recitation of it to open the speech is an interesting choice.. although it probably is meant to show that he is a man of faith, which might resonate well with the American mainstream (to whatever extent the American mainstream will see this event)
  • He positions academics and religious scholars as having a responsibility to society to enlighten and lead. Later in his speech, he expresses an idea on the continuity of science with religion, suggesting that to view science as being restricted to material sciences (and, by implication, the rest of the scope science has traditionally been concerned with in western academia) is too narrow. This is not a novel idea - in western society, "modern" universities were born of the Church, with theology being the most highly regarded of the three traditional topics for post-bachelors education. Most islamic evangelical material I've seen has stressed this essential unity of morality/religion as a scholarly topic with the things that in the modern west we consider to be by distinction actual science. I've known some Christians who take a similar stance, although they're pretty far from the American mainstream (even granted that relativism hasn't really hit home with most people I know)
  • I concur with him that nuclear weapons are a disgrace, and wish that they had not been discovered, even recognising that fear of their use has prevented wars (or at least shifted them to proxy wars)
  • It is at least a bit tricky to address his complaint about the nuclear club desiring to remain exclusive in both power and weapons - the only real way to justify it is to withdraw to power politics, where they are no satisfying justifications. I confess that my objections to Iran having nuclear weapons lies squarely in this area (although I have no objection whatsoever to them having nuclear power - the problem is that one easily leads to the other)
  • With regards to holocaust denial, as I understand his statement is at least partial withdrawl from earlier statements that it did not occur - whether this reflects what he thinks or is is based on the needs of the discussion here is an open question. I am not opposed to historians, acting as academics, exploring other ways to understand the event. As I understand, denial of the holocaust is a crime in Germany, as is use of the swastika and other Nazi imagery for political purposes, as is political activity under those ideologies. To a certain extent, this is also true in other parts of Europe (where free speech is still a strong concern but is balanced in some realms with other social interests), while the United States takes a closer-to-absolutist stance on the matter (I float somewhere between). Is there a historical interest in understanding the event from different perspectives? Certainly - from ideas I've sometimes heard that the Shoah was sent by Hashem as punishment for integration into European society to detailed analyses of competing groups like the Freikorps and the Bund in a shattered, bankrupt society, from the ethics of different kinds of compliance with the German steamroller as Europe was puppetised, these matters bear discussion. One line that might be drawn is based on what is being advocated in the present - groups that would repeat the Holocaust in whole or part are a threat to society, and denial of the Holocaust, like use of Nazi imagery or philosophy, are usually strongly tied to a desire for such repetition - like the Klan in the United States, I think they go beyond the limits of acceptable political discourse, just as groups that would remove women's sufferage, establish new concentration camps, or cross other important foundations of our state - on one level, our Supreme Court has the responsibility of protecting/interpreting these foundations (declarations of unconstitutionality and other "judicial activism" being the form this takes). I am comfortable with Germany's illegalisation of Nazi groups/imagery/propoganda for this reason, although there lies a difficulty in how to handle scholars. If there are commonly-accepted lies about the Holocaust, it serves society's interest for academes to be able to investigate them - if what is permitted to the scholar is not immediately permitted to the activist (largely because of the activist's push for things in the present), that may be a line we'll need to draw. I suspect America, with its tradition of Free Speech being closer to an absolute, may never accept that position though..
  • I am unsure of the degree to which Iran has participated in IAEA inspections - if it has, and if the prevailing opinion is that such inspections are enough to prevent weapons capability, then it is unfair that Iran would be denied nuclear power, especially given the breached agreements they mentioned.
  • On terrorism, that's a complex matter - Iran (much like the United States) has funded political groups throughout the region, and the distinction between terrorism and freedom fighting is largely a matter of perspective (the Taliban bears the unique position of being both largely a creation of the United States and later a group that Iran and the United States both allied against). Ahmadinejad's mention of Iran having suffered from terrorism as well is both true and understated (Al Qaeda's hostility to Iran is rarely mentioned in American circles). Religious militancy and its effects on both local states and perceived external threats is unfortunately obfuscated by the America-designed language of terrorism.. Iran, just like many states in the region as well as the United States, has at times dirtied their hands, sometimes in cold blood, sometimes not, and pretending to be a wounded angel is unwarranted on either side.
  • Ahmadinejad's view of women's rights runs along conservative lines, but is consistent (and not that different from some domestic perspectives). He appears to believe in the "separate roles, separate attributes" model of gender (or sex, if you prefer - I use the terms interchangably). Given what I know of Ahmadinejad's domestic politics, for a social conservative he's not an absolutist - he fought a bitter political battle with more conservative factions in pushing for women being allowed to attend soccer games, and has pushed for other small reforms against opposition from the Guardian Council. For social or religious conservatives in the United States, his views are not necessarily unusual. That said, they're distant from the American liberal consensus on the matter and not something I like to see - for those of us in that consensus, regardless of any biological differences between the genders, outside of the possibility of narrow and strongly justified fields, men and women should be treated equally and as not distinct before the law, and generally the same in business and other areas of society. Some parts of this consensus also preclude or frown upon creation of strong (or any) gender roles. Iran has, for being part of the Islamic world, considerably less distance between the genders than several countries we have much friendlier relations with
  • On homosexuality, I believe he's flat out lying - homosexuality is and has long been a basic human factor that's occurred in a small factor of society, Iran included. Iran's persecution of them is well-known and well-documented - they suffer fates little different than those in the more conservative states west of them (e.g. Saudi Arabia, where they face death). I regret that this matter was not pushed further in the discussion
  • I do not think it would've been bad for him to have visited the WTC area. Iran was the first Islamic country to offer condemnation of the attacks and sympathies to the United States after 9/11, and is more at risk from attacks by Al Qaeda than the United States due to proximity. His sympathies are, I think, genuine, and his words against such acts should be welcomed.
  • His mention of the United States' support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq conflict was true but oversimplistic - it would be easy to make a strong case that either Iraq or Iran started the war (amid storng American and European efforts to encourage conflict to prevent rise of a local hegemon). That said, once the war started, the United States was instrumental in arranging for the rapid flow of weapons to Iraq

On Israel - Ahmadinejad is careful to draw a distinction between Jews and Israelis and between Zionism and Jewish interests. Iran has a jewish community, with a seat in their parliament reserved (as are reserved a few for other recognised minorities). He emphasised this by meeting with Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist (I'm using the modern usage of Zionism here) movement of religious Jews. He emphasises that outside of matters relating to Israel, Jews are fine by him. His call for action in Israel/Palestine are based on an outrage in the historical events that led to the creation of the State of Israel in Arab lands, as well as what he considers to be continued mistreatment of Arabs in that state. His call is for a right of return of Palestinian communities to the region, and then voting to decide on the future of the state/region. For what it's worth, I believe he's honest in that this is what he desires, and I also believe that, provided they don't support the state of Israel as it is, Jews are fine by him.

That said, I don't think that it would serve the interest of those who think like me to allow his ideas to come to fruition. I largely agree with him on what he's said and implied here regarding history and how it should be interpreted - that the state of Israel should not have been reborn where it is now, that it was a foolish and catastrophic decision that has led to much bloodshed, and that those living in the region had a terrible wrong done to them. I believe that there are racist elements to Israeli society and their legal system, some of which are just beginning to be addressed and some of which have yet to be (Law of Return, for starters). I dismiss arguments that nations automatically merit states (How about the kurds? How about all the other thousands of ethnic groups that might like states? Better, I think, that they should learn to live together and live under .. well, I'll get to that). Judging Israel solely on its history and its treatment of Palestinians, it would be easy to hate it (as I once did) - the first cannot be fixed, and there's room for improvement in the second (although considerable progress has been made and I expect/hope/would like to see pushed for continuance).

I am not a Zionist, and do not see Israel as a homeland for either the Hebrew people or the Judaist faith. Efforts to classify it as such or restrict it to that are things that I think should be opposed - financial and other pressure from the West is acceptable to push it on these matters. What I do see Israel as, and the basis for my support of it and rejection of viewpoints and solutions that would destroy it entirely, is a state and society that is considerably more in alignment with the European/American values than any of its neighbours. Israel is not entirely secular, but it is neither run by Shari'a nor under religious law managed by Battei Din. Israel's legal system is reasonably modern, it has reasonable freedom of the press, a high standard of living, and its society has strong cultural ties to Europe. In sum, it is more culturally advanced (provided one accepts the European-American notions of advancement, which I generally do), and permitting the area/society to lose these achievements into either the corruption and less-west-aligned style of its more secular neighbours (e.g. Syria) in the style of Fatah or the theocratic factions such as Hamas (which would be much worse, strategically, for those who hold western values) is not something that should be permitted. There are challenges Israel faces, and it is not as western as I would like (I would, for instance, like to see all of Shinui's political ends realised, Israel's religious parties wiped off of their political landscape, and the focus of their race policies shifted entirely towards protection of Western values and culture, with strong and broad laws against pro-Jewish discrimination), but they're effectively an island of Europe with same kinds of ugly history that most nations have (and resulting social problems). Things that would threaten their continuity without preserving the attributes we care about are not acceptable, and if that means an end to calls for the Right of Return the Palestinians want, the end of that dream is the lesser harm. An end to the Law of Return would make an excellent trade of sorts.

I am disappointed with unilateral disengagement with the Palestinians - as a tactic it makes sense both because it forces Palestinians to attempt to resolve the contradictions in their society by making them run it, and it may in fact be successful in lessening violence. As a strategy, it's bad for those who hold our values because it misses out on the opportunity to absorb entirely the Palestinian population and integrate them into a unified society. Arab Israelis (Palestinians and others who have accepted Israeli citizenship) enjoy a higher standard of living and education than Arabs in most non-Western countries, and act as nearly full members in what's essentially a western society. In the long run, and presuming it could be done, I believe that the most good could be achieved for both societies is a careful merger that would forcibly close sources of extremism, create universal, mandatory, mixed secular education, radically curb/punish racism on both sides, end the notion of a distinct homeland for either population, and move forward on that basis. A well-educated mostly-integrated Palestinian population would further be in an ideal position to spread the ideals of liberal, western values (or, more ideally, those subset that are actually healthy) to neighbouring countries. Two-state solutions lose out on this possibility. I should note that in theory the Baath party theoretically had (and has) these ends, although its liberalism isn't deep enough nor did it prove to have enough cultural strength as a movement to achieve its ends either to unify the countries it intended nor to combat Shari'a.

For those of us who are Socialist, I should note that we should resist those who call for solidarity with Palestinian seperatists or Islam in general - while neocolonialism is something we should still oppose, we must remember that Socialism depends on an advanced society for its birth - tribal politics must be so far in the past as to be nearly out of memory, religious extremism must have long been diluted by reasonable prosperity and enlightenment values, and industry must be advanced enough that labour and capitalists are the dominant social classes. It may, in theory, be possible to bypass some of the stages of societal development, but having a successful transition into a lasting socialist state that achieves its ends is likely to be difficult at the best of times. Alliances with religious forces, especially that advocate Shari'a, should only be done in more dire circumstances than I can presently imagine - those of either our movement or the anarchists who would suggest full or partial solidarity with Palestinian separatists or Islamic groups (as I have met more than a handful) are, I think, being either dishonest or foolhardy. It is our end to create a secular society that organises society around liberal, socialist principles, not religious ones. It is easy to call, as members of the Second International did, that participation in wars between capitalist countries is a waste of effort or forbidden, but this is a shortsighted view - not all countries are the same distance from liberal socialism, and some wars threaten radical changes in the international scene that threaten the preconditions for what we would create. Some wars may be purely about national pride or are otherwise pointless from our perspective - to the extent that war destroys and regresses societies, a practical pacifism may be warranted in those cases, but in general we must analyse both the causes and the effect of international conflicts and align ourselves accordingly, even if both actors are capitalist or otherwise non-socialist. Slogans such as "No War But the Class War" are shortsighted and should be abandoned.

Returning to Ahmadinejad, permitting the Palestinians refugees to return to what is now the state of Israel, while it would potentially right a historical wrong, in so doing would do a greater harm. His solution should be unacceptable to us, and to whatever extent it seems likely he'll achieve nuclear weapons capability, we must intervene. We don't have to like everything about Israeli society or the State of Israel, nor be a Zionist, in order to see its defense as serving the larger cause of Liberalism. Simplicities such as "Either With Or Against" deny the stance that we should be taking, which should be to push every nation towards further liberalism and take steps to guard global progress in that direction against whatever threats arise.

As a little bonus for those of you who actually took the time to read all this, here's a pic of an Iguana I used to have by the name of Frank:

Kudos to those of you who made it through the whole thing.
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