Glimmers of wisdom from The Gray Lady

November 14, 2006 at 3:10 am (Christianity, History, Iran, Islam, Islamism, Israel, Judaism, Military, Religion, Religions, The Internet, The Media, The United States, The West, Theology, War, Websites)

In the November 12, 2006, issue of Magazine of The New York Times, letters to the editors were published which had some very good points. I present them here with some comments by me.

Letter the First: (emphasis added)

Noah Feldman’s essay (Oct. 29) is an excellent analysis of why the suicide-bomb-martyr theology that today permeates much of the Islamic world, including Iran, undermines traditional theories of nuclear deterrence based on mutually assured destruction.

However, he omits an equally important consideration: If Iran launched a nuclear attack targeting civilians en masse in Israel, the United States or another Western nation, would that nation retaliate against Iran by targeting Iranian civilians en masse? If Iran’s leaders believe the answer is no, then the question Feldman raises concerning the willingness of Iran to subject its people to involuntary “martyrdom” is moot.

Unfortunately, the deep regard among Israelis and Americans for human rights may, perversely, encourage an unprovoked nuclear attack by Iran. This further complicates the question of how to deter Islamic extremists in the emerging age of nuclear proliferation, and there are no easy answers.

Stephen A. Silver
Walnut Creek, Calif.

Thus, if The West is unwilling to do what is necessary to establish a deterrent – that is, making it clear that Iran will suffer just as much, if not more than, the target of Iran’s attack – Iran has no reason not to attack. If it is willing to attack even if its people will be slaughtered, consider how much more willing it would be so attack when we are unwilling to make Iran face the consequences of its actions.

Letter the Second:

When Feldman dismisses the role of deterrence in dealing with fanatics willing to participate in suicide bombings, he is missing the fundamental issue in deterrence, which is to target that which is most valuable to your enemy.

What is most valuable in a society? In our culture, that would be human life. To the radical Islamic suicide bomber, by definition, his life is not as important as his mission. But in a society that views its land as sacred and not to be violated by infidels, Medina and Mecca are beyond value and irreplaceable.

Robert N. Cooper, M.D.
Stuart, Fla.

Frankly, this is the best suggestion I have ever heard of or read. Muslim fanatics won’t care about what losses they will have to endure as far as their population and cities are concerned. (Indeed, their population can take all the hits we can make; they’ll simply replace them with more people.) We think about striking their people and their cities because we believe they value them. But we believe wrong. If we are to strike something they – Muslim fanatics, whoever and wherever they may be – value, such that they will have to think twice before striking us, we ought to make a clear statement threatening not their peope or their cities but, rather, their sacred sites. Such sites could include:

  • Mecca, Saudi Arabia (sacred to all Muslims)
  • Madinah, Saudi Arabia (sacred to all Muslims)
  • The Noble Sanctuary, Jerusalem, Israel (supposedly sacred to all Muslims)1
  • The Mosque of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, Najaf, Iraq (sacred to Shiites and, as the masoleum of the fourth of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, to Sunnis)
  • Karbala, Iraq (sacred to Shiites)
  • Qom, Iran (sacred to Shiites)
  • Mash-had, Iran (sacred to Shiites)
  • The Mosque of Imam Khomeini, Tehran, Iran (sacred to Shiites)

1. It is obvious that the Noble Sanctuary (also known as The Temple Mount) cannot be attacked as such, but what action could be taken could include pressuring Israel to declare it off-limits to Muslims, destroying the Aqsa Mosque (which is separate from The Dome of the Rock, and which has no sanctity for Christians or Jews), razing The Dome of the Rock and transferring the entire Mount to Israel/Jewish control. So on and so forth. I should mention that even should The Temple Mount come under sole Israeli/Jewish control and authority, Jews would still be barred by the Chief Rabbis of Israel from ascending to The Mount because of concerns of purity and desecrating the Holy of Holies (Heaven forfend).

As terrible as this may sound, it would save many lives. But this is in theory only. Were any state to actually attack certain sites, the whole Muslim world would declare war on that state, which would ultimately result in an uncountable number of deaths on both sides (and the Muslim world’s people would not mind dying for the sake of their religion).

Letter the Third:

Feldman provides a fine discussion of suicide bombers, nuclear weapons and Islamic doctrines for the use of force. But he blends together discussions of nuclear weapons, Iran and Shi’ism in a manner that fails to consider that Iranian national aspirations long antedate the current domination of Iran by clerics.

Mohammed Reza Pahlevi followed the path of his father, Reza, in powerfully asserting the right of Iran to play a more respected role in the world. He began his nuclear program in the 1960s, expanded it in the 1970s, and it is to some extent this program that the current Iranian regime is following in the 21st century. While Islam is undoubtedly important to Iran’s present leaders, what unites most Iranians behind their policies is nationalism and, in particular, the sense that it is past time that Iran again played a major role in world affairs.

In considering policy toward Iran, it is a mistake to see our relations as simply an aspect of a posited larger struggle of Islam against the West.

Raymond D. Gastil
Deep River, Conn.

Mr. Gastil has a point, but only to a point. It is true that nationalism and nationalist aspirations are being used to conjure up support for such reckless program, but the impact of religion cannot be discounted. Were this Iran of the Shahs, then we would have no choice but to factor in nationalism as a main component of the ideology and motivation behind such programs. But considering the people at the helm are the clerics, for whom nationalism is a perversion, we cannot afford to dilute the importance of religious fanaticism in this scenario.

Not only is religious fanaticism a significant element here, but specifically elements from the Shiite religious ethos: the almost Zoroastrian concept of the war between good and evil (which also adds a divine nature to this conflict), the inevitability of opposition to good, the suffering and martyrdom of the good at the hands of the evil, the ultimate and inevitable bloody victory of the good over the evil, the absolute goodness of the good and the absolute evil of the evil, the call not to hesitate or slack one’s efforts, and so on.

Indeed, nationalism certainly may motivate some or even many people, but the main official Justification that is used from the top to the bottom is religious fanaticism.

Letter the Fourth:

You cannot have terrorist organizations and theocratic countries threatening death to America in the name of Islam and then blame Americans for taking the threats seriously. If there really is a silent moderate majority in the American Muslim community, this is the time to make itself heard.

Virginia Bayer
New York

Yes, and their silence is deafening, is it not? Why, then, is there no larger outcry by the Muslim community in The United States?

Truth is, Muslims do not see any such programs as inappropriate. Why, even Sunnis might rejoice and take pride in an Iran with nuclear weapons, just as they all rejoiced when Pakistan declared its possession of nuclear weapons (even Pakistan developed this technology for nationalist reasons and not religious reasons).

Letter the Fifth:

Debating the “true” meaning of the Koran may have some scholastic interest, but it contributes nothing to understanding or reducing the risk of a nuclear attack. The 9/11 murderers did not care about the niceties of scriptural interpretation. Neither will their successors when they get their hands on nuclear weapons. It is delusional to suppose that explicating Islamic law will help anyone predict, or influence, their behavior.

Bruce Hay
Professor of Law
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Thank you, Dr. Hay. I am glad there is one academic in Harvard who sees the reality in this issue.

Truth is that what the Qur’an says is completely irrelevant. What matters is not what it says but what Muslims believe it says. And such beliefs are never right or wrong: one can always find a way to justify any interpretation of the Qur’an. As it is, most people have a set and concrete view of what the Qur’an says, and no amount of correction or explanation or exhortation will change that. Indeed, they will simply label such “reformers” as heretics, if not apostates, surely under the command of some Jewish and/or Christian conspiracy, and thereby discredit them and cause others to not even listen to them.

Trying to understand the Qur’an is utterly futile, frankly. (This is especially so when one cannot properly understand the Qur’an without reading commentaries on it.) What yields more results is learning what Muslims believe what the Qur’an says. For this one has to read what they have written for themselves. (Never trust anything written in English by Muslims, especially for non-Muslim audiences: such books mostly hide or misrepresent uncomfortable elements of Islam.)


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