Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for February 2012

The streets of Colombo have witnessed angry crowds protesting at the soaring fuel costs which have further crippled an economy already weakened by years of corruption and political mismanagement. Small countries like Sri Lanka are affected disproportionately by the economic sanctions against Iran imposed by the US and the EU. Iran is one of Sri Lanka’s principal buyers of tea, and the island-nation is also heavily dependent on  Iranian oil. The freeze on transfers by intermediate banks has badly affected both our exports and imports.

Economic embargos on nations are rarely effective. It is the “common man and woman’” who suffers most, not the political leadership. And other smaller and fragile economies suffer “collateral damage”. Embargoes are also typically hypocritical: as I have pointed out in previous posts, the Western nations are so beholden economically to China and Saudi Arabia, countries whose human rights records are far worse than Iran’s, that they can never even entertain the possibility of any action against them except the occasional verbal rap across the knuckles. And, as China ripostes, why does the US not take a long and close look at its own human rights violations at home (its criminal justice system, for instance)? As long as the US claim impunity on the global stage for its own human rights abuses and war crimes in other countries, despotic regimes around the world can truthfully protest that “human rights” and “war crimes” are sticks with which the strong nations try to beat the weak into doing their bidding.

The growing obsession in conservative sections of the Western media over Iran gives me a feeling of déjà vu. I have often been pushed into defending despicable regimes. I remember preaching in a famous Boston church in 1999, and to illustrate a point in my sermon, mentioned the hypocrisy of the US government’s rhetoric against Saddam Hussein and the way that economic sanctions against Iraq were not hurting him but millions of children who were dying daily due to lack of access to medicines. The college students loved it, but several older folk were furious that I had “brought politics into the pulpit”.  At least they didn’t stone me.

Three years later, in January 2003, I was speaking at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Graduates & Faculty conference in Atlanta. The other speakers (who included Marva Dawn, Miroslav Volf and Dan Trulear) and myself drafted a letter calling on the Bush administration not to launch its planned invasion of Iraq. We pointed out that there was not a shred of reliable evidence that Iraq had any links with al-Qa’ida, nor that it was developing chemical and nuclear weapons. The majority of participants signed the letter; but there was the usual small, but vocal, minority who typically charged us with being both “unrealistic” and “anti-American”. Well, the letter was obviously ignored, with terrible consequences; but at least our consciences are clear before God. If intellectuals cannot speak truth to power, then what is the value of intellectuals?

Today, the sabres are rattling again, with Iran replacing Iraq as the global “bogey” in another American presidential election year. The current anti-Iran mobilization doesn’t reflect any actual US or Israeli military or intelligence threat assessments, but rather political conditions pushing politicians, in Israel and the US, to escalate fear over Iran. The danger is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I pointed out in my last post that Iranian attacks on Israelis are universally, and rightly, condemned. But who condemns atrocities against Iranian civilians? Interestingly, the Iranian regime has angrily denied that it instigated the recent attempts on Israeli diplomats in Delhi and Bangkok, while American and Israeli leaders (including a Republican presidential candidate) have openly expressed delight at the murders of Iranian nuclear scientists. Also, unlike Israel and India, Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons on the same grounds that Church leaders have used: the non-discriminatory nature of the weapons. Iran, ironically, seems to be one of the few countries in the world where the pros and cons of building a bomb have been debated in public.

Now we can dismiss all this as lies and bluster, as do many conservative Americans and others influenced by the pro-Israel lobby. But, then, why not also dismiss as bluster Ahmedinejad’s populist pledges to “drive Israel into the sea”? Don’t American politicians tell lies? And aren’t they generally noted for their bluster (remember Rumsfeld’s threat to “nuke Afghanistan”?) Unless the Iranians are possessed by a collective death-wish, sanity (and it is good to assume that our enemies are sane people) precludes their deploying weapons of mass destruction against Israel.

The International Atomic Energy Authority is never allowed to inspect the nuclear installations of  Western allies. But Iran’s refusal to let them do so is taken as an indication of moral turpitude and sinister conspiracy. Surely, sanity requires us to work for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East, indeed a nuclear weapons-free world. Such a multi-national move would ensure Iran never builds a nuclear weapon, that Israel would give up the bombs and submarine-based nuclear missiles in its arsenal, and that the US would keep its nuclear warheads out of its Middle East bases and off its ships in the region’s seas.

The mere possession of weapons of mass destruction, let alone their use, is an expression of hubris, man threatening to undo the covenant that the creator God has made with all his creation. Where, then, are the sane among us who raise their voices in protest?

I once had an argument with an American atheist Jew who insisted that being a Jew was a matter of ethnicity and had nothing to do with “religion”. Later, I found that I had on my side Jonathan Sacks, perhaps the most articulate and winsome spokesperson for Judaism in today’s world. “Judaism is not an ethnicity and Jews are not an ethnic group,” writes Sacks, “Go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and you will see Jews of every colour and culture under the sun, the Beta Israel from Ethiopia, the Bene Israel from India, Bukharan Jews from central Asia, Iraqi, Berber, Egyptian, Kurdish and Libyan Jews, the Temamim from Yemen, alongside American Jews from Russia, South African Jews from Lithuania, and British Jews from German-speaking Poland. Their food, music, dress, customs, and conventions are all different.”  (Future Tense, 2009)

The late Arthur Koestler believed that most Jews today are descendants of the semi-nomadic Turkic people from the Caucasus, the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the seventh to tenth centuries. The latest theory, advanced by Tsvi Misinai, a retired Israeli computer expert, is that the Palestinians are actually the people who may be ethnically Jewish. They are descendants of Jews who remained in the land when, under Roman rule, most Jews went into exile in Babylon and elsewhere. The Jews who left continued to practice Judaism. Those who stayed became first Christian, then Muslim. It is a theory once held by none other than David Ben Gurion. So the Palestinians at war with Israel may be “Jewish”, while the “Jews” may not be genetically “Jewish” at all!

I wish I could say this to those fundamentalists in the American “Bible Belt” and elsewhere who are uncritically pro-Israeli even as the Israeli state bulldozes Palestinian homes, forces thousands of men, women and children into dehumanized camps, and appropriates land to which it has absolutely no right. Selecting isolated texts from the Old Testament, and bypassing the New Testament entirely, they fail to see that the modern state of Israel has nothing at all to do with the ancient covenant people, the Israelites. There are more Jews living outside Israel than within. But, if you do believe that Israel today is an answer to biblical prophecy, then speak to the leaders of Israel the way the biblical prophets did: “If you continue to commit oppression and atrocities against others, I will spew you out of the land.”

Last month an Iranian university professor, 32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, was killed when unidentified men on motorcycles attached a magnetic bomb to his car in a Tehran street. He was the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist to be assassinated in recent years by what every reasonable observer knows are Israeli agents, with at least the tacit approval of the CIA. These are blatant acts of terrorism. If committed on Western soil, they would evoke outrage in the American and European media. But, instead, they are met with apathy. In typical fashion, the US administration is now bullying the rest of the world to boycott Iran economically and isolate it politically.

Iran has a scientific and intellectual culture greater than that of any of the West’s allies in the Middle East, excepting Israel. Thus the murder of its top scientist engaged in their nuclear energy program is an attack on Iran’s ability to function as a society without dependence on Western technical hegemony. And why should Iran not have nuclear weapons to match Israel? American-Soviet relations in the Cold War were conducted under the morally perverse doctrine known as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction): as long as two hostile states could keep match with each other’s capacity for annihilating the other, they will not go to war. Why not apply MAD to the Middle East?

For all the bluster that comes out of Teheran, the real terror has been inflicted in the opposite direction, beginning with the interference in 1953 by the US and Britain to install a dictator who would protect their oil companies. And have Americans forgotten the shooting down of an Iranian commercial airliner in Iranian airspace by a US guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, in 1988? All 290 passengers on board were killed. To this day, no U.S government has apologised to the Iranian people.

Much of the American public, including many American Church leaders, are profoundly ignorant of the history of the Middle East, let alone what is still being done by American soldiers and citizens in other parts of the world. I have nothing but disgust for their culpable ignorance, culpable because the facts are in their computers and libraries  if only they take the trouble to look. And I have nothing but disgust for those who know the facts but are too uncaring to speak out and hold their governments accountable for war crimes and other human rights abuses.

But I have nothing but deep admiration for those Israelis and Iranians who courageously seek to bring moral and political change in their nations; as well as for those Palestinian Christians who continue to show patience and goodwill to their American brethren who have betrayed them and the Christian faith by their guilty silence.

Let me end with Rabbi Sacks who writes that “at some stage Jews stopped defining themselves by the reflection they saw in the eyes of God and started defining themselves by the reflection they saw in the eyes of their Gentile neighbours…obsessed by the Holocaust.” And he calls on them to “take a stand, not motivated by fear, not driven by paranoia or a sense of victimhood, but a positive stand on the basis of the values by which our ancestors lived and for which they were prepared to die: justice, equity, compassion, love of the stranger, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person without regard to colour, culture or creed.”

Christians and Muslims can learn from him to do the same.



February 2012