Thursday, October 31, 2013

War of the generations?

We have had class warfare, the battle of the sexes, and the clash of civilizations, just to mention some of the wars that we are all familiar with. Now, it is claimed, we have the generational wars.

Article after article has appeared lately, all lamenting the current economic malaise and laying the blame not on the fat cats of Wall Street but on past generations. The problem, it is claimed, is structural. These articles admit that the older generation is not necessarily at fault, but rather shifting demographics.

According to them, the pensions that older workers enjoy are the problem. The bill for pensions and health care are taking a big share of the GDP -- much fact, than most people realize. This means that there are now less resources available for the younger generation. On top of that, younger people find it difficult to get jobs, yet they are the ones who have to foot the bill for these benefits. The older generation, in reaction, feels threatened and, understandably, is very leery of discussing these entitlements. The articles all conclude that the bill is getting larger and larger but the resources are dwindling.

Pension and health care obligations have driven cities like Detroit into bankruptcy, they explain. These claims are simply too much for many municipalities to bear. The same problem exists at the state and federal level.

It should be added that in Canada and many other countries similar problems exist. That is why governments everywhere are resorting to austerity measures to try to balance budgets that many claim have been bloated by pension and health care costs, and that these costs are rising much faster than revenue is.

I would agree that the Occupy Movement can be interpreted as an expression of generational conflict, but it is more than that. Those who marched on the streets and slept in tents were for the most part young people who were ticked off that they could not find any work after graduating from university, yet were saddled with enormous debts. They are the 99 percent. They laid the blame correctly on the 1 per cent.

Admittedly, there was a sprinkling of older people, myself included, who sided with them. But the pain is mostly -- and will continue to be -- borne by the younger generation. That generation will be poorer than my generation. Even my own children, it is said, will be less well off that I am, and I do not consider myself rich.

For the sake of full disclosure, while I do not enjoy the sort of pension that some others in my generation do, I am not suffering the way young people do. Their suffering motivated them to join the Occupy Movement, and it still motivates them. That is precisely what some very wealthy people have tried to capitalize on lately.

Several billionaires have recently tried to start a movement among college students that wants to blame senior citizens for the sorry state of the economy. They lay the blame especially on social security, which these very wealthy people regard as an unnecessary drain on the economy.

The Peter G. Peterson Foundation has already spent about a billion dollars of Peterson's own money to create false movements to get students to take up this unlikely cause. The latest billionaire to try this is Stanley Druckenmiller, former head of the hedge fund Duquesne Capital, whose net worth is estimated at $2.9 billion.

Let's look at Social Security more closely. This is not the primary reason for the wretched economy. In fact, Social Security does not even make the list. Although it does eat up a large part of the federal budget, it is paid for through payroll taxes and thus can not be held responsible for jobs that pay lousy wages, nor can it be blamed for the aftereffects of the financial bubble that was created on Wall Street. It is also not the reason why colleges are no longer affordable, and are thus leaving graduates with more than a trillion dollars worth of debt.

The younger generation will only be able to enjoy a decent life if there is renewed economic growth and a fairer distribution of earnings. That has nothing whatever to do with Social Security or the federal deficit. On the contrary, if the US and other countries keep on the current austerity kick and make further cuts in social services, growth will be even slower.

Thomas Friedman, in an op-ed in the New York Times, wrote recently that there is only one thing that might produce meaningful change: a mass movement for tax, spending and entitlement reform led by today's young people, since those will be the most affected. "After we baby boomers get done retiring — at a rate of 7,000 to 11,000 a day — if current taxes and entitlement promises are not reformed, the cupboard will be largely bare for today’s Facebook generation."

Friedman quotes Drukenmiller when he spoke recently at Notre Dame: "My generation — we brought down the president in the ’60s because we didn’t want to go into the war against Vietnam." He has delivered a similar message on many other campuses, adding at Notre Dame, “People say young people don’t vote; young people don’t care. I’m hoping after tonight, you will care. There is a clear danger to you and your children.”

Friedman notes that whenever Druckenmiller is challenged by seniors, who also come talks, that he is trying to start a generational war, But Drukenmiller has a standard reply: "No, that war already happened, and the kids lost. We’re just trying to recover some scraps for them."

Using numerous graphs, Drukenmiller shows how government spending, investments, entitlements and poverty alleviation have overwhelmingly benefited the elderly since the 1960s, and how the situation will only get worse as the over-65 population soars 100 percent between now and 2050, while the population that will have to support them -- ages 18 to 64 -- will grow by only 17 percent.

The biggest lie in Druckenmiller's crusade, according to Robert Kuttner, writing in the Huffington Post, is the premise that the income distribution problem is generational and that Drukenmiller, as a billionaire, has something in common with most college students or most recipients of Social Security. One of his pitches to students is that Social Security is excessive because he, as a wealthy man, receives it but does not need it.

For the vast majority of the elderly, Kuttner points out, Social Security is a lifeline, and a meager one at that. According to him, about two-thirds of all seniors depend on Social Security for half of their income, while 46 percent of elderly widows and other unmarried seniors depend on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income.

The real crisis facing the elderly, claims Kuttner, is not that Social Security is excessive but that is not adequate. Thus he concludes that there is a certain moral blindness and chutzpah of very wealthy people trying to enlist students in a generational movement against the alleged affluence of their grandparents.

The real issue here is not generational, but class, specifically Druckenmiller's class. His crusade is class war: in this case, of the very wealthy against everyone else. Druckenmiller and his billionaire's club are not merely members of the 1 per cent, they belong to the 0.001 per cent.

Happily, as Kuttner concludes, most of America's students do not seem to be taking the bait. But the media elites, and even the Obama White House, are listening. 

That may explain the rash of articles on generational warfare. That is unfortunate. The generational wars are really class wars in disguise. While there are huge differences between the generations, they should not be exploited by a group of self-serving billionaires. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

May Christians use the word "Allah"?

In Malaysia, may Christians use the word "Allah"? No, the Malaysian Court of Appeal decided recently. The court ruled that this word was “not an integral part of the faith in Christianity” and therefore cannot be used in a public context. The appeal overturned a previous ruling that allowed a Malay-language Roman Catholic newspaper to use the word, which is commonly used for God in Bahasa Malaysia, and indeed has been for centuries. This ruling was later overturned.

This decision has been very controversial, to say the least. Malaysia's Christians, who number less than 10% of the population, have protested vociferously, and intend to take this decision to a higher court. Not only had the newspaper been banned in 2009 by a lower court from using "Allah" but thousands of Bible that had been printed in Indonesia were confiscated for using that word for God. When that ban was overruled by a higher court, many churches and Sikh temples were attacked in reaction.

The ban and the violence are both motivated by a fear of some Muslim groups that the Christian use of the word Allah could be used to encourage Muslims to convert to Christianity. They argue that Christians should not be allowed to use this word. Some of the arguments they use are, together with my response:

Use of the word "Allah" is confusing for Muslims in Malaysia. If Christians want to use a Malay word, they argue, Christians should use tuhan. Response: Christians have used "Allah" for centuries, why should it be forbidden now? Does the Qur'an explicitly forbid non-Muslims to use this word? Muslims admit that the Qur'an does not. The use of that word is something that can be disputed, they admit, but they feel that it should nevertheless be banned.

"Allah" is a proper name, not a generic one like God. Response: God can be a proper name, according to Christians. The generic would better be rendered as god. Some Muslims claim that "Allah" can also be used in a generic way. If Muslims cannot agree on this issue, the argument is a very weak one.

The Christian use of "Allah" implies that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, which many Muslims (and some Christians) deny. Response:  Christians and Muslims do worship the same God, although they do so very differently. That is the main thesis of Miroslav Volf's Allah. This book s a masterful defense of the idea that these two faiths share the same God, which helps to build bridges between them.

Even if Muslims in other countries allow Christians to use the word "Allah," that does not mean that Muslims in Malaysia should. Response: Many Muslims elsewhere regard the Malaysian ban as foolish. It is hurting the image of Malaysia and makes that country the laughing stock of the world.

The ban is one way of countering secularism, according to Muslims in Malaysia. They should not be afraid of accusations that the ban is an infringement of human rights of others, since that is an an expression of liberal, secular ideas from abroad. Response: Muslims in other countries do respect human rights, but they have developed Islamic understandings of human rights. Would Malaysian Muslims not want their human rights to be respected when they visit countries where Muslims are in the majority as well Western countries where sharia is not practiced at all? The expansion of sharia to include non-Muslims is one of the main problems in Malaysia. This problem is getting worse. This ban is a expression of this expansion.

Christians both in Malaysia and elsewhere present many counter arguments. Here are some of the main ones:

Historical. Malaysian Muslims fear that the use of "Allah" by Christians is confusing and would facilitate the conversion of Muslims is contradicted by the many centuries that the term has been used by Christians. This use was not confusing. On the contrary, it has promoted understanding between Christians and Muslims. The common usage of Allah is expressed in the Malayan Declaration of Independence (1957) and demonstrates this. It provides an excellent example of how to build mutual understanding.

Linguistic: "Allah" is similar to that used in other Semitic languages. "Allah" certainly bears linguistic affinity with the Hebrew el, with the root meaning “to be strong”, or eloah, the singular form of elohim. Because of this linguistic affinity between the term ‘Allah’ and other Semitic terms Christian Arabs called the supreme God "Allah" centuries before the appearance of Islam. Arab Christians continue to use  "Allah" today.

Arabic, English and Malay Bibles -- note use of Allah in Malay Bible

It is also true that historically that Christians in South East Asia have used "Allah" to refer to the supreme God they worship. The earliest Christian writings in Malay, including a prayer book (1514), catechisms (1545), Gospels (1629), and complete Bible all used "Allah." This term has been used in the liturgy, prayers and worship among the Christian native peoples of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak from the very beginning when these churches were first established.

Cultural: Muslim Malaysians share addressing God as "Allah" both with Muslims in other countries as well as with Christians in Malaysia. This binds them together, rather than dividing them. All of them share a common religious identity through using the name "Allah" that transcends whatever differences there may be. This may not sit well with extremists from both faiths who are interested only in pointing out differences. Such people are capable only of thinking in back and white. Such people are sectarian in nature. They are the ones who often provoke wars.

Constitutional. The Federal Constitution of Malaysia defines freedom of religion for every person to include the right to profess and practice their religion and, subject to Clause Four (4), to propagate it. Every religious group has the right to manage its own affairs and to establish and maintain its own institutions. Banning the use of "Allah" infringes on these rights by limiting groups from using their native language fully in education and worship. Christian literature, including Bibles, has been confiscated as part of the ban.

This ban reflects badly on Malaysia, and on Muslim Malaysians in particular. Moderate Muslims both in Malaysia and elsewhere should continue to protest this ruling and join with Christians in appealing this bad ruling. Malaysia is the only Muslim-majority country in the world to issue such a ban.

Why did Malaysia do this? And why now? The answers are not hard to find: politics.

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia

The decision to renew the ban coincided with heightened ethnic and religious tensions in Malaysia after elections in May resulted in the long-ruling coalition being deserted by urban voters. These included a large section of minority ethnic Chinese. Recently, Prime Minister Najib Razak sought to consolidate his support among majority ethnic Malays, who are Muslim by law.

His new government, which is dominated by his Malay-based United Malays National Organisation, has taken many measures, including toughening security laws and introducing further steps to boost a decades-old affirmative action policy for ethnic Malays; in this way reversing previous liberal reforms that were aimed at appealing to a broader section of multi-ethnic Malaysia.

It was on this basis that the government argued once more that the word Allah was specific to Muslims and that the decision to deny the Catholic newspaper permission to print this word was justified on the basis of public order. This is politics presented in a religious guise.The ban has been used now for several years to cater to Muslim ethnic-Malays. That makes it all the more imperative that Christians and moderate Muslims protest a ban that is rooted in politics rather than religion.

Christians in Indonesia and much of the Arab world will continue to use the word without opposition from Islamic authorities. The same should be possible again in Malaysia, if enough people protest the ban that the government keeps reinstating through court decisions. They should call its bluff and help put an end a highly politicized measure that reflects poorly on Malaysia and indeed on Muslims everywhere.

The Christians in Malaysia need our encouragement.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Canada: For Sale

The Conservative government of Canada has posted "For Sale" signs over all of Canada's natural resources. It is not interested in the opinion of Canadians. The throne speech this week demonstrates this. This speech is intended to distract Canadians by appealing to them as mere consumers. The government has thus reduced them to purely economic creatures who only buy and sell, and does not view them as citizens who actually own the resources that their government is disposing of to the highest bidder.

The economic policies of the federal government have failed miserably. The government is also mired in scandals such as in the Senate that led to the prorogation of Parliament. It is now offering Canadians a mess of pottage -- reduced roaming charges, the unbundling of cable-TV packages and a bill of rights for airline passengers are a few of the measures that were mentioned.

But there is no guarantee that a government that prefers deregulation can achieve any of them. That doesn't matter to the government. It looks good on paper. What Canadians really want and need is jobs, but very few jobs will result when many raw materials are exported, as seems to be the governments' intention.

These natural resources are an essential part of Canada. Many resources, such as oil and gas, are quickly being depleted and are irreplaceable. Moreover, when these resources are shipped to other countries, the sorely needed jobs that result from refining them are lost as well.

Historically, Canada was built on its natural resources. Voltaire once described Canada as "a few acres of rock and snow." He may have been a bit off on the size, but those acres have produced fabulous wealth, though often for non-Canadians, from products as diverse as beaver pelts and gold. Today the story is being repeated, but now oil and gas occupy central stage.

Long before the throne speech the government was busy promoting these resources, but now there is a new urgency to their efforts. Oil and gas are being touted wherever Prime Minister Harper travels. On his recent trip to Malaysia, Petronas, Malaysia's state-owned energy giant, announced that it would invest $35 billion in the Canadian liquefied natural gas industry.This gas will come from the Horn River Basin, a shale deposit in northeastern British Columbia, that holds unconventional natural gas reserves of 78 trillion cubic feet.

The federal government is also pushing the Alberta oil sands through various distribution channels. The Keystone XL Pipeline is a proposed 1,179-mile (1,897 km), 36-inch-diameter crude oil pipeline beginning in Hardisty, Alberta, and extending south to Steele City, Neb. Trans Canada, the company that want to build and operate the pipeline says "it will be the safest and most advanced pipeline operation in North America."

But environmentalists in both the US and Canada disagree. At this point it is not at all clear that President Obama will approve the proposal. He has already said that aside from the environmental dangers, it will produce very few jobs in the US. The same is true of Canada.

Because of this possibility, other projects have also been planned. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project wants to construct twin pipeline 1,170 km in length, running from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, British Columbia. The two pipelines would carry hydrocarbon natural gas condensate and bitumen from the Alberta diluted to a new marine terminal in Kitimat, from where it would be transported to Asian markets by oil tankers. First Nations groups have already stated their opposition not only to this pipeline but also to the threat posed by the oil tankers in the fragile coast of Northern British Columbia.

First Nations groups are also protesting the $5 billion plan of US oil giant Kinder Morgan to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline. This line stretches 1,150 kilometers between Edmonton and terminals around Vancouver and Washington State, which carries heavy and light crude oil, as well as refined products such as gasoline and diesel.

Trans Canada also has plans to convert 3,000 kilometers of the company's existing natural gas pipelines to allow crude oil to be transported from Western Canada to the East. This conversion would reverse the flow of the gas and oil. The company also wants to build 1,400 kilometres of new pipeline from Quebec to Saint John, NB. 

Environmentalists are up in arms about this proposal. For example, in Toronto the existing Enbridge 9B pipeline, which runs right through the city, could threaten the nine watersheds of the Greater Toronto area as well as infrastructure such as the subway. The city of Toronto is now making at least 13 demands, including assurances that the company will cover all costs of a major disaster.

Environmental issues have made the government very uncomfortable for many years already. Conservatives in Canada, like their counterparts in the US, are in favor of deregulation. The Lac Megantic rail disaster is just one result of decades of this. More disasters will inevitably follow.

The Conservative federal government has much further than encourage deregulation. Now, as the New York Times editorial board argues, the Harper government wants to "guarantee public ignorance" by muzzling federal scientists. The newspaper argues the Harper Conservatives have tried to restrict publicly financed scientists from sharing information with the public, particularly research into climate change and anything to do with the Alberta tar sands.

There is precedent for this in the US, but that pales in comparison with what is happening in Canada today. The Harper policy seems designed to make ensure that the tar sands project proceeds quietly and without any disruptions. 

Chris Turner, a Calgary-based journalist, documents this muzzling in detail in latest book, The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness in Stephen Harper's Canada, Turner describes this government as being interested mainly in Canadians as consumers, and only passionate about those parts of Canada it can develop and sell off.

Harper’s true agenda, according to him, has been to dismantle the government’s great traditions of natural science and environmental stewardship, which he claims has until recently made Canada a world leader in both fields.

He cites Christopher Plunkett, a US government spokesperson: “The idea is simple and straightforward: to make Canada the most attractive country in the world for resource investment and development.”

Turner summarizes the essence of the Harper agenda as "Do No Science, Hear No Science, Speak No Science."

This war on science is part of a sustained campaign to diminish the government’s role in evidence-based policy-making and environmental stewardship. It does this, Turner explains, by "reducing the capacity of the government to gather basic data about the status and health of the environment and Canadian society; shrinking or eliminating government agencies that monitor and analyze that evidence and respond to emergencies; and seizing control of the communications channels by which all of the above report their findings to the Canadian public."

In the book he lists some of the environmental science bodies and programs that the government has eliminated or reduced. These are already well known to those who are concerned about the environment and climate change, thus I will not rehearse them.

The federal government spends $24 million to tout the Alberta oil sands, and even more on an “Economic Action Plan” that is largely non-existent. Yet it wants to muzzle scientists who may deter their plans for selling off natural resources and contradict their stance on climate change.

Harper and his government must assume that many Canadians are stupid and are interested in watching TV and talking on their cellphones. It feeds on a latent anti-intellectualism that is widespread not only in Canada but also elsewhere in the world. The governments treats Canadians as incapable of understanding the issues and thus must be protected from the facts. By muzzling scientists it gives itself the freedom to do whatever it wants, including selling off the resources and not spending money to counter global warming.

Let those of us who are Canadians speak out and defend our scientists before it is too late. Those who are not Canadians should be concerned as well, because your government can also introduce legislation that will muzzle scientists. All governments are looking for ways to raise money, by selling resources for example, and to cut costs, especially if they involve supposedly contentious matters such as climate change. In both cases, muzzling helps to eliminate protests. Protest is what we must do before it is too late.

Christians everywhere should be especially concerned when governments do not exercise their biblically-mandated responsibility (whether they are aware of this or not) to care for God's creation and not to misuse it by selling it to the highest bidder. The best solution for the oil sands, at least from an environmental point of view, is to leave it in the ground until such time as it can be used in a way that properly honors this mandate.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

An open letter to all Republicans about the government shutdown

I am reluctant to write this letter, largely because it probably will not accomplish very much. I realize that only a few people will read it. While some may agree with me, many will not. In either case, most do not have the power to change the situation. Yet I am so upset by the government shutdown in the US and the effects it may have both on the US and the rest of the world that I feel constrained to include this letter on my blog.

My comments are directed not only to those who are active members of the Republican Party or registered as Republicans but to everyone who votes Republican. I am upset especially with those Republicans who support the shutdown of the US government. Not only the Tea Party wing of the party but all Republicans are also responsible for this mess.

I write this as a foreigner, a Canadian who has lived and studied in the US, where I earned three degrees, including two masters. I have close relatives there, and travel to the US frequently. Thus I am not a stranger to the country. My comments should not be misconstrued: they are meant in love. I am concerned about the US and its role in the world. But because of that role, foreigners should also be allowed to comment on what is happening in the US. It affects all of us.

This shutdown is a perversion of democracy. Americans pride themselves on their democratic institutions, and even want to export democracy to other countries, but this action has not only puzzled much of the world but made the US a laughing stock.

You, as Republicans, have turned Congress into a game that children play where, when some kids are likely to lose, they pick up all their toys and announce they are going home. End of game. Yet, ultimately, it is self destructive.

Ever since the Patient Protective and Affordable Care Act was approved by Congress, you have attacked it relentlessly, even taking it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that it was constitutional. On the day that the Act, known better as Obamacare, was being implemented though the opening up of health exchanges where Americans could shop for coverage, you forced the federal government to shut down.

The effects of the shutdown are already being felt, although there are some notable exceptions. You brought the government to its heels by refusing to pass the necessary budget measures unless the government would delay Obamacare for one year. You hoped, if possible, to demolish it.

You then tried to blame the Democrats for the shutdown, but the refusal to negotiate is yours exclusively. The American people now realize that. By shutting down the government you wanted to stop Obamacare, but it is already too late to do that. Even if you refuse to negotiate raising the debt ceiling, Obamacare is here to stay. Soon Americans may even grow to appreciate it.

Obamacare, unfortunately, is a badly flawed piece of legislation. But you are responsible to a large degree for not permitting a better bill to be passed by Congress. The final bill is a confusing, expensive mess. Many people, especially the poor, are still not adequately provided for. They are the ones who will continue to suffer the most. But to destroy Obamacare would make a bad situation even worse.

What the US needs is a single-payer, universal, system as in most wealthy countries. This is also what the developing world wants, not the patchwork job that has resulted and for which you must share the bulk of the blame.

Your real concern, as I see it from my vantage point, goes beyond destroying Obamacare. You are wearing ideological blinders that prevent you from appreciating the benefits of a universal system. You are opposed to big government and you are afraid of any infringement of your personal freedom. These two beliefs are closely related.

You are welcome to these beliefs, although I disagree with you totally, for several important reasons. Let me list just a few.

First, on a personal note, let me assure you that I am not a Communist or even a socialist, although I heartily approve of a universal system of health care as it exists in Canada. Yet some Republicans that I know have labelled me as such: "Canadians are all commies!"

Admittedly, the Canadian system is not perfect, but it is better that what the US will have under Obamacare, as I know from personal experience. A few weeks ago I needed an MRI because of severe pain in my lower back. That was quickly arranged and it was done a few days later. All I had to do was show my health card. I did not have to pay one penny. Furthermore, if I need medication, it costs me only about four dollars, the rest is taken care of by the province. I do not feel that my personal freedom is infringed upon in any way.

In contrast, whenever I travel to the States, I buy supplementary medical coverage in case of an emergency. Friends of mine have been nearly bankrupted because they did not have such extra coverage. Is that very expensive system what you really want? Under Obamacare many more Americans will now be covered, but the system will be much more expensive than it needs to be. Imagine the savings that would result if insurance companies were excluded. Will excluding these companies involve a loss of your personal freedom?

Second, you are blind because you do not fully understand the purpose of government. The Bible teaches that the role of government is to protect us from evil and to promote the good. For that reason, government must be larger than than the armed forces that protect you from external enemies. It must provide as well for the needs of all of society. It must care especially for the weakest and poorest members.

The government is also responsible for justice. What you have in the US can hardly be described as a just system. Members of Congress enjoy topnotch medical care, but the poorest in society are denied adequate services. You have Medicaid, but millions are still not properly covered under Obamacare. Is that justice?

Where is the love for the poor that is preached in all Christian churches? You, however, are so hostile to government that you willingly sacrifice the poor on the altar of small government. God has mandated the government to protect them, not sacrifice them. Many government programs at every level of government have been axed in the name of austerity and budget cutting. Unfortunately, this is happening in many other countries as well, not only the US. It is an example of politics influencing theology rather than the other way around.

Third, politics by its very nature demands the art of compromise. Politicians must be willing to negotiate with their opponents for government to work effectively. Such negotiations should take place while legislation is being debated, not after it has been signed into law. Then it is too late.

What you are doing during the current government shut down is blackmail, not negotiation. Like those kids who take all their toys and go home when they longer can get their way, this is infantile behavior and not what one expects from mature, responsible politicians.

Fourth, how far are you prepared to go in your refusal to negotiate? If no new debt ceiling is approved, are you willing to plunge the US into a recession?  What about the effect this will have on  the rest of the world?

Don't put the blame entirely on the Tea Party people. They are the most extreme element in the Republican party, but the ideology that motivates them is more general in that party. If it were not, the Tea Party would be the tail that wags the Republican dog. That dog is already sufficiently motivated to wag its own tail.

I invite the leaders of the Republican party to refuse to listen to these extremists any longer and instead sit down with the Democrats and pass the necessary legislation to end the budget crisis. Is this too much to ask? Is it illegitimate on my part to ask all Republicans to do what they can so that such shutdowns become a thing of the past. Then the US can begin to be an example once more of a democratic system.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Peace in the Middle East?

It took only a simple phone call made by President Obama. The recent 15-minute conversation between Obama and President Rouhani of Iran has already been heralded as a major portent of peace in the Middle East. It may yet become such a sign, although it is quite premature to speak about peace between their two countries, much less peace in the Middle East. That peace may never happen.

The negotiations could take years, although there has been talk of ending the negotiations early next year, or they could end in dismal failure, since many on both sides are adamantly opposed to any negotiations.

A few weeks ago I urged dialogue tween the US and Iran as one step towards resolving the Syrian crisis. That dialogue has now been initiated, although I am under no illusion that these two men listened to me. It is simply common sense that steps such as this be taken if peace is ever to become a reality in the Middle East.

Nearly every part of the world has conflicts, which can be political, ethnic, economic, religious and so on. There is probably not one region anywhere that has seen so much conflict as the Middle East. It has been fought over for  millennia as armies swept across this vast area. No piece of global real estate has been fought over so often and for so long.

The people who make their homes in the area today are the legacy of these conflicts. Some enmities may continue for decades or even centuries, and they can weave a very tangled web. But enmities can also shift quickly, as can friendships.

It is hard for outsiders to unravel these complex relationships.An Arab proverb puts it well: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Alliances have been formed for ages in order to achieve political goals, whether long-term or temporary. This is equally true today.

Outsiders have interfered since time immemorial and made these webs even more complex. The colonial powers, Britain and France, contributed the modern borders that separated ethnic groups, as also happened in Africa, or forced various people who have little in common to live together in one country  whether they like it or not.

The US has interfered extensively in the Middle East and thus contributed to the current mess. Not only has it fought a tragic war in Iraq, but it was responsible for supporting the Shah in Iran and continues to support Israel in an inequitable fashion, earning the ire of many Arab countries. Desmond Tutu and many other world activists are also upset.

Thus it is high time that the US and Iran sit down together and negotiate an end to the decades of hostilities. These negotiations would not be easy. It would not be popular with every one in both countries. Rouhani was greeted by less than enthusiastic crowds when he returned to Tehran. Many hard-liners are opposed to any deal with the US.

But Rouhani does enjoy the support of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei who holds the real power in Iran. Khomenei has urged "heroic flexibility," which is code for accepting a treaty that may be beneficial, even if it involves major concessions. The Western-educated Rouhani was the only candidate in the recent presidential elections who enjoyed Khomenei's support.

Successful negotiations would have to deal with Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. These negotiations would affect many other countries in the region, including Syria, which was and is a client of Iran. Iran also supports Hamas and Hezbollah.

Israel would also be affected. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu at a speech at the UN warned about the Iranian charm offensive. His country has the most to fear from an Iranian bomb and thus it has good reasons to be wary.

Both the US and Iran are already wary of each other's intentions. Iran insists that their program is purely for
energy and that is within its sovereign right a a nation to engage in such research. Iran sees the US as seeking to protect Israel by preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

The newly mandated inventory and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons by the UN will facilitate the negotiations between the US and Iran, between these two former friends and now bitter foes. Maybe one day friendship will be restored again.

Two doves, one from either side, may through a phone call have been able initiate the process of eradicating decades of enmity. That will not happen overnight, but when it does a big step will have been taken to bring peace to the Middle East.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of conflicts that will also have to be resolved if peace is ever to bloom throughout the Middle East. But some major conflicts will have be eliminated first. The conflict between the US and Iran need never have arisen if the US had stayed out of the region in the first place and not interfered in Iran and elsewhere. The US must stop playing policeman throughout the world.

Any country that allows the use of blackmail by Tea Party Republicans who want to delay or even turn back Obamacare -- legislation that was properly passed by Congress and approved by the courts -- has forfeited the moral right to tell other nations how they should behave.

I pray that peace may come to the Middle East. Then the entire world will become a better place in which to live. By nature, I prefer to see the doughnut rather than the hole. Peace will come in the Middle East one day, even if that day is still a long time off.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims must all pray to the one God whom they all worship, albeit in different ways that peace may reign in a regain that has rarely known peace. All these faiths agree that God brings peace.

Sometimes a phone call is all that is needed to begin the process of bringing peace to this region. Then other conflicts may follow, even the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Pray for peace!