Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

Palestinian Terrorist Murders Family in Jewish Settlement

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[Update: According to this article, there is some doubt whether the acts were committed by Palestinians, and authorities have arrested a Thai man who was working in the Itamar settlement.]

I’ve been struggling for a way to comment on the brutal slaughter of a Jewish family by Palestinian terrorists while they slept in their home in the Itamar settlement.  Links to stories here and here.  Unlike most conservatives, I am not reflexively pro-Israel.  I frankly don’t quite understand why Americans would have a strong bias one way or another when it comes to the deeply complex political, cultural, religious, historical, and geographical conflicts that have plagued the Middle East since time immemorial.  Yet, most of us do.

But the merciless slaughter of a sleeping family, including a three-month-old infant, followed by “Carnivals [] held in the streets as Hamas members handed out sweets,” defies the capacity of any decent person to maintain ambivalence.  I appreciate the fact that there are, numerically speaking, more Israeli attacks on Palestinians and more Palestinian casualties than Israeli.  But an acknowledgment of human decency requires nothing less than unequivocal denunciation of these acts—not only the murders themselves, but the despicable celebration of them by Palestinian crowds.


Written by Tim Kowal

March 14, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Goldberg’s Weak Argument for the Blockade

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I told a friend that I didn’t think a whole lot of the blockade, and that I kind of liked this piece by Megan McArdle.  I got a chuckle out of this:

I know that terrorists can be fiendishly clever, but there is no real evidence, only unconfirmed rumors among the intel community, that Hamas actually has the Coriander Bomb. Most experts put them at least 5-8 years away from developing that sort of destructive technology.

My friend referred me to this pro-blockade piece by Jonah Goldberg, where he says this:

The blockade, which is surely causing real suffering, is entirely the fault of Hamas and the Palestinians who support it. When the brutal terrorist outfit consolidated power in a bloody coup, it proceeded to rain down missiles indiscriminately on Israel for years (talk about collective punishment). Israel finally launched a strike to stop the attacks and was, predictably, denounced as an aggressor by the usual suspects. Even now, Hamas won’t accept the supposedly vital humanitarian cargo seized by the Israelis last week. Why? Because it’s lost its propaganda value, and because it’s been sullied by Jewish hands.

. . . .

But this is a terrible moment to consider abandoning the blockade.

Why? Because it would rightly be seen as giving the organizers and supporters of this seaborne propaganda stunt a victory. It would signal that America can be conned. It would reward Turkey’s outrageous insult to us (a NATO ally) and to Israel, a longtime friend of Turkey. It would undermine Egypt and other Arab governments (including Fatah) that don’t want Iran’s clients in Hamas strengthened (their propaganda notwithstanding). And it would signal that Iran is the most important power in the Middle East.

I don’t think Goldberg makes a good argument here.  It suggests that once any strategy is taken in response to a violent regime, that strategy ought never be abandoned lest the violent regime gain a victory.  I also generally reject any attempt to reduce the conflicts in the middle east to a thumbnail in order to make a point about why such and such action is necessary.  People make flip assessments about domestic policy because, well, it’s domestic policy, and we’re going to have opinions about where we live.  Besides, we’re forced to be somewhat engaged and to develop our ideas because, at least to some extent, we all reap the consequences of those policies.

Not so with what goes one half a globe away, as most of us have no first-hand knowledge about what’s going on.  And the problems are toxic, complex, and decades old.  It’s as if you tried explaining over the phone to your 80 year old blind grandfather how to assemble a neutron bomb.  At best, it’s futile.  At worst, it’s dangerous.  This is generally what I think of eight minute radio segments and 500 word op-eds on the middle east.

Written by Tim Kowal

June 10, 2010 at 10:46 pm

UCI’s Muslim Student Union Association Embarrasses Themselves

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I have long been sympathetic to Muslims in America and in favor of a more balanced conversation when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.  All the more reason the behavior of the Muslim Student Union at UCI is such an embarrassment.

By the way, Michael Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy is a worthwhile primer on U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 9, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Totten on The Mother of All Quagmires

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Michael Totten has this article on the state of the Middle East and the possibility of a two-state solution. The prognosis is bleak. However, I believe there is some work that has to start in the realm of our ideas and attitudes about the problem. Any hope of solution seems to require at least one necessary condition (aside from the one that Palestinians be capable of creating and maintaining their own nation): that they not be hell-bent on Israel’s destruction.

I’ve heard both points of view articulated: on the one hand, some folks believe that too many Palestinians are determined to fight the smell of Israel to the last breath. On the other hand, others believe that, at bottom, there is no reason that a two-state solution cannot work, no reason that Palestinians and Israelis have to be such bitter enemies. Instead, a great enmity was created by the establishment of Israel, and theexile of Palestinians from their homelands. Subsequent ill-considered wars worsened the problem, prompted increased American support, and resulted in a sour-grapes mentality of epic proportions. Lord knows there was enough historical, geographical, and religious tinder to add to the fire. In short, our support for Israel, however morally necessary, and the wrath it has incurred, proved that it was indeed our historical lack of colonial interests in the Middle East that had previously garnered pro-American sentiment there.

I suppose I believe in the latter position: I do not think that Palestinians are, by nature, hate-mongers or subhuman in some way. Their attitudes and actions are influenced by environment just as anyone else. The line of Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, with the bitter memory of theirexile have, for one reason or another, just not been able to “get over it.” I tend to believe that this is at the root of the Palestinian ‘s refusal to recognize Israel, and the desire to obliterate it. Of course, whatever errors or insensitivities may have been committed, this sentiment is unacceptable. And whatever the merits of our decisions a half century ago, we cannot just walk away now.

I don’t offer any suggestions for how to fix it. But I am always struck by folks who seem to believe that Palestinians are a different kind of animal, untethered to the causal network of ideas and stimuli that act upon the human belief system which shapes world views and defines actions and attitudes. Simply because some among them may act reprehensibly does not excuse us from seeking to understand why they do so, and why those around them seem to tolerate it. We did not do this with the people of Nazi Germany; why should we start here?

Written by Tim Kowal

February 4, 2009 at 6:45 am

Posted in Middle East, Politics

Our (Hidden) Prejudice Against the Middle East

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Almost all of my reflections on the Middle East derive one way or another from conversations with a very good friend of mine who, although Indian and not Middle Eastern, is Muslim and thus attuned to potential prejudices that his fellow Americans might have with respect to the region. During our email discussion today, he suggested I read Orientalism by William Said, and gave a very good explanation why it was important.


Honestly, that’s what I feel that most intelligent, respectable, and well-intentioned people in this country suffer from. Even you, who I think is an exception because you have known me personally, just imagine, even you in spite of knowing me for all these years, still have a slight bit of this uneasiness (I won’t call it prejudice but I’ll just say uneasiness and insecurity… ie something doesn’t sit right with you… it’s very subconscious and that’s what makes it even more dangerous in my opinion) . So if even YOU have it, then why wouldn’t most Westerners have it way more than you? And this is where I believe that fear about not letting the Islamic world flourish or thrive comes in… that fear breeds more fear and suspicion and mistrust, and then it leads to policies of continued subjugation of the people and systematic oppression of them (or simply tacit approval of continued oppression… best example being when you stated you know some US policies aren’t right but when it came down to someone talking about actually making the changes, I think it was Ron Paul, it just didn’t sit right with you for some reason).

This is an excerpt from your email to me a few months ago:

So really this turns into an anthropological issue: what do these people believe? Why do they believe it? (And I don’t mean just about Islam: a people’s presuppositions about anything stem from their geography, climate, culture, religion, not to mention their neighbors, who are in turn influenced by all those things as well.)

The principle question that is itching me is, why exactly has the Middle East has always been a such a crucible of conflict? And while I am skeptical at the heavy handed approach, I have come to also be skeptical that the answer could be as simple as having someone like Ron Paul or Barack Obama sit down “without preconditions.” Could it all be as simple as that? And wasn’t that Jimmy Carter’s approach as well?

But maybe this is what I really should have clarified: I don’t think that any people are any better or worse than us. In fact, that’s even a useless statement in my mind, because in some ways I’m kind of a relativist. “As good as” America? “As good as” anyone else? What does that mean? That one has to have technology, progress, a certain kind of culture, a certain level of wealth? No. But many people will say that our freedom makes us good, something to be looked up to. But the philosophy of freedom has many subtleties, and the American view of it is only arguably better — again, depending on what presuppositions you bring to the table. Jean Jacque Rousseau, for example, wrote the famous line “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The “chains” here are his own desires for control, wealth, power. We cannot be free, truly free, without being free of our evil inclinations. Later he wrote that we must be “forced to be free.” This line has been used both to criticize and praise Rousseau — again, depending on your point of view, your presuppositions.

Also this:

Again, I know very little about Iran’s government and what policies and viewpoints it actually espouses. (I.e., a rousseau-ian/hegelian view of freedom, or the Lockean/American view of individual liberty). But my point is, where I used to just give such governments the benefit of the doubt (because I thought it was so absurd that people would give their lives over to the state), I can no longer do that, because I now see that it is quite possible.

So, how can you assure me that the vast majority of Iranian people want this?

Anyways, my impression is that you view me and other Muslims like me living here in America as some kind of enlightened minority, somehow innocently detached from the “real” majority of the Muslim world and all of its cruel and brutal realities—realities that you simply cannot take any chances on and feel extremely uneasy about changing any US foreign policy status quo on. Almost as if its like a self defense mechanism… you don’t know enough about it, but you don’t want to rock the boat because what’s been happening seems to keep you and others safe and living normally so let’s not risk anything right now even if it means taking a risk that we are keeping some injustices and evils going.

So although its not a prejudice of the sorts we are used to seeing (ie racism) its another type of prejudice that starts with ignorance of the unknown and then gets strengthened by the manipulation of ideas that you have been subjected to in certain circles, which have only fed your fears and suspicions further and further.

Can you honestly feel open enough to a Muslim and Christian co-existence the way that you have been taught by the establishment to respect the “Judeo-Christian” realm? That’s the question you have to ask yourself and if you have any qualms whatsoever therein lies my point. I don’t blame you, I just want you to recognize it’s there.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 22, 2009 at 1:07 am

Posted in Islam, Middle East

Making Sense of US in the Middle East

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I’ve long struggled with the big questions regarding the Middle East, especially, why is it such a mess, and what good, if any, are we doing over there? Tired of being agnostic on the subject, I’ve finally picked up a book to try to start getting a sense of the subject. I picked up Michael Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy, although without doing much research — I later discovered he serves in the IDF. However, the book is balanced thus far (halfway into it at this point). And who doesn’t have an opinion on the subject of the Middle East, after all.

My studies on the founding era and first 100 years of the US has already revealed that the flourishing of of a free republic is not an easy thing to pull off. It takes not just a good constitution–I think many people believe that anyone can have what we have if they want it, they just need to use our founding documents. But it takes much more than the lifting of ideas–you need soil, not just the seed alone. The Protestant movement had a big impact in shaping our system. Instead of having a strong authority center like Catholicism, Protestantism had a DIY bent, which leads to people forming strong local groups, public and private, to get things done on their own. There is of course more to it than just the particular religious history that coincided with America’s early period, but it is profound.

Because the mid east has always been predisposed to lousy rulers, and because it’s actually pretty tough to get democracies going, I can see the argument for being pro-Israel as a general matter. That is not to neglect all Israel’s awful policies of settlements et al., and its religious bigotry. But that has been the norm since the US was introduced to the Middle East–it’s not something Israel invented. Rather, Israel does and should endure censure because of the Spiderman notion that with great power comes great responsibility. Israel has superpower backing but lacks the full measure of the moral and philosophical grounding of the superpower backing it.

But it does seem that US has been trying to give the Middle East education and democracy for hundreds of years. It just never really took, unfortunately. So in a sense it’s hard to buy the argument that Israel is the only thing standing in the way of a free and prosperous Palestinian state. I’m anxious to see how Iraq pans out. It may be the next real successful Middle Eastern democracy, which would be very exciting. And it would do much for Bush’s legacy.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 22, 2009 at 12:44 am

Posted in Middle East