To Shimon Peres, The Peacemaker

Source: The Daily Telegraph

Source: The Daily Telegraph

As a young man, my mind was captivated by the image of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, along with Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the White House lawn in 1993, overseen by President Bill Clinton. Sadly, the Oslo Peace Accords, for which all the three gentlemen won the Nobel Peace Prize, failed to bring lasting peace to the Middle East but laid the foundation of the Palestinian Authority.

Sadly, the Oslo Peace Accords, for which all the three gentlemen won the Nobel Peace Prize, failed to bring lasting peace to the Middle East but laid the foundation of the Palestinian Authority. It angered many Israelis and failed to satisfy many Palestinians, but sadly the fundamentalists always fail to follow the sacrifices and efforts put in to get even remotely close to such an agreement. Many believed that the peace deal led to Rabin’s assassination.

However, it inspired the entire world with the hope that a conflict as impossible as Israel and Palestine could possibly see an opening for peace, which could put millions out of suffering and misery in the region. One of the central figures behind the peace initiative was Shimon Peres, the foreign minister at the time.

Probably nothing inspired me more to value world peace than this single photograph. I thought that if a peace prize meant anything, it had to be all about the meaning of this picture. Just looking at it offers you a glimpse of hope that peace is possible in one of the harshest political conflicts in the world.

Source: Haaretz

Source: Haaretz

His death brings that sinking feeling in my heart, with a regret that I would never be able to meet Shimon Peres in person, perhaps in a diplomatic position. Just like the feeling I had after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, a regret that I would always live with. Another regret is that the Pakistan state establishment could not find a reason to establish diplomatic relations with Israel during his lifetime.

While his role as a statesman and diplomat for peace remains to hold universal appeal, he was one of and headed Israeli naval services after independence. A Polish Jewish immigrant, he was a part of the Haganah that later transformed into the IDF and was instrumental as one of the founders of the state. He saw the state grow to become a formidable outpost of democracy in a region crippled by autocracy and perpetual conflict.

Since he has been involved in the affairs of the state almost all his adult life throughout Israel’s history, his personality cannot possibly be removed from the controversy due to Israel’s brutal defense and retaliation tactics. However, as a statesman, and later as the President of Israel, Peres continued to reach out to the world and build a friendly image of Israel in a world that finds it hard to shrug off its antisemitic tendencies.

Probably the greatest reason to mourn the death of Shimon Peres, even though his role was mostly of a formal powerless figurehead of late, was that Israel has probably lost one of the last figures who could engage sensibly with the other side. His death leaves the current Israeli leadership in the hands of some of the most hardline right-wing government that Israel has ever had in its history. The worrying part is that the fundamentalism in the nationalism is only expected to grow, which hardly leaves you with an optimistic view of the situation.

There is easily more to celebrate about Shimon Peres than there is to mourn.

People like Shimon Peres matter because they are optimistic enough to believe in peace in a world of cynics, who believe in humanity when it is much easier to hate.

Let’s hope his passing serves as a reminder of how valuable peacemakers are.

Rest in peace, indeed.

What Made Hitchens So Cool

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) Source: The Times

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
Source: The Times

In one word what made Christopher Hitchens so cool was his courage.

It’s a word easily taken for granted, often involving violent connotations. But in Hitchens’ case, the courage was far more relevant and greater than any soldier with a gun could ever muster.

I speak as one who did not admire Hitchens for his politics and warmongering, becoming an advocate of the American war machine in the latter years. But as a great admirer of him for his eloquence, oratory and his clarity of thought and action on freedom of speech, secularism and raising arguments that no one would dare go near to. The kind of single-minded commitment which looked even like fanaticism to some, and at times, probably rightly so, I don’t know.

In his journalistic career, I consider his work on Mother Teresa to be probably the most important one. Well everybody knows how peace loving Henry Kissinger is, but questioning the moral integrity of Mother Teresa was really something unheard of. If I ever would have met Hitchens, I would most certainly have sincerely congratulated him on that effort.

But not only that. Christopher Hitchens was one of the most outspoken British journalists to have supported author Salman Rushdie during the Satanic Verses fatwa affair in 1988. As a matter of fact, he was one of the leading names to offer him support when everyone was reluctant. While that may not sound unpleasant to the Western ears, his support for controversial British historian David Irving which attracted much criticism.

While Holocaust Denial, a ridiculous history view which nevertheless deserves independent inquiry from scientific minds, is associated with Antisemitism, Hitchens, who supported David Irving’s right to his opinion is said to have some part of Jewish ancestry himself.

Now these are the opinions which would earn you a lot of enemies, let alone followers and admirers, but at the same time it was what he thought was right in consistency with the principles of freedom of speech. Why shut certain people up and if there claims are so ridiculous, why not scrutinize them and let them be humiliated. And boy, was Hitchens great at the art of humiliating, aka the hitchslap.

As a matter of fact, we do need people who must stand up for freedom of speech no matter how politically incorrect or offending it may sound. The kind of freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is the one that is the natural right of every human being. It’s pretty much physics as you cannot prevent someone from thinking and speaking in a certain way.

Probably that is why humans feel empowered by trying to repress the rights of others like them. Now that is power. That is control. That is government. Challenging existing accepted moral standards and dogma was what made Christopher Hitchens so cool. And we all know his views on religion. He called himself an antitheist.

It’s all outrageous to many, but well, that is what is different and most unique about him. The idea behind “God is not Great” is certainly not his originally, as he himself and other New Age Atheist scholars would acknowledge that it has been around for centuries, but his battle with the conventions certainly was. This is what made him stand out, for better or for worse. For not apologizing to those who called him an apologist.

The most important lesson from Christopher Hitchens is to question everything. And that nothing is sacred enough, if at all, to be immune to it.

So what is that one thing that you would have said to Christopher Hitchens on his birthday had he been alive?

Not sure about all of you, but I would have suggested him to smoke cigars instead of cigarettes.

Perhaps he would have lived longer had that been the case.

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Here’s Christopher Hitchens on Freedom of Speech

Christopher Hitchens on Freedom of Speech, again

Thoughts on November Gaza Strikes and the Middle East Conflict

Source: AP/Washington Post

You can’t expect people to act rationally or logically when they are being bombed, Israeli or Palestinian. If you think they do, then you know very little about humans. Though there are people out there who are paid to do so.

That’s why I think it’d take really smart people to handle the fragile Middle East situation. This is why I am worried that the Israeli policies could actually harm the Jewish people, even though they are designed to protect them, or offer the perception of protecting them.

Using force as a deterrent is probably a necessity there, especially in the early years when the memory of antisemitic fascist regimes was still fresh. It is relevant even today, but considering that Gaza does not enjoy that luxury would make you very concerned about their security too.

I believe the people living on the both sides have the same fears and desires. But thinking again from the Israeli perspective, I would be very concerned as an Israeli citiizen or diplomat about the image of the nation around the world. I know a lot of Israelis would prefer better security over a better world image. Who wouldn’t? I would too. Anyone would.

But this is something for the leaders to think about because it concerns the future. Unless we are hellbent to enact the Biblical or Hadith Apocalypse.

People often mention the wounded and the killed Israeli and Palestinian children and the propaganda about them. It’s not a question of whether a Jewish child dies or an Arab child dies. The question to ask is whether we would want a child to live in such a hostile environment.

Seriously, I would do whatever I can to prevent a child from living in a warzone (ideally anyone but why add more misery by forcing new people to suffer by shoving them into this world, though true in any other situation too). But can I, or can we? No.

If the Hamas regime is irresponsible, which I am convinced that they are, to the point that their policies don’t really reflect any sympathy for the security of their own people (if you ignore the fact that they are badly repressed by the Israelis), then what could be better ways to deal with them?

To a cynic, maybe build global consensus before bombing Gaza City. To a more rational person, maybe Israel and the US should stop blocking full Palestinian membership in the UN like civilized nations and lift the Gaza blockade and grant their states completely autonomous status like soveirgn countries and maybe give them a chance to prove their civilty once again.

But still if Palestinians are sensible, they would know that the intifadas are largely a lost cause today because the rest of the Arab world would rather really support Israel over them any time. Then again, is it a coincidence that the Palestinian resistance looks towards Iran? The enemy of your enemy is your friend.

I do think the Palestinian leaders could have done a lot more to ensure peace and are largely responsible for a lot of deaths over the years (Not because they should have as per their principles but because they lack political resources to fight Israel). But that’s politics. If only they were not obsessed with Jerusalem. Not that the Israelis are not.

The growing West Bank settlements and the policy of gradual Palestinian deprivation may have worked well for the Israeli occupation, but make a very poor case for Israeli peace efforts. In any case you would really want the violence to stop regardless of the political consequences. But in politics, land and power are more precious than life. Then again, there is liberty.

But the recent November strikes on Gaza have made an impact in some other way. The international community and media noticing the cruelty of the Israeli attack on Gaza this time for a change is significant. The image of the BBC photojournalist as posted above has shaken the West. Accussations of biased media coverage from both sides do not change the facts and the misery that both the affected people go through.

Therefore, both Israelis and Palestinians need to learn their lessons fast. Good luck to both of them for peace.

I know it almost sounds superficial, especially after these words echoing the conference halls on the conclusion of countless meaningless accords, but just in the memory of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, let us agree to stop the madness and say:

Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

Then again, it’s not important. Is it?

The Anti Defamation League, the Ground Zero Mosque and America

In relation to the Islamic Center and Mosque which is to be built on the Ground Zero site in NYC, the Anti Defamation League (ADL) has opposed the idea of its construction, and has urged that the group building the mosque should find a new spot, since the location of the mosque is causing pain to the families grieving the deaths of their loved ones in the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

For those who don’t know much about it, the Anti Defamation League is an organization which has developed the reputation of being the watchdog of antisemitism around the world, particularly in the United States, and claims to promote democratic values while defending civil rights. It works to protect the rights of the Jewish community and is an advocate of the State of Israel.

Although some Muslims who don’t take the Jewish community to be holding any sympathy for them would not have been shocked over the opposition of the Ground Zero Mosque by the ADL, I seriously think they are wrong in their assumption. But while looking at ADL, I appreciate this organization as antisemitism is a behavior which certainly should not be tolerated.  But I have been largely disappointed over its stand on the Ground Zero Mosque.

Let us try to grasp some sanity out of this emotionally charged subject. First of all, I am not a believer in building a mosque or an Islamic center on any particular spot, since Muslims can build it anywhere they choose to, so there is nothing special about building one at the Ground Zero site. I also think that the opposition of the ADL is more political in nature than religious, but still I find no reason to oppose the construction of a mosque anywhere as long as it is legal to do so.

However, the opposition to building the mosque and the Islamic center seems really absurd to me. I thought the United States was a free and democratic country, offering equal rights to every community, so why are they opposing the construction of a mosque? Prominent Republican figures such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich openly opposed the idea.

In fact, the opposition from Republican politicians was a little predictable, but the reaction of the ADL was nothing short of being disappointing to me. To me, opposing the construction of a religious center is un-American and an undemocratic act, and given the values that the ADL holds and promotes, it totally seems inappropriate to their image.

The only aspect about the objections to the construction of the mosque and the Islamic center that I could really make any sense out of is how it is being funded. It is an important question to ask from the group who is responsible for its construction and the approving NYC authorities. But we don’t hear about questions raised over the funding of any other religious buildings, do we? Why? Just because they are building it at the Ground Zero, I think.

The proposed mosque and the Islamic Center is ironically named the “Cordoba Center”, which is probably a reference to life in Cordoba, the capital of the Moorish Muslim Caliphate in Spain in which Muslims, Jewish and Christians lived in harmony, and which was considered a golden period for the promotion of knowledge and sciences, and is also associated with prominent Jewish figures in history, such as Maimonides, a 12th century philosopher and scholar, who had also served as physician to Saladin.

Probably, this is the reason why noted journalist Fareed Zakaria, who is a member of the Muslim community in the United States, has returned the First-Amendment Hubert Humphrey Freedoms Prize presented to him by the ADL in 2005. He sees the move by the ADL as a mistake and as something which will harm their reputation, since he thinks that this could affect their value of upholding religious freedom in America.

While this is Zakaria’s personal act, I cannot help but agree with him in coming to the conclusion that the opposition from ADL of the Ground Zero Mosque was totally inappropriate and inconsistent with the democratic and American values, or even with the values of the organization itself. How can it safeguard the rights of one community when it does not recognize the rights of another? They certainly would have spoken out if the construction of a synagogue were opposed in this way.

What is even more shocking than that is the hatred of mosques among a lot of American citizens, who apparently oppose the constructions of mosques pretty much everywhere, leave alone the Ground Zero site, since many see mosques as monuments to terrorism, has appeared as a result of the debate over the controversial mosque. Unfortunately, secularism these days have become more anti-Islam these days more than anything else, which is not secularism by any means by the way.

It is true that Muslims can sometimes resort to actions which can really make them look ridiculous, and coincidentally the major terrorist organizations in the world such as Al-Qaeda, have their origins in radical Muslim groups, but you simply cannot alienate the entire Muslim community just because of a few terrorists. Doing so will only promote extremism, encouraging the radicals to convince moderates of the anti-Islam views of the West.

In fact, my advice to the American people would be not to alienate the Muslim community in order to curb Islamic extremism, since it would not be realistic to expel every single Muslim from the country. The only way to put an end to Islamic extremism is to accept them, and to allow religious freedom to them. A distinction should be made between Islam and terrorism, a line which has diminished in the perception of many.

In the end, whether the mosque is built at the site or not does not matter really. Even if the group backs off from building the mosque in respect of the opposition, this should not be taken as an insult by the Muslim community. It’s just that the opposition to constructing a mosque sounds unreasonable to me. At least, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks so, who is Jewish himself.