The Middle East

Is there any better proof of the danger of organized religion than the mess in the Middle East, particularly the Israel/Palestine conflict?

It’s not as if there’s no competition for the title of “bad things done for religion”. From those who wear the cross, we have the Ugandan LRA murdering people in the name of God, Nigerian Christians burning children for witchcraft, Lebanese Christians committing the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982, sectarian warfare and terrorism between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, and of course, the Nazi regime, who marched into battle with the words “God is with us” (in German) engraved on their belt buckles. It’s also noteworthy that Christians were the first to employ chemical warfare and nuclear warfare, as well as saturation bombing of cities. This doesn’t even include atrocities committed before the 20th century.

The Muslims, for their part, have been responsible for terrorism in the Middle East, the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, and countless abuses against human rights in the name of Sharia Law (which is roughly as tyrannical as ancient Jewish Mosaic Law).

The Jews have had limited global power throughout much of the 20th century, but in Israel, we are again seeing what happens when an organized religion (even a small one) gains military and political power. Orthodox Jews get special funding from the Israeli government, special exemptions from their social responsibilities to that government, and military protection for their expansionist settlement agenda. This agenda inflames hostility throughout the region, makes peace impossible, and creates endless headaches for Israeli moderates and their US allies: none of which they care about, because their faith compels them to it.

So why pick the whole Israel/Palestine situation as the best proof of the danger of organized religion? It’s a good pick because it’s current, it’s obviously not going away for a long time, both sides openly quote religion as their motivation, and you hardly ever meet anyone who’s neutral on the issue, even though both sides are clearly wrong.

Religion has a “Get out of Jail Free” card

Do you ever wonder why Muslims around the world tend to downplay Palestinian misdeeds? Perhaps it’s similar to the way Judeo-Christians around the world tend to downplay Christian or Israeli misdeeds. If you’re a Christian, did you bristle at my list of Christian atrocities earlier? If so, why? It’s factual. Did you start making up a counter-accusation list? That’s the defensive reaction kicking in, which is the same reason Muslims make excuses for Palestine.

Every religion has a “get out of jail free” card from its own followers: they take offense at criticism regardless of whether it’s true. This is precisely why every religious conflict becomes so intractable: each side always thinks its own atrocities are not important, and that the other side’s atrocities are unforgivable.

And let’s make no mistake: Israel/Palestine is a religious conflict. The heated dispute over Jerusalem is a good example: what makes the city so special, if not religion? If Judaism, Islam, and Christianity did not have holy sites there, then why would anyone fight over it? Proximity to the Dead Sea? Huge oil deposits we don’t know about? People are fighting over Jerusalem for one and only one reason: their religious beliefs.

Israel is formally defined as a “Jewish state” by its own government. This seems benign to us because it is a religion. Would it seem benign if it were an ethnicity? Suppose the state of Utah decided to declare that it is officially a “white state”. Would that seem benign to you? I suspect that such a declaration would lead to a political firestorm the likes of which we have never seen, yet it is considered perfectly reasonable for Israel to declare that it is officially “Jewish”. Why the double standard? The Holocaust? The mistreatment of a race, no matter how horrific, does not mean that they should get a free pass on anything they do in the future.

Religious alliances trump logic

Political alliances exist for mutual benefit. If one side finds that an alliance is causing it pain, it will usually do the logical thing and sever that alliance. However, religious alliances are an altogether different animal: religious alliances ignore material gain or pain. For example, the medieval Crusader states raised large armies and sent them to the middle east, to fight the Muslims. They did this because of their mutual religious alliances to the Catholic Church. From a material perspective, these enormously expensive campaigns gained them nothing, yet they undertook them anyway. This is the power of religious alliances.

Similarly, the present-day middle east furnishes us with more examples of religious alliances which trump logic. Belief in bizarre World Trade Centre conspiracy theories (in which the US secretly destroyed the towers themselves) runs high among Muslims, and it’s certainly not for logical reasons; there is no logic behind such conspiracy theories. Its true basis is more likely an emotional desire to exonerate the terrorists with whom they share a religious affiliation.

Of course, this brings us back to Israel, and its “friend”, the United States. Is this a religious alliance, or a practical one? Let’s see … the United States consistently votes against any UN resolution against any Israeli activity, regardless of the merits of the individual resolution. The United States stormed out of the 2001 Durban conference on racism when Israel’s anti-Arab policies were mentioned. The United States sends billions of dollars of military aid to Israel every year. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, supposedly because it was threatened by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but even the imaginary WMDs they described could not possibly hit America. These imaginary WMDs could, however, hit Israel, which the US treated as a threat to itself and responded to accordingly, at enormous cost.

In return for the United States’ extraordinarily generous aid, Israel gives the United States … nothing. Despite the fact that the United States has basically been dragged into Israel’s war with its neighbours, Israel is completely unapologetic about its confrontational policies and does not even respond to US entreaties to change its inflammatory settlement policy in the Occupied Territories. And then there’s the infamous USS Liberty incident. If this is a friendship, it is an incredibly one-sided one. In fact, it is so one-sided that its persistence cannot really be explained through any other mechanism than religious affiliation. Not for nothing is the phrase “Judeo-Christian values” commonly thrown about in American political discourse: in the late 20th century, American Christians decided that the restoration of Israel should be a goal of all Christians, and thus a religious alliance was born. Therefore, as with all religious alliances, it ignores material gain or pain.

“Ah, but what about democracy?” one might ask. After all, Israel is valued by the United States because of its “democratic values”, not because of some goofy religious prophecy about the Rapture and the return of Israel and rebuilding of the Temple, right? Well, that’s where the marketing clashes with the reality: the United States has never shown any particular inclination to protect “democracy” in its foreign relations. In 1953, they engineered a coup in Iran to replace a democratically elected leader with the Shah: a dictatorial monarch who promised oil in return for their help. In the 1980s, the US gave the tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein billions of dollars, hoping that he could contain Iran (which had since overthrown the hated Shah). In 1991, the US went to war with Saddam Hussein in order to protect Kuwait, which is ruled by a monarch. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the US has been normalizing its relations with China, which is increasingly capitalistic but has no interest in democracy. The pattern here does not seem to support the notion that the US chooses its friends and enemies based on “democracy”. Instead, it seems perfectly willing to befriend dictators or antagonize democracies, which leads us back to square one: this appears to be a religious alliance.

Taking sides

So which side is at fault? I’d say “both”. Sure, I suppose a longer answer would be nice, but frankly, there are much better resources out there if you want to study the history of the conflict. I’m not writing this to create an academic paper or a research source. I’m just suggesting that you stop trying to figure out which side is worse and just notice that neither side is making serious efforts to end it. Negotiations are made in extraordinarily bad faith, with neither side intending to honour any of its promises. Lately, they don’t even bother making these empty promises, and why should they? Each side knows that its respective supporters don’t really care how they behave; they won’t switch sides. Each side’s supporters trot out examples of the other side’s sins, without acknowledging their own.

And why won’t they switch sides? Religion appears to be the culprit again. Just look at the consistency with which people line up to take sides which just happen to line up with their religious affiliation. Isn’t it interesting how, after all the arguments and talking points and factoids people raise in defense of their position, it always ends up aligning with their religion? What a remarkable coincidence. Even the intensity of religious belief affects the position: moderate American Christians are more likely to take a middle-ground position, while hard-line fundamentalist American Christians are more likely to treat Israel as a shining force of light surrounded by a sea of evil.

Solutions

Everyone likes the “two state solution”, and it’s certainly better than the current “one state with a couple of giant apartheid ghettoes” situation, but they would be fighting over water rights forever. Another solution comes to mind: abandon the “two state solution” and make Israel a true liberal democracy, with separation of religion and state and equal rights for all, thus ending the apartheid state which currently exists in the occupied territories. However, the likelihood of people actually adopting this solution seems remote, unless Islam and Orthodox Judaism lose their political power in the region. At the end of the day, religion may be only one of many sources of conflict in our world, but it is a source which is peculiarly immune to the practical considerations of material gain or pain. This makes it intractable, and that is why our grandchildren will still be reading about this mess.

23 Responses to The Middle East

  1. Douglas says:

    The ongoing events in Egypt are symptomatic of “blowback” on the US…ergo, like the Shah in Iran (circa 1954 – 1979), we had to have a “friendly”, especially since we just “have” to be cozy with Israel. So we back a “strong man”, until he and his cronies wear out their welcome with their people who in turn are conned by radical Islamic elements. Why the US has given billions upon billions to Israel, AND Egypt, AND Saudi Arabia (and Iraq before that, and Iran before that), and all we get for our trouble is folks pissed off at us. Mubarak is doomed, and he ought to remember what happened on 10/6/1981 (hell, some say he engineered it!).
    Oh that US politicians would head the words of Washington and Jefferson: “peace, friendship, and free trade with all nations, entangling alliances with none”. Or, if we’re supposed to be so dammed concerned about what goes on in the rest of the world, why the hell did our forefathers go to the trouble of coming over, establishing a country, and fighting for our independence (though there’s something to be said about the Canadians’ patience).

  2. Brett says:

    “Ah, but what about democracy?” one might ask. After all, Israel is valued by the United States because of its “democratic values”, not because of some goofy religious prophecy about the Rapture and the return of Israel and rebuilding of the Temple, right?

    For the born-agains, it’s definitely a “We need Israel to exist so Jesus can come back” thing. But for the rest of Israel’s supporters in the US, it’s basically a kind of conservative (and often not-so-conservative – there are plenty of otherwise very liberal Democratic politicians who are also diehard pro-Israel) identity politics. Israel is seen as One of Us, vs a bunch of angry faceless brown people who want to kill them.

    You often some variation on the whole “Israel is a tiny country surrounded by dangerous neighbors” (I actually heard Ehud Barak say that in person, when he lectured at my college), and sometimes at high levels. This blog post from Pat Lang (a retired US military intelligence officer), relates an incident when then-Senator Joe Biden started screaming at some Arab guy that Lang was representing about how it was only “Arab stubbornness” that was preventing “little Israel” from living in peace.

    The September 11 terrorist attacks didn’t help with this, but they were certainly a boon for Israelis trying to heighten the “us vs them” situation.

  3. Brett says:

    I like this page, although I kind of miss the old “Middle East” rant essay. That one had some good historical commentary on it, including the fact that the Palestinians got screwed at the Partition in 1947 (getting less than half the land even though they were the majority of the population, and the majority of the population in most areas of Mandatory Palestine).

  4. Norman says:

    I’ve lived in the Middle East for twelves years now…the Israeli-Arab conflict is only happening now because Arabs are unwilling to accept non-Muslims governing over lands they once conquered but which never originally belonged to them.

    What no one is telling us is that nearly 900,000 Jews around the middle east were intimidated, persecuted and forced to leave when the modern state of Israel was set up – over half went to Israel and are still there…pure blood Middle Eastern people make up just over half of the Jewish population of Israel. This 900,000 makes no claims over lands and property they lived in around the “Arab world” – in many cases longer than the Arabs have had writing (Mesopotamia, Egypt etc) despite losing at least as much as the Arabs who lived in Palestine.

    Now when a similar of Arabs were made refugees, or left of their own accord when five Arab states invaded Israel very few were taken in by their Arab cousins. Instead they have been used as a PR weapon against Israel (who, despite having a 20% Arab population already will no accept people who left in order to allow easier destruction of their country).

    It really is Arab stubbornness. The Palestinians were not even a people before 1967 – how can Arabs be named for an invading people from the Aegean in the early first millenia BCE?

    The original idea was population exchange – we did that in Europe after WWII – Prussian Germans gave up all claims to Poland and Lithuania (etc) and moved to Germany. The Arabs who left Israel were supposed to go to Jordan – some did and ended up trying to take over Jordan as means of thanks.

    It’s a big mess and Israel is by no means perfect…but they have 700 times less land than the Arabs, they have a functioning democracy, they have equal rights for women, they don’t imprison gay people (like they do in even ‘moderate’ Arab states like the UAE where I lived for ten years)…and they don’t make cohabiting a crime either. The fact is if the Palestinians were to go to Jordan and other states the problem wouldn’t exist. But they won’t. The Charter of every single Palestinian group includes the destruction of Israel – not a separate state. Hard to negotiate with people like that.

    • Michael Wong says:

      The Palestinians were “not even a people before 1967″? What were they in 1966, then? Imaginary ? Fairies? Animals?

      And what does the conduct of other Arab states have to do with the conduct of the Palestinians? You are seriously saying that Israel cannot negotiate in good faith with Palestinians because other countries run by people of the same race are bad? Or that Israel cannot negotiate in good faith with Palestinians because they want to destroy Israel? Israel’s religious extremists make no bones about their belief that all the land belongs to them, ie- no Palestinian state. Does that mean Israel is impossible to negotiate with too?

      At the end of the day, all of your blame-casting is nothing more than a smokescreen to distract from the fact that Israel is making a mockery of “democracy”. They keep using that word, but they have millions of people in their territory to whom they grant neither citizenship or independent sovereignty, instead keeping them in permanent limbo while they take their land at will and consume their resources. They point fingers at other Arab nations and say “we’re better than Syria”, which is totally irrelevant to the issue.

      • Brett says:

        The Palestinians were “not even a people before 1967?? What were they in 1966, then? Imaginary ? Fairies? Animals?

        Agreed. Palestinian nationalism was forming in the 1920s and 1930s, years before the 1947 Partition.

        But even if it hadn’t, Norman’s argument is still hugely unethical. It’s the same type of argument that you’d see someone use to defend forcibly removing the indigenous population of the US to reservations thousands of miles away. After all, “they’re all Indians – so what does it matter if they get dumped on some different Indian land?”

  5. Elliot Wilson says:

    I also believe organized religion is like government; corrupt. However, I don’t believe religion itself is bad. Just because you don’t believe in a higher power doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And, no I’m not a member of any organized religion, and I’m not here to try and “convert” you. I don’t even go to church! The problem with the Arabs is they allow religion to interfere with government, which should be totally separate. Does that mean religion itself is bad? Hey, as humans, we’ve GOT to believe in something, even it’s something very mundane like family, duty, work, etc. Please no flames.

    • Michael Wong says:

      Who said that I think God doesn’t exist because I don’t believe in him? I have much better reasons than that for not believing in him. I think you’re engaging in a rather obvious example of psychological projection: you think God exists because you do believe in him, so naturally, you assume that I think God does not exist because I don’t believe in him. It obviously doesn’t occur to you at all that I might have scientific reasoning for my conclusion.

  6. Let’s kill em all and let their gods sort em out. Religion is the worst thing to happen to mankind in our entire history and if anything should be banned worldwide.

    • Michael Wong says:

      I would like to see religion sort of “go away”, in the same sense that I would like to see drug addiction go away. Not by killing the users or enacting Prohibition, but by educating them.

    • Michael Rorman says:

      I feel like humans would still find self-justified reasons to kill each other even if religion did not happen to mankind.

  7. MoiMeme says:

    Mike, communism killed over 100 million people in the 20th century and it is a godless ideology. Nazism was NOT Christian, it was a socialist movement (social security, government healthcare, and gun control) which incorporated Germanic paganism.

    The Crusades were counter-jihad movements which included multiple attempts to regain the Holy Land after Muslim conquests.

    Wow, you are really ignorant of Middle East history. Really. Arabs in Israel have more rights than in any Muslim country. The real “naqba” is that the Jews refuse to be dhimmis any longer and have the nerve to establish a successful State in the Middle East, something Arabs have been unable to do. You have drank the Islam kool aid. Probably because you are anti-Christian due to the hurt feelings you have from childhood. I am sorry for your pain.

    Now go ahead and attack me, because you feel you have a superior intellect. You probably don’t even notice that you are doing some of the same things you accuse others of. Human nature raises its ugly head again. We all fall short, don’t we?

    • Michael Wong says:

      Gotta love that mindless regurgitation of false right-wing Christian talking points. Every single thing you said about Nazism was false. Its social programs were no better than those of its predecessor, it actually RELAXED gun controls compared to the old 1928 law, and it was absolutely Christian; Hitler himself was Catholic and spoke of Jesus his Saviour in Mein Kampf. You’re relying on bogus made-up Hitler quotes where he attacks Christianity, and assuming they’re legitimate because they’re so commonly cited on the Internet.

      As for communism, that has as much to do with atheism as it has to do with mathematics. The fact that communists happened to be atheists doesn’t mean that atheism = communism. Your talking points are old, tired, and quite frankly stupid. Moreover, you knew in advance that I would make fun of your intellectually vacuous thinking, because you tried to anticipate it and attack me for it beforehand. Well too bad: uneducated people need to learn before they speak, instead of vice versa.

  8. Mike K. says:

    You’re right, Mike. Our descendants will be reading this same stuff. It takes generations to thin out the kind of intransigence, dogma, ethnic arrogance, and other base behaviours that humanity seems to fall into. But often, it shows up again in a cultural setting no matter what we do. Anarchy seems to be on the rise.

    Those who set up Israel thinking that God will toe the line and re-plant Jesus there? Well, could be that God has other better ideas for His return.

    In the end, I think there was a lot of guilt involved in creating the Israeli state- as well there should have been. Jist sayin’..

  9. Gareth says:

    Mike, whilst I respect many of your points of view, and agree with a lot of them, to call Nazism Christian is a really shocking ignorance on your part, and degrades an otherwise fine argument. Yes Hitler used snippets of Christian dogma when it suited him, just as he used snippets of anything else that suited him. In fact he tried to create a new religion to replace catholicism, as he was afraid of the power that Catholicism and Lutheranism had in Germany.
    Yes you have a fine intellect and as I said, I agree with much of what you have written, but please, if you are going to blame ‘religion’ as a whole, take the time to educate yourself about those very religions.
    Indeed, it is unfortunate that the right wing fundamentalist christian lobby has as much power in the USA as it does, but to then lay the blame on the foot of the door of Christianity, Judaism and Islam is a false argument in much the same manner as the person who equated atheism to communism. Yes, communists were/are atheists but you cannot equate the two. Yes, the right wing conservative christian lobby has an axe to grind, as do Hisbollah and Hamas, but my point is that it is patently wrong to equate these peoples’ actions to the teachings of Muhammed, Jesus and the Torah. You lump all this together as ‘organised religion’ and say ‘look at the problems it creates’ well, I have read some of your other blog articles, and it is much the same argument as the people who say ‘pornography creates Ted Bundys.’

    • Michael Wong says:

      I hope you realize that most of what was taught in the post-war era about Nazism and Christianity was promoted by American Christians who were not above literally paying people to write books of fake quotes attributed to Adolf Hitler. There are ZERO corroborated quotes from Adolf Hitler which denigrate Christianity, and the idea that Christians could not have committed such acts is just religious apologism talking: Christians have an incredibly long history of anti-Jewish violence, stretching back long before the Nazis.

      Yes, Hitler persecuted any Christians who defied him. He persecuted any Germans and Austrians who defied him too; so what? The Nazis were Christian, period. There is no rational argument which can be made against this.

  10. Gareth says:

    “I hope you realize that most of what was taught in the post-war era about Nazism and Christianity was promoted by American Christians who were not above literally paying people to write books of fake quotes attributed to Adolf Hitler.”
    Ok that is news to me and I must admit, changes things completely. Could I tentaitvely ask for sources on this? Not because I don’t believe you but purely for my own interest.
    I reread my previous post and I have to apologise for coming across overly argumentative and ‘ready for a fight.’
    I must also admit, that the middle east situation does not advertise well for religion. Please understand however that not every Christian is a raving idiot that supports Israel no matter what- in fact when I see Pastors pushing a pro-Israel agenda I cringe. This ridiculous dogma is usually based on clutching straws from Revelation. In fact the very idea of God being pro one nation and against the other is totally against everything Jesus taught. (If it interests you, I recommend reading what Greg Boyd, who leads Woodland Hills Chruch has to say on this.)
    However, the fact is that preachers and politicians consistently push a pro-Israel and anti-Arab agenda; so I completely get where you are coming from.

    • Michael Wong says:

      I suggest you look up a guy named Hermann Rauschning. He is the source of most of Hitler’s anti-Christian quotes, and it is widely agreed that he has no credibility whatsoever; he was an obscure official who had no connection to Hitler and would have rarely even met him. Virtually all other anti-Christian quotes attributed to Hitler come from Martin Bormann: a closeted homosexual in a Nazi regime which famously executed homosexuals on a systematic basis: while he was fairly high in the Nazi organization, he had an obvious vested interest in convincing himself that the Nazis believed something other than what they actually believed, and none of his quotes were ever corroborated by anyone else. You can look up Mr. Bormann’s credibility too. Once you do that, I suggest you look at all of the anti-Christian Hitler quotes on the web, and you will invariably find that they always come from one of those two individuals.

      The propaganda about the Nazis being anti-Christian has been so widely disseminated that it’s easy to understand why one might fall for it, despite Hitler’s references to Jesus in Mein Kampf and the fact that Germany as a whole was fiercely evangelical in the 1930s and it is difficult to imagine how that could change so suddenly.

      Regarding Israel, I do know quite a few Christians with pacifist and liberal leanings. That is actually the type of Christian I grew up knowing, before I ran into the modern FOXNews breed of Christian. Unfortunately, the FOXNews brand of Christian seems to be increasingly dominant.

  11. Gareth says:

    You are also right about the long history of attrocities committed in the name of God. Only a moron could deny this so I wont even try. In a nutshell my argument is that the message is good, even if those who say they follow the message have not represented it well. I understand the weakness of my argument. And because I know it annoys you, sorry for the poor spelling in my previos post (tentatively; church)

  12. gareth says:

    Thanks again; a bit of research actually showed me all of the above re. Bormann and Hitler’s, if anything, anti-atheistic and free thought stance. So, once again, I apologise. Just goes to show that a person should not blindly believe everything they were taught. I will go back to eating the Pie of Humility…….:)

    • Michael Wong says:

      To be honest, I’m actually really impressed by how well you responded to that. You strike me as someone with a fair bit of integrity.

      You would not believe how many people I’ve run into who, when confronted with the fact that Hitler’s anti-Christianity stance may have been doctored, just double down and become abusive over my motivations for saying that (the oldest trick on the Internet: when confounded by someone’s ideas, just attack his motivations instead).

  13. Bud Good says:

    It’s okay to remember the past. But please, stop dwelling on it. Can’t do a damn thing now about the past, so why bitch and complain about it? The point is that it is real fucked up over in the Middle East… has been for as long as it’s existed. And it’s something that doesn’t seem is going to change too soon. But, if people would put as much emphasis and effort into the “future prevention” of that which has already happened in the past, we’d have less worries in the future and could have a pleasant conversation about something else that pissed us off yesterday.

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