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Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Conquerors' Divide: Barack Obama's Race Speech

Posted by Tariq al Haydar

I have a healthy distrust of governments and media. Once upon a time I thought that the President was a person (man?) who could really change things. I followed presidential campaigns with interest, even though I can't vote, because here was one person who could potentially help solve the problems of my troubled region. And then, with time, I became jaded. My cynicism grew and blossomed into indifference. It was all the same. Whoever the president was, he/she had to adopt the same foreign policy positions that the U.S. has always taken.

When I talk about U.S. foreign policy, I am mainly concerned with American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I'm sure many people who are removed from the conflict see it as a dispute in which, as most disputes, both parties share the blame. In fact, when one sees that tiny Israel is surrounded by Arab countries, and that Israel is a democracy in a region comprised primarily of dictatorships and monarchies, one would be expected to at least partially sympathize with Israel. The fact that almost all news outlets—CNN, BBC, USA Today,…etc.—condition people to feel this way also helps.

Of course, being an Arab Muslim living in Saudi Arabia, I am conditioned to adopt the opposite position; I am supposed to view Israel as a malevolent entity. Several years ago, I realized that I was in the middle of two opposing currents, each urging me to feel and think a certain way. So which position should I choose? Or should I perhaps reach some kind of compromise? I was troubled, because I am not comfortable with the idea of being manipulated by external forces, so I decided to respond the only way I knew how whenever a dilemma presented itself to me: I read. I refused to accept a position until I could be reasonably informed. And here is what I found out:

- Between 1967 and 1989, The UN Security Council passed 131 resolutions directly dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Of the 131 resolutions passed, 43 could be considered neutral while the remaining 88 either criticized and opposed the actions of Israel

- During this time, in the UN General Assembly, 429 resolutions against Israel were passed, and Israel was condemned 321 times

- UN Security Council Resolution 476 reiterates "that Israel's claim to Jerusalem are 'null and void' "

- Resolution 605 "strongly deplores" Israel's policies and practices denying the human rights of Palestinians

- Resolution 1583, in 2005, calls on Lebanon to assert full control over its border with Israel

This is just a sampling of the UN's condemnations of Israel. In every single case, however, the resolution was not passed. Why? Because the United States always vetoes any resolution against Israel. It is always the only nation to do so.

I also found out that this wasn't a matter of "Jews" being in a conflict against Arabs or Muslims. It is not a "Jewish" question. In fact, a multitude of Orthodox Jewish groups, such as the Neturei Karta and Satmar, fiercely oppose the State of Israel. In fact, if one is to follow the Torah, the very idea of "Zionism," which is the driving idea behind the state of Israel, is "heresy" according to the tenets of Judaism:

If you would like to read more about Israel, I recommend the works of Noam Chomsky. And for the record, Chomsky is not some radical nutjob. He is one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century. He is basically the father of modern linguistics, and has participated in interesting debates with intellectual giants such as Michel Foucault. Oh, and Chomsky just happens to be Jewish, by the way.

So after starting this piece by mentioning Barack Obama's historic race speech in the title, I went into this long, seemingly unrelated digression about Israel. Let me get back to Obama for a moment. I've always liked Obama, but didn't really think he was going to change anything regarding American foreign policy. I wanted him to win because he seemed more honest than the other candidates. He gave the impression of actually saying what he believed, of having integrity. But I still remained cynical. Until his reaction to the Jeremiah Wright "scandal". When I saw clips of Wright's sermons, and I heard that Barack was going to discuss the issue, I naturally assumed that Obama would distance himself from this controversial figure in order to protect his political interests. He would then surely go on to speak in that distinct language that politicians use when they talk without really saying anything. That's what I thought. But I was shocked and thrilled when Obama turned the tables and gave an honest speech about the nature of race relations in America. And I admired Obama for sticking up for his former pastor even while disagreeing with some of his statements. I felt a sudden jolt of audacious hope that I hadn't experienced in years.

But then I looked at the full text of Obama's speech, and I realized that while Obama is indeed more truthful than your average politician, and while his statements regarding race seemed heartfelt, sincere and poignant, his position when it comes to foreign policy will remain identical to every single president who preceded him. To wit:

"But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country … a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

I agree with Obama that "radical Islam" is a danger. In fact, hardly anyone would disagree with that. However, it is unfortunate that he refuses to see Israel as anything other than a "stalwart ally". I hope he, or at least some American president in the future, will come to see the view that Orthodox Islam, Orthodox Judaism and the United Nations share. Until that day comes, however, my cynicism will remain alive and well. I still hope Obama wins though. I just won’t be devastated if he doesn't.


Eboy said...

/and we thought we wouldn't have much content! HA!!!!! Really exceptional work, T. It's extremely interesting to hear someone else's view on things regarding our elected officials and the US stance on the middle east that doesn't come from our jaded media. Excellent job.

ASPOV said...

that bugged me too, about the speech. i only hope that obama is like you AND READS as much as possible about the issues, both foreign and domestic, and from different perspectives, in order to understand fully and to make decisions based on that. i do have a feeling though, that he is a deep thinker and will make up his own mind. but things are such a mess, both here and abroad, that we will have to be patient, and the same time push him on the issues so as to avoid complacency.

Tariq al Hayder said...

Thanks Eboy. And I remember you wanted to comment on that piece I wrote for my own blog: "Absurdities from the Edge". Did you remember what you wanted to say?

Like I said, I like Obama and I hope he wins. And he does strike me as an intelligent, thoughtful guy. But as I understand it, if you don't "play the game" so to speak, you just don't get elected. You end up like Ralph Nader, who really just says what he believes and is very passionate about what he believes, but winds up being on the outside of the political process looking in. Because if you don't pander to special interests, who's going to fund your campaign?

In fact, I was just thinking about Nader, and I found it funny that "nadir" means "low point" in English. It's also an Arabic word; it means "rare". Just one of those poignantly random linguistic flukes, I guess!

Tariq al Hayder said...

Eboy, I mean "Absurdities from the Borderline"

ASPOV said...

it's an interesting time right now for him because 1) folks are so tired of the "game" and he's pointing it out often when it comes up, and 2) he's not accepting money from the "special interests". The Wright "controversy" interestingly enough was to me an attempt to paint Obama as really beholden to a particular "special interest" in black folks in the U.S., and thus reduce his candidacy to that of so-called fringe candidacies of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Sem said...

I can't wait to get on here. I have a take on this that is similar to Tariqs, but there are all kinds of things that need to be said about the conflict that will look good in its own post.

Sem said...

and for some reason its using my secondary gmail account to post. Normally i shall show up as Sabonis15.

Anonymous said...

nice piece Tariq. if only more people are more independent thinkers.
Barack just have to say what he has to say to stay in the game, like you said. i do have hope that he can at least nudge the US policies (doemstic and foreign) in the better direction.