Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where to from Here?

In last week’s column, I put out a call for proposals to solve the heretofore intractable Israel-Palestinian situation.

Readers did not disappoint. I have tremendous respect for those who take the time to read this space – like a true Irishman, I admire the wisdom of those who seek my opinion – but even I was surprised by the strength of the responses.

Some of the sagest suggestions began more or less like this: No matter your sentiments on this issue – whether you feel the creation of the State of Israel was fair or not, and whether you believe Israel has merely been defending itself against overwhelming odds or oppressing unfortunate people – both sides have suffered. Most important, the past is prologue and there’s no going back. So, we must stop being concerned with who was right or whom to blame, and focus on what to do next.

There are myriad challenges about which we could ask similar questions. The war in Afghanistan was a necessary undertaking when it began, but what is our best move today, nine years on? The invasion of Iraq may not have yielded WMD, but what steps can be taken now to help that recovering country, comprised of three distinct groups, develop into a secular Middle Eastern ally? Western nations may have mishandled Iran for decades, but what should be done as its despotic regime nears nuclear capability? This week, Canada announced, in conjunction with other countries, it would stiffen sanctions against the Iranian government. Was that the right thing to do? (Hint: Yes, it was.)

To find the future you want, you must put aside the past. Learn from it, certainly, but don’t allow your judgment to be clouded by injustices. In this way, forgiveness can be highly practical. It is difficult, nonetheless.

But on the Israel-Palestinian matter, let us give one another substantial credit and assume we can take a purely objective, forward-looking stance. Now what?

Several readers took issue with the premise of my original question – “What should Israel do?” – pointing out that the plight of the Palestinian people is not solely a responsibility of the Jewish State. Their Arab neighbours can also take steps to help.

As columnist Khaled Abu Toameh recently observed, “Not only are Palestinians living in Lebanon denied the right to own property, but they also do not qualify for health care, and are banned by law from working in a large number of jobs,” adding, “Ironically, it is much easier for a Palestinian to acquire American and Canadian citizenship than a passport of an Arab country.”

So if we want to help the Palestinian people – and as a matter of human decency, all good folks share that goal – perhaps the best approach is to spread the pressure. That is, rather than focus solely on, say, Israeli checkpoints and Jerusalem building projects, we might also find the dialing codes for Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, ring them up and ask, “Could you find a path to citizenship for the Palestinians in your midst?”

We might add, “We’d love your help in achieving a peaceful Palestinian state and, in the meantime, would you please drop any restrictions on them working as journalists, pharmacists, physicians, what-have-you, so they can earn a living?”

It’s not perfect or complete, but it’s a way forward.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Always, Always Israel

For some people, it’s always about Israel.

Over the past few weeks, I and other columnists have written about Sakineh Ashtiani, a woman sentenced to death by stoning in Iran for the crime of “adultery.” The good news is, folks from all walks of life and political persuasions have rallied to Ms. Ashtiani’s cause. The strange news is, some still suppose Israel is the problem.

You can extrapolate the Ashtiani case to any number of issues – the growing danger of Iran, the cruelty of Sharia law, the misogyny of Islamic regimes – but even if you spend a paragraph, as I did last week, pointing out that Israel is irrelevant to the topic, that’s still the part that gets people animated.

Every public opinion engenders some measure of response, and there are those who perceive hypocrisy whenever one injustice is given press, rather than another. They’ll complain, “I notice you didn’t write about the expulsion of the Acadians” or “the theft of the Elgin Marbles” or whatever. But as a reliable tangent and an object of anger, the Jewish state stands alone.

And I don’t just mean anonymous ravings by people who post opinions online. I’m a sanguine sort, but even I don’t expect to read surpassing wisdom from “ChunkyLover54” on some Internet comment thread.

Awhile back, I was invited to speak at an educational institution, which posted the transcript of my remarks on its website. The speech was not about the Middle East, but one member of the school’s community, on poring through the canon of my columns, discovered that I had, from time to time, written positive things about Israel. He demanded that a disclaimer and link to an Arab advocacy group be posted under my comments.

After a business partner and I went our separate ways, he opted to punctuate our relationship by sending me a hand-written screed about “the Arabs” – a topic we had never discussed and on which I was unaware he held any view – stating that he had harbored anger with me for years because of public statements I made in support of Israel.

One of the most affable journalists I know (to the extent that’s any kind of distinction) finds it impossible to discuss current affairs for any length of time without making reference to my “twisted defense of Israel.”

Look – I’m just a Presbyterian. Why should these people care what I think about the Jewish state? The answer is, they don’t care about my opinion, but their anger is so strong that it blinds them to anything else. And Israel, as with politics in general, becomes the focal point for their other frustrations.

But you know what? Let’s use that energy. Herewith, I put out a call for proposals.

In Israel and the Palestinian territories, you have millions of people in a small space that most of them consider holy, and home. Without forfeiting your spot at the grown-ups’ table by ranting like a nut, tell us what Israel should do.

Would you then turn to the plight of Ashtiani? Or do you imagine that solving the Israel-Palestinian situation would somehow civilize the entire Middle East, eliminating the region’s many problems with human rights? I might disagree with you on that but, if you’ve got a great idea, let’s give it a try.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

One Person Matters

Last week, I wrote about Sakineh Ashtiani, a woman who has been imprisoned, beaten, and sentenced to death by stoning in Iran for the crime of “adultery.” Recently, Iranian authorities announced they probably won’t stone Ms. Ashtiani after all. That’s tepid progress, inasmuch as she may yet be hanged and at least 15 other people await stoning deaths in that nation.

Mine is one of many voices calling for Ashtiani’s release, and I am encouraged that her supporters include folks from various countries, cultures and backgrounds, spanning the political spectrum from right to left. I am fascinated, however, by those who insist on staying in the middle.

For example, I participated in a BBC radio program about Ashtiani and the brutality of the Iranian regime. Bafflegab was thick on the ground, and at one point the host mused that Iran’s death penalty for homosexuals is a moral judgment akin to the United States banning gay marriage.

Equating two obviously unequal situations is not clever or nuanced. It is idiotic and irresponsible. Similarly, asking the insipid modern question, “Who are we to decide?” only serves to evince moral vacuity but, if you must pose the query, let me help you with the answer.

You are a human being, born with the capacity to determine right from wrong. Further, if you are reading this column, chances are you have the magnificent good fortune to live in a part of the world that allows freedom of thought and expression. If you grew up in Western society during the last generation or so, you have likely been browbeaten into believing there is no absolute right and wrong and even if there were, you have no business deciding which is which, since your ancestors probably owned slaves or didn’t recycle.

There is evil in the world, uncomfortable as that is for people who yearn to reduce any situation to a contest of two extremes, placing themselves in the serene center.

Certainly, there are issues where the line between right and wrong seems blurry, but bashing people’s brains out with rocks should not be one of them. If it is, though, on what other topics would you demur to pass judgment? Child slavery?

The logical extension of this approach is that folks become open-minded imbeciles, incapable of making a decision.

Or, people want to make a case like Ashtiani’s about something else. Let’s suppose, for example, you strongly disagree with the State of Israel and consider their treatment of Palestinians to be criminal. That does not mean everything happening in the world, or even the Middle East, pertains to that issue. Ashtiani’s predicament has nothing to do with Jerusalem settlements, and even if a peaceful two-state solution were achieved in Gaza and the West Bank today, she could still be killed tomorrow.

One person matters. It is easier to love mankind than to love your neighbor, as author Eric Hoffer opined, but if you remember that each person is the most important in the world to someone, it becomes less difficult.

As you read this, Ms. Ashtiani is sitting in a cell, not knowing if she is about to die. You have the privilege to be as philosophical as you like, but if you care about what’s right, this woman’s fate really ought to be enough.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Way of Life

Every Monday, for 15 minutes, a young man speaks to his mother through prison glass. She is Sakine Mohammedie Ashtiani, and since 2006 she has been tormented by the government of Iran for “adultery.”

Ashtiani was originally condemned to 99 lashes, a sentence which was carried out in front of her 17-year-old son. Now, after re-examining her case, Iranian authorities have decided she should also be stoned to death.

To be clear, these maniacs want to throw rocks at this woman’s head until her brains are dashed out.

Treating people like this is evil. Regimes that do such things must be exposed, rattled and, at times, replaced. And in countries fortunate enough not to be subject to such brutality, we ought to recalibrate our priorities from cozy concerns like reality shows and “climate change” to the plight of our fellow human beings.

This struggle is cultural, psychological, military, and economic. Most of all, it is a test of wills. Do we have the strength to call evil by its name and resist, or will we fumble about and find reasons not to until it’s too late? Iran is only the most prominent and dangerous among the entities that oppose us, and Ashtiani’s story is one of heartbreaking thousands, chronicled by Amnesty International and others.

An opportunity existed, after the uprising that followed Iran’s stolen elections last year, for good people of the world to show their support. There was one guy in particular who could have made a difference with a single speech. Unfortunately, Barack Obama demurred.

To understand the value that a few words from the American president can have to folks who are under repression, consider former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky’s reaction to Ronald Reagan’s 1987 “Tear down this wall” address in Berlin: “That was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us.”

On an individual basis, Western nations, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, have been hopeless at protecting their citizens when they are imprisoned or unjustly treated in basket-case countries. The closest thing to a victory on this front came when Bill Clinton flew to North Korea last August to rescue two American women from the clutches of Kim Jong-il. The former president even posed for a forced photo-op in a room so hideously decorated that sanctions should be suspended until the regime has time to buy something tasteful.

So if free nations cannot protect their own people abroad, what can they possibly do for Ashtiani? And what could anyone reading this column do to help her? Perhaps, provide profile for her cause.

I’d like to see her on more t-shirts than Che Guevara. If a fraction of the energy evinced by those who showed up at the G20 in Toronto to protest the evils of “globalization” (or whatever) were instead directed toward, say, not hitting women with rocks until they die, we’d be getting somewhere. Or, if the zeal of feminists who demand the freedom to abort a child right up until he goes to his first hockey practice were pointed toward sparing their sisters from state-sanctioned death by blunt-force trauma, their help would be invaluable.

We enjoy a way of life in this part of the world. We owe our support to those who do not.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.