A Terrorist by Any Other Name

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Jon Pahl

(April 16, 2010) – When is a terrorist not considered a terrorist? When the US media identifies him or her as a “Christian”. And when is a terrorist group not considered a terrorist group? When the US media calls it an “anti-government militia”.

Exceptionalism is alive and well when it comes to reporting on violence in the name of religion, as evidenced in the recent case of the Michigan-based Hutaree, a group that the media has labeled a militia following recent FBI raids that uncovered stockpiles of illegal weapons, and a plot to kill law enforcement officers and “levy war” against the United States.

The leader of the group, 45-year-old David Brian Stone, pulled no punches about who he was, coining the term “Hutaree” which his website translates as “Christian warrior” for his group. His motto is the biblical passage John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The behavior of this group seems very similar to that of those termed terrorists by the media.

Yet Joshua Rhett Miller of Fox News described the Hutaree in a 29 March story as a “purportedly Christian-based militia group.” In a similar vein, Nick Bunkley and Charlie Savage of The New York Times identified Stone and the Hutaree somewhat apologetically as “apocalyptic Christian militants” in their 29 March report. This, despite the fact that the group not only stockpiled weapons and engaged in training identical to Al Qaeda’s modus operandi, but even planned improvised explosive devices based on those used by terrorists in Iraq.

In its “Times Topics” section, The New York Times positively contorts itself to avoid using the word “terrorist”. It describes the Hutaree as a “Michigan-based Christian militia group” and, mirroring the language of US Attorney General Eric Holder, as “anti-government extremists.”

Are we reserving the term “terrorist” only for Muslims these days? In coverage of stories like the thwarted plan to bomb synagogues in New York in May 2009 or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit, the mainstream media has no qualms about discussing “foiled terror plots.” Such a reservation stokes indiscriminate fear of Muslim “others”. It also constructs an implicit “us versus them” dualism between a broadly “Christian America” and an allegedly monolithic “Muslim world”, as American political scientist Samuel Huntington most notoriously opined in his “Clash of Civilisations” theory.

Religion is all too often seen as the root of terrorist violence, rather than as one of its most effective tools. As Scott Shane argued in the 4 April New York Times article “Dropping the word bomb”, we need a robust debate about what terms to use across cases. Journalists can help by practicing consistency, and by pointing out attempts to scapegoat one group and exempt another from the opprobrium associated with terms like “terrorist.”

Mainstream Christians like me cringe when a group like the Hutaree is identified as “Christian”. Perhaps this incident can help other Americans empathise with what close to 1.5 billion Muslims might have felt every time in the last few years they have heard the words “Muslim terrorists” or, far worse, “Islamic terrorists”.
A good rule to follow, for journalists and for all of us, might be to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.

And that means calling a terrorist – of whatever background – exactly that.

Jon Pahl (jpahl@ltsp.edu) is Professor of History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and author of Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence. This article first appeared in The Colorado Daily and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) www.commongroundnews.org

12-17

Humanism and Islam

August 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Geoffrey Cook, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

Berkeley–Your author has gone back several times to the marvelous Conference of over a year ago at this city’s famous University.  Your scribe will converse on some of the comments there as well as his own personal analysis.

Our culture has taken the designation “Semitic” away from the Arab, and transferred it solely to the ethnic Jew.   This is incorrect:  Both Arabs and Jews come from the Semitic group of peoples, but this denial of the Arab’s Semitic roots and the assertion of the Jew’s sole determination of such creates the propaganda that the Palestinians are Anti-Semitic.  They both share an historical ethnic root that may even be the basis to solve the crisis, but first both groups must acknowledge their common ancestral origins.

Islam dominated Spain for eight hundred years, but loss of its foothold on Southwestern Europe was a great blow to the Ulema, and it is felt to this day.  Your writer remembers reading a Nineteenth Century Indian novel that was no more than a lamentation for its loss. 

The founder of Christianity, Joshua-Ben Joseph (i.e., Jesus Christus in the Latin) during the two centuries following the (his) death of this second most important Prophet (i.e., Issa in Arabic) of Islam was transformed from a Mediterranean peasant into the Christos (in Greek), “the anointed one” which is close to the Hebrew Messiah.   The attempt by early Christians to remake the Subaltern Prophet Issa into a “god” created great problems for the followers of Joshua in the Middle East, and made it easier for the Muslim preachers to convert the predominant Christian population due to the fact that the formulas of the Church Fathers were too confusing to the actual worshippers.  On the other hand, the tenants of Islam were simple enough for the common man, but deep enough for the more profound thinkers.  Further, horrible schisms had developed in the Primitive Church that had no relevance to the common worshiper.

In the Fifteenth Century, Islam had a presence from the Atlantic to the Pacific that lasted for five hundred years.  Unfortunately, for the Ulema, the European “discovery” of the Atlantic (through superior sailing technology) they had developed, had shifted the Center of the World.  With it came a Capitalistic society which created a Euro-centric vision.

In the contemporary period, we are leaving the Euro-centric vision.  (Even Globalism is now being questioned because of the recent economic crash.)  Yet one speaker claimed, as far as the European Union, the traditional nation-State system is breaking down. 

The question was poised on how do we deconstruct Islamaphobia that has developed in Western Post-Colonial Europe especially?  Although the historical fact is that the Islamic Arab Empire was more modern than Europe’s society from the Ninth Century (CE) onward in the terms of their time.  Truth during the “Islamic Renaissance,” came from the Koran and science (a sort of an itijihad).  This openness to enquiry gave the impetus for the great Arab philosophy of the period that had such an impact upon the West.  This was a period of enlightenment for especially the Arabic-speaking world!

Curiously, Latin America received its intellectual vigor through the lingering Islamic traditions of Spain!  One speaker voiced his opinion that European Islamaphopbia will fade with the shifting demography.  There will have to be a dialogue among the various peoples upon this globe. 

11-34

Controversial Bestseller Shakes the Foundation of the Israeli State

February 5, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet

What if the Palestinian Arabs who have lived for decades under the heel of the modern Israeli state are in fact descended from the very same “children of Israel” described in the Old Testament?

And what if most modern Israelis aren’t descended from the ancient Israelites at all, but are actually a mix of Europeans, North Africans and others who didn’t “return” to the scrap of land we now call Israel and establish a new state following the attempt to exterminate them during World War II, but came in and forcefully displaced people whose ancestors had lived there for millennia?

What if the entire tale of the Jewish Diaspora — the story recounted at Passover tables by Jews around the world every year detailing the ancient Jews’ exile from Judea, the years spent wandering through the desert, their escape from the Pharaoh’s clutches — is all wrong?

That’s the explosive thesis of When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?, a book by Tel Aviv University scholar Shlomo Zand (or Sand) that sent shockwaves across Israeli society when it was published last year. After 19 weeks on the Israeli best-seller list, the book is being translated into a dozen languages and will be published in the United States this year by Verso.

Its thesis has ramifications that go far beyond some antediluvian academic debate. Few modern conflicts are as attached to ancient history as that decades-long cycle of bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians. Each group lays claim to the same scrap of land — holy in all three of the world’s major Abrahamic religions — based on long-standing ties to that chunk of earth and national identities formed over long periods of time. There’s probably no other place on Earth where the present is as intimately tied to the ancient.

Central to the ideology of Zionism is the tale — familiar to all Jewish families — of exile, oppression, redemption and return. Booted from their kingdom, the “Jewish people” — sons and daughters of ancient Judea — wandered the earth, rootless, where they faced cruel suppression from all corners — from being forced to toil in slavery under the Egyptians, to the Spanish massacres of the 14th century and Russian pogroms of the 19th, through to the horrors of the Third Reich.

This view of history animates all Zionists, but none more so than the influential but reactionary minority — in the United States as well as Israel — who believe that God bestowed a “Greater Israel” — one that encompasses the modern state as well as the Occupied Territories — on the Jewish people, and who resist any effort to create a Palestinian state on biblical grounds.

Inventing a People?

Zand’s central argument is that the Romans didn’t expel whole nations from their territories. Zand estimates that perhaps 10,000 ancient Judeans were vanquished during the Roman wars, and the remaining inhabitants of ancient Judea remained, converting to Islam and assimilating with their conquerors when Arabs subjugated the area. They became the progenitors of today’s Palestinian Arabs, many of whom now live as refugees who were exiled from their homeland during the 20th century.

As Israeli journalist Tom Segev summarized, in a review of the book in Ha’aretz:

There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion, and the exile also never happened — hence there was no return. Zand rejects most of the stories of national-identity formation in the Bible, including the exodus from Egypt and, most satisfactorily, the horrors of the conquest under Joshua.

But this begs the question: if the ancient people of Judea weren’t expelled en masse, then how did it come to pass that Jewish people are scattered across the world? According to Zand, who offers detailed histories of several groups within what is conventionally known as the Jewish Diaspora, some were Jews who emigrated of their own volition, and many more were later converts to Judaism. Contrary to popular belief, Zand argues that Judaism was an evangelical religion that actively sought out new adherents during its formative period.

This narrative has huge significance in terms of Israel’s national identity. If Judaism is a religion, rather than “a people” descended from a dispersed nation, then it brings into question the central justification for the state of Israel remaining a “Jewish state.”

And that brings us to Zand’s second assertion. He argues that the story of the Jewish nation — the transformation of the Jewish people from a group with a shared cultural identity and religious faith into a vanquished “people” — was a relatively recent invention, hatched in the 19th century by Zionist scholars and advanced by the Israeli academic establishment. It was, argues Zand, an intellectual conspiracy of sorts. Segev says, “It’s all fiction and myth that served as an excuse for the establishment of the State of Israel.”

Zand Gets Slammed; Do His Arguments Stand Up?

The ramifications of Zand’s argument are far-reaching; “the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendants,” he told Ha’aretz. Zand argues that Israel should be a state in which all of the inhabitants of what was once “British Palestine” share the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship, rather than maintaining it as a “Jewish and democratic” state, as it’s now identified.

Predictably, Zand was pilloried according to the time-tested formula. Ami Isseroff, writing on ZioNation, the Zionism-Israel blog, invoked the customary Holocaust imagery, accusing Zand of offering a “final solution to the Jewish problem,” one in which “No auto da fe is required, no charging Cossacks are needed, no gas chambers, no smelly crematoria.” Another feverish ideologue called Zand’s work “another manifestation of mental disorder in the extreme academic Left in Israel.”

That kind of overheated rhetoric is a standard straw man in the endless roil of discourse over Israel and the Palestinians, and is easily dismissed. But more serious criticism also greeted Zand’s work. In a widely read critical review of Zand’s work, Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, slammed the author’s second assertion — that Zionist academics had suppressed the true history of Judaism’s spread through emigration and conversion in favor of a history that would give legitimacy to the quest for a Jewish state.

Bartal raised important questions about Zand’s methodology and pointed out what appears to be some sloppy details in the book. But, interestingly, in defending Israel’s academic community, Bartal supported Zand’s more consequential thesis, writing, “Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions.” Bartal added: “no historian of the Jewish national movement has ever really believed that the origins of the Jews are ethnically and biologically ‘pure.’ “ He noted that “[i]mportant groups in the [Zionist] movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely.”

“As far as I can discern,” Bartal wrote, “the book contains not even one idea that has not been presented” in previous historical studies. Segev added that “Zand did not invent [his] thesis; 30 years before the Declaration of Independence, it was espoused by David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and others.”

One can reasonably argue that this ancient myth of a Jewish nation exiled until its 20th century return is of little consequence; whether the Jewish people share a common genetic ancestry or are a far-flung collection of people who share the same faith, a common national identity has in fact developed over the centuries. But Zand’s central contention stands, and has some significant implications for the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Changing the Conversation?

The primary reason it’s so difficult to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the remarkably effective job supporters of Israel’s control of the Occupied Territories — including Gaza, still under de facto occupation — have done equating support for Palestinian self-determination with a desire to see the destruction of Israel. It effectively conflates any advocacy of Palestinian rights with the specter of Jewish extermination.

That’s certainly been the case with arguments for a single-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until recent years, advocating a “single-state” solution — a binational state where all residents of what are today Israel and the Occupied Territories share the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship — was a relatively mainstream position to take. In fact, it was one of several competing plans considered by the United Nations when it created the state of Israel in the 1940s.

But the idea of a single, binational state has more recently been marginalized — dismissed as an attempt to destroy Israel literally and physically, rather than as an ethnic and religious-based political entity with a population of second-class Arab citizens and the legacy of responsibility for world’s longest-standing refugee population.

A logical conclusion of Zand’s work exposing Israel’s founding mythology may be the restoration of the idea of a one-state solution to a legitimate place in the debate over this contentious region. After all, while it muddies the waters in one sense — raising ancient, biblical questions about just who the “children of Israel” really are — in another sense, it hints at the commonalities that exist between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Both groups lay claim to the same crust of earth, both have faced historic repression and displacement and both hold dear the idea that they should have a “right of return.”

And if both groups in fact share common biblical ties, then it begs the question of why the entirety of what was Palestine under the British mandate should remain a refuge for people of one religion instead of being a country in which Jews and Arabs are guaranteed equal protection — equal protection under the laws of a state whose legitimacy would never again be open to question.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.