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The Paradox of Peace

An article by Sarah Honig this weekend shed a disturbing light on the prospect for true peace in the Middle East. In it, she tells the story of her daughter’s American-raised, cosmopolitan, Jordanian pen pal, Naima.

“Naima is the quintessential antithesis to a Muslim fundamentalist. A young adult, she’s hardly religious, fanatic only about soccer, a confirmed feminist and an outspoken supporter of gay rights,” among other endearingly Western qualities. “She’s everything Shimon Peres could envision as enlightened denizens of his “New Middle East.” Indeed, hopes for peace are pinned on young Arabs like Naima.”

Yet, when last summer’s Lebanon war broke out, the type of dialog the girls were having sharply shifted. “As the first shells started raining on northern Israel last July, Naima advised my daughter to “stay safe.” But a few sentences afterwards she added: “I’m a full supporter of Hizbullah. I don’t consider them to be terrorists. I believe all Israelis involved in this war and in this conflict are terrorists.” ”

The dialog continued to go the route of ‘Israelis are Nazi’s,’ ‘greedy land-grabbing Jews’ and all the other incendiary and inaccurate claims culminating in a denial of Israel’s right to exist and ending in Naima booting Honig’s daughter from her contact list, thus ending the dialog altogether.

Mother and daughter alike are shaken that when push comes to shove even a moderate such as Naima “equates justice with either our death or disappearance.”

Stories like this reinforce the idea behind Michael Oren‘s recent statement that “When Americans look at the Middle East, they don’t see the Middle East, they see themselves. They think that people are just like Americans. ‘If we can just tweak it the right way, then we can create New Jersey here in Iraq.'”

I am too often left feeling that this is exactly what we have done when it comes to the issue of peace. Have we not projected this value system upon a culture that does not really want it? And is that not, in fact, a type of cultural imperialism? Maybe we do it because the alternative is too frightful a reality to think about, or maybe just because it keeps politicians in the press with this circus of negotiations, diverting our attention from other matters.

If true peace can only come through understanding, what do you do if understanding the others culture means that peace is not a true goal, and that annihilation is? What can we make of this paradox?

As much as I want to believe in interfaith dialog, olive picking operations, and peaceful co-existence, at the end of the day, it’s fruits generally prove to be little more than fantasy.

12 Comments

  1. Grand Muffti

    1/21/2007 at 12:20 pm

    Nice thoughtful article, Laya. Though Muffti isn’t quite sure what the paradox comes to (if paradox means a set of proposition that all look true but entail something absurd) but there are some rather prickly questions in the history of political and philosophical thought akin to what yuo are getting at. For example, can we really respect the right to vote for whatever party you want and simultaneously respect the freedom of speech and democracy enough to allow parties that are against democracy?

    A few things could be clarified for Muffti. You say:

    If true peace can only come through understanding, what do you do if understanding the others culture means that peace is not a true goal, and that annihilation is? What can we make of this paradox?


    First, Muffti isn’t sure what true peace is, but in point of fact, there are many peaceful situations have arisen not from cultural understanding but from other factors: bankruptcy, economic factors, demographic problems. A desire for peace and recognition of the humanity has not always been top priority. Muffti would be plainly happy if the Israeli’s could establish peace that wasn’t true peace: if, for example, the economic relations between Israel adn its neighbours became so strong that annihilation of one woudl mean economic annihilation fo the other, and that kept them playing nice even if hating eachother, Muffti could live happily.

    There’s a deeper question embedded in wath you say however. there is hte notion that cultures qua cultures really want thing. TH einteresting thing about cultural desires is that it is not a straightforward product of the desires of its inhabitants. And here lies what Muffti thinks is the real prickly puzzle. Teh average inhabitant has desires and needs but so doest he culture as a whole and the two are often at ends and odds with each other. Millions of jihadis abound but the average muslim and his moderate groups again and again try paint themselves as happy to live in a non-sharia society and worship in private. Ahmadinejad was voted in on a platform of agression towards to US and Israel but faces massive and bold criticism at home (so far as the media paints it) for really just doing his job as he promised to do it.

    In other words, there is no algorithm for predicting what the people want from waht the culture as a whole seems to want. When it is army against army, soemtiems this doesn’t matter since what the average man does not control the army, despite often serving in it. However, when small(ish) groups can get together, form militaries that can effectively push around an entire country, this get much more worriesome. In other words, while you paint a scary picture, Muffti suspects that an apparenlty unified culture desires is the funciton of a very motley and unorganized set of the desires of the people who identify and are identified with that culture.

    This makes the quesiton of cultural imperialsim much thornier than it might have looked at first.

    Sorry to ramble; just woke up on a sunday morning and that is the worst time to blog.

  2. Grand Muffti

    1/21/2007 at 12:24 pm

    p.s. Anyone who wants to make anywhere else just like New Jersey is clearly evil. Muffti is pretty sure that is an ethical universal.

  3. Laya

    1/21/2007 at 1:39 pm

    Muffti – I guess by “true peace” I meant a peace that is based on mutual respect rather than fear (of economic collapse, of military action etc).

    That having been said, living in Israel, I would settle for any kind of peace. Most Israelis, in fact, have stopped hoping for peace, and started simply hoping for “quiet.”

    You are right about the difference between the people and the governments that supposedly represent them. In order to really have peace though, especially in an era of non-conventional warfare, it seems both bodies would need to desire it.

  4. Yoni

    1/21/2007 at 3:11 pm

    Hey Laya, don’t despair 🙂 I believe that those small peace initiatives do produce real value, not fantasy. It’s the sad true that this value seems to pale in comparison to the amount of negative value and hatred that seems to be abundant here. However, that value does exist.

    Regarding cultural imperialism: who is ‘we’ in that paragraph? Are you speaking as an American? An Israeli? An American Jew? This seems confusing to me.

    Yoni

  5. Grand Muffti

    1/22/2007 at 12:53 am

    Muffti agrees; but he thinks that ‘real’ peace is pretty rare. Americans and Europeans exhibit little understanding or cultural tolerance for one another but are peaceful. As do Argentinians and Samoans…Muffti’s point? Forget real peace and hope for zero casualties as a result of eachother’s actions.

  6. Matt

    1/22/2007 at 8:21 am

    I am too often left feeling that this is exactly what we have done when it comes to the issue of peace. Have we not projected this value system upon a culture that does not really want it? And is that not, in fact, a type of cultural imperialism? Maybe we do it because the alternative is too frightful a reality to think about

    Nail, meet head.

    Not to go on about Oslo, but there are a couple of less-observed, long-term factors resulting from that mess. The average Gazan is 16 years old, ie, was born and educated either by a Fatah/PLO school or a Hamas school. The situation is similar in Y&Sh. They’ve lived their entire lives being taught suicide bombing is cool, dead terrorists are heroes and the greatest thing you can do is strap on some C4 and find some Jews.

    The assumption that palestinians wanted peace during Oslo was… flawed. To say it now, or within the next decade or two, would be outright insanity.

  7. Ben-David

    1/22/2007 at 12:32 pm

    Muffti wrote:
    “Forget real peace and hope for zero casualties as a result of each other’s actions.”
    – – – – – – – – – – – –

    …which would give me a nice warm feeling of multi-culti fuzziness, if Matt had not detailed exactly which actions the Palis are taking:

    “They’ve lived their entire lives being taught suicide bombing is cool, dead terrorists are heroes and the greatest thing you can do is strap on some C4 and find some Jews.”
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    so, Muffti – could you please tell us over here in Israel how to tiptoe around our interlocutors’ “actions” so we don’t, you know, offend each other?

    Muffti – your comments exemplify the self-referential fallacy that Laya is describing.

    Front and center: you launch into hair-splitting, angel-on-pin inquiries because, well, from your academic, West Coast cocoon you are untouched by this (or any other) threat of unremitting, immediate violence.

    So the issue of what to do about the Palis can be intellectualized away – and you can safely entertain the notion that the Palis may have rights-n-feelings too. From a safe distance you can ignore those aspects of the reality that – violently! – depart from prevailing multi-culti tropes.

  8. Tom Morrissey

    1/22/2007 at 12:41 pm

    ‘Peace’ means different things to different people(s), and the means of getting there are varied and often circuitous. I doubt, for example, that the Germans and the French adopted peaceful relations after WWII after an Oprah-style leap of warm and fuzzy empathy. It had more to do with seeing the futility of close to a century of killing each other in massive numbers.

    Peace is really about shared interest, and self-interest.

  9. Grand Muffti

    1/22/2007 at 12:49 pm

    B-D, Muffti can’t help but admire the lengths you go to misread him. Few people in his profession put that much effort into his words! It’s nice ot be appreciated.

    Muffti’s whole point was that ‘true’ peace is a hopeless dream precisely because the happy ‘multi-culti’ dream is inaccessible and probably impossible. Muffti said nothing about not offending eachother – it’s difficult for sworn enemies to fail to offend one another.

    Nothing is being intellectualized away – Muffti’s not nearly smart enough to do that! – Muffti’s poitn was that the notion of ‘true’ peace Laya was referring to seems well night impossible. But maybe functional peace is a more realistic goal.

    But Muffti does think that Palis have feelings. Sorry.

  10. Tom Morrissey

    1/22/2007 at 1:32 pm

    It’s odd how otherwise hard-headed Israeli right-wingers (here in the the US, and in Israel, too, presumably) get all mushy about Palestianian ‘hearts and minds.’ They have to change their culture, their education system, their hateful propaganda, for real peace to emerge– or so we’re told.

    This is, among other things (like sentimental, US-style multiculturalism), an oddly passive strategy that has the considerable advantage of relieving Israel of any responsibility from taking action to promote peace. What’s to be done? They may never change, etc. etc. Wake us up when they do….

    What, you want the Palestinians to LIKE you? This has nothing to do with anything. Think the Estonians like the Russians? The Bolivians, the Chileans? The Greeks, the Turks? The Poles, the Germans? The examples are truly endless.

    Israel’s setting the bar at coercing affection from the P’s is the surest way to insure that conflict will continue. My guess is that the Palestinians will never like Israel, yet someday learn to live in peace with it.

  11. Jewish Mother

    1/22/2007 at 3:15 pm

    Hope so.

    People are failing Anthropology 101.

    We always assume everybody thinks like us, but they don’t.

    Anthro teaches that there are very, very, very, very, very few true human universals outside of bio.

    You want universals, go down the hall to the Biology dept.

    People make assumptions they don’t even know they are making, because they figure they are just common sense. They don’t know their basic ideas are rooted in history and culture, and that folks with a different history and culture may think, feel and do, completely differently. Without being crazy. Just them.

    This can create problems not all of which are philosophical unfortunately. Alas, alas.

  12. Matt

    1/23/2007 at 6:10 am

    They have to change their culture, their education system, their hateful propaganda, for real peace to emerge– or so we’re told.

    Hmm. My point in bringing up their education was that they are now even more radicalised than before. I don’t think they can be coerced in to being much better than they are, but it would also be foolish to ignore the quite deliberate (and successful) efforts to make them much worse.

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