Sunday, September 24, 2006

Is the Papal Apology Acceptable?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Half an apology is better than none. Finally the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of one billion Catholics saw that what he uttered during the speech at Regensburg University in Germany was insulting and offensive enough to endanger the vulnerable relations between Christians and Muslims. Personally, I accept the apology even though I still have many unanswered questions regarding this episode and past stands of the man, the school of thought he represents and the extremist conservative group he leads.

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address," the pope told pilgrims at the summer papal palace, Castel Gandolfo, last Sunday, "which were considered offensive." So far, he is expressing sorrow for the reactions and is not admitting that his statements were "offensive". Being considered so could be a mistake of the other, but not necessarily yours!

Then comes the half-satisfying explanation that "These were in fact quotations from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. The true meaning of my address in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."

If you don't agree with a quote, why would you introduce it without registering your disagreement? Would it be acceptable for a Muslim religious leader to quote German theologian and religious reformer Martin Luther's views of the Vatican, and the insulting remark that the pope was "a donkey," without comments?

Anyway the pontiff apologized; now the question is: Was that enough? We were told that this was an extraordinary apology. The pope is supposedly someone who cannot make mistakes. Apologizing is not an option because it hurts his holiness and credibility.

That's why popes refrain or should refrain from saying or doing controversial things. They have lots of smart consultants, experts and speechwriters to help them say and do the right thing. So what went wrong?

According to Vatican insiders, there is a new group, a kind of neocons, who are worried about the growing number of Muslim immigrants to Europe, and the rapid growth of Islam in the world. Islam, in their view, is not a religion to be treated on the same footing as Christianity. Therefore, they are against any civilization dialogue that would treat Islam as equal to Christianity that in their view is anyway superior.

The late pope, like his predecessor, was a believer in peaceful coexistence among religions and peoples. The dialogue with Muslims reached a historical level in the last decade. His popularity in the Islamic world reached similarly high peaks.

Pope Benedict, on the other hand, belongs to the other camp. He campaigned against the membership of Muslim Turkey in the European Union. Since taking over, he demoted the office responsible for dialogue with Muslims to a clerical level. His view of how Islam does not equal Christianity is well known. Is it any surprise then he would quote a medieval text that agrees with his line of thought without distancing himself or contradicting these views?

I would say: Yes, it is surprising. A pope is not just a religious leader; he is also a political figure. While he is entitled to his personal stands and views, he should act his position and carefully weigh his actions and statements.

Any politician should know that saying what he said about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and Islam right after Bush coined the term "Islamic fascists" and Christian cartoonists drew the Prophet as a terrorist would be very bad timing, to say the least. Extremists and conspiracy theorists among us were warning Muslims of the hostile intentions and scheming of the neo-crusaders. Now, who would furnish a better proof for such allegations than the successor of the popes who incited and rallied the Crusaders to kill Muslims, destroy Islam and spread the Christian faith by the sword in the Holy Land for centuries?

At a time when a billion and a half Muslims feel besieged by the "war on terror," here comes yet another attack on their faith and Prophet. What purpose would that insult serve, I wonder?

Hopefully, the pope and his conservative consultants now realize that the best way to serve God and save His children is to build bridges of dialogue and foster understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

This can be achieved by continuing the same path as his predecessors followed, and building on the strong bases they worked so hard to establish. It is not too late to say and do the right thing, Your Holiness!


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Lessons of Lebanon and 9/11 Attacks

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
Sunday, 10, September, 2006

What is the difference between a report and an Op-Ed piece? A reporter should cover all sides in his/her news story or analysis. A column, on the other hand, is meant to express a writer’s own opinion. At least this is my understanding. Obviously my American friend does not subscribe to this view or he does not recognize this vital difference. Hence his suggestion that I should be “fairer” in my articles about the Lebanon war. A journalist, he says, should represent all sides of a conflict, regardless of his or her own views.

I explained to him that I am not writing as a journalist, but as an opinion writer. Besides, Israel and company have powerful media forums whereas Arabs have very few. It is not fair to share the little space we have with Israeli apologists. Readers have greater access to the other side, so they won’t have a problem getting the Zionist message.

My friend insisted that at least I be logical, sensible and credible. For my opinion to be heard and respected by all sides, he argued, it has to show restraint, factuality and reason.

I agree. I must not lie or twist facts to support my stand or to convince my readers. Like a lawyer arguing a case, I could highlight certain facts and ignore others, knowing my opponent would focus on them, but abusing the truth is not permissible.

I should also be moral. For example, I must not preach hate, support injustice or advocate violence and terrorism. No moral writer can be anti-Semite, support Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Lebanon or Palestine, or apologize for Al-Qaeda targeting civilians.

However, as long as I adhere to standard ethic rules, I am free to take any stand I feel right.

Anger, my friend contented, blurs reason. I should not write when I can’t control my emotions. He noted that my articles after the cease-fire in Lebanon were more like me than the ones I wrote during the war.

I told him that in the heat of conflict, sense and sensibility takes a back seat to anger, obstinacy and revenge. It is just hard for people under fire to think kindly of the shooters, or find excuses for their behavior. Shouts and war cries silence any fair reasoning and logical review. We are but humans.

However, after the battle storm dies down, sanity should rule. Now that Lebanon is on the road to recovery, we could afford to breath easier, think logical, and be fair even to our enemy.

We expected this from the world’s only superpower and leader, USA, soon after 9/11. Wounds were supposed to start healing, and forward, positive, scientific and constructive thinking was expected to take over. Emotional responses were the last thing anyone predicted. Yet, that is exactly what happened and still happening five years after the event.

Adventures like Iraq invasion justified with lies and truth-twisting backfired on the perpetrators. Supporting other criminal adventures like “bombing Lebanon to the Stone Age” and destroying Palestinian towns and villages drained whatever left of world sympathy toward America after 9/11, as international polls show.

In Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, mostly innocent people and their homes and towns were destroyed. The bad guys are still at large, regrouping and attacking with the support of large portions of their societies. Victims are turned into avengers. Angry fellow brethren all over the Muslim world became a huge pool of potential jihadists against the occupiers. If only half a percentage of some 1.5 billion Muslims went down that road there would be multimillion fighters.

From Spain and UK to Indonesia and the Philippines, and from Morocco and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the terrorist attacks have increased many folds. Against all security preparations, terrorists managed to deal blow after blow to all of us. Evidently, the world is less safe today than it was before the war on terror.

Instead of stopping the bleeding, more blood, American included, was spilled all over, and enormous economic costs slowed the development of a better world. Worse, fear, hate and mistrust ruled a globe that was starting to be interconnected with instant and affordable communication, trade and education — a world that was starting to establish a new order based on the rule of law, justice and human rights.

Within months of 9/11, the dream we nurtured for half a century since the end of World War II evaporated with the first B52 bombing of villages and farms in poor Afghanistan. Instead of healing the wounds and uniting the world against preachers of hate and manufacturers of death, the theories of “The Clash of Civilization” and “The End of History” are now becoming more and more a reality.

In five years, we witnessed how the leaders and builders of the emerging free, peaceful world gradually turned into its jailers and destroyers. We deserved better!

People Have the Power to Change Govt Policies

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
"Why do you hate us?" asked the American lady in the next seat after she found I was an Arab. "But I don’t' hate you?" I responded. "You hate my country that is the same thing?" She countered. "No," I explained, "Your country is too large and diverse for anyone to hate. You have some eight million Muslim Americans, not including residents. Your country helped the world ending two great wars, and your scientists saved it from epidemic diseases and gave us electricity and so many other great civilization advancements. You can't hate a country as a whole, let alone a great one like yours."
"Then who do you hate in America?" She demanded. "It is rather what," I clarified. "I know some of us confuse the issues, maybe intentionally, but the majority don't. A poll after poll showed that most Muslims hate certain US foreign policies, just like most people in the planet—from its disregard of global treaties on environment and human rights, to exporting war and fear, to its blind support of Israel. Change of policies will change attitudes. Trust might take longer, but cooperation will fly right away."
"I hate war. I don't understand politics and have no say in the making of said policies. Why would I walk in any Arab street afraid of what people may do or say to me?"
"People in the street won't harm you, but they might tell you what they think of your government's policies. Since you are a taxpayer citizen in a democratic country, you do have a say and a vote. And you should use them."
I told her a story. After 9/11, I visited Eugene, Oregon, where I lived and studied for five happy years till the end of 1999—two years before the terrorist attack. I was afraid that the wonderful liberal, friendly environment had changed. I was pleasantly surprised.
To the contrary, my Arab and Muslim friends told me. Right after the event, many concerned citizens surrounded the mosque to protect it from possible attacks. Emotions were running high, and those beautiful Americans were afraid some militant groups or angry individuals might take revenge.
The good people of Eugene sat up daily vigilance for more than a week. The mayor and police officers attended a number of Friday prayers and reassured the Islamic Center management and Muslim residents of their commitment to protect them and allow free and safe access to the mosque. The University of Oregon administration showered its Arab and Muslim students with care, support and sympathy. So did professors and fellow students.
Proactive actions like this, especially when coming from ordinary American citizens, improved the attitude of Muslims towards their host country, and failed the terrorists' attempt to breed hatred and mistrust in both sides.
Other actions, like street demonstrations, as we witnessed in Europe, Australia, South America and the Far East, distance citizens from wrong state policies. There are other ways of influence, like writing campigns and protest calls to concerned legislative and state department as well as the media.
In democracy, the people are the base of the whole system, the source of all powers. Before 9/11 some may accepted the notion that Americans did not know or care about what went in the rest of the world. Now that the world is visiting the homeland, that is not an option ore an excuse any more. To say I have nothing to do with my government cannot be acceptable or believed even by the average man in streets of Third World countries."
My neighbor lady was silent for a while, looking ahead and ignoring me. Then suddenly she turned around smiling, shook my hand and introduced herself as "your American friend." She didn't promise anything, but in her now glittering eyes I saw a strong determination to change. More importantly, at that moment she seemed to understand that we don't hate her or her fellow Americans—only disagree with certain government stands and actions.
I never ceased to be amazed by the power of people to people communication. I am also amazed by the power citizens can exercise if well informed in domestic and international affairs, well aware of the game of power, and well trained on the tools of democratic influence.
The Internet, another American great invention, provided us with the tools we needed to overcome not only physical obstacles, but also established mass communication monopolies, such as media. Today, we could know more; work better, faster and more organized to make our voice heard and our wishes respected by states and leaders. Power to the people!