September 12

[NOTE: This article appeared in the first issue of the Science Scholar for SY 2006/07. It was a commentary on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, and a reflection on why I teach Asian studies.]

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is in a freefall. While as of this writing a peace agreement has been signed by the United Nations Security Council, the question remains of how long this peace will last, that is, if the world could even get Israel and Hezbollah to stand down.

It has been a month since the conflict began and since then, there have been several speculations as to its true cause and its most probable outcome. Some have dug up ancient rivalries and modern theories to paint the conflict as the latest permutation of a conflict between Islamic civilization and the West. Others were more practical by pointing at the very creation of Israel in 1948 and how the Arab countries have antagonized them since then.

More thorough analyses point to the conflict actually being proxy war between the United States and Iran. America and Israel are mutually supportive of each other, with the former being assured of a presence in the Suez, and the latter guaranteed protection and aid as it asserts its sovereignty in a dominantly Muslim region. Hezbollah, a militant group founded in 1982 to protect southern Lebanon from an Israeli invasion, enjoys the patronage of the Persian regime. Hezbollah, like Palestine’s Hamas, is essential to Iran (as well as to Syria) since it acts a counterweight against the American-backed Israel. This is the most popular and entertaining analysis of the situation, but does little to convince us that there can be lasting peace in the region.

Now, the world powers scramble towards ending the conflict in the hopes of averting a greater disaster. Some predict that if this war rages on and the conflict escalates to involve Syria – and by default, Iran – we will have on our hands a global crisis of epic proportions. The price of oil will shoot up beyond $125 a barrel, sending the already weakening US economy into a recession similar, if not worse, to the 1930s. Markets and economies, especially those reliant on the American market and the US dollar, will crash; ending all hope for development, emancipation and stability.

Lately I’ve been feeling that my greatest challenge as a teacher lies not in explaining the dynamics of current events and global issues – that is the easy part. And neither is it making the issue relevant and therefore, interesting and important for them to study – that is the fun part. What I consider the greatest challenge is what I too find as my most personal challenge: learning everything we possibly can about an issue, yet remaining powerless to do anything about it.

Not all of us will be presidents, secretaries of state or ambassadors. Not all of us will be in a position of power to change people’s lives. Most of us seek to simply live normal lives, sustain a family, and be proud of our work. Most of us will always remain concerned about our own lives and loves, affecting change only where and when we can.

For a teacher such as I, attitudes like these annihilate the point of teaching current events. And when taken to the extreme, these ideas make teaching itself useless. After all, what is the point of learning something only to realize you can’t change it? These attitudes and questions regularly emerge in my classes and I have always made it a point to never concede. It isn’t always easy and so allow me to demonstrate how using an issue I’ve already mentioned.

One often begins the study of the Israel versus Hezbollah conflict in one of two contexts – as either the continuation of Israel’s crusade to fight for its existence, or as the next phase in the five year old global war against terrorism. And more often, both contexts are taken together. So it is no surprise how people such as George W. Bush claim that we’re seeing a war between Islamo-fascists and lovers of a Western, liberal way of life.

With such conclusions, it is apparent that both contexts have their limitations and deny us the understanding of the actual nature of the conflict (which more or less resembles the exposition I’ve given in the beginning). I find it incredibly fascinating that public opinion still revolves around these ideas and it is clear how 9/11 has definitely shaped the way we think about these issues.

And of all the comments, perspectives and insights I’ve read on the post-9/11 world, it would have to be Mark Levine’s work on the book Why They Don’t Hate Us that I find most poignant: that there is no war between Islam and the West, and that it is the very concept of an us and them that is part of the problem.

On one hand, this statement is a criticism of our natural tendency to classify, categorize and polarize. From the moment the Greek started compartmentalizing reality to the moment modernization forged new social hierarchies, governments and sciences, mankind has reduced everything into convenient and accessible categories. But this has also led to discrimination, prejudice and intolerance. On the eve of the War on Terror, we all heard Bush’s clarion call, “If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.”

On the other hand, the statement is also an admission of those forces that differentiated people and shaped history. Different parts of the world developed differently – largely due to geography – and people adapted accordingly. The Arabs, having to compete with scarce resources in their desert peninsula, were a very tribal people locked in an eternal war for survival.

Muhammad the Prophet broke through this violent ethos by forging Islam specifically for the Arab people but with values inspired by the revelations given to the Jews and Christians. Though 9/11 awakened more people to learn about Islam, there still exists that popular notion that these people are radically different from the rest of us, thus complicating the understanding that they are us.

In the case of Hezbollah (Arabic for “The Party of God”), several clarifications have to be made. First, they are a militia group in southern Lebanon whose sole objective is to defend against Israel. They do not wish to bring the fight to American soil and so this raises the question of what America means by the war on terror as a preemptive war. Second, they are not universally recognized as a terrorist organization. They are freedom fighters who happen to enjoy representation in the Lebanese parliament. And being Shiite Muslims, they are a civic organization devoted to building schools and hospitals. They are welcomed and well loved by the southern Lebanese.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that Hezbollah is a radical Islamic group who wouldn’t think twice about using violence to achieve their objectives. This comes naturally in the Arabian region where a traditionally tribal ethos serves as the foundation of their society. Therefore, an end to violence can only be assured when they have what they want: their own land where they can live in peace and prosperity – pretty much what Israel wants too.

A war between Islam and the West becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when people fail to understand both sides. This is the reason why I begin my Asian studies course with the history of Islam. Once when I polled my students about what they knew of Islam, one volunteered and differentiated Islam from Christianity by saying that Muhammad created a religion not out of love, but out of cruelty to non-believers. This is disheartening but not surprising since their prior understanding comes from a context where jihad translates as holy war.

Jihad is simply the Arabic for struggle: an internal struggle against temptation and desire, and an external struggle against oppression and alienation. While the idea of holy war isn’t universal, the concept of struggle is. And the end result of jihad is a society of justice united under one God.

An al-Qaeda calling for jihad against America is the exemption since most Muslims condemn 9/11. And as many may not know, Hezbollah resents al-Qaeda for their disregard for civilian life. Yet if we analyze the motives and methods of these groups, it is clear that they are not waging a war against the American way of life. Neither are they against all of the freedom loving peoples of the world. While steeped in the language of ideology, their war is really against foreign policy. It is ironic how American and British interests have infringed on their freedoms ever since.

Thus, there is a steep price to pay for misinformation and misjudgment. We only need to look at the havoc in Haifa and the blood spill in Beirut to realize that we’re in a war being fought under false pretenses. My response to the challenge of teaching current events is to empower my students into believing that ideas can change the world since all our biases and loyalties shape our choices which then affect other people. Not all of us may be in positions of power to change the world now or even in the future, but that is no reason for me not to take the off chance that one of my students will be. Furthermore, I wouldn’t downplay our scholars’ ability to make their own opportunities.

During one class, one student whimsically asked me, “Sir, will George Bush pass your class?” I replied with this challenge, “I rather give you a few years then you can put him to the test.” Just as there are definite limitations to how we can affect the world now, there is a definite price for ignorance which we will pay for tomorrow. It is my hope that we won’t have to.

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