Fraternising with the Enemy

Since the beginning of his first term in office, President Barack Obama has preferred a diplomatic approach to resolving animosities with countries in the Middle East. This has been a tactic that was universally condemned by his opponents, and even by some members of the Democratic Party, as being naive and ineffective. Now, well into his second term, he has once again favoured dialogue when handling relations with Iran and he has once again been lambasted by his critics. After all, Iran cannot be trusted under any circumstances, even if its current President is a blatant moderate who has been trying to change his nation’s policies, with varying levels of success.

As far as the White House is concerned, Iran is no longer the same country as it was under Obama’s predecessor. After all, George W. Bush referred to it as one of the countries of the “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. Even if Iran went through a regime change during Bush’s years in power, it would have been unthinkable for a man with such specific views to extend the olive branch. However, Obama made moves towards better relations before Rouhani had come to power in Iran. In this case, it was the superpower that took the first conciliatory step.

This placating stance has largely been seen as positive around the world, but for people at home, it was not as popular. As far as his foreign policy credentials were concerned, his “soft” stance against “tyranny” was seen as his biggest weakness. Far be it for Obama to be the only leader to face such criticism. Politicians in India and Pakistan have a long history of trading war rhetoric for votes and popularity. It is an unspoken rule that if you want to ensure re-election, include criticism of your neighbour in your manifesto. In Bangladesh, it is the two political parties at each other’s necks, constantly bickering to the point that any policy, good or bad, implemented by the outgoing administration is inevitably scrapped or at least challenged by the incoming one.

Politics seems to thrive on this self versus other dichotomy. Within the same country, this is not such a bad thing. While bipartisanship is good for passing positive legislation, partisanship is what keeps democracy alive and functioning. If channelled correctly – itself a whole different issue – it allows the minority voice to be heard and prevents the ones in power from becoming complacent. Countries with problems of governance, whether it be the USA’s recent shutdown or Bangladesh’s ongoing clashes, are not facing these problems because there is an Opposition to the Government but because the dialogue between the two is damaged.

While partisan dialogue is positive in one country however, it is extremely damaging in international relations. If the ultimate goal is peace, then diplomacy is the best way to go about it. Ignoring another country’s circumstances or its reforms is the deadliest challenge to global stability, far more than terrorism and the nuclear threat. When countries choose not to recognise Kosovo or criticise the UN for giving legitimacy to Palestine, simply because it is the accepted thing to do when considering belligerent states, it is nothing less than short-sightedness and idiocy. Similarly, if countries continue to harangue Iran for its flaws without recognising the fact that the current administration is the best shot at diplomatic progress in decades, it can only lead to disaster.

I am glad that Obama is smart enough to recognise Iran’s evolution. While there is a need to be cautious, it is excellent news that the criticism he is facing is not getting in the way of engaging positively with a nation that has been seen as unreachable for so long. One can only hope that other leaders recognise the merits of dialogue and follow suit.


No Shades of Grey; only Black or White

A few days ago, I shared a link on my social media profiles about a recent spate of violence against Hindus in Bangladesh. I was extremely saddened to see that a country that became independent on the morals of secularism and religious tolerance had turned into a breeding ground for communal violence and fear. My friends happen to share my opinion so I personally received no condemnation. However, the website that produced that article became the unfortunate location of a heated debate. Anyone who defended the website and cried out against the oppressive regime of Islamic extremism that seems to be slowly gripping the country was instantly branded an infidel. The word atheist – with the implication of a lack of spiritual faith being tantamount to a lack of morals – was bandied about. On the other hand, anyone who defended Islam, the real religion and not the twisted version spewed by the haters, was branded a fundamentalist or a terrorist. Never mind that most of them did not use any violent language or spew any death threats.

This instinctive categorisation of people into claustrophobic binaries pitted against each other is nothing new. The great European powers used the “Divide and Conquer” tactic to ensure imperialism would last for centuries. Modern day politicians use the same strategy with devastating effectiveness. On a completely harmless level, ask any student in a British university what type of degree they are studying and they will either say Arts (a.k.a. the flaky sentimentalists) or Science (a.k.a the uncultured philistines). It is easy, almost reassuring, to be able to identify someone as similar to you or as part of the (sometimes hostile) other. And while it may be harmless enough on a superficial level, like the Arts-versus-Science banter common in university pubs and libraries, it is one of the most damaging aspects of modern day socio-political discourse.

Going back to the article I shared, I noticed that not a single person who spoke out against the attack was willing to admit they were Muslim and not a single person who defended Islam was willing to admit the attacks were still wrong. Granted, this was an online forum and they potentially wanted to keep their comments concise. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I am, however, not able to extend that same grace to people who had heated debates during the trial of war criminals over the past few months. It was quite simple – you were either unpatriotic (if you condemned the convictions of genocidal maniacs) or un-Islamic (if you condoned the convictions of said maniacs, who also happen to be influential Muslim political leaders). I myself was labelled the latter during discussions with some compatriots who I just met at university. Never mind the fact that I acknowledged that the trials were not unbiased and that there were definite political motivations behind them.

Subtlety, however, is fast becoming a rarity. If anyone tries to stand up and say they agree with the conviction but speak out against the nature of the trial, they are either condemned by both sides for one part of their sentiment or hailed as a spokesperson for the other part. This is why people are confounded by Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who stood up to the Taliban AND spoke out against US drone strikes. (American media, of course, has left the second part out of any official statements, including when Malala visited the White House.) This is why people are unable to fathom Chris Christie, a Republican who does not oppose same-sex marriage, or Kathleen Murphy, a Democrat who strongly supports Second Amendment rights. There seems to be a regressive shift away from complexity in human thought; any level of intricacy is to be suppressed or at least ignored, while the separation of the world into easily understood dichotomies is to be praised. The optimist in me would like to think this is just a passing fad. The realist is not as hopeful.