Saturday, 10 August 2013

Against All Saidists...

. . . and in Defence of the West.

Edward Said (left), author of Orientalism (right)
The ongoing quarrel over what one is and is not permitted to say about Islam erupted again last week when Professor Richard Dawkins tweeted the following:
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
Both parts of that statement are demonstrably true. And yet, it was the object of the usual derision and hostility from those who appear to hold that any criticism of 'minority' cultures is racist and prejudiced by definition, irrespective of its accuracy. Especially when said criticism is expressed by a 'privileged' white Western male, who - it is alleged - harbours a racist agenda to embarrass and humiliate the Muslim world.

A good part of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs can be laid at the door of the late Columbia professor of comparative literature, Edward W. Said. The influence of Said's writing is undeniable and incalculable. His key works Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1981) and Culture & Imperialism (1993) revolutionised the way in which the Middle East is studied, discussed and perceived in the Occident, and the first of these, Orientalism, is credited with having midwifed the birth of Post-Colonial studies in Western academia.

Today his work is assigned reading across a head-spinning array of disciplines and many of his arguments and premises have acquired the power of cross-cultural memes - that is to say, so entrenched have they have become in contemporary received wisdom, that one does not have to have read a page of Said's writing to believe in the essential truth of his views.

As the neo-Conservative writer Joshua Muravchik allows in an otherwise highly critical piece for World Affairs:
[Said] not only transformed the West’s perception of the Israel-Arab conflict, he also led the way toward a new, post-socialist life for leftism in which the proletariat was replaced by “people of color” as the redeemers of humankind. During the ten years that have passed since his death there have been no signs that his extraordinary influence is diminishing.
Orientalism is - prima facie - an imposing piece of work. As Muravchik notes, it confronts the reader with a blizzard of assertions, names, quotations and arguments dressed up in the kind of stultifying post-modern jargon often mistaken for scholarly erudition, all of which point to the same damning conclusion: that the West has been engaged in a lengthy, thoroughgoing and systematic attempt to dominate, control and subjugate Islamic society and culture, and that Orientalism, a hitherto respected discipline dedicated to the study of the Near, Mid and Far East, was and is little more than the malevolent handmaiden of Western militarism and Empire. As Said explained in one particularly intemperate passage:
It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. [Pg. 204]
This view, while manifestly absurd, nonetheless chimed with the prevailing view on the Left at the time of Orientalism's publication that Western culture, and caucasians in particular, had very little of which they could be proud and much of which they should be ashamed.

Two wars had devastated the European continent and beyond; technological advances were suddenly in the dock following the summary obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; post-Colonial guilt tormented those horrified by the crimes committed by their forefathers in the name of Empire; the brutal war for independence waged by the people of Algeria had ended in 1962; the bitter struggle for racial equality in the United States had finally been won, but Martin Luther King was dead; and, across the globe, American foreign policy was held in contempt for its military involvement in South-East Asia.

In 1967, Susan Sontag informed the readers of The Partisan Review that:
The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean Algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.
("Only," Tom Wolfe remarked years later, "in the Land of Rococo Marxists.")

French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose attacks on the notion of objective truth had seen a resurgence of moral and cultural relativism in the post-War West, was by no means alone in applauding the overthrow of the US-backed Iranian Shah in 1979 by theocratic fascists on this basis. That perverse mentality survives in academia to this day, as evidenced (to take but one example) by the English historian Mary Beard's blithe pronouncement in the immediate wake of 9/11 that "no matter how tactfully you dress it up, the US had it coming."

But aside from indulging a Western penchant for self-flagellation, Orientalism and its quasi-sequels also had a deleterious (and, I assume, unintended) effect on prospects for progress within the Muslim world. As Ibn Warraq, the ex-Muslim scholar and founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society, commented:
[Orientalism] taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity - "were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists, we would be great once more" - encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist generation of the 1980s, bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam, and even stopped dead the work of eminent Islamologists who felt their findings might offend Muslim sensibilities and who dared not risk being labelled "Orientalist". The aggressive tone of Orientalism is what I have called "intellectual terrorism", since it seeks to convince, not by arguments or historical analysis, but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism and Eurocentrism from a moral high ground; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him.
This included Muslims like the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who argued that the gravest problem facing Muslim countries was not their comparatively brief history under European Imperialism or the opinions of nineteenth century Orientalist scholars, but the escalating cruelty of their own autocratic and theocratic rulers in the here and now. For this, Said labelled Makiya a "native informer".

The difficulty for Saidists is not that they cannot tell the difference between rational, legitimate criticism of Islam and the Muslim world on the one hand and triumphalist chauvinism and racism on the other. The difficulty is that they don't believe there to be any difference. Western criticism, study, analysis of the Orient undertaken from a position of Western power and 'privilege' are colonialist by their very nature.

But the Islamic break with scientific progress and the impediments to progress Islam erected long pre-date the British and French colonial projects in the Middle East.

A once intellectually and culturally vibrant part of the world, the region had enjoyed a relationship of productive cultural exchange with Ancient Greece. In the ninth century, the Abassid Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun moved their capital to Baghdad and there established the House of Wisdom - a vast archive of world knowledge, a translation institute and the most important centre of learning and scientific inquiry of the Islamic Golden Age.

However, by the end of the ninth century, its influence was already in decline, not least because the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil believed Greek thought to be un-Islamic. As the traditionalist Ash'arite school of Islam asserted itself over the rationalist Mutazilites, this decline would accelerate and free thinkers in the Muslim world found themselves subject to vicious persecution. The Orientalist Ernest Renan noted in an 1883 lecture that any progress made in the Muslim world during the second half of the Middle Ages occurred despite Islam, rather than because of it:
To give Islam the credit of Averröes and so many other illustrious [Muslim] thinkers, who passed half their life in prison, in forced hiding, in disgrace, whose books were burned and whose writings almost suppressed by theological authority, is as if one were to ascribe to the inquisition the discoveries of Gallileo, and a whole scientific development it was not able to prevent.
As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg observed in a review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion for the Times Literary Supplement in 2007:
[T]hough there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who argued in The Incoherence of Philosophers against the very idea of the laws of nature on the ground that any such laws would put God's hands in chains . . . After al-Ghazzali there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.
When the furore over Dawkins's tweet erupted, I happened to be reading Defending the West, a lucid, scholarly and comprehensive demolition of Said's best-known work by Ibn Warraq, upon which I have relied for much of this post. In it, argues that part of what separates Western societies from Islamic ones is the the idea that the pursuit of truth should not be bound by utility, but is an end in itself. This was foundational to Greek thought, exemplified by Aristotle, but has been largely suppressed in Islamic societies since al-Ghazzali. Intellectual curiosity meant the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake; a simple idea but one considered extremely dangerous by religious dogmatists.

So instead Muslim scholars began to distinguish between the Islamic sciences, eg: religion (Koranic exegesis, the science of hadith, jurisprudence, and scholastic theology) and language (grammar, lexicography, rhetoric and literature), and the foreign sciences, eg: mathematics, physics, philosophy, natural history, astronomy and so on. The latter, being universalist, were increasingly neglected from the twelfth century on. And while Western Christianity maintained ties its heritage with Athens and Jerusalem, Islam turned its back on the pre-Islamic of the Middle East. Pre-Islamic civilisations were to be forgotten as periods of base ignorance or Jāhiliyya. 

In the late nineteenth century there was a brief rationalist resurgence, but from 1950 onwards, as Islamism began to cast its shadow across the region, it died and with it went the Muslim world's hopes of making its belated appointment with modernity. As Weinberg notes, even in ostensibly secular Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was calling for a complete end to scientific education by 1981.

The observable results of the stifling of free inquiry, creativity and unfettered scientific investigation are by no means limited to the distribution of Nobel Prizes. In 2002, the UN's Arab Human Development Report noted:
There are no reliable figures on the production of books, but many indicators suggest a severe shortage of writing; a large share of the market consists of religious books and educational publications that are limited in their creative content. The figures for translated books are also discouraging. The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates. The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa’moun’s time (the ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.
In a 2007 article for Physics Today, Pervez Hoodbhoy, chair and professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, reported:
A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia showed that OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world's science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The US National Science Foundation records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.
But as Hoodbhoy goes on the observe, these depressing statistics are symptomatic of deeper cultural problems. For instance:
Most universities in Islamic countries have a starkly inferior quality of teaching and learning, a tenuous connection to job skills, and research that is low in both quality and quantity. Poor teaching owes more to inappropriate attitudes than to material resources. Generally, obedience and rote learning are stressed, and the authority of the teacher is rarely challenged. Debate, analysis, and class discussions are infrequent. 
The West, on the other hand, has gained much from the scientific method and a spirit of academic openness. Emancipation from Christian dogma led to giant strides being made in scientific inquiry and technological innovation, whilst the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake excited a curiosity about the world beyond its cultural borders. Meanwhile, a culture of scepticism, self-doubt and self-criticism helped foster the very academic freedom which nurtured and promoted Edward Said and which he spent his life's energies denigrating.

And while Said's work was a convenient cudgel with which to bash the West, it was often misleading and tendentious to the point of outright fraudulence. The Orientalists Said attacks in Orientalism were not the Imperialist stooges of his imagination. They were learned classicists and multi-lingual philologists motivated by a desire to know about and to understand cultures, traditions and peoples unlike their own. Their voluminous research and the translations of Arab texts they undertook have proven invaluable, not only to Western scholars but also - in spite of Said's claims to the contrary - to Middle Eastern scholars, who were grateful for the preservation of their own neglected pre-Islamic history.

Which is not to say the Orientalists were always correct. Contrary to Said's insistence that these were people all working in the service of the same conspiratorial colonial agenda, they often disagreed and sharply criticised one another's work. But this is what happens during the course of open research in any field of exploration and discovery.

Greater freedom of opinion in the West also allowed for the plentiful publication in the West of material sympathetic to Islam and the Arab world, but Said didn't find it necessary to mention these. Nor, as numerous critics have pointed out, did he manage to examine (or even appear to notice) the vast contribution to European understanding of the Orient made by German Orientalists. The obvious reason is that there was no corresponding or subsequent Imperial German project in the Middle East, and this inconvenient fact reduces the central argument Said advanced in Orientalism to powder.

Nor does Said make mention of the Western tradition of self-criticism that naturally sprang from freedom of conscience. Moral and cultural relativism were not new phenomena. An uneasiness with the notion of objectivity and universalism can be traced back to the Greek Sophists who believed only in culturally-informed human convention. Tolerance for, as well as curiosity about, other cultures - with a concomitant reluctance to judge or condemn - has been a constant strain in Western culture to varying degrees. In Michel de Montaigne's celebrated 1580 essay On Cannibalshe wrote:
I do not find that there is anything barbaric or savage about this nation, according to what I've been told, unless we are to call barbarism whatever differs from our own customs. Indeed, we seem to have no other standard of truth and reason than the opinions and customs of our own country. . . I am not so concerned that we should remark on the barbaric horror of [ritual murder and cannibalism], but that, while we quite rightly judge their faults, we are blind to our own.
Montaigne's essay is at least as mad as Sontag's "white race-as-cancer" remark, but it nonetheless demonstrates that a critical view of the West and a corresponding sympathy, or indulgence even, of other cultures has long been a characteristic of Western thought. This noble tradition of self-criticism is why as long as Western colonialism existed, so did a strain of anti-colonialist thought. It is also why the largest demonstrations following the Sabra and Shatila massacres were in Tel Aviv, and why the largest demonstrations against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq occurred in the West.

The notion that we ought not to study or criticise cultures other than our own is nonsensical, conservative, censorious and - in so small part due to Edward's Said's pernicious influence - dismayingly popular on the post-modern Left. But cultures are simply the product of man-made ideas. Sometimes people have good ideas; sometimes they have bad ones. The ability to discriminate and to judge the difference between the two - to reject or overthrow the former and to fight for and defend the latter - is an extremely precious faculty and a necessary precondition to progress.

Orientalism, however, is an accusatory and deeply reactionary text, the catastrophic effects of which continue to be felt in both Occident and Orient. Demonstrably ahistorical and flawed though its arguments are, large parts of Western academia (perhaps encouraged by Gulf funding) and Western culture in general have internalised them to such a degree, they are convinced that universalist value judgements about Islamic culture are simply a projection of their own inescapable racism. Consequently, they have fallen silent about human rights abuses committed by anyone but the West (and, naturally, Israel).

Meanwhile, in the Muslim world, religious fundamentalists have been adept at weaponising the bitter mindset of conspiracism, victimhood and vengeful grievance that Said encouraged, and directing it towards the West and the Jewish State. There remains a stubborn tendency to blame European Imperialism, American neo-Imperialism, Western cultural imperialism and 'colonial feminism', 'Orientalism', Zionism and sundry other -isms for the parlous state of their societies, rather than the regressive cultural and religious values that inhibit personal emancipation and retard learning, research and political/economic development.

In his article for Physics Today, Pervez Hoodbhoy argues that simply increasing funding for research and development is not enough. Profound behavioural and attitudinal changes within Islamic societies are needed:
. . . a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.
In his famous essay Counter-Enlightenment, Isaiah Berlin wrote:
Voltaire, d'Alembert and Condorcet believed that the development of the arts and the sciences was the most powerful weapon in the fight against ignorance, superstition, fanaticism, oppression and barbarism, which crippled effort and frustrated men's search for truth and rational self-direction.
They were correct.

UPDATE: In response to this post, Raphael Cormack has posted a blog entry arguing for a more nuanced interpretation of Said's work here.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Philology + Fascism

Or . . . How Peaceniks Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Iranian Bomb

Our dear Imam [the late Ayatollah Khomeini] said that Israel must be wiped off the map and this was a very wise statement. We cannot compromise over the issue of Palestine.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 25 Oct. 2005 
The meaning of these words, arguably the most notorious Iran's erstwhile President ever uttered, is neither unclear nor complicated. But within days of being reported in the Western media, they had nonetheless become the subject of a fierce quarrel about the nature and intentions of the Iranian regime. Enemies and critics of Iran's theocracy insisted they were a testament to Tehran's pathological anti-Semitism and proof of its genocidal agenda, the furtherance of which is evidenced by their ongoing and unlawful pursuit of apocalyptic weaponry.

Enemies and critics of the West, on the other hand, protested that Ahmadinejad's words had been mistranslated, misunderstood and misused by neo-Imperialists agitating for a pre-emptive attack on the sovereign state of Iran. This was in spite of the fact that the contested English translation had been provided, not by a neo-Conservative think-tank, but by Iranian State media. So Ahmadinejad's quote was subjected to a word-for-word literal translation, which resulted in the following revised version:
Imam (Khomeini) ghoft (said) een (this) rezhim-e (regime) ishghalgar-e (occupying) qods (Jerusalem) bayad (must) az safheh-ye ruzgar (the page of time) mahv shavad (vanish from).
In spite of all the complaining, it ought to be obvious to anyone capable of a dispassionate assessment that both translations explicitly express the same unambiguous belief: that the world's only Jewish State must be destroyed and replaced by a 23rd Arab State. If anything, the revised translation is even more sinister, as it carries the implication that the entire Zionist project be consigned to some kind of ghastly Orwellian memory hole.

Nonetheless, the trivial differences between the two versions were enough to persuade Iran's defenders in the Western press that Ahmadinejad's words were completely harmless. As the ever-indulgent Jonathan Steele explained to his readership at The Guardian:
[Ahmadinejad] was not making a military threat. He was calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future. The "page of time" phrase suggests he did not expect it to happen soon. There was no implication that either Khomeini, when he first made the statement, or Ahmadinejad, in repeating it, felt it was imminent, or that Iran would be involved in bringing it about.
Steele concluded by recommending that Ahmadinejad's statement should not only be considered benign, but also appeased and rewarded with immediate, unconditional bilateral talks.

Juan Cole, meanwhile, in the midst of a bad-tempered complaint about (among other things) "the Orientalist Hitchens", offered that:
[T]he actual quote, which comes from an old speech of Khomeini, does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all . . . The phrase ["vanish from the page of time"] is almost metaphysical.
One is entitled to wonder if the implications of "almost metaphysical" phrases change when they are draped across missiles capable of hitting Israeli targets, and proudly displayed during official Iranian military parades.

Or if they are delivered by the President of a nation pursuing an illegal nuclear programme at a conference in its capital city entitled "The World Without Zionism". And during a speech in which he also stated:
I have no doubt that the new wave that has started in Palestine, and we witness it in the Islamic world too, will eliminate this disgraceful stain from the Islamic world . . . Anyone who recognises this regime because of the pressure of the World oppressor [the United States], or because of naiveté or selfishness, will be eternally disgraced and will burn in the fury of the Islamic nations. Those who are sitting in closed rooms cannot decide for the Islamic nation and cannot allow this historical enemy to exist in the heart of the Islamic world.
This false philological quarrel erupted again over the weekend, when it was reported that, during an al Quds day rally, the new 'moderate' President-elect of Iran, Hassan Rouhani had said:
The Zionist regime is a wound that has sat on the body of the Muslim world for years and needs to be removed.
Once again, the English translation came from an Iranian source, not an American one. Once again, it was hotly contested. And, once again, the corrected version was scarcely less sinister than its predecessor:
There is an old wound on the body of the Islamic world, under the shadow of the occupation of the holy lands of Palestine and Quds [Jerusalem]. This day, is to remember that the Muslim population, will not forget its historic right and will resist tyranny and occupation.
And yet, it was claimed by some that this exonerated the regime of genocidal intent. It is worth bearing in mind that when Rouhani - or any other Iranian official for that matter - speaks of "the occupation", he is not referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but to Israel too.

And thanks to the arms and funds Iran provides for its fascist Shi'ite proxy Hezbollah and its fascist Sunni clients Hamas and Islamic Jihad, we know what constitutes Iran's preferred method of "resistance". Hamas are committed by their loathsome charter to driving every last Jew from 'historic' Palestine. Not content with that, Hezbollah have committed themselves to the eradication of Jewry worldwide. As their Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in 2002:
Islamic prophecies and not only Jewish prophecies declare that this state [Israel] will come into being, and all the Jews of the world will gather from all corners of the world in occupied Palestine. But this will not be so their false messiah [al-Dajjal] can rule in the world, but so that God can save you the trouble of running them down all over the world. And then the battle will be decisive and crushing.
The Iranian regime's material support for these genocidal groups was always an open secret but the nation's Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, helpfully confirmed the policy in February 2012:
From now on, in any place, if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will endorse and we will help. We have no fear expressing this . . . We have intervened in anti-Israel matters, and it brought victory in the 33-day war by Hezbollah against Israel in 2006, and in the 22-day war [against Hamas] . . . [Israel is a] cancerous tumour that should be cut out and will be cut out.
Evidence of the Iranian regime's implacable hatred of Israel's continuing existence is available in abundance should anyone care to look for it. The statements of its Presidents past and present may be the words of men with no de jure power over foreign policy, but they are indistinguishable from those made by officials across the whole regime, up to and including Ayatollah Khamenei and his closest associates. In January 2010, a Senior Iranian official Mohammad Hassan Rahimian boasted that:
We have manufactured missiles that allow us, when necessary, to replace Israel in its entirety with a big holocaust.
Later that same year, Khamenei chimed in with this:

And still it is argued that Iran's nuclear ambitions are peaceable, and that efforts made by the West to thwart its progress are evidence of nothing more than the neo-Imperialist bullying of a pious Muslim nation.

Writers like Juan Cole and Jonathan Steele face two obstacles in assessing the threat posed by Iran. The first is that they are not actually all that interested in the intentions of the Iranian regime. They are interested in the intentions of America and Israel, for whom it is argued the use of pre-emptive military force is never legitimate, no matter how grave the risk of inaction. Should evidence emerge of a gathering Iranian threat that might justify military action, the tendency is to attack the source, to rationalise it, to demand attention to 'nuance', to deconstruct its language, or simply to dismiss it altogether as so much empty rhetoric.

The second problem is that they are not willing to accept that Iran's problem with Israel is not simply political; it is theological and therefore irrational by definition. Cole's description of Ahmadinejad's words as "metaphysical" was more pertinent than he acknowledged and does more damage to his case than he realises.

Twelfth Imamism, to which Iran's fanatical ruling clerics subscribe, holds that their eponymous messiah, also known as the Mahdi or the hidden Imam, will return with Jesus at a time of apocalyptic conflict, to slaughter the infidels and establish peace for the surviving believers under a global Islamic caliphate. It is noticeable that the longer Iran's centrifuges have spun unmolested, the more frequent and confident Iranian officials' predictions of Israel's imminent demise and the consequent return of the 12th Imam have become.

When asked whether the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, which rests on an assumption of rational self-preservation, could prevent a nuclear conflagration in the Middle East, the historian Bernard Lewis was dismissive:
In the Muslim perception, there is an endless struggle going on between the true believers and the misbelievers. And this struggle will go on until the Final Stage when the true believers will triumph and the misbelievers will be conquered and either converted or subjugated. There is widespread belief among Muslims at the present time that that time is present or immediately approaching. We live in the End of Times and this is the Final Stage, which means that Mutually Assured Destruction is not a deterrent; it's an inducement.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens agreed that the Cold War precedent was a poor guide to the likely effects of Middle Eastern proliferation. He pointed out that, while Communism's appetite for mass-murder remains unsurpassed, as materialists they had never been much on mass-martyrdom:
That is not the case with Shi'ism, which has been decisively shaped by a cult of suffering and martyrdom dating to the murder of Imam Husayn—the Sayyed al-Shuhada, or Prince of Martyrs—in Karbala in the seventh century. The emphasis on martyrdom became all the more pronounced in Iran during its war with Iraq, when Tehran sent waves of child soldiers, some as young as 10, to clear out Iraqi minefields. As Hooman Majd writes in his book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, the boys were often led by a soldier mounted on a white horse in imitation of Husayn: “the hero who would lead them into their fateful battle before they met their God.” Tens of thousands of children died this way.
Whether Iran's clerics volunteer themselves for martyrdom or make arrangements to sit out the apocalypse is an open question (I suspect the latter). But their willingness to sacrifice thousands of their citizens and co-religionists to eschatological destiny is considerably less doubtful. And if they think they can obliterate the Jewish State in the process, it becomes considerably more likely. Unlike Russia or the United States during the Cold War, Israel is a tiny country with only a handful of large cities, so far fewer warheads would be required to devastate its population.

Those Western commentators who see pre-emptive military action against any Muslim country as to be avoided at all costs should be made to defend the likely consequences of the inaction they recommend. To wit, a region-wide arms race in the most deeply sectarian and volatile part of the planet. With a poly-nuclear Middle East sitting on a hair-trigger, Israel's continuing existence would be untenable. Given the wealth of evidence demonstrating Iran's sincere and unequivocal wish to see the extirpation of the Jewish State, the insistence on rationalising and excusing the genocidal statements and actions of its leaders and theocrats is simply perverse.

Juan Cole insists that Western democracies must take the moral high ground. That the only kind of morally acceptable military action is that undertaken in reprisal or self-defence. But democratic governments also have a pressing moral duty to protect their citizens from harm. And part of doing that is identifying and intercepting a clear and present existential danger before it is too late. That Iran might be obliterated by the United States following a nuclear assault on Israel would be of little consolation to the population of Tel Aviv.

It would be wonderful if the Iranian regime could be persuaded to renounce their nuclear ambitions and to admit inspectors. But given that this is unlikely, we need to be honest about the nature of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose and the steps required to prevent it. As Jeffrey Goldberg said, during a debate on the subject earlier this year:
In 1998, I was in Afghanistan in Kandahar, when Osama Bin Laden issued the first big fatwa against crusaders and Jews. And I was with a bunch of Westerners and we heard about this and, frankly, we laughed about it because it seemed crazy; absolutely insane, the audacity of it. And three years later I learned that very often when someone says something that seems crazy and says it over and over again, its worth paying attention . . . in the post-9/11 age, I believe we have to take religious fundamentalists who say they want to kill us seriously.

For the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs' dossier entitled The Iranian Leadership’s Continuing Declarations of Intent to Destroy Israel, click here.