Monday, April 09, 2007

Iran's release of the UK hostages, and comments by religious leaders

As you may have heard, Iran did actually release the hostages they took, praise God. Given Iran's previous statements, and the fact that they'd obviously coerced the soldiers into admitting they illegally entered Iranian waters with hostile intent, I was worried that they might change their minds at the last minute.

Obviously, this incident does nothing to further good relations between the US, UK, and Iran. I pray that leaders on all sides will have the wisdom and courage to de-escalate the conflict. Perhaps Nancy Pelosi's visit to the Middle East (not Iran, though) has gone some way to assuring Middle Easterners that there are cooler heads in the US government.

Now, though, I would like to look at the statements of a couple of Anglican religious leaders on the Iran incident. The first is Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester in the Church of England. I've previously lambasted him, for threatening to close CoE charities rather than submit to laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Christopher Morgan, writing for Times in the UK, writes: A leading Church of England bishop has claimed the Iranian president showed a better understanding of “moral and spiritual” values at the end of the naval hostage crisis than Britain’s political leaders.

Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, contrasted the words of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad favourably with Britain’s “free-floating” attitudes.

The bishop said that, watching the release of the British sailors and marines last week, “I saw on the one hand what Iran was doing, and what the president [of Iran] said had much to do with the moral and spiritual tradition of their country.

“The president talked about the religious background to the release, with reference to the Prophet’s birthday and the passing over of Christ. What struck me was that if there were any values on the British side they were free-floating and not anchored in a spiritual and moral tradition.

"Unless we reroot ourselves in a spiritual and moral tradition, we won’t know what we stand for and will not be able to confront other people, countries and ideological movements who are very clear where they stand.”

I find his comments odd. First, most nations recognize that the UK sailors were in Iraqi waters, but Iran disputes the boundary. Iran knows the boundary is disputed. If they were acting in alignment with moral values, then why didn't they warn the UK sailors off, instead of capturing them? Not to mention the Iraqi ship that was being searched. Additionally, Times has another story about the ordeal the soldiers were subjected to:

Leading Seaman Faye Turney’s story appeared in The Sun, in which she said she believed her captors had measured her for a coffin and planned to kill her. The 25-year-old says she turned down a higher fee from another media outlet to accept a significantly lower figure from The Sun and the ITV programme Tonight With Trevor McDonald, on which she will appear tonight. She has said she will give a percentage of her fee to HMS Cornwall for the benefit of its crew and their families.

The youngest captive, Arthur Batchelor, 20, sold his account to the Daily Mirror, and described how guards had mocked him, calling him “Mr Bean”, and said that he had he cried himself to sleep at night.

Operator Mechanic Batchelor told the Daily Mirror that Leading Seaman Turney had risked beatings from guards for whispering reassurances to him after they were snatched. He also told the paper that the Iranians had become excited when they realised they had captured a woman, prompting Leading Seaman Turney to whisper: “There’s going to be a rape involved in this.”

He described how the guards had mocked him, calling him “Mr Bean”, adding: “It was beyond terrifying. They seemed to take particular pleasure in mocking me for being young. A guard kept flicking my neck with his index finger and thumb. I thought the worst, we’ve all seen the videos. I was frozen in terror and just stared into the darkness of my blindfold.”

Now, Turney was not raped. This was no Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. However, the captured sailors were clearly made to fear for their safety and their lives. Sure, they were released. But to call it an act of mercy is misguided. This was an act of brinkmanship.

Second, Nazir-Ali implied that Britain's "free-floating" moral values made them weak, and unable to respond effectively to the crisis. I'm not sure that he knows what he's talking about. First, "free-floating" by whose standard? Second, whatever Britons believe had nothing to do with the fact that Iran took some UK sailors hostage. Third, what sort of "moral values" is Nazir-Ali advocating that Britons hold, anyway? He seems to admire the Iranians for the strength of their beliefs. Does he want the UK acting more like Iran?

Moving on, Anne Kennedy, a conservative Episcopal priest, had this to say.

I’ve decided to pray for these hostages instead of worrying about them, a decision I haven’t been totally able to uphold. But besides the obvious horror of their being taken in the first place and the many bad ways this could end, this crisis upsets me for two other reasons. First, I’m going to be politically incorrect and primitive and say that I just cannot support women in combat military situations. And even more, can’t support women with children in the military at all. A nation and culture that sends its mothers to war in the name of equal opportunity deserves that it gets. Ours and every other one. I know simplifying a complex issue in this way probably isn’t helpful and that the military affords women and men many wonderful opportunities AND I admire the women who sign up. They are brave and they should be honored. But we shouldn’t ask them to go into situations like these. There should be other places for women to serve that won’t put them in places like Iran, especially if they have children. And Second, I’m discouraged by Britain’s luke warm response to this crisis. Others have already spoken about it more effectively. But when a nation decides not to fight back, I don’t see how long that nation/civilization will last. I will cease speaking about that of which I know not.

I think women, including mothers, should have the right to enter combat if they discern that it's right for them. Perhaps mena and women entering combat would be better off without kids, but it's impractical. I fail to see how a nation that allows this "deserves what it gets." I could just as easily say that a nation that forbids women to do jobs that they're qualified for also deserves what it gets.

However, that isn't the statement I'm most worried about. I'm most worried by the fact that Anne, a Christian minister, wants Britain to "fight back."

I assume that she meant military retaliation. First, Iran had the hostages in an unknown location. A military strike to rescue them would be impossible, and would risk plunging the region into war, anyway. Also, the doctrine of Just War teaches that war is only permissible when all other options have been exhausted. At the time she made her comment, not all options had been exhausted.

Additionally, the US has intervened in Iran, to the detriment of Iranian civilians. We supported Iraq (under Saddam Hussein!) in the Iran-Iraq war, with as many as a million Iranians killed or wounded. We even allowed Iraq to develop chemical weapons. Earlier, we supported Shah Reza Mohammad Palavi, who was an unpopular dictator and was later deposed; the CIA played a role in returning him to the throne.

Jesus admonished us to turn the other cheek. I grant that His instructions were a means to resist violent oppression, not a teaching about international relations. Nonetheless, Christian ministers like Rev Kennedy should either preach the Just War doctrine, or pacifism. Additionally, Christians should become more aware of international history. The US and Britain do not have clean hands in terms of international politics. Before we apply the Just War doctrine, or ignore it as Rev Kennedy seems to want to do, we need to be conscious of our sometimes-sordid history. Rev Kennedy says that a nation which doesn't fight back won't last long. I say that a nation that fights first doesn't deserve to.

Anne Kennedy is married to Matt Kennedy, of Stand Firm, a highly conservative US Anglican organization.

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