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Sunday, January 19, 2003

Apology for a tyrant.

I regard John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, as highly as just about anyone in the UUA. I also think of him as a friend. But his report on his visit to Iraq last month, which he gave at the King's Chapel Parish House in Boston on Thursday, struck me as disingenuous on a crucial point: The opposite of war, in this case, is not peace. Life under a tyrannical regime is incompatible with a liberal vision of human dignity and freedom. The status quo is not peace. It is not freedom. It is not justice.

War is evil. I grant that. But Saddam Hussein's regime — like a number of other tyrannical governments — should find no defenders among religious or secular liberals. You can oppose Bush's war as dangerous, inadequately justified, contrary to international law, or — from pacifist or just-war perspectives — incompatible with the gospel. But a liberal cannot treat Iraq's government as anything but despotic, cruel, and flagrantly opposed to human freedom. War is evil, but in this case, so is peace.

So how is it that Buehrens expressed so little incredulity about Tariq Aziz, the "Christian" deputy prime minister who met and prayed with the American delegation? When the delegation asked about human rights violations in Iraq — a government that, mind you, employs professional rapists among its staff of torturers, executes political opponents, and crushes every form of dissent and criticism it can — Aziz referred to the prisoners released by Saddam Hussein in a widely-publicized amnesty, and said that the U.S. imprisons many more of its citizens than Iraq does. Buehrens called Aziz an adroit diplomat, and did not otherwise comment on what struck me as beside the point.

After all, when Saddam emptied the prisons, angry women surrounded the ministry for public information demanding to know where their sons, husbands, and brothers were — because so many people did not emerge from the prisons. Why? The government had killed them. It's easy to keep the number of political prisoners low when you execute so many of them.

Buehrens also seemed impressed by the religious freedom in Iraq, where Christian congregations meet openly — though he didn't mention it, many receive money from the government — and where Muslim fundamentalists are excluded from the mosques. What does this really show? That a secular dictator understands how to manipulate religious groups. A variety of religious institutions doesn't mean much when a nation allows no real freedom of conscience or expression. Christians in Iraq render almost everything to Caesar because they have no choice. In exchange, they can worship God as Christians. But they are not free.

He also commented favorably about the discipline and organization of Ba'ath Party-run social service agencies. This is an old lacuna in Western liberal perspectives on totalitarian efficiency: Iraq's service infrastructure works well because fear is marvelously motivational. But Iraq's top-down service delivery system works well for two simple reasons: Party members get services that nonmembers don't. If you want food, you don't utter a peep about Saddam except in praise because thugs with guns control the food rations. That's efficient, but it's barbaric.

The real point is this: Religious liberals should continue to work for genuinely free and genuinely democratic reforms throughout the world. Nothing will ever justify abandoning these goals, not even opposing a war. And because human freedom is our ultimate goal, we should not pretend that the status quo — the "peace" that avoiding war with Iraq represents — is even remotely close to true peace or true justice.

Iraq is a brutal and tyrannical state. Antiwar activists turn into apologists for dictators when they forget this. You can oppose President Bush, but doing so should not mean defending Saddam Hussein.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 19 January 2003 at 1:10 PM

Previous: Three faces of the antiwar movement.
Next: The mind in chains.

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