Last night I took part in a blogger conference call sponsored by OneJerusalem.org with former Ambassador Uri Lubrani, who is considered Israel's foremost expert on Iran. His impressive experience includes the positions of Ambassador to Ethiopia and Uganda, the head of the Mission to Iran, the Government Co-ordinator for Lebanese Affairs, and Co-ordinator of the rescue of Ethiopian Jews.
He spoke about the internal politics in Iran and its ramifications on both the Middle East and America.
He made a number of interesting points, the first of which is a little surprising to someone with an Israeli perspective. He said that Iran sees itself as the champion of the struggle against the west, and that its main enemy is the United States of America. Israel is "only" the little Satan, whereas America is the "big" Satan. I already knew this intellectually, but from the perspective of someone who is living in a country that Achmadinejad wants to wipe off the map, and listening to his rantings about the Holocaust, it still comes as a bit of a surprise to know that we really aren't his main enemies, and that my friends and family across the ocean are the ones that he really wants to kill.
Uri Lubrani also pointed out that this conflict is a political one, and not a religious or even cultural one. He is a member of a group of people analyzing the schoolbooks used in Iran, and he says that the children there, from the age of six, are educated that the purpose of their lives is to fight the west, and that they have to prepare themselves for martyrdom and that the United States in the incarnate of evil (because they are the leaders of the western world). One of the points used by Iran to convince their people that the United States is evil is its supposed mistreatment of blacks.
Although Lubrani did not say this directly, he implied that fundamentalist Islam is only a tool that Iran uses against the west. My understanding of this is that the fight is not about fundamentalist Islam against the secular west, it is about democracy versus dictatorship. Our understanding of the conflict gives us clues on how to fight it.
Getting back to Lubrani, he added that we should understand what is really happening in Iran. The people there are really suffering. There is a huge drug problem, inflation is at 24%, and that although official figures put unemployment at 20%, Lubrani thinks it is closer to 30%. All of the oil wealth is obviously going to pay for weapons and not to improving the people's lives. This is the key, in Lubrani's opinion, to where the US can fight effectively - by being the ones who actually help the Iranian people.
One bright point of light that Lubrani reported, is that the younger people do not believe everything that they read in the schoolbooks and hear from the government about how awful America is. Many have friends actually living in the United States and they hear firsthand about the quality of life in America. He also said that the Iranians are more open to the idea of democracy than others in the mideast. An interesting point that I had read a few months ago, is that Farsi, the language of Iran is the fourth most popular language used by bloggers (English is first, French second, Portuguese is third). Interesting to note that Arabic, Chinese, and Russian do not make it to the top of the lists.
In response to a question Lubrani pointed out that Iran has an interest in influencing what is happening in Iraq. The success of the United States in Iraq, and the budding democracy there, is a direct threat to them.
Lubrani voiced his opinion that the military option against Iran should be the last resort, and not only because of the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. He says that threatening fundamentalist Muslims with war (death) does not work, because dying for them is not a terrible option.
I thought a lot about his viewpoints, and some of what he says dovetails with my own perspective as an Orthodox Jew. It makes me extremely uncomfortable (and I would think it also makes religious Christians uncomfortable) when I hear the worldwide conflict we are engaged in defined as "fundamentalists against secularism". The fight is not about the burka versus the bikini, the fight is about the choice of whether to wear the burka or the bikini. As an Orthodox Jew I follow the laws that my Torah dictates to me - and living in a democratic country I have the choice to do that. I fully respect the Christians and the Muslims who follow their religion, as long as they don't harm anyone else for following a different way.
This leads to how to "market" the western values of democracy. Emphasizing the materialism and success of the western world is not enough. The "good life" will certainly be attractive to people who feel deprived, and have the perfectly acceptable goal of giving their children a financially secure future. But the "good life" can't be seen as the either/or choice in regards to their spiritual life. We all know that Bin Laden, and many, if not all, of the "homegrown" terrorists in the western world, came from financially secure (if not outright rich) families - so it is not just a question of poverty.
The greatest marketing tools that we can use is the combination of happy, financially secure and Orthodox families of all religions. It really does boil down to the cliche of freedom - but not just the freedom to pursue financial happiness.
This is where both the liberals and conservatives can find common ground. Most of us in the conservative camp get uncomfortable at the term multiculturism - not because we don't respect others who are different from ourselves, but because in too many cases the respect for another's culture includes the unquestioning acceptance of the other culture's intolerance. I assume that most of those in the liberal camp are uncomfortable when we conservatives point out that there are some values that are more important than others. But if you look at the value of tolerance for others - we all agree. This is the basic common denominator in democracies, and this is what we have to use to win this global conflict.
Now the only problem is how to make sure they don't kill us before we can convince them.