When Religion Refuses to Go Away

In The Paradox of Liberation, the political theorist Michael Walzer examines how secular movements for national liberation from colonial rule, after achieving success, have been challenged by movements for return to religious tradition. He focuses on three examples: Algeria, India, and Israel. In his review, Yehudah Mirsky argues that the paradox is even more profound than Walzer acknowledges:

The paradox of liberation is not just that the old ways are cherished by the people whom the liberators seek to set free; it goes deeper than that. Secularism, certainly secular revolution, is not a transparent visage of the plain sense of things. It is a chapter in the history of the pursuit of ultimacy that we in the modern world call religion. The revolution in fact must rely on the very cultural sources it seeks to overcome.

[Thus] secular Zionism was of course a revolution against the path that Jewish history had taken in millennia of exile, but it was acutely dialectical. It was no simple casting-off; rather it was a recasting, a reworking of the tradition—a reinterpretation whose shape and form came out of deep currents and recesses in the tradition itself. . . .

Zionists sought to create a new Judaism on the embers of the old. By draining the traditional religious terms of their transcendent reference, they were able to harness the rhetorical and spiritual power of religious language to their enterprise, and in so doing to argue—often persuasively—that while they were breaking with rabbinic Judaism, they were reconnecting to its original pre-exilic form in which people, faith, and land were unified. That gave them the superior claim to be Judaism’s rightful heirs. . . .

And so, [in the 1970s], . . . new generations of Religious Zionists decided to lay hold of the Zionist movement as a whole, and took the religious language that Labor Zionism had made into a functional tool for a political program and re-infused it with its classical religious meaning. . . . Not only were Religious Zionists re-enchanting the national enterprise but—precisely because of the phase of disenchantment that had gone before—the re-enchantment now had special power.

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More about: Algeria, India, Michael Walzer, Religion & Holidays, Religion and politics, Religious Zionism, Secularization, Zionism

Iran’s Defeat May Not Be Immediate, but Effective Containment Is at Hand

Aug. 20 2018

In the 1980s, the U.S. pursued a policy of economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union that led to—or at least hastened—its collapse while avoiding a head-on military confrontation. Some see reasons to hope that a similar strategy might bring about the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Frederick Kagan, however, argues against excessive optimism. Carefully comparing the current situation of Iran to that of the Gorbachev-era USSR, he suggests instead that victory over Tehran can be effectively achieved even if the regime persists, at least for the time being:

What must [an Iran] strategy accomplish in order to advance American national security and vital national interests? Regime change was the only outcome during the cold war that could accomplish those goals, given the conventional and nuclear military power of the Soviet Union. Iran is much weaker by every measure and much more vulnerable to isolation than the Soviets were. . . . Isolating Iran from external resources and forcing the regime to concentrate on controlling its own population would be major accomplishments that would transform the Middle East. . . .

It is vital to note that the strategy toward the Soviet Union included securing Western Europe against the Soviet threat and foreclosing Soviet efforts to pare America’s allies, especially West Germany, away from it while simultaneously supporting (in an appropriately limited fashion) the Solidarity uprising in Poland and the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. It is not meaningful to speak of a victory strategy against Iran that does not include contesting Iranian control and influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while strengthening and hardening the Arab frontline states (including Oman and Qatar) against Iranian influence.

Syria is Iran’s Afghanistan—it is the theater in which Iranian forces are most vulnerable, where Iranian popular support for the war is wearing thin, and where the U.S. can compel [Iran] to expend its limited resources on a defensive battle. Iraq is Iran’s Poland—the area Iran has come to dominate, but with limitations, and a country Iran’s leaders believe they cannot afford to lose. The U.S. is infinitely better positioned to contest Iran’s control over Iraq than it ever was in Poland (and similarly better positioned in Syria than it was in Afghanistan).

A long-term approach would focus on building a consensus among America’s allies about the need to implement a victory strategy. It would deter the Russians and Chinese from stepping in to keep Iran alive. It would disrupt the supply chain of strategic materials Iran needs to advance its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. And it would force Iran to fight hard for its positions in Iraq and Syria while simultaneously pressing the Iranian economy in every possible way. Such a strategy would almost certainly force the Islamic Republic back in on itself, halt and reverse its movement toward regional hegemony, exacerbate schisms within the Iranian leadership and between the regime and the people, and possibly, over time, and in a uniquely Iranian way, lead to a change in the nature of the regime.

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More about: Cold War, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Soviet Union, U.S. Foreign policy