Thursday, 2 October 2008

Religious and the Darkly Political

The Unitarian Universalist Association is embroiled in some controversy as to whether its President Rev. Bill Sinkford and a number of supporting UUs should have met the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and its Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee on September 24th. It was done through the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Many other faith and peace representatives were present, but this was a UU led matter.

Clearly Bill Sinkford left the meeting in some ambiguity about the answers received from the Iranian President:

Reflecting on the meeting, Rev. Sinkford remarked, "Ahmadinejad presented an image of Iran as a peace-loving, progressive, ethical, sane member of the community of nations. One question I have is how the reality of life in Iran would match that image."

For some UUs this meeting was naive at best. This is a religious leader and supports meeting a vicious at home to minorities, anti-semitic and potentially dangerous leader in the world. It was not as if a religious leader met other Iranian religious leaders.

It is the classic liberal dilemma. You don't take, at first hand, home propaganda about someone easily demonised. You make the effort to meet the demonised leader, to see what is the case. The danger is that you give legitimacy to such a leader, who is only too willing to take up the invitation for their own propaganda purposes.

The UUA has its Action of the Month [October]: Publish for Peace with Iran, where citizen diplomacy counteracts a lack of trust and fear-mongering.

My own view is that sometimes you have to take the risk, but it can be done as journalists do it - by asking strong and followed up questions. We are told that Ahmadinejad gave systematic answers, but that's not the same thing. In front of single journalistic interview he comes over as grinning and shifty and evasive, and leaves no sense that he can be taken at his word (for example, not developing nuclear weapons).

One thinks that the tone of the denominational report should be considerably more sceptical. It looks like the denomination's leadership is taking a kind of kudos from the meeting as much as the Iranian President and other government figures with him. Such is clearly wrong: such meetings when the are done are by necessity (say when there is no one meeting and both sides are lost in their own rhetoric) and with regret for the actual situation, not in order to display your feathers that such a meeting happened.

There is also the argument that religious leaders are not substitutes for the State: and they should meet religious leaders as means of building trust. In Iran religious leaders restrict the State, and they are behind the approval of Ahmadinejad and the cancelling out of liberal and reforming forces that prevented them from even standing for election. So even meeting the forces of theocracy is problematic, although, in the end, and with care and forceful critique, this has to be done. Iran as it is cannot be treated in any way as an acceptable variant of a State and political regime: liberals should be highly critical of its system and its treatment of minorities. Surely the longstanding treatment of Bahais, some Christians and homosexuals is enough to begin with to raise the force of liberal criticism that might accompany such concrete objectives as publishing for peace.

1 comment:

Bill Baar said...

Sinkford failed to utter a word of solidarity for any of the opposition in Iran..many of whom Liberal Muslims with visions akin to our own speaking as a UU.

I was deeply ashamed of Rev Sinkford's words here, both those said and those unsaid.