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Attacks on Iraq Present a Dilemma

Criticism: Those with misgivings grapple with whether to speak out and appear to sympathize with Saddam Hussein, or remain silent and seem to abandon one's moral role.

September 07, 1996|From Religion News Service

The U.S. military strikes against Iraq this week present a dilemma for American Christian and Muslim leaders who have misgivings about the attacks.

Should they speak out against American actions they view as only adding to the suffering of innocent Iraqi civilians and risk appearing to give tacit support to Saddam Hussein, a man they despise? Or should they remain silent and risk the appearance that they have abandoned their role as moral messengers?

Most Christian leaders chose the latter.

Both the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches, which represents 33 mainline Protestant and Orthodox denominations, had said little or nothing about the U.S. attacks this week.

"With a complicated situation such as Iraq, sometimes it's better to make no comment and be criticized for that than to say something that comes out sounding wrong," said Dale Bishop, Middle East-area executive for the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Leaders of Muslim groups also generally chose to remain silent.

Yvonne Haddad, a Middle East and Islamic scholar at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the "already horrendous stereotyping" that American Muslims face makes them reluctant to publicly condemn the American cruise missile attacks against Iraqi targets south of Baghdad.

"If Saddam's a terrorist and if you criticize President Clinton for attacking him, then the fear is, ipso facto, you must be a terrorist," Haddad said. "And if you are a Muslim, you know that is not a far-fetched conclusion for many non-Muslim Americans to reach."

Among national Muslim organizations, only the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council publicly commented on the situation.

"Saddam Hussein's behavior in and around Iraq has been characterized as reckless," said Salam Al-Marayati, the council's director. "The same can be said about U.S. policy."

Al-Marayati, who is Iraqi-born, said limited military strikes against Iraq pose no real threat to Hussein's rule and only "punish the Iraqi people" by adding to their economic and psychological woes.

For American Jewish leaders--who generally regard Hussein as an ongoing threat to Israel after his missile attacks on Israeli cities during the Persian Gulf War--the situation is very different.

Jewish groups were quick to publicly support President Clinton's decision to attack Iraqi air defense installations after Hussein sent troops into the so-called Kurdish haven in northern Iraq.

Jewish leaders also backed Clinton's extension of the Iraqi no-fly zone in the southern portion of the country. They also supported the United Nations' decision to postpone implementation of a deal allowing Iraq to resume limited oil sales to gain hard currency with which to buy food and other humanitarian items.

"Decisive action against rogue states such as Iraq is the only way to prevent the spread of terrorism and aggression," the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement.

"Our failure to act would have only encouraged Saddam Hussein to expand the scope of his actions, both within his own country as well as against other states, as he did with Kuwait," said the conference, a New York-based umbrella group representing 53 national Jewish organizations.

But reaction was far more muted in the Christian and Muslim communities.

Among national Christian groups, only the so-called peace churches and avowedly pacifist groups issued statements.

The Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee condemned the U.S. attacks, saying "military action is not the solution to the Iraq question."

Noting the suspension of the oil-for-food deal, the committee said "once again, innocent people suffer for the actions of governments."

Pax Christi USA, the American branch of an independent, international Roman Catholic peace movement, said "as followers of the nonviolent Jesus, we unequivocally condemn the violent acts of aggression ordered by Saddam Hussein and the retaliatory actions of President Clinton."

Bishop, the Middle East expert, said the situation this week was similar to the dilemma many churches faced during Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 U.S.-led effort to force Hussein's troops out of Kuwait.

Unlike the peace churches, he said, most mainline denominations adhere to theologies that allow for "just wars" in certain cases when violence, no matter how distasteful, appears to be the only way to deal with a greater evil.

Although Hussein may qualify as a greater evil, Bishop also noted that U.S. actions have done little to loosen Hussein's grip on power. Instead, they seem to have added to the plight of ordinary Iraqis who are suffering after six years of economic sanctions imposed on Baghdad.

Moreover, attacking installations in southern Iraq would appear to do nothing to help the Kurds suffering at Hussein's hands in the northern part of the country, he said. Further complicating the issue is the question of Turkish attacks against Kurds in Iraq, to which the United States has not objected.

"These are not easy issues to wrestle with theologically, and are certainly not easy to explain in brief media statements," Bishop said.

The risk in speaking out, he said, is "it all gets lost in a sound bite and we come out appearing to be sympathetic to Saddam Hussein, a man we all despise."

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