It is possible to look at world affairs with cool detachment, as a social scientist is taught to do. I have no moral problem with this, having learned long ago from Max Weber what is meant by “value-freeness”. However, doing “value-free” analysis doesn’t mean that one has no values. If one has any measure of what Confucians call “human-heartedness”, there are many situations that call for moral judgment. One is compelled to condemn or to praise. Put differently, there is the urge to locate the good guys. It is easier, alas, to name the bad guys.
The clearest concentration of absolute evil in the contemporary world is located in the Greater Middle East, which extends from West Africa to South Asia. It is not “Islamophobia” to note that the most horrendous horrors in that region are perpetrated by radical Islamists, from Boko Haram in Nigeria, who kidnap schoolgirls to force them into sexual slavery, and lately to strap explosives on them and dispatch them as suicide bombers, to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who commit genocide against Christians and Yezidis, to the Taliban in Afganistan who kill girls for going to school and health workers for inoculating children against polio. Of course one must not identify these monstrosities with Islam as such, one of the great world religions.
All of this occurs against the background of the new conflict between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, respectively a major adversary and a major ally of the United States. Morally, there is little to choose between the two in their domestic arrangements. Both operate with a barbaric interpretation of Islamic law—the Iranians hang homosexuals, the Saudis behead them, and both stone adulterers. Both support different variants of terrorism—the Islamic Republic backing the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the terroristic groups Hezbullah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen, and the Shia militias in Iraq, Saudi Arabia is apparently serious about fighting ISIS, but it continues to finance radical Islamic mosques all over the world (including Kosovo, which NATO rescued from Serbian Christian oppression).
The interventions by outside governments are hardly a morally uplifting story. Russia has massively intervened in Syria, supposedly fighting ISIS but mainly bombing in support of the Damascus government. Turkey stood by while ISIS conquered wide areas of Iraq and Syria, pretended to fight ISIS but mainly bombed Kurdish fighters who have been the most effective force against Assad. The Pakistani army and intelligence service, obsessed with its arch-enemy India, has been covertly supporting the Taliban. And then, of course, there is the United States. George W. Bush, in a muscular replication of Wilsonian democratism, quickly occupied Aghanistan and Iraq, without a plausible plan for following up on these victories. Barack Obama’s Middle East policy has been dominated by the principle of a rapid exit of American “boots on the ground” and the monumental error of “drawing a line”in Syria and then, when that line was crossed, effectively turning over the fiasco to Vladimir Putin (ex-KGB agent and newly a defender of Western civilization). As to Angela Merkel, who was first a moral paragon by opening the borders of Germany to more than a million refugees, then, after escalating opposition in Europe and in Germany itself, has tried to bribe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to use Turkish police to stop the masses of desperate refugees at the outer borders of Europe.
Yes, there are good guys, some in unexpected places.
Law and Religion Headlines, on May 25, 2016, reported the following: Veronika Terezia Rackova, age 58, a medical doctor and a Roman Catholic nun (Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters) from Slovakia died after being shot by a group of soldiers in South Sudan. She was driving a patient to the hospital. She had behind her many years of service, as a doctor and member of a monastic order, always in poor and strife-ridden countries. Slovakia is a relatively affluent and safe country, certainly much more attractive to live in than the places where Sister Veronika pursued her career. Her violent death occurred during the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which achieved the independence of South Sudan from the tyrannical Sudanese government in Khartoum. There was a religious angle to this conflict: The north of Sudan, where Khartoum is located, is Muslim and ethnically Arab; the south consists of different ethnic groups, with a mix of Christianity and indigenous African religions. Soon after independence was achieved, South Sudan erupted into a bloody civil war between two major ethnic groups/tribes; as far as I know, religion is not involved in this conflict. Sister Veronika represents a Catholic variant of a larger grouping, some of with no religious identity. The prototype of this phenomenon is the secular, originally French organization Doctors Without Borders: medical doctors who serve in typically dangerous situations, taking care of the sick and wounded of all fighting factions, often deliberately targeted by those who expect to profit politically from terror and chaos. Many of these doctors died with their patients in hellholes like South Sudan.
On the same date, Law and Religion Headlines, the online bulletin published at Emory University, carried a story about the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most prestigious Shi’a cleric in Iraq. The background is the offensive by the Baghdad government and its allies (including the U.S. air force) to recapture Falluja, an important town that has been under ISIS control for some time. There is still a large, mainly Sunni civilian population trapped there. ISIS has been behaving in its customary homicidal manner there (I don’t know whether there are any Christian or other minorities left there to be murdered, but ISIS has been perfectly willing to go after fellow-Sunnis who are not enthusiastic followers.) ISIS has prevented civilians from leaving, has used civilians as human shields, and has had execution squads roaming the town. The offensive to retake Falluja has been manned by the Iraqi army (hopefully built up by American trainers) and the much more combat-ready Shia militias, who are renowned for their propensity to massacre Sunnis. Al-Sistani’s message mainly addresses his coreligionist militias. He reminds them of the traditional understanding of Jihad—a defensive war to protect Muslims which is careful to spare civilians. He quotes a saying of the Prophet: “Don’t kill an old man, nor a boy, nor a woman. Don’t cut a tree unless you have to.” I don’t know al-Sistani’s views on Sharia criminal law, but unlike other Shi’a clerics, al-Sistani has been a voice of moderation and reconciliation in Iraq. He has also been critical of the clerical domination of the Iranian regime.
On May 20, 2016, The New York Times reported the resignation of Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon; he also vacated his seat in the Knesset, where he was a longtime member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-of-center Likud party. Yaalon was hardly a flaming liberal, but he had been a voice of moderation inside the government. Yaalon resigned after Netanyahu had offered him the position of foreign minister. Netanyahu has done this before, appointing a moderate to an important cabinet position to assuage the Americans (and maybe the Europeans) who are pushing for peace talks with the Palestinians, while he pursues policies that make peace increasingly impossible. Instead of Yaalon the position of defense minister was offered to Avigdor Liebermann, a vociferous anti-Palestinian, whose far-right party will slightly increase the hair-thin majority of the Likud coalition in the Knessset. Yaalon issued a statement, saying that he had lost all confidence in Netanyahu, who sacrificed the future of the country for short-term political gain. Yaalon also charged that the change in the defense ministry shows how extremists have taken over the country, and have sullied the honor of the Israel Defense Force. (There is this honor. Has Israel been blameless in its treatment of the Palestinians? Of course not. But the hypocrisy of the current anti-Israel campaign in Europe and on American campuses is blatant, Israel accused of every crime under the sun, with no mention of the unspeakable crimes in neighboring countries.) A recent incident shows what is at stake here. An Israeli soldier shot dead a Palestinian terrorist who had been wounded and was lying helplessly on the ground; he was arbitrarily killed in violation of IDF rules of engagement. Yaalon had initiated court-martial proceedings against the soldier; Liebermann defended him.
Sometimes political leaders perform morally admirable actions. Usually they don’t have elbow room to do so, as Macchiavelli understood when he said that sometimes the prince has to endanger the eternal fate of his soul for the good of the city. More commonly the “good guys” are found among ordinary people moved by compassion or a sense of justice (sometimes articulated in religious terms, sometimes not). The “welcome culture” has not died out in Germany despite anti-migrant sentiments. Also in countries that have closed their borders. Ordinary citizens have come out individually or in groups, to deliver food, clothing and medicines, to help with children, to mediate between migrants and government agencies. The Italian and Greek navies have tried tirelessly to rescue migrants in flimsy vessels trying to reach Europe by sea now that the land route through the Balkans has been effectively closed. Both Catholic and Protestant leaders, as well as local churches, have mobilized to assist refugees.
Albert Camus concludes his famous novel The Plague (published in 1947, only three years after the Liberation of Paris) with the observation that, in a time of pestilence, “there are more things to admire in men than to despise”. As a generalization this may be a bit too optimistic. But, in the words of another great writer, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), admirable actions may be another sign “that God has not given up on humanity”.