Silence on patriotic grounds
Liberal intellectuals and the legacy of Noam Chomsky
By Nader Habibi
April 27, 2004
Noam Chomsky is an American professor of linguistics
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is well
known all around the world not so much for his contributions to
linguistics, but for his political
views that have been expressed in many books and essays over the
past forty five years.(1)
Chomsky, who is now in his seventies,
has dedicated most of his life to analyzing and criticizing the
U.S. foreign policy towards the third world. Chomsky basically
believes that the U.S. foreign policy is overwhelmingly influenced
by economic interests of large corporations.
Under pressure from multinational corporations and special interest
groups, the United States, he argues, ends up interfering in the
affairs of third word countries and exploiting them. He has further
argued that the U.S. policy towards the developing countries is
often hypocritical and contradicts her basic moral values.
of the specific issues that he has addressed are as follows:
Opposition to Vietnam war, criticism of U.S. interventions
in Latin America,
criticism of Israel's occupation of Palestine, criticism of U.S.
apathy to the Turkish government's policy towards the Kurds.
after the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks against U.S. targets,
Chomsky claimed that U.S. policy towards the Middle East was the
of these attacks.(2) In general, Chomsky believes that U.S. foreign
policy must be guided by moral principals rather than by expediency
and Social Darwinian worldviews.
Chomsky has criticized the American intellectuals for ignoring
the harmful consequences of U.S. policies in third world. He believes
that those intellectuals who view the U.S. foreign policy as benign,
engage in "self brain-washing".(3) While Chomsky's criticism
of U.S. foreign policy has won him many admirers throughout the
world, it has generated strong negative reactions among American
In an article, published only two weeks
after 9/11 terror attacks, David Horowitz called him the Ayatollah
of Anti-American Hate.(4) In general intellectuals in Western
democracies are willing to criticize their governments on domestic
but most are reluctant to openly oppose the government on foreign
policy issues to the same extent as Noam Chomsky. For majority
of people such criticism runs against the norms of patriotism.
They either ignore their own government's foreign policy excesses
or refrain from publicly criticizing it.
Unfortunately many of the Third World intellectuals who admire
Chomsky, are rarely willing to subject the foreign policies of
their own governments to a high level of criticism on moral grounds.
This is particularly true of territorial disputes, intimidation
of smaller nations and treatment of ethnic minorities.
intellectuals are willing and eager to protest the unfair aspects
of U.S. foreign policy and globalization. They are similarly
eager to speak about lack of democracy and justice in their own
and insist on respect for human rights and freedom of press in
general terms. Yet when it comes to international disputes involving
their own countries, patriotism takes precedence over their commitment
to justice and fairness.
As some of the critics of Chomsky have pointed out the tendency
to ignore the crimes and excesses of one's own government against
others (both other ethnic groups or other nations) is not limited
to Americans, rather it is a commonly observed phenomenon in many
One could even say that this tendency is even stronger
in societies that have suffered international defeat and humiliation.
In Turkey for example most Turks believe that since the vast
18th century Ottoman empire was reduced to the relatively small
day Turkey, the Turkish government is justified in its policy
towards Kurds because otherwise the country might lose even more
to a future Kurdish state.
Turkey is by no means a unique example. Many countries treat
weaker nations and their own ethnic minorities unfairly. India
and China are both champions of third world causes yet India's
treatment of Kashmir region and China's policy toward Tibet leave
much to be desired. Egypt is an advocate of the Palestinian cause
but it does not hesitate to intimidate Sudan on the amount of water
that Sudan can withdraw from Nile river before it enters Egypt.
Pakistan supports the liberation of Kashmir but it was willing
to support the brutal Taliban regime in Afghanistan in hope of
gaining economic and political influence over that country. Morocco,
like other Arab countries supports the liberation of Palestine
but it has denied self-determination for the Sahara region that
has been struggling for independence for several decades.
Islamic regime has been a strong supporter of the Palestinian
struggle yet it has persecuted the followers of Bahai faith.
only a few examples and one could add the names of many other
countries to this list.
What we commonly observe in these countries is that the liberal
intellectuals are generally silent on these issues. Some engage
in self-censorship while others are misinformed or "brainwashed" into
supporting the government's position by propaganda and by reference
to past defeats and injustices that their country has been through.
The silence of those intellectuals who live under undemocratic
regimes can be justified by their fear of persecution. However,
those who live in free societies or intellectuals who live outside
of their countries and face little risk of punishment, have a
moral responsibility to speak out on their government's foreign
Prominent figures such as Nobel laureates who enjoy a high level
of political immunity in their own countries because of their international
recognition, must also pay attention to this moral responsibility.
Unfortunately for the reasons that were earlier elaborated, most
intellectuals prefer to remain silent or even support their government
on patriotic grounds.
The Chinese democracy advocates must address
the rights of the Tibet people to self-determination. Indian
(non-Muslim) liberal intellectuals must pay attention to the rights
people. I wonder how many Russian pro-democracy intellectuals
have spoken on the rights of Chechen people.
Iran's Noble laureate, Shirin Ebadi who received her prize for
general advocacy of human rights has a moral obligation to address
the treatment of Bahais, or other religious minorities no matter
how unpopular such a position might be. While Iranians are entitled
to hold any opinion that they wish about the followers of the Bahai
faith, they should not remain indifferent when the human rights
of this or any other social group are violated.
On Iran's foreign policy, the Iranian government's approach to
Abu Musa island deserves notice. This and two small Islands of
Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb were under British control from 1880s
to 1971 when Britain withdrew its forces from the Persian Gulf.
In 1971 Iran and the Emirate of Sharjeh (which became a part of
United Arab Emirates (UAE)) agreed on a memorandum of understanding
that effectively partitioned Abu Musa into a northern half under
Iranian jurisdiction and a southern half under UAE jurisdiction.
However, the question of sovereignty was left unresolved and
both sides insisted on their full sovereignty over the entire island.
This agreement obliged both sides to maintain the status quo
a peaceful resolution of the dispute.
Yet in 1992, Iran unilaterally imposed new restrictions on travel
and residence in the UAE section and implicitly claimed full sovereignty
over the entire Island. The UAE has repeatedly protested this issue
and in turn, has claimed full sovereignty over Abu Musa and the
two Tunb islands.
The fact is that both Iran and UAE have had historical
presence on Abu Musa and the Island is of strategic significance
to both sides. A fair solution to this dispute will allow for
joint sovereignty or partitioning of Abu Musa. Iran's unilateral
steps, which violated its 1971 agreement with UAE can not be
justified. This provocative move has had a negative effect on Iran's
with all Arab countries, particularly those closest to Iran in
the Persian Gulf region.
The continuation of this dispute is not
in Iran's long-term interest. It is better if Iran makes a concerted
effort to resolve this dispute in a peaceful manner and any fair
and lasting solution will require compromises on both side. Patriotism
should not blind the intellectuals of either country to the rights
of the other party. (5)
Nader Habibi is a citizen of Iran and a permanent resident of the United States.
He is not a follower of the Bahai faith.
1) For a review of Chomsky's views on U.S. foreign policy see here.
2) In June 2000 Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian associate professor of political
science, interviewed Chomsky about his views on political conditions of Iran
Middle Eastern countries.
Interview available here.
3) These views are discussed in his 1967 essay "The responsibility of
Intellectuals" that was published by the New York Review of Books.
He further elaborated these ideas in a 1969 book titled: American Power
and the New Mandarins.
4) "The Sick Mind of Noam Chomsky" by David Horowitz, FrontPageMagazine.com,
September 26, 2001.
5) For an Iranian perspective on Abu Musa dispute see here.
For a UAE perspective on this dispute see: "Dimensions of the UAE-Iran
Dispute over Three Islands" by Mohamed Abdullah al Roken. For a third
party account of the dispute see: "The Tunbs and Abu Musa Islands: Britain's
Perspective" by Richard A. Mobley in The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2003.
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