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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.

Some 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.

Soon after the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks against U.S. targets, Chomsky claimed that U.S. policy towards the Middle East was the main cause 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 conservative intellectuals.

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 concerns, 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.

Third World 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 countries 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 societies.

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 modern day Turkey, the Turkish government is justified in its policy towards Kurds because otherwise the country might lose even more territory 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.

Iran's Islamic regime has been a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle yet it has persecuted the followers of Bahai faith. These are 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 and ethnic policies.

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 of Kashmiri 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 until 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 1992 steps, which violated its 1971 agreement with UAE can not be justified. This provocative move has had a negative effect on Iran's relations 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 and other 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,, 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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Hegemony or Survival
America's Quest for Global Dominance
By Noam Chomsky

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