Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

Principles Before Politics

by Stephen Zunes

Growing up in the South in the early 1960s, I witnessed how my parents and others put their lives on the line struggling nonviolently for justice. I later saw how sustained nonviolent resistance by conscientious Americans ended the war in Vietnam, helped bring down apartheid, ended U.S. military interventionism in Central America, and significantly reduced the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and more.

While many issues are more complex, there is still right and wrong. Though none of us can judge with certainty, it is important to engage in what the Quakers refer to as "the search for Truth," doing our best at all times to ascertain what is just and struggle to attain that justice.

This includes the recognition of how an oppressive society often forces people -- particularly women, people of color, and other targeted groups -- into making morally difficult choices. It is important, for example, to recognize the serious moral issues inherent in the act of abortion and the serious moral issues inherent in denying women access to abortion, as well as the need to work for a society that makes unwanted pregnancies less common and less daunting.

We must challenge both the right-wing obsession with individual morality (which is combined with a failure to address the far more significant moral issues inherent in economic and military policies), and those who seem to believe that societal injustice somehow gives license to personal irresponsibility.

For what is important is not ideology, but values.

We must recognize that there are those with whom we may have strong disagreements involving some of their political opinions or affiliations, and for whom we can nevertheless recognize areas in which they may provide wisdom and insight.

Similarly, we must be willing to challenge those with whom we agree on many issues if they embrace right-wing militaristic policies, such as my Senator Barbara Boxer and scores of other erstwhile liberal Democrats who have been repeatedly lauded as a "progressive heroes" by influential liberal organizations despite their unconditional support for the militaristic and repressive policies of successive rightist governments in Israel. Such accolades were notably denied to Democrats who took similar anti-human rights positions through their support of rightist regimes in Central America in the 1980s.

Defense of human rights should be based on universal principles, not ideological prejudices. And it should be clear that the defense of such principles is also pragmatic. Indeed, one can support Israel and support Palestine, recognizing that Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent upon each other. One can oppose U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and oppose terrorism in the name of Islam, since each fuels the other.

For human rights are worth defending, regardless of a given regime's relationship with the United States or its professed ideology. In Iran or in Saudi Arabia. In Syria or in Egypt. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank or in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Abroad or at home.

For, fundamentally, we must never fail to place principles before politics.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco and serves as a contributing editor of Tikkun. His most recent book, co-authored with Jacob Mundy, is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010.)

Source Citation: Zunes, Stephen. 2011. Principles Before Politics. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.


tags: Nonviolent Activism  
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