FROM RHETORICAL GESTURES TO EPOCHAL
DECISIONS: THE HISTORIC CHOICE IS BETWEEN BOYKIN AND EBADI
By Tom Plate
May 14, 2004
LOS ANGELES --- A middle-aged woman
Iranian Muslim lawyer visited the sun-splashed campus of the University of
California at Los Angeles this week and showed the world what tolerance,
mutual respect and cross-cultural understanding is really all about.
Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003
Nobel Peace Prize, laid it all on the line in the manner of a Muslim Martin
Luther King or an Iranian Cesar Chavez - two famous civil rights leaders
that every UCLA student has heard of. And after her appearance Friday (May
14), in an event organized by the UCLA International Institute, many added
the name of Ebadi to that luminous roster of freedom fighters.
A lawyer and human rights activist,
Ebadi was one of Iran's first woman judges back in the days of bad old Shah
Pahlevi (who, though, did more for women than any mullah). But she is not
fighting for human rights for just some people (for example, Arab women or
Iranian Muslims); but for all, and all of the time. By her lights, human
rights are universal and round-the-clock, with no exceptions for national
security, even during wartime.
As she puts it, "If the 21st
century wishes to free itself from the cycle of violence, acts of terror and
war, and avoid repetition of the experience of the 20th century - that most
disaster-ridden century of humankind - there is no other way except by
understanding and putting into practice every human right for all mankind,
irrespective of race, gender, faith, nationality or social status."
It is the totality of that concept
of human rights that prompted me to go into anger-overdrive last October
when U.S. Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a key figure in the anti-terror campaign
and undoubtedly a brave soldier, made an extremely harmful raft of
anti-Muslim remarks in public.
He decried Islam as idolatry,
because Allah was not "a real God," and claimed the United States was being
targeted "because we're a Christian nation ... and the enemy is a guy named
Satan." An evangelical Christian, Boykin poked fun at one Muslim fighter who
said Allah would protect him from U.S. forces because "I knew ... that my
God was a real God."
How could a prominent U.S. military
official, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, jabber on this way? And
so, in high dudgeon, I wrote back in October: "Boykin should go."
But, of course, he didn't. The Bush
administration simply (and increasingly characteristically) made a few lame
remarks about how the general's views were just his own, and not reflective
of the president's, etc. And this sore continued to fester.
Now it looks as if the Boykin
problem has burst again.
A U.S. Senate committee conducting
hearings about abuse of Iraqi prisoners has been told that Boykin may have
been the top general to send the signal to the lower ranks about the
acceptability of prisoner abuse, so as to "soften up" Muslim detainees. If
these charges pan out, the consequences will be devastating.
The Arab American
Anti-Discrimination Committee had repeatedly urged the administration to put
Boykin on a back burner - and not on the front lines of the Iraq effort -
until the full official Pentagon investigation could be completed. Sound
It's true that President Bush has
made some nice gestures on behalf of religious tolerance. But with new
photographs and videos of U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners surfacing every
other day, the time for rhetorical gestures, even from the White House, is
The United States did win the
military war against the Saddam Hussein regime, but it is in danger of
losing the far more important fight: for the genuine respect of
international public opinion. Without that respect - rightfully earned, and
never taken for granted - America cannot maintain its leadership role. That
will dramatically change the international political order, perhaps not for
the better. For all its faults, America still offers the potential for
inspirational world leadership.
However, today that potential is
painfully unfulfilled. We use unnecessarily harsh interrogation tactics (at
times, apparently, on hapless captives who had nothing to reveal) in our
effort to liberate Iraq; our anti-terror visa and immigration restrictions
are keeping many foreign students from enrolling in our universities; the
cost of the war is not doing anything to ease the U.S. deficit, now so large
that it threatens to destabilize the global economy.
The Bush administration has got to get a grip. America is facing a global
crisis - or at least an epochal turning point in its history. And the
direction in which we turn, and the manner in which we do it, may determine
our collective future from Asia to the Atlantic -- for quite some time.