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Ideology matters June 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Politics, Reason.
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In Commentary, Bret Stephens evaluates various strategies for dealing with Tehran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons. He concludes that “Iran cannot be contained,” and favors a preemptive military strike.

All this suggests that a better comparison for Iran than the Soviet Union might be Japan of the 1930s and World War II—another martyrdom-obsessed, non-Western culture with global ambitions. It should call into question the view that for all its extremist rhetoric, Iran operates according to an essentially pragmatic estimate of its own interests. Ideology matters, not only on its terms but also in shaping the parameters within which the regime is prepared to exhibit flexibility and restraint. Ideology matters, too, in determining the kinds of gambles and sacrifices it is willing to make to achieve its aims. To suggest that there is some universal standard of “pragmatism” or “rationality” where Iran and the rest of the world can find common ground is a basic (if depressingly common) intellectual error. What Iran finds pragmatic and rational—support for militias and terrorist organizations abroad; a posture of unyielding hostility to the West; a nuclear program that flouts multiple UN resolutions—is rather different from the thinking that prevails in, say, the Netherlands.

While I’m not (yet) convinced that military action against Iran is currently the best option, Stephens is right to emphasize the oft-denied role that religious dogmatism is playing here (though he manages to avoid using the word “religion” entirely), which we ignore at our peril. Ideology does matter. However, I think Stephens misses the mark when attempting to put his finger on the root of the problem. There are no different types of rationality – no “Persian rationality” versus “Dutch rationality.” On the other hand, Iran is not a nation of completely irrational people, either. Iranians are evidently as rational as anybody else when it comes to treating disease or selling oil, or indeed building nuclear bombs. The actions which seem unreasonable or even suicidal are actually completely rational given certain beliefs. And that is the crux of the matter. If you really believe that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe, and that an eternity of delights awaits martyrs and their families in the afterlife, then flying a plane of infidels into a building makes perfect sense. There is no escaping the fact that the principles of martyrdom and jihad are central to Islam, and that such dogmas are irreconcilable with the possibility of building a sustainable future for humanity. It all starts with teaching children to have blind faith in unjustifiable beliefs about how the world works and how we ought to behave.

Though physical force is sometimes unavoidable – dogmatism can put people beyond the reach of human conversation – it will never be enough. There is a war of ideas that must be waged and won, and recognizing the source of the problem is a necessary first step. Our enemy is unjustified belief, and it must be fought on all fronts.

This video gives an idea of what we’re up against:

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