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What comes next: Why secularism fooled me into thinking the two-state solution was likely

Israel/Palestine
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whatcomesnexthorizontalThis post is part of “What Comes Next?: A forum on the end of the two-state paradigm.” This series was initiated by Jewish Voice for Peace as an investigation into the current state of thinking about one state and two state solutions, and the collection has been further expanded by Mondoweiss to mark 20 years since the Oslo process. The entire series can be found here.

Why Secularism Fooled Me Into Thinking the Two State Solution Was Likely (and Why Ironically Religion Could Still Make It So)

While my heart still embraces the two state solution, my head increasingly tells me (and Ian Lustick’s brilliant New York Times piece reinforces the message) that we are quickly moving beyond the point where it’s a realistic option. There are many reasons I should have broken it off with the two-state solution before now, but I was fooled into thinking it was still viable by a faith that both sides would ultimately agree to a compromise solution based upon rational consideration of their objective national interests. What I failed to reckon with was the enduring power of religion on both sides of the conflict, which has made their respective attachments to the same sacred space non-negotiable, even as it undermines each side’s other interests.

To be sure, at the beginning of the conflict, there were grounds for thinking that religion would be the least of the problems dividing Arabs and Jews. On the Arab side, secular nationalism was riding high, with Nassarite and Ba’athist regimes taking power in Egypt and Syria. In Jordan, a modernizing monarchy maintained its grip on power, but did so pursuing a largely secular agenda. The Palestinian nationalist movement spanned the secular gamut from Arab nationalism to radical socialism, with little room for Islam, at least initially.

On the Israeli side, the Jewish state’s founding fathers adhered to Labor socialism and seemed committed to a largely secular agenda. Any compromise with the faith of their fathers seemed merely tactical. But since then, the secular political forces on either side have given way to increasingly-influential religious political parties which, in turn, have reduced their willingness to compromise over what both sides regard as the Holy Land.
Much ink has been spilt on the discrediting of Palestinian secular nationalism and the resurgence of political Islam bringing to power increasingly intransigent Palestinian groups like Hamas, whose charter proscribes a two-state solution on the grounds that “giving up any part of Palestine is like giving up part of religion.”[1]

But we should not overlook the religiously militant currents that have become a torrent on the Israeli side as well, and in fact predate the resurgence of political Islam among the Palestinians by a number of years. Indeed, beginning with Israel’s seemingly “miraculous” victory in the June 1967 Six Day War, which brokered the marriage between Zionism and Orthodoxy in Israel, religious Zionism has increasingly become a central factor shaping the Jewish state’s domestic and foreign policy. To be sure, most Israelis are not religious nationalists, but religious nationalism nonetheless exercises a disproportionate influence on Israeli politics.

As with so many other things, scholars have been slow to recognize that religion remains an important factor in world politics, particularly outside the European world, and to grapple with the challenges of comprehending how religion shapes it. Mark Lilla highlights the intellectual source of our myopia: “We find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that leave societies in ruin. We assumed that this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.” [2] The roots of this puzzle lie in the dominance of the “secularization thesis” – the view that as the world modernizes, religion will, in Marx’s famous phrase about the state, “wither away” – in contemporary social science.

A grudging intellectual realization that we need to deal with religion combined with dramatic examples of it reasserting itself into international politics, has to put religion back on the intellectual and policy agendas. [3] A renewed wave of scholarly interest in religion and global politics now acknowledges the recent proliferation of religious actors and marked increase of religiously-tinged international events. My colleague Daniel Philpott explains that the June 1967 Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors “signified the beginning of the religion’s global resurgence…. It awakened a religious conscience among Israeli Jews and crippled the prestige of secular nationalism among Arab Muslims.” [4]

But the view that modern nationalism is largely secular is belied on both sides of the conflict. The Hamas Charter, for instance, defines its Palestinian nationalism as “part and parcel of religious ideology.” [5] And Zionism, one of the most important components of the modern wave of nationalism, not only manifested quite deep religious roots (why build the Jewish state in Palestine rather than somewhere else if all that mattered was the security a Jewish state could provide?) but also very quickly, and despite the avowedly secular orientation of the founding Labor Zionists, morphed into National Religious Zionism, which now dominates nationalism in Israel and among the diaspora. [6] As Gershom Gorenberg puts it, “Judaism has swallowed nationalism whole, as if a snake had swallowed a mongoose. Even when secular Zionists are certain they are rebelling against religion, they are fulfilling God’s will – but the ideal is a religious pioneer, synthesis of yeshiva student and communal farmer.” [7]

Indeed, the occupation of the West Bank is a perfect illustration of the influence of religion as opposed to other secular motives in Israeli policy. Today, there is widespread recognition that retention of the West Bank brings no strategic advantage to Israel, particularly since it is so militarily dominant in the region, both at the conventional and nuclear levels. Whatever geographical advantage the West Bank might have provided to Israel’s security is far outweighed by the domestic and international political costs of retaining it. Continued occupation also clearly undermines the secular Zionist objective of preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Finally, the continuing occupation besmirches Israel’s standing in the international community. [8]

Given all of this, there is no other explanation, save for the resurgence of religious nationalism in Israel, for its persistence in these otherwise counterproductive actions. The late Israeli political activist Israel Shahak attributed this behavior to the increasing influence of the Jewish religion in politics: “Since 1967, as Israel becomes more ‘Jewish,’ so its policies are influenced more by Jewish ideological considerations then by those of a coldly conceived imperial interest. This ideological influence is not usually perceived by foreign experts who tend to ignore or downplay the influence of Jewish religion on Israeli policies.” [9]

If I am correct in my belated recognition that the central role of renewed religious nationalism on both sides is making the two state solution less likely, my diagnosis should hardly give solace to proponents of the one-state solution. Indeed, the many examples in recent history of multi-religious states dissolving into religiously-motivated civil wars (Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Syria) suggests that the one state solution would likely become the national equivalent of two scorpions in a bottle, one marked with the Star of David, the other with a crescent.

Since religion is not going away any time soon, our only hope is to convince the faithful on each side that the only thing worse than compromising religious belief by dividing sacred land is trying to house two national-religious movements within the same political space. Pre-1967 Jewish Orthodoxy, which was largely politically-disengaged precisely on theological grounds, suggests one possible way of reconciling religion and two states. Modernist forms of Islam such as that preached, if not always practiced, by President Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in Turkey offers another. Indeed, there is growing evidence that such modernist currents in Islam are mellowing Hamas’ intransigent political theology. [10] My faith in the two state solution has been shaken by the religious resurgence on both sides of the Green Line; only a reformation on both sides can allow me to keep it.

Notes:

1. Article Thirteen in “Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) of Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 22, No. 4 (Summer 1993): 126.
2. Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007), 3.
3. Eva Bellin, “Faith in Politics: New Trends in the Study of Religion and Politics,” World Politics Vol. 60, No. 2 (January 2008): 315 and 319.
4. Daniel Philpott, “The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations,” World Politics, Vol. 55, No. 1 (October 2002): 190.
5. Hamas Charter, 125.
6. Gershom Gorenberg, “Settling for Radicalism,” The Prospect (May 20, 2009) at http://prospect.org/article/settling-radicalism.
7. GershomGorenberg, Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-77 (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), 106. Also see Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, The Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967, 2007 (New York: Nation Books, 2007), especially chapter 4, “Soldiers of the Messiah” which recounts the story of the role of Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful] in the settlement enterprise.
8. “Ending the Israel-Palestine Stalemate Will Strengthen U.S. National Security,” The Economist paid advertisement with 39 other signatories, January 1st – 7th, 2005, 8.
9. Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 99
10. Paul Scham and Osma Abu-Irshaid, “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility,” United Stats Institute of Peace Special Report No. 224(June 2009).

Michael Desch
About Michael Desch

Michael Desch is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He was the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and the first holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University from 2004 through 2008.

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23 Responses

  1. seanmcbride
    seanmcbride
    November 6, 2013, 2:09 pm

    Excellent article — one of best I have seen here. Mondoweiss needs to bear down hard on this issue and uncover and analyze the deep well of irrationality that is driving much of the bizarre behavior in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

  2. seanmcbride
    seanmcbride
    November 6, 2013, 2:14 pm

    Money quotes:

    What I failed to reckon with was the enduring power of religion on both sides of the conflict, which has made their respective attachments to the same sacred space non-negotiable, even as it undermines each side’s other interests….

    On the Israeli side, the Jewish state’s founding fathers adhered to Labor socialism and seemed committed to a largely secular agenda. Any compromise with the faith of their fathers seemed merely tactical. But since then, the secular political forces on either side have given way to increasingly-influential religious political parties which, in turn, have reduced their willingness to compromise over what both sides regard as the Holy Land.

    The Jewish religious establishment needs to be challenged about its role in enabling this state of affairs — and encouraged to change course.

  3. RudyM
    RudyM
    November 6, 2013, 2:36 pm

    Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Syria

    Maybe western (and associated) intelligence agencies could stop purposefully engineering conflict and exploiting religious and ethnic fault lines. Yes, I point to the military-industrial-intelligence establishment of which Mr. Desch seems to be a part:

    He was the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and the first holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University from 2004 through 2008.

  4. HarryLaw
    HarryLaw
    November 6, 2013, 4:34 pm

    Religion on both sides “have reduced their willingness to compromise over what both sides regard as the Holy Land.” Excuse me, what compromises do the Palestinians have to make, they are being ethnically cleansed on a daily basis, and have been under brutal military occupation for 46 years, the ongoing Zionist project is the cause of the conflict, many people regard the settlements enterprise to have made a two state solution impossible, how can that be? Working on that basis any solution the Israelis do not want would have to be accepted, since they have the greater preponderance of military might [for the present]. The settlement enterprise has been declared illegal by most countries at the UN except Israel, whether these grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions have been illegal for 1 year or as in this case 46 years is irrelevant, the passage of time makes no difference, International law must be followed, the thief cannot be allowed to keep his ill gotten gains, that’s elementary. The acceptance of war crimes [settlements] as a fait accompli is ridiculous, in the absence of the UNSC doing it’s job [because of the US veto,] the ICC must decide what is legal and what is not, otherwise the international law system will be brought into disrepute and the law of the jungle will prevail.

  5. seafoid
    seafoid
    November 6, 2013, 4:48 pm

    ” the view that as the world modernizes, religion will, in Marx’s famous phrase about the state, “wither away” – in contemporary social science.”

    Most of the world didn’t “modernize”. Capitalist luxury is available to a small minority of the world’s population who have some semblance of control over their lives. For the rest it’s fairly medieval out there.

    • bintbiba
      bintbiba
      November 7, 2013, 8:49 am

      True words spoken, seafoid!
      Sometimes even pre-medieval as I see it.

  6. Mike_Konrad
    Mike_Konrad
    November 6, 2013, 5:23 pm

    Great article; but in the end religion is not compromiseable.

    If the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be true, then no Islamic claim can be allowed to stand.

    If Allah be God, then the Jews have invaded the Dar’ al-Salaam. There can be no peace.

    If Jesus is God, then both the Jews and Muslims are wrong, but the Abrahamic Covenant still stands, albeit in a modified manner.

    They cannot all be right. Islam does not permit a son of God. Christianity requires it.

    One or the other must be true, but they cannot all be true.

    Religion deals with eternal values, which is why religion cannot be compromised.

    They can be tolerated, but not compromised.

    The Jews feel they have a religious obligation to rebuild the temple. They will not compromise this. The Arabs will never surrender the land necessary to build that temple.

    Were this secular, it would have been solved by now.

    Since this is NOT secular, it cannot be solved by compromise.

    This is the fact.

    • talknic
      talknic
      November 6, 2013, 11:06 pm

      @Mike_Konrad Uh?

      Your entire post is irrelevant to the legal status of the sovereign extent of the State of Israel under International Law and Israel’s illegal activities as the Occupying Power over non-Israeli territories under International Law.

      • Ellen
        Ellen
        November 7, 2013, 11:37 am

        Bronze age stories, written in metaphor any myth and symbolism for tribal societies (who ticked quite diffently a few thousand years ago) is irrelevant to any discussion of modern day law and realities.

        Mike, you are in a time wrarp.

    • eljay
      eljay
      November 7, 2013, 11:58 am

      >> Religion deals with eternal values, which is why religion cannot be compromised.

      Religions do not deal with eternal values and they most certainly can be compromised. This is the fact.

      >> The Jews feel they have a religious obligation to rebuild the temple.

      So what? It doesn’t entitle Jews to steal, occupy, colonize, ethnically cleanse, destroy, torture and kill. That is the fact.

      >> The Arabs will never surrender the land necessary to build that temple.

      If they live on that land, they are under no obligation to surrender it just because someone has a religious desire to do something with it. This is the fact.

    • Theo
      Theo
      November 7, 2013, 12:18 pm

      Mike

      There is one more variation, none of the three listed religions are based on facts, but on supertitions and outright fairytales, invented by very smart individuals for a certain purpose.
      In that case none of those parties have a valid claim on the land, based on religious grounds, but the inhabitants with the longest history should have the right to live there. The palestinians are there for at least 3,000 years, without interuptions, the jews came after 2,000 years absent. In case of a legal fight a judge would not have much difficulty to decide to whom to award the land.

  7. RoHa
    RoHa
    November 6, 2013, 8:41 pm

    “Judaism has swallowed nationalism whole,…:”

    To me, it looks the other way round.

    • Bandolero
      Bandolero
      November 6, 2013, 11:14 pm

      Yes, that’s it. Add to nationalism the racism and colonialism inherent in nationalist ideology of zionism, and it describes almost perfectly what happened during the last 100+ years. Zionism swallowed judaism, and that almost completely.

  8. talknic
    talknic
    November 6, 2013, 11:11 pm

    ” What I failed to reckon with was the enduring power of religion on both sides of the conflict, which has made their respective attachments to the same sacred space non-negotiable, even as it undermines each side’s other interests”

    FAIL. The Palestinian claim is entirely in accordance with International Law, the UN Charter and relevant conventions, none of which are based in/on religious beliefs or premises The Arab argument has been based entirely on the same legal premise since the 1920’s.

    The Israeli claim, whatever its motivations, is entirely illegal

  9. petersz
    petersz
    November 7, 2013, 6:36 am

    The problem is not religion! Zioinism started as a movement by atheist Jews using the Bible as “history” to make a bogus claim to another people’s land. In other conflicts its not necessarily just about religion either, in Northern Ireland 25% of Catholics are Unionists not Republicans likewise 25% of Palestinians are Christian not Muslim. Its now generally accepted theocratic states cannot be democratic.

  10. HarryLaw
    HarryLaw
    November 7, 2013, 6:56 am

    petersz @” in Northern Ireland 25% of Catholics are Unionists not Republicans”
    According to polls over half of Catholics want to remain in the UK http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/politics/survey-most-northern-ireland-catholics-want-to-remain-in-uk-28628245.html

  11. American
    American
    November 7, 2013, 7:25 am

    Oh brother!!!!
    The way to make I/P even worse is to say that religious ideology should be acknowledged or recognized in dealing with the conflict.
    Great way to justify and incite more religious nut balls.

    And this is ridiculous:

    ” Continued occupation also clearly undermines the secular Zionist objective of preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” &…”Given all of this, there is no other explanation, save for the resurgence of religious nationalism in Israel,
    ……”

    The ‘secular’ Zionist are just as bad as the religious Zionist—their motivation is Jewish supremism instead of religion.

    Quit trying to lipstick Zionism.. It is a seperationist, racist ideology.
    That is the ‘Explanation’ for Israel, period.
    The taking of Palestine for a Jewish state was never justifiable except in the minds of Zionist who think they should be privileged ‘exceptions’ to the universal standards for all other humans in the world.

  12. piotr
    piotr
    November 7, 2013, 9:11 am

    It is a bit complicated, but there are two separate questions.

    1. Are both sides in the conflict increasingly religious and increasingly using religion to justify their positions in the conflict? From the little I know, there are few reasons to doubt it.

    2. Does it make the sides in the conflict less incline to a compromise and termination of the conflict?

    In either case, no nationalist movement will compromise on its goals without outside pressure, and the largest stumbling block is the claim of Zionists that was somehow sold to American public, and most of all, to the American establishment, namely that any pressure applied to Israel will be “counterproductive”, chiefly by decreasing “sense of security” and “necessary good will”.

    Very recently we have discussed the case of “secular nationalistic irrationality” by a certain Eric Alterman who never invoked Torah or Halacha in his speeches and writing, and who can be compared with MJ Rosenberg, another “moderate nationalist” who at least reports events witnessed during his synagogue services and thus can be presumed to be religious. Both gentlemen have similar background and temperament (verbally pugnatious) but MJ is much more compromise minded and rational then Eric.

    Or we can compare Naftali Bennet, who is vaguely religious with leaders of Shas who are “religious nuts”. On nationalistic issues Shas was zig-zagging quite a bit while Bennet seems to be a pure fanatic. In a way, a religious scholar can be more flexible than a secular fascist because fascists are schooled to justify only one thing using their mythology, while religious scholars are schooled to justify practically anything.

  13. LeaNder
    LeaNder
    November 7, 2013, 9:46 am

    What I failed to reckon with was the enduring power of religion on both sides of the conflict, which has made their respective attachments to the same sacred space non-negotiable, even as it undermines each side’s other interests. …

    On the Israeli side, the Jewish state’s founding fathers adhered to Labor socialism and seemed committed to a largely secular agenda. Any compromise with the faith of their fathers seemed merely tactical. But since then, the secular political forces on either side have given way to increasingly-influential religious political parties which, in turn, have reduced their willingness to compromise over what both sides regard as the Holy Land.

    I don’t think the latter paragraph is correct.
    I’d suggest you take a look at this book by David Ohana: Political Theologies in the Holy Land: Israeli Messianism and its Critics

    The interesting story is that from the very start religion merged with politics in the creation of the foundation myths during Israel’s genesis, or palingenesis if you like.

    Now if one side uses a religious versus a political argument, doesn’t this necessarily give birth to a counter religious argument on the other side; almost naturally?

    • talknic
      talknic
      November 7, 2013, 10:52 am

      “Now if one side uses a religious versus a political argument, doesn’t this necessarily give birth to a counter religious argument on the other side; almost naturally?”

      Not necessarily. The Arab argument was based on the Law, LoNCovenant, LoN Mandate for Palestine and later the UN Charter.

      Arab Declaration to the UNSC on the Invasion of Palestine May 15th 1948 “The Governments of the Arab States emphasise, on this occasion, what they have already declared before the London Conference and the United Nations, that the only solution of the Palestine problem is the establishment of a unitary Palestinian State, in accordance with democratic principles, whereby its inhabitants will enjoy complete equality before the law, [and whereby] minorities will be assured of all the guarantees recognised in democratic constitutional countries, and [whereby] the holy places will be preserved and the right of access thereto guaranteed”

      • LeaNder
        LeaNder
        November 7, 2013, 12:16 pm

        Obviously Palestinians did not immediately counter with a religious narrative, I am well aware of that, considering my age.

        You catch me in the process of reflecting what could possibly have resulted in my hypersensitive reaction concerning the use of religious arguments. Let me try to do this in another comment. I hardly ever respond to an article before even having finished reading it. Does the emotion show? I did in this case. Why? What is the exact reason I am fighting Michael? Seems I am struggling with my own neglected-interest-ghosts.

        One line of thought I have never followed up: nonconservatives – religion – cold war – US culture wars. Just ordered the book that triggered this interest with it’s chapter on religion.

        But thanks for the response anyway, talknic.

  14. SQ Debris
    SQ Debris
    November 7, 2013, 12:35 pm

    This article is an insult to the intelligence of this list. Zionism (founded by a secular Jew) has got nothing to do with religion. This so-called “sacred space” is nothing of the kind. It’s dirt with people on it. It happens to be the home of a cultural group known as Palestinians that is composed of Christians, Muslims, atheist communists, Baha’i, you name it. Trying to cast the conflict between racist Europeans and the indigenous community as rooted in religious irrationality is a rank canard. The article reflects very poorly on the quality of scholarship emanating from University of Notre Dame.

  15. maggielorraine
    maggielorraine
    November 8, 2013, 6:48 am

    This article as nonsensical. The argument does not support the conclusion. In fact the author didn’t bother substantiating half of his claim, namely that religious sentiment is driving Palestinian unwillingness to “compromise” (what the hell does that mean anyway?) .

    His only discussion of religion re Palestinians is about Hamas’ alleged “intransigent ideology” yet it should be common knowledge at this point that Hamas does indeed endorse a de facto two-state solution. Pointing to its out-of-date charter is not only a hasbara canard but weak scholarship. Political movements develop over time, and Hamas’ pragmatism and ideological flexibility are evident to anyone who is paying attention -just look at their history of ceasefires and the statements of leaders like Khaled Meshal. Does the author use google? This list took me about two seconds:

    From 2009
    http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2009/06/2009625181357331518.html
    “Khaled Meshaal has endorsed the idea of a two-state solution, accepting the creation of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

    From 2011
    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/05/hamas-leader-supports-two-state-solution-again/37396/
    “A day after agreeing to form a Palestinian unity government with rival faction Fatah, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal (pictured above) has told The New York Times that he will work toward a two-state solution”

    “This isn’t the first time Hamas has called for a two-state solution. In 2006, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar expressed support for such a plan as a new Hamas-led Palestinian government came into being. Two years later, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter announced that the Islamist movement would accept a two-state solution so long as it was approved by a Palestinian referendum or a newly elected government.”

    From January of this year
    http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/report-meshal-says-hamas-accepts-a-two-state-solution.premium-1.500390

    “Khaled Meshal, head of the Syrian branch of Hamas’ political bureau, has reportedly accepted the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has authorized King Abdullah of Jordan to convey the message on his behalf to U.S. President Barack Obama. His new stance marks a dramatic shift in Hamas’ position on the long-standing conflict. ”

    This isn’t to say that Hamas as an organization has a monolithic, fixed view of the two-state solution (or that its ideas of what that means are the same as Israel’s). Nevertheless, it is categorically false that Hamas outrightly rejects it.

    At the same time other major players in Palestinian society -the PLO, Palestinian “civil society,” the diaspora, and even Palestinian Muslim groups inside the green line, do not use religious arguments to explain their unwillingness to “compromise.” In fact, the main currents in Palestinian society either endorse the two-state solution fully or rally around BDS. None of this represents any kind of religiously-motivated intransigence.

    More fundamentally, whether couched in religion or not, (and as many people on this forum have already said), Palestinian claims are completely grounded in law and *even more importantly* in basic notions of morality. That this author would characterize insistence on liberation as an unwillingness to “compromise” says more about him than it does about Palestinians.

    The only impression I get from this article is that its author sees religious supremacism in service of ethnic cleansing as somehow equivalent to (largely non-existent) religiously-motivated liberation ideology, and that he thinks insisting upon one’s rights is “intransigent.”

    What utter trash.

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