Surprise! Rauf's comments about U.N. sanctions in Iraq aren't so controversial after all

Blog ››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

The rightwing has made a lot of hay over 2005 remarks Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf made regarding the U.S. having "more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida" due to U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq, which, he claimed, led "to the death of over half a million Iraqi children." However, Rauf's comments are far from being controversial or evidence of, as Fox News claims, Rauf's "extreme views." No one argues that the child mortality rates rose in Iraq while the country was subject to U.N. sanctions, and it is far from disputed that the sanctions were on some level responsible for the rise. And numerous Islamic scholars and experts -- including the 9/11 Commission -- have noted that these sanctions were particularly unpopular in the Muslim world and that extremists used the sanctions as one reason to mobilize against the U.S.

In 1999, UNICEF released a report showing that "[c]hildhood mortality clearly increased after the Gulf conflict and under UN sanctions in the south/centre of Iraq," the areas of Iraq outside of the northern Kurdish region. While there is dispute about just how much of the rise in childhood mortality is attributable to the U.N. sanctions versus Saddam Hussein, even the U.N. Security Council acknowledged that the sanctions were at least partially responsible. In a 1999 report, the Security Council Panel on Humanitarian Issues stated: "Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of the war." In an August 1999 press release, then-UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy cited this statement as a "partial explanation" for her estimate "that if the substantial reduction in child mortality throughout Iraq during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under-five in the country as a while during the eight year period 1991 to 1998." Rauf was presumably citing this estimate in his 2005 remarks.

Religious and humanitarian groups were widely opposed to the sanctions and the U.S.' policy in Iraq.

For instance, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops harshly criticized the U.S. "as the chief proponent of sanctions" in a November 15, 1999, statement calling for the U.N. to "terminate promptly the economic embargo against Iraq":

After more than nine years of unparalleled and unmerited suffering, it is long past time to end the economic embargo against Iraq. Too many have suffered for too long. Efforts to mitigate the suffering inflicted by sanctions, namely the oil-for-food program, are important but insufficient. The comprehensive sanctions against Iraq have long since ceased to be a morally acceptable tool of diplomacy, because they have inflicted indiscriminate and unacceptable suffering on the Iraqi people. They violate a fundamental principle of engagement in conflict -- states may not seek to destroy a government or a military by targeting the innocent. It is incumbent on the United Nations Security Council and the United States, as the chief proponent of sanctions, to terminate promptly the economic embargo against Iraq.

The grounds for strong international action were and are justifiable: reversing and deterring aggression against neighboring states, protecting domestic minorities, and preventing the development of weapons of mass destruction. But even honorable causes may not be defended with immoral means. Such is the case of embargoes that contribute to untimely death, chronic illness, and reduced life-expectancy among innocent civilians.

[...]

Our concerns with U.S. policy toward Iraq are not limited to the embargo. We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing air strikes against Iraq. The moral justification of such attacks is, at best, unclear, yet the risks to Iraqi civilians are real. We urge a halt to this form of low-level warfare. It is time for a new approach to Iraq. We cannot turn a deaf ear to the suffering of the Iraqi people or a blind eye to the moral consequences of current U.S. policy. It is time to end comprehensive sanctions against Iraq, halt the ongoing air strikes, and find morally acceptable alternatives to contain the aggressive actions of the Iraqi government.

As our prayers are with the people of Iraq who are victims of their own government and of international policy. We pray also for U.S. and other world leaders as they struggle to match moral means and moral ends.

And Islamic scholars and experts -- including the 9/11 commissioners -- have cited these sanctions as a motivating factor of Islamic extremism against the U.S. In a 2002 essay on "U.S. Foreign Policy in the Muslim World," Islamic scholar Muqtedar Khan wrote that "Al-Qaeda's success lies in its ability to find local sympathizers," noting that one of the "[r]adical Islamic grievances against the United States" was "[t]he human tragedy caused by the sanctions against Iraq." Khan cited this as one of the "issues" that "are finding global resonance among Muslims regardless of their ethnic origins or social class," and argued, "It is this resonance among ordinary Muslims everywhere that has prompted some radical elements to align with the anti-Americanism engendered and fostered by al-Qaeda and its associates." The 9/11 Commission noted that Osama bin Laden "appeals to people disoriented by cyclonic change as they confront modernity and globalization," by, in part, "stress[ing] grievances against the United States widely shared in the Muslim world." One of those "grievances" bin Laden speaks of often is "the suffering of the Iraqi people as a result of sanctions imposed after the Gulf War."

So other than debating with Rauf the extent to which the sanctions were responsible for the rise in Iraqi childhood mortality rates, what, exactly, is so controversial about Rauf's 2005 remarks? Fox has declared Rauf's comments to be evidence of the "imam's extreme views." Steve Doocy declared that "[i]t doesn't exactly sound like this guy ... is that pro-America." Pam Geller and the Drudge Report have taken Rauf's comments out of context to falsely paint him as a terrorist sympathizer. Fox's Megyn Kelly was outraged, as was her guest Andrea Tantaros, who suggested that Rauf could have "a very backwards ideology; that he is not as tolerant as he or the left-wing media claims that he is, and he is using this [Park51] as an act of provocation, as an act to divide, or, worse, a 9/11 victory lap." Guest-hosting The O'Reilly Factor, Laura Ingraham and her guest Liz Cheney assailed Rauf as "at best, completely disconnected from reality," according to Nexis transcript.

If anything, the right-wing outrage demonstrates exactly the point Rauf was making in his 2005 comments -- that "what complicates the discussion" among Muslims "is the fact that the West has not been congisant and has not addressed the issues of its own contribution to much of the injustice in the Arab and Muslim world. It is a difficult subject to discuss with Western audience but it is one that must be pointed out and must be raised."

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