Howard Zinn discusses the three holy wars


by Onder Uluyol, Engage Minnesota | April 9, 2009 • The famed historian, playwright, and activist Howard Zinn, visited the Twin Cities this week. There were two events featuring him: Voices of a People’s History performance at the College of St. Catherine on Monday and a lecture at Macalester College on Tuesday. I went to the talk at Macalester. The huge Hill ballroom was packed with young students, faculty, peace lovers and longtime admirers of Zinn, and perhaps a few other curious people like me.

Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.

Zinn talked about the three “holy” wars as he called them: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Second World War. He says these are holy because nobody dares to question them. He questioned the cost of these wars. Twenty five thousand dead out of 3 million total population in the Revolutionary War translates into 2.5 million dead in today’s population figures. The other two wars also costing millions of dead. He made a distinction between a “just cause” and a “just war.” The cause might be just but – is the war the best way to achieve a worthy goal?

As he was explaining the enormous cost of wars and the fact that neither the cost is borne equally by people nor the eventual benefits are ever shared equally, one’s mind naturally wonders what the alternatives could be. As a veteran activist, he knows his audience and in anticipation of this obvious question, he ends his talk by listing a few cases where the gains similar to the ones championed by the advocates of these wars were achieved before the war even began. He is cautious not to pretend that there is only one answer and he knows what that is. He gives the well known example of South Africa and ends his talk by encouraging people to question the authority, trust in the ingenuity of people to solve their problems peacefully, and be prepared for the long haul because peaceful resolutions take time.

Yet, the question of what the alternative is and whether protests and elections have any effect at all comes up during the question and answer period. Zinn again advises patience by saying “protests work by not working… it does not work the first time, the second time, the third time… but you keep at it, it eventually drives a change.” He is more pragmatic when it comes to elections. Though he already has much criticism of the Obama administration, he is happy that Bush is replaced by Obama.

The big turnout at the event was encouraging. However, there is a certain degree of despair present in people as expressed by some of the questions. I think even this desperation is positive, because it is not selfish. I feel the frustration is not about direct personal benefit, but it is about not being able to right the wrongs on others quickly. At this point, I am reminded of the verse from the Qur’an:

“No misfortune can happen on earth or in your souls but is recorded in a decree before We [Allah] bring it into existence: That is truly easy for Allah. In order that you may not despair over matters that pass you by, nor exult over favors bestowed upon you. For Allah loves not any vainglorious boaster.” (Al-Hadid 57:22-23)

and this verse:

“If any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female, and have faith, they will enter Heaven and not the least injustice will be done to them” (An-Nisaa’ 4:124).

It is part of the Muslims’ belief that salvation and damnation arise from the deeds and motives of people, not from matters that lie beyond their will or from natural phenomena. Neither environmental or hereditary factors nor the natural capacities present in people have any effect on people’s salvation or damnation. Hence, fatalism or indifference to the world around us is not acceptable in Islam. Seeing many people of many faiths, including Muslims feeling the pain of others and caring for the means as much as the ends is truly a joy and a blessing. I felt privileged yesterday.