A Liberal Approach to the Middle East Conflict

By James E. Petts

Fundamentally, the whole Middle East conflict (and many similar conflicts past and present) is driven by sectarianism. Sectarianism is the most extreme possible form of human evil (as explained here).

Those who view the conflict as a conflict between Israelis in general and Palestinians in general (or, even worse, Muslims in general and Jews in general) are part of the problem. The real conflict is between rational people who treat other people as individuals and sectarian extremists who do not. Deliberately causing harm to people merely because they are Israeli (or Jewish) or Palestinian (or Muslim) or anyone merely because of where that person lives is a manifestation of truly extreme evil. Visiting extreme consequences on every individual perpetrator of evil of that sort is fully justified: it is not safe for anyone who has ever behaved in that way to be a member of society. Intentionally visiting any adverse consequences at all on people who have not themselves done anything wrong but who merely happen to fall in the same arbitrary groupings as others who have done wrong is itself evil.

People are not automatically responsible for the actions of the governments of the countries in which they happen to live (nor for the behaviour of others who share a religion) and should never be treated as such: those who do so are part of the problem. It is entirely consistent to criticise the extreme evils perpetrated by Hamas without criticising the great number of people living in Gaza (or Muslims generally) and while sympathising with the extreme harm now being wrought upon people living there. It is entirely consistent to criticise the behaviour of the Israeli government without criticising everyone who lives in Israel (or Jews generally) and while sympathising with the extreme harm intentionally wrought upon many of them by Hamas. Criticism of a government, terrorist group or any other group does not entail criticism of all those whom they purport to represent or stand for.


Attempting to pick a “side” (i.e., Israelis or Palestinians) that is, in general, most or least culpable is a worthless exercise and contributes nothing to any meaningful reasoned assessment of how to respond. Doing so is usually a flimsy excuse for a demand for sectarian unconditional loyalty to one “side” or the other and a deliberate obfuscation of the required reasoned analysis of the individual actions of individual people. (To give an example: if two murderers are on the loose, totting up how many people that each have killed is irrelevant to the fact that the right response is to apprehend both as soon as possible and ensure that they both are never free to kill again). Wrongdoing perpetrated by one person or group is incapable of ever justifying wrongdoing perpetrated by another.

The recent spate of antisemitic and anti-Muslim extremism arising as a result of this conflict demonstrates that sectarian and collectivist ideation and its manifestation in malicious behaviour targeted at individuals from ostensibly opposing groups is widespread and a real and immediate threat to civilisation. The problems caused by sectarian/collectivist extremism cannot be solved by addressing only specific manifestations of that extremism: the only hope of addressing these problems is by addressing sectarianism and collectivism themselves, wherever and in whatever form that they may manifest. Toleration of collectivist and sectarian ideas and their manifestation is widespread, and this is a serious problem. Such ideas must be challenged robustly wherever they arise. Everyone has a duty to do so, and to spread the idea that everyone has a duty to do so. Being openly sectarian or collectivist (in the sense described in this article) should be socially equivalent to being openly in favour of racism and slavery. Behaviour intended to disrupt the robust challenging of sectarian/collectivist ideas must itself be disrupted by any and all lawful means necessary.

Some people may claim that one should not attempt to address sectarianism/collectivism because it is so widespread and because doing so will be difficult: but that is a fundamentally wrong response for two reasons. First, because there is no possible hope of addressing the problems that sectarianism/collectivism causes without addressing that underlying cause, and there is a better chance of doing something that is very difficult than something that is entirely impossible; and second, because that something is difficult is not a sufficient reason not to do it. Sending a person to the moon was difficult. Developing modern medicine was difficult. Inventing aircraft was difficult. Before these things were done, it was not at all clear that they were possible – only by determination and acceptance of a risk of failure were such advances ever achieved. The same is true with a desire to eliminate sectarianism/collectivism. Further, there is some reason to suspect that at least some of those who claim that sectarianism/collectivism is too difficult to solve do so because they do not really want the problem solved, perhaps because they perceive some short-term benefit to themselves from some or other manifestation of it. Those people are part of the problem.

Only by unwavering determination to eradicate all sectarianism/collectivism, wherever it may be found, does humanity stand a chance of being safe from the extreme evil that is its manifestation.

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