Understanding the Middle East. Former hostage reflects on lessons learned and actions needed

`UNLESS we understand the roots of terrorism, we will never be able to deal with it,'' says Moorhead Kennedy. And without such insight, ``any of the military or covert means we use to combat it are really meaningless.'' This from a man who spent 444 days as a captive in Iran in one of the most celebrated hostage crises in American history.

Five years after his return from Tehran, Mr. Kennedy -- a former US foreign service officer -- is still reflecting on his experience. But now he is using it to prod his nation to learn more about the causes of terrorism, and thus help build a fortress against it.

From his vantage point as executive director of the New York-based Council for International Understanding, Kennedy writes and lectures on American foreign policy. His first book, ``The Ayatollah in the Cathedral: Reflections of a Hostage'' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc.), will come out this summer.

Drawing from his hostage experience, Kennedy also talks about the role of religion in global affairs.

The ex-diplomat's message is short and simple: The United States should ``listen and learn'' -- listen to what is happening in the Islamic world and learn more about its culture in order to develop a meaningful foreign policy.

``The basic point is to start listening to the Middle East,'' Kennedy told the Monitor. ``And we must evidence a new readiness to say: `We understand the problems here. And we understand that you do have grievances. What can we do to resolve those grievances?' '' Dialogue with Mideast moderates

The former foreign service officer, however, is not talking about a dialogue with terrorists. ``We have to address the moderates who support the terrorists,'' he explains. ``We need to use moral authority to bring [the moderates] to our side.''

At the same time, Kennedy doesn't advocate a soft line toward those who commit terrorist acts. But he says it serves no purpose to brand terrorism a crime in itself. ``That dignifies it. We must go after the arsonists, the murderers, those who are responsible.''

Kennedy continually returns to the importance of understanding the culture of the Middle East and the impact of Islamic religious beliefs on political acts.

He says that US foreign service personnel and foreign policy specialists have a limited understanding of these things. Government officials ``tend to view the world as a kind of a pie,'' Kennedy explains. Then they label the slices of the pie: ``This is political. This is economic. This is cultural. This is military.

``Henry Kissinger once said: `I deal with governments, not movements.' It is that attitude that limits your perspective when you are trying to look at issues like transnational religion,'' the scholar says. Recognizing the role of religion

Kennedy stresses that the Islamic religion is basic to millions in the Middle East. ``It determines everything about them. . . . Islam is a faith. But is is also a legal system.'' He adds that Americans who subscribe to the concept of separation of church and state find it difficult to understand this phenomenon. ``We take the view that religion is a personal matter, a spiritual experience for yourself,'' Kennedy says.

He adds that his Iranian captors were also somewhat baffled by Americans' outlook on religion. ``Because I was able to talk to them about Islam and Christianity, they recognized me as being religious,'' Kennedy says. ``And although I didn't have much in common with my guards, they responded [positively].''

Although Moorhead Kennedy prefers to talk more in terms of ``intellectual'' and ``moral'' concepts, he is not reluctant to take political stands on some issues.

For instance, he condemns the US bombing of Libya as an inappropriate response to terrorism and one which could lead to further violent acts. And he adds that this type of military action ``not only creates victims, but it creates martyrs.''

Kennedy explains that Islam, and particularly the Shiite sect, is a ``religion of martyrs.''

Further, he insists that the key to the problem of terrorism in the Middle East is a resolution of the Palestinian issue. ``We [the United States] are being highly influenced by the wrong Israeli policy. We have to use our counter-influence on Israel to compel some kind of settlement,'' Kennedy says. Here he believes that a rational appeal to ``moderates'' is central to success. Moral issues and public policy

Although not an ordained minister, Kennedy is active in church affairs in the United States. He says religion and morality play an important role in public policy. And he urges churches to help guide their parishioners to seek ways to world peace.

``We have a primary obligation as Christians and as citizens to break down . . . barriers to peacemaking, and with compassion [to] reach out to those against whom we must continue to defend ourselves, in order to understand what they are trying to tell us,'' Kennedy comments in a videotape he recently made for the Episcopal Church. This is part of a series on ``The Ayatollah in Your Parish,'' Kennedy narrates. Its aim is to draw a link between faith, foreign affairs, and individuals' lives.

Kennedy says that today the public is more sensitive to moral issues in foreign affairs than it has been in the past. For instance, he points out that the bombing of Libya, government investment in South Africa, and US involvement in Nicaraqua have all raised ``ethical'' questions in the minds of Americans. On the other hand, opposing the Nazis and Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor ``made life very easy in ethical terms,'' he explains.

``Religion can play an enormous role in refining our criteria . . . and judgment about foreign affairs,'' he adds. The scholar, however, is opposed to religious groups adopting a specific political stance on certain issues. ``The church can no longer be a mediator if it becomes an advocate,'' Kennedy says.

Curtis J. Sitomer writes on legal and religious affairs for the Monitor.

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