Saturday, May 13, 2006

From Iran, With Something Less Than Love

Elaine Sciolino, The New York Times:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran wrote a letter to President Bush last weekend — the first formal letter from an Iranian leader to an American president since Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979. The letter has a familiar ring. In tone and structure, it is eerily reminiscent of a letter sent in January 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's revolution, to Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the leader of a collapsing Soviet Union. READ MORE

Certainly the historical context is different. Ayatollah Khomeini was convinced that Communism was dead and the only worthwhile system of government was one based on religious truth. He was advising the Soviet leader to study the Koran. Mr. Ahmadinejad, for his part, has set out to lecture Mr. Bush on the immorality of the war in Iraq, the confinement of prisoners at Guantánamo, the United States' support for Israel, and other aspects of American foreign policy that he doesn't like.

And the letters differ in style. Ayatollah Khomeini, a revered clerical scholar, filled his letter with Koranic references and elaborate footnotes. Mr. Ahmadinejad, a mere layman, repeatedly invoked the name of Jesus Christ and the Old Testament prophets, alongside Koranic verses. But rather than footnotes, he filled his letter with taunts.

Still, the letters share something basic — a tone of pure effrontery. Both include heavy doses of lecturing and use religious knowledge with an air of moral superiority. The tone is highlighted by repeating the recipient's name again and again.

It's impossible to know whether Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter is an act of homage to the Iranian revolutionary leader, who died in June 1989, but it certainly is an imitation.

It is also an act of breathtaking audacity — Mr. Ahmadinejad dares to cast himself as the great Islamic scholar's stand-in. And Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Khomeini's official successor as "supreme leader" of Iran, has let him do it.

Both letters begin with an introduction and a theme, as if to say: Hello. I have something on my mind. ...:

KHOMEINI Your boldness and initiative in dealing with the realities of the world is quite likely to bring about changes that would result in upsetting the equations of power dominating the world. I have therefore found it necessary to bring certain matters to your attention. ... If you hope, at this juncture, to cut the economic Gordian knots of socialism and communism by appealing to the center of Western capitalism, you will, far from remedying any ill of your society, commit a mistake which those to come will have to erase. For, if Marxism has come to a deadlock in its social and economic policies, capitalism has also bogged down.

AHMADINEJAD For some time now I have been thinking, how one can justify the undeniable contradictions that exist in the international arena. ... Many questions remain unanswered. These have prompted me to discuss some of the contradictions and questions, in the hopes that it might bring about an opportunity to redress them. ... Can one be a follower of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), the great Messenger of God, but at the same time, have countries attacked. At what price?

I know your problem: You don't follow God's principles.

KHOMEINI Mr. Gorbachev: Reality must be faced. The main problem confronting your country is not one of private ownership, freedom and economy; your problem is the absence of true faith in God.

AHMADINEJAD Mr. President: ... I fail to understand how such actions correspond to the values outlined in the beginning of this letter, i.e., the teachings of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), human rights and liberal values.

Let me give you a lesson in religion.

KHOMEINI Mr. Gorbachev: ... I do not wish to entangle you in the twists and turns of philosophical arguments, particularly those of Islamic philosophy. I will content myself by presenting one or two simple, intuitive examples of which even politicians can avail themselves. ... Should Your Excellency desire further information on these matters, you may command those scholars of yours who are well versed in this field to study, in addition to the works of Western philosophers, the writings of Peripatetic philosophers, Farabi and Avicenna, peace be upon them.

AHMADINEJAD Mr. President: It is not my intention to distress anyone. If prophet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Joseph or Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) were with us today, how would they have judged such behavior? Will we be given a role to play in the promised world, where justice will become universal and Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) will be present? Will they even accept us?

All divine religions share and respect one word and that is monotheism or belief in a single God and no other in the world. The holy Koran stresses this common word.

Both close with a view of the future, but the thoughts are not the same. Ayatollah Khomeini seems to say: We can help you. Mr. Ahmadinejad seems to tell President Bush: Watch out.

KHOMEINI Mr. Gorbachev: Let me call on you to study Islam earnestly, not because Islam and the Muslims may need you but because Islam has exalted universal values which can bring comfort and salvation to all nations and remove the basic problems of mankind. A true understanding of Islam may forever release you from the problem of Afghanistan and other similar involvements. In conclusion, I declare outright that the Islamic Republic of Iran as the greatest and most powerful base of the Islamic world can easily fill the vacuum of religious faith in your society. In any case, our country, as in the past, honors good neighborhood and bilateral relations.

Peace be upon those who follow the guidance.

AHMADINEJAD Mr. President: Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems. Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.