When Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes recently sat down in Tehran with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for an interview, perhaps the most important questions were the ones that went unasked. They talked about Hezbollah, nuclear weapons, Israel and President Bush, but the one question that ties all of these together in Ahmadinejad’s mind is his religious faith. It is the prism through which he views all of these other policy issues, which is why it is of singular importance to understand the ideology that drives this man. This was apparently lost on Mike Wallace.
No one can accuse Ahmadinejad of being circumspect about the religious views that shape his worldview. He speaks on those views quite frequently, but they are a taboo subject for Westerners unaccustomed to thinking that is self-consciously religious. The reactionary response is to dismiss it as mental instability or label it as “fundamentalist”, but facing the reality of a nuclear Iran, such a reaction is not only short-sighted and narrow minded, but possibly suicidal.
Ahmadinejad’s worldview is shaped by the radical Hojjatieh Shiism that is best represented by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the Iranian President’s ideological mentor and marja-e taqlid (object of emulation), of the popular Haqqani religious school located in Qom. The affection seems to be mutual: in the 2005 Iranian presidential campaign, Ayatollah Yazdi issued a fatwa calling on his supporters to vote for Ahmadinejad.
The Hojjatieh movement is considered to be so radical that it was banned in 1983 by the Ayatollah Khomeini and is still opposed by the majority of the Iranian clerics, including the Supreme Leader of the Supreme National Security Council, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. That should be telling in and of itself. That opposition notwithstanding, it is believed that several adherents of the Hojjatieh sect are in Cabinet-level positions in Ahmadinejad’s government.
Most Shiites await the return of the 12th Shiite Imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan, the last direct male descendent of the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali, who disappeared in 874AD and is believed to be in an invisible, deathless state of existene, or “occultation”, awaiting his return. Though it is discounted even by the most extremist clerics, a popular belief in Iran holds that the 12th Imam, also called the Mahdi or the sahib-e zaman (“the Ruler of Time”), lives at the bottom of a well in Jamkaran, just outside of Qom. Devotees drop written requests into the well to communicate with the Mahdi. His reappearance will usher in a new era of peace as Islam vanquishes all of its enemies. The Sunnis, who reject the successors of Ali, believe that the Mahdi has yet to be born.
But rooted in the Shiite ideology of martyrdom and violence, the Hojjatieh sect adds messianic and apocalyptic elements to an already volatile theology. They believe that chaos and bloodshed must precede the return of the 12th Imam, called the Mahdi. But unlike the biblical apocalypse, where the return of Jesus is preceded by waves of divinely decreed natural disasters, the summoning of the Mahdi through chaos and violence is wholly in the realm of human action. The Hojjatieh faith puts inordinate stress on the human ability to direct divinely appointed events. By creating the apocalyptic chaos, the Hojjatiehs believe it is entirely in the power of believers to affect the Mahdi’s reappearance, the institution of Islamic government worldwide, and the destruction of all competing faiths.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has clearly indicated that he is a true believer in this faith. It has been reported that he has told confidants that he anticipates the immanent return of the Mahdi. When he previously served as Mayor of Tehran, he advocated for widening the roads to accommodate the Mahdi’s triumphal entry into the city. One of his first acts of office as President was to dedicate approximately $20 million to the restoration and improvement of the mosque at Jamkaran, where the Mahdi is claimed to dwell.
This personal belief directs his official policies as President. He has publicly said, “Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam, the Mahdi. We should define our economic, cultural and political policies on the policy of the Imam Mahdi’s return.”
However, Ahmadinejad’s messianism doesn’t stop with the Mahdi. In fact, he has made it clear that he believes he has personally received a divine appointment to herald the imminent arrival of the Mahdi, tacitly acknowledging his own role in setting aright the problems of the world.
His belief in a personal divine appointment was best confirmed after his speech to the United Nations last September, which was laden with references to the Mahdi. Upon his return to Iran, he met with Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli, where the two discussed an alleged paranormal occurrence while Ahmadinejad spoke wherein he related to the cleric:
On the last day when I was speaking, one of our group told me that when I started to say 'Bismillah Muhammad,' he saw a green light come from around me, and I was placed inside this aura. I felt it myself. I felt that the atmosphere suddenly changed, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, all the leaders of the world did not blink. When I say they didn't move an eyelid, I'm not exaggerating. They were looking as if a hand was holding them there, and had just opened their eyes – Alhamdulillah!
As the recipient of this divine appointment, he not only a leading actor in what he believes is a divine drama taking place on the world stage, but it also feeds the Gnostic elitism inherent in Hojjatieh ideology. Not only are his acts reflective of divine inspiration, they are also above questioning. As an interview back in May with Der Spiegel, while talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this “populist” makes clear his lack of enthusiasm for popular sovereignty:
It does not make sense that a phenomenon depends on the opinions of many individuals who are free to interpret the phenomenon as they wish. You can't solve the problems of the world that way. We need a new approach. Of course we want the free will of the people to reign, but we need sustainable principles that enjoy universal acceptance - such as justice.
Another part of his divine mission is confronting infidel world leaders and inviting them to accept Islam – a necessary step in Islamic warfare before attacking an opponent. In May, Ahmadinejad sent President Bush an 18-page letter calling for a change in the Bush Administration’s foreign polices and challenging him to embrace Islam. A similar letter was sent to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Robert Spencer of JihadWatch immediately recognized Ahmadinejad’s letter as a call to accept Islam – an opinion that Ahmadinejad later confirmed – that contextualized his respective letters as a pretext for future military confrontation and escalation.
Referring to his letter in his 60 Minutes interview, Ahmadinejad made it clear that rejection of his personal invitation to Islam would invite personal destruction for President Bush:
Please give him this message, sir. Those who refuse to accept an invitation to good will not have a good ending or fate.
The confrontational approach taken by Ahmadinejad colors his official decision-making as President of the Islamic Republic. The kidnapping of the Israeli solider by Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, resulted in the conflict between Israel and the terrorist organization that has killed more than a thousand people in Lebanon and Israel and displaced more than a million citizens in both countries. This provocative act by Hezbollah had to have the approval of Ahmadinejad and reflects the belligerence that marks virtually all of his policies related to the Middle East region and Iran’s relations with the West.
But it is the apocalyptic element to Ahmadinejad’s faith combined with Iran’s nuclear ambitions that should draw the most serious attention. He believes that a great cataclysm of bloodshed anticipates the return of the 12th Imam, in particular the destruction of infidels – Jews and Christians – that will usher in a new dawn of Islamic worldwide dominance.
With Israel in range of Iranian missiles, he has promised to “wipe Israel off the map”. Here Ahmadinejad draws from what Andrew Bostom recently identified as a theological current within the broader confines of Islam that holds that the destruction of the Jews will inaugurate the appearance of the Mahdi. Other Hojjatieh ideologues, such as one of Ayatollah Yazdi’s chief students, Mohsen Ghorourian, have openly advocated the use of nuclear weapons to assert Iranian/Islamic preeminence over Israel and the West.
In recent weeks Islam scholars have noted how Ahmadinejad’s selection of August 22nd to respond to the UN’s demand to cease the Iranian uranium enrichment program has roots in Quranic mythology. On July 27th, Robert Spencer wrote for FrontPage that this date corresponds to Muhammed’s “Night Journey” and ascension into heaven recounted in Islamic lore. Two weeks later, noted Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis reitterated these same concerns about the date chosen by Ahmadinejad’s government to respond to the UN’s demands. Could a nuclear event or other terrorist attacks directed against Israel, the West, or both, by Iran deliberately timed to coincide to utilize the perceived power of Islamic myth be in store? The scenario is not far-fetched.
Some commentators have dismissed the notion that Iran might launch an attack that would precipitate a catastrophic response from Israel and the US, relying on the Cold War logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But yet again, the religious ideology that permeates the mind of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is extremely important to understand.
The whole structure of Shiite belief is built around a cult of martyrdom that assumes lethal retribution by the infidels against the true believers for their righteous conduct. Ahmadinejad constantly utilizes the Shiite images and slogans relating to martyrdom, as can be seen in his comments this past February in a speech reported by the IRNA:
We are all obliged to keep alive the culture of martyrdom-seeking in the society. Culture of martyrdom-seeking is our most effective weapon and best guarantee for our national security. Ruthless enemies who have a chronic enmity against our country and our nation have not succeeded in achieving their objectives so far thanks to the existence of this culture of martyrdom-seeking among our nation. He who is ready for martyrdom is always victorious. Martyrdom is the peak of mankind's perfection and the martyrs enjoy the highest status of humanity in this world and the Hereafter. People spend tough years of strenuous work in a bid to achieve the peaks of grandeur and pride, while our dear martyrs achieved those high peaks in shortest possible time.
An attack launched by Israel or the US that would kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Iranians would only serve to confirm the self-fulfilling prophecy of Shiite martyrdom and vindicate Ahmadinejad’s suicidal policies. In his mind, an apocalyptic act of self-initiated martyrdom unparalleled in Islamic history would undoubtedly serve to jump start the arrival of the Mahdi. In his religious calculus, the use of nuclear weapons is a win-win scenario. Such actions are not only entirely appropriate, but divinely sanctioned and wholly justified by the messianic and apocalyptic elements that Ahmadinejad and his ideological allies have attached to the Shiite martyrdom mythology.
We should then seriously consider the practical consequences of Ahmadinejad’s religious worldview and ask how this knowledge should help shape our foreign policy with regards to Iran and their nuclear ambitions. The political leaders in the West should understand that the Shiite and Hojjatieh beliefs play an integral role in shaping Ahmadinejad’s understanding of reality.
When he says that Iran’s nuclear development program are peaceful, he really means it. He has in mind the universal Islamic peace that will be established with the return of the Mahdi, and if rivers of infidel blood have to be shed to accomplish it, his religious faith leads him to understand that such is part of the divine plan. That is the way that ultimate “peace” will finally be achieved. And when he states that Israel will be “wiped off the map”, he unshakably believes that as well because it has been crafted into the overall religious narrative that guides his policies.
Because of this, we should understand that there is no negotiating position acceptable to them except for the complete and unconditional submission of the non-Muslim world to the rule of shari’a. Diplomacy is a vain illusion when dealing with adherents of this apocalyptic worldview. They have constructed an ideology where the most extreme actions on their part are not only justified, but divinely sanctioned; and all retributive responses by the “infidels” accounted for.
There is a glimmer of hope, however. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stands at the fringe of Iranian politics (which should illustrate how relative a term as “fringe” can actually be). Most hard line clerics do not share his vision and he is opposed by some of the leading politicians in Iran, like former President Rafsanjani. Our response should exploit those divisions. But that can only be done if we are relentless in constantly checking every move that Ahmadinejad makes. He cannot be allowed even the slightest victory. Allowing him any breathing room or agreeing to any concessions is fraught with extreme peril. A persistent escalation of hostilities between Iran and the US may force the hard line clerics to deal with Ahmadinejad on their own out of sheer self-preservation.
In conclusion, this brief examination has been intended to demonstrate that current Iranian policy is designed to vindicate the self-fulfilling prophecy of Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic and messianic beliefs. This highlights that regardless of what West chooses to believe, we are in a religious war and we must fight it as such. At some point, we will be forced to take actions designed to shake their faith – a prospect that will not be well met by the postmodern pluralistic forces in the West. But the West and Israel is not the only one threatened: the Islamic world itself, Sunni and Shiite alike, is held hostage by this extremist religious ideology. When the day of reckoning comes for Iran, may our leaders fully understand the religious dimensions of the threat and have the nerve to do what is needed to protect our interests and security in both the short and long term. In this battle, there will be no substitute for victory.
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