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A 'Perfect Man' at the U.N.

Ahmadinejad’s parallel universe.

Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The widespread clash of egotists [Ahmadinejad uses the word khudkhahan, which means in context “those who love themselves more than God”] with divine values gave way to slavery and colonialism.  …  Tens of millions of people were taken to slavery.  …  Lands were occupied and the indigenous people were humiliated and mass-murdered.

Much like the intellectual founding father of the Islamic revolution, Ali Shariati, Ahmadinejad can blend discordant ideas and history into a seamless whole (seamless, that is, in his eyes). Western press coverage of Ahmadinejad’s suggestion last week that the American government orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attack generally underscored the president’s nuttiness. But this misses the Iranian president’s intellectual achievement, which he shares with many inside Khamenei’s inner circle: He effortlessly weaves together the past and the present, Islam’s glorious history of prophets, and the West’s continuing perfidy—most dangerously fueled by the oldest, cleverest, and most economically talented traitors to God’s cause, the Jews. He can zero in on the nuclear standoff, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or 9/11 and effortlessly glue them into the enormous civilization struggle between those who believe in Allah and those who don’t.

What seems hopelessly contradictory and just downright wacko to us is for him proof of the ingenuity and integrity of his thought. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have many things in common (they are a case of psychological opposites attracting), but perhaps the most important is how they see the struggle between the West and Islam. It is ultimately all about God—about man’s, not just Western man’s, tendency to fall from the righteous path. Islamic jurisprudence is full of the philosophical conviction that men are potentially ardent sinners, and the state must ensure through coercive means that “the good is commanded, and evil forbidden.” Ahmadinejad fairly often mentions the insan-e kamil, “the perfect person,” an age-old Islamic philosophical ideal, built upon neo-Platonic roots and popularized in the Shiite faith, which is in love with the charismatic power of special men. This is the lodestar for Ahmadinejad, as it is for Khamenei. 

Although it sounds surreal for many Westerners and millions of Iranians who have essentially become Westerners in their habits, sentiments, and political preferences, the Islamic Republic’s deeply corrupt culture has not vitiated the ruling elite’s conception of Iran as a virtuous state, more intimately connected to God’s mission for man than any other nation. Indeed, the more corrupt the country becomes, and the richer the ruling elite of the Revolutionary Guards, the more determined Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are to maintain the nation’s virtue. The social rebellion of the reformist Green Movement has also increased their moral ardor.

For them, the insan-e kamil isn’t possible if Iran makes peace with the United States, the locomotive of evil in the modern world. Hostility towards Israel is a divine commandment, not subject to the negotiations of godless Palestinians (and Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have made it crystal clear that Hamas are the only rightly guided believers among the Palestinians). And it’s a very good guess that the creation of the insan-e kamil now isn’t possible without nuclear weapons. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are modern men of faith: You must have the ultimate means of power to ensure God’s children can execute his mission and checkmate his enemies.

Barack Obama, who is quintessentially American in his temperament and laissez-faire attitude about religion, really had no idea about Iran before he became president. He must have had some notion of the intersection of politics and faith (it’s hard to imagine anyone attending the church of Jeremiah Wright for the pastor’s biblical insights). But this is a completely secularized faith, where man refashions God as he pleases every Sunday. Obama, like many who served in the Clinton administration and should have known better, saw George W. Bush and America’s troubled history with Iran (the CIA-aided 1953 coup) needlessly standing in the way of reconciliation. The president undoubtedly has learned since his inauguration. It’s hard to imagine three men with less in common culturally than Obama, Ahmadinejad, and Khamenei. And the president is sensitive about being spurned. Like no other leaders, the supreme leader and the Iranian president have told Obama to stick it. 

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