In a New York Times article on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  earlier this week, we read this:

President Ahmadinejad, who came to office in 2005 declaring his intention to “hasten the emergence” of Imam Mahdi, said in a speech broadcast nationally this month that Imam Mahdi supported the day-to-day workings of his government and was helping him in the face of international pressure. That was too much for senior clerics, who contend that they alone are qualified to speak on the topic. “Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks are common beliefs in Shiite Islam, but they were never brought up in politics and for political purposes by a noncleric,” said Farid Moddaressi, a religion reporter in Tehran. “Mr.Ahmadinejad’s views come from a religion which is defined by its clerics, but they believe that he is not a religious authority to make such remarks.” Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has established a well-financed foundation to prepare the nation for the imam’s return, was stung by the criticism. “To deny the help of the imam is very bad,” he said in his news conference. “It is very bad to say that the imam will not emerge for another few hundred years; who are you to say that?”

… In his speech, which was made last month but not broadcast immediately, Mr. Ahmadinejad said Imam Mahdi was directing his government’s policies. He said he had the imam’s hidden support when he gave a speech at Columbia University
in New York last September and was insulted by the president of the university. With Imam Mahdi’s support, he said, 500 million people watched him on television. Mr. Ahmadinejad also said the United States had attacked Iraq because it had found out that “the divine hand” — apparently a reference to Imam Mahdi — was going to emerge there. The escalation of the dispute in recent days seemed to suggest that Mr. Ahmadinejad was challenging Shiite clerics assumed to be the sole interpreters of the faith.

So why should an intra-Shia debate over the Mahdi and his return matter to us? Because Ahmadinejad’s policies are driven by his religious worldview – and that worldview can have enormous ramifications. To understand his cast of mind a bit better, a brief historical overview of Shia Islam may be helpful.

Those of the Shia faith believe that Muhammad designated Ali, his son-in-law and cousin, as his successor. To the Shia, it was impossible that God could have left open the question of leadership of the community. Only those who knew the prophet intimately would have the thorough knowledge of the true meaning of the Koran and the prophetic tradition. Further, for the new community to choose its own leader held the possibility that the wrong person would be chosen.

The majority view prevailing at an assembly following Muhammad’s death, however, was that Muhammad had deliberately left succession an open question. These became the Sunnis, followers of the Sunnah, or Tradition of the Prophet. Sunnis have a belief in “the sanctity of the consensus of the community,” as the late Oxford historian Hamid Enayat explained it. “The Prophet is thus claimed by the Sunnis to have conferred on his community the very infallibility that the Shi`is ascribe to their Imams.”

The assembly elected as Muhammad’s successor Abu Baker, a close companion of Muhammad, and gave Abu Baker the title Caliph, or successor, of God’s messenger. Ali was the third successor to Abu Baker and, for the Shia, the first divinely sanctioned “imam,” or male descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

The seminal event in Shia history is the martyrdom in 680 of Ali’s son Hussein, who led an uprising against the “illegitimate” caliph. “For the Shia, Hussein came to symbolize resistance to tyranny,” according to Masood Farivar. “His martyrdom is commemorated to this day as the central act of Shia piety.” The end of Muhammad’s line came with Muhammad al-Mahdi, the “Twelfth Imam” — or Mahdi (“the one who guides”) — who disappeared as a child at the funeral of his father Hassan al-Askari. Shiites believe that the Twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi, is merely hidden from view and will one day return from his “occultation” to rid the world of evil. Legitimate Islamic rule can only be re-established with the Mahdi’s return because, in the Shiite view, the imams possessed secret knowledge, passed by each to his successor, vital to guiding the community.

History is moving toward the inevitable return of the Twelfth Imam, according to Shia. Professor Enayat put it this way:

“The Shi`is agree with the Sunnis that Muslim history … has been for the most part a tale of woe. But whereas for the Sunnis the course of history since then has been a movement away from the ideal state, for the Shi`is it is a movement towards it.”

It’s important to note that Shia have historically been politically quiescent. Iraq’s prominent Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani falls into this camp; he believes, according to New York University professor Noah Feldman, that the Mahdi’s return cannot be hastened by human activity. In more recent times, however — and in particular in Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala in 680 has been used to catalyze political action. Ayatollah Khomeini embraced a view that Hussein was compelled to resist an unpopular, unjust and impious government and that his martyrdom serves as a call to rebellion for all Muslims in building an Islamic state. According to Professor Matthias Küntzel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the end-time views of Ayatollah Khomeini can be explained this way:

[Khomeini] vested the myth [of the return of the Twelfth Imam] with an entirely new sense: The Twelfth Imam will only emerge when the believers have vanquished evil. To speed up the Mahdi’s return, Muslims had to shake off their torpor and fight.

Which bring us to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has publicly said that the mission of the Islamic revolution in Iran is to pave the way for the Mahdi’s return. He has also declared his absolute hostility to America. In October 2006, for example, he said that while some people ask "whether a world without the United States and Zionism can be achieved… I say that this… goal is achievable." He has declared to America and other Western powers: "Open your eyes and see the fate of pharaoh… if you do not abandon the path of falsehood… your doomed destiny will be annihilation." Later Ahmadinejad warned, "The anger of Muslims may reach an explosion point soon. If such a day comes [America and the West] should know that the waves of the blast will not remain within the boundaries of our region." And this: "If you would like to have good relations with the Iranian nation in the future… bow down before the greatness of the Iranian nation and surrender. If you don’t accept [to do this], the Iranian nation will… force you to surrender and bow down."

And then there is Israel. In a 2005 conference entitled "The World Without Zionism," Ahmadinejad demanded that Israel be "wiped off the map." In Tehran in December 2006, Ahmadinejad hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers and once again threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Earlier this month he referred to Israel as a "stinking corpse…on its way to annihilation. [It has] reached the end like a dead rat." Israel’s existence, he has said, is an "insult to human dignity." And like it or not, according to Ahmadinejad, “the Zionist regime is heading toward annihilation. The Zionist regime is a rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by one storm."

These views, by themselves, are troubling enough; if Iran succeeds in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons, it could bring forth ruin on an unimaginable scale.

Such an outcome is not pre-ordained. The Iranian government, after all, has several different power centers, including the presidency, the parliament, the Revolutionary Guards, and the office of the Supreme Leader, which is currently filled by Ayatollah Khamenei, who ultimately oversees the armed forces and exerts great influence. And scholars like Professor Feldman have argued that “Shiite Islam, even in its messianic
incarnation, still falls short of inviting nuclear retaliation and engendering collective suicide.”

Perhaps, though Ahmadinejad’s views of “messianic incarnation” might well rest on the more extreme end of even the extremists. Regardless, the confluence of Ahmadinejad’s eschatology, his deep hatreds, and nuclear weapons (which Iran appears well down the road toward achieving) should deeply trouble the civilized world. We are betting his words are not serious or, if they are, that we can count on people like Ayatollah Khamenei – himself a key figure in the Islamic revolution in Iran and a close confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini who has said "this cancerous tumor of a state [Israel] should be removed from the region" — to act as moderating forces.

That is less than ideal.The Hitler analogy is overused these days. But from time to time it can be instructive. And in his introduction to Mein Kampf, Konrad Heiden wrote this:

For years Mein Kampf stood as proof of the blindness and complacency of the world. For in its pages Hitler announced — long before he came to power — a program of blood and terror in a self-revelation of such overwhelming frankness that few among its readers had the courage to believe it. Once again it was demonstrated that there was no more effective method of concealment than the broadest publicity. Mein Kampf was written in white-hot hatred.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a man of white-hot hatreds. It would be foolish to assume he won’t try to act on them in some way and at some point, particularly if Iran has a nuclear weapon at its disposal. That doesn’t provide a blueprint for what we ought to do when it comes to Iran; it merely serves as a reasonable warning of what might happen if we do nothing.

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