Such statements not only reinforce the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric that has fueled the war on terrorism since 9/11. They also exemplify the kind of mentality ("pre-medieval" is the description by British Prime Minister Tony Blair) mentality that many non-Muslims accuse Muslims of harboring. Indeed, they go to the heart of President Bush's post-9/11 question, "Why do they hate us?"
Indeed, Ahmadinejad's accusation that the Holocaust is a "myth"--the word afsaaneh in Persian can also mean fairy tale--reflects a view of the world in which the suffering of others, particularly one's perceived enemies, can be dismissed if it inconveniences one's political ideology or strategic imperatives. Yet the same logic that led Ahmadinejad to categorize the Holocaust as a myth to discount the reality of Jewish suffering legitimizes the very connection between the Holocaust and the justification for the establishment of Israel that he was trying to discredit. By the same token, his willingness to deny the Holocaust's horrors make it that much easier for the supposed "enemies" of Iran and Islam to discount the history of Muslim suffering, exploitation, and oppression at the hands of the "West" and its local allies.
But as condemnations by many Muslim world leaders (including Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas) makes clear, we can't generalize from one leader's comments, however reprehensible, to an entire religion or civilization. The simple fact is that most Muslims do not hate most non-Muslim people in the West, precisely for the reason that there is no one "they" about whom we can generalize. And the Iranian case--a pathologically anti-American and anti-Jewish regime ruling over one of the most pro-American populations in the Muslim world--is a perfect example of this disjointed reality.
Indeed, the varying reactions across the Muslim world to Ahmadinejad's comments reflect the wide divergence in Muslim positions toward the State of Israel--and through it, toward the United States as well. And political, economic, and cultural factors play as big a role as core Muslim beliefs in shaping these attitudes.
Why has President Ahmadinejad made such outrageous comments? There is no doubt that he hates Zionism and the state of Israel. Sadly, such attitudes are still common among many Muslims leaders, whether politicians such as former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, or theologians like Egyptian cleric Yusuf Qaradawi, whose "moderate" views end at the borders of the State of Israel.
Ahmadinejad's antipathy toward Jews and Israel originates, as he admits, from the heart of Iran's Islamic revolution, as expressed in the views of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini's anti-Jewish rhetoric, grounded in negative statements about Jews in the Qur'an that were carried over into Islamic theology, found a wide audience among Iranians because they resonated with the anti-Zionism (and anti-Americanism) that was a prominent feature of most Third World liberation movements beginning in the 1960s.
But if Islam and anti-colonialism provided the environment for Ahmadinejad's comments, this doesn't tell us why he made them now. While some commentators are arguing that his remarks demonstrate his political immaturity--or, worse, incompetence--even the most inexperienced and insecure politicians rarely engage in spontaneous outbursts, particularly when they seem to be doing just that.
Ahmadinejad's bellicose remarks, precisely because they come at a moment when Iran is under increasing world scrutiny for its nuclear program, suggest that an increasingly desperate state is reaching deep into a dusty bag of tricks to rally its people around it. This is especially helpful for Iran's government, which cannot offer the possibility of a decent and democratic life for the majority of the country's citizens, despite record high oil prices and almost 30 years of revolutionary promises. For a country that sits on top of perhaps the second-largest petroleum reserves in the world to suffer from poverty rates of between 20 and 40 percent speaks volumes to these failures.
In this vein, when Ahmadinejad won office in June 2005, he was described as a populist attuned to the needs of poor and working-class Iranians who had been as disenfranchised under the Islamist regime as they had been under the corrupt and nepotistic system of the Shah. After a decade in which conservatives frustrated most every attempt by moderate and reformist governments to change the system, Iranians today have increasingly little faith in politics. Indeed, Ahmadinejad won largely because so few Iranians outside of his followers bothered to vote, having seen how the conservative religious hierarchy blocked most attempts by moderate reformers to democratize the country.
Yet even though a whole generation of Iranians has been effectively depoliticized, their attitudes toward the United States, and the West more broadly, are much more positive than most other Muslims. As the University of Michigan's 2003 "Human Values and Social Change" survey clearly demonstrates, the country with perhaps the most anti-American regime in the Middle East is home to the most pro-American people--while so-called "allies" such as Jordan or Morocco have a much higher degree of animosity toward the United States. The Iranians we should listen to are not the 100,000 or so marchers in support of Ahmadinejad's remarks, but the tens of millions who had something better to do that day.
The disappearing "dialogue of civilizations"
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Nearly four years ago, at a moment that former Iranian President Khatami was deeply engaged in a U.N.-sponsored "dialogue of civilizations," the United States accused Iran of being part of an "axis of evil" and threatened to "end states" that are part of this axis-all because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Iran had nothing to do with 9/11 (and, indeed, al-Qa'eda despises Shiites almost as much as it hates Americans).. In such an atmosphere, lashing out at Israel becomes an easy way to vent anger at Israel's chief sponsor, the United States, against whom President Ahmadinejad could not dare say the same words. In a religious culture like Iranian Shiism, which in many ways is defined by memories of oppression and injustice, the history described here still resonates with Iranians, particularly the poor and marginalized members of the society that Ahmadinejad claims to represent.
Yet, however disgraceful Ahmadinejad's words, neither they nor their object are unique in modern politics. When The New York Times rightly called President Ahmadinejad a demagogue, the paper's editors were recalling the insights of the American social critic Leo Lowenthal, who in his 1949 "Prophets of Deceit" explained that political demagogues (or as he termed them, "agitators") cannot offer hope for a better future. Rather, they must espouse an aggressive and intolerant grassroots anti-intellectualism in order to suppress their society's political and social divisions (and in so doing, maintain their power). The anger it produces is then directed to an outside group who can be blamed for the very social problems the demagogue is impotent to address.
More specifically, with the terrors of Nazism still fresh in peoples' minds, Lowenthal argued that demagogues strive to define their fellow "Christians" primarily as "non-Jews," who can remain Christian only by isolating themselves from an enemy against whom the grossest violence is justified because of their supposed brutality. Lowenthal's argument reminds us that the Ahmadinejad's remarks are in no way unique. And if we are disgusted by them, it shouldn't be that hard to sympathize with Muslims who find equally abhorrent the fact that the U.S. president--leader of the world's most powerful country--has legalized the torture of Muslims, not to mention his invasion and occupation of Iraq under the guise of sometimes-explicit Christian imagery.
Israel's leaders, too, have engaged in such rhetoric, whether it was the Zionist movement's founders describing Palestine as "a land without a people for a people without a land," or the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir arguing that "there was no such thing as the Palestinian people." Of course, these facts in no way justify the Iranian president's poisonous remarks, which play into Israelis and other Jews' deepest fears of Muslims. At the same time, our anger at them should not blind us to American power and Israeli rhetoric, both of which terrify that the Muslim world, particularly when backed by such enormous military might.
Of course violence begets violence. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which neither side of a conflict can imagine peaceful ways to resolve what are envisioned as existential, zero-sum struggles. Rhetoric like President Ahmadinejad's--and sadly, often our own leaders'--suppresses the most positive parts of our common religious heritage. In the process, it makes it much easier for increasing numbers of "them" to hate "us" (and vice versa)--or at least to seem to. With Iran edging ever closer to joining the nuclear club, the world would do well to figure out how to change this dynamic before the logic of violence reaches a terrible conclusion.