Thursday, April 19, 2012

Post #247 - The Lion in the Eagle's Lair

This is a piece I wrote nearly five years ago (the context is self-explanatory).  Since that time little has changed, except that President Ahmadinezhad seems to have lost some support among the ruling clerics in his country and the focus has shifted from a possible U.S. strike to a possible Israeli strike on Iran:

If He Can Make It There...:
An Iranian President's Visit to the Big Apple

This was a week full of unusual events:

-- the leader of a country called part of an "axis of evil" by our own president visited New York, at one point nearly sharing the limelight with President Bush at the United Nations.

-- a man who has made it onto the cover of Time as a "threat to the world" did Q&A with not one but several groups, including: university faculty and students, professional journalists, and religious spokespersons. (The questions got a bit repetitious, but some of them were actually important.)

-- a sitting head-of-state was roundly excoriated by the head of a venerable educational institution that had invited him to speak -- and that was just in his introduction. (This was the same institution that had awarded an honorary doctor-of-laws degree to the previous Iranian head-of-state, the self-proclaimed King of Kings.)

-- a group of rabbis met with the person who represents "an existential threat to Israel" and found that they were basically on the same page.

As I said, it was a strange week.

During the visit of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, the prevailing atmospherics were less about any fireworks between Mr. Bush and Mr. Ahmadinezhad in the Hall of the General Assembly, than they were a melee of competing spin and slant in the media, the blogosphere and the political arena. The Iranian leader maintained that single-sex sex was a non-issue in his country, for which he was awarded much dismayed derision. But, he also maintained (somewhat more importantly, one would think) that he was prepared to grant that the Holocaust had taken place, that his country neither wished to acquire nuclear weapons nor to attack anyone, and that he was ready to come to the negotiating table to iron out differences between our countries.

Yet, newspaper headlines read "Iran Defiant on Nuclear Program" (or far worse -- the tabloids used words like "Madman" to describe the president), and the stories under them were uncognizant of his more surprising, and potentially much more significant, statements. Moreover, Congress was aflurry with resolutions and legislation to further isolate Iran and punish its perceived intransigence, rather than to call Ahmadinezhad on any of his gestures of conciliation. Most Republicans and increasingly most Democrats seem not to care at all what questions got what answers, for their minds have now been made up. The die appears to be cast and the orders given: we are going to war with Iran unless that government learns how to grovel and say "uncle" in a clear and unambiguous way...and fast.

In contrast with the ungracious performance of university president Bollinger at Columbia, a group of 140 religious leaders Wednesday morning enjoyed an interchange characterized by civility, a spirit of inquiry and anguish over our mutual march toward the abyss. Several of the speakers on the North American side had troubled themselves to actually travel to Iran to meet the man on the street and the woman in the hijab. The meeting itself was possible because the Mennonite Central Committee has been cultivating a relationship of caring -- and candor -- with Iranians over a period of some years, culminating in group meetings in NYC last September, in Tehran last February, and now this week. A number of the questions touched on the same substance as that treated at other venues -- women's rights, the Iranian nuclear program, recognition of Israel and questioning of the historicity of the Holocaust -- but the church-people's remarks evinced mutual respect, shared faith and common humanity, and Ahmadinezhad reciprocated.

Billed as "a time of dialogue and prayerful reflection among the children of Abraham," the gathering lived up to this in its content, if not in its membership; no Jewish groups were in evidence at the Tillman Chapel. (According to a NY Times account, efforts had been made to find some willing to take part, without success. The same article reported that even Ba'hais, whose adherents have been the object of the harshest attention by the Iranian theocracy, support the peace-seeking efforts that include this week's meeting. Leaders of other faith traditions across the United States, however, have not all been so supportive.)

Mr. Ahamadinezhad address Wednesday was squarely on the inter-religious theme, as he outlined a continuum of history and belief that started with the creation of Man, and included references to Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and other prophets, Jesus, Mary and Mohammad. (Many may not know that these figures are seen in Muslim teachings as important forebears.) Bringing his thread into our time, he emphasized the potentially critical role of religious leaders in finding paths to peace and the curing of mankind's multiple ills.

Panelists from the United States (Mary Ellen McNish of American Friends Service Committee, Dr. Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary, Fr. Drew Christiansen, editor of America and Rev. Chris Ferguson, UN representative of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs) and from Canada (Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton of the Canadian Council of Churches), responded to the president's remarks. Unlike questioners at the other events held this week, each was clearly invested in how to ensure peace and the meeting of human needs, rather than in scoring rhetorical points for the chattering class. None were apologists for Iranian leadership; but none were insensible to the historical suffering of Iranians to which Ahmadinezhad had eluded. Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of AFSC, a Quaker group that helped sponsor the event, said, “If we don’t walk down this path of dialogue, we’re going to end up in conflagration.”

Unlike the general reaction to Ahmadinezhad's statements on Israel, a group of non-Zionist rabbis, meeting with him this week (for the third time), found much to agree with. The Iranian president told them: "Today people of the world have come to realize the fact that Judaism is different from Zionism. Jews are followers of Moses and Zionists are seeking political opportunities." The Naturei Karta group, formed in 1935, presented the president with a silver cup, and thanked him for his relations with Jews. (Some of their members were participants in the recent Tehran conference about how to view the Holocaust and took that opportunity to confirm the truth of the Holocaust and the suffering it caused from their first-hand experiences.)

His responses on Sixty Minutes, at the UN, at Columbia and before the faith gathering, often took the form of questioning the question itself, and giving his own view of the subject. For example (I am paraphrasing, based on his comments in the several interchanges held this week; the reader can judge if I am faithfully presenting the tone of those encounters):

Q: Will you promise not to strike Israel?
A: Israel has 200 nuclear bombs and no IAEA inspections, the United States has thousands of bombs and no IAEA inspections; both have made threats against Iran. Iran has no intention to develop a bomb and is being inspected daily. Why are we being asked this?

Q: Do you deny the Holocaust?
A: If the Holocaust happened, it did not involve the Palestinians -- why are they paying the price for Jewish suffering? And why doesn't the history of that period merit further study, as does every other field, such as physics or literature? Are you afraid to have it studied?

Q: Are Iranian groups sending arms into Iraq?
A: The United States should look to its own actions in Iraq to explain the debacle there. The region's problems need to be solved by those who live in the region, rather than those who live halfway around the world.

Q: Will you take steps to reassure the world about your "civilian-use" nuclear program?
A: We have a right under international law to do what we are doing. Why don't the same rules apply to all nations? Will the United States allow us to do joint nuclear development in the United States, as they ask us to do with outsiders in our country?

Of course, any person debating complex questions only comes off as well as the soundbites in which he is permitted to be heard on the airwaves. The jury is out on whether President Ahmadinezhad helped or hurt himself and his nation's cause, as a result of his trip to Gotham City. I suspect that those who had an axe to grind got theirs ground; those who "had ears to hear" (in the biblical phrase) may have heard some things that were thought-provoking. The doomsday clock may not have skipped backwards, but maybe it slowed momentarily...?

Meanwhile, back in unlikely television drama has reached the "top of the charts" in Iran. An hour-long, 22-episode series called, "Zero Degree Turn," features a WWII-era love story of a Muslim Iranian-Palestinian man and a Jewish French woman. In it, the man saves his love from the Nazi camps, Iranian diplomats in France forge passports and the woman and her family escape on an airplane carrying Iranian Jews to their homeland.

As I said, a strange week...

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