Thursday, May 11, 2006

Taking the Iranian President Seriously: Has He Been Listening to President Bush More Closely than the Rest of Us?

The duly elected President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has attempted to communicate with the President of the United States, A publicly devout Iranian Muslim of the Shiite denomination (and I use the term deliberately here), he has communicated with our publicly devout Christian President of an important Protestant denomination, in the only language both men appear to understand best—the language of religion. The Iranian President, delving into the application of Christian theology, morals and ethics as interpreted by him, to the current international political situation, suggested that Christianity required the President to retreat from Iraq, abandon Israel (and the Jews) to their fate, and embrace an appropriate Christian theocratic stance in the reconstruction of the American Republic. President Ahmadinejad asked: “We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point that is the Almighty God. Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teachings of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question to you is: “Do you want to join them?”

For his efforts, the president of Iran is mocked. It is understandable that those who still embrace the great post-1945 project of universal, inclusive, secular, human rights, based on a horizontal sense of human dignity among all individuals, irrespective of belief should mock the use of a language of discourse that itself belittles that project. Those individuals, including the diplomats at the United Nations who revealed the contents of the letter, and the news media reporting on the letter in the contemptuous tones typically reserved for news of disapproved activity, should find the letter silly, at least (the work of a person with no conception of the rules of etiquette and discourse among world leaders), comprehensible at best as the efforts of a leader to manipulate or at least speak to domestic public opinion (or at least his masters in Qom), or dangerous at worst as the mutterings of a man from a part of the world still harboring a sensibility of politics as religion by other means. Muslim apologists have suggested that the letter was meant for internal Iranian consumption, or to appeal to Muslim all over the world. It was not meant either for the American President or for the people of the United States. All of this is nicely expressed in Michael Slackman’s article published in the front page of May 10, 2006’s New York Times (“Iranian Letter: Using Religion to Lecture Bush”).

It is far less understandable that President Bush, and his staff, mock either the letter or its content. The President and his supporters has sought, over the course of his Presidency, to infuse the very religious values that President Ahmadinejad invokes. Indeed, I had thought that the rhetorical stance suggested that, even if the media and institutional elite in the United States had not been listening to what the President had been saying about his religious values and their importance as a basis of his decision making, at least the Iranian President had been listening. As late as his second Inaugural Address, President Bush drew from universal principles from the founding of the Republic, as well as the eternal “truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people” to articulate an American doctrine of global human freedom and democracy.

And the Iranian President did a masterful job of translating the secular language of statecraft into substantially religious terms. He even managed to do so in a respectful, if not necessarily even remotely accurate way—but then he cannot even pretend to understand Christian interpretive perspectives. The Iranian President suggests that the American President reorient his geo-strategic policies on the basis of sin, and the need to avoid offending the moral and ethical commandments of appropriate Christian conduct. The Iranian President is not the first to make this suggestion. The Catholic Catechism suggests a similar stance among its believers:

“It is necessary, then, to appeal to the spiritual and moral capacities of the human person and to the permanent need for his inner conversion, so as to obtain social changes that will really serve him. The acknowledged priority of the conversion of the heart in no way eliminates but on the contrary imposes the obligation of bringing the appropriate remedies to institutions and living conditions when they are an inducement to sin, so that they conform to the norms of justice and advance the good rather than hinder it.” (CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH (1995) && 1887, 1888, at 514).

In addition to Catholic doctrine that suggests a faith based need for such participation, the Mormons have been particularly active with respect to the secularization of their religious beliefs with respect to the limited availability of marriage. “It is, perhaps, ironic that present day Mormons have weighed in as strong opponents of same-sex marriage after having suffered for their belief in polygamous marriage. The Mormon Church spent $1.1 million to fight same-sex marriage propositions in Hawaii and Alaska in 1998, and the 740,000 Mormons in California were asked to spend as much to support California's Proposition 22, the Protection of Marriage Act.” (Keith E. Sealing, Polygamists out of the Closet: Statutory and State Constitutional Prohibitions Against Polygamy Are Unconstitutional under the Free Exercise Clause, 17 Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 691, 692 & n. 3 (2001)). And, of course, the legislatures of certain states have been emboldened in this climate to attempt to assert proclamations attesting to the foundational importance of Christian morals and ethics as the bedrock of interpretation of state law. Though Christianity has not produced Shari’a, some forms of organized Christian religion have come closer than others. Missouri is the first state that came close to an official embrace of this view; other states will likely go farther.

I am not so sure that the letter from the Iranian President was meant solely for internal Iranian consumption. I am sure that, given the President’s professed embrace of a religious perspective as a foundation of his approach to issues of national import, he ought to read the letter in the religious spirit in which it was sent. I am equally sure that, thus read, the President will perceive the very real opening that the Iranian President has attempted—for him an overture between two religious individuals—and the very real threat that this opening presents for the Republic. The opening suggests that the Iranian President believes that global discourse among states might be more effectively recast in the language of religion. Just as the Byzantine Emperor and the Islamic Caliph during the classical period were able to communicate with each other as representatives of the religions of each, and to serve as the defenders of the faithful of each, so President Ahmadinejad would return to that form of international relations—in which the nation-state would return to its place as subordinate to the greater commonwealth of religious community. Thereon lies the danger, at least for a Western world that has, over the course of the last four hundred years sought to build a system of interaction in which in which politics can proceed in a world of plural religions each treated with equal dignity. To invert the system of discourse within political communities in the West might well undermine the genius of the social and political organization that has served as the foundation of this Republic.

And thus the opening that the Iranian President provides is quite real, and useful--though not for the purpose of reaching an accord on nuclear weapons, Israel, or the relative merits of different systems of religious law. But what response? There are several that might merit consideration. First, it might be important to remind the Iranian President that Muslims should refrain from speaking for Christians, especially with respect to the application of Christian religious doctrine to real world problems. Just as depictions of the Prophet by Westerners were offensive to segments of Islam, so the presumptions of Islam to serve as an authority of Christian thought may be offensive to non-Muslims. And not only for the presumption--for the presumption is really evidence of a sense of superiority (of Islam over other religions as a basis of religiously based discourse) that would suggest that religious discourse is impossible between religions. Second, it might be important to remind the Iranian President that an insistence on religious discourse requires conversation with all religions. There is no point talking Christian theology about Israel without engaging the Jewish perspective. The Iranian President would also do well to remember that there are other foundations of religious discourse he ignores with significant geo-political consequences--the Hindus come readily to mind. Third, while on the subject of sin and faith, the Iranian President might be reminded of the religious arrogance of Iran towards its own religious minorities, starting with those of the Baha'i faith. And lastly, since the Iranian President has opened a inter-faith dialog on right conduct, the response might do well to suggest that Islam itself speaks to the equality of women, human dignity, and the abhorrence of belligerency of the kind embraced by the President and the divines of Qom, whose authority, while we are at it, is subject to contestation.

But conversations of this kind remind us of the reasons our ancestors wisely separated the discourse of a united polity from the important and necessary discourse about the Divine and the obligations owed to that divinity in whatever form acknowledged. Sadly, the Iranian President’s letter reminds us that if we wish to communicate with other forms of political communities, it may be necessary to translate from a secular to a religious form of discourse, without giving in to the temptation to favor one set of religious sensibilities (as the Missouri legislature might have us do) for the blended voices of all religious belief in the Republic. Ironically, if President Bush is to be believed, he is likely as well suited to this task as anyone in America. As he noted in his Second Inaugural Address: “And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.” Well, the Iranians will put this sort of sensibility to the test. It will be interesting to see whether The Iranian President overture is taken as an invitation to the inversion of our own system, or as the opening of a more complicated system of communication with a system not compatible with our own.

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