Sunday, September 17, 2006

Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s “As-Salam-u-Alaikum” (Peace be with you) played to record audiences and standing ovations, both before and after his talks, in a two-week, five-city U.S. tour. But before Mr. Khatami left the United States, where he obtained a visa at the request of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had already rained on his predecessor’s American parade.

America and Britain, Mr. Ahmadinejad thundered before tens of thousands, “may have won World War II,” but they will most assuredly “lose World War III” because “Iran will win the coming war and America will be beaten.” The diminutive, 49-year-old Iranian firebrand is known to believe that widespread death and destruction will be the curtain-raiser to a Muslim Armageddon — that will take place in his own lifetime. Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich says the third world war is already under way.

If Mr. Ahmadinejad believes in the 12th Imam, or Mahdi, returning to Earth to lead what’s left of humanity to a new beginning under the flag of Islam, many others, affiliated with more familiar Christian tenets, believe Satan himself will move the kingdoms of the world to wage war on God’s chosen people. Inspired by demons, the kings of the entire inhabited Earth will gather together for the ultimate war. But then, the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” because of his “righteousness will defeat them for the glory of the Almighty God.” In any event, the Bible says God finally steps in, puts an end to bloody global mayhem, takes over the world, and runs it the way it should have been run all along.

Evangelicals number almost 80 million in the United States (and in 2000 constituted 40 percent of those who elected George W. Bush president). Most of them believe the predictions of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in their runaway best-sellers (70 million books in print) on the Rapture and the fallen ones known as the Left Behind. Every true-believing Christian, and every child under age 12, vanishes in a nanosecond — to be in God’s presence. The others, those who don’t make the celestial cut (most of humanity) then face the Tribulation, unimaginable suffering, the kind Mr. Ahmadinejad sees coming (Mark 13 and Matthew 24).

Figuring out the players from today’s cast of characters now posturing on the world stage is a bit of a stretch. Former President Khatami’s religious recipe was tasty to those who see good in everybody. Those are the ones who haven’t met everybody.

Mr. Khatami convinced many of them Mr. Ahmadinejad had never said what world media said he had said, namely “Israel must be wiped off the map.” There is no such expression in Farsi, Mr. Khatami explained. “Israel is a country of 5 million [Jews] and should not dictate anything to 1.2 billion Muslims and cannot continue as the occupying power of Jerusalem, the capital of the world’s three principal religions that have far more in common than not” is what Mr. Khatami said his successor had said, or meant to say. But Mr. Khatami left the U.S. before anyone could ask him about Mr. Ahmadinejad’s idea of an Iranian victory in World War III.

Pursuing his theme of a single God for all, Mr. Khatami described the Almighty’s messengers as “Jesus the prophet of kindness and peace; Muhammad the prophet of ethics, morality and peace; and Moses the prophet of dialogue and exchange.”

Dismissed by American conservatives as a wolf in clerical robes, the former radical cleric said part of the story of the human soul was written in the East and another part in the West. “It is important to realize,” he said, “that each of these narrations reflect one aspect of the reality of human existence… the part written in the Orient reflects the soul and the part produced by the Occident reflects the intellect, and the human being is the meshing of both parts.”

Many theologians would dispute a soulless West and an intellectually deprived East. But before declaring his work done, God blended the attributes of generosity (soul) with knowledge (intellect) and man was created — “a nonhistorical human being, a man beyond time and space.”

Thus, said Mr. Khatami, the “divinely revealed religions have no differences with each other (except at the level of theology) which deals with the laws and commands within any given religion, which determine the rules that apply to a particular society, and the rights and responsibilities of its citizens.”

The West’s “individualism” and the East’s “collectivism” are “traps to be avoided,” he warned. Those who fought the Cold War may be surprised to hear that the former chief executive of Iran believes, “If one examines carefully the contradictions between individualistic liberalism and collectivist socialism, one will realize the differences between the two views are indeed accidents and insignificant.”

Mr. Khatami in the peacemaker mode suggested the Orient, which means “guidance and orderliness,” presumably led by Iran, “engage in a historic dialogue with Europe and the United States, inviting them to moderation.” In other words, please stop hyperventilating against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s hyperventilation. “Time for the West to take a step forward and view itself from another angle.” Wise advice provided Iran does the same.

What can Iran contribute? “The Islamic Orient can fill the enormous void of spirituality and estrangement from the truth of existence, which is the great affliction of our world, by reliance upon its moral heritage … and by avoidance of ostentation and superficiality.”

But he did concede “the East needs to utilize the rationality and prudence of the West in its worldly affairs and must embark on development. … [So] Islam, Judaism and Christianity should see more unites them than divides them… rely on one to the exclusion of the other and great calamities engulf our world. …. In the midst of chaos, war, violence, terror and insecurity, [we fail to see the correlation with] poverty, ignorance and backwardness [and miss the opportunity] to rescue life from the claws of warmongers, violence-seekers and ostentatious leaders.”

Mr. Khatami denied, again, that Iran was interested in acquiring a nuclear weapon, and urged American Muslims to denounce September 11, 2001, terrorism as well as Islamophobia.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, on his way to Cuba for a “nonaligned” anti-U.S. summit, clearly was not listening. Nor was his boss, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme religious leader perched in Qom. Nor those reminding President Bush he is committed to ridding the world of the Iranian nuclear threat before he leaves office.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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