27 December 2008
A Christmas Message from Ahmadinejad (And other Middle Eastern curiosities)
By Gwynne Dyer
There’s something about the Middle East that brings out the hypocrisy in people, and never more than at Christmas. Take, for example, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Britain’s Channel Four, in its never-ending quest for cheap controversy, has fallen into the habit of getting someone to deliver an alternative address to the Queen’s traditional Christmas message, and who better than the Iranian loonie?
That was the intent, obviously, but Ahmadinejad foxed them all with a low-key talk full of brain-curdling platitudes like the following: “If Christ were on earth today, undoubtedly He would stand with the people in opposition to bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers….He would hoist the banner of love and justice for humanity to oppose warmongers, occupiers, terrorists and bullies the world over.”
Really? Christ lived in the Roman Empire, the very epitome of a bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist power, and his own native land, Palestine, was under Roman occupation, but he didn’t hoist the banner to oppose anything. He was certainly in favour of love and justice, but he said “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, render unto God that which is God’s.” Don’t revolt, don’t even withhold your taxes, because this world does not matter. Only the next one does.
Muslims are right in grouping Judaism, Christianity and Islam together as the “Abrahamic religions,” the “peoples of the Book,” but the differences between them are much wider than the ecumenical fraternity pretend. Jews and Muslims share a belief in the law and an enthusiasm for the State that was utterly absent in early Christianity.
Abraham, Christ and Muhammad were all born within a very long day’s drive of one another, and they grew up in slightly different versions of the same basic culture, but Abraham and Muhammad were both prominent and powerful men. Christ was not. He was almost certainly illiterate, and he never showed the slightest interest in politics.
Jesus’s followers were initially drawn from the downtrodden and the excluded, the women and the slaves, and they did not believe that they could or should engage in earthly politics. They courted martyrdom, and they eagerly awaited the time when injustice, and indeed the world itself, would be swept away in the Last Judgement (coming soon to a cemetery near you). Of course, after a couple of centuries Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and all of that changed.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knew none of this, and why should he? He was just saying the words that somebody slightly better informed (but only slightly) put into his mouth. It was pious hypocrisy from a man who has almost no influence on events. The power in Iran lies elsewhere, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Assembly of Experts, and the Guardian Council.
The president of Iran has no more power than the vice-president of the United States: he doesn’t control the armed forces, he makes no foreign policy decisions, he is not in the loop as far as the intelligence services are concerned, and he can neither propose nor pass any laws. As Jack Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice-president, said of his own job, being president of Iran is “not worth a tub of warm piss.” Ahmadinejad accepted Channel Four’s offer because he had nothing better to do that day.
So why pick on this self-promoting but marginal figure? Partly because there is something funny about watching a certifiable religious fanatic struggling to be ecumenical. But also because all politicians who have to say something positive about the ghastly situation in the Middle East fall into the same empty platitudes. The reality of frozen deadlock, huge hatred and lethal weapons is just too ugly to be addressed in a Christmas message. In fact, it’s too ugly for any public figure to speak frankly about it, including the president-elect of the United States.
Barack Obama kept it light when he addressed the Arab-Israeli conflict in his “Man of the Year” interview with “Time” magazine. In fact, he gave it precisely one sentence: “And seeing if we can build on some of the progress, at least in conversation, that’s been made around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a priority.” It is very hard to say less and still speak in a complete sentence.
“Progress”? Exactly what progress are we talking about here? The Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip that killed more than 200 people on Saturday, the highest one-day Palestinian death toll since 1948? Or the rockets fired from the Gaza Strip that hit Israeli cities in the preceding week (and killed only a couple of people, but not for want of trying)?
Or was he thinking of the near-total Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip that has reduced most of the million and a half residents to penury and despair over the past year? Or the previous Palestinian terrorist attacks that triggered the blockade? Or the relentless growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories that drove Palestinians to make those attacks?
There is no progress, nothing to “build on,” and Obama probably knows it. When he spoke about “progress, at least in conversation,” what he meant was: not in reality. There is, for the moment at least, no hope.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. “The president…day”;
and “Or was…attacks”)