"Letter To A Middle-Aged Theocrat"

You may have heard that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran recently wrote a long (18 page!) letter to the President of the United States. A number of media sources have noted that this was the first official communication from an Iranian head of state to a U.S. head of state since the Revolution.
Here's how it begins:

For some time now I have been thinking, how one can justify the undeniable contradictions that exist in the international arena - which are being constantly debated, specially in political forums and among university students. Many questions remain unanswered. These have prompted me to discuss some of the contradictions and questions, in the hopes that it might bring about an opportunity to redress them.

Can one be a follower of Jesus Christ (PBUH) [praise be upon his name], the great Messenger of God, feel obliged to respect human rights, present liberalism as a civilization model, announce one's opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and WMDs [weapons of mass destruction], make war on terror his slogan, and finally, work towards the establishment of a unified international community - a community which Christ and the virtuous of the Earth will one day govern, but at the same time have countries attacked; the lives, reputations and possessions of people destroyed and on the slight chance of the ... of a ... criminals in a village or city, or convoy, or for example the entire village, city or convoy, set ablaze. [source of text] [scanned pdf of translation]

Initial reaction in the U.S., was, well, not all that illuminating. The Wall Street Journal Ed. Board, in an editorial entitled "Crazy Mahmoud," said that "as a psychological comparison, the Unabomber's manifesto comes to mind." Fred Kaplan in Slate called it "a bizarre document" and "daffy," saying that "Condoleeza Rice is right to say that it fails to address any of the issues on the table." He also endorses the WSJ's Unabomber comparison (though he does call for a response).

There are sketchy vaguely anti-semitic and generally sketchy passages that should rightly be condemned--as should the overall tone--"Theocracies of the world unite!" Additionally, there's the question of purpose: Is the letter more a p.r. stunt / quest for solidarity with "the Muslim masses" or is it more an earnest efffort at diplomatic rapprochement. It seems likely that it's some of both, but being cynical, I go with the least charitable explanation as the most likely.

All this is to say: I'm not quite prepared to betray my Iranian brothers and sisters and anoint Ahmadinejad a personal hero. :) However, I still don't see what was so "bizarre" about the document beyond it being outside of Western diplomatic norms--at least in comparison to the denial of global warming, Guantanamo Bay, and a number of other idiosyncracies of the Bush Administration.

My theory is that people like Kaplan and the WSJ weren't able to effectively process this letter because they've never had similar experiences like sitting through a 20 minute lecture from a monotonous and mildly nutty desi uncle at a dinner party. You zone out for the truly silly parts and pay attention for the occasionally interesting or illuminating aspects of what they're saying. It's not that hard, if you have some practice, and can help you restrain yourself from calling the man by his first name, preceded by the word "crazy."
In Scripps Howard News Service, despite some snarking about language, the labeling of parts as "vaguely creepy," and some legitimate critique, John Crisp at least made some fair points, warning against dismissing the letter outright and pointing out what should be obvious: "Ahmadinejad asks Bush several interesting questions that could make the president a little uncomfortable, if he took them seriously."

This is one of the few times--perhaps the only one--in the past five years that the U.S. press and government have been confronted at once with an enormous number of recent failings of U.S. foreign policy--from the Iraq War to Guantanamo--as well as historical ones like its installation of an authoritarian monarch as head of Iran in 1958 and support for Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. at minimum these latter issues legitimately should be "on the table," whether Condoleeza Rice wants them to be or not.

The passage of the letter quoted above brings up the basic paradox of a self-identified "Christian" and "democratic" society whose government's foreign policy eschews most of the kinder teachings of Christ and the basic democratic principles. At minimum, it's a cause for concern that the conservative wing of a fairly undemocratic country like Iran could make a U.S. president look so bad--largely on the basis of established facts.

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Comments

"Crazy Mahmoud" and "as a

"Crazy Mahmoud" and "as a psychological comparison, the Unabomber's manifesto comes to mind."

Wow, I guess the "axis of evil" run by "the evildoers" from which we will be saved by a "man of God"/former drug addict/military dropout is the way to go.

I mean really people, discussing the disparities between liberalism (the foundation of human rights and one of the most amazing schools of political philosophy) and the way its practised through imperalistic neoliberalism would just be crazy now wouldn't it. Or the way that many of the countries caught in the political crossfire of said imperialism tend to be Islamic. Palestine, snore, Iraq, yawn. Afghanistan? Sooo 2001.

Yes, Mahmoud is crazy. So is Bush though. Jeez I dunno why we don't just elect the Unabomber as our next World Leader because at least then all those bombings would happen sooner rather than later.

RE: WSJ, Slate, etc... I

RE: WSJ, Slate, etc...

I believe that's what we call an ad hominem argument... and typically, such arguments are, in the parlance of our times, WEAK.

Right, but that's expected.

Right, but that's expected. What' more troublesome is that there isn't really an effort to engage the criticisms that Ahmadinejad makes, regardless of what his particular motivations might be. I mean, if this is what's going to appeal to the rest of the world, don't you think someone should address it?

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