The President of Iran Is Not Insane…

…just religious, which in the West amounts to the same thing. Taking a broader view of history, encompassing all the cultures that ever existed, the president of Iran is actually more “in the mainstream” than our secular liberal democratic culture, which is something of an oddity. To appreciate how extreme our secularism is, consider that George W. Bush is considered an extremely religious president, yet political circumstances prevent him from mentioning the name of Jesus Christ in his public pronouncements, whereas the “extremist” Muslim president of Iran can freely speak praise of Jesus, as he does in his recent letter to President Bush.

Ahmadinejad’s letter is fascinating to me for several reasons. First, the leader of an Islamic state is much more comfortable explicitly appealing to the teachings of Jesus and Moses than that of a majority Christian country. It is almost quaint how Muslims still speak to the West as though we were Christian, even as we take ever greater measures to banish Christianity from the public sphere. (The radical separation of church and state is the subject of another essay to be posted soon.) Ahmadinejad appeals not only to Christian mercy and concern for the poor, but also to the eventual reign of Christ on earth in the end times! The supposed radical antipathy between Christianity and Islam is defused not only by this shared belief in Christian millennialism, but by numerous quotes from the Koran expressing solidarity among monotheists.

Ahmadinejad points out the incompatibility of Christianity or human rights with the idea that it is acceptable to kill hundreds of innocent villagers because there are a few criminals among them (in apparent reference to Afghanistan), or to devastate a country (Iraq) on account of the mere possibility of WMDs. Few had greater reason to fear or hate Saddam Hussein than the Iranians, against whom Saddam waged a brutal and devastating war with the full support of the U.S. If anyone was threatened by Saddam’s WMDs, it would be Iran, against whom Saddam used chemical weapons in the late 80s, without facing any repercussions from the U.S. Yet Ahmadinejad does not let us forget that the pretext for war was finding WMD, not toppling Saddam.

Ahmadinejad also mentions the Iranian passenger airliner accidentally shot down by the U.S. in the eighties. The fact that this has become a historical footnote in the West is consistent with a latent belief in the inferior value of the life of foreigners, as expressed in the term “collateral damage,” which is never applied to American life.

Ahmadinejad can point to concrete examples of human rights abuses committed by the U.S. in recent years. It is unfortunate that this “rogue leader” can make such accusations and actually have the facts on his side, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Interestingly, the president backtracks on his statements of Holocaust denial, and assumes hypothetically that the Holocaust did happen. Nonetheless, this does not justify the forcible displacement of indigenous Arabs and numerous war crimes committed by Israel. His appeal to a referendum including all Palestinian Arabs and Jews is based on his confidence that Arabs would constitute a majority, and exposes the fundamentally non-democratic Israeli objective of requiring a permanent Jewish majority.

His treatment of the nuclear weapons issue is insubstantial, making standard arguments for the right to pursue peaceful technology, so Secretary Rice is somewhat justified in dismissing it as a basis for nuclear diplomacy, though there are many other points of rapprochement here that would be foolish to ignore.

Ahmadinejad refers to the past history of U.S.-supported military dictatorships in Latin America, and the West’s exploitation of the natural resources of Africa. A foreign policy motivated by economic self-interest often brings the U.S. in conflict with Christian principles and human rights.

Another thing fascinating to me is how even this “extremist” Muslim appeals to democracy and human rights as ideals. The superiority of democracy is not something that admits of rational demonstration, so it is remarkable that this idea should have such complete universal appeal, especially considering its past unpopularity. Admittedly, most of the world’s governments are in fact more or less oligarchic, but the fact that democracy is a universal ideal is still remarkable and merits explanation.

The last interesting point, misunderstood by some Western journalists, is the notion that “liberal democratic systems” have “failed”. Some have misquoted this as opposing democracy, but Ahmadinejad espouses democratic ideals throughout the letter. What he opposes is liberal democracy, which prohibits religion and other traditional cultural values from directly informing the political sphere. This reduces public policy to economics and social engineering, resulting in the amoral policies exhibited by the West in recent decades, as well as the breakdown of the family and civil society. This argument is debatable, of course, but the fact the Iranian president makes it shows a point of congruence with conservative cultural critics in the West. Intriguingly, he notes that “people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point — that is, the Almighty God.” The global resurgence of traditional monotheistic religion is cited as evidence of the failure of liberal democracy.

All in all, while the president does not make the case for his nuclear program, his appeal to the prophetic tradition reminds us of how we have willfully set aside our own religious and cultural traditions. The liberal democratic experiment of the last 200 years may have gone too far, corroding the traditional cultural institutions which made possible its success. While we may not turn to a Christian analogue of an Islamic Republic, we may wish to re-examine the separation of politics from religion, culture, and morality.

Another Gnostic Gospel

The Repository of Arcane Knowledge will not be posting an essay about the so-called Gospel of Judas, for the same reason you won’t find a refutation of the “Da Vinci Code” here: it’s too stupid to refute. I can half-understand why the historically ignorant would seriously believe in these crackpot conspiracy theories, but scholars really ought to know better. The Gnostics were the second-century equivalent of Scientologists, pretending to have improbably acquired secret knowledge that would enable people to transcend their bodies. They were theologically eclectic, borrowing from Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Neoplatonism, and other ideologies, yet often mutilating their sources beyond recognition. Since the Gnostics pretended to have secret knowledge, they had to claim that they knew the true, esoteric meaning of Jesus or Plato or whomever, which was often contrary to the plain meaning of the text or the common understanding of most people.

A modern example of this sort of thinking is Leo Strauss, who believed the classical philosophers held esoteric doctrines that were contrary to those professed in the texts we have, and that he could discern these doctrines by “reading between the lines”. In fact, the texts we possess are the esoteric teachings, as in the case of Aristotle, whose exoteric teachings have been lost. The only difference between the two is that the latter tended to be in a non-systematic, literary form, rather than as an explicit treatise, but there is no known case of the esoteric teaching being opposed to the exoteric teaching.

The Gnostics came up with all sorts of contrarian interpretations of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, making the Old Testament God a malevolent demiurge subordinate to the Logos, or claiming Cain was actually a good guy. No one in their right mind thinks this was truly the original meaning of the Old Testament – the Gnostics just made this stuff up, and invented stories about how the “real” story of Cain was handed down to them. The same thing with the Gospel of Judas. How do the Gnostics account for the fact that none of Jesus’ apostles ever preached their bizarre doctrines? Oh, well, the true doctrine was only told to Judas, who was actually Jesus’ favorite disciple. How convenient! The dead giveaway of course is that they insist this was a one-on-one secret with Jesus, who was quite public about even the most difficult teachings. The notion of a one-on-one secret is a standard tactic for conspiracy theorists, who need to make an unverifiable assertion to account for their contrarian interpretation of history. Similarly, the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas” gives away its game by saying that these were “secret” teachings of Jesus to Thomas, thereby accounting for the fact they are absent from earlier sources.

I find it immensely amusing that the same scholars who are so skeptical of the canonical Gospels should uncritically accept the loony pseudo-histories of the Gnostics. They can’t believe that an apostle really wrote Matthew, but they think an authentic tradition of Judas is really preserved in a later Gnostic work. Critical thinking is clouded by their aversion to orthodox Christianity, so that they will believe anything that would contradict it. This bias is evident in their comical belief that the early Church suppressed the Gnostic writings because they were heretical. They are confusing the early Church with the “repressive” Tridentine Church – the early Church had no institutional power. The failure of Gnosticism reflects a failure to win the hearts and minds of Christians. Besides, even the Gnostic writings that weren’t heretical were not accepted – because they were of dubious authenticity, and in many cases just plain ridiculous.

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