Monday, August 14, 2006

Ahmadinejad: Fanatic or Madman

In December 2005, Patrick Devenny, wrote an article in the American Spectator entitled “True Fanatic.” The subject was Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, specifically his remarks in September before the UN General Assembly.

Devenny was not so much interested in Ahmadinejad’s “warlike rhetoric” and his excessive “vitriol” as in his unexpected utopian – Devenny labels it “mystical” – tangential digression into an apocalyptic call for the beginning of events that will see the “emergence of the perfect human being” who will lead the world to justice and absolute peace.”

Ahmadinejad’s reference is to the 12th Imam or Mahdi, a figure destined to return, like Christ, to rule over the perfected New Jerusalem. And like many Christians, particularly in the United States, Ahmadinejad believes that the reappearance of the Mahdi will be preceded by war, pestulance, and general chaos. In the meantime, those best qualified to rule are the clerics whose religious calling makes them the most worthy if still imperfect stewards.

In this regard, Devenny notes that Ahmadinejad has close ties with a “fire-brand” ayatollah, Mesbah-Yazdi, who according to opposition figures in Iran is an extremist’s extremist, ready to execute all who insult his interpretation of Islam or promote a pluralistic society – i.e., an alternate vision.

Combining a literal reading of the Koran, a clerical regime (for the most part) and advent of global chaos as a prelude to global redemption and a new millennium – a chaos which could be induced by nuclear weapons that, according to Washington, is the goal of Iran’s nuclear program – yields the “true fanatic.”

But what exactly does this mean?

The word “fanatic,” from Latin, refers to a person “inspired by a god.” It has the same root as”frenzy” and a more mild condition of being a “fan” (i.e., an adherent or follower). At the extreme end of the scale, where Devenny puts Ahmadinejad, a person is motivated by uncritical zeal bordering on irrationality. Although not usually put this way, a fanatic is one who believes in the philosophy – irrational in its lack of reflection – summarized as “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” Or, more eloquently phrased by George Santayana: “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

Anyone who saw a recent in-depth interview of Ahmadinejad might be pardoned for failing to detect the fanaticism that Devenny attributes to him. For all his use of religious symbolism and fundamentalist rhetoric, Ahmadinejad is quite rational, cunningly evasive as any western politician when he does not want to answer a question, as sincere as he can be when he does want to make a point, and quite capable of needling the interviewer. But he does not exhibit the extreme intolerance of opposing views that is a trademark of the Devenny extremist (such as the ayatollah) who sees any change, any deviation, any alteration as an attempt to interfere with the divine plan whose course is what mere mortals call history.

The reality is that true fanatics reject history because they reject change – and change is history. Their core belief (another irrational state) is the existence of an unalterable ground of being that will be possessed by those who adhere to the infallible interpretation of the ruling clerical classes waiting for the final divine act.

For all this, most fanatics remain in touch with the real world as that presents itself to their sensory organs. But each such interaction of itself spontaneously alters the original reality around and in each of us. And this perhaps is the point of differentiation between the fanatic and the madman: the first retains the capability of self-perception that, in turn, reins in the propensity toward isolationist behavior, creating opportunities to encounter competing views. A madman, on the other hand, has lost touch with the today’s world and is completely wrapped up in bringing into existence a self-designed “future” using whatever means come to hand – as Devenny describes Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.

As has been observed often, we are all entitled to our own opinions, even our own propaganda, but not to our own facts. Those that can tell the difference, regardless of culture, weapons, or threats against other countries, are as deterrible today as the original nuclear powers were in the Cold War. And here Devenny does have a point. Given the spread of lethal nuclear technology, it behooves the world to be alert to the ascendancy of a madman as ruler of a nuclear weapons state. This type just might be crazy enough to pop one.

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