This column was the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on October 1, 2007.
If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18, NRSV)
Just in case you haven’t heard, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, was in New York last week for a meeting of the United Nations’ general assembly and for a little bit of political theater at Colombia University.
Over the last week much has been said about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Maureen Dowd, for example, called him a “doofus” and a “fruit bat” (which may be unkind—I actually think fruit bats are kind of cute), and that’s fairly representative of how the American people have received the Iranian president. He’s an anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and he claims everyone in Iran is straight. In short, Ahmadinejad is low hanging fruit for the snarky among us. If he wasn’t hell-bent on furthering the nuclear ambitions of is country it would be hard to take him seriously.
Personally I dislike Ahmadinejad because he insists on connecting his anti-Semitism and his denial of the Holocaust to the Palestinian cause. As someone who cares about the plight of Palestinians, I don’t want his venomous vitriol anywhere near my team’s dugout.
But regardless of how we may regard (or disregard) the man, it is important to recognize that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be the greatest living motivation for American peacableness toward the world. Here’s what I mean: Ahmadinejad is only capable of capturing headlines around the world because the United States is not a peaceable nation.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a following in Iran and around the world because he is one of the few leaders on the world scene crazy enough (and while I’m no psychologist, he does appear to be crazy) to speak out against American hegemony. If American foreign policy did not give people around the world a reason to feel threatened, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would still be a professor of urban planning in an Iranian university.
People who feel threatened have a remarkable capacity to put up with villainy in national leaders if they believe those leaders will represent and safeguard their interests.
Look, for example, at the long list of madmen the government of the United States and the American people tolerated when we felt the threat of the Soviet menace. On the Island of Hispañola alone, we supported Raphael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator who once murdered 20,000 Haitians, more or less for the hell of it. On the other side of the island, in Haiti we supported “Papa” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who killed something like 60,000 Haitians over the course of 30 years. But we didn’t care how many Haitians lost their lives. We coddled Trujillo and the Duvaliers because they shared our dread of Communism.
That’s just one little island in Latin America. The roster of tyrants our nation has considered friendly and whose criminal tendencies we have overlooked for the sake of political expediency and supremacy on the international stage is long and sordid. It includes dozens of despots in Africa, Asia and Latin America; and I rather suspect history will not be entirely kind to some of the heads of state we currently consider friendly allies in the war on terror.
While confronting the rhetorical poison that daily flows from the mouth of Iran’s president is necessary for the safety of the world, Americans who engage and correct Mr. Ahmadinejad’s ravings must do so with the humility of those who have supported similar purveyors of cruel tyranny in the not too distant past.
If we really want to treat Ahmadinejad with the seriousness that befits his vitriol, we should begin the process of national transformation so that the United States might be at peace with the world.