Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinjad has certainly launched a charm offensive through the American media. First was his “exclusive” interview with Mike Wallace on CBS’s 60 Minutes. This week, the Iranian leader is on the cover of Time. Yesterday, he did a lengthy interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, the only network interview he agreed to on this trip. And, of course, Ahmadinejad’s speech Tuesday blasting the United States (while on American soil) made headlines around the world.
Yet something has been curiously absent from all this media coverage. American journalists aren’t asking Ahmadinejad about his Shiite religious beliefs, his fascination with the coming of the Islamic Messiah known as the “Twelfth Imam” or the “Mahdi,” his critique of President Bush’s faith in Jesus Christ and encouragement of President Bush to convert to Islam, and how such beliefs are driving Iranian foreign policy.
Time’s cover story and exclusive print interview with Ahmadinejad never broached the subject of his eschatology. Nor did Williams. Nor did Wallace. Nor does a just-released book, Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy And the Next Great Crisis in the Middle East, by British Iran expert Ali M. Ansari. Nor does almost any of the saturation coverage Ahmadinejad is receiving.
Journalists aren’t typically shy about asking tough, probing questions about the religious views of world leaders. President Bush has been grilled at length about being an evangelical Christian and how this informs his foreign policy, particularly with regards to Israel and the Middle East. Clearly the pope’s views of Christianity and Islam are now under fire. Why such hesitancy when it comes to the religious beliefs of a leader who has called for the Jewish state to be wiped off the planet and urges fellow Muslims to envision a world without the United States?
I think Ahmadinejad is waiting to be asked. He wants to talk about what he believes and why he believes it. His religion shapes who he is and what is driving him.
When he addressed the United Nations General Assembly last year, he concluded his speech by praying for Allah to hasten the coming of “the Promised One,” the Islamic Messiah also known as the “Twelfth Imam” or the “Mahdi.” When he got back to Tehran, the Iranian leader told colleagues that during his speech he was surrounded by a halo of light, and that for 27 or 28 minutes as he spoke, delegates were so mesmerized by the words Allah was speaking through him that no one blinked. Not once.
In the months that followed, Ahmadinejad made his Islamic eschatology even more clear. He told followers that he believed the end of the world was rapidly approaching, and that the way to hasten the coming of the Messiah was to launch a global jihad to annihilate Israel and the United States. He also told followers that the “Mahdi” is already on the planet, but has not yet chosen to reveal himself. What’s more, Ahmadinejad has said that he has personally been in contact with the “Mahdi” and received instructions from him, instructions that are apparently leading Iran to prepare for an apocalyptic war to annihilate Judeo-Christian civilization as we know it.
In Epicenter, I detail these statements — when and where they were made, and how they illuminate Ahmadinejad’s worldview — and cite numerous Iranians who understand their leader better than many in the West. One source I found particularly instructive in helping Americans better understand the Shiite view of the end of the world. Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini is a professor at the Religious Learning Center in Qom, Iran, and one of the country’s most respected Shiite scholars. In his book, Al-Imam al-Mahdi, Amini describes the signs of the coming of the Mahdi in great detail. Chief among them: a massive earthquake and the launching of a global war to kill and/or subjugate Jews, Christians, and other “infidels” under Islamic rule.
I include key excerpts from the Ayatollah’s book:
When the world has become psychologically ready to accept the government of God and when general conditions have become favorable to the idea of the rulership of the truth, God will permit the Mahdi to launch his final revolution….A few selected individuals…will be the first ones to respond to his call, and will be drawn to him like iron to a magnet in that first hour of his appearance…..On seeing the fulfillment of many of the signs promised in the traditions, a large number of unbelievers will turn towards Islam. Those who persist in their disbelief and wickedness shall be killed by soldiers of the Mahdi. The only victorious government in the entire world will be that of Islam….Islam will be the religion of everyone….The Mahdi will offer the religion of Islam to the Jews and the Christians; if they accept it they will be spared, otherwise, they will be killed….It seems unlikely that this catastrophe can be avoided….War and bloodshed [are] inevitable.
Such beliefs are most certainly a legitimate area for American journalists to explore. Indeed, they are vital to truly understanding Ahmadinejad’s aspirations and intentions. It is time for the media to shake off Ahmadinejad’s charms (or intimidation) and begin to ask the kind of serious questions that serious times require.
– Joel C. Rosenberg is the New York Times best-seller of numerous political thrillers about Iran and the Middle East, including his latest, The Copper Scroll. His first non-fiction book, Epicenter: Why The Current Rumblings In The Middle East Will Change Your Future, was just released from Tyndale.