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In a Tehran hurry

As a zealous Shia Muslim, Iran?s President is eagerly awaiting the return of the ?hidden imam?. Popularly known as the Mahdi, this is the spiritual guide who, according to Shia tradition, mysteriously went missing hundreds of years ago.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2006 23:59 IST

Of all the threats that our messy world faces, nuclear weaponry ranks right up there. Combine the bomb with anti-Semitism and you’ve got a combination that should make any reasonable person recoil.

No wonder human rights activist Elie Wiesel, an otherwise soft-spoken soul, pulled no punches when recently describing Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “pathologically sick”. I wish it were that simple. The problem is, the ballistic Ahmadinejad is entirely rational from the perspective of a religious fanatic.

As a zealous Shia Muslim, Iran’s President is eagerly awaiting the return of the ‘hidden imam’. Popularly known as the Mahdi, this is the spiritual guide who, according to Shia tradition, mysteriously went missing hundreds of years ago. Orthodox Shias believe that the Mahdi’s reappearance will herald an era of peace and security worldwide. When their messiah comes back, all injustices will disappear. That includes American power.

It’s not unlike how millions of evangelical Christians in America feel about the second coming of their messiah. They want Jesus to show up as soon as possible. That’s why many of them oppose environmentalism — or underestimate the need for it. Saving the earth’s resources can only slow down Armageddon. From this point of view, global warming is God’s will.

Richard Land, a top official of the Southern Baptist Convention, put it more politely on CNN. “There’s no consensus among evangelicals — that it’s happening, the severity of it, or the causes,” he said about climate change.

Land leads more than 16 million Christians in the United States. I’m not claiming that all Shia Muslims or all evangelical Christians march in lockstep. Dissent does exist. Surveys suggest that 70 per cent of American evangelicals think global warming will soon be a problem and 63 per cent say that it needs to be addressed immediately. Citing such numbers, a group called the Evangelical Environmental Network, is vocally challenging the complacency, passivity, and denial of the Southern Baptist Convention. Among Shia Muslims, the dissent is less organised but equally impassioned.

Iranian journalists with no love for the West tell me that Ahmadinejad has become a certified national embarrassment. Immediately after he proclaimed his hope that Israel be wiped off the face of the map, ordinary Iranians began to feel sheepish. These are people who widely listen to Israeli radio, rather than their State broadcasters, for objective reporting about world events. It’s a way of sticking it both to their Arab colonisers and to their puritan Islamic governments, even if they elected this one. As one source put it to me, “American cars sport a bumper sticker saying, ‘Don’t blame me; I didn’t vote for Bush.’ More and more of us wish we could get away with saying the same about our President.”

The optimist in me considers this good news because it means that the masses are ahead of their leaders. But my inner realist asks: So what? The fact remains that these mega-powerful mini-messiahs — be they in the Iranian or American mould — have armed themselves with apocalyptic logic. Captured by the rapture, they don’t particularly care whether the masses disagree.

Indeed, disagreement fuels the fervour of their missions. In America, fundamentalist Chris-tian preachers revel in the public ridicule hurled at them. Tribulation must precede deliverance, they often remind their flock. The harsher the backlash, the harder we fight. Meanwhile, Shia teachings emphasise that Muslims themselves will be among the biggest traitors to the cause of justice when the end of days arrives.

Consider the early ‘signs’ of betrayal: Muslims killed three of the first four successors to the Prophet Muhammad, including the man whom Shias regard as the Prophet’s rightful heir, his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. (Shia means ‘faction of Ali’.)

Moreover, Muslims slaughtered the Prophet’s own grandson along with 72 other members of his beloved household. All this at a moment when the Prophet’s family was battling a corrupt, worldly dictator whom Sunnis accepted for the sake of order but Shias rejected in the name of morality. That galvanising narrative informs the Shia Muslim crusade against oppressors — despite inspiring the very oppression it seeks to eradicate. No matter. The hidden imam, another of the Prophet’s progeny, will come home and save humanity from itself. The job of Shias is to wait, bait and accelerate; that is, cultivate patience for their imam’s return and, whenever possible, prod their enemies so that the war becomes so pitched, messiah has his reason to reappear.

Which brings me to the Iranian President once more. He claims a “private personal channel” to the hidden imam. If that’s true, he’s earned it. When Ahmadinejad was mayor of Tehran, he purportedly had a thoroughfare re-paved so that the Mahdi wouldn’t experience such a bumpy road back. Later, as President of the country, he asked cabinet members to sign an oath of allegiance to the messiah. Last September, in a speech to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad called for the Mahdi’s re-emergence. Upon delivering the call, he drew strength from two things: a feeling of being showered in divine light, and the fact that not a single UN diplomat noticeably raised an eyebrow. Perhaps the translators were slow.

It’s conceivable that Ahmadinejad is re-activating his country’s nuclear enrichment programme precisely to incite resistance, and thereby hasten the kingdom of the messiah. “We must prepare ourselves to rule the world,” he mused to Iranians during a recent Friday prayer, “and the only way to do that is to put forth views on the basis of the Expectation of the Return.” Allah’s final ambassador can’t be too far away now.

Scary? Yes. Pathologically sick? Depends. To that fringe of true believers, doomsday politics makes complete sense.

The weapons of mass destruction have been found. They’re people with unshakeable faith in the coming showdown between good and evil. Left in their hands, the world is headed for a clash of Armageddons.

Irshad Manji is a Fellow at Yale University and author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change (ImprintOne)