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Lewis: Ahmadinejad Believes His Apocalyptic Language

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At a recent event at the Pew Forum, Professor Bernard Lewis answers a question about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis.

JAY TOLSON, U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT: Professor Lewis, you mention a fascinating fact, which is how effective Osama bin Laden’s talk was, arguably, in drawing the U.S. into a response that, in some ways, as you say, has worked out as an unhappy case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I wonder what the parallels might be with Ahmadinejad’s current posture toward the West, and particularly that very similar style of taunting. I would like to get into a lot of other things with you about Ahmadinejad as well, but I will just limit myself to that.

Do you think that that represents something new, particularly within the Iranian context, a Persian context, of, in a way, speaking for the larger Islamic world, or do you think Ahmadinejad is simply a cunning opportunist using religion to solidify his Iranian political base? Or, is he actually trying to compete on the pan-Islamic level with Osama bin Laden, and in fact using the very successful tactic, I would say, or strategy, of Osama bin Laden, of taunting the great Satan who, so far, has proved very ineffective in responding?

MR. LEWIS: I am inclined to believe in the sincerity of Ahmadinejad. I think that he really believes the apocalyptic language that he is using. Remember that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, have a sort of end-of-time scenario in which a Messianic figure will appear. In their case, in the case of the Shiites, the hidden imam who will emerge from hiding, who will fight against the powers of evil, the anti-Christ in Christianity, Gog and Magog in Judaism, and the Dajjal in Islam, a role in which we are being cast now. And he really seems to believe that the apocalyptic age has come, that this is the final struggle that will lead to the final victory and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Others in the ruling establishment in Iran may share this belief. I am inclined to think that most of them are probably more cynical and regard it as a useful distraction from their domestic problems and also a useful weapon in their external relations, because he has been doing very well and he seems to be succeeding, for example, on the question of nuclear weapons. And every time they make an advance, we move the point at which we won’t tolerate it anymore, and this has happened again and again. Each time, we say, the next step we will not allow. We have shown ourselves to be, shall we say, remarkably adaptable in this respect, and this is no way to win friends and influence people.

I think that the way that Ahmadinejad is talking now shows quite clearly his contempt for the Western world in general and the United States in particular. They feel they are dealing with, as Osama bin Laden put it, an effete, degenerate, pampered enemy incapable of real resistance. And they are proceeding on that assumption. Remember that they have no understanding or experience of the free debate of an open society. Where we see free debate and criticism, they see fear, weakness and division; they proceed accordingly, and every day brings new evidence of that from Iran.

I think it is a dangerous situation. And my only hope is that they are not right in their interpretation of the Western world. I have often thought in recently years of World War II — you were told earlier that I’m ancient myself. The most vividly remembered year of my life was the year 1940. And more recently I have been thinking of 1938 rather than of 1940. We seem to be in the mode of Chamberlain and Munich rather than of Churchill.

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