Saturday, October 29, 2005

Ahmadinejad: Israel's "annihilation" is a necessary part of the "historic war" between Islam & the West (Al Jazeera)

Earlier this week the new Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, caused an international stir by calling openly for Israel to be destroyed--"wiped off the map," in the English-language translation offered by the official Iranian news service. In fact, this has been the official policy of the Iranian Islamic Republic since it was established after the 1979 revolution. But in recent years, during the period when the elective part of the Iranian government was formally (though impotently) controlled by reformers led by President Khatami, this position had not been declared in such straightforward and aggressive terms in forums where it would be picked up by the international press. Of course, it continued to be emphasized, for internal Iranian consumption, by the non-elective part of the government, headed by Ayatollah Khamenei, which controls all the actual levers of power. Now that the Khatami phase of moderate Islamic reformism has been definitively shut down by the hard-liners, both parts of the Iranian government are speaking with the same voice. This has come as a shock to some in the outside world.

The report of Ahmadinejad's speech by Al Jazeera (Ahmadinejad: Wipe Israel Off Map) usefully spelled out some aspects that tended to be skimmed over in most western reports I have seen.

In particular, it is interesting and illuminating to consider the larger context within which Ahmadinejad placed his call for Israel's "annihilation." One of Khatami's favorite slogans was the need for a "dialogue among civilizations." For Ahmadinejad, Israel's existence is part of a continuing 'war of civilizations' (to use the phrase made famous by Samuel Huntington) between Islam and the West, and the destruction of Israel is a necessary part of that long-term struggle.
"The Islamic umma (community) will not allow its historic enemy to live in its heartland," he said in the fiery speech that centred on a "historic war between the oppressor and the world of Islam"
In short, the problem is not Israeli policies or Israel's occupation of the West Bank & Gaza. Nor does this matter come down to a conflict between Israelis & Palestinians, or between Israel and the Arab world. Fundamentally, Israel is a foreign body within the Islamic heartland whose existence must be intolerable to all Muslims.

(As Andy Markovits aptly put it a few days ago: "Alas, this merely expressed in the open what millions of Muslims and Arabs actually feel: Israel is a FREMDKOERPER [foreign body] in their midst that simply has GOT to go." This feeling is not entirely absent even among those who are willing to make a pragmatic accommodation to Israel's existence for the foreseeable future. In recent decades, however, it has become rare for heads of government in the Muslim world to say this explicitly.)
"We should not settle for a piece of land," he said of Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip. "Anyone who signs a treaty which recognises the entity of Israel means he has signed the surrender of the Muslim world," Ahmadinejad said. "Any leaders in the Islamic umma who recognise Israel face the wrath of their own people." [....]

His tone represents a major change from that of former president Mohammad Khatami, whose favored topic was "dialogue among civilizations" and who led an effort to improve Iran's relations with the West. But Ahmadinejad instead spoke of a "historic war". "It dates back hundreds of years. Sometimes Islam has advanced. Sometimes nobody was winning. Unfortunately over the past 300 years, the world of Islam has been in retreat," he lamented. "One hundred years ago the last trench of Islam fell, when the oppressors went toward the creation of the Zionist regime. It is using it as a fort to spread its aims in the heart of the Islamic world."
One further point is also worth noting.
"As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map," said Ahmadinejad, referring to Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. His comments were the first time in years that such a high-ranking Iranian official has called for Israel's eradication, even though such slogans are still regularly used at government rallies.
In recent days, a number of Iranian spokesmen have said they were shocked by international condemnations of Ahmadinejad's call for Israel's destruction (which must be the result of a Zionist/American conspiracy against Iran). After all, they argue, they have been saying this sort of thing routinely for decades without being criticized for it. But I'm afraid that is precisely the point. There is nothing new about what Ahmadinejad just said, but for decades international public opinion has tended to ignore or dismiss such statements and the larger world-view behind them--and this includes journalists and scholars as well as governments. Ahmadinejad's outspokenness as President of Iran has made it a little harder for them to remain in denial ... though I suspect most of them will still manage to do so.