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    Middle East
     Feb 3, 2007
Page 1 of 3
Ahmadinejad held hostage to bazaar politics
By M K Bhadrakumar

In the geography between the Arabian Sea and the Levant, there is only one country where it is possible to fancy that an elected government could tumble because of the price of tomatoes in the bazaar - Iran.

These are turbulent times in Iran. Tehran has passed through such times before. In the late 1980s, a court in Berlin issued a warrant against then-Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for allegedly authorizing the dispatch of hit squads from Tehran to

murder Iranian dissidents living in the West.

The Western world demonized Rafsanjani then, much in the way President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is today. But Tehran seems to have weathered the latest Western attempt to engineer dissension within the Iranian regime.

The importance of Ahmadinejad
The main thing about Ahmadinejad that irritates Washington is his immense popularity within Iran. It renders absolutely nonsensical any talk of "regime change" in Iran. Ahmadinejad sets a standard of personal integrity and simplicity of lifestyle that is rare among the political elite. Mammoth crowds throng to listen to him at public rallies wherever he goes. He identifies with their sorrows and dreams. He is easily accessible. He lives in their neighborhood. This has never happened before - not even during the time of Mohammed Mossadeq in the early 1950s.

Ahmadinejad is the first "populist" leader Iranians have known. He is restoring to an extent the "connectivity" of the Iranian regime with the voiceless millions in Iran. This connectivity was snapped during the past two decades since ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini passed away in 1989. Since then, Iran's ruling elite, especially the religious establishment, began incrementally deviating from the ideals of Ali Shariati that inspired the storm troopers of the Islamic Revolution who poured into the streets of Tehran chanting his name in the tumultuous winter of 1978 leading up to the revolution the next year.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, "I have no religion, but if I were to choose one, it would be that of Shariati." One of the two or three foremost Islamic thinkers of the last century, Shariati's radical blend of Islam and Marxism electrified a whole generation of Iranian revolutionaries like Ahmadinejad.

It is a different matter whether radical Islamic egalitarianism, which is redistributionist and anti-imperialistic, is workable in today's era of globalization. But that doesn't stop Ahmadinejad from trying. (It doesn't stop Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, either.) The premise of his polemic is simple: the predatory West motivated by Machiavellian considerations of power and profit seeks to dominate the Muslim world and seeks to transfer its resources. This makes conflict inevitable.

To Ahmadinejad, Islam is an ideology and a cultural identity. He is traversing a moralistic maze that is fundamentally more political than religious. From the US point of view, that makes Ahmadinejad extremely dangerous. No one like Ahmadinejad has appeared on the political landscape of the Middle East since imperial Britain choreographed the region's destiny almost a century ago.

There is also a philosophical angle to it. Shariati's thoughts were profoundly influenced by his affiliation with Sorbonne University, Marxism, Sartre and French author and essayist Frantz Fanon. His lectures in Tehran University to ardent followers like Ahmadinejad, until his tragic death in his early 40s at the hands of the shah's secret police, focused on popular revolts against "foreign domination, internal deceit, the power of the feudal lords and wealthy capitalists" (to quote from Shariati's classic essay "Red Shi'ism vs Black Shi'ism").

Equally, Shariati was unsparing in his criticism that Islam "left the great mosque of the common people to become a next-door neighbor to the palace of Ali Qapu in the Royal Mosque". [1]

All through Shariati's writings one can see that he harnessed religion to revolutionary politics. He tried to assimilate Shi'ite hopes for a better world through the return of the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, with the revolutionary agendas of mass struggle and historical progress. In fact, Shariati wrote that the return of the Mahdi would bring about a "classless society".

In Ahmadinejad's fusion of Shi'ism and revolutionary fervor, too, political struggle becomes a beautifying myth of heroic valor and triumph of the will. In his scheme of things, too, the prospects of true justice are inextricably linked with the return of the Mahdi, which, in turn, can be hastened with worldly action in the imperfect world of "now". "Our revolution's mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam," Ahmadinejad has proclaimed.

But in terms of the geopolitics of the region in which Iran is located, viewed from the US perspective, "all this owes more to the examples of [Maximilien] Robespierre and [Josef] Stalin than

Continued 1 2

Opportunity lost over Iran nuclear crisis (Feb 2, '07)

Israel mixes rhetoric with realism (Feb 1, '07)


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