Iran, Bush and the Second Coming
The tensions between the United States and Iran reached a new level over the past week. Following a series of announcements regarding its nuclear program and tests of new weapons systems, Tehran announced on Tuesday that it was purchasing the sophisticated Tor M1 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia. On Friday, the IAEA released its highly anticipated report on the Iranian nuclear program and its failure to meet UN Security Council deadline to stop its uranium enrichment efforts. Secretary of State Condi Rice warned Sunday that it was time for Iran and its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stop "playing games."
But while the differences between Washington and Tehran are threatening and growing, there are eerie similarities between presidents Bush and Ahmadinejad and their respective fundamentalist followers. For each, the strikingly analogous views regarding religious prophecy, second comings and the end of times for their respective Christian and Shiite eschatologies may be pushing Ahmadinejad and Bush inexorably towards war.
A recent piece by Matthias Kuntzel in the New Republic ("Ahmadinejad's Demons") presents a frightening picture of the Iranian side of the equation. Kuntzel portrays the Ahmadinejad as a "child of the revolution" fostering the cult of martyrdom and mass sacrifice that killed tens of thousands of young Iranians - the Basiji - during the war with Iraq in the 1980's. Just as Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980 called on Iranian children to martyr themselves in battle in the name of Hussein, the third imam and murdered grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, today's Iran of Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini have created for a special military unit called "Commando of Voluntary Martyrs." The Martyrs unit now boasts 52,000 members and will soon be in place in every Iranian province.
Central to the ideology of Ahmadinejad and the hard liners in Tehran is the role of the return of the "Twelfth Imam." In Shiite theology, the second coming of this last of the Prophet Muhammad's direct male descendents - the Mahdi - signals the imminent deliverance of the world from evil. As Kuntzel describes:
At the end of this line, there is the "Twelfth Imam," who is named Muhammad. Some call him the Mahdi (the "divinely guided one"), though others say imam Zaman (from sahib-e zaman: "the ruler of time"). He was born in 869, the only son of the eleventh Imam. In 874, he disappeared without a trace, thereby bringing Muhammad's lineage to a close. In Shia mythology, however, the Twelfth Imam survived. The Shia believe that he merely withdrew from public view when he was five and that he will sooner or later emerge from his "occultation" in order to liberate the world from evil.
The killing of Hussein and the return of the Twelfth Imam are essential components of the language - and propaganda - of Ahmadinejad's Iran. He lauded what former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani deemed the "worthwhile" death of martyrdom, "Is there an art that is more beautiful, more divine, more eternal than the art of the martyr's death?" President Ahmadinejad last November declared, "The most important task of our Revolution is to prepare the way for the return of the Twelfth Imam." His government has even funded a research institute to study and if possible hasten the coming of "imam Zaman." And in his September 17, 2005 address to the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad implored God for the return of the Mahdi:
"O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace."
All of which offers disturbing parallels between the Tehran regime and the worldview of President Bush and his fundamentalist followers in the American religious right. From the use of religious imagery and government funding of non-secular initiatives to the meaning of Israel, Armageddon and the second coming of Christ, Bush and the American Taliban see themselves as fulfilling biblical prophecy in the Middle East. In some important ways, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's mirror image may reside in the White House.
The influence and impact of evangelical thinking and language about the End of Times and divine intervention upon the Bush administration is made clear in books like Kevin Phillips' "American Theocracy" and Michael Lind's "Made in Texas." Phillips concludes that George W. Bush is convinced that "God wanted him to be president", a view backed by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who reported, "Among the things he said to us was: I believe that God wants me to be president." As White House official Tim Goeglein once put it, "I think President Bush is God's man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility."
President Bush himself has not publicly claimed to have a divine mandate. (As Time reported after September 11, however, "privately, Bush even talked of being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment.") But Bush is clear in his belief that God's hand is at work in his presidency. Just last week, Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq, declaring:
"I base a lot of my foreign policy decisions on some things that I think are true. One, I believe there's an Almighty. And, secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody's soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free."
During a February 2003 National Prayer Breakfast, the President intoned:
"We can be confident in the ways of Providence...Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God."
(For more on Bush's use of religious imagery, see "Bush's Religious Language" in The Nation and this commentary by his former speechwriter, Michael Gerson.)
During a March appearance in Cleveland, President Bush brushed aside the question, "Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the Apocalypse? And if not, why not?" While Bush may or may not literally believe that Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ are imminent, his radical right Republican base is another matter altogether. Appearing on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight in March, Kevin Phillips noted that while Bush can't publicly state that he literally believes in the biblical prophecy of Armageddon in the Book of Revelations, his conservative Christian allies clearly do:
"A survey by "Newsweek" several years back found that 45 percent of American Christians believed in Armageddon, that it was coming. And about the same percentage thought the anti- Christ was already on Earth. Now, if you were to take the religious Christians, and the Republican coalition includes most of the religious Christians, you probably have about 55 percent of the Republican coalition that believes in this."
By "this," Phillips is referring to the end of times struggle in Israel, the conversion or mass death of Jews with the Second Coming of Christ. As Jerry Falwell put it, "scripture is clear on that." (Falwell also told Newsweek's Howard Fineman that he introduced George W. Bush to Tim LaHaye, author of the "Left Behind" series on the Second Coming and the Rapture.) That future, as Rod Dreher described it in the National Review four years ago:
"To Jews who adhere to ancient tradition, whose number include religious Israeli nationalists, the long-awaited Messiah will return to become the king of Israel and high priest of a rebuilt Temple, which can only be on Temple Mount. For Christian fundamentalists, Jesus Christ's return at the height of the battle of Armageddon, in which forces of the Antichrist clash in Israel with a 200 million-man army from the East, will require a Third Temple from which the Lord will begin a millennial reign."
The result for Bush's amen corner is what Fineman described as "Apocalypse Politics." That entails above all unswerving support for Israel. Israel is seen as ordained by God, a view held by 44% of Americans, according to a 2003 Pew Research survey. But the evangelical Christian Zionist movement goes further, seeing in Israel "a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus," a belief shared by 36% of Americans in the Pew research. For the Republican religious right, Israel must not only be staunchly supported in its conflict with the Palestinians, but that the conflict itself should be welcomed, even accelerated.
Bush's conservative Christian allies back Israel in both word and deed. Billy Graham and Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network offer daily prayers for Israel. For one-time presidential candidate Gary Bauer claimed, "America has an obligation to stand by Israel" because "God has promised that land to the Jewish people." Evangelicals organize pilgrimages and tours of Israel and even provide Jewish settlements in the West Bank with financial support. When the President Bush pressured Ariel Sharon in 2002 to pull back its tanks from towns in the West Bank, the White House received a hundred thousand emails from Falwell's followers and faced the Christian Coalition on Mall in Washington. Bush backed off. As the Village Voice reported in 2004, the Bush White House consulted with rapture Christians before finalizing its policy on Sharon's proposed Gaza withdrawal.
But the friends of Bush are not content to wait for the Second Coming of Christ and with it, the slaughter of the mass of Jews with the conversion of the remaining 144,000. As Falwell put it, the arrival of the End of Times should be prodded, advanced and cajoled:
"The danger, if there is a danger in believing in the imminence of the Lord's return - and I do, is to become a fatalist, that certain things are going to happen regardless and there's nothing we can do about them. That isn't true."
Nowhere is this desire to accelerate biblical prophecy more on display than in the ongoing effort to breed the symbolic "red heifer." Since the early 1990's, fundamentalist Christians in the United States have been trying to help breed the perfect calf that will signal the Second Coming. As the NRO's Dreher described the biblical role of the red heifer:
"The ashes of a flawless red heifer - an extremely rare creature - were required by the ancient Hebrews to purify worshipers who went into the Temple to pray. In modern times, rabbinical law forbids Jews from setting foot on the Temple Mount, thus violating the site where the Holy of Holies dwelled, until and unless they are ritually purified. Without a perfect red heifer to sacrifice, the Third Temple cannot be built, and Moshiach - the Messiah - will not come."
It's no wonder Haaretz columnist David Landau deemed the red heifer "a four-legged bomb" with the potential to "set the entire region on fire."
While some wait for the arrival of the biblically mandated bovine, the apocalyptic theocracies of Washington and Tehran seem on a collision course. As President Bush's supporters view themselves as "Israel's only safety belt," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls for Israel to be "wiped off the map." While the mullahs in Tehran look to the return of the Twelfth Imam to deliver them from evil, President Bush's allies await the Second Coming of Christ to usher in a millennium of peace. With their research institutes and breeding programs, the devout on both sides seek to accelerate the End of Times. And as their positions over the Iranian nuclear program harden, Presidents Bush and Ahmadinejad have more in common than they know.