Norman Podhoretz’s War Prayer

The June issue of Commentary featured a long article by Norman Podhoretz, the godfather of the neoconservatives, titled "The Case for Bombing Iran.” A shorter version of the article had already been published in the Wall Street Journal, and the piece itself was based on a speech that Podhoretz had given at a summit of the Israeli lobby, “Is It 1938 Again?”

Podhoretz’s article is a blueprint for how to make people believe that Iran is “an imminent and present danger” to the United States and Israel without presenting any credible evidence whatsoever. It is replete with astonishing exaggerations, half-baked half-truths, out-of-context quotations, amazing exhibitions of ignorance and imbecility, and a complete lack of understanding of Islam and its teachings. It reminds me of what Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering of Nazi Germany once said:

“Naturally, the common people don’t want war … but after all it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked….”

Podhoretz’s “arguments” are based on a few premises. The first one, which has also been invoked by President Bush in his propaganda, is that what drives the Islamic radicals is the ideology of Islamofascism.

Podhoretz’s recent book, which was released on Sept. 11 for publicity value, is also based on the same premise.

The idea that Islamofascism actually exists is not only absurd, but also amazingly ignorant. To quote the American Heritage Dictionary, fascism is a “system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.” To quote the Web site of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies of the University of Minnesota, fascism is “a social and political ideology with the primary guiding principle that the state or nation is the highest priority, rather than personal or individual freedoms.”

No interpretation of Islamic teachings, no matter how skewed, condones racism.

Islam rejects nationalism. It is a religion in which any two people can start a religious entity independently of the state. There are over 70 Islamic sects, which indicates the great diversity of opinion in the Islamic world.

Shi’ism, in particular, divides all Muslims into three categories: the ayatollahs, who interpret the Islamic teachings; the people, who are not knowledgeable enough and, thus, follow the ayatollahs’ interpretations; and the mohtaats – people who know enough to decide for themselves which interpretations of Islamic teachings they accept and, hence, do not follow any ayatollah or even the state’s instructions (as in Iran, for example).

Most ayatollahs act completely independently of the state. Often, they do not agree among themselves on the correct interpretations of Koranic teachings. Some still cling to the interpretations of many centuries ago, while others present interpretations that address the needs of a modern society. As Ayatollah Khomeini once said, “If we were to live with some of the interpretations of Islamic teachings of 1,300 years ago, we would have to live in caves.”

This diversity of opinion among the ayatollahs not only gives Shi’ism dynamism and flexibility, it also explains why we have many dissident ayatollahs in Iran who oppose the theocracy there.

But even if we imagine that Islamofascism does exist, it has nothing to do with Iran. The current wave of Islamic radicalism did not emerge with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Rather, it began in 1977 when Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s army commander, overthrew (with U.S. support) the democratically elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who was later executed), and imposed his version of Sharia law on Pakistan. Islamic radicalism continues today in Pakistan, the closest U.S. ally in the so-called war on terror.

Even if we attribute the current wave of Islamic radicalism to the Iranian Revolution, we must recall that, as Stephen Kinzer points out in his excellent book, All the Shah’s Men, the root cause of the revolt goes back to 1953, when the CIA overthrew the nationalist and democratically elected prime minister, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh.

We should recall that Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, as well as the Taliban’s leadership, are the Afghan mujahedin of the 1980s who were armed by the CIA, trained by Pakistani intelligence during Gen. Zia’s rule, funded by Saudi Arabia, and lionized by President Ronald Reagan as the equivalent of the freedom fighters of America’s Revolutionary War. They are Salafis, followers of the state religion of Saudi Arabia. The Pakistani madrassas that are breeding grounds for radical Muslims are funded by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf, all U.S. allies.

The foreign fighters in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and other U.S.-supported Sunni states, as were the 9/11 terrorists. Of the 60 to 80 fighters who travel to join al-Qaeda in Iraq, half are from Saudi Arabia. Almost all the suicide bombers are Sunni, and the majority are Saudis. In fact, Shi’ites do not condone suicide bombing. Roughly half of all foreign militants who target U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians are from Saudi Arabia, as are nearly half of the foreign prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq. But instead of confronting Saudi Arabia, President Bush has decided to supply billions of dollars in advanced weaponry to that country.

But even when it comes to the radical Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere, the idea of a central authority akin to fascism is absurd. The Iraqi al-Qaeda has major differences with bin Laden. The Madrid and London terrorists were homegrown, having nothing to do with bin Laden.

So Islamofascism does not exist, and the Islamic radicals are on the fringe. What surely does exist is fascism here at home. Christian fundamentalists and Podhoretz’s cohorts in the Israeli lobby, hand-in-hand with the neoconservatives, support waging war against Muslims, invading Iraq, and providing material support for Israel’s colonial, expansionist, and apartheid-like policy in the West Bank. This alliance has made torture of prisoners of war a permanent policy of the U.S. government, and it has done so with utter secrecy by distorting the laws of the land. Such crimes are called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” echoing, as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, the Nazis’ Verschaerfte Vernehmung. Many Nazi perpetrators were convicted by the Nuremberg court for such crimes.

Podhoretz’s second premise lumps together many widely disparate Islamic elements under the rubric of the nonexistent Islamofascist enemy, who are magically “willing to set sectarian differences aside when it comes to forging jihadist alliances against the infidels,” all under Shi’ite Iran’s leadership. This idea cannot possibly be more ridiculous.

Radical Sunnis hate the Shi’ites and reject them as non-Muslims. Arabs generally despise Persians. The highest religious authorities of Saudi Arabia and Egypt have issued many fatwas against Shi’ites. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban despise Shi’ite Iran, with the latter murdering many Iranians, including nine diplomats. Sunnis and Shi’ites are at each other’s throats in Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and for decades Saudi Arabia’s government has been repressing its Shi’ite minority population. The same goes for the ruling Sunni minority in Bahrain.

If Podhoretz’s “theory” of Iran leading the Muslim radicals is correct, why is it that Iran played a major role in defeating the Taliban and helping to erect Afghanistan’s national-unity government? During the UN talks on the future of Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, Iranian representative Mohammad Javad Zarif met daily with U.S. envoy James Dobbins, who has credited Zarif with preventing the conference from collapsing because of last-minute demands by the Northern Alliance to control the new government. Most importantly, if Podhoretz is correct, why is it that Iran, though capable of creating hell for U.S. forces in Iraq, has been relatively restrained?

Podhoretz may point to Iran’s aid to Shi’ite Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas as evidence of Iranian aggression. The aid is abhorrent, but neither group has any ambition beyond its own nation’s borders.

Hezbollah, notwithstanding its terrorist past and Iran’s major role in its formation, is now a popular movement that can bring a million people into the streets on short notice. In addition, in legitimate elections in Lebanon, Hezbollah received a significant fraction of the votes, and it is a participant in Lebanon’s government.

Hamas’ aim is to recover every inch of the Palestinian land occupied since 1967, in return for which it is willing to enter a decades-long cease-fire with Israel. It has never carried out any military or terrorist operation outside the historical Palestine, and it has no connection with al-Qaeda. Iran’s aid to Hamas is due to the popularity of the Palestinian cause among Muslims everywhere, and Iran’s desire to curry favor in the larger Islamic world. Saudi Arabia also provides financial aid to Hamas, and Egypt allows it to bring funds raised abroad into Gaza, all without U.S. protests.

Podhoretz’s third premise, which is repeated by Israel’s supporters everywhere, is that it is 1938 all over again, Iran is the Nazi Germany of our time, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.

The comparison is outright ludicrous. Germany, a powerful industrialized nation defeated in World War I, had grievances against the victors who had humiliated it. Adolf Hitler was a charismatic leader, and Germany’s culture was such that its people would follow Hitler blindly – fertile grounds for fascism and Nazism. Above all, the 1938 Wehrmacht was the most powerful military in Europe, backed by Germany’s advanced technology, industrial capacity, and a corps of first-rate scientists.

Iran, on the other hand, has neither territorial claims against any nation, nor has it attacked its neighbors in centuries. It was the victim of an eight-year war with Iraq, which was encouraged and supported by the U.S. One reason the U.S. "knew" Iraq had WMDs was that the Pentagon had receipts, so to speak, for all the chemical weapon-related materials that had been shipped from the U.S. and Germany to Iraq.

Arabs conquered Iran 13 centuries ago, but Iranians preserved their language and culture. One hundred years ago, Iranians set up the first constitutional government in all of Asia and the Middle East. At the same time, Iran is not industrially advanced. Its armed forces have been designed to defend the country, without any ability to project power outside its borders. Ahmadinejad is not a charismatic leader. There are simply no similarities between Iran and Nazi Germany.

Podhoretz’s fourth premise is that Ahmadinejad is an all-powerful president who controls everything in Iran. This is news to Iranians and the rest of the world!

For nearly eight years the U.S. refused to deal with former President Mohammad Khatami – a true reformist – on the grounds that Iran’s president has no real power. On the eve of Iran’s presidential elections in 2005, President Bush declared that the elections had no legitimacy because the office was meaningless. Ahmadinejad suddenly controls everything? How?

Ahmadinejad is, in fact, in deep trouble at home, even with his own supporters. The Iranian parliament, where his supporters supposedly form an absolute majority, has criticized him severely and tried to roll back many of his policies. Two of his ministers and the central bank director quit, because they did not want to go along with his nepotism. Last December and again last week, university students stopped his speech by shouting “death to the dictator.” His supporters received only 4 percent of the votes in last December’s municipal elections. His chief foe, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, was elected to the powerful Assembly of Experts (a constitutional body that supervises the supreme leader) with the highest number of votes and is now its chairman. In short, Ahmadinejad is a transient phenomenon who will soon disappear from the political scene. He will be the first one-term Iranian president.

All the decisions regarding Iran’s national security and foreign policy are made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He does extensive consulting with Iran’s National Security Council, the Expediency Council (headed by Rafsanjani), former leaders such as Khatami, and the military brass before making any decision. Say what you like about Iran’s internal situation, but the fact is that Iran has followed a pragmatic foreign policy since the early 1990s. In addition, Iran’s leadership is not homogeneous. Important differences exist among the leadership’s top echelon about the wisdom of defying the UN Security Council resolutions against Iran’s nuclear program, or what concessions Iran should make.

As evidence of the similarity between Ahmadinejad and Hitler, Podhoretz and other Israel lobbyists point to his remarks about the Holocaust and Israel.

The Holocaust is perhaps the best-documented historical event of all time, and what Ahmadinejad has said about it is sheer rhetoric and nothing else. In fact, Iranian television recently broadcast a movie produced in Iran that was very sympathetic to the plight of the Jews during World War II. Ahmadinejad’s words are surely offensive, but various Israeli leaders and partisans have denied the existence of Palestinians without repercussions, so why the double standard?

Ahmadinejad’s remarks regarding Israel are deplorable and have been roundly condemned across Iran’s political spectrum. But, as documented by the Iranian artist Arash Norouzi, he never even uttered the infamous words, “Israel must be wiped off the map.” The actual words were “The Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] said this regime, occupying Jerusalem, must vanish from the page of time.”

Thus, Ahmadinejad never used “map” or “wiped off.” He was referring to the government’s collapse, like that of the Soviet Union. Iran’s position since the 1979 revolution has always been that Jews, Christians, and Muslims who live in the Holy Land must vote freely in a referendum to select their destiny for themselves.

Moreover, how is it that we do not believe Ahmadinejad when he says that Iran does not need nuclear weapons for its national security, but we believe him completely when he supposedly foresees the end of Israel in the future, and take that as an indication of his evil intentions?

If Ahmadinejad wants to murder Jews, why does he not start with Iran’s own Jewish population, the largest in the Middle East after Israel’s? His government recently allocated several million dollars for a Jewish center in Tehran to promote Jewish programs and related cultural events. Iranian Jews have their own representative in parliament, as do Iranian Assyrians, Armenians, and Zoroastrians. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric regarding Israel is nothing but an attempt to present himself as the leader of oppressed Muslims.

Moreover, the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest place and the first qibla, is in Jerusalem, and Iran’s leaders consider themselves as the Palestinians’ protectors. How could Iran attack Israel with nuclear weapons (that it does not have, and will not have any time soon, if ever) but save al-Aqsa and the Palestinians? Anyway, any Iranian attack on Israel will provoke a counterattack by the U.S. and Israel that will wipe Iran off the map.

To further “buttress” his “arguments,” Podhoretz points to two quotes. One is by Ayatollah Khomeini: "I say let this land [Iran] go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world." The second is by Rafsanjani, who supposedly said, “A day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession … application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”

Aside from the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini was referring to Iran, not any other nation, he died in 1989. It is a grave mistake to believe that the character of the Iranian regime is the same as it was during his reign. In fact, Iran’s theocracy has lost much of its revolutionary zeal. Aside from Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, Iran has shown, since the early 1990s, remarkable pragmatism in its foreign policy. The best evidence for this is its close relations with Russia and its silence over the suppression of Muslim separatists in Chechnya. Iran also used its influence on the Islamist opposition group in Tajikistan to end the long-running civil conflict there. Iran supports Christian Armenia in its confrontation with Shi’ite Azerbaijan. Its commercial relations with Japan and the European Union have never been better.

As for Rafsanjani’s statement, it has been taken out of context. I happened to be in Tehran, watching him on Iranian television when he uttered those words.

What he said and meant was, “There will never be a nuclear exchange between Israel and the Islamic world, because a day will come when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession…."

In other words, Rafsanjani was saying that Israel is wise enough not to want a nuclear war with Muslims, although even this correct observation of his was roundly criticized by Iran’s reformists and democratic groups. By distorting Rafsanjani’s statement, what Podhoretz has done is like removing “but Allah,” from Muslims’ standard shout of “there is no God but Allah.”

Podhoretz’s diatribes against Europe’s Muslims have nothing to do with Iran.

In making his outrageous statements, Podhoretz fails to address a fundamental question: Why is it that the first-generation Muslim immigrants in Western Europe were hard-working and law-abiding, but the second and third generations are alienated? The answer is clear: decades of colonialism, discrimination against Muslims, and European and U.S. support for some of the worst dictators in the Middle East, and for Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians. Podhoretz need not worry about Europe. Muslims are not about to take over Europe; by 2020 they will make up only 10 percent of its population.

Podhoretz and other neoconservatives have been talking about “freedom” for Iran’s people. But the freedom they advocate is Iranians’ freedom from their religion, historical and cultural heritage, and natural resources, so that a puppet government similar to Iraq’s is installed in Iran, the country and its resources are controlled by the West, and the U.S. can have “enduring military bases” in Iran.

The neoconservatives also say they want another war in the Middle East in order to have “peace” there. But the peace they have in mind is a graveyard peace, one in which everyone is either dead or silent. That “peace” will not be achieved. True peace will break out in the Middle East only if it is honorable and fair to everyone, not only to Israel, but also to the Palestinians.

Podhoretz and company like to talk about “moral clarity” in U.S. foreign policy. After reading that Podhoretz believes the invasion of Iraq was an “unfailingly courageous” act by President Bush, I concluded that his moral clarity means the destruction and rape of yet another Muslim nation.