Faith-Based Negotiations with Faith-Based Fanatics

When Church leaders comment on international events they show a remarkable propensity for explaining those events in more or less the same way that secular liberals do. The flip side of this penchant is a tendency to ignore what their own theological training might tell them about important issues.

Take the recent Vatican endorsement of the Iranian nuclear agreement. After the global powers finally reached a deal, the Vatican wasted no time in praising it. Shortly after the announcement, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said that the agreement “is viewed in a positive light by the Holy See.” Bishop Oscar Cantu, the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, called on Congress to “support these efforts to build bridges that foster peace and greater understanding,” and he warned Congress not to “undermine” the deal. For his part, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., applauded the deal in an essay for the Washington Post. He opined that we can trust the Iranians because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei once issued a fatwa that “declared the possession and use of nuclear weapons as incompatible with Islam.”

Coincidentally, both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have also referenced the fatwa as evidence of good faith on the part of the Iranians. According to Obama in September, 2013, “Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.”

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The trouble is, the existence of the fabled fatwa is in dispute. Apparently, no one has been able to produce the text. According to a “Fact Checker” article in the Washington Post, the fatwa appears to be no more than an urban legend. However, seeing as the likes of John Kerry believe in it, we could be kinder and call it an “urbane legend”—the kind of thing that ought to be true because sophisticated people say it’s true.

A fatwa against nukes? Although bishops can’t be expected to understand the finer points of uranium enrichment or the technical difficulties of inspecting secret underground sites, they might be expected to have a better grasp on whether or not using nuclear weapons is contrary to the faith of Islam.

Although theology is their specialty, many bishops seem to prefer to rely on the assessment of the P5+1 diplomats who look upon their counterparts across the negotiating table as rational and pragmatic men like themselves. But Iran is not like other societies, and its notion of what is rational differs substantially from what John Kerry supposes it to be.

Iran is not a rational-secular society, it is a faith-based society. Take Chapter One, article 2 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

The Islamic Republic is a system based on belief in:

  1. The One God (as stated in the phrase “There is no god except Allah”), His exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands;
  2. Divine revelation and its fundamental role in setting forth the laws;
  3. The return to God in the Hereafter and the constructive role of this belief in the course of man’s ascent towards God.

Iran is not just a faith-based society, it’s a theocratic society. Its Supreme Leader is not its president but an ayatollah. Thus, what makes sense to the leaders of Iran may be quite different from what makes sense to negotiators from secular Western countries.

Take the item about returning “To God in the Hereafter.” For people whose thoughts are fixed on the next life, the continuance of this earthly existence may not loom as large as it does for secularists for whom this world is the whole show. One of the things that made it possible to successfully negotiate with Soviet leaders about nuclear weapons was that the Soviets had no afterlife to look forward to. Thus, the possibility of mutually assured destruction (MAD) acted as a real deterrent to the use of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, as Mid-East scholar Bernard Lewis said in 2009:

For most of the Iranian leadership MAD would work as a deterrent, but for Ahmadinejad and his group with their apocalyptic mindset, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement.

Moreover, as Denis MacEoin, an expert on Iran, observes, Lewis may have underestimated the extent of this preoccupation with the last days. “The apocalyptic mindset,” he writes, “is not something unique to Ahmadinejad and his followers. It has deep roots in Shiite belief.” In other words, it may be a huge miscalculation to assume, as Kerry and Obama do, that Iranian leaders are pragmatists who can be counted on not to take any chances with their own survival. The Western leaders have a naïve faith that the Iranian leaders have the same concerns and goals that they do. But when faith-based negotiators meet faith-based fanatics, it’s the fanatics who win every time.

Now, it’s understandable that those of a secular mentality would naively discount the religious dimension of the Iranian mindset—even though it’s clearly spelled out in their constitution. But Cardinal McCarrick would seem to have less excuse for misunderstanding the mullahs. Religion, after all, is his territory. Nevertheless, he, like Bishop Cantu, seems inclined to go along with the secular assessment of events—namely, that the Iranians want peace just like us and that this deal will make the world more secure.

Not that McCarrick and other bishops don’t understand the strength and importance of religious motivations. Their mistake is to assume that Shiite religious motivations are similar to Catholic religious motivations. In his Washington Post opinion piece, McCarrick notes that the Ayatollah’s (supposed) fatwa against the use of nuclear arms is “a teaching not dissimilar to the Catholic position that the world must rid itself of these indiscriminate weapons.”

For a long time, Catholic leaders have contented themselves with the notion that Islam and Catholicism have much in common. Well, yes, on a superficial level they do. Like Catholics, Muslims believe in prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage. In addition, they revere Jesus and await his second coming. If you don’t go any deeper than that then it’s plausible to think that Iran’s religious leaders are no more likely to use nukes than the pope.

The trouble is, if you go deeper into the supposed similarities, you run into disturbing dissimilarities. For example, both Catholics and Shiites exalt martyrdom and both believe in a coming apocalypse. On the other hand, attaining martyrdom by killing Catholics is perfectly acceptable from the Shiite standpoint. Moreover, their idea of the apocalypse is a final battle in which all the enemies of Allah (including Christians) will be defeated. Indeed much of the brand of Shia Islam that now dominates in Iran revolves around the coming apocalypse and ways to hasten its arrival.

For evidence, look at Article 5 of Chapter One of the Iranian Constitution:

During the Occultation of the Wali al-Asr (may God hasten his reappearance), the wilayah and leadership of the Umma devolve upon the just (adil) and pious (muttaqi) faqih, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability, will assume the responsibilities of this office in accordance with Article 107.

The Occultation of the who? What’s that all about? And what is it doing in a political constitution?   Here is another similarity to Christianity that contains a major difference. It seems that, like Christians, Shiites also believe in the coming of a savior. The Wali al-Asr (“may God hasten his reappearance”) is one of the titles given to the Mahdi—the “Hidden Imam” who disappeared from sight in the year 872 AD and who is expected to return to establish a peaceful kingdom on earth. Or, more accurately, peace preceded by war. According to MacEoin, “In this belief, the war that will bring on the “End of Days” or the Apocalypse, will bring to earth the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam, a descendant of Muhammad.”

So as long as Wali al-Asr remains in occultation (hidden), pious leaders can rule, but once he returns he will take over the reins of power—not just of Iran, but of the whole world. The thing to keep in mind is that the Mahdi’s return can only be precipitated by war and calamities. Another thing to keep in mind is that Iranian leaders are quite anxious for his return (“may God hasten his reappearance”).

The Iranian government seems to operate on a whole different set of calculations than the governments of, say, Britain, France, and the U.S. And since its calculations center around the apocalypse, is it really wise to assume that the use of nuclear weapons doesn’t fit in to the “end of days” calculations?

Even if secular diplomats have a hard time wrapping their heads around theological considerations, there are some prudential reasons to think that Iran’s atomic ambitions are not peaceful. Last year the price of a gallon of gas in Iran was fifty cents. In short, Iran has abundant supplies of oil (and natural gas). Yet it has spent tens of billions on the development of nuclear power. Since Iran’s energy needs are already being met by conventional sources of energy, inquiring minds have been wondering what the purpose of their massive nuclear development program might be.

Unfortunately, inquiring minds are in short supply in the upper echelons of government service in the West. Many in the Catholic leadership also suffer from a shortage of inquisitiveness. While we can’t expect them to be acquainted with the price of gasoline in Iran, we might expect them to reflect seriously on the Shiite obsession with apocalypse and martyrdom, and on the implications of such beliefs. The idea of sacrificing all for the sake of God shouldn’t be difficult for Catholics to understand. Nor should it be difficult to comprehend that such ideas can be easily warped.

During the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq, in which some 750,000 Iranians died, a cult of martyrdom was encouraged by the Iranian leaders. Anyone who died in the war was considered to be a martyr for Islam. One of the ways that many young Iranians “return[ed] to God in the Hereafter” was through “human wave” attacks. Poorly trained and poorly armed men would attack the Iraqi front lines en masse in what were essentially suicide missions. Child soldiers, some as young as twelve, were also employed in battle and were sometimes used to clear mine fields without benefit of mine detectors. To encourage them in their mission, they were given silver-colored plastic “keys to paradise” to wear around their necks. By some estimates the number of child martyrs was a high as 100,000. According to MacEoin, “the idea was that by fighting the Iraqi army in a war between truth and falsehood, Iranians would hasten the return of the Hidden Imam.”

The cult of martyrdom is still very much alive in Iran, as is belief in the imminent arrival of the apocalypse. “Militant messianism,” writes MacEoin, “is as dangerous as ever today”:

Expectation of the Hidden Imam and the activist struggle to bring about his advent are not only matters of pious belief … apocalyptic ideas have a strong following within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia.

He adds that such beliefs are also prevalent within the IRCG group that has responsibility over the nuclear program.

Over the years, major Iranian politicians have made numerous genocidal threats against Israel and America. In the light of Shiite theology and recent Iranian history, those threats have to be taken quite seriously. A good deal of evidence suggests that if Iranian leaders acquire nuclear weapons they will use them. If Catholic leaders had more than a surface knowledge of Shia Islam, they might be less sanguine about a deal that gives Iran’s leaders everything they need to hasten the “End of Days.”

(Photo credit: Patrick Semansky / AP)


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