A GetReligion reader named Matt, commenting on the letter from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush, raised an insightful point that I wish I had known and mentioned. But this is the Internet and there is plenty of room for follow-up:
The Iranian President's letter reminds me of the kind of letter every new Caliph would send to the Roman Emperor in Byzantium.
Posted by Matt at 11:27 pm on May 11, 2006
The historical background, much of which is speculative at this point, is difficult to fit into a news story. But the news of this letter has settled, at least for U.S. reporters, and it will be interesting to see if anyone covers the angles that may not be so obvious to American readers. The most obvious point, as noted by Andrew Sullivan, is that Bush and Ahmadinejad are said to both believe in a coming apocalypse.
It's easy to see a letter like this through American eyes, but now that we know that this letter has had minimal impact on U.S. policy, it should be examined through the eyes of non-Americans -- in particular, Muslims in the Middle East.
Ahmadinejad seems to be attempting to play up to his base of supporters. Was he successful? How did the world community of Muslims view this letter? Ahmadinejad was recently in Indonesia meeting with leaders from the host country, Bangladesh, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey. Was this meeting timed to the writing of this letter?
Here's an assessment from The Economist that hints at the deeper religious meaning of the letter:
The diplomatic effort to defuse the gathering crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions is sufficiently stuck that anyone involved (bar China's godless Communists) might have been tempted to invoke the Almighty. Yet the litany of taunts and complaints in a letter from Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who chose to address President George Bush this week -- the first such direct communication between the leaders of the two countries since Iran's 1979 revolution -- as one believer to (he had heard) another, hardly seems likely to break the impasse. ...
What they object to is the most dangerous technologies in the hands of a regime that lied for 20 years to nuclear inspectors and that threatens Israel. "Let us assume these events are true," says Mr Ahmadinejad, doubting that the Holocaust ever took place; what right, he mused, does Israel have to exist in the region?
Along with criticisms of the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq (though Saddam, he acknowledges, was a "murderous dictator") and the pressure on the Hamas government in Palestine to recognise Israel, this seems designed to win support in the Arab world. To plenty of Iranians, though, his championing of the oppressed of Africa and Latin America may seem a bit rich from the president of a regime that treats its own opponents roughly. According to Human Rights Watch, an NGO, at least two of Mr Ahmadinejad's ministers have been involved in systematic abuses of human rights, including executions of dissidents.
What is Mr Ahmadinejad up to? Suggesting that American officials may have helped instigate the attacks of September 11th seems aimed to cause offence, at a time when America is being pressed to consider direct nuclear talks with Iran and some of Mr Ahmadinejad's rivals at home have shown interest. Might the invitation to "return to the teaching of prophets" have less to do with concern for Mr Bush's soul, and more with bolstering Mr Ahmadinejad's political power on earth?
Just because the letter doesn't mean much to American foreign policy -- other than being the first real direct communication between the U.S. and Iran -- does not mean it lacks real significance. As Matt pointed out, there is a strong historical and religious significance to the letter, and I'd be curious to know how it was received by Muslims around the world.