Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has done highly acclaimed reporting from the world's war zones, including Iraq. Both the video topping this post and this interview with Charlie Rose testify to Anderson's intelligence and grace under pressure.
That background makes some details in Anderson's "Letter From Tehran" feature much more frustrating. In nearly 8,000 words, Anderson explains the career arc and mad political skills of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Most of the piece hums along with the finely crafted writing one expects in The New Yorker.
But then there are these clunkers, which make it seem as though the magazine's legendary fact-checkers were busier preserving the dieresis in reëlection than listening for clunkers about religious belief.
Anderson uses words like moderate and reformist, and to his credit he explains what those words mean in Iranian culture. In doing so, however, he imposes a concept from a Western democratic republic, rich with churches, onto an Islamic republic with a dearth of churches but a wealth of mosques:
There exists a bewildering array of definitions for political types in Iran. They range from hard-line religious conservatives, represented by Ahmadinejad, to religious pragmatists, to religious reformists. "Reformist" is a relative term. No one in Iranian politics is talking openly about separation of church and state, for example, or even contemplating it seriously.
It's almost like writing this about the U.S. Congress: "No one in American politics is talking openly about adopting Shariah, for example, or even contemplating it seriously."
Then there's this, which makes Ahmadinejad sound like the George W. Bush of Iran:
Ahmadinejad is a Twelver Shiite and a fervent Mahdist, which means that, in the modern Iranian context, he is the equivalent of a born-again Christian. In the Shia tradition, the Twelfth Imam, or the Mahdi, disappeared in the ninth century, hidden by God. His return, together with that of Jesus Christ, will herald an earthly paradise. (In Islam, Christ is regarded as an early prophet.)
More mind-boggling still is Anderson's reciting of speculation by Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary in the State Department:
This January, a week after Barack Obama's Inauguration, a conference called "Holocaust? A Sacred Lie by the West" was held in Tehran. Ahmadinejad, in a greeting that he sent to the conference, said that Zionists had "ensnared many politicians and parties." In a follow-up statement, he added, "An incident known as 9/11 occurred. It is not yet clear who carried it out, who collaborated with them, and who paved the way for them. The event took place, and -- like in the case of the Holocaust -- they sealed it off, refusing to allow objective research groups to find out the truth."
I asked Thomas Pickering why Ahmadinejad had chosen that moment to talk so provocatively about the Holocaust. "I think he probably felt encouraged by the Pope," Pickering replied, referring to the news that week that Benedict XVI had lifted an excommunication order on a British bishop and Holocaust denier. (The Pope later asked the bishop to recant.)
Anderson's overly condensed summary of the Pope's reconciling efforts toward schismatic bishops makes it sound like he had a soft spot for Bishop Richard Williamson's revisionist theories about the Holocaust, or his 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Anderson does a great job of depicting Ahmadinejad with greater nuance than usual, but born-again Christians -- and even the Pope -- remain one-dimensional figures here.