Matthias Küntzel's New Republic Article on "Ahmadinejad's Demons"
When I was in Jerusalem seven years ago pursuing postdoctoral research and an actual career in biblical studies, I recall speaking to a young German man about eschatological views in various religions, and in connection with this, I mentioned that during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Basiji branch of the Iranian military sent waves of children across battlefields to clear minefields, using their little bodies as weapons armed only with the promise of martyrdom and a plastic key for opening the gates of paradise.
The young German fellow reacted in disbelief, refusing to believe what I had told him. He was certain that this was anti-Muslim propaganda.
Let me make clear -- this German was not anti-Jewish. He was even studying early Judaism and knew Hebrew very well. Indeed, I think that he eventually converted to Judaism (though I'm not positive about this).
He just couldn't fathom that such a thing could be true of any religion.
As for me, I had read enough about the history of religion generally, enough about Islam in particular, and enough newspaper reports about the war itself to find the reports entirely credible.
Those mine-clearing 'martyrdom operations' are again in the news. Just this morning, I read a fascinating, horrifying report in The New Republic, "A Child of the Revolution Takes Over: Ahmadinejad's Demons," by Matthias Küntzel, a political scientist in Hamburg, Germany, who confirms that:
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys from Taiwan. The trinkets were meant to be inspirational. After Iraq invaded in September 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran's forces were no match for Saddam Hussein's professional, well-armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child's neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them.Küntzel acknowledges that the Shi'ite clerics had some scruples about the carnage and insisted on some restrictions:
At one point, however, the earthly gore became a matter of concern. "In the past," wrote the semi-official Iranian daily Ettelaat as the war raged on, "we had child-volunteers: 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds. They went into the minefields. Their eyes saw nothing. Their ears heard nothing. And then, a few moments later, one saw clouds of dust. When the dust had settled again, there was nothing more to be seen of them. Somewhere, widely scattered in the landscape, there lay scraps of burnt flesh and pieces of bone." Such scenes would henceforth be avoided, Ettelaat assured its readers. "Before entering the minefields, the children [now] wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves."This scruple about the bodies staying intact stemmed from Islamic belief in the future resurrection of the body, a doctrine that stresses the importance of the body's proper burial to ensure that it be ritually prepared for its resurrection on Doomsday.
The Basiji didn't use just children. Men also went into battle, albeit armed with weapons, and marched fearlessly to their doom. Sometimes, they needed a bit of encouragement:
For those whose courage still waned in the face of death, the regime put on a show. A mysterious horseman on a magnificent steed would suddenly appear on the front lines. His face -- covered in phosphorous -- would shine. His costume was that of a medieval prince. A child soldier, Reza Behrouzi, whose story was documented in 1985 by French writer Freidoune Sehabjam, reported that the soldiers reacted with a mixture of panic and rapture.Why is this important now? Because, as Küntzel tells us:
"Everyone wanted to run toward the horseman. But he drove them away. 'Don't come to me!' he shouted, 'Charge into battle against the infidels! ... Revenge the death of our Imam Hussein and strike down the progeny of Yazid!' As the figure disappears, the soldiers cry: 'Oh, Imam Zaman, where are you?' They throw themselves on their knees, and pray and wail. When the figure appears again, they get to their feet as a single man. Those whose forces are not yet exhausted charge the enemy lines."
The mysterious apparition who was able to trigger such emotions is the "hidden imam," a mythical figure who influences the thought and action of Ahmadinejad to this day. The Shia call all the male descendants of the Prophet Muhammad "imams" and ascribe to them a quasidivine status. Hussein, who was killed at Karbala by Yazid, was the third Imam. His son and grandson were the fourth and fifth. 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.
It was this culture that nurtured Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's worldview. Born outside Tehran in 1956, the son of blacksmith, he trained as a civil engineer, and, during the Iran-Iraq War, he joined the Revolutionary Guards. His biography remains strangely elliptical. Did he play a role in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, as some charge? What exactly did he do during the war? These are questions for which we have no definite answers. His presidential website says simply that he was "on active service as a Basij volunteer up to the end of the holy defense [the war against Iraq] and served as a combat engineer in different spheres of duty."Küntzel then adds:
During Ahmadinejad's run for the presidency in 2005, the millions of Basiji -- in every Iranian town, neighborhood, and mosque -- became his unofficial campaign workers.Ahmadinejad won the election. Currently, he is pushing forward Iran's nuclear energy program. Ahmadinejad claims that this program will be used only for peaceful purposes, but given his history, I doubt his veracity and consider the claim to be a species of dissembling perhaps legitimated by taqiyya and doubtless justified by reasons of state.
Do we have reason to be concerned? Küntzel ends his article with this warning:
The history of the Basiji shows that we must expect monstrosities from the current Iranian regime. Already, what began in the early '80s with the clearing of minefields by human detonators has spread throughout the Middle East, as suicide bombing has become the terrorist tactic of choice. The motivational shows in the desert -- with hired actors in the role of the hidden imam -- have evolved into a showdown between a zealous Iranian president and the Western world. And the Basiji who once upon a time wandered the desert armed only with a walking stick is today working as a chemist in a uranium enrichment facility.Any regime that would deceive its own faithful with actors playing the role of the hidden imam would have no scruples about deceiving the infidels about its true intentions concerning a drive toward nuclear power.
And given its eschatological views about the imminent return of the "Twelfth Imam" to lead the battle against 'evil,' then, yeah, I'd say that we have some reason to be concerned.