No Dearth of Islamic Dilemmas

Will Iran relinquish its desire to develop nuclear weapons? Will Saddam ever be totally expunged from Iraqi textbooks? Was Afghanistan's election really democratic?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a person with a lot of experience in public relations, who in some of his previous positions was in charge of contacts with the media. In the recent elections in Iran, too, he knew how to transform his underdog status - and even his neat haircut and the worker's clothing he wears that is too big for him - into an advantage. Similarly, he also knew how to enlist Hurricane Katrina in order to garner a bit of support in his tough speech at the United Nations last week, when he expressed condolences to the families of the victims. Ahmadinejad is far from Mohammad Khatami, the intellectual president who ran Iran lethargically during the past eight years. Khatami spoke about dialogue between cultures; Ahmadinejad speaks Persian with a limited vocabulary.

This week, in the cacophony of interviews and reactions to his speech at the UN, Ahmadinejad mustered more proof of why Iran is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons, declaring: "Our religion prohibits us from using atomic weapons." This is an interesting argument coming from a president who is not a cleric, an expert in religious law or even very educated, but represents a regime based on religion. And here is a dilemma: If Iran is perceived as an extremist religious state, because of whose extremism it is necessary to be extra careful with respect to the atom, then one must believe that its president will act in accordance with the religion's principles - that is, he will not seek nuclear arms. But if Ahmadinejad's statements indeed arouse ridicule, then perhaps Iran is not exactly the extremist religious state that should be feared.

An unsystematic examination of important religious rulings, like those made by Al-Azhar canon law specialists in Egypt and Muslim legal experts in the West, shows that there is a basis to what Ahmadinejad says. The prevailing religious-legal interpretation of the president's remarks says that a Muslim state is forbidden to use nuclear weaponry because it is liable to harm innocent people. Such a nation must lead the world to a situation in which there will be no weapons of mass destruction, say clerical legal authorities.

Apparently this piety will not impress the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nor should it impress anyone, as everyone knows that another conservative Islamic state, Pakistan, has not adopted this ruling at all. But no one is talking any more about the atom in Pakistan, the state that tried to sell Iran nuclear materials and transferred nuclear technologies to other countries.

Even the commendations that Iran received in the report submitted by IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei won't help, because his report on Iran is read with different eyes than his data on other countries. Thus, for example, ElBaradei has written that Iran has shown good progress in the implementation of inspection measures since 2003 (Section 43) and that all of the nuclear materials Iran has declared to have in its possession have indeed been found (Section 12). The report also praises Iran for the transparency it is evincing during inspections of installations and for doing more than is required concerning the Additional Protocol to the Nonproliferation Treaty (Section 37).

But apparently despite this report - which has captured the heart of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who this week said that "Iran is showing good cooperation" and implied that he would not lend his hand to implementing sanctions - America would prefer a different report, the one prepared by the British International Institute for Strategic Studies, which predicts that Iran will have a nuclear weapon in the near future. It is, however, worth remembering that this is the same institute that said exactly three years ago that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, which have not been found to this day.

`Long live Islam!'

In many Arab schools it is customary for the student monitor to call out "Rise!" when the teacher enters, and it is the teacher who permits the students to be seated. In Iraq, it was the custom that when the monitor called out "Rise!" the students would add "Long live Commander Saddam!" With the fall of Saddam, this cry was replaced with "Long live Islam!" and when the students were permitted to sit back down, they were told to say in a chorus "May Saddam fall!" Now they don't shout out anything.

Saddam's pictures have been removed from textbooks and when about 6 million students began the school year this month, they only hoped that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would not stand in their way. But the disappearance of Saddam and his regime from Iraqi books is far from complete. Although under the new law, books published before 2004 must not be distributed in schools, there is also no budget for printing new ones. Less than half of the books have been replaced and in most schools the students use some texts that praise Saddam's regime and others that excoriate it. In some of the books Iran is the most hated enemy and in some Iran is a friend; in some of the books the Kurds are not mentioned, and in others the Kurds are the lifeblood of the Iraqi nation.

Iraqi teachers and parents are complaining that the new textbooks issued by education minister Abdel Falah Hassan al-Sudani are boring and uninspired, the English books are meager, and educating children to do good deeds and adopt proper manners and customs is done via long Koranic verses that a child cannot understand. There are no answers to any of this from the ministry, which has to deal with the challenge of pleasing both the Shi'ites and the Sunnis, both the Kurds and the tribal chiefs, and above all to decide whether Haroun al-Rashid, the man who fought the Shi'ites, is a hero or an enemy.

At least there are elections

"The fatal provision" is the most original contribution of the elections held on Sunday in Afghanistan. Under this provision, anyone who was elected to Parliament but has passed away bequeaths his place to the candidate who received the next-largest number of votes after him. This, ostensibly, is an ordinary provision that exists everywhere in the world. That's how it is in a democracy. But in Afghanistan, where the democracy is funded by drugs and maintained by American and international forces, this provision has enormous "filtering power."

The reason for this is that in these elections, several thousand people competed for 249 seats in Parliament, with the race mainly between independent candidates, not between political lists. The gap between a winning candidate and a losing candidate can thus be measured in fractions of a percent, and there is a risk of death for the winners. This is because the independence of these candidates is just a hollow concept: Each represents a tribe, clan or militia with a long history of rivalries that are liable to come to a bloody solution now.

Ostensibly, these parliamentary elections symbolize a major achievement for both the American administration and Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, as for more than 30 years there were no elections in the country and, after the presidential elections, they could symbolize yet another step in the direction of building a Muslim democracy. If that is the case, why did Western diplomats and even heads of state advise Karzai not to hold these elections and to make do with a few parties with which he would form a coalition and thus make a sufficient contribution to "democracy"? The answer is that these Western diplomats understand the dangers the elections are liable to create: the murder of representatives who were elected to make way for other candidates, the crushing of the political agreement with Karzai, the outbreak of a new civil war following the election results, and tremendous difficulty in forming a political coalition capable of making decisions.

Karzai thought otherwise and embarked on the elections, risking not only himself but also the possibility that Afghanistan would continue to receive aid from the donor countries, which are already tired of making contributions. Without political stability there will be no money, and as former United States president Bill Clinton said this week: Afghanistan is a graver danger than Iraq with respect to the development and rehabilitation of international terror.

What sanctions?

A company from South Africa, Mobile Telephone Network, has won the tender to operate the second mobile telephone network in Iran after Turkey was eliminated from the bidding. This involves an expected income of hundreds of millions of dollars for the South African company. Supposing the UN Security Council decides to impose sanctions on Iran - will South Africa participate, in light of this contract? Will the country that freed itself of apartheid as a result of sanctions kick a regime of sanctions in the teeth?