For the past several days, I have been the guest of the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. A truly fantastic experience, Chautauqua is dedicated to the arts and intellectual growth. It’s hard to cut across the community’s expansive grounds without stumbling onto a concert, a show, an opera, or a lecture. On Monday, I gave a lecture on Turkey, which was followed be a series of other lectures approaching different aspects of Turkish state and society. Commendably, the institution brought in a wider range of speakers who approached the topic from different perspectives, giving greater breadth than the usual academic or think tank conference.
One of the other lecturers was the Rt. Reverend John Bryson Chane, the retired Episcopalian Bishop of Washington, DC. Chane focused his talk on the role Turkey might play in mediating the Iranian nuclear dispute, and shifted quickly to the issue of the so-called fatwa issued by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banning nuclear weapons or their use. According to the local newspaper’s write-up of the event:
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has issued several fatwas stating that Iran does not seek to produce nuclear weapons. One of the earliest fatwas, delivered to the IAEA in 2005, states, “The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued a fatwa that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons.” Once a fatwa is issued, Chane explained, it must be obeyed. To not do so is to be guilty of a grievous sin.
Much of this is nonsense but, for the sake of argument, let’s take Chane’s understanding as accurate. If fatwas cannot be rescinded, then the Iranian regime with whom Chane seeks to normalize relations still hopes to murder British author Salman Rushdie for having dared to write a book of which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did not approve.
Chane does not consider that fatwas, however, can be rescinded and disputed just as easily as they are issued. The very basis of Shi’ism embraces the plurality of religious opinion. One ayatollah’s fatwa is not necessarily respected by another ayatollah or his followers.
And sometimes fatwas are simply false. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lists all the fatwas he has issued on his website, and yet the nuclear fatwa to which Chane refers is not listed. There is no such thing as a secret fatwa, however. A comparison of how Iranian officials refer to it suggests that it is a rhetorical tool that has no basis in reality. To base national security on a lie is very dangerous indeed. And the willingness to trust Iran’s leadership when they will not do so much as put their alleged statement on paper is even more troubling still. How ironic it is that the right reverend is willing to believe what is not on paper, but refuses to acknowledge the threat by so-called pragmatist Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to launch a pre-emptive first strike on Israel using an Iranian nuclear bomb. That—and a number of other Iranian nuclear threats—are documented here.
What might motivate Chane’s naïveté? One of the worst mistakes a diplomat or intelligence analyst can make is to engage in projection, and to assume that others share the same thought processes and value system as he or she does. As I’ve quipped before, multiculturalism isn’t simply about appreciating each other’s differences or the ability to walk into a sushi restaurant and order a mojito, but rather it is about the recognition that some people can think and act very differently from others. There is a tendency among too many liberal theologians who would never think about swearing falsely in God’s name who assume that other theologians would also not lie. But growing up Ali Khamenei is quite different than growing up John Chane, even if the policy recommendations of both would achieve the same aim.