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The War of Gog and Demagogue

Salman Masalha

The War of Gog and Demagogue

Here is a scenario: A devout Evangelical Christian is elected president of the United States. Fundamental to his ideology is the return of the Messiah and therefore he devotes all his efforts to bringing about the End Time and hastening the coming of that Messiah. Does this sound fantastical to you? Not entirely. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were not far from this outlook.

There is no need to cross the Atlantic to see how such processes are taking place before our very eyes. A president like this, though on a somewhat smaller scale, has already been chosen by the ayatollahs and the scenario is already playing out in our region. The president of Iran is an “Evangelical,” only this time a Shi’ite Muslim.

A single sentence from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech in southern Lebanon has not been given sufficient attention. He has repeated this sentence on a variety of occasions and it encapsulates his religious and political worldview. Ahmadinejad made a point of saying at Bint Jbeil that the Mahdi – the Hidden Imam, the Shi’ite equivalent of the Messiah – will come in the near future, in our own times, and bring justice. He also said that when the Mahdi comes, he will be accompanied by the Messiah as his supporter and disciple. As in some branches of Judaism and Christianity, the coming of the Mahdi is a cornerstone of the branch of the Shi’a dominant in Iran.

However, an examination of the Shi’ite literature concerning the coming of the Mahdi reveals something very interesting and surprising. It emerges from this literature that when the Mahdi reappears and sets out on his way from Iraq, he will be joined by 27 persons from the people of Moses (in Arabic qawm Musa) – that is to say, Jews. Among those joining the Mahdi’s retinue are figures like Joshua Ben Nun and King Solomon. Moreover, the Mahdi will pray and utter the ineffable name of God, in the Hebrew language: “When the Imam issues the call to prayer, he will offer a prayer to Allah under his Hebrew name,” we learn from a tradition cited by Al-Nu’mani, a 10th century Shi’ite scholar.

Often, the Hidden Imam’s high status in the Shi’ite literature is compared to the stature of Joshua and the reign and law he will institute will be “like the reign and law of David and Solomon,” according to another 10th-century scholar, Al-Kulayni. Apparently the representatives of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect Naturei Karta who visited Iran and met with Ahmadinejad are aware of some of these traditions.

Of course these and other traditions serve the Sunni Muslims to goad the Shi’ites. Often the Sunnis taunt the Shi’ites that their Mahdi is none other than “the Jewish Messiah,” who prays and utters Allah’s name in Hebrew. Shi’ite scholars see this as a point in his favor, as someone who “knows languages.”

In any case, the tension in our world today between the Arabs and Iran is very ancient tension. Echoes of this tension are heard in the Shi’ite traditions. When the day of the Mahdi’s coming arrives, according to the Shi’ite tradition, the fate of the Arabs will not be glorious, to put it mildly: “When the Mahdi comes, only the sword shall speak to the Arabs and to Quraysh (Muhammad’s tribe),” as we are are told by the scholar Al-Nu’mani. Another tradition says the Mahdi “will slaughter them the way the butcher slaughters a sheep.”

It is always possible to find such things, some of them entertaining and some of them less so, in every religion, in every place and at every time. However, in a part of the world where religious myths are the daily bread of ignorant masses and an elected government, messianic beliefs of this sort are liable to be extremely dangerous. This is because there will always be some reckless disciples, in every ethnic group and religion, who will want to hasten the end time by every means at their disposal. And this is especially so if these people, be they here or there, are leaders who have access to all kinds of dangerous buttons.
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Published: Op-Ed, Haaretz, October 22, 2010

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