By Daniel Chejfec
Sometimes, in our society, is useful to think in sport terms; and in that regard, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just scored big: faced with a United Nations demand that he discontinue his uranium enrichment program, he responded by announcing the opening of ten more nuclear sites for processing the ore. And the Western world is fumbling with the issue and apparently not very sure what to do.
As any coach of any team of any sport will tell you, one of the most important keys to play the game well is to know the other team. Does the west really know -or understand- Ahmadinejad?. I don't want to jump to conclusions, but the evidence so far seems to indicate that if there is such an understanding, it is imperfect at the best. So why the difficulty in understanding him? I believe it is because of the Western colonial past...I can already hear your question mark, but stay with me.
The ideology that justified colonialism was based on the assumption that the West was more advanced, and that by occupying the colonies the Europeans could help those societies “grow” to become more like them, and if in the process they got wealthier by exploiting the riches of the colony – it didn't hurt. That was the ideological justification, separated in the European mind from the economic implications. But the basic assumptions are flawed.
The French school of sociology came up a few decades ago with the notion of “parallel development of societies”. The concept was deceptively simple: different societies evolve in different paths and that development is nourished and it is defined by the cultural values in that society. This means that non-European societies will develop alternative forms of organization, different from the European ones and based on their own social and cultural realities. This, of course, is complicated in today's world by globalization, which among other issues it fosters more interdependence and mutual influence in our world. But the key is still the same: to know the other team is to first of all understand that it is not a “less evolved” version of our team.
Of course, the growth of information technology and the shrinking of geographic distances through the development of always faster means of transportation and information exchange gives us a chance to learn about the other team, but only if we can open our minds to it. It is easier for those societies that were oppressed by colonialism to understand their former oppressors because they had an intimate connection with them. For the societies in the former colonial powers this is more difficult because for most people the colonies were a very distant and alien concept, the subject of adventures and fantasies clearly separated and removed from their daily lives.
In other words, Ahmadinejad can be a better coach because he knows the other team. Ahmadinejad understand that the strength of Western Democracy is also its weakness; Western democratic leaders will avoid confrontation whenever possible because it is bad for politics and the stakes are usually too high for their taste. Western leaders still have to understand that the other team is not just another version of themselves but a complete different team. Muslim values are different from European values, and the cultural imperatives of Muslim societies are very different from the cultural imperatives of European or European-related societies. And again, Ahmadinejad knows that Western leaders still fail to understand this basic truth – and he is using it to his advantage in the power game.
Because of the Muslim social imperative of spreading Islam, we need to understand that when Ahmadinejad wrote the infamous letter to President George W Bush offering peace if Bush and America converted to Islam, he was not being “cute” nor “nuts”, but politically astute.
Stopping Iran from developing nuclear offensive capabilities is imperative because of the unpredictability of the Iranian regime. Yet in order to be able to stop it, we first need to understand it. It would be a sad day when we look back as Monday morning quarterback to figure out why we lost the game.