When traffic on the Midtown cross streets and East Side avenues of New York City is backed up day after day; when police and police barricades appear at intersections, in front of hotels and before public buildings; when lines of black sedans and S.U.V.’s fill entire city blocks and dour men and women in suits are talking into their lapels—you know the United Nations General Assembly is convening. New Yorkers can be pretty blasé about these things. This year, however, the maelstrom drew me in, with an invitation from the Mennonite Central Committee, which is the relief, development and peacemaking agency of the Mennonites. Would I be interested, they asked, in joining with other religious leaders to meet with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? I have worked side by side with the Mennonites for a decade and a half on issues of war, peace and nonviolence, so I felt duty-bound to hold up the Catholic end in what the M.C.C. regarded as a peace initiative.
For me the news in the meeting was that President Ahmadinejad is a religious man interested in dialogue with other religious people. I have met with many heads of state and government, but never had one seemed so genuinely interested in religion. As the event concluded, there was just a hint of disappointment on Mr. Ahmadinejad’s part that we had spoken too little of faith.
Actually the M.C.C. chairman, Robb Davis, had opened with a moving confessional statement, but the prepared questions posed on behalf of the 40-plus church leaders would inevitably have seemed political to the Iranians: How should we cope with hate speech, especially related to Israel? Why question the reality and significance of the Holocaust? Where do you stand on nuclear nonproliferation and the dispute with the United States over nuclear power? On Israel, he proposed a referendum, involving all Palestinians as well as Israelis, to decide the future of the land. On the nuclear issue, he stressed Iran’s quest for independence and respect after 50 years of U.S. domination. Nuclear weapons were not his goal.
After the fact, the event appeared to some to have been a missed opportunity. Nearly everyone (and I include myself in this) felt compelled, either out of personal integrity, institutional commitment or, God forbid, out of fear of public criticism, to ask the questions that were on every American’s mind. The result, as one veteran peace church official said, was that we had failed to meet Mr. Ahmadinejad on his ground.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s religious message stressed the possibilities of shared work for justice, peace and human welfare. Showing theological sophistication, he remarked that though we must work for these things, only God can grant the results. Then he commented that God will send “the Pious One,” that indeed he is with us now effecting God’s rule.
Later, I asked the Rev. Elias Mallon, a member of the Friars of the Atonement and an expert on Islam, whether he too had heard echoes of Shiite faith in the coming of the 12th Imam, sometimes called “the Mahdi,” a messianic figure. He replied, “Yes, I did.” Later Father Mallon wrote me, “He spoke of the ‘Final Pious Man,’” and then said, ‘We think that Entity is here.’”
Professor Gerald Shenk, of Eastern Mennonite University, recently returned from Iran, interjected that Mahdism is a topic of intense discussion there. To my unpracticed ears, Ahmadinejad’s words had the ring of millenarianism, that is, a theology of God’s coming kingdom. That was Professor Shenk’s sense as well. He explained: “The key is hope for the return of the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam, who is expected to restore righteous rule after a season of great injustice. The conspicuous failures of modernity (oppression, tyranny, wickedness and economic inequities) are seen as paving the way for a rebirth of true religion.”
Talk of the Mahdi, however, also carries undertones of apocalyptic violence, and that was of some concern to both experts. “The problem,” Mallon wrote me, “is that the whole thing wasn’t really clear—as most ominous things are.” At other times, notably in 19th-century Sudan, Mahdism fired religious resistance to British imperialism. It would have been worth pursuing the dialogue to explore whether common hopes and visions underlay both sides’ quest for justice, or whether references to the Mahdi carried a hint of future religious violence. But then all those voices in our heads had compelled us to ask “hard questions”; we were captives of our culture, unable to respond to the president’s religious discourse. It was a lesson in how great the divide can be between two societies separated by politics and religion, and how trying it can be, even for experienced peacemakers, to reach across that divide.