Iftar is a beautiful custom within the liturgical practice of Islam. During Ramadan, the month of fasting, sunset marks the time when food may be taken again. Families and communities offer meals for friends and neighbors, often inviting those who are not practicing Muslims to join with them in sharing special dishes. This can be a relaxed and congenial setting for interfaith dialogue, especially among those who have inherited the biblical tradition, those whom the Quran calls “the people of the book.” The same chapter of the Quran that deals with how and when the fast should be broken also speaks of “the people of the book,” and hospitality is deeply rooted in Islamic theology.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations recently co-sponsored an Iftar at New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the featured guest. The meeting was co-hosted by Christian groups, most notably by the Mennonites, the Quakers and the World Council of Churches. The event had an ennobling theme, “Has not one God created us? The significance of religious contributions to peace.”
The result, however, was anything but ennobling.
Many organizations — both Christian and non-Christian — had criticized the September 25 event in advance. Documented policies of religious oppression within Iran and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program provoked deep concern about the Iftar and engendered anger at its Christian co-sponsors.
The Mennonites and the Quakers survived the persecution of their leaders during the 16th and 17th centuries. Their response was to articulate clear theologies of pacifism, which remain influential to this day among all those who ponder the relationship between violence and morality. So what purpose did they believe they served in co-sponsoring Ahmadinejad’s evening breakfast?
The event’s Christian co-sponsors made it plain that they by no means wished to signal agreement with all of Ahmadinejad’s policies and statements. Their intent was to treat him, not as a pariah, but rather as a leader with whom dialogue is necessary. Part of their agenda, as explained by the American Friends Service Committee, a prominent Quaker organization that co-hosted the Iftar, was to rebuke the Bush administration for what they regard as its confrontational posture toward Iran. And yet, Ahmadinejad, in his speech to the General Assembly two days earlier, was himself nothing if not confrontational toward the United States. “American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road,” he said. The Christian co-hosts of the Iftar dinner may or may not agree with this sort of rhetoric, but that was far from the only inflammatory passage in his speech.
Ahmadinejad has long been embroiled in controversy over his statements regarding the State of Israel. Some have argued that he has not exactly called for Israel to be wiped off the map, but merely wished for it to collapse, as the Soviet Union did. Either way, his feelings toward the Jewish state are undeniably ugly, and he made his hostility unmistakably clear in his General Assembly speech. “In Palestine, 60 years of carnage and invasion is still ongoing at the hands of some criminal and occupying Zionists,” he said. His proposed solution was for a “free referendum” to set up a new state in order to replace the regime that, in his words, has “no way for it to get out of the cesspool created by itself and its supporters.”
This is what Ahmadinejad had to say the day before his Iftar for peace. His remarks are consistent with his previous statements, but the juxtaposition of his speech and the Iftar only highlighted the irresponsibility of the event’s Christian co-sponsors.
Christians can and do differ over the degree of support that Israel should be accorded, over how to respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and over how the Islamic Republic of Iran should be treated. But in his speech to the United Nations the day before the Iftar, Ahmadinejad staked out a position that no theologically aware Christian can condone.
In terms reminiscent of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the antisemitic tract that poisoned Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, Ahmadinejad spoke out against what he called a “Zionist network,” complaining that “they have been dominating an important portion of the financial and monetary centers as well as the political decision-making centers of some European countries and the U.S. in a deceitful, complex and furtive manner.” This incitement to hatred complements Ahmadinejad’s well-known proclivity to deny the reality of the Holocaust.
Moments come to Christians, as to other people of conscience, when they need to recognize that a person or a movement has set itself in direct opposition to their principles. Ahmadinejad has deliberately resorted to a tradition of hate speech whose intended consequence — proven repeatedly by hard experience — is violence against Jews. The pogroms of the Middle Ages, abetted by corrupt church leaders and a theology that endorsed murder, formed the background of Hitler’s genocide.
No one can claim ignorance in regard to the consequences of the kind of antisemitism that Ahmadinejad has expressed. Christians of conscience need unequivocally to reject his position, and to cease supporting events that are little more than photo opportunities for an erratic politician who faces waning legitimacy abroad and dwindling support at home.
The Rev. Bruce Chilton is director of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College and chairs the Episcopal-Jewish Relations Committee for the Episcopal Diocese of New York. He is the author, most recently, of “Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” (Doubleday).