Published: 04 September 2006
As the West's "war on terror" burns across the Muslim world, one of Islam's most principled leaders - the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami - issued a grave warning yesterday from the very heart of America, the country whose troops and allies are fighting Islamists across the Middle East in a war that is costing thousands of Muslim lives.
"The policies of the neo-conservatives have created a war that creates more extremists and radicals," he told The Independent in Chicago. "The events of 9/11 gave them this ability to create fear and anxiety ... and to create new policies of their own and now events are creating an expansion of extremists on both sides. A struggle is under way to dominate this world multilaterally ... We are a witness to war - with suppression from one side and extremist reaction in the form of terror from the other."
Mr Khatami might appear an improbable figure in the breakfast room of one of Chicago's smartest hotels, dressed in his black turban and long gown, his spectacles giving him t+he appearance of a university don - which he once was - rather than the seer of Iran, a man whose demands for a civil society and democracy at home were overwhelmed by the ascetic clerics who surround the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Yet he is enormously important in the Sunni as well as the Shia Muslim worlds as a philosopher-scholar, which is probably why the Bush administration gave him a visa, and his message was the sharpest he has ever delivered to the Muslim world and the secular West.
The former president said: "We have to find ways to confront these people on both sides. We need public opinion to be influenced ... And now the neo-conservative policies have created this sort of war."
But Mr Khatami, who defended Iran's role in the nuclear crisis between the West and Tehran - he asked why Israel was allowed nuclear weapons while refusing to sign the nuclear non-proliferation pact - did not spare the perpetrators of what he called "the inhumane terrorist attacks" of 11 September 2001. "I was one of the first officials to condemn this barbaric act ... this inferno would only intensify extremism and one-sidedness and would have no outcome except to retard justice and intellect and sacrifice righteousness and humanity," he said.
Addressing 15,000 American Muslims at the weekend, Mr Khatami also made a clear assault on the influence of Israel's political lobby in the US. "We are unfortunately witnessing the emergence of policies that seek to confiscate public opinion in order to exploit all the grandeur of the nation and country of the United States ... policies that are the outcome of a point of view, that despite having no status in the US public arena as far as numbers are concerned, uses decisive lobby groups and influential centres to utilise the entirety of America's power and wealth to promote its own interest and to implant policies outside US borders that have no resemblance to the spirit of Anglo-American civilisation and the aspirations of its Founding Fathers or its constitution, causing crisis after crisis in our world."
When he spoke of "the vast and all-encompassing presence of powers who express concern for the world but implement policies aimed at devouring the world," there was a sense of shock among his audience. They had not expected such an epic denunciation of US hegemony from a divine known for his compassion rather than his anger.
"Any popular or democratic change or transformation that is outside the realm of their influence is not acceptable," he said, "for they find it far more convenient to deal with non-nationalistic and non-popular trends and regimes rather than popular ones, who naturally tend to care about the welfare and the physical interests of their people."
Thus did Mr Khatami dispose of America's cry for "democracy" in the "new" Middle East.
Needless to say, his words were given scarcely a few seconds on America's major news channels. Mr Khatami's wisdom is not wanted in Washington.