What amazed me at my visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month was how a man in a black turban and long flowing robe stole the show and became the rock star of the conference.
I sat about 30 feet from President Hassan Rouhani of Iran as he lied through his teeth about being a moderate, even as his government, according to the UN, hanged 40 people from cranes in public spaces in Iran in the month of January alone. And that is to say nothing of his spinning centrifuges, designed to bring about wholesale destruction of the Jewish state.
Last week Iran celebrated the 35th anniversary of its barbarous revolution, amid renewed calls of “death to America.” What is astonishing about Iran is how it is repeatedly described as a religious republic. As if you can be religious and still hang homosexuals in public, stone women to death, funds terror groups that dismember children, and shoot political opponents in the streets.
Are you really religious when you fund cold-blooded killers like Hezbollah, and pay for Israelis who planned to sit innocently on a beach in Bulgaria returned home in a box?
No, this is not religion but a farce of faith. A travesty of tradition. A ridiculing of ritual. The world’s biggest atheist is more devout than the charlatan Ayatollah Ali Khameini, whose spirituality is expressed through repeated calls for Israel’s extermination and by calling Jews dogs. As least the atheist doesn’t compromise his conviction or disgrace his dogma with the most insidious hypocrisy. If Khameini is “a religious leader” than I am the king of France. Iran’s supreme leader is a spiritual snake oil salesman. A devout phony. A pious impostor. A holy hoaxer. A sacred scam artist.
We’ve got his number.
Of all the nauseating spectacles in the world, few are as stomach-turning as extremist, intolerant religion, of which Iran is the world’s supreme paragon. The religious fanatic is defined primarily by his self-appointed mandate to judge nonbelievers, as if a call to condemnation over compassion is God’s primary demand of the faithful.
But the purpose of religion is not to focus on the world as it is but on how it ought to be. The truly spiritual person finds it difficult to be dismissive of anyone because he sees God wherever he looks. The principal purpose of faith is for humans to achieve a proximity with God. The closer you draw to God, the more humble you become. When we peer at God’s perfection, we become more conscious of our own imperfection. The larger God grows in our sight the more we shrink in our own estimation. We become less, rather than more, judgmental.
When I was a rabbinical student, the head of my seminary told me that the essence of religion is to take God very seriously and never to take yourself too seriously. But the fanatic places himself, rather than God, at the epicenter of faith, and takes himself very seriously. Everything offends him, as if God’s moral code was his own and the transgression of another is a personal affront.
I once debated a self-righteous Christian theologian about homosexuality on CNN. He asked me how I could defend gays when the Bible called them an abomination. I responded by asking him if he was aware that the Bible also referred to the arrogant as an abomination: “Every one who is arrogant is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 16:5).
Maimonides believed that goodness involves maintaining a healthy equilibrium between two extremes. For someone to lead a healthy and balanced life he must travel the golden middle path. The same is true of faith. Judaism has a built-in mechanism to assist people in achieving this pivotal balance. Studying the Torah is an act of self-affirmation, requiring the art of human comprehension. But observance of the mitzvot is precisely the opposite, demanding blind obedience, a negation of the ego.
The dynamic tension between these two contradictory postures – affirmation of self balanced by denial of the ego – is described in Jewish mysticism as “the two wings of a bird, without which it cannot fly.” The laws of propulsion dictate that there must be antithetical forces pushing from opposite sides to facilitate lift. The same is true for the elevation of the religious believer. There must be an uncompromising submission to the will of God on the one hand and a simultaneous trust in human intelligence and emotion on the other.
A country like Iran suppresses both ideas. It rejects God’s will and his commandment not to murder by arrogating to itself the divine license to take and destroy life. But likewise, it rejects its own humanity, never allowing faith to incorporate the simple traits of love and empathy, dismissing the heart as an obstacle to spiritual growth. Its faith is governed not by the heavenly trait of love but by a demonic obsession with hate.
Iran is a danger to the world not because it will misuse the explosive power of nuclear energy, although there is that too. Rather, its real danger lies in its abuse of something much more powerful – faith. And there is nothing as dangerous as a nation nurtured on the idea that love is an impediment to its beliefs.