The rush of global events – toppled governments, civil wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, the threat of reactor core meltdowns – serves to put a recent “documentary” video from Iran in a unique context. Assembled by the council of religious scholars in Qom, Iran, the video, which outlines signs of the coming of the 12th imam (or Mahdi) looked for by Shi’a Muslims, is making the rounds on the web.
Its content is worth being aware of; Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have both spoken publicly in the last three years of the need to prepare for the Mahdi-related events predicted in the video. Yet the documentary is simultaneously eerie and unimpressive. The video, with subtitles, is available to readers courtesy of Yid with Lid [note: video link works again]. It’s about 28 minutes. I have three observations on it:
1. The subject matter isn’t a joke, and the video certainly isn’t intended to be funny – but it is. It begs for an Onion satire. For one thing, the production values are basically PBS ca. 1970. But more importantly, the case made in the video draws on the symbols and spooky cachet of Freemasonry, which, for Americans who weren’t aware of this theme in contemporary interpretations of Hojjatieh Mahdism (see the Yid link above), will be variously illuminating, hilarious, and tiresome.
The dollar’s “eye in the pyramid” makes an early appearance, in a series of fleeting images set to a portentous sound track; the Magen David is compared – inevitably, perfunctorily – to the Masonic hexagram; a parade of photos depicts various Western leaders (including, in a touch of awe-inspiring artistry, Laura Bush) giving the fabled Freemasons’ hand signal. The warning is clear: the Masons are coming! Save all your data! Shore up the sandbag berm!
Of course, if you’ve ever done more than a half hour’s worth of web research, you probably know that Ahmadinejad himself has been pronounced a Mason by inveterate Mason spotters. We may take it that the clerics in Qom would disagree, however, since they clearly regard Masonry as inimical to Islam and the return of the Mahdi.
The Freemasonry theme serves to add hink to an already hinky thesis. What next? The Bavarian Illuminati will turn out to be involved? They’ve been plotting against the Mahdi at that Bohemian Grove thing Bill Buckley Jr. used to attend?
2. In this context, the video’s identification of figures in prophecy comes off as very Dan Brown meets the Shi’a Apocalypse. You keep expecting the narrative to cut to an underground vault where Tom Hanks is being menaced by the anguished spirit of a long-dead ulama, as he wrestles to solve the daily crypto-quote from 21 July 874.
At any rate, the documentary finds matches in prophecy for three contemporary personalities, and you’ll be shocked to learn who they are. Two heroic characters, “Seyed Khorasani” and “Yamani,” turn out to be, respectively, Ayatollah Khamenei and the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. The third character gets the most documentary attention. “Shoeib” will be appointed by Khorasani as the commander in chief of the Mahdi’s army, and after doing a lot of army stuff will conquer Jerusalem and then hand things over to the Mahdi. I know you’ll be in a terrible puzzle trying to imagine which contemporary Iranian Shi’a this person might be.
3. I don’t mean to make light of these fevered divinations, but I think it’s important to recognize the banal conspiratorialism that hovers over them, alongside the need to understand that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad actually believe them. Hannah Arendt spoke of the “banality of evil”; we might also speak of the monotony of evil. Masonic conspiracies? Detection of prophetic codes? The eye in the pyramid? Get some new material, folks.
This is important because it’s a reminder that the motivating ideas of Iran’s Most Xtreme Mahdists are not mighty, mystic, and terrible, they are shallow, derivative, and vulnerable. To depict the evil of the West, this documentary employs some of the West’s own most hackneyed symbols. It offers no proprietary, theologically based forensic inspection of the West. There’s no “there” there; the jaded American viewer figures the only thing missing is the obligatory reference to Blackwater, Halliburton, and Dick Cheney as the henchmen of Beelzebub.
Pushback would do these eschaton-immanentizers a world of good – not, of course, in the theological realm, but in the geopolitical realm. The “Mahdi” is God’s problem, but the vision in Ahmadinejad’s mind of being the Mahdi’s military commander can be undermined by humans in multiple pragmatic ways. Ahmadinejad conceives of himself in this flattering light, and conceives of the time as ripe for his glorification, not because America and the West look like a towering evil but because we look weak and stupid. History affords no examples of a self-fulfilling prophet’s courage and effectiveness increasing when he is confronted decisively with his limits and another’s power. It’s the lack of confrontation that enables him.
Sane and pedestrian political leaders can rarely bring themselves to mount such confrontations when they might still avert the widening of conflict, and those of our generation fit that pattern. But the problem is precisely that they haven’t done this. And that problem is one we can address.
UPDATE (28 March): The video linked by Yid with Lid was unfortunately deleted by the host site, a recurring problem with the subtitled copy of this video. However, Pajamas Media is now making it available here. I have left the YwL link in place in the above text as the Yid’s comments are worth the visit.
UPDATE 2: The video is now viewable once again at the Yid with Lid link. Enjoy!