When Ebrahim Raisi came to the United Nations last week to address the General Assembly, he also revived the traditional annual meeting between Iran’s president and American religious leaders of the Abrahamic faiths. The meeting this year was entitled “The Role of Religious Leaders in the World Crisis.”
Three invited speakers were given eight minutes to open the roundtable. A rabbi told the story of a king who asked his wise men who was more powerful: the king or God? The wise men were uncomfortable with the question, but one dared to answer. The king was more powerful he explained because the king could expel a subject from his country, but no one could ever be outside the domain of God. A Christian pastor emphasized the importance of interfaith dialog and cooperation. The Muslim speaker, Prof. Abdulaziz Sachedina of George Mason University, pointed out that when, in the Qur’an, God promises Abraham that he will make leaders of his offspring, He emphasizes that His promise does not extent to the unjust.
Before President Raisi spoke there was an opportunity for many of us present to put forward questions. Many of those were directed to international issues such as Iran’s support for Palestine and Syria and the efforts to revive the JCPOA. When I was called upon to speak, I mentioned the serious problem in America of people who die while in custody of the authorities. I said that investigations have concluded that this is not merely a matter of some bad actors, but there are serious systemic problems that need to be addressed. I thanked Mr. Raisi for his earlier announcement that he intended to launch an investigation of the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of the morality police for mandatory religious education. I urged him to make sure that this investigation goes beyond searching for possible bad actors and seriously investigate the possibility of systemic problems.
In his response, Mr. Raisi did not directly address my question. However, he did strongly stress the necessity for leaders to be just and insure justice for their people. He stated that any human being can become a better human being through cultivation of four aspects of daily life: his relationship to himself, to God, to other people, and to nature itself. Religious leaders should demand that political leaders fight suffering, injustice, and unfairness. He mentioned the instructions of Imam Ali to the governor of Egypt that he must be just to all under his jurisdiction, not just Muslims. Conflicts between faith, he said, only promotes Godlessness. Instead there should be dialog between between the practitioners of different faiths and customs, facilitating constructive collaboration. He warned against changing religion under the flag of religion as ISIS (a/k/a Daesh) has done (e.g., calling for the murder of noncombatants under the flag of a religion that strictly prohibits killing noncombatants).
He also alluded to the verse in the Qur’an that may be translated, “Let there be a group among you who call others to goodness, encourage what is good, and forbid what is evil—it is they who will be successful” (3:104). Just as American leaders fund the police to defend domestic peace, Iranian leaders fund the Gasht-e Ershad to defend social decorum; but as the rest of President Raisi’s remarks suggest, neither of these goals can excuse injustice.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute