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Wolfowitz and Sadr: Meeting in the Sand

Could a rebel cleric and the U.S. deputy defense decretary share the same beliefs?

October 22, 2004

Could a rebel cleric and the U.S. deputy defense decretary share the same beliefs?

Sadr: By the will of Allah, unless you have more men hidden here to arrest me, I would rather spend the night with Satan himself than go back out in that sandstorm.

Wolfowitz: The "New York Times" thinks I am much worse than Satan, but there's no reason to go back out in that storm, there are only two of us here, as I see there are only two of you.

Sadr: What are you doing in Iraq? I thought you could watch all this come apart from your comfortable armchair at the Pentagon, or even Johns Hopkins University!

Wolfowitz: What am I doing here? Well, to be honest, I'm trying to collect some good news stories to help along President Bush's electoral prospects. As for Hopkins, I don't think I'd be more comfortable there — most of my graduate students think I'm worse than Satan, too.

Sadr: My students never stop complaining! I ask them to read "Virtuous City" and you'd think I was extending Ramadan for two months.

Wolfowitz: "Virtuous City"? You mean the "Virtuous City" by Al-Farabi, the great medieval Arab philosopher? You're teaching your imams a text that rejects pre-destiny and asserts reason over revelation?

Sadr: How is it that one of the little Satans knows Al-Farabi?

Wolfowitz: He's one of Leo Strauss' "considerate few". But I see that I've perplexed you. I only wish I'd perplexed you back in Najaf before your Mahdi Army got into the Imam Ali shrine.

Sadr: Once we got Prime Minister Allawi's attention — and Iran's got your attention — it turned out we didn't have to stay in the shrine all that long. But who is this Leo Strauss?

Wolfowitz: Think of him as the Ayatollah Khamenei of the American neo-conservative movement.

Sadr: Is this a new religion?

Wolfowitz: You really do sound like the "New York Times". Strauss was a political philosopher at Chicago. Al-Farabi wrote one of about ten esoteric texts that Strauss thought captured a truth so dangerous they had to hide it between their very own lines — and that only he and a very few others could interpret.

Sadr: He's right about Al-Farabi.

Wolfowitz: But what about pre-destiny? What about revelation?

Sadr: You cannot take these texts at face value.

Wolfowitz: That's exactly what Strauss would have said!

Sadr: But the way I would put it — just between you and me — is that Islam symbolizes the truth. Perhaps it's the closest my students can stand getting to the truth.

Wolfowitz: Which is just how I read Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher two centuries later.

Sadr: Of course, the author of the "Guide for the Perplexed". I was wondering whether anyone had recommended him to your president. But tell me how you read him.

Wolfowitz: For Maimonides, religion is a way of talking about the truth. But Maimonides thinks philosophers themselves must look elsewhere.

Sadr: And yet, he claims to reconcile philosophy and religion — just like Al-Farabi.

Wolfowitz: That's what he claims to the common reader. I mean, the careless reader.

Sadr: Right, but to those who understand, he is really saying the opposite.

Wolfowitz: Absolutely. He's really showing us what to tell our followers, so, well…

Sadr: So they will follow! Do all your leaders understand these things?

Wolfowitz: Well, not the president. But he follows along pretty well.

Sadr: No, I meant your leaders.

Wolfowitz: I see. Well, Powell is clueless. He just says what he believes. And now George Will is going soft, too. But Rummy is solid. How about here?

Sadr: Sistani is as clueless as your Powell. But in Iran, they see things more clearly. Especially their former President Rafsanjani — now he is a true philosopher! So tell me, what does this mean for your goal of democratizing the Middle East?

Wolfowitz: You see, the American people have a soft spot for democracy.

Sadr: And you?

Wolfowitz: I have a soft spot for whatever the American people have a soft spot for.

Sadr: It sounds a little bit like your philosopher Maimonides on religion. What will democracy — or at least an election — do for you in Iraq?

Wolfowitz: To be honest — and why not in an end-of-the-world sandstorm? — an election in Iraq will be good for democracy in the United States.

Sadr: What exactly do you seek from democracy in the United States?

Wolfowitz: One way to put it is that in democracy, sometimes the clear thinkers can rise to the top.

Sadr: So this little election you are trying to set up here so close to your own…

Wolfowitz: … if it helps the clear thinkers in the United States stay on top. But you don't seem fazed by a thing I'm saying. I thought you really did support rule by the majority in Baghdad. After all, you Shiites are the majority.

Sadr: Shiites may be the majority, but that does not guarantee that the clear thinkers among them will rise to the top. In the meantime, democracy is letting those thinkers get closer.

Wolfowitz: May democracy always be so useful for the true philosophers.

Sadr: May it be the will of Allah!