LAHORE, PAKISTAN – The passing of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met with a formidable flurry of responses from those who admired him and those hated him. Much like our own Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto here in Pakistan, most people can only either intensely love Chavez or hate him with an equal passion. For figures like Chavez and Bhutto there is seldom any middle ground. Chavez was an extraordinary phenomenon and a force of nature, but let us not forget that he was once a coup maker before he became a coup breaker. Chavez will, however, be remembered for a very long time for having helped substantially to improve the lot of millions of Venezuelans who had been victims of an unthinking elite, an elite that now celebrates Chavez’s departure.

The most amusing response to Chavez’s death came from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad may have been Chavez’s best friend in the international arena, but in many ways the two men were polar opposites. Chavez was inspired by what he termed ‘Bolivarianism’ – an ideology that he derives from Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of South America from the 19th century, and from an inventive interpretation of Marxist ideas. Simultaneously leftist and nationalist, this is a secular ideology rooted in materialism and the politics that emanates from social and material conditions. It opposes imperialism as a matter of policy because it sees imperialism as a means to turn South Americans against each other. Ahmadinejad’s motivation, in comparison, seems otherworldly. His vision is of the return of Imam Mahdi, the 12th Imam of the Shiites, along with Jesus to establish the rule of Islam and justice. Ahmadinejad opposes imperialism because in his view imperialism is the great Dajjal. This was reflected in the official message of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He claimed that along with Jesus and Imam Mehdi, a third savior will also be resurrected and that will be none other than Hugo Chavez.

Ahmadinejad’s almost rural understanding of theology would be disturbing, was it not on some level loveable (but frightening all the same). After all here is a very conservative Shia Muslim president of a fundamentalist theocracy calling a Christian leader of what purports to be a Bolivarian democracy a savior of Islam and humanity standing at par with Jesus and Imam Mehdi.

For this Ahmadinejad was not only ridiculed by the west but also heavily criticized by the religious clergy in Iran. Not for the first time, Ahmadinejad has landed in hot water with the ulema at Qom. He had angered them greatly when he suggested that Shiaism did not need a clergy not long ago. There is almost a reformer’s anguish there. One can hear echoes of Martin Luther and Calvin. Here lies the problem though: the Muslim world is where Europe was five centuries ago. Such fundamentalism combined with the deadly technology of nukes can only help to raise red flags for people around the world. President Ahmadinejad proudly claims to be working to bring the age of the return of Mehdi closer. He proclaims it his bounden duty. Who in their right mind would then think that a nuclear Iran is not going to endanger world peace?

It is said that Ahmadinejad wants to reject the narrative of the west by asking questions on the Holocaust. It is tragic that people still insist on the false binary of the west and the east in the information age. His friend Chavez also asked questions. Chavez’s questions though were far more meaningful than the questions Ahmadinejad wants to ask. The Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela is as much of western import as any of the other ideas. Ask questions, but ask them for the people of your country and not because of some internal dialogue you are having with your inner voice about how you should hasten the end of the world.

Some of our finest young minds are unfortunately taken in by similar thinking. While speaking on a panel pertaining to women’s rights in Pakistan, I encountered an educated young man asking me why I wanted the Muslims to be on the defensive and always try and fit their narrative to the western model. Here is why. In the 21st century, no matter where you are in the world, it is wrong to treat citizens unequally on the basis of biology, religious beliefs or sexual preferences. The clock on human progress is not going to be turned back any longer. Those cultures that will adapt and march in step will survive. Others will wither away. Our super-text of spirituality and metaphysics, especially that centered around the end of the world, is frankly irrelevant to this discussion. That hyperbole, unfortunately, cannot be proved or disproved by the scientific method. We may believe something but it is important to realize that in our station as members of society, especially those responsible for the lives of tens of millions like President Ahmadinejad, we must check our personal beliefs, desires, wishes and baggage at the door. Whatever his faults were, Chavez managed to do this. Resurrection or not, his legacy will sustain itself, which one cannot say for sure about Ahmadinejad.

First published in the Pakistan Daily Times


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