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Is Bush the Devil?

In his September 20 speech to the United Nations, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela called George W. Bush the devil. Although he has said such things before, doing it before the General Assembly counts as a rhetorical escalation. Recommending a book by Noam Chomsky called Hegemony or Survival, he said:

    I think that the first people who should read this book are our brothers and sisters in the United States, because their threat is right in their own house. The devil is right at home. The devil, the devil himself, is right in the house.

     

    And the devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today. Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the President of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world. Truly, as the owner of the world.

This brought applause from the General Assembly. In the controversy that followed, people assumed that Chavez was speaking metaphorically. Clearly it was political theatre, as shown by his gestures (crossing himself, praying) and language (“smell of sulfur”). But could he have literally meant that Bush is the devil?

In Christian and Muslim prophecies, the Antichrist (Dajjal for Muslims) is portrayed as a political leader whom many people will follow. His ambition is to rule the world, and he almost succeeds, setting off a cataclysmic battle between good and evil. Many decent people are swept up on the side of evil, because his worldly success looks to them like a sign of heavenly favor. The Antichrist is a charismatic deceiver, possibly deceiving even himself. His sincerity makes him all the more dangerous.

Whether or not you believe in Biblical prophecy, or the hadith concerning the Last Days, the warning they contain should be taken seriously. We need to avoid being sucked into a cataclysmic conflict of good and evil, for the simple reason that absolutes do not exist in this world. A conflict like this is a lie. For the most powerful nation on earth to equate itself with virtue, or for its leader to claim absolute knowledge of good and evil, is either deception or self-deception, hypocrisy or insanity.

Interestingly, the Prophet Muhammad strongly warned his followers not to get mixed up in such a conflict. The following hadith, which can be found in several forms in the al-Muslim collection (Book 41, Nos. 6893, 6895, and 6896) is generally believed to refer to the Last Days.

    There will be turmoil in which the one who sits will be better than one who stands, and the one who stands will be better than one who walks, and the one who walks will be better than one who runs. He who watches them will be drawn to them. He who finds refuge or shelter should take that refuge or shelter.

I think that people raised in the Christian tradition tend to dismiss the idea of the devil as meaningless, because for them it is a children’s story, or a superstion left over from the Middle Ages. They think of the devil as a man with the legs of a goat, and the “smell of sulfur” as Chavez said. But is that really the devil? When we talk about “private demons,” we mean a person’s obsessions and neuroses, those things that distort his perception and cause him to act against his own interests. We make this connection as well when we call the devil the Great Deceiver.

The same idea exists in Islam. Here is what one Muslim scholar has to say about Iblis, the Qur’anic version of Lucifer:

    The name of Adam’s ancient enemy, Iblis, signals his ability to invert and overturn: yulabbis, he confuses and muddles mankind.

The devil is deception, confusion. Let me stretch the idea further to include the Buddhist notion of illusion. For a Buddhist, the “ancient enemy of Adam” is illusion, because human suffering is caused by our attachment to things we do not possess, such as youth, wealth, or prestige. The goal of enlightenment is to break through the illusion and release our spirit from its attachment to this world. There is much of this in Greek philosophy, too. The power of illusion, or self-deception, is very real, for it is the root cause of human suffering.

In the Qur’an different language is used, but the message is the same. The “straight path” from Allah is clearly marked, and he guides those who are on it. It is all very straightforward, almost too straightforward. In Sura Al-Araf, 7:157, it is said:

    He commands them what is right, and forbids them what is wrong. He makes lawful for them what is pure, and makes unlawful for them what is impure.

Allah never requires us to act against our interest. To the contrary, he loves what is good for us and hates what is bad for us. Yet people insist on backsliding, because devils whisper in their ears and tell them they can get away with it. “A few more cigarettes won’t hurt you.” “Insider trading can’t be proven.” “There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” In other words, they are victims of illusion. Rather than doing what is in their interest, they are trapped in self-destructive lies.

So the devil is deception, partcularly self-deception. Even more particularly, he is the form of self-deception known as hubris, which proclaims, “The rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to me.” The worst form of self-deception is when a person believes that God himself has exempted him from the rules, because he has some sort of special mission to perform. Who believes that today? President Bush.

    I believe in this principle, a principle which should be a guiding light of American foreign policy: there is an Almighty, and a gift of that Almighty to every man, woman and child on the face of the earth is freedom.

Of course freedom is a principle that applies to everyone. But given who is speaking, I take this as a claim that God is blessing his actions, that his actions are right because they are God’s work. The idea is particularly dangerous when it becomes “a guiding light of American foreign policy.” Saddest of all, Bush said this on September 28, 2006, the very day the Senate voted to give him the authority to define torture, and to hold people indefinitely without trial.

I think the case is proven. Our president is either the Great Deceiver, or the Great Deceived. He may not be the devil, but the devil is his intimate friend. His twisted logic is working its way into our nation’s moral fiber. His inability to sort reality from illusion has infected his whole party, the media, and many of his fellow citizens. Now that we’ve shown that Hugo Chavez was right, maybe we should look more closely at the rest of his speech. He had this to say about America’s influence in the world:

    …the American empire is doing all it can to consolidate its system of domination. And we cannot allow them to do that. We cannot allow world dictatorship to be consolidated. […] They say they want to impose a democratic model, but…it’s the false democracy of elites, and, I would say, a very original democracy that’s imposed by weapons and bombs…. What a strange democracy! […] What type of democracy do you impose with marines and bombs?

This is the same thing progressive critics of Bush have been saying all along, that you can’t impose democracy at gunpoint. Chavez went on to condemn the hypocrisy of supporting democracy when it gives you the results you want, while opposing it as “extremist” in places like Venezuela, Bolivia or Palestine:

    The imperialists see extremists everywhere. It’s not that we are extremists. It’s that the world is waking up. It’s waking up all over, and people are standing up. I have the feeling, dear world dictator, that you are going to live the rest of your days as a nightmare because the rest of us are standing up, all those who are rising up against American imperialism, who are shouting for equality, for respect, for the sovereignty of nations.

When I told my mother that Chavez had called Bush the devil, she chortled and went online to find his speech. When I told my friend Nabil about it, his reply was in a different register. “So far, the Americans have done nothing concrete to punish Bush for his crimes. I don’t see why they’re waiting for someone like Chavez to tell them he’s the devil.”

Nabil is one of those people Chavez is talking about who is “shouting for equality, for respect, for the sovreignty of nations.” And frankly, I can’t answer his question. With the crimes of the Bush administration in plain view, why haven’t we risen up? Bush is our responsiblity, and our fault. He’s betrayed the Constitution and the public trust. So why do opposition figures like Nancy Pelosi lapse into knee-jerk chauvanism when he is criticized? She called Chavez an “everyday thug.” Apparently she hasn’t noticed that Chavez, unlike Bush, is a popular leader who governs in a way that improves people’s lives.

If Chavez is right and we’re in the thrall of the devil, what will it take to get rid of the “world dictator,” the “owner of the world”? A Moroccan fisherman once told me that Bush won’t be satisfied until everyone is dead, and he has the world to himself. Chavez says to this man, “You are going to live the rest of your days as a nightmare because the rest of us are standing up.” In other words, democracy and social justice will defeat the Great Deceiver. How ironic if our friends in the poor countries free us from tyranny, rather than the other way around.

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