Skip to main content

Ahmadinejad Steals Show At Chavez Funeral

The funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was notable for the absence of Arab leaders, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad generated controversy by comforting Chavez’s mother, writes Ali Hashem.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) offers his condolences to Elena Frias, mother of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez, during the funeral service at the Military Academy in Caracas March 8, 2013, in this picture provided by the Miraflores Palace. Chavez will be embalmed and put on display "for eternity" at a military museum after a state funeral and an extended period of lying in state, acting President Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS

Arab leaders were missed at Hugo Chavez's funeral. None showed up, despite the fact Chavez was known for his pro-Arab stances. According to one of his Arab affairs advisers, "Chavez risked many of Venezuela's interests for the Palestinian cause, but that meant nothing to the Palestinian leaders who did not travel to Caracas for his farewell."

The most senior Arab officials to take part in the funeral – which was attended by more than 30 heads of state – were two ministers representing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas respectively. The adviser, who is of Arab descent, spoke sorrowfully. "I couldn't look in his eyes even though he was dead. He did everything he could for Arabs, but their leaders were ungrateful." He added: "We know that people in the Arab world were as sad as Chavez's admirers here." Over one million Venezuelans are of Arab descent. Venezuela's interior and foreign ministers descend from Syria and Lebanon, respectively.

"Arab leaders fear the Americans," said the adviser. "Chavez's stances towards their causes discomfited them. They only care about what the White House wants, so they didn't come."

Isabelle Franjiyeh, who is originally from Lebanon, is a member of the ruling party in Venezuela. She told me when we met after the funeral that Venezuela's commitment to Arab causes would not be affected by such an incident. "We care for the people there," she said. "Our leadership is attached to the grass roots, not the elite." Before leaving, she made a brief but significant remark: "Venezuelans never felt the absence of Arab leaders; they were overwhelmed by [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's presence."

The Iranian president's presence might have been very important to pro-Chavez Venezuelans, especially after a picture was publicized showing him holding the hands of Chavez's mother. However, this same picture seems to have given Ahmadinejad a bit of headache in Iran and within religious Shiite circles around the world. It is known that in the Shiite version of Islam, physical contact between a man and non-related women is forbidden. According to the website of one of Iran's ayatollahs, "This reality is beyond debate. It would be necessary for you to explain your position and beliefs to others in that by refraining from shaking hands you do not mean to insult them and that you are obeying the rules of your religion."

Several Conservative MPs on the Iran Islamic Shura Council criticized the president's attitude. "Such an attitude by a senior official contradicts with our beliefs," said MP Mohammed Dahqan, who urged the ayatollahs to issue statements condemning the incident.

Another MP, Mohamed Mahdi PorFatemi, said, "If it was anyone other than Ahmadinejad who did so, he would be called a traitor."

Social networks and websites were flooded with the picture, while many pro-Ahmadinejad activists strained to convince people the image had been photoshopped. "President Ahmadinejad is a pious Muslim. He won't do such a thing," said one. As many as 200 comments flooded a page that had posted a photoshopped image showing Ahmadinejad with a man instead of a woman.

Later, video of the incident emerged and the debate over the authenticity of the image halted. The debate then shifted to the reasons behind Ahmadinejad's action.

"She surprised him, and he wasn't able to do anything," said one reader. Another countered, "He could have avoided her." A war of words began, and participants in the dialogue seemed divided. Some gave excuses; others attacked. Some criticized the debate itself in their comments. One of those, a religious activist, wrote, "The woman is almost 80 years old. Why do you all care about this? Chavez's mother deserves to be kissed on her forehead."

Ali Hashem is an Arab journalist who is serving as Al Mayadeen news network's chief correspondent. Until March 2012, Ali was Al Jazeera's war correspondent, and prior to Al Jazeera he was a senior journalist at the BBC. 

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Free

The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.

Free

What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing
Expert

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to pro.support@al-monitor.com and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial