The New Islamic Whirlwind
To many anxious Westerners, the Tehran Hilton hotel was a reassuring enclave in the tumultuous time before the 1979 revolution that toppled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran. There was Muzak in the elevators, alcohol behind the bar and oil and technology traded across the tables. Each year a stammering beauty was crowned Miss Iran in its pink-walled ballroom. Such dubious symbols of the West’s “satanic” culture have long been effaced from the renamed Freedom Hotel. Now, as Iran enters its seventh year under the iron rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ballroom is sometimes used for a deadly serious mission: the export of the Islamic revolution.
Tremors: Since March, 1982, the ballroom has been the site of strategy sessions of radical Shi’ite Moslems representing an estimated 40 countries. With the blessing and support of Khomeini, the self-declared supreme interpreter of the will of Allah, Islam’s name for God, they are seeking to spread Iran’s totalitarian vision of the faith throughout the
burgeoning Moslem world. Khomeini’s influence, while pervasive, is only one facet of the remarkable renaissance of Islam and the growing militancy of the world’s estimated 800 million Moslems. The resurgence is experienced, like the tremors that precede an earthquake, across the Middle East and parts of Africa. Equally significant are the restless stirrings of the Moslem populations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan—and in Afghanistan, where disparate Moslem groups are locked in a bitter guerrilla war against Soviet invaders. From traditional monarchies like Saudi Arabia to unorthodox Marxist regimes like Libya, the good and the bad in Western civilization are being weighed, either to be cast aside or reconciled with Sharia, the strict Islamic law that governs politics, the courts —indeed, all aspects of society.
Along the Tigris River last week, Iranian revolutionary guards lost a decisive battle in their quest to unseat Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whom Khomeini has labelled “an infidel” (page 20). In South Lebanon, passionate Shi’ites campaigned to drive out occupying Israeli forces, prompting speculation
that it might become the next Islamic republic (page 26). In Cairo, the Egyptian parliament prepared to debate constitutional changes that would bring the nation closer to the Islamic model—a move already implemented by Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry under pressure from the militant Moslem Brotherhood. Says Christine Helms, an Iranian specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington: “You can virtually take any country in the Middle East today and find that its problems have been given stimulus from the Iranian Revolution.”
Martyr: That is readily apparent in Lebanon, where radical Shi’ites supported by Iran’s Khomeini have delivered a stunning blow to Israel’s national psyche. Less than three years after Israel invaded neighboring Lebanon to rout Palestinian forces, suicide attacks by the oppressed Shi’ites of Lebanon have forced Jerusalem to speed a staged withdrawal that many analysts consider an unconditional retreat. The Shi’ites have many weapons, but the most potent, unarguably, are human bombs—devotees like Hassan Qassir, a 19-year-old electrical engineering student and now a
martyr to his 1,500 fellow residents of Borj Rahhal, a village near Tyre. On Feb. 4, after receiving permission from a local Shi’ite sheik, he drove a car packed with explosives into an Israeli convoy, killing himself and 10 soldiers. Qassir acted after an Israeli raid on his school, during which the soldiers allegedly cursed the Koran, Islam’s sacred Book of God.
Mystical: The random Shi’ite raids have demoralized Israelis and stained the reputation of their army. Said Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin: “Israel has never encountered an enemy like this. Their fanaticism knows no bounds.” Moreover, Israel’s “iron fist” policy of brutal retaliation has only aggravated the situation. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Moshe Sharon, a professor of Islamic history at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, noted, “Israel found itself in a vicious circle and in the process became identified with the long line of Shi’ite enemies, against whom war is nothing less than a mystical religious duty.” Added James Bill, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the University of Texas: “It is not wise policy for any country to stand in the path of a movement with such populist roots. We think of them as terrorists and as anti-American, but we don’t have a grip on what is going on.”
But Israel’s experience in Lebanon demonstrates how few lessons have been learned about Shi’ite extremism since Iranian Shi’ites stormed the U.S.
Embassy in 1979, forcing America and 52 hostages to endure a 444-day lesson in humiliation. Since then, radical Shi’ites, some with suspected ties to Iran, others clearly independent, have racked up a numbing death toll throughout the Middle East in a string of bombings, ambushes and assassinations (“assassin” is an Arabic word first used to describe members of a secret Moslem society that murdered invading European Crusaders in medieval times). In October, 1981, four Moslem fanatics, reputedly members of the Islamic Jihad (holy war), assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
In Lebanon, hundreds lost their lives in a 1983 car bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy and later that year in simultaneous suicide bombings of U.S. and French military contingents in the country.
Similar Shi’ite Jihad attacks in the Persian Gulf state of Kuwait hit six targets on the same day —Dec. 12, 1983—including the U.S. and French embassies. Last Sept. 20 another suicide truck bomber destroyed part of the U.S. Embassy annex in East Beirut, killing 14 and injuring dozens.
The U.S. state department is now embarking on an estimated $3.3-bil-
lion program to fortify and even rebuild 139 of its embassies abroad. About twothirds of the funds will go to fortify buildings in Middle East countries. In Washington, the White House, Congress, the state department and several other government buildings have installed concrete barriers to deter car bombers and added elaborate internal security devices. Notes Robin Wright, a veteran Middle East journalist currently finishing a book on terrorism and the Islamic revolution: “The PLO, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang and Italy’s Red Brigades have never had that kind of effect.”
Fatalism: Clearly, their willingness, even enthusiasm to die for a cause—and
_ secure a place in heaven
—has made Iranian and other extremist Shi’ite groups formidable opponents. “For you in the West, suicide means an act of despair, of defeat,” Daoud Daoud, a Lebanese Shi’ite resistance leader, told Maclean's. “But we are fighting a battle for our land and for us it is the ultimate act of sacrifice and hope.” To another Western reporter, Ali Jaber, a doctor from a Lebanese village outside of Tyre, offered a similar explanation. “You do not know
when you are going to die, maybe in an hour, a day, a month. A few years. But to know the exact moment of your death is a marvellous thing,” Jaber explained.
Martyrdom is rooted deeply in Islamic theology. According to Islam, Allah knows not only the past but the future. Hence, the hour of a man’s death is predetermined and nothing can be done i to advance or delay it. The Iranian soldiers who crossed the Tigris last week in the face of superior Iraqi firepower —like the Shi’ite bombers elsewhere —represent the ultimate expression of this fatalism. The veneration of martyrs i and the ceaseless fight to wrest land and control from a dominant or threatening culture are constants stretching back almost to the seventh-century genesis of Islam, the youngest of the universal ! religions.
Holy: Just as much of the impetus for the current Islamic renewal results ! from a rejection of the materialism of Western culture, Islam began as a new interpretation of the monotheistic message first carried by such Jewish proph! ets as Abraham, Moses, Jesus and his disciples. Islam was revealed first to ; Mohammed, a onetime merchant who I lived in what is now Saudi Arabia from ; about 570 to 632 AD. Through his prophet, Allah offered an all-encompassing blueprint governing every facet of life, from hygiene to marriage, from war to contracts, from crime to the treatment of animals. Its foundations are the five pillars of Islam, starting with the fundamental tenet: “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet.” In addition, there is a ritual of prayer five times daily, fasting during the daylight hours in the month of Ramadan, the donation of a portion of income and a required pilgrimage—the hajj—to holy Mecca in Saudi Arabia at least once in a lifetime.
Allah’s directions extend even to banking: usury is condemned, although interest can be charged if used for the common good. From the desert Islam spread through Damascus and Baghdad to North Africa and into Spain to the west, Turkey to the north and India to the east. Later, Arab traders carried their faith to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, where years of isolation from the Middle East have given the faith an indigenous flavor.
Through the centuries various dissident sects—Kharijites, Murji’ites, Jabarites, Qadarites—broke away from the majority Sunni (traditional) Moslems. But the basic schism that gave rise to the Shi’ites occurred in the turmoil after the death of Mohammed. The Shi’ites—virtually the entire population of Iran, a majority in Iraq and the largest single religious group in LebanI
on—believe that Mohammed nominated his nephew and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor. The Sunnis—almost 80 per cent of Moslems—believe decisions are made by consensus, without the guidance on earth of a semidivine line of leaders. Both Ali and his son Husain died violent deaths in what is now Iraq. Recapturing their shrines, near Najaf and Karbala respectively, remains one
of Iran’s key objectives in its protracted war with Iraq.
Graphic: Husain’s death especially is a focus for the veneration of Shi’ite suicide squads. On the anniversary of Husain’s death, Shi’ites traditionally engage in self-flagellation and laceration. Scenes of thousands of Iranian Shi’ites bleeding from self-inflicted wounds during the unsettling days of the hostage crisis underscored what many Moslems claim is the West’s simplistic, one-dimensional view of Islam. Last month Israeli television showed film footage of a procession through the streets of the Lebanese port city of Sidon in which hundreds of Shi’ites beat
their fists against their foreheads until blood flowed down their faces. “That,” said a senior government official, “said it all.”
For many Westerners, Islam presents a vaguely threatening image, originating with the Christian Crusades of the | 11th, 12th and 13th centuries and the struggle to free the Christian Holy Land from Moslem hordes. Now, Islam is linked in the West to the 1973 oil embargo by the Islamic majority of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and to the graphic pictures of the bloated bodies of thousands of Iranian martyrs slaughtered last week in their ill-starred attempt to storm into Iraq through the border marshlands.
Deadly: The rare visits of Western journalists to Iran recently yield a portrait of a nation obsessed with martyrdom. Water, colored to look like blood, spews like an open wound from a fountain at the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery south of Tehran. It is a celebration of thousands of lives—almost an entire generation of Iranian youth—lost in the the war with Iraq. Across the street from the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the three-storey Taleghani Centre trains elite suicide squads whose education includes mixing deadly explosives j and wiring them to automobiles. “In one week I can assemble 500 faithful ready to throw themselves into suicide operations,” said Taki Moudarrissi, a leader at the centre.
The Islamic penal code, with such punishments as the amputation of a hand for theft or the stoning of adulterers, is rigidly enforced. ! Women are required to wear either a chador, a black robe covering body and face, or shapeless pants and tunic with a headscarf, called the hejab. The universities, once closed for Islamization, are reopening. But, said Ahmad Madani, Iran’s minister of defence for two ; months after the revolution and now in exile in Paris, “They’re exercising a kind of censorship. No discussion of politics is ; allowed.”
The 85-year-old Khomeini’s version of Islam has disillusioned many Shi’ite moderates who supported the over-
throw of the shah from the Peacock Throne in 1979. Declared Madani: “I think the religious fascism which is spreading in Iran is worse than political fascism. It’s worse than any other form of regime.” In another corner of Paris, in a large, shuttered Victorian house protected around the clock by elite French security forces, former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr claimed there is mounting resistance to Khomeini’s costly preoccupation with the Iraq war. Troops are being recruited from the villages since townspeople are refusing to fight, he told Maclean’s.
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Khomeiniism, the harsh and literal return to Koranic law, will survive the frail ayatollah, whose health, while stable, is plagued by chronic heart and bowel conditions. “Fundamentalism in Iran may be on the decline,” said Shireen Hunter, an Iranian specialist with the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I believe that the chances for significant chaos are very signficant once Khomeini dies.” Agreed Helms, the Brookings scholar: “There is a would-be government on every street corner in Iran.”
Radicalization: Khomeini’s success as an exporter of ideas is hard to measure, but hundreds of Islamic agents have been dispatched abroad, seeking soil for the seeds of revolution. Khomeini has ruled that hereditary governments—monarchies, sheikdoms, sultanates—are illegal and that their overthrow must be encouraged. That definition would make targets of eight of the 22 states in the Arab League. Already, noted Helms, “you can see
Khomeini’s influence in the radicalization of the Shi’ites in Lebanon, the parliamentary byelections in Jordan where three of the eight people elected were extreme Islamic conservatives, the troubles in the Kuwait Parliament, the attempted coup in Bahrain in 1981—and even in the assassination of Sadat. Khomeini has tremendous appeal for the young and the uneducated because he offers them a way toward power sharing in government.”
But there have been no spectacular conversions, and American historian Daniel Pipes, for one, insists that other countries are not accepting Iran’s ideo-
logical program. “When all else fails, you try terror,” said Pipes, author of In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power. “I read that as an admission of how badly [Iran’s] campaign has failed.” Still, Western analysts say that Khomeini’s influence remains strong. Even on the Indian subcontinent, posters of Khomeini have been turning up in peasant villages. Indeed, several experts cite parallels between Lebanon now and Iran in the late 1970s. Certainly, the influence of Israel and the United States, avowed enemies of Khomeini’s Islam, make Lebanon an ideal target in Iranian eyes. And, said William Beeman, an anthropologist at Brown University in Providence, R.I., the violence that the chronically oppressed Shi’ite population has unleashed in recent months could well expand into a revolutionary Moslem takeover when Israel leaves. Declared Beeman: “Islamic revolutionaries are dealing with the Moslem population of Lebanon much as their counterparts dealt with the population of Iran during the revolution of 1978-
79—by imbuing events with heavy religious symbolism.” Other analysts claim, however, that most Shi’ite leaders realize that an attempt to impose an Islamic government in Lebanon on the powerful Maronite Christian and Sunni Moslem communities would be impossible.
Awesome: Even if Iran’s quest for converts to Khomeiniism is stalled, the Islamic movement is not. Indeed, with the still docile population of 50 million Moslems in Soviet Central Asia, many analysts contend that the movement has only begun to tap its awesome potential. Said James Phillips, an expert on Iranian affairs with the Washington-
based Heritage Foundation: “We have seen Islamic fundamentalists attack Western embassies. But in the long run, Moscow has more to fear. They are currently fighting Moslems in Afghanistan and know only too well the high cost.” But even now, many experts regard the rise of Islam as one of the pivotal events of the modern era. “If you consider the Russian Revolution a spillover from the past century,” says a confidential Western report, “then the Islamic revolution is the only genuine revolution of the 20th century.”
Its success may well depend on whether the world’s one billion Christians and 800 million Moslems can submerge centuries of enmity long enough to realize that they are striving toward the same reward: a place that both the Bible and the Koran promise flows with milk and honey.