World News

Ayatollah Khomeini: new man at the gate

February 5 1979
World News

Ayatollah Khomeini: new man at the gate

February 5 1979

Ayatollah Khomeini: new man at the gate


Ninety-nine per cent of Iranians support Ayatollah Khomeini, said former U.S. attorney-general Ramsey Clark last week. And Saturday's dramatic announcement by Iran's Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar that he would fly to Paris to seek the exiled ayatollah 's “advice on the future of the country" merely underlined the fact that, at least for the present, only Khomeini holds the power to direct the country's destinies. How would he use it? There are conflicting interpretations of his utterances. Marci McDonald, in this profile, explores the enigma:

He is the unlikeliest of political strongmen. He controls no army— his troops are an enormous ragtag amalgam of unarmed citizens brandishing bricks and a quarter-century of pent-up rage. He cannot boast of any foreign alliances. His policy pronouncements have been laughed at as unrealistic and anachronistic; his view of the world has been dismissed as just slightly more up-to-date than that of Genghis Khan.

Yet in this age of the Bionic Woman and the Six-Million-Dollar Man, when every schoolchild grows up knowing might is right and “modern” is the one adjective that is sacrosanct, a frail 78year-old in white flowing beard, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Mossavi Khomeini, has toppled one of the world’s oldest, wealthiest and most awesomely armed monarchies.

Since that extraordinary feat of revolution by remote control from his Paris exile, the world has awaited his triumphant return to his native land, the sweeping aside of the government set up by the Shah’s man, Shapour Bakhtiar, the emergence from the shadows of the ayatollah’s Islamic Revolutionary Council, the enshrinement of a progressive (socially) but conservative (religiously) Moslem state after national elections and the apotheosis of Khomeini as ... but there the trouble starts.

Despite the microphones and other claptrap of the Western media that have been poked under his ragged whiskers in an attempt to learn Iran’s fate, the answers from beneath the black turban,which commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s sonin-law,have done little to solve the riddle of how the nation can expect to resurrect itself.

Some correspondents have emerged to report with certainty that he had said he would return to Iran as its new leader, while others were just as certain that he had denied any such ambitions. Wire services crackled with reports of newly unearthed writings, rife with

hints of racism and xenophobia, which clearly clashed with his recent assurances of tolerance for minorities.

Part of the confusion arose because Khomeini speaks neither French nor English, and his aides frequently dispute translations of his vaguely worded utterances. But the better part of the puzzlement is rooted in the Western world’s rudimentary comprehension not only of Islam but the Shi’a sect where notions of spiritual and secular power are fundamentally intertwined.

Born into a deeply religious family in Khumain, a town 180 miles south of Tehran, under the name Ruhollah Hendí, the Shah’s future nemesis was

weaned on the firm Shi’ite mistrust of all authority which springs from the sect’s origins. It traces its roots back to Ali, a caliph who assumed leadership after Mohammed’s death in the seventh century, who was also married to the prophet’s daughter, Fatima. When Ali was ultimately defeated and his two sons killed, the Shi’a were reduced to a minority and today still represent only 10 per cent of the world’s Moslems, chiefly in Iran and Iraq.

Like most minorities, they were subjected to persecution and sustained by the belief in the second coming of a divine leader, the Hidden Imam, who will restore justice and righteousness.

Until that time, the sect’s priests, or imams, are the caretakers of his flock while all temporal and secular leaders who claim power—as the Shah did—are regarded as usurpers or “illegitimate.”

The Shah himself was doubly guilty as the son of the peasant army colonel who became Reza Shah the Great and tampered with Islamic authority by introducing secular law in place of Moslem jurisprudence, taking over education and forbidding women to wear the chadour— the head-to-toe black veil.

Hendi quickly made his mark as a brilliant student. But in 1930, when a brother was arrested for political activity, he took on the name of Khomeini and as a faqih, a specialist in Islamic law, he gained a reputation early as a militant voice among the young. He nevertheless maintained a low profile

until the early 1960s. Then, following the death of Ayatollah Borujerdi, he became one of the leading contenders from among the sect’s six “grand ayatollahs” (or archbishops) for the mantle of Shi’ite spiritual leader.

His ascendance coincided with the Shah’s decision to unleash the White Revolution founded on the unfulfilled promise of land reform. While critics are quick to point out that the Moslem clergy’s outrage may have had more than a little to do with the confiscation of their land, they fail to note t;hat, in fact, their holdings were minor (fewer than 200 villages) compared to the vast private feudal tracts. What did fan the

indignation of the mullahs (Islamic holy men) was the further erosion of their moral and political authority.

After mass rioting broke out in early 1963, sparked by one of the ayatollah’s sermons comparing the Shah to Yazid, whose troops killed one of the Prophet’s grandsons, Khomeini was carted off to exile with his second wife and youngest son. The Shah thus unwittingly cemented Khomeini’s reputation as both martyr and hero, a rallying point for all discontent with his own increasingly autocratic ways.

Khomeini’s political profile was discreet as he preached to his faithful, but it is excerpts from some of those lectures, published in Arabic in 1970 under the title Islamic Government and now leaking out, which are currently stirring Western fears. Writing that “it is our duty to . . . shout at the top of our voices until people understand that the Jews and their foreign masters are plotting against Islam and are preparing the way for the Jews to rule over the entire planet,” he raised the spectre not only of virulent anti-Semitism but of a campaign against all foreigners. His aides, however, insist that the wording has been taken out of context and that the rights of Iran’s Jewish and Armenian minorities will be preserved, and their version jibes with the traditional Moslem view that Jews and Christians are “people of the book” (the Koran) and therefore fellow believers.

The final act which pushed Khomeini into the role of Iran’s savior came when the Shah’s ministry of information made the disastrous miscalculation of planting an article in the Iranian press, a year ago last January, which questioned not only Khomeini’s piety but even his Iranian origins (one of his grandfathers spent time in India). His followers erupted in the first wave of rioting which saw his portrait brandished as a banner of war, and ultimately brought down the Peacock Throne.

Last month, as the United States was still trying to shore up the Shah’s regime, presidential adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski characterized Islam as “a fundamentalist reaction, if you will, an escape from modernity.” That is a purely Western judgment and it fails to take account of others’ values.

While the Western press constantly raises the stereotype of an Iranian Islamic republic where thieves’ hands will be lopped off and women will be reconsigned to purdah (seclusion from public), it has seldom been pointed out that the Shi’ites, unlike the Moslems of Saudi Arabia, have been noted for their more evolutionary (as opposed to traditional Moslems) attitudes. Still, there is no doubt that Khomeini will demand a return of jurisprudence to the mosque

and he has made clear that abortion, premarital sex, co-education, alcohol and Western films would be outlawed. It remains to be seen, too, what he meant when he promised that women would continue to take a prominent place in society.

But from that point on nothing is certain. If the ayatollah returns to Iran there is no guarantee that an assassin’s bullet might not instantly convert a living legend into the greatest of the last year’s crop of revolutionary martyrs. Or he could be robbed of the political spoils (assuming he wanted to enjoy them) by a military coup. Only history will record whether the apparently anachronistic holy man in the black robes will go down as the devil his critics portray him as, dragging Persians back to the Dark Ages, or a modern-day saint who has forged the most significant step yet in a new Islamic renaissance.