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The original radical

The original radical

Author: Editorial
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April 12, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/168902/The-original-radical.html

Con Coughlin's book on Ayatollah Khomeini makes easy reading of a not-so-easy subject, say KR Phanda and Prafull Goradia

Khomeini's Ghost
Author : Con Coughlin
Publisher : Macmillan, England
Price: £5.99

The book under review is a lucid history of Iran in the context of Ayatollah Khomeini's career. Written expressively but in simple language it makes an easy reading of a not-so-easy subject. It does not appear to miss any crucial point or turn in Khomeini's career. It talks about the Ayatollah's success in engineering his Islamic revolution, its historical significance for the world as well as its national legacy which has reduced a great civilisation to an Islamist ghetto. There was a time when the Persian empire of King Darius in 522 BC stretched from where Greece ended and up to Afghanistan, from the Black Sea to the Blue Nile. Today, it is a Muslim country trying to make a nuclear device by stealing technology. And so hoping to manipulate West Asian politics.

If one short sentence can sum up the secret of Khomeini's success it comes in his own words: "All of Islam is politics." Evidently, he believed in this dictum from the beginning of his career as a cleric. In the bargain, he never rose to any great height as a high priest of religion, although he liked to portray himself as a man of God. Most of the other Ayatollahs were quietly opposed to him most of the time, and did not allow him to get the honour of an Ayatollah until 1962, two years before his exile from Iran. Yet when it came to politics he was by far the most outstanding mass leader in opposition to the Shah, Reza Mohammed Pahlavi. By the time he was exiled in 1964, it was widely accepted in Iran that the tussle was between his turban and the Shah's crown. Who would win eventually was the only question.

In the words of author Con Coughlin, "Shunned by the mainstream Islamic hierarchy, Khomeini concentrated his energies on his teaching and on building his own network of devoted followers." "Students who were taught by Khomeini in Qom (a town in southern Iran) recall that by the late 1950s his classes were attracting the biggest audiences." He was incredibly popular with the students, recalled a former student. Khomeini was something of a hero for them, recalled another.

The popular teacher also traded in land and thus increased his wealth. By 1960, 3,000 families were working on land belonging to his family. In the Shia system, the teacher pays the pupils, and not the other way around, which made it necessary to have an increasing income. Khomeini's early political activity was confined to persecuting the Bahái, a favourite pastime of the Shia clergy. They did not hesitate to destroy Bahái temples and attack Bahái families. The founder of this religion was Baha'ollah, an Iranian, who happened to be buried in Acre, a town situated in Israel. That was an excuse good enough for Khomeini to accuse the Bahái of being allied with Jews and Zionists.

In January 1961, John F Kennedy became President of the USA. He consistently backed liberal reforms. In a speech made at the White House in 1962, he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." The Shah of Iran, so dependent on American aid, got induced to launch land as well as social reforms. The latter included voting rights for women and non-Muslims in local elections. Khomeini seized the opportunity to oppose the reforms. He declared that the state "has embarked on the destruction of Islam in Iran. I will oppose this as long as the blood circulates in my veins." The Zionists were accused of engineering the vote for kafirs and the future Ayatollah announced that the Quran and Islam were in danger. That giving women a vote was with the intent of corrupting Iran's chaste women.

The other opportunity came two months later when the Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi died. He enjoyed the position of Marja Taqleed, the highest among Shia clergy and appointed by Shia peers. Khomeini emerged as Iran's most prominent political mullah. He denounced America and Israel as chief enemies of Iran in place of Britain and Russia which had been the bitter detractors earlier.

The event that sealed Khomeini's emergence as the undisputed leader of radical Islam was a sermon he delivered at Qom on June 3 to mark Ashura, the religious festival that commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. With emotions already running high, Khomeini chose this moment to deliver his most incendiary speech to date against the Shah's regime, in which he launched a devastating attack on the Shah himself, Israel and the United States. He publicly denounced a warning he had received from SAVAK (the Iranian Security Agency) not to criticise the Shah, mention Israel, or claim Islam was under threat. In the speech Khomeini came close to suggesting that Iran's head of state was an Israeli agent. Addressing the Shah contemptuously as a "wretched, miserable man," he demanded, "What connection is there between the Shah and Israel? Mr Shah, perhaps they want to depict you as a Jew, so that I should declare you an infidel and they (the people) should throw you out of Iran." He concluded by declaring, "We have come to the conclusion that this regime also has a more basic aim: they are fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class."

The autumn of 1964 witnessed the Majlis or Parliament approving the Shah's proposal to give all American military personnel and their dependents diplomatic immunity. In exchange, a loan of $200 million was given to Iran to purchase arms. Khomeini reacted with the following words in the course of his speech at Qom: "If some American's servant, some American's cook, assassinates your Marja in the middle of the bazaar, or runs over him, the Iranian courts do not have the right to judge him! The dossier must be sent to America, so that our masters there can decide what is to be done! ... They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog. If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, the head of state, no one will have the right to interfere with him. Why? Because they wanted a loan, and America demanded this in return."

The Shah retaliated by sending the Ayatollah into exile. He stayed in Turkey for a year when his supporters sent him millions as donations. He then moved to Najaf, the Shia epicentre where lay buried Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph and the Prophet's son-in-law. Khomeini spent the next 13 years here, keeping in close touch with the goings on in Iran. Uncannily, the Shias of Iraq, which has a Shia majority, were not enthusiastic in their sympathy for Khomeini's cause. Nevertheless he remained unfazed. He knew that in 1963 the American backed the President of Iraq Abdul Salem Arif and his regime had slaughtered tens of thousands of local Communists. The Iraqi Shias would be cocking a snook at Washington if they supported the opponents of the Shah of Iran, an ally of America.

Nevertheless, Khomeini remained active, writing, speaking and issuing pamphlets meant for his countrymen. He interacted a great deal with his old friends, Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr and head of the Dawa Islamic Party. With his help, the Iranian Ayatollah came to define his vision for an Islamic state which in turn became the manifesto for Muslim fundamentalist regimes throughout the world. He delivered lectures and speeches which were eventually printed in a volume entitled Velayat-e-faqih or the Regency of the Theologian. This was Khomeini's blueprint for an Islamic government, his religious philosophy for application to the state based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law.

Soon after his return to Iran and acquiring power, Khomeini declared that the country will be 100 per cent Islamic. The powers entrusted to the Supreme Leader in the Constitution compare favourably to those claimed by Europe's Fascist dictators with the exception that Khomeini had the added bonus of claiming divine inspiration. All principles for Islamic government set out in Khomeini's Velayat-e-faqih for fundamentalist rule were part of the draft. Not only was Khomeini declared Supreme Leader for life, but his unique position as the spiritual guardian of the revolution was confirmed through the constitution's recognition of his status as the Imam of the Muslim Umma, the prophet of the entire Muslim world. The document stipulated that the new constitution was to remain in force until the return of the Mahdi, whose manifestation upon earth, the faithful believe, will herald the end of the world.

Khomeini's rise to power in Iran led to the resurgence of Islamist movements and the quest of Iran to become a nuclear power. Within days of the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 1982, Khomeini despatched hundreds of Revolutionary Guards to help organise the Shia resistance. Thus began the emergence of Hizbollah, the radical Lebanese Shia militia. Slogans such as "Death to America!" and "Martyrdom is the aim and hope of God's worshippers" were drilled into the minds of the youth.

The author further points out that Khomeini had inherited a well-advanced nuclear programme begun by the Shah as part of his drive to modernise Iran and work had already begun at Bushehr and Ahwaz. When Iraq introduced WMD in its war with Iran a nuclear scientist, Dr Freidoun Feshakaki, was called back to Iran in 1979 to build an atom bomb. "It is your duty to build this bomb for the Islamic republic," Feshakaki was told. Iran's nuclear programme was originally conceived in the 1960s. The Shah's plan had envisaged the construction of some 20 nuclear power plants at a cost of $30 billion by the year 2000.

The third epoch making contribution of Khomeini was the inspiration he gave to fidayeen or suicide bombers. In 1983, a van drove into the American embassy in Beirut and detonated a massive bomb which killed 63 people and injured more than 100.

The example of Khomeini's Iran provided for a resurgence of Islam the world over. The price Iran paid was of its clock of modernisation turning back a century or more.


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