God, shah, and country
December 17, 2004
I picked up the telephone to talk to a friend right after a French
television station aired an hour-long programme about the Shah*.
I asked her how she liked the programme and she broke down crying
and could not stop to say anything. Watching the programme was
not easy for me either. I sat on the edge of the sofa glued to
the television swallowing my tears and watching a chronological
account of the beginning and end of a man who was the king of my
country for thirty-eight
Why me, my friend and many other Iranians feel so passionately
about the Shah? We were not part of his so-called inner circle
to be missing the royal glamour we were once surrounded with. Speaking
for myself, I do not give two hoots for royal glamour or any other
forms thereof. Neither are we pining for the cushy jobs, we had
while the Shah was in power and mourning our deprivation of those
positions now that he has gone. I and many of my peers were high
school students when the Shah left the country and were not yet
of an age for employment. Our parents also had to work hard to
make ends meet. No, the affection we have for the Shah has nothing
to do with material considerations. It has everything to do with
the love we have for our homeland.
The Shah was not a president, a mere ruler or head of state.
He was a living manifestation of the continuity of our civilization.
And what is that supposed to mean you might say? And you will be
right in your skepticism. One hears a great deal of cant rattled
off about our "ancient Iranian civilization" stretching
from Greece and Egypt across Central Asia to India and so forth.
This kind of talk is only tiresome claptrap. A great deal of it
is highfaluting self-aggrandizement of people who hide behind the
laurels of their forefathers. It can be meaningful only if the
present achievements succeed in making a logical connection to
the traditions and cultural heritage of the past. And a glance
at the current state of affairs in our country obviously shows
that this connection is non-existent. Ergo our cheque from the
bank of ancient glories would bounce miserably.
So what after all do I mean when I say that the Shah was the
manifestation of the continuity of our civilization? I mean he
was the living representation and the custodian of an identity
that was balanced on the three pillars of religious faith, national
heritage and political tradition. He was the personification and
upholder of that trinity that provided Iranians with their unique
sense of selfhood setting them apart from other cultures and civilizations.
The Shah was absolutely right when in a 1979 discussion with Sir
David Frost, in answer to the celebrated interviewer's question
about what in his opinion was the common bond uniting the Iranian
people, he answered 'The crown, the king'.
For the past quarter of a century deprived of its Shah, that
keystone of its national trinity, Iran has been writhing in the
throes of degeneration and backwardness. It has by no means lived
up to its creative potential and true national aspirations. A look
at the low morale of the dispirited Iranians living in their homeland
or abroad shows the extent of this decay. The ever climbing rate
of suicide, drug addiction, prostitution and family violence demonstrates
how the moral foundation of our country has been disturbed and
its central assumptions been thrown out of whack. If watching old
movies of the Shah makes Iranians break down in tears, it is because
of a huge emptiness in their national soul that yearns for fulfillment
and repair. For the same reason Reza Pahlavi's website is
visited by thousands of Iranians everyday and Shahbanou is greeted
by throngs of her compatriots wherever she goes.
The people of a nation can go from day to day, double and triple
the size of their population, even materially prosper and nevertheless
remain dispossessed of something essential in their collective
soul. To continue as a living civilization however requires something
quite different. The Shah was a symbol and a proof of that stubborn
Iranian spirit that had stood up to all foreign invasions and resisted
all the trespass to its cultural integrity. It had survived the
Greeks, Mongols, Arabs, Turks and the Communists because it held
on to a spiritual core of national values which was more powerful
than any of those formidable foes.
What the mullahs represented was also an important part of this
core. Shia Islam at its best like its Zoroastrian predecessor was
a strong pillar that held up our national identity and provided
us with a unique set of spiritual, moral and mythological values.
These values like the monarchy itself are not measurable in utilitarian
terms or by mathematical charts. Nevertheless their worth to the
well-being of our culture has been inestimable. Anyone who denies
this is either intellectually or emotionally out of tune with the
The Shah himself was aware of that delicate structure that rested
on religious faith, national heritage and a political tradition.
Although he was following a secular programme for modernization
and development of the country, not only had he nothing against
the thoughtful branch of the Shia Islam, he did his best to support
and promote it. Thanks to the Shah's special attention the
city of Mashhad, the burial site of the 9th century Shia saint
Imam Reza gained high prominence as a magnificent pilgrim city
and a reputable center of religious learning. The peaceful spiritual
leaders in Qom were far freer in the time of the Shah than during
the dictatorship of Ruhollah Khomeini who started the repressive
custom of keeping his fellow ayatollahs under house arrest. Even
Khomeini himself as the leading exponent of the most backward fanatical
branch of violent shiaism had nothing worse to fear from the Shah
than an exile into a holy city in the country's neighborhood.
One should never make the mistake of thinking that the eventual
downfall of the Shah proves that he was wrong in allowing so much
power and resources to the country's major religious faith.
Apart from being a sincere believer himself, his astute mind provided
him with a long- term vision and a far reaching insight into the
delicately forged balance that kept the country together, territorially,
emotionally and spiritually.
Contrastingly, the mullahs who opposed him could not see further
than the tip of their noses. They could only think of short term
gain, seizing the reigns of power and holding on to it as long
as they could manage it. They failed to see, or could not care
less about the long term interests of the religious faith they
claimed they were trying to safeguard. They could not see that
the heartlessness and emotional sterilization they were instigating
against the Shah could eventually pave the way for their own departure.
If a nation with 2,500 years of monarchy could bring itself to
get rid of such a highly significant national symbol as the Shah,
it could also manage to jettison a foreign religion with much less
seniority. A parent who mistreats his spouse in front of the children
could not expect to gain their love but should understand that
he is eroding the sense of respect, family honor and fidelity that
will one day come to haunt him. As the saying goes 'what
goes around comes around'. And the time for the end of Islamic
faith at least in its present form has come around in Iran for
quite some time. It is not a secret to anyone that the mullahs
are derided and despised by the majority of Iranians. They hold
political power by intimidation and repression and not because
they are entrusted to do so by the free will of the population.
What kind of Shia Islam can be expected to emerge after the dust
of the present dictatorship has settled in Iran is not an easy
question to answer. Whether the religion of the majority of Iranians
will be able to recreate itself and be born anew sometime in the
future depends on many different factors. In its intelligent progressive
form it will have a better chance of survival through the restoration
of that political system which itself draws its strength from traditional
values i.e. the constitutional monarchy. What is certain is that
after their inevitable liberation from the present dictatorship,
Iranians will never accept to give religion the overwhelming sway
it once exercised in their political life. The concept of Shia
Islam as the official religion of the country is finished. For
that matter, the Iranian monarchy also in its old overarching form
has for ever come to an end.
Today we Iranians are sitting amongst the ruins of twenty-five
years of national turmoil. To prevail as a civilization we have
to pick up the pieces and recreate our national trinity of God,
the Shah and country for the democratic age of the twenty-first
century. To think however that we can dissolve this trinity, reduce
its number or concoct something else altogether instead is to repeat
the folly of the Islamic revolutionaries.
A secular republic with no imaginative roots in our national
consciousness for Iranians will be like a loveless marital contract
full of clauses and sub-clauses but ultimately bereft of any binding
emotional attachment or heartfelt yearning. We cannot build the
future of our nation in a spiritual vacuum, forgoing its true sources
of cultural inspiration and vitality.
What is certain is that multi billion dollar investments are
not the only thing we require for rebuilding our country. We need
to make an attempt to identify and heal our festering emotional
wounds. We need to scrutinize the truth beyond the clouds of falsehood
propagated in the past twenty-five years by political opportunists
and religious terrorists.
A good place to start is to consider
clearly and free of fanaticism the place of the Shah Mohammad
Reza Pahlavi in the history of our modern civilization. Such an
is essential for our moral recovery. It will enable us to come
to terms with our past and proceed in the direction of creating
a just, fair and humane society.
The Shah stood at the political helm of our country for nearly
four decades, giving us his youth and old age. He bestowed on us
all the intellectual and emotional energy his life could muster.
The least we can do for him is to give him the recognition he deserves.
* Le Shah d'Iran: un homme à abattre, by
Reynold Ismar, broadcast on France 5 on 05.12.2004.