The People's Shah
By Elaine Sciolinio
The New York Times
August 27, 2000
Elaine Sciolino, a senior writer in Washington for The New York Times,
is the author of "Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran,"
which will be published in October.
Life of the Ayatollah. By Baqer Moin. 355 pp. New York: Thomas
Dunne Books/ St. Martin's Press. $27.95. Also see
Ayatollah Ruhollah KhomeinI was not an easy man. Stern and vengeful,
he was not an easy man to like. Single-minded in his thinking, he was not
an easy man to negotiate with. He certainly was not an easy man to interview.
I remember the second time I interviewed him, in his exile in a village
outside of Paris in the months before the 1979 revolution. He didn't like
one of my questions. So he simply stood up from his cross-legged position
on the floor and, without a word, wrapped himself in his cloak and left
the room. Yet during his lifetime the ayatollah achieved near-mythic status,
and he was revered, even worshiped, by Iranians who saw him as their savior
on earth. Night after night before the revolution, many people swore that
they saw Khomeini's face -- his turban, his eyes, his nose, his beard --
in the moon.
In his biography of Khomeini, Baqer Moin describes the harsh side of
the cleric who forever changed the course of Iran's history. "Khomeini
had never been particularly interested in discussion and dialogue,"
Moin writes. "He was an introvert; his dialogue was with himself rather
than with others." But then Moin, correctly, finds the key to understanding
the ayatollah elsewhere: "His approach was intuitive." It was
Khomeini's extraordinary intuition, his innate sense that a cleric should
be more than a person who leads prayers every Friday and conducts rituals
for pay, that propelled him to lead a country into one of the most far-reaching
revolutions of modern history.
True, Khomeini was a man of religion; but even more important, he was
a gifted and shrewd politician, skilled in mobilizing his supporters and
isolating his opponents, supple in decision making when it served his goal
of making and consolidating a theocracy. He appealed to the masses with
promises to liberate them from oppression, surrounded himself with loyal
clerical lieutenants and attracted the religious bazaar merchants, who
began to offer him money, which in turn increased his following and influence.
And he had no patience with the clerics of his day, even his more senior
peers, who were determined to stay out of politics and were willing to
share power with a traditional Shiite monarchy as their predecessors had
done for over four centuries. "Politics and religion are one,"
Khomeini often declared.
Baqer Moin is ideally placed to have written a biography of one of the
most complicated political figures of the 20th century. Moin grew up in
Iran, where he learned Persian and Arabic poetry, mysticism and philosophy
from his father, who was trained as a cleric but earned a living as a farmer.
Moin himself studied in the religious seminaries of Mashad before becoming
a journalist. He now heads the BBC's Persian service (even Khomeini listened
to it). Moin has produced the first serious and accessible examination
of the ayatollah's life.
The most interesting parts of the book deal with the human side of a
man who was little known before his ascent to power and widely misunderstood
both before and after. Born into a family of clerics descended from the
prophet Muhammad, Khomeini enjoyed a comfortable childhood in the village
of Khomein in central Iran, where he was raised in a large fortified compound
with a vast garden, courtyards, balconies and watchtowers. He was cared
for by servants and protected by armed guards. As a young man, Khomeini
developed an interest in poetry and wrote poetry himself, even using the
language of love and drink. ("Keep the door of the tavern open for
me night and day, / Farewell seminary, farewell mosque, / Let me go my
way" was typical of his style of verse.)
Later, dissatisfied with the orthodox version of Islam practiced by
the clergy, Khomeini became an intellectual rebel, plunging into mysticism.
Moin argues that he owed his fearlessness as a political leader to his
mystical sense of oneness with God. "Intoxicated by the cosmic vision
of a mystic and bound by the firm belief of a jurisprudent who carries
out God's command, Khomeini the politician was a powerful fusion. As a
mystic, Khomeini was an elitist, but as a theologian he was expedient and
as a politician a calculating populist to the point of being opportunistic.
. . . For Khomeini, there was no distinction between the persona of the
jurist, the mystic and the politician." In his first news conference
in Iran, four days after his return in February 1979, he unveiled the world's
first modern theocracy. "This is not an ordinary government,"
he declared. Rather, it would be "God's government." That meant,
he added, that opposition to the government was opposition to God -- in
other words, "blasphemy."
Moin evokes Khomeini's rigidity through the memories of his host in
Turkey, where Khomeini lived for several months in 1964 after the shah
sent him into exile. When Ali Cetiner, a Persian-speaking colonel in Turkish
military intelligence who was assigned to be Khomeini's minder, couldn't
find a suitable place for him to stay he took him into his secular middle-class
home in the city of Bursa. Cetiner's wife installed a new bed, bought new
sheets and even put a Koran at Khomeini's bedside. She cooked dinner and
put on her best dress to greet their Iranian guest.
But when Khomeini arrived, he began protesting to Colonel Afzali, the
minder from Iranian intelligence who had accompanied him there. "He
says the woman with the uncovered head should leave," Afzali explained
to Cetiner, whose wife replied: "I am not his housekeeper here. I
am the lady of the house." Still, she put on a long nightdress and
covered her head. Over time, Khomeini came to respect her, standing up
when she entered the room, chatting with her amiably and even smiling as
he looked her in the eye.
Moin provides a deft account of Khomeini's emergence as a political
leader: his writings, the dissemination of his ideas through audiocassette
tapes while he was in exile in France and Iraq, his triumphal return to
Iran, the hardening of his positions after the revolution. But some of
the central chapters in recent Iranian history receive only the most cursory
treatment. One of those chapters was the 444-day seizure of the United
States Embassy in Tehran, which Khomeini blessed and then used to consolidate
his power and purge his enemies. Another was the Iran-contra affair, in
which the United States secretly sold weapons to Iran in violation of its
stated policy and used the profits to finance anti-Communist rebels in
Nicaragua. Iran's purchase of weapons from the country Khomeini assailed
as the "Great Satan" underscored the regime's pragmatic streak.
A third was Khomeini's ambitious but unsuccessful campaign to export his
version of Islamic revolution to the rest of the Muslim world.
Still, Moin does capture many things well -- for instance, Khomeini's
antipathy to Israel. The Ayatollah's early writings and sermons have a
distinctly anti-Semitic tone, which he muted as he became more of a political
leader. Yet even today, Iran views the United States and Israel as enemies
and is uneasy with its Jewish population, as demonstrated by the recent
closed trial of 13 Jews on charges of spying for Israel. Not that Jews
are the only victims of intolerance in Iran. As Eliz Sanasarian points
out in her short but indispensable study, "Religious Minorities in
Iran," Iran has been uncomfortable with its other minorities as well,
including the Zoroastrians, the Bahais, the Armenians and other Christians,
and has repressed and marginalized them to varying degrees over the years.
Sanasarian's book is an important contribution to understanding the relationship
between Iran's religious minorities and the Tehran government.
One can only imagine how Khomeini would deal with the battles being
waged on various fronts today -- the press, the courts, the Parliament,
the cinema, the universities, the streets. As early as 1942, he wrote in
an anonymous tract that he expected the government of Islam to "follow
religious rules and regulations and ban publications which are against
the law and religion and hang those who write such nonsense in the presence
of religious believers." So he would probably approve of the closures
of all reformist publications in the last few months and the trials and
convictions of some of their editors and publishers. Perhaps Khomeini would
also have had them executed.
But then, Khomeini once protested the shah's enfranchisement of women,
and then encouraged women to participate in his revolution and vote for
his government when he needed their numbers. He once promised that clerics
would hold only temporary positions in government and then allowed them
to hold the most senior positions. He pledged to continue the war against
Iraq until its defeat and then abruptly made peace. He once said that the
fact that "I have said something does not mean that I should be bound
by my word." Indeed, it is that suppleness, that ability to improvise
that has outlived Khomeini and that continues to pervade the Islamic Republic,
keeping it going.