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Separating the killers from the heroes

By Guy Dinmore
Financial Times
July 15, 2000

"The Old Man of the mountain dwelled in a most noble valley shut in between two very high mountains where he had made the largest garden and the most beautiful that was ever seen in this world. There were set to dwell ladies and damsels the most beautiful. Their duty was to furnish the young men who were put there with all delights and pleasures. And into this garden entered no man except only those base men of evil life whom he wished to make satellites and Assassins." Marco Polo: Travels in Asia.

Perched on a rocky pinnacle deep in the Alborz mountains of northern Iran, all that remains of the famed castle of Alamut are the ruined outlines of walls and the deep cisterns that sustained its inhabitants.

But at the foot of the cliff, around the village of Qasir Khan, orchards of cherry and plum still flourish today, fed by elaborate irrigation channels where, according to Marco Polo, milk, honey and wine flowed.

The 13th century Venetian traveller may have passed through Persia on his way to Mongol-ruled China, but historians doubt he ever reached Alamut. Nonetheless, by embellishing accounts brought back to Europe by the Crusaders, Marco Polo helped create a legend, and a new word in Italian for the professional murderer - assassino.

Derived from the Arabic for hashish, the Hashashin were originally an order established by the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan Sabah, a Nizari Ismaili, who chose the fortress of Alamut in 1090 as his base for a revolt against the Turkic Seljuq rulers of Persia.

By some accounts, his self-sacrif-icing devotees carried out suicide missions against prominent fig-ures in mosques and other public places - the first being the power-ful vizier Nizam Al-Mulk - while under the influence of hashish.

Marco Polo, however, claims Hassan Sabah drugged his would-be apprentice hit-men, transported them into a beautiful garden that posed as Paradise and promised them everlasting bliss on completion of their mission.

So loyal were his followers, writes the 13th century bishop of Acre, James of Vitry, that they would, on command, perform the "death-leap" from the castle walls and "shatter their skulls below".

>From Alamut, the Nizari Ismailis extended their scattered territory to Syria where they preyed on Crusaders. Their most celebrated victim was Conrad of Montferrat, king of

Jerusalem, cut down in 1192 by assassins disguised as Christian monks.

Intoxicated or not, the Hashashin sowed terror among their enemies, although modern historians argue Hassan Sabah was a cool-headed strategist and ascetic who believed in enforcement of his interpretation of Islam and amassed a huge library.

Whatever the truth, the reign of the Hashashin came to an abrupt end in 1256 when the Mongols, sweeping through Persia with scorched-earth tactics, erased Alamut for good.

Few Ismailis remain in Iran. Their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, lives in Paris. Nonetheless, Iranians remain fascinated by Hassan Sabah and the themes of martyrdom and violence that have reverberated through their history and are still argued over by the ruling Shia Muslim clerics of today.

A spate of as-yet-unexplained murders of dissident intellectuals in 1998 and the shooting in March of Saeed Hajjarian, a prominent reformist, have rekindled the debate over whether violence is justified by Islam. Saeed Asgar, who earlier this year confessed in court to shooting Hajjarian, proclaimed he was motivated in part by religious zeal.

Reformist supporters of President Mohammad Khatami accuse hardline clerics, such as Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, of being "the ideologues of violence", providing the religious justification for others to attack figures accused of undermining the Islamic system.

So heated became the debate that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, was obliged recently to issue what was intended to be the final word. He has personal experience of violence.

Two years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a bomb inatape recorder exploded as he gave a speech, crippling his right arm. His would-be assassins were from the People's Mujahideen, a militant group based in Iraq and denounced by Iran and some western governments as a "terrorist" organisation.

In his statement, Khamenei said Iran permitted "lawful violence" - punishments imposed by legal authorities - but not "unlawful violence".

This was widely interpreted by reformists as a strong warning to hardliners, possibly acting inside state institutions, to stop extra-judicial killings, and a message to elements within the armed forces not to contemplate staging a coup against the newly elected and reformist-dominated parliament.

At 31, Abbas Qaem-Maqami is Iran's youngest ayatollah. Over ice-cream and tea he is happy to engage in long hours of debate with a non-Muslim foreign reporter about the tenets of Islam.

He says Islam does not sanction violence, which he defines as aggression based on anger, revenge and personal motives lacking logical and legal justifications. Islam, he believes, only condones punishments administered by the proper legal authorities, and this can include the fatwa - or death sentence imposed by just a few senior ayatollahs.

Reformist politicians have accused unnamed senior clerics of issuing "whispered fatwas" against their political opponents. Qaem-Maqami says such secret condemnations are not allowed in Islam and a fatwa must be declared publicly.

But Qaem-Maqami admits there might exist some ayatollahs who "conceal their motivations and pretend they are supporters of this Islamic system". He says he sent a "respectful" 16-page letter to Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (the hardline theologian accused by reformists of promoting a culture of violence) to challenge his views.

Such theological debates, however, have little resonance beneath the shadow of Alamut castle, where the villagers of Qasir Khan are more interested in cashing in on the legend of the Hashashin by making money from a trickle of tourists. Some come in search of hashish, following the hippy trail of the 1960s that passed through Iran to Afghanistan and on to Kathmandu. They may get high on inspiring ruins and scenery, but of hash there is none.

Times change, even in the method of murder. While the Hashashin of 1,000 years ago were ready to die on the spot, knowing Paradise awaited them, Asgar, the 20-year-old who shot the reformist Hajjarian in the face on March 12, fled on a powerful motorcycle and went to the cinema.


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