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TEHRAN - An Iranian woman holds her child as she prays in the Holy Shrine of the late founder of the Islamic revolution Ayatollah Khomeini outside Tehran February 15. The sphere of influence of Iranian women has long been confined to the family, but today any political force eyeing a hold on power needs to attend to their ever-increasing demands for greater rights Photo by Damir Sagolj, Reuters

Burying Khomeini

By Fouad Ajami
The New York Times
Feb 21, 1999

The appearance of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was foretold, his followers claimed, in an eighth-century Shiite prophecy: ''A man will come out of Qum and he will summon the believers to the right path. There will rally to him pieces of iron, not to be shaken by violent winds, unsparing and relying on God.'' The authenticity of the prophecy was of no consequence to the true believers. After all, on a clear night before his return home from exile -- 20 years ago this month -- the rumor had spread that a vast crowd had seen Khomeini's face on the moon. He had risen out of distress and expectation, and the believers who had taken up his call to rebellion against Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi were ready for deliverance.

''We prayed for the rain of mercy and received floods,'' the late Mehdi Bazargan, Khomeini's first Prime Minister, said of that time of pandemonium. There had come to Iran, in the 1970's, great unsettling changes. A new era of oil wealth had destabilized the place. Overnight, it seemed, villagers were hurled into the cities, and the balance of the country -- moral, physical -- ruptured. Iran had been tempted, and had come to feel betrayed, by its uneven encounter with modernity. The newly urbanized, the half-educated, the bewildered, came together to topple the old order in a season of wrath and chaos. For the better part of a century, dreams of constitutionalism and civic politics had played in Iran. The currents of the modern world -- liberalism, Marxism, cold-war intrigues -- had blown through the land. But there was a brutal simplicity to what transpired in those days in 1979. Iran had slipped from the hold of His Imperial Majesty to his stern successor -- the Shadow of God on one side, the Hidden Imam on the other. The country had never acquired the skills and responses of civic, orderly politics.

In retrospect, the oddest thing about Khomeini was his eerie silence amid the tumult, his aloofness. There was no need to harangue the crowd. The crowd had passion and fury aplenty. In exile for so many years, he was ''uncontaminated'' by all the great changes that had come to Iran, what he branded the ''Westoxication'' of his people. He stepped into the role of savior, merged with it, a natural fulfillment of the messianic Shiite Imam who appears at the ''end of time'' to humble the wicked and raise the lowly. The crowd could make of him what it wished, what it needed. He was an anti-Communist to the propertied people, a constitutional republican to the liberals, an avenger to the poor. It was a revolt of a thousand discontents, and it was only when the world was his that he let his people know what he had in mind for them: a clerical state, the rule of a religious jurist.

In the summations of the man, in his obituaries, no line of reasoning was more defective than the temptation to write off his revolt as an attempt to drag Iran back to the seventh century. Nothing could be further from the truth. This turbaned ruler, with patrician manners and elegant attire, was born to this century and its excesses. The very dream of remaking a society, the terror put at the service of that idea, were modern through and through.

In his last will and testament he offered the message of his life not only to the ''great nation of Iran'' but also to ''the oppressed people of the world of any nationality and religion.'' The claim to universalism aside, what he had wrought was a different kind of upheaval: a civil war in Islam between the secular powers in the saddle and a new breed of religious-political radicals, a struggle between the Sunni order of Arab states and its Shiite stepchildren and a revolt against the ascendancy of the West. He gloried in his resistance to the Pax Americana, whose shadow lay across Arab and Muslim lands. Great was his struggle, he believed, and great works always called forth great enemies. He sanctified terror and found thousands of young foot soldiers for his crusade. This presumably most religious of men issued a remarkable edict in 1988: ''Our government . . . has priority over all other Islamic tenets, even over prayer, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca.'' Heady and seemingly triumphant, his project -- Islamic fundamentalism -- was to run aground. He bloodied the status quo in the Muslim world, but he could not overturn the officers and monarchs and entrenched interests in the checkered and varied world of Islam. His pan-Islamic millennium would not materialize.

He died unapologetic in 1989 and was buried in the desert south of Teheran, by the martyrs' cemetery -- with ''the fountain of blood,'' which once spouted purple-dyed water -- where tens of thousands of his ''revolutionary children'' who perished in the senseless carnage of the Iran-Iraq war are laid to rest. Nowadays, travelers who venture into Khomeini's domain tell us that the revolution has aged, that the things and the ways of the West clutter the place, that poverty and disillusion have set in, that the spell has been broken. Deep down, the Ayatollah must have known that it would come to that. He had never trusted his people to begin with. The high walls he erected were owed to the knowledge that Iran had always been easily seduced by people and things beyond.

The old, clerical redeemer had pulled off his revolt when oil was precious and the cold war, which gave his country strategic importance, was in full swing. Our world today is remade, and a brutal new age of capital and skills finds Iran's people no better prepared than they were a century ago when a picturesque and impoverished Persian realm was hurled into the modern world. He was lucky, the redeemer. He died before disillusion set in. He had summoned the gullible and the bewildered, and they had broken old chains only to forge new ones. There has been no relief from that peculiar Persian lamentation that has endlessly told of the intermingling in Iran's history of her great pride and her repeated failures.


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