Separating the killers from the heroes
By Guy Dinmore
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
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
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.