Iran, often is misunderstood by the world and has been a victim to brutal stereotyping. In this article, the author explores the transition of this land from an attempted democracy to an Islamic republic with an emphasis on the charisma and personality of the man who ruled and continues to rule hearts in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
“Khomeini was not a Puppet like Yasser Arafat or Muammar Gaddafi or the many other dictators I met in the Islamic World. He was a Pope, A King, A Real Leader”
The Islamic Republic of Iran is home to one of the world’s richest cultures and history. Richard Nelson Frye in his book, Greater Iran has stated that, “Iran’s prize possession has been its culture”. But today Iran’s public image has considerably deteriorated. People don’t seem to associate Iran with anything but Nuclear Power and the hostility it has earned or is subject to by the western powers. Being a Shiite country, it is known to provide assistance and help to the wider Shia diaspora all across the region, the most recent being its backing to the Houthis in Yemen. I have off late been reading a couple of books centered in and around Tehran and my fascination for the Ayatollah only for his personality motivated me to write on the evolution of Iran from what the last monarch Reza Shah Pahlavi foresighted it to be and what it is today, the brainchild of one of the most revered yet controversial men in the Islamic world, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ayatollah is a title given to clerics of the Usuli Twelver Shiite faith who enjoy extensive expertise in Islamic jurisprudence, law, ethics and philosophy. Ruhollah is nothing but Ruh and Allah which would translate as the “Spirit of God”.
Reza Shah Pahlavi intended to westernize Iran and transform the nation into a global and regional powerhouse bearing in mind the advantage the nation enjoys because of its strategic geographic location and abundant natural resources. The Shah enjoyed strong relations with the United States, Britain and France to an extent, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and a few others. It is widely believed that the Shah lived his life in a trajectory which was far away and completely out of sync with the trajectory on which a normal Iranian citizen lived in. The Iranian population, in general held great respect for the Ulama or the clergy and were supremely religious. This implied that they alienated the phenomenon of westernization completely and rather preferred to remain traditional, close to their roots. The Ulama began to emerge and consolidate their political force and power post the Tobacco Protest, which was spearheaded by the clergy displaying their resistance and opposition to the concession provided by the Shah to Britain. This marked the rise of Khomeini in politics who particularly opposed and publicly expressed his dissent over the policies of the monarchy. In January 1963, the Shah and the clergy clashed again when the latter decided to initiate the White Revolution, which was nothing but an attempt and an effort to bring about social, economic and political reforms in Iran. Khomeini believed this to be “an attack on Islam” and the clergy in general understood these reforms to be significantly dangerous. Khomeini urged the Ulama to boycott the referendum on the policies and denounced the Shah by calling him “a wretched, miserable man”. Thus, began a heated exchange of words and accusations between the Shah and Khomeini. Ayatollah even drew comparisons of the Shah with caliph Yazid who is considered to be an evil by the Shiite theology. One must note that the White Revolution bashing by Khomeini took place in Qom. On the 5th of June 1963, Khomeini was detained in Qom and was transferred to Tehran. The Movement of 15 Khordad as it is known invited a wave of riots in Iran and also killing up to 500 people. Khomeini was under a house arrest till August 1963.
Under the Shah’s rule, Iran was subject to the Capitulation Law. This law granted citizens of the United States, in this case the military men a special privilege. If an American military man committed a crime in Iran he wouldn’t be tried in the Iranian courts according to the law of the land but in American military courts. This made Khomeini furious and aggravated his already existing hatred for the West, particularly the United States. “Americans are the Greatest Satans, the Wounded Snake” according to Khomeini. Every time he humiliated the Shah Khomeini always drew reference to him being an agent of America and Israel. Following the resistance, he was arrested again and kept behind bars for a year and a half. The then Iranian Prime Minister, Hasan Ali Mansur tried convincing Khomeini to apologize, but he did not budge. In a fit of rage, the Prime Minister slapped Khomeini following which he was killed by a 17 year old boy from the radical Islamic organization, Fadayan-e-Islam. While Ayatollah remained in the prison, there was a wave of anti-government protests which began to emerge in Iran. This forced the Shah to send Ayatollah on exile.
Khomeini spent 14 years of his life in exile beginning in Turkey where he lived in the city of Bursa. Following this he lived in the holy Shiite city of Najaf in neighboring Iraq. He stayed here for the longest till Saddam Hussein asked him to leave. It is said here, that Saddam Hussein had planned to kill Khomeini along with the Shah and even the United States, allegedly. But the Shah refused stating that his murder would make him a martyr in Iran, further making things difficult for him. He later went on to live in France. While in Najaf, Ayatollah gave speeches on Islamic governance and also denouncing the Shah. Eventually, discontent in Iran against the Shah began to surge. Ayatollah, despite being so far from Iran continued to influence the people in his homeland, ultimately giving birth to the Iranian revolution. Copies of his lectures were widely circulated across Iran and after the death of Ali Shariati, who encouraged Islamic revival among the youth, Ayatollah became the face of resistance and change in Iran. In fact, Imam Musa al-Kadhem before his death went on to write down the following words which was, “A man will come out from Qom and he will summon people to the right path”. This man from Qom for the Iranians was nobody but Ayatollah.
On 1st of February 1979, Ayatollah returned back to Iran and was welcomed back by a crowd of almost 5 million people. When asked about how he felt on coming back by the famous journalist, Peter Jennings, Ayatollah stated, “Hich Ehsasi Nadaram” meaning I feel nothing. Meanwhile, Khomeini also opposed the government of Shapour Bakthiar and stated that he would be the one who would appoint the government. He then appointed Mehdi Bazargan, as the interim prime minister and declared that, “This was God’s Government. Disobedience against him or Bazargan would translate into disobedience to God”. The Iranian Public were later asked to vote in a referendum choosing between a monarchy and an Islamic republic. 98% decided to back an Islamic Republic.
Ayatollah regularly during his speeches spoke about Hokumat-e-Islami: Velayat-e-Faqih meaning Islamic Government: Government of the Jurist. His idea of governance or what he believed to be the principles of governance were, laws of the society according to the Sharia, the knowledge of Sharia being a pre requisite for holding government posts, the establishment of a clerical rule to avoid corruption, deviation from Islam and to destroy anti-Islam influence over the society. After the referendum, the plan was to establish an Islamic constitution in Iran by the system of Wilayat al-faqih which was nothing but clerical rule. Former allies were suppressed by Ayatollah’s supporters and the constitution was rewritten. Newspapers were shut and democratic political parties were crushed and banned. Through popular support, Ayatollah’s followers gained an overwhelming majority in the Assembly of Experts. The newly proposed constitution established the genesis of the positions of the Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians. In the year 1979, the Islamic constitution was adopted with Abohassan Banisadr being the President and Ayatollah Khomeini being the Leader of the Revolution and the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ayatollah was a leader who believed in Muslim Unity and Solidarity. He or rather the revolution intended to establish an Islamic state world-wide. Ayatollah, for the Iranians was a “semi-divine god”. There are reports which suggest that Ayatollah’s face has appeared on a full moon and thousands of Iranians then flocked to the nearest mosque to pay their respects. He is said to have had, “variously inspired administration, awe, and fear from those around him”. His Practice of moving “through the halls of the Madrassas never smiling at anybody or anything ; his practice of ignoring the audience while he taught, contributed to his charisma”. “I saw the Imam. He delivered the Lecture to us for about half an hour, and it was nothing but the Quran, the man is like a computerized Quran. And the electric effect he had on everybody, his charisma, was amazing. You just look at the man and tears come down your cheek. You just look at him and you get tears. I never saw a more handsome old man in my life, no picture, no video, no TV could do justice to this man, the handsomest old man I ever saw in my life was this man”, recalls Sheikh Ahmed Deedat. I maybe a non-Muslim who may not believe in what Ayatollah preached but his charisma, the influence of his not only over Iran but around the Shiite world and the perseverance to bring the change, whether positive or negative in his motherland and also stand sternly against the blatant exploitation of the Western powers over Iran bowled me over and continues to fascinate me.