Exclusive - Khomeini: A Political Leader or Just Another Ayatollah?

Exclusive - Khomeini: A Political Leader or Just Another Ayatollah?

Thursday, 23 August, 2018 - 10:30
London - Amir Taheri
Alef Lam Khomeini
Biography of Imam Khomeini
By Hedayat-Allah Behbudi
1157 pages
Price: 600,000 rials ( about $5)
Published by: Institute or Political research, Tehran, 2018

At first glance it might be a surprise that 40 years after the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini appeared as a central player in Iran’s chequered politics it is only now that an official biography of him is put on the market by the authorities in Tehran.

However, a study of this hefty volume shows that the delay may have been due to the inability of the ruling establishment to reach a consensus on what kind of historic image of the controversial cleric to market.

Presenting Khomeini as just another ayatollah, even if the adjective “grand” is attached to the title, would mean lining him up with hundreds of other clerics with similar titles during the past 200 years, that is to say since such titles became fashionable among the mullahs.

On the other hand, casting Khomeini in the role of a political leader, which he was in the last decade of his long life, could undermine the claim of his followers that he was a “holy” figure and thus above politics.

Presenting Khomeini as a government leader is equally problematic, if only because the decade in which he enjoyed almost absolute power was marred by mass executions, a costly war with Iraq and systemic corruption that started with the confiscation of almost a quarter of a million private businesses and homes by the revolutionary mullahs and their allies.

Khomeini’s promise to Iranians, quickly broken, would vitiate any claim he might have had to success as government leader. This is what he said: “We will not only make you prosper in your material life, but would also provide a prosperous spiritual life. You need spirituality. Yet, they robbed us of spirituality. We will not only provide free water and electricity, build homes and give free transport for the needy classes but will also elevate you to the position of human beings.”

The author of this biography has opted for a different image, one that better reflects the way that Khomeini’s followers see him, that is to say as a central figure in a new religious cult that, though inspired by duodecimal Shiism, transcends it in a number of significant ways.

Behbudi divides his book into eight broad sections and 18 chapters.

The first section provides a detailed and largely well-researched narrative of the cleric’s family background to highlight his roots in rural Iran where the prevalent mind-set had changed little since the foundation of the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century.

Behbudi shows that early on, the young Khomeini demonstrated an impatient desire for something different. A man of action by nature he wanted to do things in a rural backwater named Khomeini where there was nothing to do but endlessly repeating a life pattern fixed centuries before. In those days, perhaps even throughout his life, Khomeini had to fight against boredom: he wanted to be at the centre of things, doing things. And, yet, as a theologian he had to keep quiet, read books, count blessings on a rosary, and pray.

Behbudi’s work in that section should be appreciated if only because there is very little documentary evidence of the cleric’s early life.

However, the biographer fails to note a major event: The advent of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the king who tried to modernize Iran and, in the process, created unprecedented opportunities for families like that of Khomeini to imagine a better future for themselves. It was in that context that the young Khomeini had the opportunity to embark on theological studies first in the nearby city of Arak and later in the “holy” city of Qom.

The second section covers almost four decades of Khomeini’s life as a cleric, studying and later teaching theology. The author goes out of his way to upgrade Khomeini’s position as a theologian, contradicting facts provided in numerous books and testimonies. The truth is that Khomeini never reached the highest level of theological authority within the traditional Shiite hierarchy. Destined to become a top league politician, he was never more than a second division theologian.

The third section deals with Khomeini’s dabbling in philosophy and poetry with not very happy results. Almost nothing is left of the cleric’s ventures into philosophy or “Irfan” (cognizance), maybe because his heirs prefer not to expose his deep ignorance of both subjects. As for poetry, Khomeini is seen encountering such classical poets as Mowlawi and Hafez and returning humiliated from the encounter. Conscious of the fact that he was a mediocre poet, Khomeini kept his poems almost a secret while he lived. It was only after his death that his embarrassing verses were published.

In the fourth section, we see Khomeini more and more morphing into a political activist.

He becomes fascinated by the Fedayeen Islam, the Shiite version of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its charismatic leader Muhammad Nawwab Safavi. Always a lover of action, Khomeini had quite a few exciting times thanks to the Fedayeen Islam. He provided fatwa cover for a series of political murders as Nawwab Safavi’s gunmen assassinated the anti-clerical writer Ahmad Kasravi, Education Minister Ahmad Zangeneh, Court Minister Abdul-Hussein Hazhir and, finally, Prime Minister Haj-Ali Razm-Ara.

The fifth section deals with Khomeini’s emergence as a prominent critic of the Shah and leader of the opposition to such reforms as distribution of land among poor peasants, the granting of the vote to women, and state control over endowment (waqf) properties, thus depriving the mullahs of a major source of income.

The sixth section portrays Khomeini in exile, first in a seaside resort in Turkey and then in Najaf, Iraq. It is a pity that Behbudi almost entirely ignores the cleric’s feverish political activities there, including meetings and alliances with the Tudeh (Communist) Party chief Reza Radmanesh and a former SAVAK (the Shah’s secret police) head, General Teymur Bakhtiar, not to mention a panoply of Palestinian leaders including Yasser Arafat.

The seventh section deals with the events that were to be dubbed “the Islamic Revolution”. The core of the drama lasted just over four months, during which Khomeini was in exile in Paris. It was marked by eight mass demonstrations and a series of strikes against the Shah, persuading him to leave the country without a fight.

The final section depicts the emergence of the cult of Khomeini which, over the past four decades, has evolved into something resembling a new religious sect.

Khomeini has been given the title of “Imam”, something that duodecimal Shiites regard as limited only to Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali Ibn Abitaleb and his 11 descendants. The official calendar, includes 12 days associated with Khomeini and his deeds while Ali himself has to do with only two days. The Islamic Republic has changed the school curricula in place under the Shah by cutting one hour from teaching Arabic and Islamic “shariah” (theology), devoting it instead to a study of Khomeini’s words and deeds.

Khomeini also has his own “shrine”, built at huge expense. Khomeini’s grandson, Hassan, also a mullah, presents himself as the “holy” shrine’s Custodian (mutuwalli) a title used for guardians of “holy” shrines in Mash’had, Qom, Najaf and Karbala. Regular pilgrimages are organized to the shrine of the “Imam” near Tehran, often at government expense. Images of “Imam Khomeini” are depicted with trees in the form of wooded areas on many hill slopes across Iran to be seen from the air. Senior officials, including the current “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, quote the “Imam” regularly to shield whatever position they have taken against critical scrutiny.

Behbudi’s book is a valuable contribution to understanding the mind-set of the current ruling elite in Tehran as followers of a new religious cult which, as time goes by, distances itself further from commonly accepted notions of politics. Dealing with a political elite, including challenging them or finding a modus vivendi, is easier than dealing with a religious cult. And there lies part of the problem in dealing with the Islamic Republic in its present form.

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