Jewish World Review June 18, 2003 / 18 Sivan, 5763

David Warren

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Persian carpet | Last year, when I was writing about the pot coming to the boil in Iran, I was one among a number of Western commentators I could count on one hand. This year, praise the L-rd, I am no longer a bearer of incredible tidings. The rest of the media are catching on, and the story is even making front pages. The phrase "second Iranian revolution" is in the airwaves.

Last summer, the mullahs came perilously close to losing their turbans, and were reduced to importing Palestinian and Afghan thugs to beat up the student demonstrators, for fear the Persian thugs whom they used to entrust might join the other side. This summer, they have started from that position. And the demonstrators, who last summer called on Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei to step down, have moved their envelope. They call on Mohammad Khatami, the publicly-elected but essentially powerless "president-for-show", to resign. They call for Ayatollah Khamenei to be executed.

The live question is, What will the mullahs do to hold power? Will they abandon all reserve, and plunge their country into a true reign of terror? Or will they, like Soviets and others before them, crack in the realization that they are unloved, especially by their own children?

It may not matter. The mullahs may be running the world's largest terrorist operation (Hizbullah), and be well on their way to acquiring nuclear weapons with Russian, Pakistani, and North Korean help. But the Iranian people may be about to overwhelm them.

My own guess -- and in making it I rejoin a minority to be counted on fingers -- is that they will crack, very soon. For while the mullahs are much nastier than the Shah ever was, they are more of a committee, and the dissension within their own ranks is already showing. It became public last year when Ayatollah Taheri, the distinguished Friday preacher of Isfahan, resigned in protest against the behaviour of his colleagues. Others -- chiefly among the more "conservative" mullahs -- have been making distance less courageously. None of these grumblers were ever entirely comfortable with Khomeini's revolution of 1979, and this is their chance to break out.

One of the myths of the Western media, and more generally of those who know little about Islam, is that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was himself some kind of "religious conservative". On the contrary, he represented a revolutionary movement within Shi-itism as much as within Iran. He took both by storm; and the counter-revolutionary elements remain embedded in both.

Among the many charges against Khomeini and his successor Khamenei, the strangest to innocent Western ears would be "polytheism" and "Christianizing". These mullahs claim to be Allah's own representatives on earth; but in Islam generally, and Shia Islam particularly, Allah does not have such representatives. Allah is truly Incomparable, and Muhammad was His very last Prophet. By making Khomeini's claim the mullahs are setting themselves up as alternative prophets, for what must therefore be alternative Gods; hence, "polytheism". Moreover, Khomeini created, almost de novo, a formal, self-replicating, institutional religious hierarchy as the guardian of the Iranian revolution. This strikes traditional Shia Muslims as an attempt to adopt the Christian model of church government; hence, "Christianizing".

The Shia are indeed traditionally more fastidious than the Sunni majority in the Muslim world, in distinguishing what we might call "civil" from "religious" spheres. The analogy does not quite apply in Islam, and this is not the place to go into it. But in broad terms, the Persians have from the time of the Islamic conquest governed themselves somewhat differently from the Arabs, and Shia mullahs have cultivated more distance from royal rulers. Khomeini's seizure of all the instruments of state was an act unprecedented in Persian history. It owed more to the development of "Islamist" totalitarian ideas in the 20th century, than to anything out of 7th-century Medinah.

The deep history is reinforcing the shallower history in this case, in which the Iranian people are attempting to remove the mullocracy that has sat so heavily upon them. The Shah who preceded Khomeini was, though his dynasty was recent and its installation was arguably foreign, nevertheless a better expression of the Persian political heritage. Even the Shah's bold Westernizing efforts worked as much with as across the Persian grain, for here are a people who have been, for most of the last three millenia, towards the forward edge of civilization itself. And in the Persian heartlands, Islam has been urbane not tribal, through most of thirteen-plus centuries.

This is of course a broad historical generalization, but in the words of one of my correspondents in Iran, "We have always tired a little faster than the other Muslims, of people telling us how to live."

And they are very tired of it now. Even a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, a paper which has had more time for mad mullahs than most, now cites a poll showing that "90 per cent of Iranians themselves want change," and "70 per cent want dramatic change." The poll itself is meaningless (one cannot do plausible polling under a dictatorship), but such results are probably understated.

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JWR contributor David Warren is a Columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. Comment by clicking here.

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03/17/02: United? Nations?
03/12/02: Blair goes wobbly
03/10/02: Ready aye ready
03/06/02: Logic of war
02/10/02: Play up, play up
01/30/02: No ambiguity
12/05/02: A farce
11/13/02: A game of chess
10/30/02: Material breach
10/21/02: Armed & dangerous
09/11/02: The enemy within
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08/06/02: Has Sharon gone 'wobbly'?
07/24/02: Evil Sharon
06/19/02: The end is nigh
06/17/02: Those darn American imperialists!

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