Gretchen Robinson, someone I’m really honored and privileged to call a friend on Facebook, asked me this question on Facebook, and I decided to turn it into a blogpost because it’s really a very difficult question to answer truthfully to.
I heard that people in Iran didn’t know Khomeni was a Muslim fundamentalist. That he came back to Iran from France as an unknown quantity. That pretty soon people felt betrayed and trapped. Is that so?
My answer is “no”. Some part of the answer is easy, and some part extremely difficult.
Like, was Khomeini a Muslim fundamentalist, in the context of Iran at that time? In many ways that question is very hard to answer. Was Khomeini planning to install a dictatorship like Islamic Republic? Again, very difficult to answer. What we know for sure is that once the dictatorship was installed, he became a bloodthirsty tyrant and committed numerous crimes.
The purpose of this post is not to argue Khomeini was not a bloodthirsty tyrant. He was. It’s to introduce some nuance, and to prove that he was not solely responsible for the Islamic Republic.
By the standard of his own contemporaries. He was actually quite ahead of his time in many aspects. Many people don’t know these facts, but he was a rebel among the clerics. Some clerics considered him an apostate even, and refused to use the glass his son used because they considered him unclean.
To may Iranians, Khomeini was the antithesis to clerical establishment. He was revolutionary, while most clerics believed in monarchy. He believed in many things that were controversial at his time. Iran would be much different if another cleric had ruled it. Khomeini preserved things like banking, music, chess, transgender rights, insurances, philosophy, and humanities, but in all of these he was different from most other clerics. Khomeini was the only cleric who had approved of Ali Shariati, a revolutionary thinker who had mixed Islam and Marxism and liberalism. Shariati was deeply anti-cleric, was deeply anti-establishment. To Shariati the clerical establishment proved to be reactionary and a tool of tyrants, and these clerics were Khomeini’s main enemies as well.
Of course, he was no moderate as well. He was deeply misogynistic, didn’t believe in voting rights for women when the Shah gave women the right to vote, (although he never pursued to take it away when he took power), enforced hijab, he was deeply bigoted against the Bahai, and more importantly, he wanted a theocracy. And there were moderate Muslims at that time, like Bazargan or Ayatollah Taleghani. These people were democrats.
But here it gets tricky again: these moderates were his closest allies. He eliminated them from power, but before the revolution he was their spiritual leader. So if you were a democrat before the revolution, you would be on team Khomeini.
Add to that the fact that he was charismatic, and extremely brave. He stood against a dictatorship single-handedly and never backed down. Even I, who know what happened next, still get goosebumps when I listen to his revolutionary speeches.
To an Iranian living in 70s, Khomeini was the perfect choice. Put yourself in his/her shoes. Forget what happened after the revolution. You are living before the revolution. On the one hand, you have the Shah, a cruel autocrat who had come to power after two foreign coups and his power was absolute. Then you had a clerical class who were old and reactionary and all they did was praise and pray this Shah. In the opposition you had two choices: nationalist democrats, the followers of the deposed Prime Minister Mossadegh. Then you had Communists, who were also Stalinists. Then explodes to this scene a charismatic revolutionary cleric, to whose side the other parts of the opposition run, soon both communists and democrats have gathered under his trend, alongside his students, brave left-leaning Muslims.
For the first few years of the revolution, he barred clerics from running for office, not willing to let clerics run the country. And in the first draft of constitution, there was no Supreme Leader, and he had given that document his blessing.
Even in a will he left after his death, he warned people against not atheists, but far-right clerics. And his closest allies have now
become reformists. Mousavi, Karroubi, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Rouhani, they were all his original allies.
He was even originally opposed to hostage taking in American embassy.
So what happened? Simple – power. People wanted Khomeini as the absolute leader. Most politicians wanted him. So he seized power, and he liked it, so he repressed everyone. He committed more crimes than any other leader in Islamic Republic. Under his systematic command thousands of political prisoners were massacred. Rape was used a means of torture.
And it was then that closest ally rebelled against him. Hossein Ali Montazeri was named to be the next Supreme Leader, and he was number 2 in the revolution, and actually he, not Khomeini, was the person who had theorized the concept of Islamic Republic. He told Khomeini “Your prisons are worse than SAVAK prisons” (the intelligence service of the Shah), and he protested against massacres, and was removed from power. Khomeini died two months later. At that time even today’s reformists denounced him. He was alone.
Montazeri continued to be ahead of everyone. He regretted coming up with the idea of Islamic Republic, recognized the rights of Bahais, and became a champion of women’s rights. He died in 2009 a hero among people. Mousavi and Karroubi declared his death a day of national sorrow.
But I think it was Khomeini who changed, and not Montazeri. Khomeini lost track of the ideals he held dear, became thirsty for power, and became the opposite of what he once was. Montazeri remained the revolutionary.
So, I don’t think Khomeini was lying in France. I have read his entire interviews, and although he says some things that might sound deceptive, anyone bothering to actually read them sees he was honest. He said that he would enforce Islamic law on women, he said he would harshly punish the supporters of the current regime, he said he would give no rights to Bahais. He was never a democrat and he never hid it. When he said “We would have a republic like here in France but it would be Islamic”, he was mentioning the form. When he said “Marxists will be free”, well, Marxists were his allies then.
No other Iranian was a democrat as well, except a small minority who could never gain power.
So why did I say all this?
Because ultimately it’s easy to blame everything on one man and feel good. IT’s easy to say “Khomeini deceived people and started a tyranny”. But Khomeini was a cultural product, and he was driven to be a tyrant by a culture that demanded tyranny. When the liberal wing was eliminated, everyone rejoiced. When the officials of the previous regime, even those not responsible for atrocities, were executed in two minute trials, people rejoiced. When Khomeini wanted to be loyal to his promises, when he banned clerics from running for office and he accepted a constitution with far less theocracy and no Supreme Leader, others yearned for these things and included them. Everyone is responsible for Islamic Republic. The blame lies on everyone’s shoulders.
And this is important to know, because if we are to have a free democracy, we need to face our own guilt and deal with it. Khomeini is dead. Tyranny is not. Let’s recognize that tyranny is a bigger problem than one man. It’s a culture.
When Nelson Mandela died, many Iranians said “Wish we also had a Mandela”. But we have had many Mandelas. I said “I wish we tolerated our Mandelas.”