Monarchy and theocracy
The Impact of Iranian mythology on the Islamic revolution
April 25, 2003
Adapted and summarized from chapter 2 of my new book, The
Shah and the Ayatollah (Praeger ,2003).
Permanence and Contuinity
Continuity is the hallmark of Iranian culture . Indeed many "constants"
blaze the trails of the three thousands years of Iranian history
. Present historians , as well as those of the past century , have
often underlined what they call the "permanence of Iran"
, meaning that old Iranian traditions have survived the many calamities
and invasions that struck the Caspian Plateau . Curiously enough
the mindset of Iranians has barely changed over the centuries .
Many ancient beliefs that linger in their unconscious trigger sometimes
reactions which seem incomprehensible to foreign observers .
I remember a French journalist friend of mine who , after a travel
to Iran in 1981 , asked me : "Are you Iranians insane ? You
stunned the whole world by overthrewing with your bare hands the
powerful Shah . And now your compatriots voluntarily , if not enthusiastically
, submit to another dictator, even more totalitarian and repressive
than the Shah and his regime ! ". No : Iranians are far from
being mad ; they only are , so to say , "prisoners" of
their own "permanence" , of their own mores . Indeed ,
despite its indeniable material and technical development under
the Shah , Iran , in 1978 , remained at heart a traditional society
The Shah , prey to his own hubris , entertained the illusion that
Iran had already broken the walls of backwardness and underdevelopment
and become part of the modern and advanced world . Despite his deep-seated
anti-marxist philosophy and his almost superstitious religious beliefs
, material signs of progress dazzled him to a fault and blinded
him to all other factors . For example in his 1978 "Toward
the Great Civilization "he wrote :
"Tehran , which never appeared on the list of places in
which world-wide economic activities occurred , became one of
the most animated centers of the world for such activities . The
Iranian industrial era started... Between the beginning of the
(White) Revolution and today (1977) , the figure representing
Gross National Product (GNP) ,at current prices , rose from 340
billion to 5,682 billion rials. In other words, the said production
had increased more than 16-fold in the space of only 15 years.
The volume of national savings , which is an index of the soundness
of the state of the public economy , increased from 45 to 1,509
billion rials . The annual rate of growth of our country's
economy , which for many years has figured at the head of the
international list as the highest rate of economic growth in the
world , is at present 13,8% . Average per capita income , which
was at the beginning of the (White) Revolution 174 dollars , has
reached 2,200 in the first half of the current year ... Our country
which until 1973 did not figure among the twenty wealthy countries
which form the subject of studies by the International Monetary
Fund , has occupied since 1974 the 13th place among them..."
It is true that in a matter of only 15 years a whole economic and
social infrastructure had been built up , the solidity of which
was proven by the long and bloody war provoked by Iraq (without
such a backup , the Iraqi would have rapidly defeated Iran) . Yet
, this modern and wealthy Iran whose rapid emergence had bewildered
world experts in the 1970s , was only the tip of an iceberg , of
which two thirds still steeped in the Middle Ages ! But blurred
by the initial successes of the rapid economic progress and.his
obssessive dream of "Great Civilization" , and also prodded
by his terminal illness, the Shah could not or did not want to acknowledge
reality in its entirety : Iran , despite its rapid and tangible
progresses , largely remained a traditional society. Despite the
advices of his aides and some foreign experts , he decided to gallop
through his programs .
Iran as a traditional society
One characteristic of "traditional "societies is what
specialists dub as "pre-modern ways of thinking" which
prompt masses as well as elites to assume, among other things ,
that uncontrolable "forces" rule them (2) . This predisposition
covers a vast gammut of beliefs starting with simple superstitions
such as the "evil eye" and ending up with complicated
elaborations like "satanic plots" by the great powers
. Thus , Ayatollah Khomeini , like all other militant Muslim fundamentalists
, Sunnite or Shiite (such as , for instance Sheikh Yassin the Spiritual
leader of the Palestinian Hamas extremist group), was sincerely
convinced of the existence of a conspiracy by Israel and the West
aiming at erasing Islam from the surface of the planet . In the
view of these militant fundamentalists , the "Crusades"
never ended . They earnestly see "Great Satans" (and lesser
ones ) around them !
In the absence of a criterion helping to separate facts from fiction
and reality from legend , people of "traditional" societies
are forced to speculate , to imagine and to fancy . They constantly
sway from bewilderment to dread and vice versa . They resort to
Heaven and rely on God . They abandon themselves to fate and destiny
. Whatever happens to them comes from "outside" , from
uncontrolable forces . They see everywhere signs from the "beyond"
. Natural catastrophes are God's punitions imposed on men
for their misconducts. Conversely , good happenings or successes
are rewards from the Almighty . In 1979 , many Iranians , even highly
educated ones , pretended having seen Khomeini's face on the
full moon (event which in Iranians' belief "anoint"
the person ) . In the same vein the masses firmly believed that
Allah inspired Khomeini's actions and destroyed the American
helicopters which landed in the Tabass desert .
One can say that Iranians ( not unlike other Third world nations
and sometimes groups of immigrants in the most advanced countries)
, tow with themselves ,as it were , large chunks of medieval and
even more remote concepts and beliefs . They are "prisonners"
of their own mythology .I cannot take stock here of all the vast
and extremely rich content of Iranian legends . I would instead
concentrate on a few elements that might shed light on some unexplained
aspects of the 1978/79 Iranian revolution.
One such element can be found , for instance , in the story of
Jamshid and Zahak According to it , there was a time when Ahura
Mazda (God in the Zoroastrian religion ) , upset by Humans'
greedy and sinful behavior , withdrew "Light" from earth
and in the ensuying darkness our planet became the realm of Ahriman
( the devil in Zoroastrianism) who supported tyrants .
Then , one day , Jamshid acceeded to the throne and started a rule
of justice and progress . Ahura Mazda pleased by his behavior and
deeds returned the "Light" , thus forcing Ahriman (the
Prince of Darkness) to flee away . Jamshid could therefore reconstruct
the country . He built Persepolis ( in Persian : Throne of Jamshid
) ; He set up a system of irrigation that revived arid lands ; he
constructed roads that linked the cities and favored trade ; he
helped peasants and artisans .
During a great part of Jamshid's reign , people enjoyed a
healthy and comfortable life . The whole globe thrived under his
reign . But , in the end , the monarch believed that his subjects'
well-being and happiness proceeded from himself alone . Overwhelmed
by hubris and conceit , he forgot his indebtness to Ahura Mazda
. He assembled the people and told them : "I have given you
all this wealth and comfort . You should therefore worship me as
your King and the Master of the World " .
Disapointed by these words ,Ahura Mazda once again withdrew "Light"
and as a result all the earthly splendor faded away and the tongues
of the people grew bold against Jamshid . Ahriman returned and helped
Zahak to overthrow Jamshid and take his place . In order to prevent
any good deed on the part of the new king and to ensure continuous
tyranny , he kissed Zahak on his naked shoulders from which two
black serpents sprang up . He told Zahak : "You must feed them
daily the brains of young adolescents . Otherwise they will bite
you ". A reign of terror started . People lamented and prayed
Ahura Mazda to send them a saviour.
The parallel of this story with the events of the 1970s is remarkable
. The program of reforms that started in 1963 was just beginning
to yield its first fruits when the Shah , falling , as it were ,
into the sin of presumption , ordered the famous Persepolis festival
of september 1971 to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the foundation
of the Iranian Empire by Cyrus and to present himself as the heir
and continuator of the great Aechemenian king . After the tripling
of oil prices in 1974/75 , his arrogance became limitless . He adopted
a "teaching" tone and in all his interviews gave lessons
to the leaders of the world , including those of the well developed
countries , and more particularly the superpowers ! (Khomeini followed
a similar path , giving lessons to the Pope , to Gorbachev ,and
many other leaders).
To come back to the Jamshid-Zahak legend , the people , as already
indicated , suffering from the tyranny of the new monarch , were
lamenting and praying Ahura Mazda to send a Saviour who would deliver
them from the clutches of the bloody tyrant who killed everyday
two adolescents in order tro feed the serpents on his shoulder.
Pitying the wretched citizens , Ahura Mazda inspired the blacksmith
Kaveh to bring back from the peak of Damavand the hero Fereidun
and start a revolt against Zahak who was eventually dethroned ...
Khomeini and his underlings seem to have followed (and continue
to do so) the same mythological cycle even more quickly than the
Shah did . Indeed ,in less time than the monarch , they turned out
into unrelenting tyrants . It is of no importance that Khomeini
and Khamenei refer themselves to Imam Ali rather than to Cyrus (as
the Shah used to do). What is striking is that Iranian leaders as
far back as history and legend go , have always become despots if
they were not already so when they acceeded to power !
The Rostam Syndrome
The Iranian leader is in fact a kind of two-faced "father"
: compassionate on the one hand , but also and more often than not
, stern and even cruel .His mythological model is the legendary
hero Rostam who inadvertently killed his own son Sohrab reverse
of the Greek Oedipus legend !I have coined the phrase "Rostam
Syndrome" , in order to underline the difference between European
and Iranian fathers).
The Iranian ruler is the "father-of-the-nation" and
therefore supposed to provide for the well-being of his "citizens-children"
; but at the same time he is a very strict and adamant "father"
who goes as far as putting them to death if they disobey him .He
protects them as long as they submit to his commands , but do not
hesitate to punish them severely when they fail to carry out his
orders . He remains under the spell of the "Rostam Syndrome"
! Iran's history bear witness of numerous kings who massacred
or blinded members of their own families or of their entourage as
well as whole groups of citizens .
Replacing the Shahs , the mullahs followed suit . They were subjected
to the "Rostam Syndrome" . Thus Khomeini did not hesitate
to confirm the death sentence against Ghotbzadeh who had helped
him to climb to power and stood at his side in exile like a son
. Bani Sadr , the first President of the Islamic Republic , whom
Khomeini considered as his "spiritual" son , had to flee
away in order to escape the fate of Ghotbzadeh ! The mullahs execute
daily droves of so-called drug "traffickers" and other
Khomeini calls his theory of governance : Velayate Faghih ( Guardianship
of the Theologian) : indeed in the view of ayatollahs , Iranians
are "children" in need of a custodian ! The very title
of "Marja-e-Taghlid" (source of emulation) implies that
the people are child-like!
Thus invisible "bonds of servitude" link all levels
of Iranian society from roots to branches . The "supreme ruler"
himself , in a way , is far from being completely "free"
. Indeed he must submit to God's authority . I evoked earlier
the question of a French friend returning from a 1981 visit to Iran
: "Are Iranians mad ?" . The answer is obviously negative
. Indeed Iranians abandoned the Shah only when he lost his "fathership"
by becoming "weak" and fleeing the country and when they
found a replacement in the person of Khomeini . Screaming the slogan
of "Islam is in danger" the latter startled them and appeared
to them with the aura as a "saviour" sent by God .
In february 1979 his plane landed in Mehrabad ‘s airport
. He literally alighted from heaven !
Obviously democracy cannot take root and grow up in such a paternalistic
and despotic environment . I remember my perplexity in History courses
when I was attending high school . Why Persians and Greeks who both
were Indo-European "cousins" did wage constant wars against
each other ? The explications of my professors as well as that of
historians refering to the character of the rulers and to economic
arguments about trade routes and other features (such as exiled
politicians of both sides) never totally convinced me . But now
it seems clear to me that the systems of governance of the two nations
constituted a permanent danger for each other . If the stern "father
rule" spilled in Greek cities it would endanger democracy and
Today in the Middle East we witness something of that kind . Behind
the bickerings and wars , mythologies and political systems loom
large . Indeed , for one thing , Israel's "democracy"
constitutes a constant danger for the Muslim "authoritarian"
governments and vice-versa . At any rate , after several centuries
of Greek interlude , Persians found nothing better than to reestablish
their ancestral totalitarian political structures with the Sassanian
empire which collapsed a couple of centuries later under the assault
of Arabia's Muslim Bedouins!
The opposition of the clergy to democracy
In this perspective and to come back to the events that ended the
Iranian monarchy and replaced it with Khomeini's Islamic despotic
rule , one should remember that by 1977, under the pressure of the
Carter administration , Muhammad Reza Shah , already deeply impressed
by Juan Carlos' example in Spain , wanted to "liberalize"
his regime . He envisaged to install a real constitutional monarchy
, authorize all political parties and organize free elections ,
under international scrutriny , in june 1979 . This new trend in
his reforms , much more than the "modernization" inaugurated
with the "White Revolution" , constituted a direct threat
to the influence of the Shiite clergy whose paternalistic structure
could only tolerate (and thrive under ) the despotic-father-rule
of the traditional system , despite occasional frictions between
the monarch and high ranking mullahs .
Learning about the Shah's intentions , Khomeini who had already
locked horns with him at several occasions in the fifties and sixties
, acted immediately and fobbed both Iranian and Western liberals
and secularists by his early "democratic" language . As
soon as he arrived in Iran after the departure of the Shah , he
unlimbered his batteries and put in place his absolutist medieval
theocracy . That is why today Iranians should not be lured by the
oxymoronic idea of "religious democracy" aired by the
so-called "reformists" around Khatami.
Be this as it may , one should constantly keep in mind the eminent
place of the "father" in order to understand the unfolding
of events in Iranian society of the past as well as the present
. The Iranian "father" is not a symbolic figure , a "father
figure" (like general De Gaulle or chancellor Adenauer were
in France and in Germany after World War II ) . To the contrary
he considers himself as a real father .
The same can be said of the ayatollahs and Imams . Shah , Imam
or simple head of an ordinary family , the Iranian "father"
possesses an absolute power over his "children" in his
particular realm . He is invested with such a limitless power by
God or by Tradition and he exerts it with the utmost harshness and
severity . Nothing stops him in yielding it . In a way , he is an
"atavic killer" , as if he were seeking revenge for all
he had suffered as a "child" before acceeding to "fathership
" . He recites the Koranic formula : "In the name of God,
the compassionate, the merciful" without paying attention to
its real meaning . He is much more interested by the decriptions
of God's punishments than by that of the delights of Paradise
. When he is not wielding the sword , he handles the whip .
In any case , the dread of the father is not fictional . Iranian
history abounds in bloody episodes in which "fathers"
literally kill their children and subjects . Since its inception
, Iranian society has been based on a blanket delegation of limitless
power to the "father" and on a total submission of the
children . The Shah in the past and the Ayatollahs today turn up
their noses to the protests based on the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights which they consider as contrary to many teachings of
Allah's laws as edicted by the Koran or interpreted by the
Islamic Jurisprudents . In their views it threatens both Muslim
and traditional Iranian identity.
What confused outside observers as well as some Iranians about
the Islamic revolution , is that , save a limited group of intellectuals
and educated members of society , the bulk of the Iranian citizens
were not yearning for freedom , but rather looking for another "father"
. The Shah with his so-called "liberalizing" program was
softening his repressive rule . Under pressure by the United States
and non-governmental Human Rights organizations (such as Amnesty
International ) he pardoned some of his enemies (including Rajavi
the head of the Mujahiddins who had been condemned to death ) .
In 1978 he did not react harshly against his opponants and to the
contrary accepted all their demands ... He showed weakness and therefore
ceased to be a true "father" in the traditional sense
Moreover the "complexities" of modern societies which
were stealthily inching into the country with the reforms of the
so-called "White revolution" , frightened the masses still
accustomed to the "simplicity" and "efficacy"
of traditional ways . Khomeini , aware of the dismay of the ordinary
citizen in face of change , used to a maximum pitch their creeping
fears . For instance , he repeatedly criticized the civil courts
that had taken over from clerics the dispensation of justice . He
would say in this respect : "It would take a civil court sometimes
several years before ending a case and pronouncing a verdict , while
Islamic tribunals would decide in two or three days ".
In more general terms he used to affirm : "If a government
applied Islamic criminal law during one single year , it would uproot
all injustices and immoralities . Crimes should be punished by the
Talion (law of retaliation) : sever the hand of a thief , put to
death a murderer instead of imprisoning him , whip or stone the
adulterous . So called humanitarian scruples are rather childish
. According to Koranic law , any person filling up the seven conditions
( being male , pubescent, believer , cognizant of Islamic law ,
fair ; and not illegitimate or amnesiac) is habilitated to be judge
in any law-case . He can thus judge in one day twenty different
cases while Western justice takes years to tackle only one of them
". He contended that all the reforms introduced by the so-called
"White Revolution" were nothing but "westoxication"
Such a simple language was indeed soothing to the masses , bewildered
by the sudden irruption of spates of novelties in their traditional
environment . The Shah who was acting like foreigners and speaking
a complicated language ceased to be a "father" to them
. They felt like orphan children in need of a protector , of a custodian
. They feverishly looked for a "real father" . And the
new "father" revealed himself in the person of Khomeini
whose religious aura compensated for his frailty : he possessed
the title of Imam and had proved his endurance and force in past
battles against the Shah . One day he descended from Heaven in a
Boeing 747 and appeared to the throngs in the full light of noon's
sunshine . Order was restored , as a new "shah" , a high
ranking religious one to boot , came to sit on the throne vacated
by his runaway predecessor . The social "pyramid" far
from crumbling down was rather reinforced .
Shall we conclude that Iranians will never escape from the closed
circle in which their traditions and mythology has imprisonned them
? I don't think so . Not only many things have changed in Iranian
society (and behavior) since the mullahs despotic regime took over
, but our Mythology contains many hopeful elements which have been
, as it were , kept in slumber and which can be reactivated by the
younger generations .
I personally believe that
the legends of Kaykhosrow and Simorgh , to quote only these two
, contain the seeds of democracy . We must reactivate them at all
levels of the Iranian society . The only positive lesson of Khomeini's
Islamic revolution nightmare is that it proves that tradition can
be changed. Indeed the overnight overthrow of traditional monarchy
was easily accepted by the people . In my opinion the vast majority
of Iranians are now ready to step into a democratic system . The
time is now .
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