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COLLECTIONBook excerpts
TITLEThe Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation
AUTHOR 1Sandra Mackey
PAGE_RANGE4, 129-32, 210, 280, 306, 373.
PUB_THISThe Penguin Group
ABSTRACTBrief overview of the Bahá'í Faith during the Qajar period, in the context of Iranian politics.
CONTENT [page 4]

[...introductory discussion, overview of Iranian demographics...]

    ...Inlaid within this mosaic crafted from ethnicity and linguistics are the fragments of religion. Like tiny flakes, Zoroastrians, Christian, Jews, and Bahais dot the heavy varnish of Islam which covers Iran. The Zoroastrians are the remnant of the religion of pre-Islamic Iran who, in a sense, tend its memory. The Christians subdivide into the Eastern Orthodox Assyrians, Protestants, and Armenians, who are also an ethnic minority claiming their own distinct history, language, literature, and music. Of the religious minorities, the Jews are the most closely integrated into an Iranian culture structured on Islam. (Most Iranian Jews speak Farsi, adhere to Persian culture more than Jewish culture, and live scattered within the general population. Generally, they do not share the passionate attachment to Israel which characterizes many Jewish groups.) They suffer little of the ostracism historically visited on the Bahais, a mid-nineteenth century offshoot of Islam, who have always lived as a suspected, even hated, minority in Iran....

[page 129]

    ...As the late twentieth century has so patently demonstrated, protest in Iran has often come packaged in religion. In the age of the Sassanians, Manichaeism and Mazdakism both constituted protest movements against the ethos and practice of the existing regime. Islam triumphed in Iran because the political system underwritten by Zoroastrianism had ossified. Shiism, in turn, arose as a protest movement within Islam. In the mid-nineteenth century, opposition to the Qajar system found a voice in the Bahais.

    The Bahai religion began as a messianic movement within the Shia sect of Islam. In 1844, during the reign of the third Qajar shah,

[page 130]

Muhammad, a young man just past adolescence named Mirza Ali Muhammad declared himself the long awaited Mahdi. Repeating the pattern of Islamic movements of heresy and revolt provoked by a sense of injustice from those who ruled, mullahs formed a segment of the early converts to a movement within Shiism called Bahaism. However, the Bahais soon began to pull away from Shiism to develop their own religious themes. Stressing equality of the sexes, universal education, pacifism in establishing world peace, and the need to improve society through the pursuit of purity, the Bahais eventually severed the ties with their Shia origins. It was this rejection of Islam from within the faith that has inflicted on the Bahais a level of Shia resentment never applied to other religious minorities in Iran. It seems the Shia can tolerate Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians because their faiths preceded the faith of Muhammad. But the Bahais are a Shia heresy which cannot be suffered.

    From its inception, Bahaism enraged the Shia clergy. Its blasphemy denied Muhammad as the last prophet and the Koran as final revelation. A powerful corresponding issue for the clerics as well as the shah was that Bahaism, like Manichaeism in its time, posed a threat to the existing order. Trumpeting the sound of reform against mullah and king, the Bahais called for "heads to be cut off, books burnt, places demolished and laid waste, and a general slaughter made."3 [footnote from back of book, page 414: 3. Hamid Algar, Islam and Revolution: Religion and State in Iran 1785-1906 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1969), 148.)]

    Although the most visible and distinctive opponents of the Qajar system, the Bahais were a symptom of widespread dissatisfaction spreading through Iran. It fed on a series of disastrous wars the Qajars fought against Russia and Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. These wars flared from a combination of geography and imperialism. Like a rug on a doorstep, Iran lay between an ambitious Russia driving toward warm-water ports on the Persian Gulf and an anxious Britain determined to protect the gateways to India. (See chapter 7.) Ignoring the realities of Iran's woeful military capabilities, Fath Ali Shah chose to fight the encroaching powers in the name of national glory. In 1813, Iran lost its first war to Russia and with it possession of Armenia, Georgia, and northern Azerbaijan. In 1828, it lost its second. This time the Caspian Sea turned into a Russian lake when the Qajars surrendered the southern shore to the czar. Ten years later, in an ill-conceived attempt to counter Iran's image of weakness magnified by the losses to Russia, the Qajar king laid claim to the city of Herat in Afghanistan. This time Britain administered the defeat. In its wake, Iran cowered on its knees, territorially dismembered, psychologically devastated.

[page 131]

    It was in this environment of national humiliation that seventeen-year-old Nasir ed-Din became the fourth Qajar shah in 1848. For the next forty-eight years, Iran traveled in an uneven orbit around his throne. In his first crisis, he confronted rebellion in six parts of the country ignited by the military defeats of the previous decades that left restless tribes and regions with a perception of a weak central government. His second challenge came from within the court in the person of Mirza Taqi Khan Farahani Amir-i Nazam, the young shah's guardian and tutor.

    Popularly known as Amir Kabir, the tutor became his pupil's first prime minister. He brought to office the intellectual heritage of Abbas Mirza, a son of Fath Ali Shah. In the early nineteenth century, Abbas Mirza had stood among the ruins of the Iranian army on the Russian front. Suffering the disgrace of his country, he saw in retreating soldiers and captured armaments Qajar Iran's backwardness and impotence. When he returned from war, he began to agitate within the court for reform of the monarchy and the nation. Tragically dying before his father, Abbas Mirza left his vision to the few enlightened minds within the palace. One of those who grasped that vision was Amir Kabir.

    Utilizing his intimate association with the shah, Amir Kabir extended his control over government finances and the bureaucracy to give form to Iran's flimsy central government. In foreign policy, he introduced the principle of equilibrium that would characterize Iranian relations with its powerful neighbors into the reign of Muhammad Reza Shah. In essence, Iran protected its fragile sovereignty by balancing the interests of Russia against those of Britain. Addressing the debilitating problem presented by internal and external threats to the security of the nation, Amir Kabir raised and equipped an army capable of defending territorial Iran.

    In his overriding concern to buttress the state, Amir Kabir sought to end the dualism of power between the king and the clergy, or at least to reduce it to a point where religion could no longer challenge the authority of secular government. But the breach between crown and turban repaired when Amir Kabir judged the Bahais a looming threat to Iran's internal stability. Beginning in 1848, serious disturbances between the Bahais and the clergy rumbled like thunder in the ears of the prime minister. The lightning speed with which Bahaism was spreading its message threatened more. In 1850, charges of heresy by the ulama paved the way for the state to execute the Bahais' central figure, twenty-five-year-old Mirza Ali Muhammad, the Bab, the Bahais' proclaimed successor of Muhammad. His followers, indicted for

[page 132]

renouncing Islam for another religion, faced the choice of repentance or death. The wave of persecution aroused by the clergy and led by the state culminated in 1851 at Zenjan, between Tabriz and Tehran. There Qajar troops, in the name of Shia Islam, laid a siege to the town. When they saw Qajar troops storm the gates, the Bahais, with a sense of ecstasy that comes with religious certitude, fought from house to house until not a man, woman, or child was left alive. In the aftermath of this assault on the Bahais, Amir Kabir allowed the dualism of power between king and clergy to return to its former state.

    Yet in centralizing administration, protecting the nation, and suppressing the Bahais in the name of Shia Islam, Amir Kabir wrapped Nasir ed-Din Shah in the aura of a strong, responsible monarch. Iran seemed ready to undergo another of the renaissances which so often followed national defeat. But hovering in the background was the shah's mother, Mahd Ulya...

[page 209]

    ...When the shah resumed his seat on the Peacock throne, he strengthened his ties with Ayatollah Borujerdi, whose policy of political quiescence had denied Mossadeq the full benefit of Iran's masses. The ulama, for their part, entertained no interest in challenging the monarchy as long as the shah allowed them to exercise religious authority in relative peace. In this atmosphere of coexistence of crown and turban, the fiery old Ayatollah Kashani slipped into political obscurity. Sharing the shah's fear of and contempt for communism, the ulama quietly supported the brutal two-year campaign to crush the

[page 210]

Tudeh. Ayatollah Borujerdi, the apolitical model of emulation, claimed only one reward for the clerical hierarchy's refusal to follow Mossadeq. It was official tolerance of a campaign against the Bahais. In 1955, the shah sent his own chief of staff to swing the first pick that destroyed the dome of the Bahai temple in Tehran. In the ensuing months, he remained silent as death and destruction descended on the Bahais in what was whispered to be Borujerdi's attempt to destroy the faith. Before that goal was realized, the shah became alarmed that public order might slip beyond the control of his army. For perhaps the first time but not the last, the shah saw the raw power of religion. In response, he began to shut down the assault on the Bahais. And Borujerdi acquiesced, for he had already forced the shah to swallow a large bite of Shiism. In the interest of accommodation with clerical authority, the shah delivered to Borujerdi more religious instruction in the public schools; tighter control of cinemas and other offensive secular entertainment; and public acts which confirmed the monarch's obedience to Shiism. Although never recognized as a pious man, Muhammad Reza Shah visited Iran's Shia shrines and put on the simple white seamless garment of the pilgrim to make the Haj to Mecca. He broke ground for a mosque on the campus of the University of Tehran, Iran's temple of secular education. And he publicly described his visions, in which he saw Ali bestowing on him the spiritual link to the divine force of Shia Islam and its imams. But Muhammad Reza Shah never succeeded in convincing either the Shia establishment or pious Iranians of his religious commitment. When Ayatollah Borujerdi died on March 30, 1961, the mutually beneficial arrangement between the Shia hierarchy and the shah began to unravel. The way opened to the politicization of the deeply religious middle and lower classes in response to the drive toward absolute power by a shah who fulfilled neither the Persian nor the Islamic requirements for authority.

[page 279]

    ...Spring budded in violence in Shiraz, Tehran, and Tabriz. In Qom, three busloads of armed and helmeted commandos arrived on May 10 to quell large demonstrations. Led by their commander, a squad of soldiers burst into the home of Ayatolah Kazem Shariatmadari. In the presence of the most influential cleric inside Iran, they shot one of his followers dead on the spot. At that moment Shariatmadari left behind Shia Islam's traditional abhorrence of politics to join the opposition to Pahlavi rule. Most of the religious moderates followed him. For centuries a faith of lament and submission, Shiism had suddenly become the vehicle of ecstasy and rebellion.

    On through the summer, demonstrations, strikes, and riots convulsed the country. Sometimes the government reacted with great force, sometimes with unexpected, almost apologetic, conciliation, especially toward Shia Islam. During the year, the shah abolished the imperial calendar commencing with the reign of Cyrus along with the Ministry of Women's Affairs. He closed the casinos and gambling

[page 280]

clubs; began to rid the government of Bahais; and tried to restore some of the royal family's Islamic credentials. Empress Farah went on pilgrimage to Mecca and the shah touted the amount of money he had spent on the beautification of the shrine at Mashhad. As the shah attempted to shore up his throne, the elite kept telling themselves and the Americans that everything would be all right. After all, the shah had the army and the army would never crack. That was before the fire at the Cinema Rex in Abadan...

[page 306]

...During the summer and fall of 1981, more than a thousand government officials, including mullahs, judges, police officials, Islamic Republican Party leaders, and Khomeini aides died by assassination. All formed links in the chain of command through which Khomeini exercised his will. When security around the remaining key officials tightened, the Mujahedin struck the minor players of the Islamic government, civil servants and Revolutionary Guards. Often they took ordinary citizens with them...

[one paragraph cut; a quotation from an interview with a near victim]

    ...In the terrorism, the Mujahedin aimed at no less than a second revolution, this one against Ayatollah Khomeini and the political clerics. But the combination of Khomeini's immense prestige and the absolute loyalty of the clerics' private army, the Revolutionary Guards, along with other grassroots revolutionary organizations, gave the regime enough power to retaliate.

    Driven by fear for their survival, the authorities visited a terrible vengeance on their challengers that included the Tudeh, the Iranian Communist party. Mullahs picked up guns to become turbaned militiamen behind the Revolutionary guards, the shield protecting the clerics from those who would destroy them. Turned loose with unrestricted power, they ruthlessly suppressed street demonstrations, entered homes at will, made unauthorized arrests, and fed the machine of execution. By September, fifty people a day routinely went before the firing squad or were hanged from scaffolding, bridges, and, on one occasion, the crossbar of a swing set on a children's playground. Too often, courts in search of blood randomly chose their victims. Royalists already in jail, the despised Bahais, and a twelve-year-old accused of participating in a demonstration, all went to their deaths. But mostly it was those tainted by real or imagined connections with the Islamic or secular left who made up the estimated eighteen hundred people executed between June and November 1981 for "waging war against God..."

[page 372]

[...descriptions of contemporary Iran and its new affluences and socioeconomic divisions...]

    As a result, the schism between a diminishing core of loyalists to the revolution and the rest of Iranian society is growing. The opposition gathers in groups inside and outside Iran. In their political and cultural viewpoint, they span the whole history of Iran's turbulent twentieth century. The monarchists cling to the Persian component of Iranian identity, condemning the Islamic Republic as alien to the historical requirements of Iran and bemoaning the reordering of the traditional hierarchy. The ideological descendants of the Constitutionalists of 1906 and the Nationalist Movement of Muhammad Mossadeq dream of justice and equality postulated both in the Persian cultural tradition and the Islamic religion, and of democracy and liberty conceived in Iran's engagement with the West.* There are also those among the masses whose bleeding bodies contributed so much to saving it in the war with Iraq who remember Ayatollah Khomeini's words uttered from exile in 1972: "Once the clergy is corrupted, the world is corrupted."9 [footnote from back of book, page 419: 9. Quoted in Hamid Dabashi, The Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Republic, 459.]

    The opposition to rule by the clerics remains fragmented and quiescent in part because the proponents of politicized Islam have proven as intolerant of dissent as their royal predecessor. Evin Prison, stormed in February 1979 to free political prisoners of Muhammad Reza Shah, now holds the political prisoners of clerical government. Even so, the Islamic Republic has never built and operated an internal security system approaching in size, efficiency, and ruthlessness that of the shah. Rather, surveillance is erratic, repression fitful, and terror decentralized. In essence, the clerics stay strong enough to govern but supple enough to survive. Consequently, there is freedom of the press

    * The Mujahedin-e Khalq no longer constitutes a political option in Iran. Living on the largess of Saddam Hussein, the group claims an army, a parliament in exile, and a future president of Iran. All operate within a cult of personality built around the Mujahedin's long-time leader, Masoud Rajavi. While the Mujahedin remains the most widely feared opposition group because of periodic raids across the Shatt al-Arab, it is also the most discredited among the Iranian people who have not forgotten the Mujahedin's support of Iraq in the war against Iran.

[page 373]

and there is censorship. There is the absence of a police state and the presence of repression in which an Iranian constantly wonders if he is being spied on, if his telephone is tapped, or if the Pasdaran will strike. Although the Bahais and evangelical Christians are the primary victims of outright persecution, everyone is sensitive to the growing parallels with the oppression of the shah...

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