Perhaps a longstanding example of our post-World War II ignorance of the world is the Middle East, as a Congressional TV spectacular, “Iran-gate,” demonstrated in 1987. That America, let alone its military and intelligence experts, could in the 1980’s seek to address itself to a dialogue with the clerics ruling Persia, men living somewhere in the 16th Century (never mind their deployment of missiles and mines) was a fantastic notion. Granted, although the hand of the KGB was also at work to undermine the Shah’s policy, which we had linked with ours, and increasing afterwards with the Mullahs’ gaining full control of Iran, there was perhaps more likelihood of contact with that country than there is in imagining we can communicate sensibly with our friends the rulers of (Saudi) Arabia, who live in the 14th Century (never mind their Rolls Royces and air-conditioning). It is no accident that Kings and Emirs hire their labor force of Egyptians, Palestinians, Pakistanis, and the like: feudal and tribal sovereigns need those 19th and 20th Century workers. It was after the 1950s that our consistent impotence to deal with the tyrannical “Socialist” dictator of Syria and today his son, and of course the Baathist barbarism of Saddam, should have suggested that the world is patterned with societies who exist culturally and psychologically in centuries long before transistors brought them radio, or satellites CNN, or cellular phones connected them sans wires or roads.
But as if that were not enough, we have heard the Ayatollah Khomeini issue a death warrant against Salman Rushdie, a hapless satirical novelist who lived in London: WANTED: DEAD! And he offered $6 million to any ambitious hit man, an offer reaffirmed in July of 1990 by his successors, a fatwa never rescinded. Not only editors and publishers were wounded or killed, but many thousands perished in riots in India when it was announced his book would be issued in paperback in English. Now that Khomeini is buried, his successors have declared the hunt off, although leading clerics assert it impossible to nullify that dead hand’s ruling; Rushdie may walk abroad from this or that “safe house,” but British Airways knew better: they would not have him as a passenger on any plane they flew. Indeed, the fatwa remains in effect, reiterated in 1999. We watched our American publishers and writers recoil in horror from that eruption of medieval, rather obscurantist wrath, as though surprised to find that more than 200 years after the French Revolution the Enlightenment has yet to have been imagined in a Middle East whose masses, as in Algeria, vote not for trade unions but for Islam. Whatever that Islam is, it certainly is not whatever little we know or understand of Islam, though in Libya its dictator Moammar Khadaffi now asserts: Europe and the United States must disappear! In England, public burnings of Rushdie’s book were conducted by outraged Muslim citizens who behaved as though they were actually domiciled in Pakistan.
And the ingenuousness of Muslims living in the United States, whenever they are interviewed, continues startling. They seem to talk to our 21st Century press and pollsters about their peoples and religion in terms of life as it was lived long before the Ottoman Turks arrived and became sophisticated, their protests revealing a petrified mental residence in a long-vanished epoch almost 1500 years ago, when victorious Arab armies were on the march west and east. From their claims on Jerusalem as their third most holy site, one would suppose that Mohammed actually spoke in the Koran of that city or the Byzantine churches built on the ruins of the Temple Mount. Their PR propaganda never discloses that more than 50,000 sectarian Muslims, the Baha’i, have been killed or tortured or expropriated in Iran. To this hour there is not an iota of toleration within Islam for their deviance, declared heresy in the mid-19th Century, although those who follow the martyred founder are dispersed worldwide today, and his tomb and shrine with its great golden dome looks down upon Haifa. As for Iran at present, 80,000 Jews lived there in 1979; by 2003, only 11,000 remained, after the wealthiest majority had fled their most ancient homeland, leaving vast properties in the hands of the new absolutist theocratic regime.
What’s intriguing about the dreadful psychology of Muslim, particularly Shiite [read Hizbollah] fundamentalism, is that aspect of terrible fixity, that manifests itself in its adherents as a kind of violent sleepwalking. It is as though all those masses of young men and boys whose despondent faces we saw during the Iran-Iraq war a decade and more ago in the news as prisoners, or before that as cheering cannon fodder, had converted the terror of their lives into fanatic activism, and let themselves be driven willingly for seven years into purposeless, perhaps killingly, sham battles like those Europe fought in World War I. Not only the stern faces of the men in mobs who stream across our television screen, but the absurd propaganda rantings broadcast daily, parodies of the Red and Black totalist rhetorics we were altogether too familiar with after 1922. As for Mecca, don’t the “wrong” Muslims control the shrine? And why should there be always peace and sanctity in Mecca? If Europe has quite forgotten the Thirty Years’ War, it may only be the general disappearance of strongly-held dogma in the face of secular consumerism and after perhaps a hundred million deaths in two world wars. Has Northern Ireland, for that matter, where the IRA keeps a truce; and what if peace will not some day obtain? Do the “ethnic” Albanians not remain at war with Orthodox Serbian Christians, though the Bosnian Muslims (themselves Slavs, not Semites) have been quashed? Is not al-Queda operating in Kosovo Province at this hour?
You can’t help wondering what it feels like to be inside the skin and looking with the eyes of one of those thousands of young men and women through their rigid masks as they march fisting into the camera’s eye daily. How utterly alien to reason and law, it seems — to any reason, any law. One can, however, fairly easily imagine what it’s like to be one of the old men directing these martyr-making, recurrent “cultural revolutions,” because anyone over 60 — in any culture anywhere — presumably knows the score, and has by that age accepted his own death. All those mullahs, those high-ranking cadres or technocrat types still in power today in so many former Soviet “autonomous republics,” and of course as gangsters and neo-bureaucrats in Russia, must be case-hardened characters, cynical at best, viciously, determinedly evil at worst, as are most older persons, who rule over and dispose of the lives of their young, sending them to commit suicide. Not to mention Arab mothers who joyfully offer up sons and daughters to such missions, and ululate their mourning pride on camera (meanwhile waiting for the check that is expected to arrive in the mail).
Europe may have been surprised when masses marched because of some crude and simpleminded cartoon drawings of the Prophet. Not I. I recall a Persian graduate student who sat once to be examined for his Ph.D. oral by a committee of which I was a member. That was over thirty years ago before the Shah was deposed. My colleagues the other professors asked the young man — he was about 28 — questions based on his answers in the preliminary written exams, and he responded intelligently, discoursing on the Middle East, Pakistan, and so on. The topics were issues and problems he’d covered in his studies in social and political science at UCLA. For his dissertation, he proposed to edit and translate the writings of a Muslim martyr named Sheikh Ahmad of Ahsa, who lived during the late 1700s and early 1800’s, whose works are among manuscript holdings in our University Research Library.
Curious to learn something of his subject, heresy in Islam, I asked him to go back and talk about the ferocious “wars of succession” that occurred during the century following the death of Mohammed. To my astonishment, the poor fellow sat and stared at our committee members as if he had been struck dumb: his face reddened, his eyes bulged, and sweat began to trickling down from his hair. He gasped for breath; he tried to speak but could utter no sound. At last, he groaned and staggered from his chair, hands clasped over his belly — and begged permission to leave the room.
When the door closed behind him, my colleagues, one, Pakistani, another, Arab, a third, Persian, smiled at me. “What did I say wrong?” I asked.
Nothing, they replied. Absolutely nothing. The grotesque and dismaying display was not unfamiliar to them.
Students such as he, they explained, can handle the new things they learned in the West, like the methodology of our social sciences; but as soon as one touched upon the area of religion, analytical thought suddenly turned impossible. The idea of studying texts from a comparative, a linguistic, historicist, or phenomenological — you name it — from whatever “objective” point of view, is something of which these people are utterly incapable. In short, to discuss the bitter warfare of the first Islamic caliphates is taboo. Our candidate may have been equipped to edit those heretical texts; but never to read them. Fortunately, his task would be simply to get them into shape for the research of some future scholar — there was no requirement for him to consider what the words said.
When he returned ten minutes later, he looked wrung out: brown face blanched, white-on-white shirt patched by perspiration, his manner that of a man condemned. He was surprised when we congratulated him, wished him success in his work, and promised to reconvene in a few years to hear him defend his dissertation. The poor fellow left profoundly relieved: he would have to hear not another question concerning the origins and bloody throes of Islam’s founding. I supposed he would be able to cope with the doctrines of a heretic and martyr like Ahmad of Ahsah. After all, that Sheikh had got what was coming to him. And he was not the only martyr, or dissenting religious leader of the past few centuries, which numbers the Bab, the famous, and martyred founder of the Bah’ai order of today, The world according to Orthodoxy and now its Fundamentalist variants is splotched everywhere with the blisters of the tombs of martyrs — of every faith.
To a Westerner, even more puzzling in this regard was an encounter I had shortly afterward in Tehran in December of 1974. I was there under the auspices of the USIA to give some lectures on American poetry. Early in the week, I was taken on a courtesy call to meet the President of the Iran P.E.N. Club, a dignified, portly old gentleman, Zeinolabedin Rahnema, who immediately presented me with his three-volume biography of Mohammed, etc. That work is not only proselytizing propaganda, but written in the kitschy genre of romantic hagiography familiar in so many fictions about Jesus, like our perennial bestseller, THE ROBE. Rahnema was newly celebrated for a recent work: his daring, first-ever complete translation into Persian of the KORAN. Translation of the full Arabic text is forbidden, I learned to my surprise. (That rule was traditionally got round by the expedient of translating one verse followed by commentary; thus, the 114 surahs could be learned, with memorization of the whole, by those who wished to have it complete in another language.) We liked each other and met a couple of times later in the week, once at a large reading I gave of my translation of their recently-dead, great woman poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, to which he brought a coterie of dignitaries, and afterward at the formal luncheon he gave in my honor at The French Club.
He clearly felt most strongly about Islam and wanted, out of the fullness of his years and long devotion to study, to say something to me concerning his views. And it was this: I must be most careful to distinguish between Arabic Islam and the Persian culture of Islam. The Arabs, he said, were Semitic warriors harsh from time out of mind; as a consequence, their Islam was militant and violent, forever in jihad. Whereas, his Islamic culture, because it was Persian, was inevitably sweet and gentle, delicate as music and love: his Islam was that of Roses, and Bulbuls, the nightingales of the Middle East. Did I know that? It was a matter of utterly different races, he said. Could I understand that? I nodded politely and assured him I agreed. (Never mind the annual Shiite march by possessed revelers, their festival frenzy of bloody self-flagellation.)
I was bemused. I did not reply that Persia (and certainly Pakistan) has always had its own ancient warrior caste and most warlike traditions going back millennia. There was no point in disputing his illuded notion while seated at table with such a friendly, benevolent old fellow, who patted my arm as he spoke to emphasize his points, flanked by his silent young editor (the one who had done the real work of Koranic translation and written its notes, I was later informed), as well as the turned-out, beautiful women of his family, beautiful as only young Persian ladies can be, and some of his many grandchildren.
And I believe Zeinolabedin Rahnema was simply, even perhaps naively sincere. The only trouble for me was that I had heard that his son was the Shah’s Minister of the Interior, which meant not only that there was his immediate connection to the savagery of SAVAK, but that he was the head of one of the ruling clans of Iran. And of course, who doesn’t know the pages of history are soaked with the blood of innumerable victims of “gentle,” and “peaceful” religions. And that I was sitting there with him at lunch in Tehran because that week it had been decided for me it might be inadvisable to travel to other cities to talk about American writers — it was the anniversary of SAVAK’s gunning down of protesting students, and the universities were shut down by student strikers, except for the one private university in Tehran, which wasn’t run by preachers.
How little Rahnema understood the nature of his own religion, his own culture, even his own society! was shortly to be demonstrated by the overthrow of the Shah and the transformation of Iran into a nation of intransigent and fanatic believers, whose Shiite self-flagellators would promptly turn towards the flagellation and worse of others, to be soon exceeded by the horrors of the Taliban in Kabul after the Soviets’ invasion came to naught. You would have supposed the old man’s son, that Minister of the Interior, might have told him something about the boiling stew being stirred up by the Mullahs, who were aided and abetted and backed by the KGB. The Great Game of the Middle East, so to say. Perhaps he too did not know very well what he was. People of Rahnema’s class seemed in the ’60’s and ’70’s to have imagined they were moving forward from the 19th century; alas, they had already slid to the edge and were dangling over history’s abyss. And if they did not really know what was happening all around them, how could Western intelligence organizations have offered them the clues they needed? Or were they simply unwilling, or simply unable to hear, let alone listen to anyone, anywhere? Ignorance has its pride, and Persian pride is always ready to raise itself from the dust and reach for the light, even though one might have thought it crushed forever by Genghis Khan and Timur, and so on.
To this hour little has changed. It has been rather stupid for Western policy-makers to pay the least attention to those who pretend to offer hope for a moderate let alone democratic Islam. Apologists for Islam, a world-wide faith that cannot bear the least scrutiny of objective, historical inquiry, let alone skeptical reason, may pretend it possible that it might come to mean well, even if its principal financiers today sanction the fundamentalists’ iconoclastic destruction of nearly every shrine and monument built over the many centuries to mark the vicissitudes of The Prophet, his family, and Islam’s martyrs in Arabia. Nevertheless, they should be warned that, like the middle-class Londoners in Piccadilly Square, those believers who burned our books, will if given any opportunity to apply Sharia law also burn our bodies, as 9/11 demonstrated most horribly.