Daily Archives: 18 October 2006

Khomeini as the Head and Face of Islam

For a while the Iranian revolution looked as if it would create a Shia “papacy.” The Shia religious establishment had always resembled the Catholic hierarchy. The only difference was that Shiism did not have a pope to enforce doctrine and define the hierarchy, and it was the congregation rather than the hierarchy that decided how prominent an ayatollah was. Khomeini’s assumption of the title imam and his claim to be the supreme religious authority in Shiism clearly pointed to his aim to be recognized as the supreme Shia leader.

Khomeini’s ambitions also extended beyond Shiism. He wanted to be accepted as the leader of the Muslim world, period. At its core, his drive for power was yet another Shia challenge for leadership of the Islamic world. He defined his revolution not as a Shia one but an Islamic one, and saw the Islamic Republic of Iran as the base for a global Islamic movement, in much the same way that Lenin and Trotsky had seen Russia as the springboard country of what was meant to be a global communist revolution. Khomeini rose rapidly as a Shia leader because he appealed to Shia myths and popular beliefs, but he found it difficult to transform himself into an Islamic leader acceptable to the Sunni world.

Outside Shia contexts, Khomeini sought to downplay his Shia image. He posed as a champion of Islamic revival, and presented the Iranian revolution as the Islamic revolution that the Sunni thinkers of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e Islami had been claiming was necessary if Islam’s fortunes were to be restored. Iran, the bastion of Shiism, was also the vanguard of the global Islamic revolution. This was a hard sell, and most Sunnis were not buying. Although many Islamic activists in the Sunni world admired Khomeini and sought to emulate his example, still they were reluctant to accept his leadership. Khomeini sought to address this problem by focusing on secular issues that united all Muslims rather than on religious questions that were likely to divide them. He became the tireless foe of imperialism, and more anti-Israeli than the Arabs. He sought to focus Islamic activism on these issues—the battle against outsiders—rather than on Islamic concerns. His anti-Americanism had roots in Iranian history but was in many regards a byproduct of his ambition to be recognized as the leader of all Muslims, to find a cause that would unite Shias and Sunnis under his cloak.

Idealism is contagious, and Khomeini and his followers captured the imagination of many. However, although Iran inspired Islamic activism and forever changed the politics of the Muslim world, the final impact of the revolution would be far from what Khomeini had hoped for. He failed to achieve Muslim unity and the leadership position that went with it, but he managed to escalate anti-Americanism and inculcate fear and distrust toward Islam in the West as his glowering visage became the virtual face of Islam in Western popular culture.

SOURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 136-138

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