Every June, ceremonies are held to commemorate the passing away of Imam Khomeini in 1989. This year, these ceremonies gain added significance in view of the uprisings underway in the Muslim East. Zafar Bangash, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, compares the Imam’s leadership with the near-leaderless movements in the Muslim East.
The Muslim East, commonly referred to as the Middle East, has been in the throes of peoples’ uprisings since December 2010. In two countries long-entrenched dictators — General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — were driven from their palaces, while in others, the remaining sentries of Western neo-colonialism are barely clinging to power, fighting ruthlessly to retain it. These include Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, the Khalifah family in Bahrain, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Abdullah in Jordan and Bashar al-Assad of Syria. How long these rulers will remain in power is not clear.
Comparison of the leadership qualities of Imam Khomeini and the Islamic movement he led to success in bringing about an Islamic revolution in Iran and the lack of leadership in the civil uprisings in the rest of the Muslim East is in order. This may explain why the initial momentum that would be expected to lead to societal liberation may be aborted even before any gains are institutionalized in the form of just policies, free constituency building leading to effective representation, more equitable distribution of resources, and re-evaluation of past treaties.
First, let us reflect on common features that are discernable in all the movements in the Muslim East. All appear leaderless or at least no single leader has emerged on the scene. Following from this, there is no clear directional course set for the movement. These uprisings, dubbed the Arab Awakening, are demanding the overthrow of brutal dictators that have either imposed themselves, or more likely, been imposed on the people for far too long. There also appears to be some confusion regarding the nature of the prevailing systems in their societies. Not one movement has publicly and unambiguously called for dismantling the existing systems or cutting down to size the top-heavy militaries, which act as praetorian guards for the status quo even if rulers like Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt have been forced out of office. In both countries and in the others, the militaries are at the forefront of crushing the peoples’ aspirations. In some places — Libya and Syria, for instance — the uprisings also have covert or even open external support. In the case of Bahrain, foreign troops — Saudi and Emirati — equipped with American weapons and war materiel have been rushed in to prop up the oppressive Khalifah regime. The common feature in all these countries is the call for freedom, elections, responsible representation, and better job opportunities.
These uprisings began in an unlikely locale: Tunisia — not on many observers’ radar screens to trigger such fast-paced changes in the Muslim East. To their credit, the people of Tunisia were the first to overcome fear. It is a powerful weapon used by oppressors everywhere to deny people their fundamental rights. Tunisians showed the way forward by defying the dreaded security services and standing up to them. Their steadfast defiance forced the establishment, including the military, to push Ben Ali out. The hope was that by removing the most visible face of the regime, it would pacify the people and contain their pent-up rage. The Tunisian military also refused to attack unarmed protesters, thereby sealing Ben Ali’s fate but it would be wrong to conclude that the people have achieved their objectives or that the military is on their side. The people of Egypt face a similar dilemma and are far from certain about realizing their dream of establishing a society based on justice and fairness.
Overcoming fear is the first step toward freedom. The people of Iran led by Imam Khomeini had shown more than 30 years ago that shedding fear is the most powerful tool in the hands of the oppressed. They defied the Shah’s dreaded secret service, the Savak, and his equally ruthless military machine thereby ushering in the Islamic Revolution. While the masses in the Muslim East are showing welcome signs of shedding their fear, they are nowhere near achieving success. True, there are some features common to the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain.
One of them is the large participation of women in anti-government rallies. This was clearly evident in Iran in 1978–1979 when many women were shot and killed by the Shah’s brutal troops. In the more recent Middle Eastern uprisings, women only in Bahrain have been martyred. Nonetheless, their participation is a welcome development and appears to have drawn inspiration from the example of their sisters in Iran of three decades earlier.
Another lesson learned from Iran was that participants in the Muslim East uprisings have not sought direct confrontation with the military. This was even more striking in Bahrain where people came out with their families (including children), bearing flowers to hand out to soldiers. The heavily armed soldiers, however, were in no mood to accept such gestures of peaceful intent and turned their guns on the people, killing and wounding scores of them. Not content with killing and maiming peaceful protesters, the troops then headed to the hospitals attacking medical personnel and dragging the wounded out of hospital beds. Such brutalities have seldom been witnessed before; attacking doctors, nurses, and the obviously wounded is a war crime, but as usual the mainstream media mouthpieces are out to lunch when such things happen to Muslims. Recall that during the Second Gulf War when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, his troops were accused of taking babies out of incubators and crushing them on the floors of the hospitals; and despite the fact that this did not happen, the news of the barbarity of the Republican Guard was flashed all over the world, validated no less by “testimony” in front of the US Congress for maximum effect and brainwashing. In this case, US-backed Saudi and Emirati troops are actually invading hospitals and convalescence facilities, but nary a murmur anywhere other than from the Islamic press. The duplicity of this type of coverage is reflective of the schizophrenia in the Arab Awakening.
But conversely, there are striking differences between the Imam Khomeini-inspired Islamic Revolution in Iran and the uprisings underway in the Muslim East today. One relates to leadership. In Iran, the Imam’s dynamic and charismatic leadership, completely immersed in the teachings of the Qur’an, provided a clear directional course uniting all people behind him. He had no equals or rivals — none. The Imam’s commitment to Islamic principles was also clear and unambiguous. He did not mobilize the people of Iran on the basis of nationalism; nor did he say that he wanted to bring down the price of bread or other essential commodities to win people’s backing. His main objective was to liberate his people not only from the local proxy — the Shah — but also from the global mechanism of corruption and God-denial led by the United States. Thus he emphatically pointed to the gross disparities that had emerged in society as a result of the slavish policies adopted by the Shah to appease his American masters. Further, he did not push to participate in elections under the Shah’s oppressive system. In his lectures and speeches, the Imam repeatedly emphasized how Islamic principles of dignity and respect were being trampled upon. He reminded the ‘ulama’ that they had an obligation to revive the spirit of struggle and sacrifice among the people. He urged them not to fall into the trap of passivity. One of the Qur’anic ayat the Imam frequently quoted to motivate people to rise up was, “Say [unto them O Prophet], “I exhort you unto one thing: that you stand up for Allah in pairs [collectively] and individually…” (34: 46).
Sincere leaders are clear about the overall objective. Setting the directional course is a prerequisite for any movement’s success. Only a muttaqi leader operating above personal or parochial interests can offer such direction. Imam Khomeini was such a leader. In fact, he surpassed any other Islamic leader in the last 200 years. That also explains why he was so successful when others have failed to bring about meaningful change in their societies. In the Muslim East today, on the other hand, there is near total absence of any identifiable leadership, much less one setting a directional course. A leader may yet emerge from within these movements but the fact that such leadership has not been identified and has not provided clear guidance to any of these movements is a major weakness of these struggles. This also explains why these movements, much as one may admire the people’s courage, cannot truly be called revolutionary because they are not demanding total change of the prevailing systems in their societies. A revolution requires a revolutionary leader. In the Muslim East, the movements simply want to fine-tune existing systems and to have a little more say in how the government should be run while leaving the ancient institutions imposed during the colonial period virtually intact. This also makes them vulnerable to external and internal manipulation as is already evident in several cases.
A person is thrust into position of leadership both by circumstances as well as by his personal charisma and ability to inspire and lead people toward the realization of a particular goal. This, of course requires clear articulation of the goal first and to motivate people to accept this as an objective worthy of pursuit. The goal must be such that people would be prepared to offer sacrifices, including lives, for its achievement. For Muslims, this means being an active member of the Islamic movement and working toward the establishment of the Islamic State. The successful leader not only articulates the vision but also demonstrates the ability to transform it into action by aligning performance with vision to create a climate of success for the realization of the stated goal.
Imam Khomeini was the prototype of such a leader. He not only articulated a clear vision but also inspired millions of people, creating a successful Islamic movement in Iran that led to the Islamic Revolution. This resulted in the establishment of the first Islamic State in the post-colonial era. This is and should be the principal aim of every Islamic movement. But the Imam’s is a truly remarkable achievement in contemporary Muslim history because hitherto Muslims had only suffered defeats and humiliations.
To properly understand and appreciate the significance of his legacy, we must briefly review the history of the last 200 years, especially as it relates to the Muslim world. This will enable us to better grasp the enormous challenges the Imam faced and how he overcame them to take the Islamic movement in Iran to its successful conclusion: an Islamic revolution. In the Muslim East, on the other hand, the movements do not seem even to want an Islamic revolution; they merely want permission to participate in “democratic” elections in which the rules of engagement are still defined by the same oppressive order they sought to overthrow.
It would be inaccurate to describe the Muslim world as free. True, the era of direct colonialism has ended but this has simply ushered in an era of neocolonialism whereby native agents of the West — civil and military — have assumed power and continued colonial policies, disguised today under the rubric of globalization. It is no coincidence that not one Muslim country, with the notable exception of Islamic Iran and to some extent Turkey under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), can be considered to be truly free. Some may argue that Muslim countries have their own constitutions, parliaments, armies, bureaucracies, flags, and national anthems and therefore, are free. Freedom, however, means much more than flags and anthems. It means to possess the liberty to formulate one’s own socio-economic systems and political priorities as well as to determine one’s own foreign engagements and treaty obligations. Measured on the basis of these criteria, few Muslim countries can be considered free.
The Imam was absolutely clear about the nature of the colonial system in Muslim societies. He did not seek permission from the Shah’s regime to set up a political party to be able to participate in elections. He did not recognize the legitimacy of the Shah’s regime or the imported plutocratic system that was in place, even though it was given a local flavor with a forced Iranian irredentism. He understood that the Shah, despite his fancy titles, was not free; nor was Iran a free country. In one of his famous statements when the Shah’s regime granted immunity from prosecution to Americans if they committed a crime on Iranian soil, the Imam said, “If some American’s servant, some American’s cook, assassinates your marja‘ in the middle of the bazaar, or runs over him, the Iranian police do not have the right to apprehend him. The dossier must be sent to America, so that our masters there can decide what is to be done!”
While endowed with abundant oil and gas resources, the vast majority of people in Iran languished in poverty; only a tiny parasitical class around the Shah acquired enormous wealth, a confirmation of the Western strategy to set up luxury classes in all Muslim societies that are aloof from the people socially as well as economically. The idea was to create a capital decision-making class that would not only concentrate wealth gained from local resources but also redirect the same resources and human potential to the sponsors of the class, while keeping the wealth disconnected from social services and the general economic well-being of the majority of the people. In case such a class ran afoul of its foreign patrons, the imperial sponsor would not have to fight the whole country, but only replace the luxury class and its military custodians with another one just like it. The Shah himself, despite bestowing such titles as the shahinshah (the king of kings), and descendant of Cyrus the Great, upon himself, was totally subservient to the West not unlike rulers in the Muslim East today.
The rulers in Saudi Arabia and Jordan call themselves kings; those in Bahrain and Kuwait have assumed titles of amirs. They were all created by the British and survive through subservience to the UK and its illegitimate prodigal son, the US. What kind of freedom makes a government that apparently represents a whole society of several million so inept as to be incapable of formulating its own policies and of defending its people against aggression? How can a “free” government rely on external forces to maintain its power?
The contemporary world order is not the result of natural evolution, nor was it established through consultation among peoples of the world. The victors of the First World War (and the Second) created it to maintain their dominance in world affairs. Almost all Muslim countries came into existence after these brutal wars, which together caused the deaths of nearly 80 million people. Some Muslim countries had never existed before; the colonial powers did not simply draw lines in the sand or arbitrarily create borders because they happened to be occupying those lands. There was a master plan behind the partitioning of the Muslim East and Africa. It is no mistake that the Arab world, where Arabic was the language that connected Muslims to the Qur’an, was divided into some 27 countries. Areas such as Kurdistan and Baluchistan were intentionally split across several countries so that foreign inspired nationalist movements would destabilize several countries at once creating a permanent impediment to peace and progress. A tribal map of Africa shows that national borders were intentionally created so as to divide tribes into separate countries. Witness the problem in the Darfur area where migratory peoples have to deal with political impediments that come from crossing a border between the Sudan and Chad. Pakistan was supposed to include all of the Punjab, Bengal, and Kashmir, but when the political partitions finally became new nations, half of the Punjab, West Bengal, and three-fourths of Kashmir ended up as a part of the new India; again this was no accident because the majority population in all these areas of the subcontinent is Muslim. Then of course there is the problem of Israel. Obviously, the drawing of borders was not meant to respect the aspirations of the people; it was done to preserve the interests of the colonial powers. Little has changed in the intervening period.
Countries and peoples in the Muslim East are not only living in cages called nation-states but the systems in place are also imposed by the colonial powers. Any attempt on the part of the people to break free of this imposed colonial order is ruthlessly suppressed. In the unlikely event of some people succeeding, as happened in Iran under the leadership of Imam Khomeini, then every effort is made to undermine and destroy it. Islamic Iran had to face a brutal eight-year war imposed through the Ba‘thist regime in Iraq. Despite enormous odds, the people of Iran, led by the courageous leadership of Imam Khomeini, singlehandedly withstood the combined international onslaught. But the colonial powers also have other weapons at their disposal: freezing of assets, sanctions, and economic and military sabotage. Islamic Iran has faced all these but as the late Imam famously remarked, “Sanctions are a blessing for us.” This is what distinguishes Islamic leadership from an ordinary leader. Iran under its Islamic leadership has proved it. It is among the few countries in the world that has no external debt despite suffering a brutal war. Compare this to the US, the self-proclaimed sole superpower that is reeling from a mountain of debt because it is involved in two wars, and because it has close to 900 military bases all around the world. Its external debt is $14 trillion; add to that its internal debt of $38 trillion and the total climbs to $52 trillion. This translates into a debt of $176,000 for every man, woman, and child in the US. Islamic Iran has no debt whatsoever. Despite the sanctions, it has become self-sufficient in many essential industries, armaments being one of them. It has also mastered nuclear technology to meet its needs. These are the result as much of technical prowess as they are of having total faith in Allah (swt) as the sole Provider for all of His creation, and thereby having the recognition that its people have the same capacities as any other people on earth, regardless of birth, race, or geographic origin. This is the consequence of policies implemented by muttaqi leadership. Regrettably such clarity is absent in leaders elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Another factor that has continued to frustrate the Muslims’ struggle for dignified existence is the lack of clear understanding of the contemporary world order. Many leaders in the Muslim world, including leading figures in the Islamic movement, have failed to understand the Western modes of dominance with their inbuilt disproportionality. The Imam was absolutely clear on this issue and he insisted on banishing all traces of Western influence from the Muslim world in general, and from Iran in particular. While he was not educated in the West and had virtually no contact with it, the Imam understood the secular, God-denying Western nature extremely well. Many Muslims tend to take the West’s pronouncements about freedom and liberty seriously. The Imam, who was the product of traditional Islamic education, was not swayed by such self-serving Western rhetoric. The Imam’s deep study and knowledge of the Qur’an, a clear understanding of the life struggle of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and the great Imams in Islamic history gave him an insight that enabled him to see with great clarity the West’s hypocritical pronouncements. He understood that all non-Islamic systems are systems of kufr managed by the taghut, and he urged their overthrow. He wrote, “It is our duty to remove from the life of Muslim society all traces of kufr and destroy them.”
He further elucidated:
“Let us overthrow tyrannical governments by (1) severing all relations with governmental institutions; (2) refusing to cooperate with them; (3) refraining from any action that might be construed as aiding them; and (4) creating new judicial, financial, economic, cultural, and political institutions. It is the duty of all of us to overthrow the taghut, that is, the illegitimate political powers that now rule the entire Islamic world. The governmental apparatus of tyrannical and un-representative regimes must be replaced by institutions serving the public good, administered according to Islamic law. In this way, an Islamic government will gradually come into existence.”
From the above, we see that at no stage in his life did the Imam ever resort to a Western mode of operations. He did not call for setting up political parties to oppose the taghuti regime, nor did he tell people to approach the illegitimate courts of law to seek redress for injustices inflicted on them. The Imam was clear: all these institutions were illegitimate; they had to be dismantled. He did not wish to confer legitimacy on them by approaching them for any service. In their place, he called for creating new institutions that would be “administered according to Islamic law” and would serve the interests of the people. Deeply immersed in the Qur’an, all his statements and declarations were based on Islamic principles. The Imam was not a politician in the corrupt utilitarian mode; he was a leader of a different caliber far above the ways of modern politicians who tailor their statements (and principles) according to who they are speaking to.
The Imam was clear about what he wanted to achieve and he minced no words in spelling it out: the overthrow of tyrannical regimes by severing all relations with their institutions whether the bureaucracy, armed forces, police, puppet parliaments, or unjust judicial systems that instead of administering justice want to preserve and maintain the unjust oppressive system. And how this was to be achieved was also spelled out by the Imam: he urged the people to refuse to cooperate with these regimes and their institutions and refrain from any action that might be construed as aiding them.
The Imam, as a true leader, also showed the way forward: create new judicial, financial, economic, cultural, and political institutions that would serve not just a tiny parasitical class but would be at the service of all the people, especially the mustad‘afin. He made clear, “It is the duty of all of us to overthrow the taghut, that is, the illegitimate political powers that now rule the entire Islamic world.” Such clarity of thinking, regrettably, has not been evident among people in much of the Muslim East even today despite the clear example of Iran before them. In fact, there is ample evidence to prove that movements struggling for their rights in the Muslim East are being manipulated by the West, which has maintained dictators like Mubarak and Ben Ali in power for decades. Yet these movements have simply glossed over this fact and are willing to accept Western interference and manipulation, not to mention “help”, as in the case of Libya. They have also failed to understand the degree of polarization the West has imposed on the rest of the world.