Influence matters in history. When we assess the relative importance of historical figures in the second half of the twentieth century, it is impossible not to notice the driving figure behind the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Along with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the French Revolution of 1789, the Iranian Revolution was a revolution in the profoundest sense of the word: an entirely new paradigm was created to supplant the preexisting system. Ayatollah Khomeini was the symbol, the main protagonist, and the driving force behind this revolution; and its influence immediately burst Iran’s borders to shake the entire Middle East to its foundations.
This influence is still profoundly felt today. And yet the figure of Khomeini as a leader and as a man is almost entirely unknown in the West. His books and writings are practically unavailable, and his methods of leadership are shrouded in mystery and confusion.
Baqer Moin, the head of the BBC’s Persian Service, published a well-written and informative biography of Khomeini in 1999 called Khomeini: Life Of The Ayatollah. As an Iranian from a religious family, and as a former seminarian from some of Iran’s most respected religious institutions, he was uniquely positioned to provide insight on his subject’s background and political life. Through Moin’s work, we can begin to understand some of Khomeini’s motivations and principles of leadership.
As an influential historical figure, Khomeini’s ideas are worthy of serious study by anyone with a sincere interest in history and personality. I should point out here that understanding does not necessarily equate with endorsement. I personally do not believe theocratic states to be the ideal form of government, nor do I necessarily agree with all of Khomeini’s policies and decisions. Yet there is no denying that the figure of the Imam was and is a giant one; and he cannot be ignored if we wish to consider ourselves informed students of history.
From my reading of Moin’s biography, I believe that it is possible to distill some central principles of Khomeini’s leadership style. These are summarized below.
Have A Unifying Vision And Get Your Message Out There
From his earliest years, Khomeini was a unshakeable believer in political Islam. This ran counter to nearly everyone else in the clerical establishment, and it involved serious risk to him a person. Until his last days, he never wavered from the idea that it was possible to create a society (velayat-e faqih) based on Islamic principles as he interpreted them, and ruled by enlightened clerics. In his view, this type of society could be superior to “both East and West.” His single-minded belief in this idea sustained him through persecution at the hands of the Shah, exile, war, and isolation by the United States and its allies.
Do Your Own Thing
This is perhaps the most important lesson that Khomeini’s career can teach us. Early on in his life, he sensed that the West would not accept the Middle Eastern nations no matter what they did. He sensed, as few leaders in the region today seem to realize, that no amount of groveling or subservience to the United States and Israel will ever win the hearts and minds of the West. No matter how much you try to be polite to the United States, they will never fundamentally accept you, and will always come up with pretexts to undermine you. Their minds are closed to anyone who doesn’t worship them.
Essentially, he said to himself: they’re never going to accept us no matter what we do, so we might as well just do our own thing and be proud of who we are. And what lesson could be more important than this? It is one that all of us should take note of. The way to get people’s respect is not through obsequious displays of subservience, but through cultivating an independence of spirit and a fortitude of will that can be felt perceptibly.
You Pay A High Price For Your Independence, But It Is Worth It
“Neither East nor West”, was one of the slogans of the revolution. Nothing is more precious than one’s freedom and independence, and this is something that cannot be sold to the highest bidder. But you will pay a high price for your independence. By not turning his country into a puppet of the United States and Israel (like many other countries in the region), he incurred the unmitigated wrath of the forces of bullying and global arrogance. So, if you wish to be independent—truly independent—you will need to prepare for a backlash from people who cannot stand the sight of someone who plays by their own rules.
By standing up to the arrogance and violence of the United States and Israel, he knew that he would be demonized and vilified. And yet the price was worth it, because today Iran is beholden to no foreign power, in stark contrast to some of the other countries in the region.
You Have A Duty To Stand Up To Bullying And Arrogance
Khomeini always refused to back down to intimidation, threats, and blackmail. In the Shia tradition, resistance to tyranny is something of a religious obligation; and to this Khomeini added his own unique blend of charisma and willpower. After the consolidation of the revolution in 1980, there were countless attempts to subvert and undermine him, but he always prevailed by refusing to take the easy way out.
Know Your People
Moin’s account is full of anecdotes of Khomeini’s intuitive understanding of the Iranian psyche and the other peoples in the region. He understood why the common people so deeply resented the Shah’s attempts to “Europeanize” Iran; he understood how to tap into the grievances of Shia communities in south Lebanon and Iraq, and win them to his cause; and he understood how to consolidate and maintain his hold on power after arriving back in Iran from years of exile in France, Turkey, and Iraq.
Cultivate Your Own Circle
Khomeini always had a deeply loyal following which supported and sustained him during many years of painful exile in Iraq, Turkey, and France. He valued personal relationships and was always quick to return a good gesture. By living a simple and exemplary life, avoiding pointless quarrels, and showing a genuine interest in people, he was able to attract a devoted core following.
Master The Technology Of The Day
I was impressed at how Khomeini’s followers stressed the innovation of recording his speeches and lectures on cassette tapes and smuggling them into Iran for clandestine broadcast. It may be a minor detail, but it shows a real willingness to adapt and improvise the technologies of the day to one’s own use.
Always Stay One Step Ahead Of Your Opponents
In his duel with the Shah, Khomeini was able to exert unrelenting pressure over a sustained period of time. No matter what the Shah did, Khomeini was able to turn it against him and take the upper hand. The Shah’s government would pass a law, and Khomeini would order demonstrations to oppose it; violence would result, and more demonstrations would follow. Towards the end of the Shah’s rule, this pattern became so common as to be almost grotesque: the country became nearly paralyzed. The Shah’s indecision and vacillation stands in stark contrast to Khomeini’s iron-willed determination.
Cultivate Your Mystical Side
This was the side of Khomeini I found most fascinating. From his earliest days as a seminarian, Khomeini showed a keen interest in the writings of the Sufi mystics, chief among them Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, and Ibn Sina. These doctrines gave him a source of contemplation for union with the Divine, and a source of personal solace. I believe they were a deeply influential part of his personal belief system in ways that have never been fully appreciated in the West. Mysticism gave him access to a body of wisdom, spirituality, and serenity that helped him achieve his goals and overcome his obstacles. He wrote extensively on this subject, but unfortunately his writings are nearly impossible to procure.
Towards the end of his life, he even got into some trouble himself when he recommended to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev some books of the Sufi mystics. Some circles in Iran attacked him strenuously for this, as well as for some controversial television programs Khomeini made about mysticism.
In this, as in so many other things, he proved himself a true rebel. Mysticism is looked upon by some with disfavor, as it emphasizes a personal spiritual union with the Divine, rather than an outward conformity to standard ritual. According to biographer Moin, Khomeini actually was as much a rebel in the eyes of “reactionary clerics” as he was to his enemies abroad.
Although Khomeini himself never wrote on the subject of leadership, it is clear that his life provides indications of what concepts he valued. Some of them I have summarized above. Interested readers will find much in Moin’s biography of value, and it stands as perhaps the only fair treatment of this towering historical figure that has yet been published in the English language.
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