Most Iranians can remember the exact moments in their lives when they discovered that the Ayatollah Khomeini had died. For many Iranians, this was a joyous occasion and the cause of days of partying, drinking champagne and fanciful thinking about the fate of their country. Schools were closed for forty days, and Iranians abroad remained attached to their television sets wondering if they would touch the soil of their homeland once again. Khomeini’s name was synonymous with the Revolution, the precarious social ambiance and the severe impact that Islamic ideology had on the country. The root of that influence was now gone.
Khomeini, best known to the rest of the world as the founder of modern Islam, the supporter of the Hostage Crisis and the man who issued a fatwa (death decree) on the head of author Salman Rushdie, represented for the Iranian people a central chapter of their modern history that is both complicated and tragic. In the roughly ten years that he reigned, over 100,000 Iranians were executed. The Iran-Iraq war futilely dragged on for almost a decade, and persecuted Iranians across a multicolored Iranian population wondered what the Revolution had achieved.
Looking back at that time makes it difficult to understand how Islamic Republic leaders are now bringing back a cultish reverence for the Khomeini era. Since the post-election protests, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and likewise, reformist Presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi have made serious efforts to revive a faux nostalgia for the late Ayatollah among the opposition.
On the part of the current regime, uniting their modus operandi with that of Khomeini’s gives them a legitimate claim to the Islamic Republic. Recalling that period reminds Iranians of a time when they were curious to see what the Ayatollah Khomeini could offer them.
For the reformists, who are proposing ‘change,’ they are motivated to do so within the confines of the regime, making respect and support for the Khomeini camp a prerequisite to remain part of and function within the Islamic Republic. As a matter of fact, Mousavi and Karoubi have been quick to use Khomeini’s legacy to strengthen their constituency, alleging that the Ayatollah was a more righteous leader, and that Khamenei’s government has severely deviated from the principles initially set forth.
Besides bearing such resemblances in surnames, Khomeini and Khamenei share similarities beyond the superficial. Both support mass executions, terrorism, and a fundamentalist Islamic ideology. Khomeini was famous for the words, “We do not worship Iran. We worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” To spread Islam and its influence was his agenda, not much different from the current regime. So inherent is Khomeini’s role in the Islamic Republic landscape that to eradicate his influence from the movement is to study the establishment of the American government system without George Washington, or better yet, to assess Nazism absent Adolph Hitler.
The cleansing of Khomeini’s image became en vogue under former President Mohammad Khatami, who sought to salvage the late Ayatollah’s bloody reputation and in effect absolve the regime, beginning at its very roots. It is said that Khatami began his campaign to change the then dull and disillusioned mood during his presidency and to purify Iran’s modern history. It also might have to do with the fact that Khatami and Khomeini were related. Khatami’s brother, Mohammad Reza, is married to Khomeini’s granddaughter, Zahra Eshraghi.
Incidentally, the intricate web of marriages within the handful of regime dynasties does not stop at the Khatami and Khomeini families. Most staggeringly, the fathers of Mousavi and Khamenei are brothers, making them first cousins. The unions demonstrate how far the inner circle of the regime will go to preserve their stronghold.
Under every IRI leader since Khatami, there has been a push to glorify the name and legacy of Khomeini, a move the leaders believe will sustain the Islamic Republic. For the current government it relies on erasing a very recent history, and for the reformists, it means tying themselves to a retrospectively more ‘benevolent’ supreme leader, in order to say that not everything about the Islamic Republic is corrupt; it had its glory days too.
Making such a claim relies entirely on pandering to a population of Iranians under the age of 30, who do not clearly remember Khomeini’s track record. Or maybe they do remember it and choose not to. It is clearly more pleasant to remember a peaceful history rather than one dotted with executions, stonings and lack of human rights. The leaders may take advantage of the people’s yearning for a united Iran, albeit one that chooses to forget its own history and thus remains under the grips of an Islamic Republic.
When Khomeini’s picture was rampantly burned in the streets of Iran in early December during National Students’ Day, many believed that was, at the very least, a clear and overt indication that the unrest was certainly not just over a fraudulent election. More profoundly taken, burning the picture of the founder of the Islamic Republic represented a denunciation of a theocratic regime and a manifestation of a movement pro-secular.
Yet when the government announced that those in violation are deemed “moharreb,” or Enemies (of God), and subsequently blamed Mousavi and Karoubi for instigating the event, the reformist leaders then in turn blamed the government for staging the incident it in order to discredit the opposition as irreverent and sacrilegious. Subsequently, the Green party urged the opposition to carry pictures of Khomeini to demonstrations in reverence and to never burn or disrespect the late Ayatollah again. In the end, Khomeini actually emerged more popular and even more of a central player in the backdrop of the movement.
It is still not clear who was behind the original burning of the pictures, but the more poignant revelation was how radical the Iranian momentum has become. So incendiary was this incident that it triggered a fad across several continents of posting videos of burning Khomeini’s picture. There are dozens of such groups on Facebook and Youtube created for the cause. Groups such as “I burned Khomeini’s picture” on Facebook has almost 2,000 members. There is even a video capturing a “Burning Khomeini’s picture party” that takes place in Europe, that shows a large group of expatriate Iranians burning the Ayatollah’s picture.
These cyber campaigns, seeking to eradicate Khomeini’s legacy, were created in reaction to the regime’s campaign to exalt it. Freedom-seeking Iranians are warning their countrymen of what can happen if Iranians fail to recall history and fall into the trap of the regime once again.