Bad, Bad Imam

A bad man, a very bad man, a reactionary cleric, a towel-headed mullah ("towel-head" for short), a "cruel despot," a new shah.

Or: a feeble-brained hick, an unshaven octogenarian, a spiteful but harmless old man showing signs of senility.

We can't, it seems, get the story straight. Who exactly is the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a dictator or a bumbler?

Logging in on the side of the first interpretation is Newsweek, book reviewer Gene Lyons, who wrote this March that the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 only succeeded, after all, in replacing one kind of Oriental despot with another.

And arguing counterpoint is The New York Times Elaine Sciolino, who wrote in February, without attribution, that Khomeini "was revered as a learned Shiite scholar, maybe a bit eccentic but certainly dangerous."


WASHINGTON Post columnist Joseph Kraft charged Khomeini in a 1983 editorial with "the tactic of hiding destructive national policies in the cloak of religiosity"--thereby getting in the nifty extra dig that Khomeini is insincere.

Now it is conceivable that Khomeini is actually faking his religiosity, that his Islamic scholarship and humble, spartan lifestyle are actually a front. Someone wrote a novel on the premise a few years ago, with Western intelligence agents waiting a generation to be called to active service.

Conceivable, but unlikely.

Kraft isn't the only Western journalist to misunderstand and misportray Khomeini Richard Reeves, in a long story for The New Yorker on Pakistan last October, managed to slip in this gem: "Ayatollah Khomeini (or Imam Khomeini; the title applies to all Shia leaders)..."

It is unclear whether "the title that applies to all Shia leaders" is "ayatollah" or "imam," but both are incorrect. In fact, "imam" has extreme, messianic connotations among Shia Muslims, and it raised more than a few eyebrows a few years ago when Khomeini's followers began to call him by that nomenclature.

The mistakes regarding Khomeini are representative of American media blunders on all of Islam, according to a 1981 book by Columbia Professor Edward W. Said, Covering Islam Said documents numerous misunderstandings and mistakes, from faculty pronunciations to biased reporting. It might be argued that the media cover everything badly not just Islam. And Said's one of moral outrage is open to ridicule and doubt.

BUT there is something here, not just normal journalistic screw-ups. There is a genuine lack of understanding of Islam, one that dates back centuries. Muslims are considered fanatics, in contrast to our rational Western selves.

In fact, the very notion of fanaticism is grounded in the West's image of Islam. Back in the 18th century, when the concept of fanaticism was popularized by the great minds of the Enlightenment. Voltaire wrote a play called "Mahomet." "This is the first time that superstition and fanaticism have been brought to the stage," he commented.

The New York Times John Kifner fell into the same trap in a lengthy article on "Iran: Obsessed With Martyrdom" that appeared last December. "Clearly something different is afoot here," he noted with the accuity of a seasoned observer of the Middle East. "Different" means they are not like us. "Different" justifies all sorts of cultural and journalistic imperialism, to state the point strongly.

Familiarity with the area doesn't appear to help. Even Iranians writing for an American audience--that is, people who should know better--vacillate between the image of Khomeini the totalitarian dictator and Khomeini the buffoon.

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