Ayatollah Khomeini was one of the most influential political personalities of the past century. His interpretation of political Islam had the revolutionary zeal to topple a regime which enjoyed unequivocal support of the American empire. After three decades of the revolution, Khomeini’s legacy still lives in Iran and beyond. Con Coughlin, the best selling author of “Saddam: His Secret Life”, is taking a detailed effort to understand this legacy in his latest book, “Khomeini’s Ghost”.
What legacy did Khomeini bequeath to his heirs? For an independent historian, this is a complicated question as the ayatollah still remains perplexing subject. He was a puritan, but an anti-imperialist to the core. At the same time, he stood for empowering his people, and built a comparatively stable political system and undertook radical income distribution. For Coughlin, however, Khomeini’s legacy is single pointed. “Following his death in 1989, Khomeini bequeathed a legacy to his heirs, a legacy of militant Islam that is the cause of so many of the challenges the world faces today, whether it is the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme or Iranian funded and trained Islamist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza.” He says even Iran’s quest for atom bomb was the “central part of Khomeini’s legacy.”
Through this biographical work of Imam Khomeini, Coughlin is actually trying to understand ideological underpinnings of the Iranian regime and how it’s related with Khomeinism. The ayatollah “accomplished his lifelong ambition of creating an Islamic state based on the strict interpretation of Shariah law,” writes Coughlin in an apparent effort to portray Iran as a conservative, rigid religious state. Despite being a theocratic state, it should not be forgotten that the Iranian constitution provides for an elected legislature and declares that the country should be run on the basis of “public opinion”.
The book is divided into two parts – Origins and Legacy. In the first part, Coughlin discusses Khomeini’s early life, his rise as a major critic of the unpopular Shah regime, life in exile and the eventful return to Tehran in 1979 February. It’s in the second part, Coughlin tries to define Iran black-and-white terms, saying it’s a rogue sate still led by the fundamentalist ideas of Imam Khomeini.
For the author, Iran is a state which helped al-Qaeda, trained terrorists in Iraq and militants in Lebanon and Palestine. Coughlin writes that Tehran masterminded the escape of operatives fleeing from Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden’s son Saad, and provided them safe haven. “The presence of such prominent Al Qaeda militants in Iran . . . was yet another issue that would undermine Khatami’s attempts to improve relations with the West,” he says. But he forgets to write that Iran offered help to the US during the Afghan war and the Khatami government actually hunted down Taliban operatives escaped from Afghanistan.
Khomeini’s Ghosts is an easy read. It is rich with historical facts and discusses the nuances of the Islamic revolution in detail. But it looks a one-sided anaylysis of Imam Khomeini, one of the most influential personalities on the Islamic street. Coughlin’s key argument that Khomeini’s doctrine “has made to the radicalization of the Muslim world” is untenable. There are different streams of Islamic radicalism in the world. Well before the Islamic revolution, the Brotherhood had inspired millions of Muslim youth across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) to organize on religious lines. Khomeini’s principles were based on the Shiite world view, while most of the Islamic radical groups of present era are Sunnis. So, Khomeini’s ghosts do not seem to be as dangerous as Coughlin says.
Con Coughlin, “Khomeini’s Ghosts”, Pan Books, 2009 (Reviewed for Purple Beret)