Thursday, December 29, 2005

Ahmadinejad is no Shah and Wears no Turban

Cyrus Kadivar, Iran va Jahan:
Nobody doubts the true essence of the tyranny that has overshadowed Iran’s proud culture since 1979 with its medieval bigotry, violence, militancy and disregard for human rights. In a recent article entitled “A shah with a turban” written by Thomas L. Friedman and published over Christmas in the International Herald Tribune the author’s poor choice of words undermined what was a damning condemnation of the current president of the Islamic republic of Iran. I totally agree with him that Iran is no “democracy and that the entire system is riddled with imperfections and that the greatest losers are the youth of Iran who are deprived of achieving their true potential in such a suffocating culture.

But for heaven’s sake to compare Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a shah (king) with a turban not only reveals Mr Friedman’s blindspot but also his apparent lack of understanding of Iran’s historical and religious makeup. READ MORE

Firstly, the new president is, despite his messianic tendencies and conversations with the Hidden Imam, a non-cleric. Even if he were a cleric, no true Islamic theologian would allow him to wear religious garb let alone carry the turban of a holy man. Secondly, comparisons to the Shah, is an unfair attempt to downplay the key role played by Iranian monarchs in the past 25 centuries. Whilst lacking in democratic virtues, many shahs characterized their rule by establishing their authority and the stability required for the flourishing of art, religion, education and material and cultural advancement.

But perhaps, Mr Friedman was drawing comparisons with the last Shah of Iran whose 37 year rule has so easily been written-off as has his positive accomplishments. This too, is misleading. True, at worst, the proud Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi may be criticised for his ambitious dreams for a modern Iran and falling from power, but he will also be remembered for promoting a civil society and a culture of tolerance practiced by his ancestors.

During his reign, school children were taught the story of the liberation of the Jewish people in Babylonia by King Cyrus in 538 B.C. They learned about how Esther, the Jewish concubine of King Xerxes, managed to secure royal protection for the followers of her faith and organized the establishment of Jewish colonies throughout the Persian Empire. The Jews may have suffered under the Qajar shahs but neither of the Pahlavis (Reza Shah nor his son) can be accused of mistreating them. There were no pogroms and state-sponsored acts of anti-Semitism nor the burnings of synagogues or the banning of Jews from public life. Even during WWII (shortly before the Allied Invasion of Iran on the false pretext that Reza Shah was pro-German) an Iranian diplomat in Paris was ordered to issue passports to French Jews escaping Vichy persecution. After the Holocaust many Jews were given homes and citizenship in Iran.

Like all minorities in Iran, the Jews in Pahlavi Iran were allowed representatives in the Majlis (Lotfollah Hay served in parliament from 1967-1975 and was a leading industrialist) and even served in the armed forces and state ministries. In fact, their contribution to the arts, wine-making, science, law, medicine, education and music industry in Iran is a well-documented fact in Esther’s Children published in 2002 by The Center For Iranian Jewish Oral History and edited by Houman Sarshar. Another Jewish Iranian, Manuchehr Bibian established the Appollon Music Company – the country’s most advanced music recording and production studio of its time – and with it revolutionized Iran’s music recording industry. Jews such as Iraj Lalehzari were members of Iran’s Royal Academy under Empress Farah’s direction. There were Jewish schools, active social and cultural organizations, and some thirty places of worship in Tehran alone. Hebrew classes were taught openly and Israelis were invited to lecture and speak at seminars.

Before his fall, the Shah maintained cordial relations with Tel Aviv whilst calling for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yes, under the last Shah, Iranian Jews enjoyed all the social liberties granted to fellow Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahais. The Khomeini revolution was a disaster for Iran’s Jews. The Ayatollah accused them of “distorting Islam, mistranslating the Koran, and taking over the Iranian economy”. In smaller cities and towns, Jews were bullied by their Muslim neighbours and anti-Jewish leaflets were distributed in the bazaars to boycott their businesses.

In the months following the Shah’s dethronement, the turban-headed mullahs executed a wealthy Jewish industrialist by the name of Habib Elghanian. In 1981 the revolutionary guards (in which Ahmadinejad once served) shot Simon Farzami, a prominent and brilliant Iranian journalist and writer. The reason? He was a Jew!

As a result of the Islamic revolution, half of Iran’s 40,000 Jews fled or emigrated to Israel and the West. Many have remained loyal to the old country (some still hang portraits of Iran’s deposed royal family and the imperial flag in their homes) despite adjusting to life in new lands. Their exodus deprived Iran of centuries of wealth and talent, but more significantly a cultural heritage that had been entwined with the glory that was once Persia.

Although under President Khatami a certain degree of tolerance was established in regards to Iran’s remaining Jewish community, all this seems to be changing. Alas, in Iran 2005, Khomeinism is being regurgitated and everything good is hidden and whispered in the dark. To be a Jew in Iran must be a frightful experience these days. Ahmadinejad’s crude remarks about Israel and the Holocaust is in line with the late Ayatollah’s trampling of universal values and international law. Taking advantage of the astonishing leniency of the world community toward their criminal deeds, the leaders of the Islamic republic have watched their evil spread. I shudder to think what Iran would become if Ahmadinejad wore a crown or a turban. Placed on an unworthy head it would mean the end of history and God.