05 July 2004

Naipaul on the Revolutionary Blame Game

No one I met spoke of any kind of revolution as a possibility. That idea, so loved by Iranians of an earlier generation, had been spoilt now, as in the old USSR; revolution was a word that had been taken over by the religious state. No one ever spoke of the possibility of political action. There were no means, and no leaders in sight. No new ideas could be floated. The apparatus of control was complete. The actual rulers, though their photographs appeared everywhere, were far away; government here, as someone said, was "occult." And still, in the general inanition, there was a feeling that something was about to happen. It made people nervous.

One afternoon, as we were driving up into the mountains above Tehran, Mehrdad, after seeming to say that people had learned how to live with the restrictions, abruptly said the opposite. He said, "Everybody is frightened. I am frightened. My father and mother are frightened." (Poor father, again.) "They are not sure what the future will bring for them or for us, their children. They are not so worried for me. I am an adult now and can look after myself. But my brother is very young. The eight years or so he has to live before he becomes an adult are going to be very dangerous years."

With this insecurity, certain fantasies had taken hold. The most extraordinary was that Khomeini had been a British or European agent. I had heard it first from Mr. Parvez, and had thought it part of his paranoia. But then I had heard it from many other people. There had been a meeting in the French West Indian island of Guadeloupe, according to this story, and the Powers had decided to foist Khomeini on the Iranian people. The Iranians were simple people; they could be persuaded by skilled propaganda to demonstrate for anything; people had joined the demonstrations against the Shah not out of conviction, but simply to do what everybody else was doing. The establishing of an Islamic state in Iran was an anti-Islamic plot by the Powers, to teach Muslims a lesson, and especially to punish the people of Iran. And, as if answering those fantasies, there were even signs of the faith being questioned in certain aspects.

Mr. Parvez had said, "The war [against Iraq] was fought in the name of Islam. It was a blessing in disguise. Without the war people wouldn't have got so fed up with Islam." That had seemed extreme. But then I had detected wisps and shadows of religious uncertainty in some people's conversation. Just as--in these fantasies issuing out of a people stretched to the limit by revolution, war, financial stringency, and the religious state--it was said that Iranians were not really responsible for the Iranian revolution, so I heard that Iranians were not really responsible for the more dramatic aspects of the Shia faith. The bloody scourgings of Mohurram, the mourning month: the idea was really imported from Europe, from the Catholics; it had nothing to do with the original faith.

I talked about this to Mehrdad. He said, "It's something habitual. Our enemies are always responsible. Blaming others, not ourselves."
SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 226-227

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