To the Tehran Station

The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran

by Roy Mottahedeh
Simon and Schuster, 416 pp., $17.95

Discussing Avicenna, Roy Mottahedeh refers to the “tradition of so many premodern writers who saw intellectual modesty as appropriate only for the intellectually modest.” Had he himself belonged to that tradition he might well have described his own work as an attempt to do for Iran’s Islamic revolution what Edmund Wilson did in To The Finland Station for the Bolshevik revolution: to trace its intellectual pedigree, and to do so in a way that makes it not only accessible but exciting for the general reader.

Such a project is inherently more ambitious than Wilson’s because the Bolshevik revolution, frightening and alien as it may seem in its consequences, had its intellectual origins within Western Christian and post-Christian culture. Lenin’s mentors spoke and wrote in an idiom with which Wilson could expect his readers to be familiar. The mental landscape of the Iranian mullah is much more remote from that of the English-speaking public to whom Mottahedeh’s book is addressed. To get inside the heads of such people is a feat to which most Western intellectuals do not even aspire—partly because of its inherent difficulty and partly, no doubt, for fear of seeming to excuse the inexcusable: the violations of human rights committed in the name of Islam in Iran and elsewhere. “Tout comprendre, ce serait tout pardonner,” wrote Mme. de Staël. One is reluctant to “understand” Khomeini in this sense, as one is reluctant to “understand” Hitler.

In the case of Hitler, however, the more serious-minded Western intellectuals have overcome their reluctance, recognizing that the Staëlian dictum implies an abdication either of reason or of moral judgment, whereas the Western intellectual tradition is founded on the belief that the two must go hand in hand. We need to understand Hitler without ceasing to condemn him, and most of us believe that it is in principle possible to do so, whether or not we believe that understanding has actually been achieved.

Our need to understand Khomeini is perhaps not so great. Since he is the product of a different culture, it is less plausible to say that we must be on the lookout for the roots of Khomeinism in our own society. Nor has he so far damaged the world, or at least our world, on the scale that Hitler did. On the other hand it is not at all implausible to say that the Khomeini phenomenon results, in part at least, from the effect on Iranian Islamic society of its encounter with the West over the last 100 to 150 years; so that an understanding of it might help us to avoid mistakes in our future dealings, not only with Iran but with other Islamic and non-Western societies. And even if the damage done so far falls well short of the standard set by world war and holocaust, it is surely more than enough to justify a post-mortem, leaving aside the very real possibility that the worst is yet to come.

It would be a …

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