Speaking of the mullahs in Iran


Before she started to fight mullahs, Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer of Nobel fame, spent a good deal of time advocating for them. This was in 1978. Only three years earlier, in 1975, she had become the first female judge in Iran, and the first woman president of the Tehran city court. No doubt, she had earned the position because of her outstanding intellectual abilities. But those abilities were only rewarded, and her ascension to the post only possible, because of an unprecedented series of reforms instituted by the very monarch — the shah — that Ebadi was hoping to overthrow. 

She, of course, wasn’t the mullahs’ only female supporter. An estimated million women are believed to have actively participated in the effort to establish the mullahs as the ruling power in Iran. Many of these women were, like Ebadi, highly intelligent, educated and professional — beneficiaries, all, of the attempts by the shah and his father to free Iranian women of the thousand-year oppression to which they had been subjected by Islam. 

Pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian Persia was a place where women engaged in male professions, received pay equal to what men receive, and were elevated to military and political leadership.  Some even became ruling monarchs. Then came the Arab invasion in the seventh century, and with it the claim by Muslim clergy that women’s brains were incapable of retaining knowledge, that allowing women into society (as opposed to keeping them cloistered at home) was a threat to the entire community, and that schooling women was tantamount to leading them to prostitution. Some 1,400 years later, when the shah’s father decreed that women should no longer be wrapped up in veils and confined to the house, the mullahs charged him with blasphemy. Three decades after that, when the shah introduced a series of laws designed to give women equal status with men, the mullahs — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, among them — declared that the shah was evil incarnate. 

You can say a lot of things about the shah, many of them unflattering, but his record in promoting women’s and minority rights, at least as compared to that of the mullahs, is unassailable. So is the mullahs’ record in denying those rights. And yet there they were, Ebadi and a million other women, waving clenched fists and black banners as they marched through the streets of Tehran and other large Iranian cities, chanting, “Independence, freedom and Islamic Republic,” as if unschooled in the meaning of the words or unaware that, for women at least, freedom and Islamic Republic would be an oxymoron.

It’s safe to say that most of the mullahs’ female supporters were believing, practicing Muslims who championed the Shia clergy’s foundational claim to a divine mandate to rule all of humankind in all aspects of life. Ebadi, for example, comes from a middle-class, traditional Muslim family that had more in common, she has said, with the mullahs and their turban-wearing, neck-tie-eschewing supporters than with the officials of the shah who “cavorted with American starlets at parties soaked in expensive French champagne.” That honeymoon was over the minute the mullahs, who had always held that women do not have the ability to judge, relieved Ebadi of her judgeship. 

To overlook 1,000 years of discourse and action, disregard any politician’s tendency to tell a few lies for the sake of expediency, purposely remain blind to yet another mullah’s proven capacity for mendacity?

When attempting to explain why she had “willingly and enthusiastically participated in my own demise,” Ebadi has offered that she was naive: She simply believed Khomeini when he said, in the period immediately before returning from Iraqi and French exile to Iran, that in his Islamic Republic, women would have “complete freedom in everything they do.” Never mind a quarter-century’s worth or writings, statements and teachings to the contrary; his vocal opposition to the shah’s giving Iranian women the vote; or allowing them to “put on makeup and go into the street showing off their necks, their hair.” Never mind that any half-wit with a decade’s experience living in Iran would know that women’s rights “within an Islamic framework” began and ended at home. Never mind, even, that what Khomeini had said, in fact, was that women would have a role in society and be free to do whatever they wished “within an Islamic framework.” Here she was, the first female judge in Iran, having hailed from a background well immersed in Islamic laws, suddenly inured to a millennium and a half of speech and practice. 

Does this remind you of anything more recent?  

Because we’ve been at it again, out here in the West, telling ourselves and each other a  fatuous little fairy tale about another mullah — Iran’s current president, the “reformist” Hassan Rouhani, the “diplomat sheikh” of “centrist” views who will, at last, bring Iran back into the community of nations. 

The myth surrounding Rouhani in the West is that he is a moderate and a reformist, a thorn in the side of the likes of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — who holds the real power in Iran; that he is in favor of women’s rights and freedom of information, an outsider whom Iran’s military and clergy tolerate because they have to.  

Well, here are a few facts that any 7-year-old with access to the Internet can look up in under 10 seconds: As evidenced by his dress and facial hair, Rouhani is a hojatoleslam —  a midlevel Shia Muslim cleric — educated and trained in a seminary in Qom, the same city that gave the world the late Ayatollah Khomeini and the living Ayatollah Khamenei. 

Hojatoleslam Rouhani spent his youth as a follower and close confidant of Khomeini and his Iranian Islamic movement. Rouhani is widely credited for having been the first to refer to Khomeini as “imam,” which, for Shia Muslims, is a leader with holy attributes, chosen by God to lead all mankind in every aspect of life. 

After the 1979 revolution, Rouhani held a number of top government posts in the Islamic Republic, mostly in areas of national security. He has been a member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts. Between 2003 and 2005, he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, tasked with and publicly bragging about enabling Iran to secretly continue work on uranium conversion while negotiating with Europeans and casting doubts about Iran’s nuclear intentions. 

In the 2013 presidential elections, Rouhani was one of only eight candidates — out of more than 600 applicants — of whom Khamenei approved and permitted to run. 

His avowed respect for human rights notwithstanding, the number of executions in Iran is higher under Rouhani than it was during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. An average of three people are executed every day, usually without a fair trial or credible evidence, mostly for heresy, homosexuality, rape, murder and armed struggle. Journalists, women, students, and human rights activists are routinely rounded up and imprisoned. As for freedom of information, the Center for International Media Assistance reports that Internet censorship has become worse, not better, since Rouhani took office. 

From her perch in British exile where she has resided since 2009, when her Nobel was confiscated (as in, physically and forcibly appropriated) by the Iranian regime, Ebadi has remarked that Rouhani’s record hardly qualifies him for a reformist’s medal of distinction. More likely, he’s been chosen by the same extremists who gave the world that other “reformist” president, Seyyed Muhammad Khatami, who believed in democracy as long as it was defined, legislated and administered by mullahs. Like Rouhani, he was handpicked by the Supreme Leader and allowed to agitate for human rights and peaceful relations with the West just enough to let off some of the pressure that had built within and around the country since 1979.  His successor, also handpicked by Khatami, was the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad. 

Which begs the question: Why?

Why is the West so eager now to ascribe to Rouhani the kinds of qualities and intentions, not to say abilities and influence, that are contrary to his own past speech and actions? To overlook 1,000 years of discourse and action, disregard any politician’s tendency to tell a few lies for the sake of expediency, purposely remain blind to yet another mullah’s proven capacity for mendacity? 

A Frenchman once said, “Every country deserves the government it gets.” I don’t believe that about the Iranian nation, but I do think it applies to the likes of Ebadi, who, in the case of the mullahs, should have known better — did, in fact, know better. And it applies, as well, to the vacuous heads of the United States government who, in 1978, decided that they could make an ally of Khomeini if they threw their support behind him, ordered the shah to leave Iran and helped usher in the age of Islamic terrorism. Someday, I fear, it’s going to apply to President Barack Obama and his so-called foreign policy, his inane insistence that he knows “the right side of history” from the wrong, even when he vacillates, or flip-flops, or says one thing and does another.  

I’m a lifelong Democrat. When Hillary Clinton lost the nomination, I voted for Obama. I knew he was inexperienced and without a well-formed worldview, either too arrogant or too naive to know that he, like all humans, is subject to certain limitations. I would still vote for him any day against a McCain/Palin ticket. I credit him for staying consistent in his politics as opposed to moving, like Mitt Romney, in any direction that would make him president. But I’ll also say, my fellow Democrats, that for a man who talks so much about history, Obama seems to know very little of it when it comes to the Middle East, Iran or the mullahs.


Gina Nahai’s new novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

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