Commentary Magazine


Holy Terror: Inside the World of Islamic Terrorism, by Amir Taheri

Khomeini’s Revolution

Holy Terror: Inside the World of Islamic Terrorism.
by Amir Taheri.
Adler & Adler. 332 pp. $19.95.

Holy Terror represents a major effort by an Iranian Muslim to take stock of a decade of Islamic revolution. To be sure, Amir Taheri, an Iranian journalist now living in London, is no prose stylist or philosopher, nor is he a careful writer (the book is replete with inaccuracies). The author has also served himself badly with a trendy title and a sensationalist dust jacket which make it appear that the book explains the Iranian role in airplane hijacking and hostage-taking—subjects of very limited importance. Nevertheless, Taheri offers an informed, courageous, and rare Muslim critique of the surge in radical fundamentalist Islam. His insight into the arcane world of Iranian leadership and his journalist’s eye for the striking detail make his book an important source for ascertaining the impact of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, both in Iran and in the Muslim world as a whole.

In Taheri’s peculiar nomenclature, “Holy Terror” refers to the system that came to power in Iran in 1979. He gives it this name because he sees terror as its main instrument of rule, one freely utilized against everyone—Iranian citizens, other Muslims, and non-Muslims alike. Taheri maintains that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s notions of radical fundamentalist Islam are a terrible aberration, representing neither a cohesive ideological doctrine nor the popular opinion of Muslims nor the future of Islam.

Each of these three points is worth exploring. In answer to the historian Marvin Zonis, who has characterized Khomeini’s thinking as “the single most impressive political ideology . . . since the Bolshevik Revolution,” Taheri calls it “little more than a hodgepodge of medieval thought and methods directly borrowed from both fascism and Communism.” Moreover, he argues, radical fundamentalists do not have a wide base of support among Muslims. From Turkey to Malaysia, democratic elections in Muslim countries consistently show that fundamentalists exercise very limited appeal. In Iran itself, as the mullahs all remember, it was a democratic government in 1911 that condemned the leading ayatollah of the day and had him publicly hanged.

In fact, Taheri contends, the fundamentalists represent little more than themselves. “What is at issue is not a duel between Islam and the West, but a war waged by a party of dedicated and ruthless fanatics against the rest of humanity, including the majority of Muslims.” He rightly reiterates that Muslims comprise the majority of Khomeini’s victims—and Khomeini despises these victims yet more thoroughly than he does his foreign enemies. As one Iranian leader put it, “Those who made Carter crawl at the feet of the Imam [Khomeini] and beg for pardon, those who made the chief of America wag his tail and rub his nose in dust, will not be afraid of little Satans and their assistants.”

Finally, according to Taheri, the future does not belong to the fundamentalists. They have little to their credit in Iran or Lebanon, and a number of signs point to their slipping popularity. Thus, the movement against President Numayri of the Sudan in 1985 featured demonstrators chanting “Down with Islamic law.” In Egypt, Nasserist organizations, after some years’ absence, are back in strength at universities. A book titled No to Islamic Law has found wide popularity throughout the Middle East. Further, lowered oil revenues and the war with Iraq have drastically reduced the Islamic Republic’s international activities. Taheri concludes that a “slowly mounting challenge” to the Khomeinists appears to have become irreversible.

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Taheri provides fascinating glimpses of life in the Islamic Republic. On the issue of women and what he calls a system of “apartheid based on sex,” he describes the enormous efforts of the authorities to impose the veil—everything from subsidies for the compliant to acid thrown in the faces of the obstinate. The veil matters so much because the very basis of faith is jeopardized when men see women in public. According to Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, probably the second most powerful figure in Iran after Khomeini, “Every single lock of hair that shows from beneath a chador [veil] carelessly worn is like a dagger aimed at the heart of the martyrs. America cannot defeat Islam with all the tanks, bombers, and missiles Reagan commands. But Islam will be defeated if its womenfolk refuse to cover their hair and wear proper clothes.” (For men, it is the absence of hair that the fundamentalists deem satanic; an Iranian slogan declares “Death to him who shaves!”)

Thought control approaches the totalitarian. According to a Lebanese leader quoted by Taheri, “Islam has an answer to every imaginable question. All an individual needs to do is to obey the rules without posing questions, without seeking variations.” Following this logic to the very end, another prominent figure argues that “a man who thinks is sending signals to Satan.”

Taheri estimates that one million Iranians out of a population of forty million have spent time in prison for “un-Islamic behavior.” On the premise that “good Muslims are never alone,” the authorities find activities to fill the Iranian citizen’s time, activities enforced by unsmiling teen-age boys toting machine guns. As one weary resident of Teheran has complained, “Islamic days are short indeed.”

Hostility toward the West is unbounded. As early as 1942, Khomeini characterized European ideology as “blood-sucking, man-eating, and the burning of countries.” More imaginatively, one of his followers has described Southern California as “a collection of casinos, supermarkets, and whorehouses linked together by endless highways passing through nowhere.” Christians are routinely referred to as Crusaders or “cross-worshippers.” Radical fundamentalists are especially keen on reconquering Andalusia (which Muslims ruled for centuries), but their ambitions reach much farther than that: one Lebanese leader has predicted that “Islam will end up conquering Europe and America” and Iranian soldiers are told that they will spearhead “the Islamic conquest of the world.”

Jews are subject not only to all the standard anti-Semitic obloquy and conspiracy-theorizing, but are accused of destroying Islam from within. Khomeinists see Atatürk, the Pahlavi dynasty, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and even Yasir Arafat as Jews in disguise (because all of them clashed with fundamentalists). Israel, however, is a minor concern. The Khomeinists hate it, of course, but Taheri observes that they pay it only modest attention. Western support for Israel, he argues, is not a cause of Teheran’s anti-Westernism; to the contrary, anti-Zionism derives in good part from the fact that Israel is seen as “an outpost of the West.” He also points out that many more Palestinians have been killed by the pro-Iranian forces of Lebanon than by Israeli soldiers.

The pro-Iranian elements in Lebanon make up part of Hizbullah (“Party of God,”), an elusive international movement inspired and partially run from Teheran. As its founder has explained, “Hizbullah is an ethereal organization. It is everywhere and yet nowhere. It is everywhere because it is nowhere.” This paradox rather neatly captures the party’s informal, unstructured, yet very evident presence in Iran, Lebanon, and many other countries of the Middle East and Europe. It is as much a mood as an institution.

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What can be done to hasten the demise of Khomeinism? Amir Taheri offers suggestions for two diverse audiences, Western and Muslim. To the West, he advocates firm resistance to the extremists and steadfast adhesion to principles. Reviewing the record, Taheri argues that Teheran avoided confrontation with the United States between early 1981 and early 1983 because it feared Ronald Reagan; the subsequent discovery that it could strike Americans with impunity invited a long campaign of terror, one that has led to at least 570 attacks on American interests, with 370 dead and 388 injured.

Equally important, the West must maintain high standards of conduct in fighting the radical fundamentalists, for Khomeini’s power will only be broken by Muslims who recognize that there is a better alternative, and that means a Western alternative. Taheri holds that the Muslim masses have hardly ever been exposed to “true Westernization,” by which he means the rule of law, political pluralism, freedom of expression, and minority rights, but where these have indeed been known they have been “enthusiastically accepted.” All the more reason, then, for the West to stick to its principles.

As for his fellow Muslims, Taheri calls on them to stand up and be counted in the battle against fundamentalism. He is especially concerned that intellectuals assert Islam’s positive role as “a maker of civilization.” But this means active confrontation. Taheri sends out a very unusual public call to arms: the fundamentalists have “to be faced and fought, and must eventually be defeated by forces of life in the Muslim world itself before Islamic societies can tackle the inescapable problem of modernization.”

Those of us on the sidelines can only hope that this appeal is heard, for the stakes are great. Should it be ignored, hundreds of millions of Muslims will remain backward and angry, and the world will pay the price along with them.

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