I picked up the telephone to talk to a friend right after a French television station aired an hour-long program about the Shah (entitled Le Shah d’Iran: un homme à abattre, by Reynold Ismar, broadcast December 5 on France 5). I asked her how she liked the program and she broke down crying and could not choke out any speech. Watching the program was not easy for me, either. I sat on the edge of the sofa glued to the television, swallowing my tears and watching a chronological account of the beginning and end of a man who was the king of my country for 38 years.
Why do I, my friend, and many other Iranians feel so passionately about the Shah? We were not part of his so-called inner circle to be missing the royal glamour with which we were once surrounded. Speaking for myself, I do not give a hoot for royal glamour. Neither are we pining for the cushy jobs we had while the Shah was in power. I and many of my peers were high school students when the Shah left the country and were not yet of employment age. Our parents had to work hard to make ends meet. No, the affection we have for the Shah has nothing to do with material considerations; it has everything to do with the love we have for our homeland.
The Shah was not a president, a mere ruler or head of state. He was a living manifestation of the continuity of our civilization. And what is that supposed to mean you might say? And you will be right in your skepticism. One hears a great deal of cant rattled off about our “ancient Iranian civilization” stretching from Greece and Egypt across Central Asia, to India and so forth. This kind of talk is only tiresome claptrap. A great deal of it is self-aggrandizement of people who hide behind the laurels of their forefathers. It can be meaningful only if the present achievements succeed in making a logical connection to the traditions and cultural heritage of the past. And a glance at the current state of affairs in our country obviously shows that this connection is non-existent.
So what after all do I mean when I say that the Shah was the manifestation of the continuity of our civilization? I mean he was the living representation and the custodian of an identity that was balanced on three pillars: religious faith, national heritage, and political tradition. He was the personification and upholder of that trinity that provided Iranians with their unique sense of selfhood setting them apart from other cultures and civilizations. The Shah was absolutely right when in a 1979 discussion with Sir David Frost, in answer to the celebrated interviewer’s question about what in his opinion was the common bond uniting the Iranian people, he answered “The crown, the king.”
For the past quarter of a century deprived of its Shah, that keystone of its national identity, Iran has been writhing in the throes of degeneration and backwardness. It has by no means lived up to its creative potential and true national aspirations. A look at the low morale of the dispirited Iranians living in their homeland (or abroad) shows the extent of this decay. The ever-climbing rates of suicide, drug addiction, prostitution, and family violence demonstrate how the moral foundation of our country has been disturbed and its central assumptions been thrown out of whack. If watching old movies of the Shah makes Iranians break down in tears, it is because of a huge emptiness in their national soul that yearns for fulfillment and repair. For the same reason, Reza Pahlavi’s website is visited by thousands of Iranians everyday, and Shahbanou is greeted by throngs of her compatriots wherever she goes.
The people of a nation can go from day to day, double or triple the size of their population, even materially prosper, and nevertheless remain dispossessed of something essential in their collective soul. To continue as a living civilization however requires something quite different. The Shah was a symbol and a proof of that stubborn Iranian spirit that had stood up to all foreign invasions and resisted all the trespass to its cultural integrity. It had survived the Greeks, Mongols, Arabs, Turks and the Communists because it held on to a spiritual core of national values, which was more powerful than any of those formidable foes.
What the mullahs represented was also an important part of this core. Shia Islam at its best like its Zoroastrian predecessor was a strong pillar that held up our national identity and provided us with a unique set of spiritual, moral and mythological values. These values like the monarchy itself are not measurable in utilitarian terms or by mathematical charts. Nevertheless their worth to the well-being of our culture has been inestimable. Anyone who denies this is either intellectually or emotionally out of tune with the Iranian situation.
The Shah himself was aware of that delicate structure that rested on religious faith, national heritage and a political tradition. Although he was following a secular programme for modernization and development of the country, not only had he nothing against the thoughtful branch of the Shia Islam, he did his best to support and promote it. Thanks to the Shah’s special attention the city of Mashhad, the burial site of the 9th century Shia saint Imam Reza gained high prominence as a magnificent pilgrim city and a reputable center of religious learning. The peaceful spiritual leaders in Qom were far freer in the time of the Shah than during the dictatorship of Ruhollah Khomeini who started the repressive custom of keeping his fellow ayatollahs under house arrest. Even Khomeini himself as the leading exponent of the most backward fanatical branch of violent shiaism had nothing worse to fear from the Shah than an exile into a holy city in the country’s neighborhood.
One should never make the mistake of thinking that the eventual downfall of the Shah proves that he was wrong in allowing so much power and resources to the country’s major religious faith. Apart from being a sincere believer himself, his astute mind provided him with a long- term vision and a far reaching insight into the delicately forged balance that kept the country together, territorially, emotionally and spiritually.
Contrastingly, the mullahs who opposed him could not see further than the tip of their noses. They could only think of short term gain, seizing the reigns of power and holding on to it as long as they could manage it. They failed to see, or could not care less about the long term interests of the religious faith they claimed they were trying to safeguard. They could not see that the heartlessness and emotional sterilization they were instigating against the Shah could eventually pave the way for their own departure. If a nation with 2,500 years of monarchy could bring itself to get rid of such a highly significant national symbol as the Shah, it could also manage to jettison a foreign religion with much less seniority. A parent who mistreats his spouse in front of the children could not expect to gain their love but should understand that he is eroding the sense of respect, family honor and fidelity that will one day come to haunt him. As the saying goes ‘what goes around comes around’. And the time for the end of Islamic faith at least in its present form has come around in Iran for quite some time. It is not a secret to anyone that the mullahs are derided and despised by the majority of Iranians. They hold political power by intimidation and repression and not because they are entrusted to do so by the free will of the population.
What kind of Shia Islam can be expected to emerge after the dust of the present dictatorship has settled in Iran is not an easy question to answer. Whether the religion of the majority of Iranians will be able to recreate itself and be born anew sometime in the future depends on many different factors. In its intelligent progressive form it will have a better chance of survival through the restoration of that political system which itself draws its strength from traditional values i.e. the constitutional monarchy. What is certain is that after their inevitable liberation from the present dictatorship, Iranians will never accept to give religion the overwhelming sway it once exercised in their political life. The concept of Shia Islam as the official religion of the country is finished. For that matter, the Iranian monarchy also in its old overarching form has for ever come to an end.
Today we Iranians are sitting amongst the ruins of twenty-five years of national turmoil. To prevail as a civilization we have to pick up the pieces and recreate our national trinity of God, the Shah and country for the democratic age of the twenty-first century. To think however that we can dissolve this trinity, reduce its number or concoct something else altogether instead is to repeat the folly of the Islamic revolutionaries.
A secular republic with no imaginative roots in our national consciousness for Iranians will be like a loveless marital contract full of clauses and sub-clauses but ultimately bereft of any binding emotional attachment or heartfelt yearning. We cannot build the future of our nation in a spiritual vacuum, forgoing its true sources of cultural inspiration and vitality.
What is certain is that multi billion dollar investments are not the only thing we require for rebuilding our country. We need to make an attempt to identify and heal our festering emotional wounds. We need to scrutinize the truth beyond the clouds of falsehood propagated in the past twenty-five years by political opportunists and religious terrorists. A good place to start is to consider clearly and free of fanaticism the place of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the history of our modern civilization. Such an understanding is essential for our moral recovery. It will enable us to come to terms with our past and proceed in the direction of creating a just, fair and humane society.
The Shah stood at the political helm of our country for nearly four decades, giving us his youth and old age. He bestowed on us all the intellectual and emotional energy his life could muster. The least we can do for him is to give him the recognition he deserves.