In one of his speeches that he delivered from his exile in Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini said: “Umayyad rule was based on a preference of Arabs over others. It also opposed the branch of Islam which eliminates the national concept, and unites humans in one society, a society where race and color distinctions do not exist”. During the 1970s, Khomeini lived in exile in Iraq, when relations between the Shah and the Iraqi regime had slumped. Former Iraqi President Abdul Salam Aref had allowed Iranian dissidents to broadcast their publications and sermons on the radio. Khomeini was involved, according to some sources, in the inflammatory speeches against the Shah’s regime. However, after the Baathists signed a border agreement with the Shah in 1975, Khomeini was placed under house arrest, in an attempt to secure him as future leverage. Despite trying to escape, he remained in Iraq until the Shah pressured Iraq to extradite him, and he was allowed to leave, before eventually settling in Paris.
Khomeini’s view of Umayyad rule is supported by adherents of Imami Shia Islam. His stance cannot be considered as an insult to the Arabs, or Arabism, but it was certain that the Imam did not boast of his Arab origins – claimed by his family – in the same capacity as he believed in his religious ideology, which he was able to establish in Iran today. This clarification is necessary in light of the debate taking place these days about the Sunni-Shia dispute on one hand, and the Arab-Persian dispute on the other.
In June 2009, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah – the Hezbollah leader – during a televised speech, tried to justify his party’s relations with Iran, to the Lebanese and Arab public. He said, wondering: “Are we, as opposition, considered Arabs or non-Arabs? If what is meant here is Syria, it is an Arab state. If we mean Lebanon, whether it has established distinguished relations with an Arab country, or had links with another Arab axis – needless to mention their names or elaborate on their apparent influence in the Lebanese arena, or the upcoming elections – can we say that one party is an Arab and the other is not? The country in question could be Iran; although today there is nothing in Iran known as ‘Persian’, or ‘Persian civilization’. What exists in Iran is Islamic civilization. What exists in Iran is Muhammad’s religion from Arabia, from Tahami, from Makka, from Quraish, from Tamim and from Mathar, and the founder of the Islamic Republic [Ayatollah Khomeini] is an Arab, son of an Arab, and son of God’s messenger. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic today is Imam Khamenei, who is a Hashemite, and he descends from Quraish tribe. He also descends from Ali Bin Abi-Taleb [the prophet’s cousin] and from the prophet’s daughter Fatima al-Zahraa, all being Arabs.”
At the time, Nasrallah’s statement did not draw any reaction from Iran, perhaps because the country was internally preoccupied with its elections. However, in the latter months of this year, the television recording – translated into Persian – was circulated widely both within and outside Iran. This caused embarrassment for Nasrallah, when many ethnic Persians thought he was undermining their Persian roots, and preferring Arabs over Persians. If Khomeini had angered the Arabs when he advocated religious ideology over Arab nationalism, then Nasrallah had done the same thing, with regards to the Persians.
Nasrallah is partly right, and partly wrong in what he said, for he was right when saying that the family of Imam Khomeini claims to descend from the Hashemite family [of the Prophet]. However, what Nasrallah did not tell his audience is that Imam Khomeini and his family were descendants of an Indian family, from the village of Cantor near the famous Indian city of Lucknow. Indeed, his Indian roots –which Khomeini does not deny – were the reason behind the media campaign against him, at the time of the Shah, describing him as an ‘Indian’ who wanted to incite civil strife in the Persian country. A member of the opposition at the time, Manouchehr Ganji, quoted the Shah as saying: “If Khomeini lifted the beard from under his chin, you would find (Made in England)”. Continuing this public defamation, the newspaper ‘Italaat’ denied that Khomeini was affiliated to the Prophet’s family, and even considered him to be the son of a British traveler, who settled in Iran and Iraq in the 19th century (Italaat, January 7th, 1978).
The fact is that the English case for Khomeini is a flimsy one. As for the controversy surrounding the validity of his Arab, Indian, or Persian origins, this is a matter for historians and genealogists, and is not a matter of politics. However, what is more important than Khomeini’s origins is his stance on the Sunni-Shia and Arab-Persian disputes. Historically, we can say that Khomeini was not a nationalistic man, or racist against other people, but he was a man of religious ideology, and his ideology always took precedent over nationalism. Khomeini was a spiritual leader more than he was a ‘Persian’, and this was one of the most important reasons for the spread of his vision, outside of the Walih al-Faqih in Iran. This also explains why his vision drew the admiration from some secular Arabs and western intellectuals. Despite some of his expressions, which targeted certain western and Arab rulers, Khomeini believed in the need to preach his Islamic revolution to the surrounding Arab and Islamic world.
When the Islamic revolution took place in Iran, Khomeini met with well-wishers from the Arab and western left, including the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Prior to the revolution he met with French philosopher Michael Foucault, whose “homosexuality” did not deter Khomeini from meeting him, in order to evangelize his Islamic revolution. Some still remember how the Iranian regime, under Khomeini, was able to establish public alliances and secret contracts, even with its enemies; Iran-contra. Therefore, Khomeini had no reservations about evoking Persian nationalism in Iran after the Iran-Iraq war. Indeed, Khomeini did not censor the Mullahs, who invoked sentiments of former Persian glory to galvanize the fighters. Last month, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad draped a Palestinian-style Keffiyeh scarf, worn by Basij militiamen, over the shoulders of an actor dressed as Cyrus – the founder of the Persian Empire. Ahmadinejad has talked about Cyrus in high regard, calling him the “King of the world”. This is a remarkable statement in a state where the Shah once emphasized Iran’s proud past, over Islam.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is mistaken if he thinks that Iran is merely an Islamic state, because that is contrary to Iran’s present-day reality. Iranians are proud to be Persians, and the majority of them – even among the opponents of the Mullahs, reject foreign intervention in their country. This is a matter worth noting for Nasrallah. Religious ideology cannot completely replace national identity, and Khomeini was conscious of this, and exploited it for the benefit of the regime. The Iranian scholar, Dariush Shayegan, (Illusions of Identity, 1993, trans. Muhammad Mukkaled) when talking about both the Shah and Khomeini, said that: “despite the broad differences between them, they committed the same old mistakes. They managed to embody par excellence the two Iranian fatal practices; cultural schizophrenia and the dream of greatness with regards to reviving the Sassanid Empire, by the Iranian Shah, or spreading Islam internationally through an Imam, according to the sacred Shiite belief. Heaven and its contrary; the heaven of the great civilization on earth, and the heaven of resurrection and the Day of Doom in the heavens. Two different discourses; two visions representing two neighboring Irans: the Imperial Iran according to the discourses of kings, and Iran that suffered from the martyrdom blood. Yet their proximity can be summarized in the following: The extravagance of a nation who never refrains from dreaming beyond the bounds of its capacity”.