Gentle mullahs transformed

by Andrew Sprung

Roy Mottahedeh's The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (1985) combines a quick march through Persian and Shiite intellectual and political history with an almost novelistic tracking of the experience of a single mullah from grade school in the early fifties to the eve of the Islamic Revolution. Tantalizingly, the mullah's experience of the Revolution is only touched on in an epilogue -- where one gets this portrait of a great divide:

In fact, honor and a strong distaste for violence have separated Ali and some like-minded mullahs from the mullahs who have thrown themselves, from their giveh shoes to their turbans, into politics and into other people's business. Ali keeps telling mullah friends who share his distaste for the purges and killings other mullahs have directed, "But I know for a fact that years ago they would walk out of their way to avoid stepping on an ant."  Maybe the cousin of Parviz [Ali's childhood friend] would still avoid stepping on an ant, but he has turned into a vindictive judge who orders flogging and execution  with abandon. He was one of the vocal supporters of the reintroduction by parliament of Islamic criminal law, and he was openly pleased at the official "removal" of Shariatmadari (supposedly for treason) from his position as a "model" because Shariatmadari said the drastic punishments of the criminal law, like the chopping off of hands, were to be applied only when a perfect society was constructed so that no temptation other than the inner whisperings of Satan could be held to have misled the criminal.

The uncanniness of this experience -- watching gentle or at least ordinary people become murderous thugs -- reminded me of a scene in Eric Maria Remarque's Arc of Triumph, set in Paris on the eve of World War II.  An American woman turns up in Paris, having just divorced her Austrian husband and left Vienna. Her debriefing:

"It's good to be back," she said. "Vienna has become a military barracks. Disconsolate. The Germans have trampled it down. And with them the Austrians. The Austrians too, Ravic. I thought that would be a contradiction of nature: an Austrian Nazi. But I've seen them."

     "That is not surprising, Kate. Power is the most contagious disease."

     "Yes. And the most deforming. That's why I asked for a divorce. This charming idler whom I married two years ago suddenly became a shouting stormtroop leader who made old Professor Bernstein wash the streets while he stood by and laughed. Bernstein who, a year ago, had cured him of an inflammation of the kidneys. Pretending that the fee had been too high."

There are many testimonials of that all-too-common experience of watching one's neighbors or loved ones become butchers and thugs when greater thugs take over a country. And no country is immune.  The Bush torture program reminded us of that.