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Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral

The funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini was not a tragedy, writes James Buchan, but a gruesome farce: id

The unarmed city crowd first emerged as a force in Iranian politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in protests against the growing influence of European commerce and, later, in the struggle for constitutional government in Iran. Cruelly suppressed under the two Pahlavi shahs, the crowd returned to the political stage during the revolution of 1979 in the cycle of demonstrations and public mourning that forced Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into exile. By encouraging hundreds of thousands of rural people to migrate to Tehran and the other major cities throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Pahlavis had created the weapons of their own destruction.

Yet the protests in 1979 were as nothing to the extraordinary scenes of mourning at the funeral of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a decade later. The chaotic display of grief during those June days of 1989 revealed to an astonished international public rather more of the Persian soul than it wanted to see.

Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini died aged 86, after repeated heart failure, just before midnight on Saturday 3 June 1989, at a clinic near his house in the village of Jamaran, just north of Tehran. President Ali Khamenei and the speaker of parliament, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were at his bedside. They resolved to delay announcement of the death in order to allow time for the body to be prepared and for a state of emergency to be imposed. The borders were put on alert against Iraqi attack and plans were laid for an orderly succession.

Although Tehran radio would not announce Khomeini’s death until 7am on the Sunday morning, rumours immediately started to fly around the city and crowds began to make their way to Jamaran. People dressed in mourning black, the women wearing the all-over black georgette wrap called the “prayer chador”, poured into the streets and mosques.

At 9am in the parliament building, Khamenei, who was known for his beautiful Persian diction, read out Khomeini’s last will and testament to the Assembly of Experts, a body of leading clerics. In a fevered atmosphere, with all the members in tears, the reading of the will took three hours. The assembly then convened again in the afternoon to elect Khamenei as leader, even though he was only 50 years old and a relatively junior member of the hierarchy. He remains supreme leader, or rahbar, today.

Early on Monday 5 June, the body was transferred to a vast and dusty vacant lot in north Tehran, known as the Musalla, that was used for public prayers and sacrifices on religious holidays. On a high podium made out of steel shipping containers, Khomeini’s body lay, wrapped in a white shroud, in an air-conditioned glass case, feet facing Mecca, the indigo turban of a descendant of the Prophet on his chest.

By mid-morning, hundreds of thousands of mourners had come to bid farewell, beating their chests, drawing blood from their cheeks and chanting the slogan: “We are orphaned!” Eight people were killed in the crush to approach the body and hundreds more were injured.

In blinding heat and choking dust, the Tehran fire brigade sprayed the mourners with jets of water in order to calm their excitement at participating in this latest act of the passion play of Iranian history. This is a recitation of the founding tragedy of Shia Islam, in which the Prophet’s family, tormented by heat and thirst, was encircled by murderous enemies at Karbala in Iraq in October 680AD. Many in the crowd were mourning not a revolutionary leader, nor even a canon jurist, but an “imam”, a title then applied in Iran only to the perfect Shia saints of the Middle Ages.

 

It was decided that Khomeini should be buried not in Qom, where he had spent years as a seminary professor until his exile by Mohammad Reza in 1964, but in Behesht-e Zahra, graveyard of the dead of war and revolution, located in the southern suburbs and named after the Prophet’s daughter. This was an essentially political ritual: it re-enacted in mourning Khomeini’s triumphant visit by helicopter to the cemetery on 1 February 1979, the day he returned to Iran from exile in France.

Early in the morning of 6 June, the body was brought down from its makeshift pyramid and the coffin opened for the aged Grand Ayatollah Golpayegani to lead the prayers. Those 20 minutes were the only funerary solemnity a northern European might have recognised.

The plan was to travel 25 miles south through town in an orderly procession, but the crowds had swelled overnight to several million. “From the north of Tehran to Behesht-e Zahra,” wrote Khomeini’s biographer Baqer Moin, “nothing could be seen but a black sea of mourners dotted only by the white turbans of some mollahs.”

The air-conditioned truck acting as a hearse could make no headway through the crowd, and neither water cannon nor warning shots from the Revolutionary Guard could clear a path. In the end, the body was transferred to a helicopter –

another echo of 1979 – and brought by air to the grave that had been hacked with mattocks out of the stony desert.

Yet even here, the crowd surged past the makeshift barriers. John Kifner wrote in the New York Times that the “body of the ayatollah, wrapped in a white burial shroud, fell out of the flimsy wooden coffin, and in a mad scene people in the crowd reached to touch the shroud”. A frail white leg was uncovered. The shroud was torn to pieces for relics and Khomeini’s son Ahmad was knocked from his feet. Men jumped into the grave. At one point, the guards lost hold of the body. Firing in the air, the soldiers drove the crowd back, retrieved the body and brought it to the helicopter, but mourners clung on to the landing gear before they could be shaken off. The body was taken back to north Tehran to go through the ritual of preparation a second time.

To thin the crowd, it was announced on television and radio that the funeral had been postponed. Five hours later, the sound of rotors could be heard over Behesht-e Zahra and this time the guards were better prepared. Three of the shah’s old Huey helicopters landed and the body was brought out, sealed in what Kifner described as a “metal box resembling an airline shipping container”. Once again, the crowd broke through the cordon, but by weight of numbers the guards managed to push their way through to the grave.

There, according to reporters for Time magazine, “the metal lid of the casket was ripped off, and the body was rolled into the grave. The grave was quickly covered with concrete slabs and a large freight container.” In later years, the republic would erect on the site a monumental mosque and shrine to Khomeini, fit to match, if not outdo, the great Shia monuments at Karbala, Najaf, Mashhad, Qom and Lucknow.

 

For the outside world, especially for non-Shia Muslims and Iranian émigrés, the funeral was, as Time put it, “bizarre, frightening – and ultimately incomprehensible”. Here was not tragedy but gruesome farce – idolatrous, makeshift, deadly and utterly lacking in self-control. According to Radio Tehran, 10,800 people were treated that day for self-inflicted wounds, heat exhaustion or crush injuries.

For the Iranians, by contrast, these astonishing events were evidence of what they prized above all things: unaffected sympathy, or what is known as del – “heart”.

After the funeral, Iranian society resumed its habitual good order, held together by piety, pride, a certain amount of government repression, opium, cheap bread and petrol, a ban on alcohol and segregation of the sexes. And it still holds together today. The revolutionary constitution, with its novel mixture of clerical dictatorship and liberal democracy, has proved more resilient than anyone could have imagined in 1979.

What remains in the memory of those June days 20 years ago is that same power of men and women en masse that haunted Alexis de Tocqueville in his study of the French Revolution of 1789 – something “violent, radical, desperate, audacious, almost mad, and nonetheless powerful and effective”, which will certainly return to Iran one day, either to renew the Islamic Republic or to demolish it.

James Buchan was a Financial Times correspondent in the Middle East and is the author most recently of “The Gate of Air: a Ghost Story” (Quercus, £14.99)

Share your memories of the year of the crowd with us by emailing: 1989@newstatesman.com. A selection will appear on our website

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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