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Meet the ayatollahs

As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is sworn in again as president amid further protests, Juan Cole, one of the

When Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, insisted on 31 July that his relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, was "like that of a father and son", he drew attention not only to apparent tensions between himself and Khamenei, but to the deep fissures that have opened up in Iranian politics since the disputed 12 June presidential election and subsequent demonstrations. The opposition and the regime are still dancing a dangerous tango of protest and repression, with the theocracy's leading clerics lining up on either side. In a Friday prayers sermon at the end of June, the fiery Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami commanded: "Anybody who fights against the Islamic system or the leader of Islamic society, fight him until complete destruction." In contrast, the reformist Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was put under house arrest between 1997 and 2003 for questioning the regime, said that no one in his right mind could have believed that Ahmadinejad won the election. He observed: "A government not respecting people's vote has no religious or political legitimacy." So who are the leading senior clerics influencing Iran today, and whose support for - or opposition to - the protesters could determine the country's future?

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Leader of the 1979 revolution and first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran ­(died 1989)

From the mid-1960s, Khomeini had two main goals. The first was the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was regarded by many Iranians as slavish to American interests. Khomeini attempted to lead a religious uprising against the shah in 1963, but he was arrested and sent into exile. He went to Turkey briefly, and then settled in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, where he taught and wrote, and ended up leading the opposition from Paris. When his 1978-79 revolution finally cast down the Peacock Throne, Khomeini pronounced checkmate.

His other goal was to turn Shia Islam from an informal relationship between believers and clerics into a system of government. He reinterpreted early Islamic texts to argue that seminary-trained clergy should be guardians over the whole of society, claiming that the word for mediator (hakam),often used for clerics, is from the same root as the term for ruler (hakim).

On his return to Iran in 1979, Khomeini turned his theory into a strict Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, creating the office of supreme leader, the clerical dictator who stands at the apex of the system, subordinating the elected president and parliament to himself. The 86 members of the Assembly of Experts are all clerics, as are the 12 members of the powerful Council of Guardians (which decides what bills may become law and who may run for president or parliament). The clerics of the 28-man Expediency Council are charged with mediating conflicts between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, and advising the supreme leader.

Khomeini initially faced opposition to his new orthodoxy from grand ayatollahs senior to him, especially outside of Iran - but ever since it was made illegal inside the Islamic Republic to question the guardianship, only ayatollahs with the stomach for trouble have done so openly. However, discontent with the doctrine is re­putedly widespread. Although some ayatollahs hold critical posts in governmental institutions, many of the most important office-holders are not esteemed for their erudition.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
President of Iran from 1981-89 and Supreme Leader since 1989

When Khomeini died, the then president, Ali Khamenei, was promoted to Supreme Leader. He had impeccable revolutionary credentials, having been a lifelong activist against the shah and a principal player in the rise of the Islamic Republic. But although he was a cleric, he was hardly scholarly or widely respected, and he was somewhat implausibly declared an ayatollah so he could take up the post of Supreme Leader.

Khamenei has never attracted a wide personal following as a jurist and public mentor on the practice of Islamic law, and his frankly partisan support of President Ahmadinejad, and sign-off of election results that many or most Iranians found dubious, has deeply damaged the authority of his position. On 19 June, in the Friday prayers sermon at Tehran University, he insisted that he would not yield in the face of the protests, and warned against further agitation. The next day, the regime cracked down hard. Khamenei may be able to deploy the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij to quell the popular disturbances for now, but in doing so he risks losing the consent of the governed.

Khamenei may be Supreme Leader, but in purely religious authority it is believed he is outranked by more than two dozen grand ayatollahs. They may be among the chief beneficiaries of the damage to the Supreme Leader's standing, and a shift in public support towards the more reform-minded among them could signal a sea change in Iranian politics.

Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari
Critic of Khomeini's theory of clerical rule (died 1986)

Shariatmadari helped save his rival Khomeini from the shah's firing squad in 1963 by recognising him as a grand ayatollah (which made him, according to Iran's constitution, immune from execution). When Khomeini became supreme leader, Shariatmadari called for free popular elections and disagreed with Khomeini's system of government and the dictatorial powers he assumed.

In response, Khomeini's regime appears to have manufactured a case against the mild-mannered, elderly Shariatmadari, accusing him of colluding with counter-revolutionaries to instigate a violent insurgency. He was made to confess and apologise on television, then consigned to
house arrest until his death in 1986. Clerics were prevented from attending his funeral prayer, drawing criticisms from Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri
Former heir apparent of Khomeini-turned-arch-critic

A leader of the 1979 revolution, Montazeri was originally designated as Khomeini's successor. In 1987, after the daughter of a friend falsely accused of sympathising with the People's Mujahedin of Iran was summarily executed, Montazeri spoke out against the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran and Khomeini angrily dismissed him as heir apparent. Montazeri went on to create a body of writing that challenged Khomeini's theory of clerical rule, placing him in conflict with the new Supreme Leader, Khamenei, who put him under house arrest for six years. He has been vigorous in his support for the protesters since the election in June. On 8 July, he posted on his website a call to "protest the improper performance of official repression". He also called for three days of mourning for the death of Neda Agha-Soltan and other demonstrators.

Ayatollah Yousuf Sanei
Head of the Council of Guardians until 1988, now a leading reformer

A resident, like Montazeri, of the holy city of Qom, Sanei has a lifetime of achievements in scholarship and teaching. Since retiring from the Council of Guardians, he has been active as one of roughly 29 grand ayatollahs who are informal opinion leaders, and has issued liberal fatwas on abortion and on women holding political office. He has met other grand ayatollahs to find ways of resolving the recent conflict, an implicit rebuke of Khamenei. Sanei has pointed out that many Iranians had understandable doubts about the election outcome, given the lack of transparency in the process, and he has called on the authorities to honour human rights. On his website, he says: "Such deceit and oppression should not cause despair and hopelessness in the people's path to standing up for their religious and legal rights and in their endeavour to ensure sovereignty over their own destiny."

What is an ayatollah? The Quran states: “On the earth are signs [ayat] for those of assured faith." The title of ayatollah is given
to Twelver Shia clerics who are experts in Islamic studies. (Twelvers, the largest branch of the Shias, believe that the Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Prophet Muhammad, and await the return - with Christ - of the 12th and final imam.) Only a few are given the rank of grand ayatollah; the majority of them live in Iran.

Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-YazdiMember of the Council of Guardians and Assembly of Experts

A highly influential ultra-conservative theologian who is said to be particularly close to Ahmadinejad, Mesbah-Yazdi came out of the now-bannedHojjatieh movement in modern Shia Islam, which has a special animus against the Baha'i religion and Sunni Muslims. This sectarian group believes that the messiah of Islam, the Mahdi, will come soon, and that dramatic social action might help speed his advent.

Despite his genial smile, Mesbah-Yazdi is a diehard opponent of the reform movement, and dismisses the more democratic aspects of the
Islamic Republic as unimportant compared to clerical authority. Of the recent protests, he said: "Anybody resisting against the ruling system will be broken."

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati
Chairman of the Council of Guardians

Sanei's successor as chairman of the Council of Guardians, the scrawny but fiery Jannati, spearheaded the conservative charge against the rising reform faction from 1997. In 2004, he excluded some 3,500 candidates from running for parliament and other offices on the grounds that they were too liberal. He has been a strong backer of Ahmadinejad, and rejected opposition charges of ballot tampering in the presidential election. He blamed the subsequent unrest on British intelligence activities orchestrated from the UK's embassy in Tehran, and pledged to put embassy employees of Iranian extraction on trial for sedition.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Iraq's leading Shia cleric

Iranian-born Sistani is the most widely followed grand ayatollah among Shias outside Iran, and also has a following in Iran itself. He is known to reject Khomeini's theory of the rule of the clerics, preferring that they instead give informal religious guidance to democratically elected lay leaders; as a result, Shia Iraq has not followed the Iranian political model. Sistani keeps a low profile in politics, and has so far declined to intervene directly in Iran's crisis.

What is an ayatollah? The Quran states: “On the earth are signs [ayat] for those of assured faith." The title of ayatollah is given
to Twelver Shia clerics who are experts in Islamic studies. (Twelvers, the largest branch of the Shias, believe that the Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Prophet Muhammad, and await the return - with Christ - of the 12th and final imam.) Only a few are given the rank of grand ayatollah; the majority of them live in Iran.

Juan Cole is the Richard P Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of "Engaging the Muslim World" (Palgrave Macmillan). He writes for the blog Informed Comment (www.juancole.com)

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile