In 1951, Eric Hoffer’s book The True Believer presented a chilling subject. Political and religious mass movements form when leaders promise ultimate truth. Those leaders remain in power by defining truth, no matter how much they have to lie. See: Iran, Islamic Republic of.
In the September/October issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Akbar Ganji profiles Iran’s Supreme Leader in “Who Is Ali Khamenei?” Ganji, an Iranian journalist and dissident, was imprisoned from 2000 to 2006. His writing is banned in Iran.
Yet this is no hatchet job. Ganji emphasizes Khamenei’s significant awareness of Western culture and praise for the West’s technology and capitalist risk taking. Moreover, Khamenei doesn’t hold the West responsible for all the Islamic world’s problems. He is not “crazy, irrational or a reckless zealot.” Still, Ganji acknowledges that Khamenei’s “deep-rooted views and intransigence” create a barrier to any rapprochement with the West.
From an Iranian point of view, Iran has an axe to grind. In 1953, the U.S. helped topple Iran’s elected government. We supported the Shah—a friend of ours but not to many of his own people. History to us. Not to Khamenei. Tehran lashes out, supporting terrorism around the world and repressing its people at home, all in the name of Islam as the answer to all problems.
Khamenei indeed promotes true belief. Start with his title—Supreme Leader. He assumed that position after the death of Ayatollah Khomeni in 1989. Supreme Leader has an ominous ring to it. It should. One man may decide who can and cannot run for office. One man may overrule any law passed by his government. One man has gigantic photos of himself posted throughout Iran. Images come to mind: Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, North Korea’s Kims, George Orwell’s Big Brother. Each was a cult figure and a law unto himself.
So does Khamenei maintain a rational worldview or not? It’s a legitimate question since the Supreme Leader keeps looking under his bed for the bogeyman—and finding it. According to Ganji, Khamenei traces a string of evil deeds attacking Muslims worldwide, including the burning of a Quran by a lunatic pastor in Florida in 2010 (arrested yesterday before attempting to burn 3,000 Qurans), to—drum roll—the Jews! In a public speech, Khamenei spoke of “the system of hegemony and Zionist planning centers, which enjoy the greatest influence over the American government and its security and military agencies, as well as the British and some European governments.”
I’m not just aghast. I’m disappointed. Neither my parents, my friends nor my rabbis ever enlightened me that we Jews, all 14 million of us, control the world, which includes 1.6 billion Muslims. Mea culpa. I neglected to read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as well as the writings of Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan. Yet this must be true. The Supreme Leader says it is.
There’s a lesson here: In a world of complexity mirroring the complexity of human nature, many find comfort in true belief. A sense of bliss follows separating oneself from any relationship with reality. Because reality, as they say, bites.
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