Skip to comments.Behind the mask of a brutal zealot
Posted on 04/21/2006 4:49:57 PM PDT by Dundee
Behind the mask of a brutal zealot
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's embrace of martyrdom means the West should fear monstrosities from Iran, reports Matthias Kadiuntzel
IT wasn't long after Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980 that ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini realised his forces were no match for Saddam Hussein's professional, well-armed military.
To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as 12, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields towards the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies.
But at one point the gore became a matter of concern.
"In the past," wrote the semi-official Iranian daily Ettelaat as the war raged on, "we had child volunteers: 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds. They went into the minefields. Their eyes saw nothing. Their ears heard nothing. And then, a few moments later, one saw clouds of dust."
"When the dust had settled again, there was nothing more to be seen of them. Somewhere, widely scattered in the landscape, there lay scraps of burnt flesh and pieces of bone."
Such scenes would henceforth be avoided, Ettelaat assured its readers.
"Before entering the minefields, the children (now) wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves."
These children who rolled to their deaths were part of the Basiji, a mass movement created by Khomeini in 1979 and militarised after the war started in order to supplement his beleaguered army. The Basij Mostazafan - or "mobilisation of the oppressed" - was essentially a volunteer militia, most of whose members were not yet 18.
The sacrifice of the Basiji was ghastly. And yet today it is a source not of national shame, but of growing pride.
It is also the potent core of the political base that propelled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - a man who reportedly served as a Basij instructor during the Iran-Iraq War - to the presidency.
Ahmadinejad, whose nuclear ambitions and anti-Israel rhetoric have shaken the West, revels in his alliance with the Basiji.
He regularly appears in public wearing a black-and-white Basij scarf, and, in his speeches, he routinely praises "Basij culture" and "Basij power", with which he says "Iran today makes its presence felt on the international and diplomatic stage".
Ahmadinejad's ascendance on the shoulders of the Basiji means that the Iranian Revolution, launched almost three decades ago, has entered a new and disturbing phase.
A younger generation of Iranians, whose world views were forged in the atrocities of the Iran-Iraq War, have come to power, wielding a more fervently ideological approach to politics than their predecessors.
The children of the revolution are now its leaders.
Whereas Khomeini's Revolutionary Guard consisted of professionally trained adult soldiers, the Basiji was essentially composed of boys aged between 12 and 17 and men older than 45. They received only a few weeks of training - less in weapons and tactics than in theology.
The chief combat tactic employed by the Basiji was the human wave attack, whereby barely armed children and teenagers would move continuously toward the enemy in perfectly straight rows. It did not matter whether they fell to enemy fire or detonated the mines with their bodies: the important thing was that the Basiji continue to move forward over the torn and mutilated remains of their fallen comrades, going to their deaths in wave after wave.
Once a path to the Iraqi forces had been opened up, Iranian commanders would send in their more valuable and skilled Revolutionary Guard troops.
This approach produced some undeniable successes. "They come toward our positions in huge hordes with their fists swinging," one Iraqi officer complained in the summer of 1982.
"You can shoot down the first wave and then the second. But at some point the corpses are piling up in front of you, and all you want to do is scream and throw away your weapon. They are human beings, after all!"
By the spring of 1983, about 450,000 Basiji had been sent to the front. After three months, those who survived deployment were sent back to their schools or workplaces.
But three months was a long time on the front lines. All told, about 100,000 men and boys are said to have been killed during Basiji operations.
Why did the Basiji, recruited from the countryside and often illiterate, rush to their destruction with such fervour?
That can only be elucidated by the Iranian Revolution's peculiar brand of Islam.
At the beginning of the war, Iran's ruling mullahs did not send human beings into the minefields, but rather animals: donkeys, horses, and dogs. But the tactic proved useless: "After a few donkeys had been blown up, the rest ran off in terror," Mostafa Arki reports in his book Eight Years of War in the Middle East.
The donkeys reacted normally - fear of death is natural. The Basiji, on the other hand, marched fearlessly and without complaint to their deaths.
The curious slogans that they chanted while entering the battlefields are of note: "Against the Yazid of our time!"; "Hussein's caravan is moving on!"; "A new Karbala awaits us!"
Yazid, Hussein, Karbala - these are all references to the founding myth of Shia Islam. In the late seventh century, Islam was split between those loyal to the Caliph Yazid - the predecessors of Sunni Islam - and the founders of Shia Islam, who thought that the Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, should govern the Muslims.
In 680, Hussein led an uprising against the "illegitimate" caliph, but he was betrayed. On the plain of Karbala, on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, Yazid's forces attacked Hussein and his entourage and killed them.
Hussein's corpse bore the marks of 33 lance punctures and 34 blows of the sword. His head was cut off and his body was trampled by horses. Ever since, the martyrdom of Hussein has formed the core of Shia theology, and the Ashura festival that commemorates his death is Shia's holiest day.
On that day, men beat themselves with their fists or flagellate themselves with iron chains to approximate Hussein's sufferings. At times throughout the centuries, the ritual has grown obscenely violent.
Bloody excesses are prohibited in contemporary Iran but during the Iran-Iraq War Khomeini appropriated the essence of the violent ritual as a symbolic act and politicised it.
He took the inward-directed fervour and channelled it towards the external enemy. He transformed the passive lamentation into active protest. He made the Battle of Karbala the prototype of a fight against tyranny.
The power of this story was further reinforced by a theological twist that Khomeini gave it. According to Khomeini, life is worthless and death is the beginning of genuine existence.
"The natural world," he explained in October 1980, "is the lowest element, the scum of creation." What was decisive was the beyond: the "divine world, that is eternal". This latter world was accessible to martyrs.
For those among the Basiji whose courage still waned in the face of death on the battlefield, the regime put on a show. A mysterious horseman on a magnificent steed would suddenly appear on the front lines. His face, covered in phosphorous, would shine. His costume was that of a medieval prince.
The mysterious apparition, able to inspire forces to charge the enemy line, is the "hidden imam", a mythical figure who influences the thought and action of Ahmadinejad to this day.
Shi'ites call all the male descendants of the prophet Mohammed "imams" and ascribe to them a quasi-divine status.
Hussein was the third imam. His son and grandson were the fourth and fifth. At the end of this line, there is the "12th Imam", who is named Mohammed. Some call him the Mehdi, the "divinely guided one".
He was born in 869, the only son of the 11th imam. In 874, he disappeared without a trace, thereby bringing Mohammed's lineage to a close. In Shia mythology, however, the 12th imam survived. Shi'ites believe that he merely withdrew from public view when he was five and that he will sooner or later emerge from his "occultation" in order to liberate the world from evil.
According to Shia tradition, legitimate Islamic rule can only be established following the reappearance of the 12th Imam. Until then, the Shia have only to wait, to keep their peace with illegitimate rule, and to remember the prophet's grandson, Hussein, in sorrow.
Khomeini, however, had no intention of waiting. He vested the myth with an entirely new sense: the 12th Imam would only emerge when the believers vanquished evil.
In the war against Iraq, "evil" was clearly defined and vanquishing evil was the precondition for hastening the return of the beloved 12th Imam.
And when the 12th Imam let himself be seen for a few minutes riding his white steed, the readiness to die a martyr's death increased considerably.
It was this culture that nurtured Ahmadinejad's view of the world. Born outside Tehran in 1956, the son of a blacksmith, he trained as a civil engineer and joined the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq War.
His biography remains strangely elliptical. Did he play a role in the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, as some charge? What exactly did he do during the war? These are questions for which there are no definite answers.
His presidential website says simply that he was "on active service as a Basiji volunteer up to the end of the holy defence (the war against Iraq) and served as a combat engineer in different spheres of duty".
It is known that, after the war's end, he served as the governor of Ardebil province and as an organiser of Ansar-e Hezbollah, a radical gang of violent Islamic vigilantes.
After becoming mayor of Tehran in April 2003, Ahmadinejad used his position to build up a strong network of radical Islamic fundamentalists known as Abadgaran-e Iran-e Islami, or Developers of an Islamic Iran.
It was in that role that he won his reputation - and popularity - as a hardliner devoted to rolling back the liberal reforms of then president Mohammad Khatami. Ahmadinejad positioned himself as the leader of a "second revolution" to eradicate corruption and Western influences from Iranian society.
And the Basiji, whose numbers had grown dramatically since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, embraced him.
Recruited from the more conservative and impoverished parts of the population, the Basiji fall under the direction of - and swear absolute loyalty to - the Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, Khomeini's successor.
During Ahmadinejad's run for the presidency last year, the millions of Basiji - in every Iranian town, neighborhood, and mosque - became his unofficial campaign workers.
Since Ahmadinejad became President, the influence of the Basiji has grown. In November, the new Iranian President opened the annual "Basiji Week", which commemorates the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War.
According to a report in Kayan, a publication loyal to Khameini, nine million Basiji - 12 per cent of the Iranian population - turned out to demonstrate in favour of Ahmadinejad's anti-liberal platform.
As Basij ideology and influence enjoy a renaissance under Ahmadinejad, the movement's belief in the virtues of violent self-sacrifice remains intact.
During this year's Ashura festival, school classes were taken on excursions to a "martyrs' cemetery". And since 2004 the mobilisation of Iranians for suicide brigades has intensified, with recruits being trained for foreign missions. A special military unit has been created bearing the name "Commando of Voluntary Martyrs".
According to its own statistics, this force has so far recruited about 52,000 Iranians to the suicidal cause. It aims to form a "martyrdom unit" in every Iranian province.
The Basiji's cult of self-destruction would be chilling in any country. In the context of the Iranian nuclear program, however, its obsession with martyrdom amounts to a lit fuse.
Nowadays, Basiji are sent not into the desert but rather into the laboratory. Basij students are encouraged to enrol in technical and scientific disciplines. According to a spokesperson for the Revolutionary Guard, the aim is to use the "technical factor" in order to augment "national security".
What exactly does that mean? Consider that, in December 2001, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani explained that "the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything". On the other hand, if Israel responded with its own nuclear weapons, it "will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality".
Rafsanjani thus spelled out a macabre cost-benefit analysis. It might not be possible to destroy Israel without suffering retaliation. But, for Islam, the level of damage Israel could inflict is bearable - only 100,000 or so additional martyrs.
And Rafsanjani is a member of the moderate, pragmatic wing of the Iranian Revolution; he believes that any conflict ought to have a "worthwhile" outcome.
Ahmadinejad, by contrast, is predisposed toward apocalyptic thinking. In one of his first TV interviews after being elected president, he enthused: "Is there an art that is more beautiful, more divine, more eternal than the art of the martyr's death?"
In September last year, he concluded his first speech before the UN by imploring God to bring about the return of the 12th Imam. He finances a research institute in Tehran whose sole purpose is to study and, if possible, accelerate the coming of the imam.
A politics pursued in alliance with a supernatural force is necessarily unpredictable. Why should an Iranian president engage in pragmatic politics when his assumption is that, in three or four years, the saviour will appear? If the messiah is coming, why compromise? That is why, up to now, Ahmadinejad has pursued confrontational policies with evident pleasure.
The history of the Basiji shows that we must expect monstrosities from the current Iranian regime.
Matthias Kuntzel is a political scientist in Hamburg, Germany, and author of Djihad und Judenhass (Jihad and Jew-Hatred). This article first appeared in The New Republic
Hmmm. Looks like it's up to the US (again) to nuke them all then. Well, we might as well get started.
Truly frightening. The stories from the Iran-Iraq war are very reminiscent of how the Soviets fought the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front...thousands and thousands of men, crossing minefields with arms linked and no weapons except what they picked up off dead comrades.
Proof that crazed Islamists are dumber than jackasses.
Always try and find the silver lining. At least they are proudly Anti-Liberal. I wish we could get millions out in the streets in an Anti-Liberal march.
Heck ameobas have stimulus response and would think more clearly than these guys.
I also think that armies who have as one of their goals "dying gloriously in battle" never seem to do well. Japanese and Chinese human wave tactics come to mind.
It's clear to everyone that this is a nut case.
To everyone, that is, except leftwingers.
They need the enlightenment of "a thousand suns". It worked in the paet..
Oh they will get the enlightenment, all right.
Read Ezekiel 38 and 39.
These wackjobs will come face to face with the original "bottled sunshine" courtesy of the One Who made it in the first place.