From a funeral procession of Qassim Suleimani in Tehran on January 6, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
IN THE EARLY hours after the targeted killing of Qassim Suleimani, the general who embodied in his persona the geopolitical ambitions of Iran, the media machinery of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps went into an overdrive. Technology was deployed to precipitate that rarest of phenomena in our secularised present: a religious lament of the masses for the dead. To many in the West, and particularly in America, this extraordinary outpouring of remembrances for the pater familias of Shia militarism has come as a surprise. Since then, as of writing this, Iranian Fateh-330 missiles have hit al-Asad and Erbil bases in Iraq, where American forces and machinery are stationed. While there are no indications of an escalation, there is a certain irony that Qassim Suleimani—who lived much of his life in the shadows: orchestrating wars, facilitating alliances—became the first Iranian whose death has become a global social media event.
What is more remarkable however is that Suleimani’s death has provoked an assortment of readings about who has actually died—not the individual who perished in the drone strike but the persona that has been erased. To the shrill rhetoric of most television commentators, Suleimani was a terrorist who planned the killings and maiming of Americans forces in Iraq. To the more historically informed commentator, but nevertheless still hyperventilating, Suleimani was an Iranian Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi commander who slaughtered in the Czech Republic. To another type of interpreter, one more comfortable with the greys of the world, Suleimani was the malevolent spymaster called Karla out of John le Carré novels, who was perpetually a thorn in Western backs but still worthy of a begrudging respect. On the other side of this violent divide, to the Iranians antipathetic to the clerical oligarchy of Tehran, Suleimani was the iron fist of the government they disagreed with, but a nationalist who served his country. To the Shia militias across the Middle East which he raised, nourished and lived with, he had acquired the halo of a holy warrior. To the Christians and Yazidis of Iraq, he was a godsend military commander who saved them from the barbarisms of the Islamic State. More complex and interesting is another kind of interpretation of Suleimani within Iran in which he was ‘Iran’s Rostam’—an epic hero, even if the epic wherein Rostam figures prominently speaks of the glories of a non-Islamic past. This last characterisation where the nostalgic recall is commingled with the imposing ideological diktats of the Shia Islam to serve the ideological fervors of the present regimes only furthers the suspicion that Iran’s political self suffers from a schizoid persona as a nation.
On one side is its millennia-long humanist tradition filled with philosophical and literary masters, its nuanced and intricate methods of argumentation, the marriage of Islamic messianism and pre-Islamic poetics—all of which flourished since the soldiers of Arabia entered the gardens of Persia. What was born from this marriage—one of force, surrender and ultimately reinvention—has allowed present-day Iranians to think of themselves, justifiably, as an enclave of an ancient civilisation surrounded by culturally arid postcolonial countries. Imbricated in this self-image are also reveries of old empires that swept from Iraq to northern India.
But the reality of modern Iran as a political entity is far removed from this world of empires and poetics. In the 20th century, it has been a nation beholden to Islam, whose radical furies have been stoked and exploited by generations of clergy. The precipitating agent for the re-emergence of political Islam was, like elsewhere, the humiliations born from the imperium of colonial modernity. But this didn’t come directly from Iran’s own experience but was mediated preponderantly by the experiences and writings of one man: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who argued for a pan-Islamic response to modernity after, among other things, his experience of colonialism in British India and the passive pragmatism of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan in face of modern science. Al-Afghani’s Islamism that was both messianic and anti-colonial percolated into Egypt, Iran and India over a period of time. By the time 20th century began, Iranian public life had embraced forms of cosmopolitanism which slowly pushed the Shia clergy out of the domineering roles they had enjoyed. Next door in the Iraq of 1920s, the Shia clergy continued to play an important role in anti-British struggles where Mirza Muhammad al Shirazi, an important cleric, argued to establish a clerical theocracy.
Qassim Suleimani, despite his many public affections and genuflections to the religious orthodoxy, was in the final reading an abiding servant of the Iranian state
Share this on
For the next two decades, introspective and reactionary Shia clerics found themselves scrambling to identify stratagems to accrete legitimacy, especially among the elites. For Mirza Reza Qoli Shari’at Sangalaji (1890-1944) and many of his generation, a reform of Shia Islam to comport with modernity was a natural answer. The reforms included their willingness to experiment with the idea of abandoning ‘taqlid’ (the idea that Shia clerics were worthy of emulation). As Hamid Dabashi astutely notes, in this ‘reform’ itself was a flavour of Wahabbi puritanism—it is useful to remember ibn Saud had consolidated power in Saudi Arabia in late 1920s—where religious life was reduced to a devotee and his God. Implied in this reform was an effacing of Shia clergy’s powers. In contrast, for Ayatollah Khomeini, the answers lay in the exact opposite direction. Khomeini—whose grandfather Seyyed AM Hindi, had emigrated from Lucknow to Khomeyn in the 1830s—argued to expand the extent of religious power. This began publicly for the first time in 1963 when he called for the Pahlavi dynasty to be overthrown and ended with the birth of the Iranian revolution itself. Alongside, there were partners of convenience such as the radical revolutionary voice of Ali Shariati who reframed Shiism as an answer to face questions of postcolonialism, social justice and the Shah’s authoritarianism. Shariati, who died two years before the Iranian revolution, was the ‘the invisible Present, of the ever-present Absent’, according to the French theorist Michel Foucault, when he went to Tehran to ‘experience’ the Khomeini revolution. After the Iran-Iraq War, the longest conventional war of the 20th century, was done—one in which Suleimani earned his early reputation as a military commander—Iran was a spent force with a sclerotic economy and a theocratic elite that clung to power brutally. By the mid-1990s, a countervailing force of Ayatollah Montazeri—a conservative cleric open to ideas like civil rights, gender equality and equality of religions—began to gain expression through the governments of Mohammad Khatami and later the Green movement.
All along these alternating influences of theocracy and reform, the one constant has been the Iranian state’s efforts to hold on to its territorial integrity and expand its influence. Qassim Suleimani, despite his many public affections and genuflections to the religious orthodoxy, was in the final reading an abiding servant of the Iranian state. He may have been militarily an extraordinarily shrewd operator and politically savvy presence who navigated the shark-infested waters of Iranian politics, but the extensive outpouring of grief attests to the fact that through his persona refracted the anti-imperialist traditions of Iranian history as well as the long forgotten dreamscapes of an ancient Iran as a great military presence. Many prominent commentators have argued, including Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, that Suleimani was overrated and a short-sighted apparatchik of the Ayatollahs. But this form of de-historicised reading fails to not just account for the social context out of which Suleimani emerged and eventually dominated, but it also fails to recognise the realpolitik success of Suleimani’s leadership wherein, unlike in the 1990s, Iran’s arc of influence (the Shiite Crescent) now runs from the Latakia coast in the Mediterranean to the deserts of Balochistan via Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. His death may even achieve that ultimate Iranian goal: the removal of the US from Iraq.
Suleimani, in due course, will become a legend, a cautionary tale or an anathema to many. The more important lesson is that the reaction to Suleimani’s death reveals the challenges for the West to discern how societies with complex histories think of themselves. Misreading it may, on occasion, lead all involved to the brink of war, but more likely it will reveal itself as deep-seated inferiorites awaiting a form to manifest itself as intransigent and violent opposition.