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July 31, 1980 - Image 4

Resource type:
Michigan Daily, 1980-07-31

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Page 4-Thursday, July 31, 1980-The IMichigan Doily

Religious symbolism 1A
Iran and the hostages


Enter Jimmy
IT BEGAN innocuously enough two weeks ago,
when Billy Carter registered as a foreign agent.
Sighs of "It's about tie" were muttered by the
media and politicians. But soon afterwards, a story
unravelled-indeed, it is still developing-that
links not only Billy to unethical and illegal acts, but
his big brother as well.
Significant information has been released just
recently, including Attorney General Benjamin
Civiletti's admission that he and the president
discussed Billy's legal problems, afact that both
denied earlier. In addition, it was reported that
Billy-through Jimmy-was made privy to State
Department cables about Billy's relationship with
Libya. The affair has proven to be the president's
most major domestic problem since he was elec-
ted, one that could spell disaster to his reelection
A Senate committee has begun an inquiry into
the matter. The panel Jmembers and other
congresspersons must not be motivated by political
considerations-though the temptation is great,
especially to Democrats who perceive the
president as a political liability. The committee
must not prolong its investigation to the November
elections, nor must it arrange for the president's
appearance before the panel to coincide with the
Democratic Convention. Because of the enticing
prospects of a prime-time television investigation,
a vigorous effort must be made to ensure a
thorough, complete, and fair inquiry.

Why are the American hostages
still in Iran? What possible pur-
pose can be served by their con-
tinued imprisonment? As the
crisis drags on and on, the heady
anger of the American public
gradually gives way to per-
plexity. Why, we ask, after all
this, are they still holding 52
Americans hostage?
The question of "why?" begs a
motive and meaning for an action
that is incomprehensible to most
Americans. The holding of
hostages will never be condoned
in America, but it might at least
be understood if there were a
clear connection between the
means and an end.
been utterly misguided and bum-
bling in all their dealings with the
Iranian revolution generally and
the hostage crisis particularly.
The U.S. foreign policy
establishment, for all its
political, military and economic
expertise, continues to assign the
lowest priority to those experts
who can interpret foreign events
according to the peculiar logic of
the culture which produces them.
Ironically, this is especially true
of U.S. embassies in countries
like Iran, which are the most un-
familiar and "foreign" to
Indeed, the State Department
did solicit the advice of experts
on Iranian history and culture
during a two-day conference on
April 24 and 25. The experts ad-
vised Vance against the use of
force. They understood-as the
Administration did not-that in
the Iranian cultural context the
use of force would only increase
Iranian resistance to the point
where resistance would become
the means and end in itself, thus
assuringthat thenhostages would
never go free.
The notion of resistance to ex-
ternal forces is intricately
meshed with the central
mythology that motivates
Iranian behavior and the Iranian
view of the world. It is a
mythology built around the
struggle between the inside and
the outside, the core and the
repeated invasions and conquests
by external forces-from
Alexander the Great and the
Greeks to the Arabs and Ghengis
Khan. In the 19th century the
country was divided up between
British and Russian domination,
an era which Iranians believe
was continued with American
economic domination in more
recent years.
Yet in the periods between each
foreign conquest, Iran asserted
itself as a great and unique
civilization which produced some
of the world's greatest art,
philosophy, literature,
mathematics and architecture.
Thus, as painted on the canvas of
Iranian history this struggle bet-
ween the inside and the outside is

By William Beeman
destructive forces of external
conquerors and the reproductive
forces of the internal core of
Iranian civilization.
The same pattern applies on
the personal level as well as the
historic one. For individual
Iranians there is a very real sen-
se that each person is engaged in
a struggle between the pure and
honest inner-soul and the exter-
nal world and its corrupting
desires. This constant struggle
for the truth of the innermost
being expresses itself in one of
the principal aphorisms of Shi'i
Islamic teachings: "Knowledge
of self is knowledge of God."
inside and outside has also been
encapsulated in the central myth
of Shi's Islam, the martyrdom of
Imam Hosein, grandson of the
prophet Mohammad and third
Imam of Shi's Moslems. The
martyrdom is to Shi's Islam what
the crucifixion is to Christians.
Hosein's position as leader of
the faith was usurped by the ruler
of Damascus. But Hosein refused
to give up his right to succession,
and he and his followers were
beseiged on the plains of Kerbala,
a waterless area outside of
Baghdad, by the forces of the
caliph of Damascus, Yazid.
Again he was ordered to pay
homage to Yazid as leader of all
Moslems, and again he refused.
As a result, he and nearly all his
male followers were drawn into
battle and cut down on the plains.
The story highlights two great
religious figures who have come
to represent two of the most cen-
tral characteristics of Shi's
Islam: osein, the uncom-
promising strugglertagainst ex-
ternal forces of tyranny and
possessor of inner purity and
strength; and his father, Ali, the
second Imam who brought Sunni
and Shi's Moslems together un-
der a unified leadership.
Hosein has been glorified over
the centuries in elaborate and
highly emotional mourning
ceremonies, which are still con-
ducted throughout the year in
Iran. The ceremonies, in iolving
chants and sometimes self-
flagellation, are the most power-
ful symbolic expression of that
central cultural opposition bet-
ween inside and outside; good
and evil. The ceremonies glorify
and demonstrate one's un-
willingness to compromise with
the external corrupting forces of
the world, maintaining the pure
inner-core of truth at all costs.
In a very real sense, the
Iranian revolution was played out
as if it had taken place on the
plains of Kerbala. The moral op-
position between inner truth and
external corruption became the
leitmotif of the revolution. The
Ayatollah Khomeini and his
followers, like Hosein, refused to
& ts$_vAstwityexternal

forces. The chants of marching
students during the revolution
referred specifically to the mar-
tyrdom of Hosein and encouraged
direct identification with his
death. Some chants declared
flatly, "Iran has now become
In this complex of symbolic
imagery, the United States was
identified with the external for-
ces that brought about the death
of Hosein. The late Shah, cast as
an agent of U.S. power, occupied
a symbolic role akin to the
general of the caliph of
Damascus who was directly
responsible for the persecution of
became an enormously complex
symbol, combining the attributes
of Ali, the great teacher and
leader, with those of Hosein, the
warrior, the person who will not
compromise, the opponent of
evil, external forces.
Under this strong set of ideals,
defeat and destruction are in-
finitely preferable to yielding to
force for Khomeini and his
followers. Martyrdom is
preferred to all other actions,
takinga second place only to
complete and utter victory.
The occupiers of the U.S. em-
bassy have identified themselves
as "students following the line of
the Imam," thus signalling that
they felt their "hard line" on the
hostage situation to be the
correct line-the pure line of non-
Once the hostages had been
captured, to compromise on the
conditions for their release was
impossible if the line of the Imam
were to be maintainead:
Resisting U.S. efforts to force the
studentsto yield or compromise
was necessary to protect the in-
tegrity of the original revolution.
This view is widely shared by the
Iranian public.
Myth, symbol, cultural
logic-they are all there, inex-
tricably intertwined.
Americans also live by our own
myths and symbols, though
Americans, and especially
American diplomats, remain
reluctant to consider that myths
have any role in the grand drama
of international policy. That
failure to go beyond political and
economic logic is the really basic
human issues lies at the heart of
America's failure in Iran.
The author is an anthro-
pologist at Brown University
specializing in the Mideast. He
wrote this article for Pacific
News Service.
Unsigned editorials
appearing on the left side
of this page represent a
majority opinion of the
Daily's Editorial Board


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