What the Ayatollah’s letter to Western Millennials was all about

A few days ago, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, announced on Twitter that he had written—in English—a letter addressed “To the youth in Europe and North America.” Referring to Charlie Hebdo attacks as the “recent events in France,” Khamenei writes to the youth regarding “the image that is presented to them [as] Islam.”

The letter is unusual for three reasons. First, it is addressed directly to Western youth. Second, it is specifically concerned with historical scholarship. Third, despite being written in response to the horrific violence of Paris attacks, it contains no direct condemnation of terrorism. Each of these aspects of the letter offers insights into Khamenei’s leadership and the relationship between religion and politics in Iran.

For the most part, the supreme leader exercises power like other heads of state, having to pragmatically manage competition between political factions in order to keep Iran secure. But what makes the position unique is that the laws and structures of the Islamic Republic demand that the country’s supreme leader possess a very particular kind of training—namely that of a religious cleric, the Grand Ayatollah.

In Islam, as in the other Abrahamic faiths, becoming a religious leader requires a significant commitment to scholarship and regimented intellectual inquiry. It is common for senior clerics to have experience as authors or translators of numerous works of religious or even political philosophy.

So while Khamenei’s position as Supreme Leader requires him to lead in a political manner—for example, as Iran’s Commander-in-Chief, he is ultimately responsible for national security—his role as a Grand Ayatollah obligates him to also lead as both a spiritual model and an intellectual figure, and this means that in Iran the supreme leader commonly addresses youth in his writings and speeches.

Writing in his capacity as a thought leader, Khamenei’s letter focuses not on violence itself, but on the intellectual conditions that allow ideologies of violence to exist.

In fact, students of political science or critical theory will recognize that his letter echoes how Western academics’ analysis and response to violence and extremism. Khamenei’s evocation of the “fear of the ‘other’”—lurking in Western discourses about Islam—draws on the work of Edward Said in particular. And his reference to the “derogatory and offensive image-buildings” that “besiege [Western youth] within fabricated and mental borders” evokes the relationship between knowledge and structures of power prominently explored in the work of Michel Foucault.

Overall, Khamenei’s argument is that while Western “researchers and historians” who are “deeply ashamed” of their national histories have sought to reexamine the Western legacy of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism, their new “historiographies” have been “censured.” As a result, the “revision of collective conscience” has not been applied “to the current problems”—namely the poor “treatment of Islamic culture and thought.” In short, young people in the West are not empowered with the unbiased histories needed to break out of the cycle of fear, hatred, and violence.

This is an incredibly esoteric response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Rather than condemn extremism and violence directly, Khamenei concludes the letter by bizarrely imploring Western youth not to “miss the opportunity to gain proper, correct and unbiased understanding of Islam” and to then “write the history of this current interaction between Islam and the West with a clearer conscience and lesser resentment.” Instead of resisting violence, or embracing peace, Khamenei wishes youth to “write history.”

 To conclude on such note seems an intellectually arrogant response to the tragedy in Paris—and the actual threat of violence posed by radical Islamism.  

To conclude on such note seems an intellectually arrogant response to the tragedy in Paris—and the actual threat of violence posed by radical Islamism. But Khamenei wants Western youth to “write history” because he sees the conflict between the West and Islam not as an ideological conflict, based on fundamental incompatibility between values, but as an epistemological one. Khamenei argues that what Western youth know about Islam—and how they are taught a particular dogma—leads them to believe that conflict is inevitable. This is itself a kind of radicalization.

Iran has always had a complicated relationship with dogma, particularly because of the complex relationship between politics and religion forged in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Prior to the revolution, Iran struggled with its own dogmatic battles over its identity as a traditional Islamic society—and its emergence as a modern, Westernized oil economy. Aside from challenges like economic inequality and a lack of democracy, a major source of discord was the perceived ideological battle at the heart of Iranian society. How could Iran be both a country of miniskirts and mullahs?

Khamenei, his predecessor Khomeini, and the fellow ideologues of the Islamic Revolution experienced a great breakthrough when they realized that the conflict between a Western Iran and an Islamic Iran wasn’t ideological and inevitable. It was epistemological. In order to solve the conflict, the Islamic and leftist thinkers behind the Islamic Revolution actually formulated completely new, tailored-made ways of combining religion and modernity. The very notion of an “Islamic Republic” was one such invention.

This is why Khamenei is inclined to see the tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in this historiographical light and respond with this letter. For him, the attacks and the subsequent public outcry echo the conflict that existed within Iran prior to the revolution.

For decades in Iran—whether under the Shah or in the first years after the revolution—youth were taught that modernity and Islam were antithetical. But today the Islamic Republic has matured, and while cultural battles between reformists and traditionalists still remain, there is, at least, the moderating belief among most Iranians that a balance between Western culture and Islamic culture is achievable for Iranians—and that this balance can be learned through spiritual and intellectual inquiry alike.

Increasingly in Europe and North America, Western dogma and radical Islam are foils for one another and have been developed to serve reciprocal roles. Khamenei’s point, in explaining how since the “disintegration of the Soviet Union” the West has “sought to place [Islam] in the seat of a horrifying enemy” is to explain that the ideas behind Western values, to become politically potent dogma, need an antithesis in order to be constituted as a cohesive worldview. It is fair to say that Western youth are taught the dogma that freedom, equality, and brotherhood are uniquely Western values—and are such precisely because non-Western societies do not covet or protect these ideas.

Perhaps it is hypocritical for Khamenei to speak out against dogma—especially when Iran is far from a bastion of free speech. He writes, “I don’t insist that you accept my reading or any other reading of Islam.” Yet it seems obvious that he is self-aware of that contradiction, and therefore wrote the letter from the viewpoint of a scholar and not a state leader. Intellectuals are far better able to internalize and handle contradictions than politicians.

For those seeking to understand Iran and this letter, this is the ultimate message. In its embrace of an intellectual discourse, the letter can be insincere and genuine, hypocritical and forthright, incomplete and all encompassing. The same applies for Iran, a nation and culture of deep contradictions where even power is nuanced.

If Western youth are to write new histories, they ought to embrace and even live out such contradictions. As Edward Said wrote, we must “partake of many often contradictory experiences and domains, cross national boundaries, defy the police action of simple dogma and loud patriotism.”

However unlikely, Khamenei’s flawed letter is both the message and the model.

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