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ANALYSIS: The personality cult of Ruhollah Khomeini

Tony Duheaume

Published: Updated:

Being a dominant ruler in the Middle East has dictated the mindset of Iranian leaders since ancient times, which needed them to constantly prove their prowess in battle. So with his 1979 Islamic Revolution fully in place, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini went about updating this old-style brand of personality cult.

In a bid to promote adulation among the masses by other means, he is said to have reinvented the use of the personality cult to bring about hero worship from those who had swept him to power, through the utilization of a religious premise.

Where ancient leaders had portrayed themselves to the masses as dashing warriors, Khomeini had replaced it with the role of a religious supremo. It was through portraying himself as a pious religious leader, who was committed to bringing about the fair distribution of wealth in Iran, and ending oppression, he had managed to unite a group of disparate political movements to join his cause, and fight alongside him in the revolution.

As their leader, he promised empowerment for the people, by sweeping away the longstanding elitist rule of Shah Pahlavi, but in the end, all of this just led to prove how deceitful a leader Khomeini could be.

State run by clerics

From the moment Khomeini had landed at Tehran Airport, his plans were already in place for his perceived “Government of God”, in which he had envisaged an Islamic state run by clerics.

Then, with him sitting at the helm, taking on the roll of law maker, they would decide what policies were acceptably Islamic, to ensure that all institutions within the country would be run in accordance with Shiite doctrine, while the people themselves would be forced to adhere to the draconian dogma of their religious state at all times.

Not only was Ruhollah Khomeini an accomplished religious leader, with a solid background as a foremost scholar in Shiite Islam, he also became an astute politician. Managing to manipulate the masses, the populace soon began to revere him as “God’s Representative” on earth, and his administration as “God’s government”.

As far as Khomeini was concerned, any disobedience against him, or one of his clerics, would be considered a “revolt against God” and dissidents arrested for voicing their opinion would often be charged with the vague crimes of Moharibih – “waging war against God” and Mufsid-fil-Arz – “sowing corruption on earth”, in most cases they would end up being executed.

To legitimize his theory of divine rule, velayat-e faqih, he ordered his clerics to instigate laws sanctioning revolutionary Islam, and introduced the role of Supreme Leader, who in his eyes would be acting as a spiritual caretaker, ruling “God’s government” until the Shiite’s messiah, known as the Twelfth Imam, would reappear to his flock in the End Times.

But to enable him to do so, Khomeini needed to build up a solid persona of “God’s representative on earth”, coming across as a godlike figure at all times, whose every word would be sacrosanct.

Then, at the end of the revolution, with his position secure, he was always seen in public as a stern leader, and would go about strengthening the personality cult built around him, by a constant barrage of anti-US rants in public. Khomeini rebuked any form of military aid, insuring that he always came across as a strong leader who could not be manipulated by outside forces.

Then just to cement this austere persona he had constructed, any past photographs of him seen smiling, were quickly withdrawn from circulation. But a personality cult alone would not keep him in power, as time went by; he needed to recapture the full will of the people to insure the stability of his government.

With their enthusiasm for the revolution certain to fade, it would be imperative his followers continued to embrace their revolutionary zeal, in order to keep them wholeheartedly behind both him and his revolutionary administration, and for this, he needed to take a step back into times past.

Iraqi pro-government forces hold a poster bearing a portrait of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as they take part in a parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Baghdad, on July 1, 2016. (AFP)
Iraqi pro-government forces hold a poster bearing a portrait of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as they take part in a parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Baghdad, on July 1, 2016. (AFP)

The art of brainwashing

Persian history held the key to not just keeping his followers loyal, but also a code to be adapted for modern warfare, combining religious fanaticism and self-sacrifice. As Khomeini knew only too well, through decades of studying various forms literature, when it came to the art of brainwashing followers to keep hold of their devotion, or learning about the virtues of asymmetric warfare, there was none better than a man known as Hassan, son of Sabah, “Master of the Mountains.”

It was in tenth century Iran, Hasan came to prominence as the founder of the infamous Shiite cult group the Assassins, his mission in life was to protect his people from hostile forces. Even with a relatively small army of followers, with his mind fixed on becoming a great warrior, and world domination, Hasan decided to perfect the art of asymmetric warfare (unconventional strategies and tactics), using methods of mind control to keep his subordinates in line.

The first step in the initiation of new followers, came in the form of filling the students mind with doubt about all around him, and with all of his devotees isolated in the mountains, far away from the influence of the outside world. Hasan pumped their minds full of his own brand of theological doctrine, and brainwashed them using the the type of techniques used by modern religious cults.

In Hasan’s time, to weaken a force larger than your own, assassinating the enemy’s leaders with a poisoned-tipped dagger was the order of the day, and with this taking place on enemy territory in broad daylight, often in very crowded places, the assassins carrying out these operations, were most certainly taking part in a suicide mission.

But not only this, during some of these missions, the victim wasn’t always murdered, some would be assaulted by a group of the assassins who would make threats against them, and waving their weapons about, they scared both their victim, and any others that were gathered around them.

Climate of fear

Such assaults were designed to instil a climate of fear in enemy territory, Hasan’s men were experts at executing these specialized covert operations, and to carry them out, the assassins had to assimilate themselves into towns and areas where their victims resided. With this being the case, Hasan needed some way of persuading his followers to take part in these deadly suicide missions, some form of inducement to embolden them to volunteer.

It was Hasan who came up with the original scheme of using heaven as an inducement for self-sacrifice. By convincing his followers through brainwashing techniques, which were enhanced by hashish, Hasan is said to have managed to persuade them that by sacrificing themselves for their master, they would immediately enter paradise.

Drugging potential martyrs, Hasan had his lieutenants drag them to his concealed valley, convincing them after they had come round from their drugged state, they had just witnessed the paradise they would enter for eternity, should they die dutifully doing his bidding.

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