Imam Khomeini passed away on June 3, 1989 after successfully leading the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Khalil Osman looks at his personality and leadership qualities.
No revolution is possible without a revolutionary leadership. In any revolutionary situation, leaders play a crucial role in inspiring and guiding the struggle toward the assertion and realization of revolutionary change. The presence of a charismatic leader at the forefront of the revolutionary struggle, who rallies the aspirations of the discontented masses, is central to the generation of enthusiastic and loyal support for the revolutionary movement.
Charisma is often translated into authority when the masses accept the revolutionary leader’s unique historical mission and ‘manifest destiny.’ The extraordinary qualities of the revolutionary leader are also important ingredients of his authority in the post-revolutionary period which is usually characterized by an arduous struggle for the legitimation, institutionalization and consolidation of the revolutionary political order.
The triumph of the Islamic revolution in Iran, which culminated in the ouster of the Shah in February 1979 and the subsequent laying down of the foundations of the Islamic Republic, owed a great deal to the leadership qualities of the late Imam Khomeini. The Imam possessed all the qualities and accomplishments required to endear him to the Muslim masses of Iran as an authentic hero in the Islamic tradition: exceptional personal integrity and unselfishness in lifestyle, the will and ability to be a strong leader, incredible courage and steadfastness in the face of great odds and hardships, an unusual capacity for stoic endurance and establishing empathy with the suffering of the oppressed and downtrodden in society, and extraordinary and spellbinding communication and oratorical skills.
The emergence of Imam Khomeini as the undisputed leader of the Islamic revolutionary movement in Iran derived mainly from his unique personal qualities. His spartan, ascetic lifestyle which eschewed worldly luxuries had always been a reproach to the extravagance and greed of the corrupt, absolutist and luxury-living Pahlavis.
Of austere tastes, Imam Khomeini lived a modest and frugal life both before and after the revolution, eating simple food, wearing plain clothes, sleeping on the floor, and assiduously performing the nightly prayers (salat al-layl) and Qur’an recitation sessions day in, day out without fail to the end of his life.
Rare as this disposition is among the powerful both in the Muslim world and elsewhere, it is not surprising that he was widely respected as a leader of integrity. His austere lifestyle symbolized both the denial of crass worldliness and the affirmation of social justice and egalitarianism.
Another cornerstone of Imam Khomeini’s revolutionary leadership was his ability and charisma to unite the disparate opposition to the established order around the highest demands: putting an end to monarchic despotism and to dependency on the west. In achieving this he maintained his finger on the pulse of the people, skillfully gauging the latent moods and dispositions prevailing among the Iranian masses who loathed the authoritarian Pahlavis. As such, he never wavered in his relentless exposure of the regime as an edifice of tyranny and a puppet of foreign powers.
Following his release from prison in August 1963, Imam Khomeini gave a speech in which he issued a fatwa forbidding any compromise with the government and declaring that ‘silence at this time is to confirm the despotic rule and it is to aid the enemies of Islam.’ He also made it incumbent upon the ulama ‘to make efforts to keep the shari’ah alive’ and to declare their ‘hatred against the traitor government.’ Despite the cruelty and intensity of government repression, he persisted in his total rejection of the monarchist regime and of any form of ‘recycling’ it through a constitutional reform, insisting that the Shah could neither reign nor rule.
But there is more to effective leadership than the mere traits of decisiveness, perseverance and personal integrity. In fact, the most important quality of Imam Khomeini’s leadership lies in his ability to mobilize the resources and skills of the Iranian masses towards the attainment of the desired revolutionary change. In this regard he displayed remarkable organizational skills and ability to utilize alternative modes of communication with the masses in the face of the total monopoly of political power and domination of the media by the Pahlavi regime.
In order to maintain contact with the natural source of strength of the revolutionary movement, i.e. the people, Imam Khomeini made use of an existing complex web of religious institutions, centered around mosques and madrasas. These institutions provided an effective medium of public communication to influence the formation of public opinion. Under his guidance, skillful organizational techniques were utilized by a network of revolutionary ulama in order to employ these institutions in mobilizing mass meetings and demonstrations. Hence, these institutions became the nuclei of an extensive grass-roots movement throughout the country.
Denied any form of freedom of speech or access to the mass media, Imam Khomeini utilised the ‘small media’ to communicate his message and elude restrictions imposed by the regime. From his exile in the Iraqi city of Najaf and later in Paris, he sent messages through audiotapes and telephone to Iran. These were later copied by the thousands and distributed all over the country. In many instances, his speeches were also transcribed and copied for mass distribution.
Imam Khomeini’s speeches were worded in a language specifically designed to communicate simply and meaningfully with the wider segments of society. He kept his message simple, direct and free of non-Islamic interferences, consistently telling his followers that the Pahlavi dynasty must go and that they must get ready to unseat the Shah. In many ways, Imam Khomeini’s success in leading the revolution to its triumphant conclusion hinged on his ingenious ability to combine the ‘small media’ - mainly the direct-dial telephone, the photocopier, and audiotape technology - with indigenous communications systems. This ability also contributed greatly to the fact that his message of independence, freedom and Islamic Republic became a unifying element in the revolution.
The leadership qualities of the late Imam Khomeini furnish a historic model for revolutionary praxis that will continue to inspire and guide the struggle of the Islamic movement in the future. Only through a continuous process of probing and reflection on his leadership could the rich lessons of his legacy be unearthed, understood and imbibed.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1998