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‘Happy Birthday, Hamid Algar’ — Khomeini’s Favorite American Turns 80

A woman holds a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during a ceremony to mark the 18th anniversary of his death in the Behesht Zahra cemetery south of Tehran in 2007. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)
The Berkeley professor has made a career of glorifying the indefensible.

Hamid Algar turns 80 years old this year. For 45 years (1965–2010) he used his position as professor of Persian and Islamic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, to celebrate the “genius” of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, denounce American foreign policy, and spread lies and conspiracy theories about Israel.

For most of those years, Algar squandered his rhetorical talents as head cheerleader for the Iranian Revolution, promoting it as “the greatest event of contemporary Islamic history” and sanitizing the image of its monstrous leader, Khomeini. A British-born convert to Shia Islam, Algar met with Khomeini on numerous occasions, both before the Revolution, in Paris, and after it, in Tehran.

Algar has translated and authored numerous books and more than 100 articles in the Encyclopedia Iranica. But while his skills as a linguist in multiple languages are widely respected, his political advocacy disguised as scholarship is underappreciated and insufficiently known.

His one widely publicized brush with controversy came in 1998 when he spat on a group of Armenian Student Association members on campus and told them that genocide never occurred. An investigation concluded with a slap on the wrist (the university did not condone his conduct but would not stifle his free speech etc.) but also motivated the Associated Students of UC Berkeley to pass a resolution, “A Bill against Hate Speech and in Support of Reprimand for Prof. Hamid Algar,” in 1999.

Far more important to Algar’s legacy is the attention he brought to Iran’s most virulent anti-American, anti-Western thinkers, especially his beloved “Imam” Khomeini. In 1981, with Islam and Revolution, Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, he brought to the world its first extensive collection of Khomeini’s writing translated into English. In addition to selecting, translating, and commenting on the writings, Algar in the brief introduction praised Khomeini for his “unique set of characteristics: spirituality and erudition, asceticism and self-discipline, sobriety and determination, political genius and leadership, compassion for the poor and deprived, and a relentless hatred of oppression and imperialism.” On the back cover, Algar put a photograph of himself kneeling next to a seated Khomeini. It was dated December 23, 1979 (day 50 of the 444-day ordeal for 52 Americans working in the U.S. embassy during Algar’s wonderful revolution).

Algar also wrote panegyrics to Ali Shariati, the Marxist-Islamist theoretician of martyrdom, in a number of lectures and books. He lauded Shariati for “preparing a large number of the younger educated class in Iran to accept and follow with devotion and courage the leadership given by Imam Khomeini.” Algar once boasted that he “did not accept the invitation” to brief an American ambassador to Iran on Shariati’s thought and work.

Jalal Ali Ahmad, the novelist whose 1962 treatise Gharbzadagi (variously translated as “Westoxication” or “Occidentosis”) became one of the foundational documents of the anti-shah movement, was another darling of Hamid Algar’s. In the introduction that Algar wrote to R. Campbell’s translation of Gharbzadagi, he credits Ahmad as the man who “discovered the disease of gharbzadagi, ‘occidentosis,’ . . . an important and fundamental truth concerning his society — its disastrous subordination to the West in all areas.”

The phenomenon of Western intellectuals running propaganda for fascist, Communist, or totalitarian regimes is unfortunately all too common. Martin Heidegger and Noam Chomsky come to mind. But while Algar shares Heidegger’s aversion to modernism and Chomsky’s hatred of the United States, he most closely resembles the French postmodernist critic Michel Foucault, another Westerner who enthusiastically promoted the Iranian Revolution and glorified Khomeini as “the old saint in exile in Paris.”

Foucault, like Heidegger, equated the modern, material, mechanical world with oppression, and his answer was a “spiritual politics.” Ignorant of Islam, he found it a convenient tool to beat against modernism. Algar’s answer was Islamism, and he knew that Khomeini’s Islam was not a revolutionary vehicle to be cast aside. “It was precisely in the Imam’s vision of Islam as a seamless whole, with the inner and the outer, the spiritual and the political, closely interwoven, that his genius lay,” Algar wrote in 2001.

The problem for a Shia Muslim is the doctrine of the hidden imam (who disappeared in a.d. 941): Until he returns to the physical plane, no form of earthly government is just. When asked in 1979 how a Shia should navigate the choice of “either leaving the political field altogether and waiting for the reappearance of the Imam on the physical plane or . . . devising a system that is the least imperfect,” Algar pointed to “what Imam Khomeini describes in his book as the vilayat [governance] of the scholar.”

In 1999, Algar complained that “no serious, comprehensive biography” of Khomeini has been written, but by then he had been writing about Khomeini’s life for years. In 1988, he contributed a chapter titled “Imam Khomeini, 1902–1962: The Pre-Revolutionary Years” to a book about Islam and politics, and in 1999 he wrote the more extensive Imam Khomeini: A Short Biography, for Al-Islam.org. But before any of these attempts, Algar was already working as Khomeini’s propaganda accomplice and biographical mythologizer.

In the summer of 1979 he delivered a series of four lectures to the Muslim Institute in London, at the invitation of the Institute’s director, Kalim Siddiqui, who recorded and transcribed the four lectures and published them as what would become one of Algar’s most influential books. Versions appeared in numerous languages throughout the Muslim world: Iran, Indonesia, Turkey, Bengal. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps even published a version in Persian. Algar finally decided to publish the lectures in English under the title Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (2001), adding footnotes and more paeans to the revolution (“the greatest event of contemporary Islamic history”) and Khomeini (“the greatest mujahid of the present day”). Algar lays it on heavy: “Anyone who has come into the presence of Imam Khomeini has realized that this man is a kind of embodiment of the human ideal, . . . exercising a combination of moral intellectual, political, and spiritual reality.”

One of the major concerns of every shah-despising leftist who enthusiastically greeted the revolution was the question of how women would fare in the new Iran. Algar never seems to have shared this unease, nor has he ever expressed much interest in equality. He dismisses outright the shah’s reforms known as the White Revolution (“the only white thing about it was that it was conceived in the White House”) and argues that “Iranian women found their emancipation not through any measures decreed by the [Pahlavi] regime but on the contrary in struggling against the regime, in suffering abuse, torture, imprisonment, and martyrdom at the hands of the regime.”

Algar has always downplayed militant Islam’s misogynistic qualities. When an audience member questioned him about Kate Millet’s “mission to Iran” to speak at the International Women’s Day demonstrations in Tehran on March 8, 1979, Algar was abrupt: “I have had no communication with Kate Millet. I do not know what she thought her mission in Iran was.” Then he went on to declare that the chador was merely “a recommendation . . . directed at women in government service”; the protesters “parading through the streets led by Kate Millet calling for women’s emancipation” were “dressed in the latest fashions and had dyed their hair, which in the context is of significance. It shows a certain kind of self-hatred.” How did this guy teach for 45 years at Berkeley without being called out by the feminists on campus?

In his zeal to promote the revolution and defame its detractors, Algar has shown himself willing to believe and spread conspiracy theories. For example, when a group called Forqan began assassinating revolutionaries in 1979, Algar blamed the U.S. The historian Ervand Abrahamian calls Forqan “a small religious group convinced that ‘reactionary clerics,’ wealthy bazaaris and ‘liberal politicians,’ not to mention ‘Marxist atheists,’ [who] were plotting to betray the Islamic Revolution.” Algar says that “it has been credibly asserted in Iran that this Furqan group is transparently a creation of the CIA and of the United States.”

During the final years of the shah’s reign, the Islamist opposition to movie theaters led to dozens of arson attacks. On August 19, 1978, the doors of the Rex Cinema in Abadan were chained shut and the theater set ablaze, killing some 420 by asphyxiation. Algar insists that the shah’s forces were the arsonists.

Algar’s best conspiracy work has to do with the Black Friday “Massacre” of September 8, 1978, widely regarded as a turning point in the revolution. Accounts differ as to the number killed. A University of Chicago exhibition in 2011 listed the number dead as “dozens.” PBS puts it at “hundreds.” Khomeini, from exile in Najaf, claimed that 4,000 were killed, and he blamed Israel. No serious scholar believes Khomeini, except of course Hamid Algar, who not only accepted but embellished the story: “On that occasion it was said that Israeli troops had participated in the work of massacre,” he claims. “According to certain eyewitnesses of the event,” Algar loosely assures his audience, some Iranian troops refused to shoot Iranians, so “fresh troops dressed in Iranian uniforms,” who “spoke a language other than Persian and had an unkempt look, long beards and a semihippy appearance” were brought in to do the shooting.  Covering his tracks, he writes, “Whether that precise accusation be true, the fact that it was circulated and widely believed is an indication of the perception of the Iranian people of the deep involvement of Israel in the repressive apparatus and policies of the Shah.”

Hamid Algar, like all his heroes — Khomeini, Shariati, Ahmad — believes that Shia Islam is the ultimate source of justice against tyrannical rule. Like them, he portrays the enemies of justice as monarchs and dynasties, beginning with Yazid (who killed Hussein Ali in a.d. 680) and continuing in a nonstop line of tyrants (Safavid, Qajar, Pahlavi, British, American) bent on dominating and subjugating the Iranian people. But as well-versed in Persian poetry as he is, Algar seems unfamiliar with the work of William Blake, a fellow Brit who died 113 years before Algar’s birth.

In Blake’s political mythology, a character named Orc who is the spirit of rebellion, righteous indignation, and energy rises up periodically to fight unjust tyrants. Once Orc has defeated the oppressive despot, he rules briefly but gradually becomes a despot himself, spawning the next Orc figure who will eventually rise to defeat him, and so on. All of history, Blake implies, is a perpetual reiteration of this pattern, the “Orc cycle.”

Hamid Algar has never contemplated that whatever righteousness his heroes may have embodied in their opposition to the shah, they inspired a tyrannical, despotic dynasty that is every bit as bad as the one they deposed — worses actually.

“Nothing we could have done to you in our wildest dreams is half as bad as what you’ve done to yourselves,” Dick Morefield, the U.S. embassy consul in Tehran held hostage for 444 days, once said to his captors. “Your children and grandchildren are going to curse your name.”

They should also curse the name Hamid Algar.

A. J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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