August 24th, 2013
11:00 PM ET

How to understand Iran’s supreme leader

By Global Public Square staff

One of the most powerful leaders in the world once said this:

“Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is the best novel that has ever been written in history ... I have said over and over again, go read [it] once. Les Miserables is a book of sociology, a book of history, a book of criticism, a divine book, a book of love and feeling.”

Who said those words? It was not the president of France. In fact, it was not any Western leader at all. Those are the words of a man the West has come to perceive as a sworn enemy – Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah of Iran.

This revelation is part of an important essay in the new edition of Foreign Affairs, by the Iranian dissident and writer Akbar Ganji. It turns out Khamenei believes novels have given him a deep insight into the West. The Supreme Leader has read The Grapes of Wrath, as well as Uncle Tom's Cabin and many other books from around the world. Ganji's essay, entitled ‘Who is Ali Khamenei?’ provides fascinating insights into the most powerful man in Iran.

Remember, Khamenei has been in power in Iran since the beginning. When Iran had its revolution in 1979, and Iranians overthrew the American-backed Shah to found the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei was at the forefront. He became president in 1981, and then Supreme Leader in 1989, with full control over the military, executive, and judiciary.

Ganji's essay describes an Iranian leader who for much of his early career was deeply hostile toward the West and the United States.

The young Khamenei was first and foremost a scholar of Islam and its role in society. As Ganji points out, he was deeply influenced by the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was an Egyptian intellectual who was prominent in the Muslim Brotherhood. He was a prolific writer on Islam, but also wrote about America as a nation of unprincipled and imperialistic people. Khamenei has pointed out that Iran's democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh was not anti-American – in fact, it looked to America for support as it broke free of a colonial relationship with Great Britain. But the United States and Britain organized a coup against Mossadegh, 60 years ago this week actually. Then came the American-backed regime of the Shah, which for Khamenei was a Western implant on Iranian society.

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The books Khamenei likes are all critiques of Western society, for the way it has treated the poor or African Americans or native Americans. He does not, incidentally, seem to recognize the strength of a culture that criticizes itself – all these critiques of the West are by Westerners, who often gain great fame for these efforts.

In Ganji's portrait, Khamenei has softened somewhat in recent years. He has recently praised Western culture for its science, innovation, and even hard work. He still argues that Islam is superior because, in his view, Western culture is too focused on materialism. But he says that it, too, has its strengths and that Iran could learn from them.

Khamenei seems like a man who distrusts the West for reasons that have to do with his reading of history, his schooling in political Islam, and his own experiences in his country. On the other hand, the picture of him that emerges is of a clever, sophisticated, learned man, who does not seem prone to rash decisions or impulsive actions.

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Topics: Iran • What in the World?

soundoff (91 Responses)
  1. Isaac

    The west has generally moved away from combining the government with religious sects or organizations, and even philosophies, i.e. this is what is generally described as the separation of religion from the state, or "church from state," which is unlike what the Arab nations have been doing over the last 100 years.

    August 30, 2013 at 12:27 am | Reply
  2. joshua

    Forgot to mention how he calls for the complete destruction of western culture, and how he believes a worldwide nuclear holocaust will usher in the comming of the messianic immam and the rule of Islam to the world....by force..... quite sophisticated, in deed. It makes me sick how you want to make him look friendly to those very people he wants to murder. Disgusting.

    August 30, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  3. Brett Champion

    " It turns out Khamenei believes novels have given him a deep insight into the West."

    I hope he's reading the right kind of novels. Reading highly artistic of classic novels won't give you much insight into the West because most Westerners don't read those kinds of novels. If Khamenei wants to understand the West through its novels, then he'd better pick up some Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, and J. K. Rowling among others.

    August 30, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Reply
    • Giron Jesus

      Married with children,family man,the simpsons.

      September 8, 2013 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  4. Scott

    "The picture of him that emerges is of a clever, sophisticated, learned man, who does not seem prone to rash decisions or impulsive actions." What about a picture of a fanatical, genocidal, perverted dictator ?

    September 3, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  5. Abobakar Ibrahim

    If you want to have a glimpse at african culture in general, i say general because africans are the most diverse group of People within a People even genetically blacks in particular are diverse, read Chinua Achebe novels especially 'Things Fall Apart".

    September 4, 2013 at 10:25 am | Reply
  6. Sue C.

    In 1912 a clever, sophisticated and learned Persian visited the United States, and crossed the Nation in a train. He spoke about the need for peace and unity. Those who listened gain an understanding of the Baha'i Faith. That is an understanding that oficials in the U.S. ought to seek, if they want to end the human rights abuses in Iran that are conducted against the Baha'is.

    September 29, 2013 at 11:02 am | Reply
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