When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979, ending his exile just as the Shah was beginning his, he came as the victor of a 16-year war between the turban and the crown. Khomeini himself had fired the war’s first shots on June 3, 1963, in an attack on the Shah for sins of every description, not least Iran’s cooperative relations with Israel. “Is the Shah an Israeli?” Khomeini asked, adding that the monarch was an “infidel Jew.” The royal response was not long in coming. Khomeini was promptly hauled off to prison, and on June 5 (the 15th of the Persian month of Khordad), following riots across Iran protesting Khomeini’s arrest, the Shah’s men scattered the crowds with gunfire. The suppression of the protests left the ayatollah to conclude, “Israel does not wish the Qur’an to exist in this country.” Iranian history would remember the “15th of Khordad Uprising” as setting in motion the wheel of revolution that would complete its circuit in 1979.
Before Khomeini was sent into 15 years of exile (from which he could agitate against the Shah under much less scrutiny), he was released from prison to a half-year of house arrest. Confined to his simple quarters in the holy city of Qom, he pressed on in his fight against the Shah while receiving many admiring visitors. Among those who came to pay tribute was Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Iran’s preeminent intellectual in the 1960s. Though a slack Muslim himself whose daily round was more likely to include vodka than prayer, Al-e Ahmad had launched the fateful search for Islamic authenticity in Iranian society in the 1960s with his 1962 pamphlet Gharbzadegi, or “Westoxification.” A “holy book for several generations of Iranian intellectuals” in one scholar’s appraisal, Gharbzadegi contends that Iranians who had embraced the West had become “strangers to themselves,” being at once unfaithful Iranians and sham Westerners. Worse yet, these Iranians were not just fraudulent but, as the title Westoxification indicates, they were diseased. All was not lost, though, because their disease had a cure: If the West was the toxin with which Iranians had poisoned themselves, Islam was the antidote.
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