Recently Jimmy Carter was on television, denouncing President Bush’s policies in Iraq. I find this highly ironic, because Jimmy Carter and his liberal advisers helped the Ayatollah Khomeini to come to power in Iran a quarter of a century ago. Thus they gave radical Islam control of its first major state. How this happened is worth recalling, because from Carter’s failure there’s a valuable lesson to be learned in Iraq.
Islamic radicals have been around since the 1920s, but for decades they were outsiders even in the Muslim countries. One of their leading theoreticians, Sayyid Qutb, argued that radical Muslims could not just promulgate theories and have meetings; they must seek to realize the Islamic state “in a concrete form.” What was needed, he wrote, was “to initiate the movement of Islamic revival in some Muslim country.” Once the radicals controlled a state, he suggested, they could then use it as a beachhead for launching the takeover of other Muslim countries.
In 1979, Qutb’s goal was achieved when the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran. The importance of the Khomeini revolution is that it demonstrated the viability of the Islamic theocracy in the modern age. And to this day post-Khomeini Iran provides a viable model of what the Islamic radicals hope to achieve throughout the Muslim world.
Khomeini also popularized the idea of America as a “great Satan.” Before Khomeini, no Muslim head of state had said this about America. Khomeini was also the first Muslim leader in the modern era to advocate violence as a religious duty and to give special place to martyrdom. Since Khomeini, Islamic radicalism has continued to attract aspiring martyrs ready to confront the Great Satan. In this sense, the seeds of 9/11 were sown a quarter of a century ago when Khomeini came to power.
Khomeini’s ascent to power was aided by the policies of Jimmy Carter and his allies on the political left. Carter was elected president in 1976 by stressing his support for human rights. From the time he took office, the left contrasted Carter’s rights doctrine with the Shah’s practices. The left denounced the Shah as a vicious and corrupt dictator, highlighting and in some cases magnifying his misdeeds. Left-leaning officials such as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, UN envoy Andrew Young, and State Department human rights officer Patricia Derian pressed Carter to sever America’s longstanding alliance with the Shah. Eventually Carter came to agree with his liberal advisers that he could not in good conscience support the Shah.