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Twenty-seven years ago the Danish historian and former Trotskyist, Torben Hansen was an excited eyewitness to the Iranian Revolution. Today he accuses the European and American Left of having learned nothing from Islamic barbarism
I usually try to avoid interviewing people who I know relatively well, but I have made an exception in the case of Torben Hansen, historian and co-author of the much discussed book, I krigens hus: Islams kolonisering af Vesten by Brix, Hansen and Hedegaard ("The House of War: Islam's Colonization of the West"). The reason is that in January of 1980, Torben Hansen, a Trotskyist and correspondent for the revolutionary Danish weekly newspaper, The Class Struggle, was one of the very few westerners who took advantage of the opportunity to follow the daily events around the occupied American embassy in Tehran. He was also one of the few eyewitnesses to the bloody battles between the Iranian left-wing groups and Khomeini's fascist street fighters.
Torben Hansen's story from a Tehran which was undergoing catastrophic changes is also the story of a Left that would neither distance itself from nor analyse the Islamic barbarism and is still unwilling to do so.
Those present at the interview also included the historian, journalist and President of Free Press Society, Lars Hedegaard, another former Trotskyist who had also written for The Class Struggle under the pseudonym Knud Hansen, as well as the actor and commentator Farshad Kholghi. Kholghi first met Torben Hansen in the middle 80s at the now torn-down Hotel Viking in central Copenhagen. Kholghi was housed there as a refugee from Iran together with his mother. One day, the group of Iranians living there made mention of a Dane who spoke Persian who was visiting the hotel. That man was Torben Hansen, who had first learned Persian in Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, in tea-houses, in the small hotels where he stayed, in conversations with overnight desk clerks, students, Communists, workers, and others. And who finally reached Teheran in January 1980 after a long and difficult trip via Cyprus, Israel, Turkey and Syria.
"It didn't go as planned", Torben Hansen explains. "I had just arrived in Turkish Kurdistan and was to cross the border to Iran, but I couldn't. It was the winter of 79 and Khomeini's Revolutionary Guard was busy cutting the throats of Azerbaijani separatists. Two provinces were under martial law and the border between Turkey and Iran was closed. Miles of trucks blocked the roads. I was sitting there in the cold and could not proceed. So I got on a train and went back to Copenhagen."
Taking the cheapest possible flight from Copenhagen to Iran via Moscow, Torben Hansen eventually landed in Tehran.
"There was no need for a visa. It had been less than a year since 'the old man' (Ayatollah Khomeini) had returned and a year since the Shah (Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi) had fled the country. There was a great deal of freedom of expression as well as freedom of association and I could walk around and talk with all sorts of people. There was not yet the massive suppression that was to come. I had a few addresses, among them one for the Trotskyist party that would eventually fragment. The majority of the Iranian Trotskyists with whom I was to speak had lived in the United States."
Kholghi also remembers this brief period as "a fantastic time. There was hope, free speech blossomed and the various groups debated on the university grounds." But Kholghi and his family were also aware of the street fights taking place between various rival groups.
It was during this period that Abolhassan Banisadr was appointed President of Iran. The first Prime Minister following the Shah's downfall was Mahdi Bazarghan, who was later forced to resign when the Khomeini wing of the Islamic Republican Party, claimed he had collaborated with the "spies" in the American Embassy. The same fate befell Banisadr a bit later in 1980 when he was forced to flee the country after being accused of setting himself up as a new kind of shah. Today these people would be considered as "useful idiots" for the Khomeini wing of the party and as with the French Revolution, the Iranian Revolution was beginning to devour its own children.
The Iran in which Hansen arrived contained a number of rival groups – not least on the Left: for example, Tudeh, the Iranian Communist party, Fedayin-e-Khalq (the People's Fighters), an offshoot of Tudeh that especially attracted the young, and, not least, Mujahidin-e-Khalq, the People's Warriors, whose ideology can be characterized as a mix of Islamism and socialism. Even today, naive Westerners see these groups as a democratic alternative to the mullahs in Tehran although ordinary Iranians hate them for their brutality. But Hansen was excited about the revolution.
"To my mind, the simple fact that they hated America was almost enough to justify a revolution. If imperialism's power could be broken, it would pave the way for a new agenda. This is a central point in communism."
These groups, that had stood with Khomeini to topple the Shah, were actually in opposition to Khomeini's Islamic Republican Party of Khomeini which won the election in March of 1980 by means of violence and electoral fraud. They were also in opposition to Hizbollah, i.e., God's Party. Hizbollah's attacks on demonstrators had already begun, but the position of many, including Torben Hansen's Trotskyist contacts, was that it was just a question of time before the trouble makers were defeated. Neither Torben Hansen nor the Iranian Left saw any tangible connections between Khomeini and the religious fascists on the street who did not hesitate to beat, maim and kill people.
"Khomeini appeared aloof. Huge billboards everywhere in Tehran depicted him in noble blue with a fine white beard. No one back then understood or expressed the idea it was he who was primarily responsible for the street terror."
Khomeini had flown in from his Paris exile with Air France. Iranians in general knew that he had written some books about God or something, but no one had read them. From those books, it is clear that the ayatollahs, those who had insight into sharia, were to control the government. To the outside world, Khomeini promised freedom, democracy and pluralism; this would soon be revealed as a typical example of taqqiya, i.e., the phenomenon that Muslims are permitted to lie in the service of Islam.
Even people on the Iranian Left had a certain amount of respect for Khomeini, Hansen explains, because the Revolution's Imam lived in a two-room flat and his wife served him boiled rice. A little and humble man, in contrast to the opulent shah, whose relatives had lined their pockets. People might have thought that Khomeini was a bit dumb and pious, but not that he was corrupt. And as Hansen explains it, it was corruption that everyone was concerned about.
"It is noteworthy how ill equipped I was to find out what I was facing. A Leninist is unable to understand the patrimonial state where the entire society belongs to the ruler. From his perspective the state is tantamount to the rule of capital. The police and the army are simply ruled by the banks, and the legislative, administrative and judicial branches of government are nothing but errand boys for the local Rockefellers. It was simply impossible to imagine that a shah or a sultan could own everything and everyone, both the believers and non-believers."
Torben Hansen emphasizes that for him there is a huge difference between the European socialism of the 19th century and the Russian madness that emerged during World War I. Clearly, Marx was a liar and a swindler, but there is a large gap between what Marx set in motion and inspired in Europe and that which Lenin stood for. For example, Marx expressed his appreciation of the French and British colonization of Algeria and India, respectively, because it was a logical step towards progress. Marx was possessed by the notion of progress through a sequence of well-defined steps. First came the stone age, then slave societies, feudalism, capitalism and finally socialism and communism. As Hansen expresses it, this notion of a step-wise progression "collapsed with Lenin and Trotsky".
In articles written for The Class Struggle, Hansen described Islam as a "Persian philosophy of rebellion". In one article, he listed the various reasons why Khomeini's idea of an Islamic republic could never be realized. One of them was that "[T]he great majority of both the working masses and the activists from groups like the Mujahidin" meant "Socialist upheaval" when they said "Islamic revolution". Hansen also wrote that the punishments prescribed by sharia law such as cutting off of hands for theft would never be accepted in Iran; but as we now know, that was exactly what happened.
According to Torben Hansen, Khomeini had learned his revolutionary methodology from the Communists, and even before his return to Iran, he had a network of lieutenants who worked for him and set up contacts with exiled Iranians. Khomeini's ground troops were to a large extent men from the rural districts who had come to Tehran during the construction boom in the 70s to take the unskilled jobs. These were men who were not used to other men looking at their wives as happened in the big city. The only people who listened to these men and paid attention to them were the mullahs, who used that opportunity to explain that their women ought to be covered and stay at home. The other group that made up Khomeini's ground troops were the students and liberals from the nicer parts of Tehran.
In February 1980. the revolutionary left-wing group Fedayin-e-Khalq arranged an outdoor meeting in the vicinity of Tehran's memorial for the Iranian monarchy. Khomeini's followers showed up to throw stones and the Fedayin counterattacked. And just as was the case with the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, a minority began to exert its power over the majority through systematic terror. During the Russian Revolution, political parties other than the ruling one were not forbidden until 1918. In Iran, this happened at the end of 1980 after Khomeini's faction had destroyed all opposition. Armed with knives, chains, clubs, razor blades, bottles of acid (for uncovered women) and matches (for arson), Hizbollah had smashed any opposition from the liberals to the Marxists and the Trotskyists.
Hansen's hotel in Tehran was close to the American Embassy. Teheran is situated on a hillside with the rich living near the top and the poor at the bottom behind the train station. Old Tehran is located near the centre of town with a bazaar and the public buildings. In the northern part of town were three huge embassies, the British, the Russian, and the American.
Outside the wall of the American Embassy were people belonging to the group that had occupied the embassy. They called themselves "The students who follow the line of the Imam". They were sitting behind tables from where they handed out small pamphlets and handbills detailing their claims of spying from the embassy. They played revolutionary music and drank tea.
"Just about every day during the weeks I was in Tehran, I went down to the sidewalk in front of the embassy and talked with people there. I then went over to the university to talk with people there. They were very interested in this Westerner who came and discussed things with them. The embassy occupiers said they were students, but they looked more like members of the lower class. And members of the lower class do not become students in Iran."
There were very few Westerners and few journalists in the city. A Turkish journalist at the hotel, hippies on their way home from India, stranded Koreans who were looking for work and didn't seem to quite understand that a revolution had taken place. Filipinos, people from India, but almost no Westerners.
In The Class Struggle Torben Hansen wrote an article about the embassy occupation, that was to one of the lengthiest hostage crises since World War II. The title of the article was "Secret documents from the US nest of spies in Tehran".
The documents given to Hansen by "the students" convinced him that there was absolutely no reason to pity the hostages. The American Embassy had been an awful nest of spies infiltrated by the CIA and bent on re-surrecting a regime made up of America's Iranian friends. Hansen described the American President, Jimmy Carter, who in reality had no idea how to deal with the situation affair, as the brutal instigator of a conspiracy. Hansen compared the Iranian situation to conditions in Denmark during the German occupation in World War II: "As Dagmarhus [the headquarters of the German police, ed.] in Copenhagen was the hated symbol of those five accursed years of German occupation, the embassy is the symbol of 25 years of brutal occupation and genocide."
In Farshad Kholghi's Bahai family no one would believe at first that the embassy had been seized. Later his family thought: "good, now the US will come and liberate us".
Lars Hedegaard experienced the repercussions from the embassy occupation in Los Angeles, where he lived and worked as an editor for five years. A militant Iranian student demonstration in the spring of 1980 near the campus of the University of California got people's attention. Here Hedegaard saw for the first time large numbers of women wearing head scarves. The demonstrators, who were enjoying America's hospitality, yelled "down with Shah". They obviously were not conversant with the use of the definite article. Every night there were discussions on television between Americans and Iranians: What was happening in Iran?
Today Torben Hansen is not in doubt that the embassy occupation was planned in detail.
"As whether it was Khomeini himself or some highly placed helper who was actually pulling the strings behind the scenes, I don't know, but today I have no doubt that it was carefully planned. At that time I perceived it as a conflict between those occupying the embassy on the one side and the Islamic party and Khomeini on the other."
In his articles Hansen described the war against Iraq, that was to a certain degree provoked by Khomeini to mobilize Iraq's Shia Muslims, under headlines like "Iran's workers and peasants determined to fight on". The article talked about "an army of 20 million ]who would come[ to the defence of Iran's Revolution", which Hansen claimed was more popular than ever.
For Kholghi, reality was different. He remembers the pictures of bodies that were hung up in the hallways of the school together with a picture of a cut-off foot. Each day began with chants of death to the USA, Israel, the West and the Soviet Union after which a half-hour was devoted to praising Khomeini and the war, singing of revolutionary songs and lauding the dead martyrs. The Revolution and the nation had become one.
Fourteen year-old boys often want to become heroes so many from Kholghi's school volunteered for armed service. But there were also children who were kidnapped and taken to the front where they were used as mine-detectors. Here they were equipped with a gift from Khomeini. a white plastic key. The key to Paradise.
The second day he was in Teheran, Hansen struck up a conversation with a young man from the Fedayin organization. Its heroes were Mao and Che Guevara. The Fedayin were thought of as "sexy", as Kholghi remembers, and stood for "sunglasses and the hammer and sickle". The young man, who came from northern Iran, worked in a bank and invited Hansen home for dinner.
"I saw a hand that came from behind a door to serve the food. It belonged to his sister. I never saw anything else of her. His father had ordered her to Teheran to cook for her brother. And the brother wouldn't even introduce his sister, she simply served a bowl of rice for us. What a progressive young man!"
But the Iranian women Torben Hansen spoke with were not worried. They has often been to the US to study or they had been exiled there. They thought that women's liberation was also taking place in Iran and that oppression of women was the fault of capitalism.
"Once imperialism was removed, capitalism would follow: it was just that easy! I wasn't in Iran long enough to follow up on this, but there were some nasty attacks on female demonstrators in the spring of 1980. I would have liked to discuss this with the women with whom I had spoken."
In April 1980, Torben Hansen participated in a demonstration with millions of others on the Boulevard of the Revolution and the University of Teheran. It was a celebration of President Carter's decision to expel the personnel from the Iranian Embassy in Washington. "Happiness, pride, defiance, solidarity with the other victims of US imperialism, and the will to continue the revolution", wrote Hansen about the demonstration. He also mentioned the military parade with the many columns of women: "In several of the columns, the marchers wore burial clothes – a symbol of their will to fight to the death."
Torben Hansen: "I assumed that it was just part of the culture. I thought that it would be gone next year and we wouldn't have to worry about that sort of silly play-acting any longer. This notion was confirmed in the milieu I was frequenting in Iran for there I met virtually no real Muslims. They drank vodka and there were bars. Of course they were later destroyed. The belief was that religion shouldn't be taken seriously. To be sure there were some mullahs but religion would soon be a thing of the past."
But already in January, the former bank employee from the Fedayin had invited Hansen to a large demonstration. The demonstrators met up west of Tehran, near the airport, where there was a monument glorifying the Persian monarchy. A modern, white construct of concrete designed by an architect who belonged to the Bahai faith that would be so bitterly persecuted after Khomeini came to power. Next to the monument was a large stadium and here a great meeting took place with about 20,000 participants. There were speeches and praising of one of the Fedayin heroes who had been executed under the shah.
Suddenly a smaller group from Hizbollah showed up. They wanted to fight even though there were no more than 1000 of them. They lined up on the other side of the road and began breaking up large flagstones and using them to attack the demonstrators. A young girl was hit. She didn't get up.
"The Fedayin took up sticks to fight the Hizbollah. The police came but there were no more than 50 officers. They positioned themselves between the two groups. The policemen were simply smashed by Hizbollah. It was so awful that I thought that someone higher up in the system must have decided this. As far as I could tell, one of the policemen was killed. But we thought that Hizbollah were the extremists, we didn't know that Khomeini was behind these events."
A couple of days before, Hizbollah had stood outside the university. Inside a leader from the Fedayin gave a speech. Hizbollah dared not enter and had to be satisfied with ranting "there is only one party, God's party, and that is us, Hizbollah."
In 1982, Torben Hansen, as well as Lars Hedegaard, left the Trotskyists. Already in the fall of 1980, the European and American Trotskyists argued about what had happened in Iran. The Europeans thought that things had gone too far with the mullahs and Khomeini, but the American Trotskyists, then as now, supported the government of the mullahs. As Hedegaard puts it, the Trotskyists and the Left in general have basically misjudged every significant event of the last 50 years.
Before Torben Hansen broke with Trotskyism, he managed to demonstrate against the US in front of the American Embassy in Copenhagen together with the leader of the Socialist People's Party, Gert Petersen. The occasion was that the US had attempted to free its hostages from the embassy in Teheran! In front of 500 demonstrators, Torben Hansen spoke of his commitment to the struggle of farmers and workers in Iran. "I yelled 'marg bar - Amrika' or 'death to America' in Persian. Those words came to mind on 9/11."
In the summer of 2005 Torben Hansen was again at the American Embassy. This time he participated in a small demonstration in support of President Bush's Visit. That same day in front of the embassy, he was met by a much larger group of demonstrators from the Left who came to show their disgust and hate for President Bush. The speakers were various personalities of the Left including the Danish-Egyptian stand-up comic, Omar Marzouk. Shaking his head, Hansen recalls a young man on TV excitedly telling how he had demonstrated together with women in burkhas and head scarves. He also shakes his head at Leftists who point to the US and Israel as the primary enemy and sympathize with Islamic terrorism, and who still accepts the same slogans that Hansen once believed were true. A Left that cooperates with the Islamists in demonstrations, human rights groups, political parties and much more. But he is not surprised.
"It has to do with what communism is. What happens inside one's head when one is a communist? Communism is a belief, it is reductionist. The world is explained by a principle and the world's salvation is explained by another principle. In that sense, various socialist groups are still communists who think that all evil is due to private property and capitalism. This way of thinking also influences some of the Social Democrats."
Hansen also sees a direct parallel between the beginnings of the Iranian Revolution in the influence exerted by the powerful mullahs over the poor rural workers who came to the city, and the power that the imams in Europe increasingly exert over Europe's unintegrated Muslims. Clearly the Islamic militias that ravaged the French suburbs were organized and structured like the militias that tyrannized the Iranian population during the build-up to the revolution. Khomeini's revolution is still the model.
"Khomeini set an agenda that we will not be rid of for many years. It began with Khomeini. And the Left has learned nothing."
Translation: Jim Muchow