Televising Khomeini Introduction

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Televising Khomeini

In 1979 a political revolution took place in Iran: the Shah (king) was ousted and Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power. Iran was declared an Islamic state. The West was fascinated by the religious and political leader Khomeini; the bearded, quiet-spoken man clothed in traditional (shia) attire contributed to the formation of the stereotypical image of ‘the’ Islamic leader, a stereotype that nowadays also fits Osama bin Laden, for instance.

The Western perspective on Ayatollah Khomeini changed in a short period of time. Prior (1978) to the Revolution, he had been seen by Western (left wing) intellectuals as just and spiritual in contrast to the autocratic and brutal Shah. But once firmly in power this image changed dramatically: in Western opinion he now became a sinister figure who instigated crowds of people to revolt against the West and go to war with Iraq (where Saddam Hussein was in power). Between these extremes there was a short transitional period in early 1979 when a largely positive and a negative view collided in chaotic scenes from the liberated Iran.


How did television contribute to a change of the Western perspective of Ayatollah Khomeini? In 1978 Khomeini was represented as the opposite of the brutal Shah: he lived a sober life and seemed to reject personal power. From 1979 onwards the Shah was out of the picture; Khomeini was no longer placed in opposition to him, but was now related to the 'wild' crowds of people pictured in Iran. Khomeini therefore simultaneously personified discipline, remaining calm while at the same time instigating masses of people. By changing the context of Khomeini (from opposition to the Shah to association with wild crowds) television contributed to the changed Western perspective on this Islamic leader. That this perspective is ‘Western’ and not exclusive to one or a few countries becomes obvious when looking at the origins of the television material transmitted. This is because there was exchange of footage between different press bureaus and broadcasters. The Dutch NOS News, for example, used images from example the German ARD, British BBC and American CBS.


Khomeini in 1978

Before the Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini lived in exile in a small village in France. On news images he was seen in a characteristic manner: seated on the ground in a sparsely furnished room, dressed in a modest and religiously suitable dark attire, and speaking quietly but firmly. He answered questions from journalists calmly whilst keeping his eyes lowered. The house he lived in was so small that at times he received journalists in his garden. This image of Khomeini sharply contrasted with that of the Shah, who appeared to organize large parties, boasted extremely expensive military equipment, and was pictured flying his helicopter to Switzerland for lunch. All this while stories of torture and killings by Savak (the secret service of the Shah) were in circulation.

Khomeini at the beginning of 1979

Early in 1979 Khomeini returned to Iran. After 15 years of exile he was now the new leader after the Shah had been ousted. Television images started to portray Khomeini in a new context: he was no longer placed in opposition to the Shah, but amidst chaotic crowds of people. Although Khomeini appeared to stay extremely calm he was often seen amidst pictures of military men running up and down the streets, journalists jostling for position and groups of citizens that are seemingly uncontrolled. For a while the West had to let go of its normative view: during the short period of time in which Khomeini was shown on television in the context of chaos it was impossible to see him either in a positive (in opposition to the Shah) or negative (as in the period thereafter) light. This brief period marked a phase of transition from a largely positive to a very negative portrayal of Khomeini.

Khomeini since 1979

In the course of 1979 Khomeini was placed in a new context. Instead of being related in opposition to the Shah he was now associated with 'wild' crowds of people. No longer was Khomeini viewed as a leader in close relation to his people; he was now portrayed as the master of mobilised crowds. ‘His’ people were not pictured as individuals as groups only. And these groups were represented as ‘wild’, characterised by clenched fists, crying and screaming. Television therefore depicted Ayatollah Khomeini as the leader who instigated crowds whilst remaining extremely calm himself. Khomeini was seen as the puppeteer who mades the puppets ‘dance’.


There were three stages in the Western (television) perspective on Ayatollah Khomeini. Before the Revolution he was largely seen as positive because he, as a just and spiritual leader, was placed in opposition to the brutal and decadent Shah. The early days of 1979 marked a transitional phase: the Shah fell away as antagonist and Khomeini was now associated with chaotic groups of people. Finally, this was replaced by the longest stage: Khomeini was depicted as the leader and instigator of mass crowds.

In their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso: 1985) Ernesto Laclau and Chantalle Mouffe provide an explanation for how opinions in societies are able (and bound to) change: they demonstrate that a change in opinion occurs when there is a change in the context of a subject. While Khomeini was first contextualised in opposition to the Shah (‘A in relation to B'), he was thereafter related to mobilised crowds of people ('A in relation to C’). As the Shah (‘B’) was seen as negative by many Western intellectuals, that which is placed in opposition to him (i.e. ‘A’) is judged (partly) positively. When Khomeini was portrayed as the puppeteer of ‘wild’ crowds of people (‘C’) he was, culturally speaking, positioned differently; this led to a change in opinion from (partly) positive to negative. Obviously he was also associated with a range of other aspects (religion, the West, Saddam Hussain etc.) during this entire period, but the above indicates how television can contribute to a dramatic altering of perspective on a religious and political leader.


Rob Leurs

Utrecht University

Further reading

Kamalipour, Y. (ed; 1997) The U.S. media and the Middle East, (Praeger:


Laclau, E. en Ch. Mouffe (1985) Hegemony and socialist strategy.

Towards a radical democratic politics, (Verso: London).

Said, E. (1997) Covering Islam. How the media and the experts determine

how we see the rest of the world. Revised edition, (Vintage: New York).

Shohat, E. en R. Stam (1994) Unthinking Eurocentrism. Multiculturalism

and the media, (Routledge: New York).

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