Howard Baskerville

Princeton’s friend of the Iranian people

Reza Aslan’s flawed account is better than nothing

Books Magazine

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville, Reza Aslan (W. W. Norton, $30)

Given the fact that Iran has always occupied some measure of media attention in the Anglophone world even before the Islamic Republic made it into a pariah state, it is odd that most politically-minded members of the public or even of the academic classes know little of the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906. This may have to do with the oft-repeated myths of Iranian modernity, which to a great extent were propagated by the last shah.

In its most basic form, this story of Iran’s emergence as a modern nation starts with the collapse of the morally and politically bankrupt Qajar dynasty (1796–1925). Qajar had abnegated its guardianship of the country, which was humiliated by Western powers and fast crumbling until its salvation by the soldier-king Reza Shah. From 1925–1941, his Pahlavi dynasty brought prosperity to a nation which emerged as a fast-rising newcomer to the company of great nations until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The merits of this not wholly inaccurate view may be debated elsewhere, but its great error is that it simplifies the political complexities of the closing years of the Qajars, who, for all their political ham-fistedness, presided over a great flowering of Persian arts and productive cultural engagement with the outside world.

Reza Aslan’s An American Martyr in Persia telescopes the story of this remarkable period in Iranian history through the experiences of the Princeton-educated Howard Baskerville, who arrived in what was then the “Sublime State of Persia” in 1907 and taught history in a Presbyterian missionary school in the northern city of Tabriz.

Baskerville defied the objections of fellow missionaries

His arrival coincided with the fallout from the promulgation of the Persian Constitution by the late Muzaffar ed-Din Shah, whose son Mohammad Ali (lacking the charisma of his Egyptian and American namesakes) made open war on parliament with the backing of Russian advisers and his own Persian Cossack Brigade. In 1908, the pro-shah forces began an 11-month siege of Tabriz, a centre of constitutional support run by its own anjoman (roughly akin to a commune). This resulted in great hardship and famine, which sufficiently moved the young American idealist to interest himself in the constitutional cause.

As the siege intensified, Baskerville defied the objections of fellow missionaries and the local US consul to join the constitutional fighters, eventually receiving a fatal bullet to the chest during the defence of the city in April 1909. That few Westerners, particularly Americans, know much of this American who helped Iran in the time of her first modern fight for freedom, is a great lacuna that Aslan rightly seeks to address.

Aslan is known mainly to American television viewers of a certain class as a talking head on CNN and on Real Time with Bill Maher. With his knack for a facile turn of phrase, unthreatening views and ingratiating grin, he is the natural denizen for the sort of mainstream programmes that pass for intelligent discourse in a country whose political commentary mainly lies with the lowest common denominator.

Accordingly, his book is written in the casual style which, alas, has taken over even historical writing in America. This means the occasional lapse into irritating habits, such as switching between the first and second person in an attempt to make the material accessible (note: it doesn’t). Likewise, he introduces irrelevancies presumably calculated to appeal to the short attention span of middlebrow Americans (why readers require a struggle-session early on in the book on Woodrow Wilson’s racism is anyone’s guess, unless this sort of thing is now de rigueur for anything vaguely humanistic to pass a board of supervisors).

There is also a pervading carelessness with history and terminology (“English” parliament and the odd romanisation of Persian names, among others). More jarring is his bizarre peroration in the closing pages, where he dismisses Iran’s final two Pahlavi rulers as murderous dictators, makes no distinction between them and the Islamic Republic founded by Ayatollah Khomeini, a diabolical figure comparable to Hitler and Stalin, and then informs us that Iranian freedom has never been achieved because, as he puts it, “the country remains, to this day, a pawn in the hands of global powers”. So much, then, for Iranian-American friendship as manifested in the bright-eyed Mr Baskerville.

Tehran mural depicting Sheikh Fazlollah Noori, who opposed the Constitutional Revolution

Positively confusing and inexcusable is Aslan’s insistence on seeing the Persian constitutional movement through an Islamic lens without much evidence beyond his cavalier dependence on authorial fiat. Early on he asserts without source that the Constitutional Revolution’s “fundamental goal was to marry traditional Islamic principles with modern concepts such as individual rights and popular sovereignty. He even tries to demonstrate that Muslim Shia clerics were somehow a pillar of the movement.

Oddly, he later disproves his own theory when it becomes clear that the mullahs were, then as now, mercenaries all too happy to throw the cause of freedom under the bus when it served their antediluvian purposes. His tiresome avoidance of the great Islamic elephant in the room should come as no great surprise, given his intellectual and religious journey — a rare convert back to Shia Islam from Christianity, Aslan gained a PhD in 2009 from the University of California with his dissertation Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: a Theoretical Framework.

Aslan is certainly not one to let the dry complexities of truth get in the way of a good story. Fortunately, the tale of a young American dying for the freedom of Iranians is a compelling and even necessary one considering current events. It is written for a country whose general apathy toward and ignorance of the Middle East is truly the stuff of legend. For them, he has written it well. Interspersed throughout the text are lines of Persian poetry in fairly anodyne English, blending nicely with Aslan’s fine touch for local colour.

For all his flaws and inconsistencies, Aslan has managed to speak directly and relatively well, which is more than can be said for most humanities scholars of Middle East Studies, who tend to occupy themselves in internecine disputes with little mainstream relevance.

Though he is someone who wears his Iranian background rather lightly whilst sycophantically playing the role of an acceptable American Muslim (blissfully omitting that a good many modern Iranians see themselves in opposition to the active practice of the Islamic faith), Reza Aslan seems to have belatedly discovered the meaning of a pair of lines by the poet Saadi with which he opens his work: “A scholar without action/is a tree without fruit.” This meaningful fruit, however green, is better than nothing.

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