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Now in Paperback

January 25, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

The Mantle and the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, Roy Mottahedeh (Pantheon: $9.95). Supplementing American images of Iran--a beady-eyed dictator, a brutal war, American hostages--with a more intimate view of the Sufi and poetic heritage that helped Ayatollah Khomeini rise to power ranks among the more daunting of authorial tasks. Roy Mottahedeh has succeeded because of his inspired idea to write this book as if it were fiction, centering his plot around a narrative of self- and social discovery. At the center of this "novel" is Ali Hashemi, a pseudonym for a Moslem teacher who discovers, on the day of the 1979 revolution, that he is being saluted by the SAVAK police officers who had once bowed down only to "engineer so-and-so . . . in his spanking new European suit." Ali's greatest challenge that day is to walk in a dignified manner, projecting a responsible image to his students rather than running or jumping in joy.

And yet Ali has his doubts. His students hope that a return to the "true" Shia Islam will release Iran from the "shackles" of political and psychological subjugation to the West. Ali, however, knows that the small town of his early youth, with walled gardens and a tradition of learning maintained over generations, had already disappeared and could never return. What did the banners and the revolution mean then? Not everyone in this book is as uncertain as Ali. Iran's embattled present has torn up much of the consensus that once existed about the significance of Iran's past. Mottahedeh's decision to focus on Ali, however, remains sound, for the tensions in Ali's life roughly mirror the current struggle of many Iranians to reconcile the Aristotelian logic embodied in the Shia tradition with the more emotional reaction against Westernization and modernization that empowers Khomeini's orthodoxy.

Liberation Theology, Phillip Berryman (Pantheon: $6.95). The author's commitment to liberation theology was deepened after he saw Archbishop Oscar Romero speak against repression in El Salvador in 1980 and then learned, the next day, that the archbishop had been assassinated. Phillip Berryman's experience is representative of many in the movement, for grim realities in the Third World have been a driving force behind liberation theology since 18 Third World bishops met in 1967 to proclaim that "authentic socialism is Christianity lived to the full." The meeting took place in Brazil, where the figure of people suffering from hunger, disease and unemployment--70 million--is typical for developing countries. Despite this grim genesis, Berryman's book is lively and upbeat, energized with a hope shared by most liberation theologians that the movement will come to have the impact of the Protestant Reformation. The book is original for its demonstration that liberation theology and Marxism are not, as many Reagan advisers fear, inextricably interlinked. Said a 1980 blueprint issued by members of the Reagan circle, politically savvy for its realization that public criticism of church leaders would be counterproductive: U.S. policy "must begin to counter--not react against--liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America."

This is a work of reportage, not theological and political inquiry, though, and so the two principal concepts that motivate our support for, or coolness toward the movement-- freedom and faith --are not analyzed. In the merchant trade led by Spain and Portugal and backed by the Catholic church, freedom had been associated with the free market. And before the Protestant Reformation--a predecessor to liberation theology-- faith meant commitment to the Bible as the only source of infallible truth. Liberation theology has brought new definitions--and new problems, as the killing of Romero symbolizes. "What we did was help the peasants come to an awareness of their own dignity and worth," a priest tells Berryman, "and that's what the powerful can't forgive." Also now in paperback is Blase Bonpane's "Guerrillas of Peace" (South End Press: $8), a narrative about the author's separation from the Maryknoll priesthood and an argument for greater church activism in Central America.

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