Transcendent Truths: On Reza Aslan’s “An American Martyr in Persia”
By Matthew MullinsMarch 26, 2023
An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville by Reza Aslan
Howard Baskerville, a Presbyterian from South Dakota, gave his life for the cause of the Persian Constitutional Revolution on April 19, 1909, in defiance of orders from both the United States government and the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. But this defiance signaled neither an abandonment of his American identity nor a renunciation of his Christian faith. Rather, in Aslan’s account, Baskerville’s decision to fight for the Persian people embodied the young Christian’s commitment to the universal values at which all religious and political endeavors ultimately aim—or what I would call Reza Aslan’s transcendent truth.
Aslan’s choice of hero is no accident. For decades, the tension between Iran and the United States has been an exemplar of Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations.” If Aslan’s spiritual vision is, in fact, expansive enough to reconcile such antagonistic adversaries, then surely it represents a pluralism powerful enough to warrant political attention. And so, Aslan claims that he has written this book because he believes “every American and every Iranian should know the name Howard Baskerville, and that name should be a reminder of all the two peoples hold in common.” In the course of telling Baskerville’s story, Aslan examines the complex tensions between religion and politics that created a crisis of conscience for the missionary and which continue to play a significant role today in both avowedly religious and secular nations alike.
Even as Iran has witnessed a renewed protest movement in recent months following the death of a young woman in the custody of the country’s morality police, the United States has experienced a resurgence of Christian-inflected nationalism, such as that on display during the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Many of these rioters believed they had a divine mandate to return the nation to its Christian roots. Must the faithful abandon their religion in the public square? Is religious pluralism truly possible? Must one tradition always be dominant? Is religion necessarily an obstacle to liberal politics, or can it be a doorway? These are some of the questions Aslan seeks to answer by telling Baskerville’s story, a tale that begins in South Dakota and ends in Tabriz.
Fewer than 100 miles separate Tabriz from Urmia in the northwestern corner of Persia—known since the 1930s as Iran. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this region of the country was home to two thriving movements: a democratic revolution and an American evangelical mission. Aslan spends the first part of his book sketching brief backgrounds of these movements, alongside an account of Baskerville’s early life that focuses on his years at Princeton University under the tutelage of Woodrow Wilson.
Aslan situates the Persian Constitutional Revolution both as the first of its kind “in any Muslim majority state” and as one among many waves of revolutions rolling around the world at the time, including most notably the Russian Revolution of 1905. In short, Persia had splintered into royalist and nationalist factions, the former supporting the shah, and the latter supporting democratic reform through the establishment of a constitution and a parliament. Russia plays an important role throughout the book as Aslan details the geopolitical entanglements, especially between Russia and Great Britain, that contribute to the strife in Persia. After experiencing the shockwaves of revolution in his own country, Russian tzar Nicholas Romanov advised the shah to discourage the Persian democratic experiment. At the same time, England and Russia had reached an agreement regarding how they would divide their interests in Persia’s natural resources … without consulting Persia. Political upheaval and an unruly populace were not in either nation’s plans. Russia threw its full support and many resources behind the royalists. Meanwhile, Great Britain adopted a policy of noninterference.
The American missionaries in Persia also took a neutral position. The founders of the West Persia Mission, who arrived in the region in 1834, had been successful for many years because of their tireless commitment to education and care for their Persian neighbors. They had cultivated real respect for the mission among the people of the region. Samuel Wilson, head of the American Memorial School when Baskerville arrived in 1907, had built “a reputation in Tabriz as a trusted figure, a man beholden to no one, in favor of no faction.” This political detachment fit neatly with the evangelical form of Christianity that had launched the mission work in west Persia. A bequest of the Second Great Awakening that swept much of New England and beyond in a frenzy of religious conversion, American evangelicalism has historically been preoccupied with individual salvation and personal piety. Thus, the missionaries were not in Persia to spread democracy; they were not even there to proselytize Persia’s Muslim population, a political powder keg if there ever was one. They were there, paradoxically, to convert the existing Christian communities in the region, which “were thought by Americans to be misguided and unsaved. Their rituals were primitive and obsolete, their beliefs peppered with ‘superstitions.’” The mission was thus indirect: the Americans would show the various Christian communities of Persia the evangelical way of faith and pray that the newly converted would, in turn, proselytize their Muslim neighbors.
Adam H. Becker tackles this paradox in his outstanding 2015 study Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism. Though he focuses mostly on Urmia and a specific Christian sect, Becker’s assessment of the liberal secularism in which American evangelicalism has always been entrenched is immediately relevant to Aslan’s account. Becker analyzes American evangelicalism as an example of religion in its distinctly secular, modern form—that is, as one dimension of an individual’s life that can be separated from others such as ethnicity, nationality, class status, and so on.
A vital adaptation in the development of liberal democracies, the modern concept of religion allows the individual or community to hold tight to their faith while joining in common political work with members of other faith communities, even when those communities avow antithetical beliefs and practices. But what Becker notes is that this liberal secular concept of religion emerges out of the religiopolitical formations of Western Christendom. And so, one complex problem at the heart of understanding American evangelicals in Persia is articulating the extent to which their commitments to individual salvation and personal piety are always already vehicles for a secular liberal politics.
The liberalism humming in the background of American evangelicalism is central to Baskerville’s personal formation during his years at Princeton. There, he studied under popular professor, and future president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Aslan repeatedly emphasizes Wilson’s influence on Baskerville, noting that the young student took two classes with the future president and that their respective tenures at Princeton overlapped at a crucial moment when the seeds of Wilson’s thinking about the global need for American-style democracy were beginning to germinate. What will become perhaps most important in this regard is Wilson’s view that “[p]olitics was no mere civic duty; it was a religious obligation.”
Aslan calls this a “fusing of politics and piety, the belief that our obligations to each other are indistinguishable from our obligation to God, the conviction that popular sovereignty is a divine mandate over all lands at all times.” With these pieces in place, Aslan has set the stage to play out the drama of the Persian Constitutional Revolution in the second part of his book.
In part two, Aslan’s focus shifts from Baskerville and the Christian missions in Persia, to the immediate historical background of the conflict between the royalists and the nationalists. Aslan writes with clarity and command in this section, and by the end I felt as if I understood the basic plot points and stakes in the Constitutional Revolution. It became clear why Tabriz would present a young American missionary with the opportunity to put his Wilsonian Christian faith into action by joining the revolution.
Though no world-historical phenomenon is ever reducible to a single event, the Persian Constitutional Revolution can reasonably be said to begin with a misstep by the Persian ruler, Nasir ad-Din Shah, in 1890. The shah granted a monopoly over Persian tobacco production, purchase, sale, and distribution to a British company. The only beneficiary of the deal in Persia was the shah himself, and the British company was exempted from customs and fees. The Persian people rebelled. Even the ayatollahs supported the protestors. The shah backed down and canceled the deal, an even worse economic decision but a political necessity. Six years later, the shah was assassinated, and his son, Muzaffar ad-Din, became shah. It was Muzaffar ad-Din Shah who, faced with the mess left to him by his father, would give in to cries for reform and sign a Persian constitution and parliament into law just before his death. His son, Mohammed Ali, then became shah and, listening to his Russian advisers, attempted to undo the democratic reforms accomplished under his father’s failing rule. Mohammed Ali Shah wanted to abolish the constitution and dissolve parliament. He attempted to do so early in his reign, only to go back on his decision, thus weakening his power to negotiate.
It is at this point in history that Howard Baskerville entered Persia, as the “revolutionaries, smelling blood, were becoming bolder in their calls for the shah to abdicate his throne. Peasants were refusing to pay their rents. Workers were going on strike with impunity. The anjomans [local governing boards] were ignoring direct orders from the crown.” As Baskerville took to the lectern at the American Memorial School in Tabriz, the shah and the revolutionaries were working tirelessly to accomplish their opposing agendas.
Aslan brings us to the moment of Baskerville’s decision to enter the conflict, near the end of part two, with the death of Hassan Sharifzadeh. Hassan had been a student at the American Memorial School and, later, a teacher. He was the intellectual force of the revolution, in Aslan’s telling, and a close friend to Baskerville. Killed amid dissension among the revolutionaries, Hassan’s death coincides with a great victory by the nationalist military leader, Sattar Khan. “The People’s Commander,” as Sattar Khan was known, was motivated as much by resentment for the regime and a life lived in poverty as by political ideals. Though he had never been an overly pious man, he was transformed by a pilgrimage to the shrine of the prophet’s son-in-law in Najaf and thereafter quickly rose through the ranks of the fledgling revolutionary forces. In fact, part two—the longest section of the book—almost reads more like a biography of Sattar Khan than of Baskerville. The Presbyterian missionary practically becomes a bit player in the story of Sattar Khan and the Constitutional Revolution. But when the nationalists retake a significant part of the city under Sattar Khan and the cause claims Hassan’s life, Aslan insists that not only had Tabriz changed but “[s]o had Howard Baskerville.”
Part three tracks the short period of time from Baskerville’s decision to insert himself into the nationalist cause up to his death for that cause on April 20, 1909. Against the express wishes of the American Mission and the orders of the US government, Baskerville joined the nationalist force and worked directly under Sattar Khan. He was repeatedly warned to turn back from this course of action. The general secretary of the Presbyterian mission board, Robert Speer, described Baskerville’s intervention in politics as a betrayal of his Christian duties. Emissaries of the US government, former friends like consul William Doty, threatened him with charges of treason.
Aslan maintains that Baskerville did not join the revolution despite his religious convictions and his national identity but because of them: “Baskerville had not abandoned his American identity. On the contrary, this was him exerting it. He had not renounced his faith; this was him putting it into practice.” His sacrifice was not in vain, in other words, or at least it was made for a cause that did experience some immediate and surprising success. The shah would be removed from his throne by July, and, in November 1909, with the new parliament in session, elections were held in Persia.
These reforms would eventually be walked back. Aslan gives provides a brief overview of Persia’s transformation into modern-day Iran in the book’s epilogue, up through the 1979 revolution and its aftermath, complete with justifiable jabs at how the interests of the United States in the region have often worked against democracy. What has been missing amid these modern geopolitical developments, Aslan implies, are figures like Baskerville, people who value freedom and self-determination above all other interests.
Though the flame of the Constitutional Revolution may have finally been extinguished, Aslan concludes:
Whatever else was achieved by the multiracial, multilingual, multireligious coalition that forced Mohammed Ali Shah from his throne, that remarkable success set the precedent for the exercise of people power in Iran, creating one of the most robust protest cultures in the world. And if this vibrant people’s movement has yet to achieve the freedom that all Iranians deserve—despite three revolutions and countless strikes, uprisings, and street demonstrations—it is not because the people are too weak or the government too strong. It is because the country remains, to this day, a pawn in the hands of global powers.
Aslan insists that a remnant survives in Iran today, a remnant “[d]riven by the same belief that led Tabriz to victory against the shah” and which lines up perfectly with Aslan’s own foundational beliefs: “that they should be free to act and think without coercion; that they should have a say in the decisions that rule their lives.” But there is a knot in this line. Aslan wants us all to follow the example of Baskerville, which, to his way of thinking, would be to accept that all religions ultimately point toward a universal set of values organized around freedom and self-determination. Baskerville did not abandon his Christian faith, according to Aslan; rather, the young missionary saw his tradition as a path toward a set of universal truths that transcend any given tradition.
As he argues in his 2005 book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, religion is “an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors (read rituals and myths) that provides a common language with which a community of faith can share with each other their numinous encounter with the Divine Presence.” The error of the fundamentalist (of whatever persuasion) is to mistake their story of faith for faith itself. The primary obstacle to Aslan’s mission, then, is that there are so many fundamentalists of so many varieties. Another knot is that Aslan’s transcendent truth entails a distinctively liberal and secularized vision of religion, one that simultaneously insists that adherents be able to keep their convictions in the private sphere even as they act for the common good because of those convictions. This vision—at least in the form that motivated Baskerville—is inseparable from the religiopolitical history of Western Christendom, which conceives of values such as freedom and self-determination from within the prisms of imperialism, racial capitalism, and stadial theory.
But this is precisely what makes Baskerville such an important figure for Aslan. Although by all accounts Baskerville goes to his tragic and untimely death committed to the work of converting Muslims and wayward Christians to true Christianity, he chooses to fight for their rights to freedom and self-determination anyway. Whatever we might call this higher commitment for which Baskerville gave his life, Reza Aslan presents it as almost a universal or true religion behind all religions, the truth that transcends all other truths.
Matthew Mullins is the author of Postmodernism in Pieces: Materializing the Social in US Fiction (Oxford, 2016). His essays and reviews have appeared in American Book Review, Arizona Quarterly, First Things, SubStance, and other venues. You can follow him on Twitter @MullinsMattR.
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