January 5th, 2011
01:19 PM ET

My Take: The Shah's Son and the Contagion of Suicide

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

News of the suicide of Alireza Pahlavi, son of the former shah of Iran, took me back this morning to my first year of college and the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

A member of the shah's royal family was in my entering class, and one of my best friends was from the Iranian capital of Tehran. So I got to see the personal side of what seemed to many Americans to be a matter of faraway import—that is, until the taking of American hostages in November of that year.

As a historian, I tend to view revolutions in geopolitical terms. And as a historian of religions, I tend to focus on their religious implications—how the American Revolution transformed Anglicans from market leaders to niche players in the U.S. spiritual marketplace, and how the Iranian Revolution signaled not only the global resurgence of fundamentalism but also the demise of the sociological (not-so) truism that the modern world was rapidly secularizing.

But revolutions are personal, too. Pahlavi’s sister, Leila Pahlavi, overdosed in a London hotel room in an apparent suicide in 2001. And according to his family's web site, Pahlavi succumbed to “great sorrow,” brought on in part by “all the ills fallen upon his beloved homeland, as well as carrying the burden of losing a father and a sister in his young life.”

My college friend struggled with his own sorrows, including the efforts (some successful, others decidedly not) of his family members to adjust to life in the United States after leaving behind their lives in Iran. So with revolutions, too, the political is personal.

The poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht reminded me recently that suicides come in bunches. “One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide,” she says. “That means that every suicide is also a delayed homicide.”

So while the aftereffects of Iranian Revolution may have prodded Pahlavi to turn a gun on himself, the suicide of his sister is an even more probable cause.

After living through the suicides of two friends, Hecht wrote a powerful piece "On Suicide" that argues, on entirely secular grounds, against the taking of one's own life. I wish Pahlavi had read it, and his sister before him.

It ends like this:

Some part of you doesn’t want to end it all, and I’m talking to her or him, to that part of you. I’m throwing you a rope, you don’t have to explain it to the monster in you, just tell the monster it can do whatever it wants, but not that. Later we’ll get rid of the monster, for now just hang on to the rope. I know that this means a struggle from one second to the next, let alone one day at a time. Know that the rest of us know that among the faces we have met there are some right now who can barely take another minute of the pain and uncertainty. And we are in the room with you, going from one moment to the next, in whatever condition you manage to do it. . . .

There are poets and other artists, psychotherapists and average Joes, who are thinking of your struggle and appreciating what you have managed to put up with. We are grateful. . . . Don’t kill yourself. Suffer here with us instead. We need you with us, we have not forgotten you, you are our hero. Stay.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Death • Ethics • Iran • Opinion

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Maziar

    Gun shot to the head can easily be a faked suicide. Without an authenticated suicide note, we shall never know for certain. His passion for Iranian history, sports and social nature does not make him a suicide candidate either.
    His family may have been told to go along with the official story.

    January 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  2. Reality

    And maybe this son of a shah could have been saved by simply reading and following:

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) alone."

    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

    Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    January 5, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  3. Reality

    Once a day WARNING for new commentators:

    • The moderators of this blog have set up a secret forbidden word filter which unfortunately not only will delete or put your comment in the dreaded "waiting for moderation" category but also will do the same to words having fragments of these words. For example, "t-it" is in the set but the filter will also pick up words like Hitt-ite, t-itle, beati-tude, practi-tioner and const-tution. Then there words like "an-al" thereby flagging words like an-alysis and "c-um" flagging acc-umulate or doc-ument. And there is also "r-a-pe", “a-pe” and “gra-pe”, "s-ex", and "hom-ose-xual". You would think that the moderators would have corrected this by now considering the number of times this has been commented on but they have not. To be safe, I typically add hyphens in any word that said filter might judge "of-fensive".

    • More than one web address will also activate “waiting for moderation”. Make sure the web address does not have any forbidden word or fragment.

    Sum Dude routinely updates the list of forbidden words/fragments.

    Two of the most filtered words are those containing the fragments "t-it" and "c-um". To quickly check your comments for these fragments, click on "Edit" on the Tool Bar and then "Find" on the menu. Add a fragment (without hyphens) one at a time in the "Find" slot and the offending fragment will be highlighted in your comments before you hit the Post button. Hyphenate the fragment(s) and then hit Post. And remember more than one full web address will also gain a "Waiting for Moderation".

    January 5, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
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