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Smokers' corner: Revisiting the Iranian revolution

Updated February 17, 2019


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Eleventh February, 2019, marked the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The revolution is also remembered as an “Islamic revolution” by some historians. But was it?

Not according to celebrated American journalist and author Mark Bowden. In a November 18, 2009 piece for the Wall Street Journal, Bowden wrote that “the movement which ousted the Shah dictatorship was primarily a nationalist one.” He added that many of those who took part in the commotion “were not motivated by the desire to establish a theocracy, but a desire to cast off authoritarianism.”

Bowden is not the only prominent writer to hold this view. This assessment first emerged in 1982 in the book Iran Since the Revolution, written by the late professor of politics Sepehr Zabih. Writing just three years after the revolution, Zabih pointed out that the revolution was driven by a wide coalition of anti-Shah forces which included democrats, liberals, secular-nationalists, communists, socialists and “Islamists.” According to Zabih, after the Shah dictatorship collapsed in January 1979, there was a “power grab” among the various groups that had worked in unison during the revolution.

Did post-modernism romanticise a complex grand-narrative?

However, some historians continued to explain the revolution as “Islamic”. While dealing with the immediate pre-revolution scenario, however, even they agree that multiple forces advocating a diverse range of ideologies were involved during the upheaval. They agree upon the point that Iran’s senior religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini was the most widely accepted figure of authority during the revolution — even by those who hold the claim that the clergy hijacked the revolution.

But foreign affairs expert Robin Wright in her book The Last Great Revolution writes that even though many secular, liberal and even some leftist forces agreed to accept Khomeini as the revolution’s central figure, they did so to keep the movement intact and, more so, because they believed Khomeini did not have any overt political ambitions.

Just before leaving for Tehran from Paris (where he had been in exile) Khomeini told the French daily Le Monde that it was not his intent to make religious leaders run the government. What’s more, as Bowden notes in his 2006 book Guests of the Ayatollah, on his return to Iran after the Shah’s fall, the Ayatollah retired to his home in Qom after agreeing to form an interim set-up of “secular technocrats” led by the anti-Shah “liberal-democrat” Mehdi Bazargan.

According to Wright, just a year after the revolution, Khomeini decreed that no cleric was allowed to run in Iran’s first post-revolution elections in 1980, even though he had already declared Iran to be an Islamic republic. A centre-right liberal, Syed Banisadar, won the election, attracting 75.6 percent of the popular vote.

The candidate of the Islamic Republican Party, which was pushing for an entirely theocratic set-up, bagged just 3.35 percent. But by 1981 Khomeini was being hassled by the clerics to dismiss Banisadar “because he was acting against the clergy.” In June 1981, after realising that he had lost Khomeini’s backing, Banisadar managed to escape abroad.

Political scientist John Limbert, in his book Iran: At War With History, writes that Iran was ravaged by violence between various groups that had taken part in the revolution. After Banisadar’s escape, the nationalist and liberal groups were systematically eliminated by pro-Khomeini Islamic militias. The leftist outfits picked up arms to push back the influence of the clerics. But after ordering a purge in Iran’s universities which had been hotbeds of leftist student agitation during the revolution, the emerging Islamic regime went all out against the leftists.

By December 1983, the pro-Khomeini Islamic Republican Party had managed to grab absolute power and turn Iran into a theocracy. The irony of it all is that many clerics were some of the last to join the movement against the Shah.

One important commentator of the revolution who called it Islamic was the famous post-modernist French philosopher Michel Foucault. But in the book Foucault and the Iran Revolution, Jennet Afary and K.B. Anderson write that, in his “post-modernist” pursuit of challenging the idea of “materialistic” rationales, Foucault fell for “the seductions of militant Islam.” They write that, in his search for “political spirituality”, he ended up romanticising an idea which was totalitarian in nature.

It was Foucault’s romanticised reading of the Iranian revolution which made most post-modernists claim that Iran’s revolution was “unique” in the context of 20th century revolutions because it was religious in character. But since post-modernism often gets caught up in attacking grand narratives as an end product alone, it often fails to investigate the more complex historicity of events and forces which are present beneath the meta-narratives.

For example, to Foucault, in an era of communist revolutions, the Iranian revolution was unique because it was driven by “political spirituality.” This was a naïve account. The Iranian Revolution actually unfolded like most 20th-century revolutions did — different forces holding differing (even opposing) ideologies coming together to uproot a common enemy and then competing with each other in a grab for power.

Had the post-modernists bothered to look beneath the meta-narratives of 20th century revolutions, they would not have ignored the following facts: The October 1917 “Bolshevik/communist revolution” in Russia was the outcome of a more broad-based revolution in February 1917 in which revolutionary and democratic groups of various shades of left Russian nationalists and urban middle-class groups collaborated to overthrow the Tsar.

The ‘hard-left’ group (the Bolsheviks) led by Marxist ideologue Vladimir Lenin, grabbed power in late 1917 through a coup d’etat. Lenin wasn’t even present during the February revolution. He returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland in April 1917.

The 1949 Communist revolution in China emerged during a tussle between Mao Tse Tung’s communists and Chinese nationalists. Both had collaborated to oust the occupying Japanese forces during World War II. But in the post-War conflict for power between the two, the communists managed to grab power.

The ‘Islamist’ Muslim Brotherhood collaborated with secular Egyptian nationalists during the 1952 uprising in Egypt which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. In the post-1952 tussle between the two, the nationalists managed to oust the Brotherhood from the equation.

The 1959 Cuban revolution was a nationalist uprising. It wasn’t until two years later, in 1961, that Fidel Castro — after consolidating his power — declared that his was a communist regime. During the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution, the communist ‘Sandinistas’ were overtly supported by that country’s Catholic priests.

The post-modernists in their haste to declare the Iranian Revolution unique not only ignored the uniform patterns of 20th-century revolutions, but they also missed the ‘political spirituality’ present in the Nicaraguan revolution and the 1952 Egyptian uprising. What’s more, to challenge the whole idea of the meta-narrative, they eventually created their own meta-narrative, by declaring the revolution in Iran as ‘Islamic.’

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 17th, 2019