Iran's incomprehensible revolution - AzarTabari

Iran's incomprehensible revolution - AzarTabari

Critical reviews of two books on the Iranian revolution by Iranian feminist Azar Tabari.

THE DATE 9-10 February 1985 marked the sixth anniversary of the Iranian revolution. The 'aging' of the revolution was reflected, among other things, in the types of books on Iran published in 1984. In contrast to the more journalistic accounts of earlier years, the latest books deal more substantively with the colossal changes that the new regime has brought about in society. Among these are: Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Republic (Basic Books, New York, 1984, 276 pages, hc, $18.95), and Cheryl Benard and Zalmay Khalilzad, The Government of God: Iran's Islamic Republic (Columbia University Press, New York, 1984, 240 pages, hc, no price indicated).

1) The first book is notable for its wealth ofinformation and detail. It is the only systematic presentation of the events of the first five years of the revolution. It is extremely accurate and objective, avoiding selectivity aimed at confirming pre-conceived notions. It is particularly invaluable to readers not familiar with Persian sources, as the author uses a wide range of original Persian sources, books, biographies, declarations and periodicals. This alone makes the book indispensable for any student of the Iranian revolution. Chapter 2, 'Khomaini: the "Idol Smasher''', for instance, provides the essential background to an understanding of the consolidation of Khomeini's leadership and hegemony over the movement. It surveys the changes in the political thinking of theological circles in the 1960s, and traces to this period of reorganization and turmoil in Islamic circles the emergence of whole layers of politically militant clerics, later to become the new leaders ofIslamic Iran. As the biographical information (provided on various personalities in office in postrevolutionary Iran) builds up throughout the book, it becomes evident that this turmoil was not limited to the clerical hierarchy. A whole layer of young activists, from traditional middle- and lower middle-class backgrounds, were becoming politicized and enmeshed in a growing network of Islamic associations.

There was much overlap amongst the various factions that later became such bitter enemies. The Mojahedeen-e Khalq and what are now referred to as the Islamic fundamentalists both recruited from the same milieu; they used the same front covers (high schools owned and run by sympathetic Islamic supporters, charity organizations, and so on) in order to keep in touch, to recruit and to organize. The same individuals passed through different organizations and worked with many of them simultaneously. This is one reason why the Islamic regime's later crackdown on the Mojahedeen was so effective: the people now on opposite sides had worked together and had known each other intimately for many years. Sometimes they were members of the same family. This also explains how the Mojahedeen had so successfully 'infiltrated' high levels of government and the Islamic Republican Party (IRP). The person said to have planted the bomb in the IRP headquarters that killed Beheshti and other prominent IRP leaders was part of the special security team for the building.

The information provided by Bakhash thoroughly debunks the myth that the Islamic leadership 'imposed' itself on the movement, or at some late stage 'hijacked' the revolution. Almost two decades of systematic political work had gone into the building of an Islamic movement. By the mid-1970s the signs of its growth were becoming evident in society at large: in the numerous Islamic schools set up, in the Quran-reading circles, in young women turning to Islamic codes of dress, in the proliferation of Islamic literature, in the increased frequency of mosque sermons with a political theme, and so on.

Chapters 3-6 cover the period of Bazargan's premiership and Bani Sadr's presidency. The powerlessness of both men confirms the same point in a different way: that the organized base of mass support belonged to Khomeini. Under such circumstances, it is legitimate to ask why Khomeini appointed Bazargan as the provisional premier, or gave his support to Bani Sadr's candidacy, vetoing Beheshti's attempt to stand as the IRP candidate.

It is tempting to read into these events a grand design of manipulation: that Khomeini used various lay and semi-lay politicians to smooth the transition from the Pahlavi state to a full-fledged clerical state. This type of argument may very well constitute one element of an explanation. But from all accounts and observations of that transition period a mOf( important explanation emerges: the Islamic movement and Khomein were themselves caught off guard. Three developments took them by surprise, just as they surprised almost everyone else.

First came the rapid collapse of the Pahlavi state. Although Khomein and his supporters had succeeded in organizing a powerful mass movement, they did not expect, nor were they prepared, to take over the statt so soon and be in charge of running the country. Once in power, the) found themselves, despite their doctrine, forced to depend not only or the old government bureaucracy, but on people like Bazargan and the whole layer of technocrats and functionaries that such a man could attract to the service of the new state. In later years, Khomeini, Rafsanjani and other Islamic leaders have repeatedly said that in the early period they simply did not have the personnel to put in charge. They had to depend on people who were not as ideologically committed as they were.

A second factor was their own strength relative to that of other oppositional forces. Although they were aware of the depths of their support, given the long decades of political repression, they were not sure how much support other forces (such as Bazargan's Freedom Movement, the National Front, the Mojahedeen, the Feda'een, and so on) could muster. They needed time and a gradual testing of relative strengths to be convinced of the feebleness of their rivals.

The third element that came as a surprise to Khomeini and his followers was the complete lack of any substantial and material American intervention against the revolution, despite years of solid support for the Shah. The new regime expected at least heavy US material support for the royalist forces, if not US direct intervention. For this reason, the rapid consolidation of the new power was of paramount concern to Khomeini and his supporters, even ifit meant making temporary marginal concessions to Bazargan or other more secular forces. The incident surrounding the passing of the new constitution - related by Bani Sadr in his book Khianat be Omid (Hope Betrayed) and referred to in Bakhash's book - is indicative of this concern. The original new constitution, drafted by the provisional government, made no reference to velayat-e faqih. Despite numerous references to Islam, it did not invest the clergy with any special powers. Even the Council of Guardians, envisaged as composed of five clerics, three professors oflaw, and three judges of the supreme court (all to be elected by the Majlis), did not have the automatic power to veto all legislation. Only if the council was asked by one of the established Mujtahids, the president, or the head of the supreme court to look into some new legislation, and if it found the said legislation to be against the shari'a or unconstitutional, would it have the right to investigate the matter and return it to the Majlis. As Bakhash notes, the draft 'hardly bore out the worst expectations of the secular parties'. Khomeini made 'only two small changes', barring women from the presidency and the judiciary, and to expedite matters he proposed bypassing a constituent assembly and putting the document directly to a referendum. Bazargan and Bani Sadr both objected. So did other political parties, with the exception of the IRP. A compromise was finally arrived at: the setting up of an elected assembly of experts, composed of seventy-five delegates, rather than the constituent assembly of several hundred demanded by the secular parties. In the discussions in the Revolutionary Council around this issue, Bani Sadr reports a prophetic retort made to him by Rafsanjani (who was later to be the president of the Majlis): 'Who do you think will be elected to a constituent assembly? A fistful of ignorant and fanatic fundamentalists who will do such damage that you will regret even having convened them.'

The affair not only shows the concern to gain time that overrode all other considerations in Khomeini's mind; it also provided him with a unique opportunity to test the relative strength of the various forces as reflected through the debates on the constitution and the subsequent eleçtion of the assembly of experts. The IRP alone won over fifty seats, with several other delegates tending to vote with it on all controversial issues. Once the balance of forces was out in the open for all to see, the theocratization of the state rolled on at full steam: velayat-e faqih was introduced into the constitution, and the Islamic Council of Guardians was given full vetoing power over all legislation. All clauses in the draft that referred to popular sovereignty were eliminated. The new constitution specifically spelled out that the basis of the Islamic Republic was faith in various Shi' i dogmas and that the power oflegislation belonged to God. Attacks against the provisional government were stepped up, eventually forcing Bazargan's resignation in the aftermath of the hostagetaking at the American embassy in November 1979.

There was yet a fourth consideration on Khomeini's mind that explains his initial support for Bani Sadr's candidacy in the presidential elections. In this Khomeini was more astute than even his keenest follower and disciple, Beheshti. Although Khomeini argued for, and was assured of, complete control of the government by the clergy, he still preferred to fill the formal positions of the state - such as the presidency, premiership, ministries, and so on - with loyal lay politicians. This reflects his deep existential concern for the clergy as a caste. He was fully aware that he had inherited a crisis-ridden society, with high expectations for improvement on the part of a volatile population. He was deeply concerned that a certain formal distance should be preserved between the clergy and official posts, so that failure would not reflect directly on the clergy. As he later stated, when addressing the Council of Guardians on 11 December 1983:

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'Before the revolution, I used to think that once the revolution was victorious, there would be virtuous individuals who would run our affairs according to Islam. Therefore, I repeatedly said that the clergy would attend to their own affairs. But later I realized that in their majority they [the available people] were not virtuous. I saw that I had been wrong.'

He continues to voice concern over this intimate involvement of the clergy in the day-to-day running of the country, repeatedly warning the clergy that if they should fail in their current mission, Islam will be lost for ever.

Bakhash's book provides enormously rich material for a discussion and analysis of these and many other crucial issues. His own presentation, however, is for the most part descriptive. There are numerous insightful textual analyses of various political declarations and texts, the positions of various political groups and leaders, and so on, but the author fails to provide any overall analysis of the Iranian revolution.

2) In the second book, The Government of God, the authors devote much attention to analysis, not an analysis of the Iranian revolution, but an analysis of various theoretical and analytical models. The first chapter, aptly entitled 'Crisis in Iran, Crisis in Development Theory', reviews the shortcomings of what it refers to as the two main trends of academic thinking about the Third World. The first, the 'mainstream version', is exemplified by the writings of such figures as Samuel Huntington. The second trend is that of the dependency school of development theory (of Gundar Frank and many Latin American theorists). The authors sharply criticize both versions, concluding that:

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Given their theoretical framework, the emergence of an Islamic Republic in Iran was "unthinkable" for most modernization theorists. Popular uprisings, virulent anti-Western sentiments and the ascent of the clergy, the ousting of the Shah, these were developments not at all in line with either orthodox or neo-Marxist theory; for if there was ever a country that apparently conformed to the expected orthodox course of modernization, it was Iran, and if there was ever a country whose proletariat and peasantry were bound to be politicized by the left against all the traditional forms of oppression (by king, landowners, imperialists, and clergy), surely it was Iran. (p12)

The authors substantiate their point by ample reference to the writings of both trends. Their own alternative argument, however, is unsatisfactory, to say the least. Put simply, they argue that the mainstream theory was 'too universalist', that is, it had generalized the applicability of the West European model of modernization to the Third World, without taking into account the historical and cultural particularities of these countries. The dependency school, on the other hand, by focusing on the relation between the metropolis and the periphery, could have corrected this bias, had the ideological controversy between the two schools not precluded a constructive dialogue between them. (pp22- 3) They consider some 'middle road' between the two as a desirable compromise.

As an example of such mistaken generalizations, the authors refer to the role of religion. Although their conclusion is not definitive, they seem to argue that religious culture and elites should have been integrated into the modernization process:

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In Europe, the religious values and elites were among those traditional forces blocking the way of new forces; the conflict therefore ultimately involved what we term secularization. Religion as traditionally practiced is also a blocking factor in Islamic societies. . . However, in Iran there were critical differences from Western revolutionary societies. Religion was part of the beleaguered national culture.. . In the European revolutionary context, to be oppositional meant to oppose the established institutions and to rebel against one's own solidified culture, including the church. In an anti-colonial context where "the church" was under attack by domestic power-holders with strong ties to a foreign power, religion could play a part in nationalism. To modernize while at the same time rebelling against a dominant Western modernity involves a new set of complexities. It also offers possible affiliations, coalitions, and settings that did not exist for European actors during their own period of modernization.' (pp23-4)

But what exactly are these possibilities? The authors refer to 'processes crucial to modernization', giving as an example 'the integration of the population through such socializing institutions as schools and the military, efforts to impose a common language and to control other socially authoritative institutions, including religious institutions'. (p22) But this was precisely what the Pahlavis had set themselves to achieve. So, from the authors' viewpoint, the question remains unanswered: what was wrong with 'the mainstream model'? How would a 'middle road' have been different? Would it have made more concessions to the clergy? Would it have attempted to integrate the clergy into the new 'state-building' process? One could argue the opposite just as strongly: that the inadequacies of the modernization process, the shallow nature of its secularization, its failure to cultivate thoroughly a secular politics and culture, were responsible for the revival of religion in politics.

Similar weaknesses overshadow many of the other chapters. Chapter 2, 'Why Islam?', reviews the various 'responses to domination', ranging from secularist Westernizers (in which category the authors include statist leaders such as Ataturk and Reza Shah; nationalists, socialists and communists of various tendencies); Islamic modernists (such as Shari'ati and the Mojahedeen-e Khalq); Islamic traditionalists (in Iran represented by a figure such as Shari'atmadari, in Pakistan by Maulana Maududi); and Islamic fundamentalists, represented by Khomeini in Iran.

The authors note that Khomeini held traditional views in his early writings, and only by the 1970s had become a genuine fundamentalist. This transformation, they argue, can be explained:

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as a radicalization of tradition resulting from the combustible joining of new social forces with foreign interference (material and ideological) and the stress of multiplied domestic and international conflicts. AllIed some sections of the traditionalists, including Khomeini, to the conclusion that the traditional balance was too threatei:ling to be salvageable by the customary means, and that to fight only for restoration of their traditional position in the old Iranian pattern this time would mean eventual defeat. The dynamics of the situation would in time sweep them away unless they took over control and radically transformed the system.' (p37)

This assertion is followed by a review of the positions of both Khomeini and Shari'ati.

But surprisingly, for a chapter entitled 'Why Islam?', the question is not posed, much less answered, of 'why Islam for the Iranian masses?' After all, without millions of Iranians' turning to Islamic politics in general, and their support for Khomeini in particular, it is difficult to see how the question 'why Islam?' would even have been posed for political scientists. Moreover, it is this latter question that remains at the heart of the complexities ofIranian events. Unless one subscribes to some notion of 'mobs being manipulated by leaders' - which still does not answer the question 'why Khomeini and not some other leader?' - we must seek answers for this profound transformation in the Iranian mass consciousness. Superficially, Iranians had often been thought of (and thought of themselves) as the most secular Muslim society, since they possessed a pre-Islamic/non-Islamic national identity, in contrast to the strong affinity between Islam and Arab nátionalism. Why did Iran, then, among all Muslim societies, produce such a strong mass Islamic movement over the 1960s and 1970s?

The third chapter of the book, 'Iran - What Happened?', reviews various theories of revolution from Huntington to Brinton and Moore, in each case making a comparison with what happened in Iran, in an attempt to answer the question, 'Is what happened in Iran a revolution?' The chapter also discusses 'millennialist movements' and arrives at the rather strange conclusion that:

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our final definition will have to be postponed; [because] just as a revolution is contingent on its success, a millennial movement is characterized by its failure, as it gives way to the rise to dominance of elements within its membership or to the reassertion of part of the former ruling government'. (p65)

This is a peculiar definition of a revolution. First, it excludes the very notion of a defeated revolution. Why should one's definition of revolution be contingent upon its success? There have been periods of colossal mass movements and social upheavals that have generally gone down in history as revolutions without having been successful, such as the 1905 revolution in Russia. Second, it makes the definition dependent on a long-term political transformation (whether 'it gives way to the rise to dominance of elements within its membership or to the reassertion of part of the former ruling government'). A similar debate exists on the left as to whether the Iranian revolution should be characterized as a political or a social revolution. If one restricts the definition of social revolution to a change in the 'mode of production', again, one would have to 'suspend final definition' to future years to wait and see what sort of economy emerges from the current ruins. Or else one could postulate that the current mode is the same mode of production as under the Shah and conclude that therefore what happened was a political revolution. The problem with such semantic disputes is that their analytical relevance is far from clear. Iranian society today looks very different, to say the least, in every important social anq political sense from the society prior to 1979. If such a transformation does not qualify for the term 'revolution'in contrast to 'millennial movements' - or for 'social revolution', then it may well be appropriate to rethink our definitions.

Chapter 4 is a brief and insightful one on 'Prejudice as a Cultural Weapon'. The rest of the book, however, becomes progressively descriptive. In this, it cannot compete with Bakhash's book, which is more thorough and systematic. The book concludes by discussing possible future scenarios: 'the consolidation of fundamentalist republicanism', 'another overthrow' and 'intervention of the military'. The authors, unconvincingly, argue that all are possible trends.

Both books, despite shortcomings, make important contributions in different ways to discussions surrounding an understanding of the Iranian revolution - something that still eludes us all.

Posted By

Ed
Jun 7 2014 23:50

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