Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution
The Rise and Fall of the Shah
The Fall of the Shah
The history of the Iranian revolution has been a history of misperceptions. The Shah was thought to run a tightly controlled autocracy and to command the most powerful military machine in the Persian Gulf region. Yet it required no more than thirteen months of largely peaceful demonstrations, Xeroxed leaflets, and crudely reproduced tapes to bring his regime down. His vaunted 400,000-man army collapsed in just two fateful days in February 1979.
Liberal and left-wing groups who joined with Ayatollah Khomeini to overthrow the Shah believed, as did much of the European press, that the revolution would give birth to a liberal democracy. Instead, they have watched Khomeini’s followers create an Islamic theocracy. The most glaring misperception of all has been the failure to grasp the part that Islam would play in mobilizing the revolutionary opposition to the Shah and in shaping post-revolution Iranian society.
The misperception prevailed in Tehran and Washington and among both the Shah’s supporters and his critics. It was shared, surprisingly, even by the secular opposition groups that worked for revolution. Liberal and left-wing dissidents woke up late to the central part of religion in mobilizing the masses. Even after the “Black Friday” massacre on September 8, 1978, when it became evident that leadership of the movement had passed to Ayatollah Khomeini, the tendency remained strong to underrate religion and the implications of Khomeini’s Islamic ideology.
Khomeini had elaborated his concept of an Islamic state in a series of lectures delivered as early as 1970 during his exile in Iraq. These lectures were published, in both Arabic and Persian, under the title of Islamic Government. Khomeini made it unequivocally clear in these lectures that he intended to set up an Islamic state, one based on the Koran and modeled on the first Islamic community under the Prophet Mohammad in seventh-century Arabia. This government, he said, must be founded on Islamic law; and the leadership of the community must therefore fall to the clerical class, as experts in Islamic law and heirs to the mantle of the Prophet. Velayat-e Faqih, the Persian title of the book, means government by the faqih, the Islamic jurist.1
Yet the parties of the center left—Mehdi Bazargan’s Freedom of Iran Movement, for example—chose to ignore both Khomeini’s published writings and his public pronouncements. Some believed that such views could not provide a serious program for government. Others, Khomeini’s explicitly stated intentions notwithstanding, assumed that the Ayatollah would retire from active involvement in political affairs, or could fairly quickly be shunted aside once victory had been achieved. A similar misreading of Khomeini and of the temper of the revolution was current among some academics and journalists abroad.
In Iran, the center-left parties underrated the appeal of Khomeini’s form of fundamentalist Islam possibly because they were themselves cut off from their traditional Islamic roots. Many subscribed to notions of a “reformed” Islam which presupposed a…
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