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The Revolt of Islam

L’Islam et l’état dans le monde d’aujourd’hui

edited by Olivier Carré
Presses Universitaries de France (Paris), 270 pp., F95

Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition

by Fazlur Rahman
University of Chicago Press, 172 pp., $15.00

Lectures du Coran

by Mohammed Arkoun
Maisonneuve and Larose (Paris), 175 pp., F82

Modern Islamic Political Thought

by Hamid Enayat
University of Texas Press, 220 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Until the latter part of 1978 the discussion of Islam as a factor in politics was subject to certain taboos in the Western world. There was no such taboo in the Middle East and generally in the Muslim world, where the rise of nationalism had touched off a continuing debate on the relationship between patriotic or national and religious loyalties, and on the role of Islam in ideology, allegiance, and government.

This debate attracted little attention in the Western world, which in this as in other matters tended to see other societies in its own image. For one thing there was a growing consensus among social scientists that religion was no longer an adequate criterion by which to classify peoples and societies, and that to use it could involve grave distortions. In the second place, and perhaps more important, it was felt that the suggestion that peoples, particularly other peoples, were influenced or, worse, determined by religion in making political choices was somehow insulting. This was particularly true of those who professed the religion of Islam, the great majority of whom were Asians and Africans and thus part of what had come to be known as the third world.

There were still scholars, in both the first and second worlds, who continued to undertake the academic study of Islam, its history and its culture, and some of these from time to time ventured to publish their findings and offer their opinions on the relationship between Islam and politics in the past and even in the present. For the most part their studies, and the impact they made, remained confined within their own professional circles. The International Congress of Orientalists, which has held meetings every few years since 1873, has always devoted one of its major sections to the study of Islam, alongside other sections concerned with India, China, and the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. The one exception was the Twenty-third International Congress, which met in Moscow. On that occasion the local organizing committee deleted the section on Islamic studies and reassigned the papers that had been submitted for consideration by this section to other sections, dealing with the history, languages, and literatures of the Arabs, Persians, Turks, and other predominantly Muslim peoples. For the first time, a section on Afghan studies was added.

In subsequent congresses the section on Islam was restored, but in some circles the Islamicist approach, that is, the approach using Islam as the organizing principle of study, was still viewed with some mistrust. Indeed, as Edward Mortimer remarks in his excellent new book, one angry polemicist came close to implying that Islam itself was an invention of malicious orientalists, who had not only constructed the Orient, but had also devised its component parts.

Paradoxically, this curious reluctance to ascribe political significance to Islam sprang from a deep-seated cultural arrogance, which by this time has become rare in most other Western circles. Its judgments rest on the basic assumption that we of the liberal West are the model of progress and enlightenment, the standard by which others must be judged. To be like us is to be good, to be unlike us is to be bad, to become more like us is to improve, to become less like us is to deteriorate. From this it follows that to suggest that any other nation, people, or society is in fact unlike us is to insult them.

Most of us in the Western world have long since outgrown this kind of crude ethnocentrism. On the contrary, we often tend to fall into the opposite extreme. This makes it all the more surprising, even disconcerting, that some non-Westerners still feel insulted at the suggestion that they may be different from us—as if being like us were so wonderful. At one time such attitudes were not uncommon among the old liberals and both the old and new left of the Islamic world. They have become rare, surviving chiefly among expatriates living in the West and addressing a Western audience.

They do not appear among the Muslim revivalists, who recognize and indeed proudly proclaim the difference, seeing it as the measure of their own moral and religious superiority over the materialistic and decadent infidels of the Western world. The current Islamic revolution—by far the most powerful and significant movement within the Islamic world for more than a century—has no problem in defining itself, through the words of its theorists and the actions of its leaders, by religion, which is seen as the ultimate basis of identity, the final source of authority, the only true loyalty. And the revolution means a return to Islamic ideals, to the mainstream of Islamic history and civilization, after a period of alien-inspired deviation and—to borrow a phrase from another religion—the pursuit of strange gods.

The revolution in Iran and the emergence of a charismatic religious figure, the Imam Khomeini, as its leader, forced a change in the perceptions of even the most ideologically blinkered Western observers. In the more popular presentations, the shift, as usual, was from one extreme to the other. Those who previously had been unable to see Islam were now suddenly unable to see anything but Islam. The two views are equally misleading. Islam is a reality, and its importance for Muslims as a political factor is immense. But having accepted Islam as a fact, we should remember that there are still other facts. Muslims, like other people, are apt to protest and rebel against political oppression and economic deprivation; Muslims, like other people, tend to react and respond in ways that are familiar to them.

Whatever the causes—political, social, economic—the form of expression that the great majority of Muslims most naturally find to voice their criticism of the old order and their aspirations for the new is Islamic. The slogans, the symbols, and to a very large extent the programs are evocations or formulations of Islamic religious principles and memories. The notion and practice of revolution are not new things in the Islamic world, which has its own long tradition of protest and action against oppressive governments. Muslim opposition through the centuries has expressed itself in terms of theology as naturally and as spontaneously as its Western equivalents do in terms of political and social ideology. The one is no more a mask or a cloak than the other.

In his attack on the old regime and his program for the new, Khomeini was working within the historic and religious traditions of Islam. The ayatollah is no mere rabble-rouser, though he has considerable skill in this activity; he is a man of learning, a theologian and a jurist, and the author of many scholarly works as well as of appeals to popular sentiment. These leave no room for doubt on what he found wrong in the Shah’s regime, and how he proposed to put it right. To a very large extent, he has carried out his declared intentions.

At first there was considerable misunderstanding of the nature of the Khomeini phenomenon, not only among Western observers, but even—with less excuse—among the Westernized liberal elite in Iran. He was so outspokenly and vehemently opposed to the Shah, to the United States, to all things Western, that nothing else seemed to matter. The main points were that he was against the old regime and, far more important, seemed to offer the first real chance of overthrowing it. Some Iranian radicals assumed, despite extensive evidence to the contrary, that he was as insincere as they were in his use of populist—which in Iran necessarily meant religious—themes, and would forget them when the revolution was won. Others, only slightly more realistic, believed that while they needed him and his appeal to rouse the masses, they would be able to dispose of him and the other unworldly mullahs when the moment came.

In this they were sadly mistaken. In fact, it was they who were unworldly, and the mullahs who proved adept in handling the affairs both of this world and the next. Khomeini declined the role of Kerensky that had been assigned to him, and instead the mullahs have been steadily and efficiently disposing of the liberal and leftist allies who had given them some help—the extent should not be exaggerated—in achieving power.

With few exceptions, Western sympathizers and supporters have reacted with indifference to the consequences of the revolution to which, at crucial moments, they gave encouragement and help—not only the general consequences for the Iranian people, but the specific imprisonment, torture, and execution of great numbers of their own liberal and leftist friends. Nor have they shown much concern at the reversal, by the revolutionary government, of the steps that had been taken under the old regime to give greater rights to women and to religious minorities. In Khomeini’s view, these steps, inspired by Western secularism, were among the gravest crimes committed by the Shah, and their rectification was a priority of the revolution. Most of Khomeini’s former Western admirers have chosen to turn aside and devote their attention to newer and more rewarding subjects. The popular press, on the rare occasions when it gives some attention to Iran, prefers to regale its readers with lurid accounts of the more picturesque aspects of the Islamic penal code.

Does all this mean that the revolution has gone wrong, that it has been perverted from its original purposes, that—as one participant put it—it has been hijacked by the mullahs? The answer to these questions depends of course on who the authors of the revolution really were, and what were their intentions.

There can be no serious doubt that what has been happening in Iran during the last four years is an authentic revolution—to use this word in the same sense as when we speak of the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. This is not to speak in praise or blame of the change in Iran; only to say that it is major and significant. For better or for worse—which one still remains to be seen—there have been genuine and radical changes, brought about by an authentic mass movement with very wide participation. This is a change of a very different order from the so-called revolutions in other Middle Eastern countries in this century. The earlier ones were largely inspired by European models and programs; the more recent might be more accurately designated by such terms as coup d’état or Putsch. In Iran a transfer of power took place not just from one group of people to another, but from a whole social order to another, comprising a process of profound social transformation. And, as with other major revolutions, this was itself part of a longer, broader, deeper process than the immediate transfer of power that took place at a moment in 1789 in Paris, in 1917 in Petrograd, in 1979 in Tehran.

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