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Islamic Revolution: An Exchange

In response to:

Islamic Revolution from the January 21, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

In his “Islamic Revolution” [NYR, January 21] Mr. Bernard Lewis made some statements which are, quite frankly, surprising coming as they do from a well-known scholar of Islamic civilization. At one point, he asserts that “all Muslims believe in the literal divine origin and textual inerrancy of the Koran.” In one sense this is perfectly so, but because “literal” typically modifies a noun expressing a semantic, not a causal, notion, the words imply there is no debate over the interpretation of the Koran within Islamic thought, hence, that “there is no liberal theology or critical Koran study against which a protest or reaction might be necessary.” It takes no expert on Islam to realize that there is a long-standing debate about interpretation (ta’wil) among Muslim scholars of the Koran, extending even to controversy over punctuation. Indeed, it is mentioned in the Koran that certain passages are unclear or ambiguous (mutashabihat), and the reading of this passage has engendered plenty of “protest and reaction”—as evidenced by the reaction to the Decisive Treatise of Ibn Rushd.

Lewis suggests that Islam differs from Judaism and Christianity in its theocratic view that “the state is God’s state, the law is God’s law. The army is God’s army—and of course the enemy is God’s enemy.” I have often heard Christians in America’s heartland echo similar sentiments. Again, I recall a chilling West Bank settlement tour in which Jewish settlers from Ophra argued that because they were under orders from their “Supreme Commander” (God) they could not be concerned with “enemy casualties” (among the Palestinians). Both groups quoted their scriptures. Obviously, Islamic militants have no monopoly on the claim of being divinely appointed warriors.

But Lewis is most bewildering in his assessment of what has aroused such “passionate anger” among Muslim revolutionaries. He ignores the overwhelming challenge to the Islamic world presented by the state of Israel, especially by the latter’s control over Islamic holy places in Jerusalem. Anyone who has spoken with Islamic enthusiasts, or viewed PBS’s recent “The Sword of Islam,” knows this much, and to fail to mention it is to reveal little of what underlies the “Islamic Revolution.”

Tomis Kapitan

Greenville, North Carolina

To the Editors:

The enigma of the Islamic Revolution continues to bewilder Western minds, and a flurry of attempts continue the problematic process of unraveling the mysteries of this phenomenon. When an eminent scholar of the erudition and stature of Mr. Bernard Lewis contributes to this process his propositions, because of their likely impact on scholarly as well as public opinion, need to be more rigorously scrutinized. Such a scrutiny, unfortunately, brings to light what seems to me to be many serious ambiguities as well as doubtful assertions. Within the confines of a short letter, I shall try to point to some of these problems.

In charting a course out of the labyrinth of the Islamic Revolution, Mr. Lewis cautions against passing judgments on the revolution, arguing that it “has a long way to go before it works itself out, and before we can determine its nature and consequence.” Surely the imperatives of objectivity in historical scholarship entails a certain emotional as well as temporal distance from the subject of analysis. Yet if, for instance, historians who in the Thirties studied the Nazi phenomenon had taken Mr. Lewis’s counsel and suspended judgment till the day Nazism had completely “worked itself out,” they might have all been consumed by the Holocaust that proved to be one ominous consequence of this “working out” process. The calamities already brought upon the Iranian society and its people warrant not only some serious preliminary judgments but, in fact, demand concerned action.

But Mr. Lewis seems to have a rather peculiar reading of revolutions. In his view, in the “theater of revolution,” the public is not “just spectators…. The audience must know, preferably know intimately, the essentials of the plot, the characters…the desired, indeed the inevitable outcome.” I know of no revolution in history that would fit this description. In revolutionary movements the masses are often manipulated elements in plots they know virtually nothing about. In fact, revolutions rarely operate based on shared knowledge—let alone “intimately” shared knowledge. The motive force is more often myth and manipulated emotions. Passion and envy, rather than compassion and informed values and opinions, are the more common inspirations for the frenzied ecstasy of mass revolutionary activism. The Islamic Revolution is a prime instance of this historic truism.

Mr. Lewis concludes this rather eccentric analysis of revolutions by indicating that Iranian revolutionaries have borrowed two things from the West: their technologies of destruction and propaganda on the one hand, and their “models of style and method” on the other. For in Mr. Lewis’s opinion “summary trial and execution of great numbers of ideologically defined enemies…are deeply un-Islamic.” The history of Islam in Iran, particularly from the time of the Safavid, is replete with summary trials and executions and persistent use of violence and indoctrinations. What is new about the Islamic Revolution, and what in my view constitutes its specificity, is not its “models of style and method” but its fundamental structure as a pseudo-totalitarian regime whose ultimate goal is not the simple consolidation of power but rather a change in the nature of man, or better yet, a rehabilitation of man to his “true,” ascetic Islamic self. It wishes to remold each and every facet of public and private life in concordance with the normative prescriptions of its “total” ideology. Terror, legitimized by the chiliastic self-righteousness of such a total ideology, is the inevitable tool and consequence of such remolding. In short, its genealogy is epistemological rather than geographic.

Further on, while trying to understand the “revolutionary appeal” of Islam, Mr. Lewis claims that “among Muslims” Islam is “the most acceptable, indeed in times of crisis the only acceptable basis of authority. Power seeks legitimacy, and attains it more effectively, among Muslims, from Islam rather than from national or patriotic or even dynastic claims, still less from the Western notion of national or popular sovereignty.” While these claims may be true about some of the more recently created Islamic states, they prove inaccurate in the case of Iran. The long and tenacious allegiance of Iranians to many of the elements of their pre-Islamic heritage, the role of the Persian language in forging and sustaining a national sense of identity, the significance of national and popular sovereignty in two of the three great upheavals in modern Iranian history (the Constitutional Revolution in 1905 and Mossadeq’s movement for nationalization of oil in 1953) are only some of the elements in the Iranian dual sense of identity which has systematically denied total hegemony to the Islamic culture.

Mr. Lewis then grapples with the problem of labeling the different factions within the Islamic Republic of Iran. He finds the “distinction between moderates and extremists” as “somewhat misleading” and opts for another set of categories. He writes of “pragmatists” and “ideologues” and considers the former more prone to compromise and places in the latter category all of those who insist on ideological purity. Finally he denounces the use of the term “fundamentalist” as “inaccurate and misleading.” In fact, I would suggest that, in the context of Iranian postrevolutionary politics and shi’i history, fundamentalism is indeed an accurate and valuable term. Curiously, Mr. Lewis seems to dismiss the term “fundamentalist” because it has originated in the context of American Protestantism. Surely if such were adequate grounds for dismissal, the terms offered by Mr. Lewis would also be highly suspect: “ideologues” has its roots in eighteenth-century French politics and the genealogy of “pragmatists” goes to certain philosophical schools in the history of the Great Satan.

In the context of present-day politics in Iran, fundamentalists advocate a strict and literal application of each and every Islamic law. In religious exegesis, they deny any interpretative license and opt for strict adherence to the letter of a divine, nonerrant, and totally self-sufficient canon. The relatively well-circulated Tehran daily Resalat systematically propounds this brand of fundamentalism. Furthermore, a glance at recent events in Iranian politics seriously undermines the heuristic value of Mr. Lewis’s distinction between the ideologues and the Pragmatists. Behind the façade of the ideological purity of the most fervent radical ideologues lurks a Machiavellian sense of realism, a bizarre configuration of changing political alliances, feverish rhetoric and pragmatic resilience in matters of dogma. Pragmatists are indeed those very same ideologues who buy arms from Israel and the Great Satan and yet launder it all to the masses—those informed participants in the revolutionary drama—as a momentous victory of the “humbled” against the “haughty.”

In the meantime, while analysts bicker over facts and factions, the vastly discontent Iranian populace seems to suffer the fate that might indeed be the ultimate paradox of many revolutions: world public opinion seems to acquiesce to the rhetoric of the regime and, accepting an alleged solidarity between the ruler and the ruled, chastises the vanquished victims of terror and irrationality as culprits in the crimes of the victors.

Abbas Milani

College of Notre Dame

Belmont, California

Bernard Lewis replies:

When I attempted the task of writing, to the best of my ability, an objective account of the Islamic revolution, it was in the expectation that I would be criticized from both sides, on the one hand, for maligning, on the other for whitewashing the revolution. This expectation has not been disappointed. However, in answering my critics, I shall not allow myself to be maneuvered into either defending or denouncing the revolution and its leaders, but shall keep to my original intention—to try to understand what has happened so far, and to communicate what I have understood to others. I have presented one interpretation of these events; Dr. Milani has presented another, and many more are possible. Rather than enter into a debate about the meaning of this revolution, or of revolutions in general, I shall confine my reply to questions of ascertainable fact, and to those points on which I have been misunderstood or misrepresented.

Mr. Kapitan raises three such issues.

1) Certainly, Muslims have disagreed about the interpretation of the divine text, and even, on minor and insignificant points, about the text itself, which exists in seven authorized readings. They have always agreed without question on its divine authorship. Christian and Jewish theologians at the present time maintain that the Old and New Testaments were written by human beings, under divine guidance or inspiration, and this view may fairly be called the mainstream—i.e., not fundamentalist—belief in both religions of the present day. No Muslim, within Islam, has made any such assertion about the Koran, and to do so would be an act of apostasy, the denial of a central dogma of the faith. In reply to Dr. Milani, I would add that my objection to the term is not that it originated in American Protestantism—all terms originate in some specific situation—but that it has retained its original meaning and is therefore inappropriate to Islamic beliefs and doctrines. It is however by now established usage, and must therefore be accepted.

2) Yes indeed, there are militant theocrats among both Christians and Jews, just as there are secularists and liberal democrats among Muslims. They have not however achieved or even attempted any revolution; they have neither overthrown a regime nor assassinated a head of state or government; they have tried and executed no one for offenses against the law of God; they have neither preached nor launched holy war. These facts, rather than the beliefs themselves, constitute the significant difference.

3) Israeli rule in East Jerusalem, and indeed the existence of Israel itself, are certainly deeply resented by Muslim fundamentalists, and those who derive their knowledge and analysis from tourism and television might well conclude that this constitutes the major cause of Islamic fundamentalist anger. A closer look at the evidence and a longer historical perspective reveal a different picture. There were militant fundamentalist movements long before the first Zionist settler went to the Ottoman district of Jerusalem. In contrast, there was no immediate fundamentalist response to the establishment of Israel in 1948, or even to the Israeli conquest of the old city of Jerusalem in 1967. Remarkably, of all the Arab areas conquered and occupied by the Israelis at that time, Jerusalem has, for the last twenty years, been the quietest. The Islamic revolution and republic in Iran have given a prominent place to Israel in their rhetoric, but have shown themselves perfectly willing to deal with Israelis at a number of levels.

Perhaps the most striking refutation of Mr. Kapitan’s point comes from Abd Al-Salam Farag, an Egyptian fundamentalist writer who was the ideological guide and inspirer of the group that assassinated President Sadat. In a little book published in 1980, Farag remarks, “There are people who say that the occasion for jihad today is the liberation of Jerusalem, the Holy Land; certainly this is an obligation in holy law and a duty for every Muslim…but….” He then goes on to argue that in present circumstances the jihad for the recovery of Palestine would be a distraction, since even if they achieved victory, the only result would be to strengthen the “impious tyrants” who rule over them. It is these homegrown tyrants who, for the fundamentalists, are the real and primary enemy. False Muslims who, in the name of secularization and modernization, are undermining and destroying Islam from within, they have opened the gate to all the external enemies, variously defined as crusaders, missionaries, imperialists, communists, and, of course, Zionists, who batten on the weakened body of Islam. “To begin by attacking imperialism is a useless and inglorious work and a waste of time; we must concentrate on our own Islamic problem, that is to say, the establishment of the law of God in our countries.” After that, with God’s help, the removal of the external enemies will be quickly and easily accomplished.

In contrast to Mr. Kapitan, who thinks I have been too severe, Dr. Milani feels that I have been too indulgent, and he accuses me of failing to recognize what he considers to be the essential nastiness both of the revolution and of its “Islamic” program and leadership. Dr. Milani’s views are clearly different from mine, and there is little point in arguing about them. In rejecting my views, however, Dr. Milani should deal with those which I express, and not with invented and sometimes absurd opinions which he chooses to attribute to me. In speaking of “the theater of revolution,” I was using a well-known image to describe how revolutionaries project themselves to their audience, and how the audience responds. In the words omitted by Dr. Milani from the sentence which he quotes, I alluded to “Greek tragedy, the Japanese No, the Turkish or Egyptian shadow play, the English Punch and Judy, and the American western.” Dr. Milani chooses, inexplicably, to treat this as an analysis of revolution, and to observe that “no revolution in history…would fit this description.” I can only agree with his statement, and wonder why he thought it necessary to make it. He is of course right in saying that the motive force is often “myth and manipulated emotions”—in fact a kind of theater. There is a similar distinction between an election rally and the analysis of a presidency.

With the same kind of exegesis, Dr. Milani reads my reluctance to prophesy the future course of the Islamic revolution as a counsel of inaction. The one has nothing to do with the other. I am not convinced by the parallel which he draws between the Islamic revolution in Iran and the rise of Nazism in Germany, but even accepting Nazi Germany as a term of comparison, his argument misses the point. Historians and others, in the 1930s, could not and did not predict the Holocaust, and few if any foresaw the final destination of Nazism. That did not mean that they were urging others to “suspend judgment” on what was happening at the time, still less to submit meekly to Hitler’s new order.

Dr. Milani challenges my comment on the “un-Islamic” character of much that has been happening in revolutionary Iran, and finds precedents for violence and persecution in the history of Islam and more particularly of Iran. Of course there are such precedents in Islamic lands, as elsewhere, but that does not alter the fact that they are in violation of Islamic law, ethics, and tradition, and therefore ill befit those who claim to represent Islam reborn. The Safavids, whom Dr. Milani quotes as an example of Islamic “violence and indoctrinations,” came to power by means of a successful revolution.

I would agree that national as well as religious loyalties may determine the attitudes of individuals and—much more—the policies of governments, in Iran as in other Islamic countries. Despite its explicit disavowal of nationalism, even the Islamic Republic has acted as a nation state, as for example in its refusal to hand back three Arabian islands seized by the Shah, and its constitutional provision that the president must be of Iranian birth and origin. Nevertheless, even the events cited by Dr. Milani demonstrate the greater power, in times of crisis and among the masses, of the religious appeal. The constitutional revolution of 1905, with mixed national and religious inspiration, achieved mixed results. Mossadeq’s movement, overwhelmingly nationalist in inspiration, failed entirely. The religiously inspired and expressed revolution of 1979 evoked a far stronger response and achieved a far greater success than either of the two earlier examples.

A time may come when secular loyalties will supplant religious passion as the main driving force of mass movements, and indeed the events in Iran may bring such a time nearer. The response of the Iranian masses, and of countless millions of Muslims elsewhere, to the appeals of the Islamic revolutionaries show that that time has not come yet.

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