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Islamic Revolution


In revolutions, even more than in other forms of political activity, there is an element of theater. This is evidenced by the almost universal use of such words as drama, stage, scene, role, even actor, in speaking of revolutionary events. Revolutionaries are, of course, conscious of this dramatic element. Some indeed, Karl Marx among them, have even used such unkind words as farce and burlesque to describe certain revolutionary activities. We do not hear these words applied to the revolution in Iran.

Playwrights and actors alike are especially aware of their audiences, both present and future. This awareness affects revolutionaries as they write, direct, interpret, and perform their roles in the revolutionary drama. The theater of revolution is essentially participatory, requiring more than the usual rapport between actors and audience. It depends on knowledge and empathy on the part of the public, who are not just spectators. As in Greek tragedy, the Japanese No, the Turkish or Egyptian shadow play, the English Punch and Judy, and the American western, the audience must know, preferably know intimately, the essentials of the plot, the characters and roles of the good and evil figures, and the desired, indeed the inevitable, outcome. The dramatist, the director, and the actors can appeal to a shared frame of reference, and, more important, of allusion, of memories: symbols that they can invoke to gain the interest, sympathy, and finally the enthusiastic participation of the audience.

During the last two hundred years, the dominant models of successful revolution in most of the world have been those of France and Russia, and the most dramatically effective roles those of the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many revolutionary leaders attempted, in the differing conditions of their own countries, to reenact the magnificent climax of the storming of the Bastille and the proclamation of the Republic. After 1917, many tried to act out the Bolshevik script, sometimes with the aid of a prompter, sometimes without.

These models were most influential in societies that shared with France and Russia a common heritage of usable allusions and symbols, drawn from their European or Europe-derived culture, and from its ultimate sources in the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. At a time when Europe was paramount in the world, they were also adopted by aspiring non-European revolutionaries, at first against their own “old regimes,” later against their European imperial masters. There have been several movements called revolutionary in the lands of Islam in this century, starting with the Persian and Turkish constitutional revolutions in 1905 and 1908, followed by many others after the withdrawal of Britain and France and the collapse of the regimes to which they had transferred power. In the early years of the century, it was the French model that prevailed among Westernizing Middle Eastern elites, to be supplemented, in the interwar and postwar decades, by other examples drawn first from Eastern and then from Southern and Central Europe. Public life in Muslim countries was enriched—if that is the right word—with a new system of values and symbols, drawn from European thought and from the European past.

The Islamic revolution which won power in Iran in 1979 and continues to offer a major challenge to existing regimes in other Islamic lands uses none of these symbols. For the Ayatollahs and those who respond to them, neither the Bible nor the Latin and Greek classics, neither Jacobins nor Bolsheviks, neither Paris nor Petrograd provide usable models or evocative symbols. This of course does not mean that they have none. Islam has its own scriptures and classics. Islamic history provides its own models of revolution; its own prescriptions on the theory and practice of dissent, disobedience, resistance, and revolt; its own memories of past revolutions, some ending in success, others, in the historic memory the more significant ones, ending in failure and martyrdom. It is against this background of Islamic action and ideas, memories and symbols, that the Islamic revolution must be studied and may, just possibly, be understood.

Two preliminary questions must be asked and answered. Is the Islamic revolution in Iran a real revolution as that word has been used in the Western world, where it was first coined and applied, and if so, why is it called Islamic; why apply, to a major political, social, and economic transformation, a religious label? At one time the word revolution carried a connotation of profound and far-reaching change in the polity and perhaps also in the society, of some epoch-making upheaval in human affairs. It was in this sense that seventeenth-century Englishmen spoke of the first true national revolution, that eighteenth-century Americans and Frenchmen and twentieth-century Russians and Chinese denoted the profound transformations that they brought to their countries.

Since then, the word revolution, like most other things in our world, in our time, has undergone a process of continuous devaluation, and is nowadays used for all kinds of trivial changes and innovations. In the West, the term revolution is now most commonly used to denote some above-average variation in style of life, production methods, or marketing; elsewhere it serves to designate violent seizures of power of the kind that used to be called coups d’état. All too often, the “revolution”is accomplished by a squadron of tanks, the officers of which seize the office of the president or prime minister, the central telephone exchange, the telegraph office, and one or two other strategic points, and proclaim a new regime administered by a soi-disant revolutionary command council, otherwise described as a military junta.

The Islamic revolution in Iran is, in its way, as authentic a revolution as the French or the Russian. For better or for worse—which remains to be seen—what happened in Iran was a revolution in the classical sense, a mass movement with wide popular participation that resulted in a major shift in economic as well as political power, and that inaugurated, or, perhaps more accurately, continued, a process of vast social transformation. As with other revolutions, it was preceded by a long period of preparation in which the transfer of power was merely a stage, introduced by what went before and facilitating what came after. It arose from deep discontents; it was inspired by passionate beliefs and driven by ardent hopes. And it still has a long way to go before it works itself out, and before one can determine its nature and consequences.

As in France under the Bourbons and Russia under the Romanovs, so also in Iran under the Pahlavis, a major process of change was already underway, and it had advanced to a point at which it required a change in political power in order to continue. And in the Iranian as in other revolutions, there was always the possibility that something might happen whereby the process of change was deflected, perverted, or even annulled. Some Iranians, arguing from very different premises, would claim that this has already happened. But there is still some way to go before we, or for that matter the Iranians themselves, can say what kind of revolution this is or in which direction it is going.

So much for “revolution.” What about “Islamic”? Why an Islamic revolution? We do not speak of the Tupamaros and Montaneros and other picturesquely named groups in Latin America as Christian revolutionaries, nor do we refer to the various upheavals that have taken place in Christendom in the last few centuries as Christian revolutions. Why then Islamic revolution? The first and obvious answer is: that is how they themselves describe it, how the revolutionaries, both the actors and the theorists, perceive and present their aims and their achievements. And in a very important sense, the Islamic revolutionaries are historically right in so doing, in seeing the Islamic revolution as a reassertion of certain basic loyalties, a return to the mainstream of their own history.

Revolutions move to different scripts, and their actors assume different roles. The French Revolution, with its ideological background in the eighteenth-century enlightenment, formulated its ideals as liberty, equality, fraternity. The Russian Revolution, with a background of nineteenth-century socialism, expressed its ideal as a classless state to be achieved through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Iranian revolution expresses itself in the language of Islam, that is to say, as a religious movement with a religious leadership, a religiously formulated critique of the old order, and religiously expressed plans for the new. Muslim revolutionaries look to the birth of Islam as their model, and see themselves as engaged in a struggle against paganism, oppression, and empire.

When we in the Western world, nurtured in the Western tradition, use the words Islam and Islamic, we tend to assume that religion means the same for Muslims as it has meant in the Western world, even in medieval times: that is to say, a section or compartment of life reserved for certain matters, and separate, or at least separable, from other compartments of life designed to hold other matters. This is not so in the Islamic world. It was never so in the past, and the attempt in modern times to make it so may perhaps be seen in the longer perspective of history as an unnatural aberration that has come to an end in Iran and may also be ending in some other Islamic countries.

What then is the power, the attraction of Islam as a revolutionary appeal? This is a large and complex question, from which it may be useful to isolate a few points. The first is that in most Muslim countries Islam is still the basic criterion of group identity and loyalty. It is Islam that distinguishes between self and other, between in and out, between brother and stranger. We in the West have become accustomed to other criteria of classification: by nation, by country, and by various subdivisions of these. Both nation and country are of course old facts in the Islamic world, but as determinants of political loyalty they are modern and intrusive notions. Some countries—notably Turkey and Egypt—have become more or less accustomed to these notions. But there is a recurring tendency, in times of emergency, for Muslims to find their basic identity and loyalty in the religious community—that is to say, in an entity defined by Islam rather than by ethnic or territorial criteria.

A second, related, point is that Islam is still the most acceptable, indeed in times of crisis the only acceptable, basis for authority. Political authority, even in an authoritarian polity, requires some legitimacy. It can be maintained for a while by mere force, but not indefinitely, not over large areas for long periods. 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. To Muslims Islam offers the most intelligible formulation of ideas, on the one hand of social norms and laws, on the other of new ideals and aspirations for the future.

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