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Islamic Revolution

The penalty for apostasy, in Islamic law, is death. Islam is conceived as a polity, not just as a religious community. It follows therefore that apostasy is treason. It is a withdrawal, a denial of allegiance as well as of religious belief and loyalty. Any sustained and principled opposition to the existing regime or order almost inevitably involves such a withdrawal. In fourteen centuries of Islamic history there have been many opposition movements within Islam. Almost all of them and certainly all those of any significance were religiously expressed. Opposition to the prevailing order, criticism of an existing regime, found expression in religious terms, just as the prevailing regime defined its authority and its legitimacy in religious terms. To confront a religious regime, one needed a religious challenge.

In a sense, the advent of Islam was itself a revolution, which after long struggles only partially succeeded. After the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, there was a continuing tension between the new religion and its message and the very old societies of the countries that the Muslims conquered. Islam came, not into a new world, like Christendom in Europe, but to lands of ancient civilization and deep-rooted traditions. This tension between Islamic dynamism and the older forces of the river-valley societies continued through medieval into modern times. For example, Islamic doctrine is basically egalitarian. It is true that the equality of Islam is limited to free adult male Muslims, but even this represented a very considerable advance on the practice of both the Greco-Roman and the ancient Iranian world. Islam from the first denounced aristocratic privilege, rejected hierarchy, and adopted a formula of the career open to the talents.

Resistance to all this was, of course, very powerful. On the whole Islam triumphed only in certain limited spheres of social and family life. In most political and public matters it was overwhelmed by the more ancient traditions of the regions, which survived in an Islamic disguise, notably in the persistence of the autocratic, monarchical form of government. So we find through the centuries a recurring theme of revolt: a feeling that history had somehow taken a wrong turn; that Islam had been perverted; that the Islamic community was being ruled by non-Muslims, by bad Muslims, by renegade Muslims, by those who had betrayed the heritage of the Prophet and were leading the community as a whole into sin; and that therefore it was the duty of the Muslims to overthrow and replace such an evil regime. In time, this belief began to acquire a messianic character, and a whole cluster of traditions and practices developed, associated with the figure of the Mahdi, the divinely guided one who will come in God’s good time, overthrow the kingdoms of evil, and establish the world of justice and divine law.

Normally this was to be accomplished by armed insurrection against the existing order. But armed insurrection was not always feasible and when it was not, according to the more extreme Shi’ites, it was permissible to have recourse to what we would nowadays call terrorist methods. At quite an early stage there were extremist and deviant Shi’ite groups who not only practiced terror but made a kind of sacrament of it. The most famous of course were the Assassins, the ones who took up the patent of the procedure that still bears their name. They flourished in Iran and from there spread to Syria. They were active in both countries roughly from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, and disposed, always by dramatic public assassination, of a fairly large number of people. Contrary to the popular belief in the West, the Assassins were not greatly concerned with the struggle against the Crusaders. Of their many victims very few were Crusaders, and the great majority were Muslim princes and dignitaries. Theirs was a revolutionary struggle against the Lords of Islam at that time. Their actions against crusading chiefs were minor and incidental.

A familiar feature of revolutions, such as the French and the Russian, is the tension, often conflict, between moderates and extremists—Girondins and Jacobins in the French Revolution, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in the Russian, as well as numerous smaller splinter groups. Some historians have found similar differences in Islamic revolutions of the past; some observers have discerned them in the course of events in Iran. Certainly there has been no lack of such tensions and conflicts between rival groups, factions, and tendencies within the revolutionary camp. The distinction between moderates and extremists is, however, one derived from Western history, and may be somewhat misleading when applied to the Islamic revolution in Iran.

A more accurate description, for this as for other previous Islamic revolutions, would present the conflict as one between pragmatists and ideologues. The latter are those who insist, against all difficulties and obstacles, on maintaining the pure doctrine of the revolution as taught by them. The former are those who, when they have gained power and become involved in the processes of government at home and abroad, find it necessary to make compromises. Sometimes they go so far as to modify their revolutionary teachings; more often, they tacitly disregard them. This conflict, between those who reject and those who practice compromise, can be traced throughout Islamic history, from the venerated Companions of the Prophet—those who embraced Islam and joined him during his lifetime—to the henchmen of Khomeini. In times of revolution, it becomes particularly bitter.

Each side has certain advantages. The ideologues have the better rhetoric, the stronger appeal, the greater popular support. The pragmatists are better equipped to deal with the practical problems of government, at home and abroad. Part of their pragmatism is to try to avoid an open clash with the ideologues. When they fail, and a clash occurs, they are usually defeated, since in a time of revolutionary change the ideologues are better placed to mobilize support. It is not easy to rouse the masses for such tasks as compromising with Iraq, mending fences with the United States, or slowing the pace of revolutionary change. When pragmatists in office go too far, they are ruthlessly suppressed, and their careers end in exile, imprisonment, or death. At best, they fade out of public life and are rendered innocuous. Such have been the various fates of once prominent figures like the former foreign minister Sadeq Qotbzadah, who was executed; the former president Abolhasan Bani Sadr, who escaped to Paris; and the first prime minister of the revolutionary regime, Mehdi Bazargan, who, though alive and in Iran, has been excluded from power and reduced to insignificance. The ideologues rule, and since the practical problems remain, in time a new group of pragmatists emerges among the victorious ideologues, and the conflict is renewed, usually with the same result. The process continues until the revolutionary passion is spent, and a group of pragmatists survives, succeeds, and remains in power. Then the ways of government return to normal, and the ideologues return to the world of theory and preaching from which the revolution had enabled them, briefly, to emerge. It would seem that this stage has not yet been reached in Iran.

In recent years it has become common practice to use the Western term fundamentalist to denote a wide range of militant Islamic movements, both radical and conservative. The term has spread from English to other European languages, and of late—the ultimate irony—it has even been translated into Arabic and is used by secularized Muslims to describe their militant Islamic compatriots. Despite its common use, the term is inaccurate and misleading. Fundamentalist is a term originating in the United States in the early twentieth century, and used to refer to certain Protestant groups that asserted, against the growing influence of liberal theology and critical Bible studies, their belief in the literal divine origin and textual inerrancy of the Bible.

The so-called Muslim fundamentalists are something quite different. In principle, all Muslims believe in the literal divine origin and textual inerrancy of the Koran. No one within Islam has ever asserted otherwise, and there is no liberal theology or critical Koran study against which a protest or reaction might be necessary. Where the so-called Muslim fundamentalists differ from other Muslims—and incidentally also from Christian fundamentalists—is in their scholasticism and their legalism. The gravamen of their case against existing regimes and prevailing ideologies is the abandonment of the Shari’a, the systematized law of Islam, and the adoption of what they see as infidel laws and customs. In his denunciation of the misdeeds of the Shah, Khomeini laid special emphasis on the Western-style emancipation of women, and the sharing of political power with non-Muslims. Other proponents of re-Islamization, in Egypt and elsewhere, have made similar complaints. Their critique is not, however, limited to these issues, but covers the whole range of social and cultural modernization. Their declared purpose is to undo all the political, legal, and consequent social changes that have been introduced during the period of Westernization, and to restore the full panoply of the Islamic state and the Islamic holy law. Only when the neopagan apostates who rule in Islamic lands have been deposed, and their laws and institutions abrogated and annulled, will the true Islamic life become possible, and the true mission of Islam be accomplished.

For the most consequent of these radicals, the fight against foreign enemies is at this point a distraction. The true enemy is at home, and only when he has been conquered will the fight against the alien intruder become necessary and victory against him desirable. In Iran, according to the exponents of the Iranian revolution, the first stage has already been accomplished, and the second is under way. In other Islamic countries, the first task still remains.

The external enemy Iran now confronts is, for the present rulers of that country, defined by Islamic law and identified by Islamic history. In the classical and sanctified texts that determine their view of the world, mankind is divided into two parts: the House of Islam and the House of Unbelief, more commonly called the House of War. Historically, in the Muslim perception, the House of War par excellence has been Christendom, later called Europe, in modern times redefined as the West. To the east and south of the classical Islamic world there were only pagans, some of them, as in India and China, with high levels of material culture, but both essentially regional, and neither offering a serious challenge to Islam. Only in the West was there a major adversary—an alternative dispensation, expressed in a rival world civilization and a competing world power. This perception was reinforced by centuries of conflict—jihad and crusade, conquest and reconquest, the Muslim invasions of Europe and the European invasion of Islam. If the main rival was the Christian and Western world, the archenemy was whoever was seen as the leading power of that world—at different times the Byzantine and Holy Roman Emperors, the imperial powers of Europe, and now the United States of America, described, in the theologically colored language favored by Khomeini, as “the great Satan.”

This role came to the United States by inheritance and is retained by leadership, as the preeminent power of the West and the ultimate custodian of Western values. With that leadership comes the inevitable price of hatred. The United States might escape this hatred by changing its civilization—hardly a serious proposition—or by relinquishing its leadership and relapsing, like former leaders, into relative insignificance and perceived harmlessness. There may be another way—when the Muslim leaders are persuaded that it is no longer the West or Christendom that is the main enemy and the main danger, but another creed and another power that offer a far greater threat to all that they cherish.

Though recent events do not encourage such a perspective, some Muslim leaders have already begun to look in that direction. But most find it easier—and much safer—to direct their hostility against the West, the source of most of the changes that have come to the Islamic lands in modern times and, as they see it, have undermined and disrupted the Islamic way of life. In principle, the aim of the Islamic revolution, in Iran and eventually elsewhere, is to sweep away all the alien and infidel accretions that were imposed on Muslim lands and peoples in the era of alien dominance and influence, and to restore the true Islamic order as it existed in the days of the Prophet and his companions. An examination of the record however, in Iran and elsewhere, reveals that the rejection of Europe and its offerings is by no means as comprehensive and as undiscriminating as the propaganda might indicate, and that some of the importations from the lands of unbelief are still very welcome.

Some of these are obvious. The Islamic revolution in Iran was the first truly modern revolution of the electronic age. Khomeini was the first charismatic orator who sent his oratory to millions of his compatriots at home on cassettes; he was the first revolutionary leader in exile who directed his followers at home by telephone, thanks to the direct dialing that the Shah had introduced in Iran and that was available to him in France (though not in Iraq). Needless to say, in the long war in which they have been engaged with Iraq, the Iranian revolutionary leaders have made the fullest use of such weapons as the West and its imitators are willing to supply—guns, rockets, tanks, and planes on the one hand, radio, television, and the printing press on the other.

There is another respect in which the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran have, alas, borrowed from Europe. While their symbols and allusions are Islamic rather than European, the leaders and practitioners of the revolution have found their models of style and method in European history. The summary trial and execution of great numbers of ideologically defined enemies; the driving into exile of hundreds of thousands of men and women; the large-scale confiscation of private property; the mixture of repression and subversion, of violence and indoctrination that accompanied the consolidation of power—all this owes far more to the examples of Robespierre and Stalin than to those of Muhammad and Ali. These methods are deeply un-Islamic; they are, however, thoroughly revolutionary.

But that is not all. In addition to the necessary technology of warfare and propaganda, there were other innovations that at first sight would appear to be neither Islamic nor necessary. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a written constitution and an elected parliament, in which lively debates take place. None of these things existed in the Islamic past, and there has been no serious attempt to argue that they did. While Western-inspired laws have been abrogated and replaced by the Shari’a, Western-style legal procedures remain, and there are courts and lawyers to administer them. These too are not insignificant remnants of the age of European influence. There has been no loss of interest—if anything rather an increase—in the study of foreign languages, and the books to which a knowledge of foreign language gives access.

What then, in Islamic ideology, is the revolution about? What are the grievances that have aroused such passionate anger, and that call so urgently for remedy? A study of revolutionary writings and speeches reveals two main theses. One of these themes might be called religious in the narrower, Western sense of the word—that is to say, relating to belief, ritual, and observance. While no one, apart from a few Marxists and they at peril of their lives, has openly challenged Muslim beliefs, there has been a growing laxness among educated classes, particularly those who have received some measure of Western or Westernized education. Even more offensive—since Muslims have always been more concerned with practice than with belief—is the laxness in Muslim observance, and in respect for the basic norms of the Muslim way of life. In many Muslim cities, forbidden food and drinks are freely available and openly consumed, to the scandal of the believers, while the cinema and the television screen bring indecency and immorality into both the public place and the private home.

Linked with this is the second theme, the polemic—itself a borrowing from the West—against consumerism and the cult of worldly goods, and the championing of the poor and oppressed against their rich and powerful oppressors. There had always been rich and poor in the Islamic world, and the difference between them was accepted and in a sense sanctified by Islamic law, which recognizes private wealth, regulates inheritance, and prescribes charity. But Westernization made the gap between rich and poor both greater and more visible. It also—through a rapidly rising rate of natural increase—made the poor much more numerous. Western commerce and industry created vast new opportunities for both enrichment and expenditure; the Western press and television have made the poor, as never before, conscious of their own poverty and of the wealth of their neighbors. In the past, rich and poor had basically worn the same kind of clothes, eaten the same kind of food, lived the same kind of life, and been held together by a complex web of loyalties and obligations. In the modern age, a Westernized elite and an un-Westernized populace live in different worlds, and the loyalties that once held them together have been broken or discredited. Such disparities did much to provoke and exacerbate the alienation and anger that destroyed the head of state in Egypt, and the entire regime in Iran.

Like the French and the Russian in their time, the Iranian revolutionaries play to international as well as domestic audiences, and their revolution exercises a powerful fascination over other peoples outside Iran, in other countries within the same culture, within the same universe of discourse. The appeal was naturally strongest among Shi’i populations, as in South Lebanon and some of the Gulf states, and weakest among their immediate Sunni neighbors. It was and remains very strong in the greater part of the Muslim world, where Shi’ism is virtually unknown. In these, the sectarian difference is unimportant; Khomeini can be seen not as a Shi’ite or a Persian but as an Islamic revolutionary leader. Like the Western radicals who, in their day, responded with almost messianic enthusiasm to the events in Paris and Petrograd, events “that shook the world,” so did millions of young and not so young men and women all over the world of Islam, from West Africa to Indonesia, from the Sudan to Sarajevo and Kossovo in Yugoslavia, and, more recently, among the millions of Muslim immigrants and guest workers in Western Europe. Sarajevo is a particularly striking case. Though its population is predominantly Muslim, Sarajevo is a European city in a country that had by then been under communist rule for thirty-five years. Nevertheless, the appeal of the Iranian revolution was so strong that the Yugoslav papers reported trials of young men in Sarajevo accused of plotting to overthrow the regime and establish an Islamic republic in Bosnia. If that could happen in Sarajevo, one wonders what might be happening among the sixty million Muslims in the Soviet Union, far closer to Iran, in both geography and culture, than those of Yugoslavia.

The parallel is again very close between what happened in the Islamic world in our day and what happened in Europe and beyond following the Russian and French Revolutions—the same upsurge of emotion, the same uplifting of hearts, the same boundless hopes, the same willingness to excuse and condone all kinds of horrors, and the same questions. Where next? Who could have predicted in 1795 or in 1925 the further development of the French or Russian revolutions and the careers of Napoleon or Stalin? I shall not attempt it for Iran. Only this much can be said: that what is in progress is producing vast, deep, and irreversible changes, that the forces that are causing these changes are not yet spent and that their destination is still unknown.


Islamic Revolution: An Exchange April 28, 1988

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