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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.

And finally, a practical matter, but one of considerable significance; Islam, as recent events have demonstrated again and again, provides the most effective system of symbols—one might say of slogans, though no derogatory sense is meant—for mobilizing public opinion, for arousing the people in defense of a regime that is perceived as possessing the necessary legitimacy, or against a regime that is perceived as lacking that legitimacy, in other words, as not being Islamic. It was and is in Islamic terms that those who overthrew the Shah, murdered Anwar Sadat, seized the Great Mosque in Mecca, and now threaten the existing order in many Muslim countries justified their actions and appealed for popular support.

It is by now a truism that in Islam there is no distinction between church and state. In Christendom the existence of two authorities goes back to the founder of Christianity, who enjoined his followers to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. There are two powers: God and Caesar. They may be associated, they may be separated; they may be in harmony, they may be in conflict; one or the other may dominate; one may interfere, the other may protest, as we have learned recently. But always there are two: God and Caesar, Church and state. In classical Islam, that is to say in pre-Westernized Islam, there is no such distinction. There were not two powers but one, and the question of separation did not therefore arise.

This difference between the religions goes back to the very beginnings of Islam and to the career of its founder. Unlike Moses, Muhammad lived to enter and conquer his promised land. Unlike Jesus, he triumphed in his lifetime over his worldly enemies and established an Islamic state in Medina of which he was sovereign. As the Ayatollah Khomeini has reminded us, Muhammad exercised the normal functions of a head of state—he dispensed justice, he raised taxes, he promulgated laws, he made war, he made peace. In other words, from the very beginning, in the sacred biography of its Prophet, in its earliest history enshrined in scripture and tradition, Islam as a religion has been associated with the exercise of power. Again to quote Khomeini: “Islam is politics or it is nothing.” Its founder was judge, statesman, and general, as well as prophet. Church and state were not separable since they did not exist as different institutions or even as different concepts. These came, but much later and from elsewhere.

There are many different strands in the rich and varied traditional culture of Islam. There are in particular two political traditions, one of which might be called quietist, the other activist. The arguments in favor of both are based, as are most early Islamic arguments, on the Holy Book and on the actions and sayings of the Prophet.

The quietist tradition obviously rests on the Prophet as sovereign, as judge and statesman. But before the Prophet became a head of state, he was a rebel. Before he traveled from Mecca to Medina, where he became sovereign, he was an opponent of the existing order. He led an opposition against the pagan oligarchy of Mecca and at a certain point went into exile and formed what in modern language might be called a “government in exile,” with which finally he was able to return in triumph to his birthplace and establish the Islamic state in Mecca. The Prophet’s departure from Mecca—the hijra—marks the starting point of the Muslim era. The struggles in adversity that preceded his exile, like the ultimate triumph that ended his career, are all part of the Islamic tradition, of the holy life of the Prophet.

Of these two traditions, that of the Prophet as sovereign is obviously far better known and far better documented, but the tradition of the Prophet as rebel is also old and deep-rooted, and it recurs throughout the centuries of Islamic history. The activist tradition has been stronger and more explicit among the Shi’a, but it is not exclusive to them, and there has been no lack of Shi’i quietists and Sunni dissidents in Islamic history. The Prophet as rebel has provided a sort of paradigm of revolution—opposition and rejection, withdrawal and departure, exile and return. Time and time again movements of opposition in Islamic history tried to repeat this pattern, a few of them successfully. The rebels who carried out the first great Islamic revolution in the eighth century went to Eastern Iran and from there they came to Iraq and founded the great Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Another group of religiously inspired rebels, in the tenth century, went to Yemen and then to North Africa, and from there they conquered Egypt and established the great Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo. Khomeini went to Iraq, and thence to Neauphle le Château, outside Paris, and from there he returned to rule in Tehran.

Does all this mean that Islam is a theocracy? Different observers have answered both yes and no. Some Western observers, particularly of late, have described Islam as a theocratic system. Most Muslim writers reject this with indignation. In the terms in which they argue, both sides are right, depending on what is meant by theocracy. From the point of view of Muslim scholars, historians, theologians, and others, who reject the idea of Islam’s being a theocracy, the meaning of the word is very clear. There is, as they rightly point out, no church in Islam. There is no priesthood in the sense of an ordination and a sacred office. There is no Vatican, no pope, no cardinals, no bishops, no church councils; there is no hierarchy such as exists in Christendom. Consequently, they argue, since theocracy means government by the church, rule by the priests, and since Islam has neither church nor priests, it follows that Islam is not, indeed cannot be, a theocracy.

The opposing argument takes theocracy in a rather different sense. Proponents of this view concede that there is no priesthood in Islam in the sense of an ordained intermediary performing some sacred office between God and man, but they claim that there is a very important priesthood in a sociological sense. It consists of a class of professional men of religion whose status is acquired by learning rather than by ordination and hierarchic rank, but who nevertheless function in most respects as a clergy. And these men of religion, the theologians and the jurists (the two in Islam are intimately associated), represent God and God’s law for most practical purposes, and therefore in a very real sense exercise authority, though not the ultimate political authority, which until the present regime in Iran has never been exercised by the professional men of religion. In this respect, the Iranian Mullahs are not, as they claim, restoring the order that existed in antiquity; they are creating something entirely new in Islamic doctrine or history.

Islam is in principle, if not in practice, theocratic in another and deeper sense. Theocracy literally means the rule of God. And in this sense Islam has, in theory, always been a theocracy. In Rome, Caesar was God. In Christendom, God and Caesar coexist. In Islam, God is Caesar, in that he alone is the supreme head of state, the source of sovereignty and hence also of authority and of law. 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.

The enemies of God” is an expression that is often heard nowadays in Iran, both in political polemics against enemies abroad and in criminal charges against enemies at home. To modern man, the idea that God not only has enemies, but needs human help in coping with them, may seem a little strange. But the notion of God’s enemies is a very old one, with preclassical, classical, biblical, Islamic, and Iranian antecedents. It becomes much more intelligible in its modern context if we bear in mind the Islamic perception of God as the head of state. Those who exercise authority do so on behalf of God, in the same way and perhaps to the same extent as the prime minister of England exercises authority on behalf of the Queen and the president of the United States on behalf of the people. And since the state undoubtedly can have enemies, it follows that the enemies of the state are the enemies of God.


The larger question arises of the definition of the other, the outsider, the stranger. If the definition of self is by Islam, if the insider is the Muslim, it follows that the “other” is the non-Muslim, the unbeliever, the Kaffir. And this for most purposes is seen as the basic division of mankind.

In classical usage, the difference between Muslim and unbeliever was one of creed and allegiance. The Iranian revolutionaries have given this ancient dichotomy a modern dimension, by linking it with another distinction drawn from the Koran, between the humbled and the haughty. In the religious and political language of present-day Iran, the humbled (one might also translate the Arabic word mustad’af as deprived, downtrodden) include even the non-Muslim oppressed, who benefit from a kind of Islam of grace. Similarly the haughty (in Arabic mustakbir, which in the Koran means something like hubristic) include even those, both at home and abroad, who profess the Islamic religion but do not accept the teachings and discipline of the revolution. They too are counted among the enemies of God, and against them there is a perpetual obligation of struggle (in Arabic jihad, usually inaccurately translated as “holy war”), until all mankind adopts the faith and obeys the law of Islam.

These enemies are perceived as falling into two basic categories: the external and the internal. The external enemy means the non-Islamic world, relations with which, in war and in truce, are elaborately regulated by Islamic Holy Law. But for the revolutionaries, it is the enemy within Islam that is their first and main concern.

Since we are talking about religiously defined politics, a term that would most naturally occur to a Western observer is heresy. It would not be appropriate. Heresy is not an Islamic notion; there is not even an Islamic term corresponding to it. Heresy is a Christian term meaning a deviation, officially defined as such, from an officially defined orthodoxy. And since Islam has no councils or churches or hierarchy, there is no officially defined orthodoxy and there cannot therefore be any officially defined and condemned deviation from orthodoxy. What can happen is something much more serious and much more dangerous. If a Muslim deviates from Islam to the point where he is no longer regarded as a Muslim with the minimum of correct belief, he is something much worse than a heretic. He is an apostate. The process by which one is declared to be an apostate is called takfir, naming and denouncing a Kaffir, an unbeliever. This term is much used in religious movements nowadays, notably by the group responsible for the murder of Sadat.

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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