Recent events in parts of the Muslim world have revived memories of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and aroused fears that more such revolutions may be in preparation and new Islamic fundamentalist regimes about to emerge, with similar consequences both at home and abroad. Western observers in particular recall with alarm what they saw as the ferocity of the Iranian revolution, when large numbers of people were summarily arrested, tried in batches, and executed, sometimes within hours. Many were deeply shocked by this method of dealing with political opponents by execution, which in various parts of the Western world had been abandoned centuries, or at least decades, ago.
This kind of ferocity, this resort to ruthless, large-scale, summary trial and execution, however, is not characteristic either of Iran or of Islam. It is very characteristic of revolutions. Of the three components, Islam, revolution, and Iran, it is rather to the revolutionary than to the Islamic or Iranian aspects of what has been happening that we should look. This does not of course mean that such things are unknown in either Iranian or Islamic history. In the early days of the revolution, at the height of the anti-American campaign, one of the accusations that were frequently brought against the United States was that the CIA was responsible for instructing the Shah’s men in torture and repression. This would be rather like accusing the Iranians or the Arabs of having introduced sharp business practices to the United States.
A certain level of repression, of violence, has been endemic in the Middle East, but mass killing has not. Similarly, although Islamic penal law and regional political usage can be very severe, there is nothing in either to justify mass political executions of the kind that we have seen. These events are, however, characteristic of revolutionary situations, such as those others, in Europe and elsewhere, with which the Iranian revolution may reasonably be compared. Successful revolutionaries generally seem to find it necessary to remove their domestic opponents in large numbers and at high speed—usually in larger numbers and at higher speeds than the tyrannical regimes which they overthrow and replace. This phenomenon is familiar from the histories of the French and Russian revolutions. Even within the Middle East, after the Young Turk revolution of 1908—the liberal constitutional revolution which overthrew the legendary tyranny of Sultan Abdulhamid II—the Young Turks managed to kill more Turks in three years than the old Turks had killed in the previous thirty years.
The Iranian revolution has kept up with this tradition, and has its own definition of the enemy it seeks to destroy. Earlier revolutions had defined their opponents in various ways. The French Revolution defined them socially as aristocrats, economically as feudal, ideologically as reactionary. The Russian Revolution defined them socially as bourgeois, economically as capitalist, ideologically as counterrevolutionary. The Islamic revolutionaries in Iran, and those who seek to follow their example in other Muslim countries, define their opponents with a term that covers both the…
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