Thirty years ago today, Ayatollah Khomeini managed to bring down a 2500-year old monarchy in Iran and replace it with a new government system never seen before. On the eve of the anniversary of this revolution Mohammad of Vancouver sits down with himself to answer some basic questions about the revolution. He is old enough to have witnessed the revolution and its aftermath first hand.
WHAT WERE THE ROOTS OF THE IRANIAN REVOLUTION?
Before we get to specific events and dates, I’d like to mention that Zionism has been the biggest inspiration for political Islam or what I call Islamism. The successful way in which Zionists managed to create a national identity around the religion and culture of Judaism not only inspired Ayatollah Khomeini, but influenced other branches of Islam like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Now to my question: In the Iranian context, the constitutional revolution of 1906 created an opportunity for the first time for the clergy to play a political role in the life of the nation, but Reza Shah’s military secularization in effect "nulled" the constitution and barred the clergy from fulfilling their constitutional duties. It was in such a vacuum that Iranian nationalism became the only viable option for struggling against tyranny and foreign influence.
There is a gap, between 1953 when the democratic government of Dr. Mossadegh was brought down in a coup organized and supported by CIA, and 1967, in the moment when Ayatollah Khomeini launched his political project called Velayate Faghih (Islamic Governance). In that 14-year interval, there still existed a hope for the resurgence of Iranian nationalism as a movement for democracy and National sovereignty. But Israel’s Six-Day war in the summer of 1967 crushed the last nationalist hopes and inspired Ayatollah Khomeini in his Islamic Government lecture series, from exile in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq.
WHAT PUSHED AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI INTO THE LEADERSHIP ROLE AND WHY?
Like most other revolutions, the Iranian revolution resulted from the momentary unification of various social groups, economic classes and ethnic groups under a single leadership. Ayatollah Khomeini’s unifying leadership was based on combining two oppositional elements. The first one was his ranking as a high level Shie clergy (Marja-e-Taghlid) with religious credentials. The second one was his radical and uncompromising political stance regarding the abolition of monarchy and its institutions. Neither of these two qualities on their own were enough to make someone a practical leader, but, like an alchemist, by combining the two, he created a powerful force.
Never before had anyone from the religious camp or the secular nationalist camp dared to imagine an Iran without a royal family. By combining his religious credentials with his radical demand for an end to 2500 years of monarchy, Ayatollah Khomeini was able to bring the average Muslims, who had typically refused to join the secular political movements, into the revolutionary fold. At the same time, his radical stance made him an instant leader among seculars and nationalists, who were tired of their own compromising leaders who for decades had only hoped for reforming the monarchy.
WHY AFTER 30 YEARS, DOES THE IRANIAN REVOLUTION REMAIN MISUNDERSTOOD?
This has a lot to do with how different social groups and classes in Iran understood the events of the revolution from their own points of view. For instant the seculars’ version of events is very much different than the Marxists’ interpretation of the turn of the events. Yet those two versions are much more similar to each other compared to the Islamists’ version of what happened between 1978 to 1981. Meanwhile we in the west, thanks to our academia and media, have relied mostly on our own version of the events, seeing the Iranian revolution as a variant of the Chinese and the Cuban third world revolutions.
With each group insisting on their version of history, it is impossible to understand how this phenomenon took roots in the underground and advanced into the Iranian society’s mainstream. We also have to add to this the reluctance of think tanks and government institutions in the west to study the Iranian revolution objectively.
DID THE REVOLUTION HAVE AN ISLAMIC BASIS OR WAS THAT SOMETHING ADDED OR FORCED UPON IT LATER BY ISLAMISTS?
On the level of ideas, most social groups were equal in terms of their contribution to the revolutionary discourse, but one needs to be reminded that the material basis for the Iranian revolution was the overwhelming size of the crowds involved on the streets. The rapid growth of this crowd, from only a few thousands in the August of 1978 to more than 5 million people on the eve of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to the country in February of 1979, was the basis of the army’s reluctance in suppressing the uprising and taking a neutral stance in the final days of Shah.
The Iranian Revolution had many opposing inspirational ideologies, but essentially it ended up being an Islamic revolution because compared to the secular leftists and nationalists, the religious leadership managed to mobilize more people than other groups for the street protests and other political actions. This was the same factor that helped the religious leadership monopolize the power after the revolution. It is incredible how other social groups were unable to see the crowd as the determinant factor nor to consider the weight of their arguments enough so as to win over the Islamists after the revolution.
In every confrontation with the Islamists, whether on the streets or at the ballot boxes after the revolution, it was the nationalists and the leftists who were the losers. To date, these groups cannot admit to the simple fact that Islamists continue to enjoy a broad-based support among the Iranian population. The biggest lie always presented to the world about the Iranian government is that they have held power with a general sense of oppression. This is only true as far as the seculars and the nationalists within Iran are concerned. The Islamic system never needed to oppress the majority of practicing Muslim Iranians, since they were not rising up against the system they had chosen. They still aren’t. The theory of Iran as a religious dictatorship or theocracy only works if we don’t consider 2/3rd of Iranians equal to nationalists and the seculars as citizens. And you wonder why the west loves this version of the revolution?
WAS THERE A ROLE FOR SECULAR AND MARXISTS IN A POST ISLAMIC REVOLUTION IN IRAN OR THEY WERE ONLY NEEDED AS PARTNERS FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF THE OLD REGIME?
To be fair, Ayatollah Khomeini never really wanted to share power with nationalists or seculars, though he was willing to include a large section of the modernist Islamists in the system. In his early speeches he always saw the seculars and nationalists as part of the coalition that would defend the revolution against foreign influence– and in the case of the Marxists, help it go beyond Iran and into other Muslim countries.
In fact, the first post-revolutionary transitional government was formed by the Liberation Movement of Iran, itself the leading modernist Islamist party, headed by Mr. Bazaragn. Through the participation of this section, Ayatollah Khomeini was hoping to offer the non-religious sectors representation. For during the revolution, the religious modernists were trusted by both nationalists and the seculars, and it was thought that they could continue to act as go-betweens among opposing social forces within the society.
What slowly isolated and separated the religious modernists from the governing body was the ever growing force of Islamism within the Iranian society. As Islamists built their momentum, there was no way that Ayatollah Khomeini could hold a balance of power between all groups. Slowly he was forced to abandon the nationalists, seculars and the religious modernists in favor of his own followers, who were asking for a strict Islamic society. The rank and file of the Iranian Toodeh Party (our USSR-affiliated Communist party) were crucial in helping Ayatollah Khomeini’s students understand the basic principles of running the institutions of state. Long before the hostage crisis, Ayatollah Khomeini, against the recommendations of the religious modernists, had decided that the Communist Russia was the lesser of the two evils and need to be relied upon in the struggle against Israel and its main ally USA.
WAS AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI RESPONSIBLE FOR THE EXTENT OF ISLAMIC LAW IN THE POST REVLOUTIONARY IRANIAN CONSTITUTION? HOW DID VELAYATE FAGIH CAME TO BE INCLUDED IN THE CONSTITUTION?
Despite false claims by leftists and the nationalists, Ayatollah Khomeini did not intend to have the strict interpretation of Islam and his own theory of the Supremacy of Jurisprudence included in the constitution. Knowing the dynamics among the hardliner Islamists, he asked a panel made up mostly of the religious modernists to draft the constitution. As documented in newspapers of the time, he intended to quickly ratify this draft through a popular referendum as the country’s constitution. Unfortunately, the seculars' and leftists' demands for a constitutional assembly allowed the Islamic Republic Party to manipulate the elections and become the major player in the modifications made to the original draft in the constitutional assembly (August – October 1979)
Why do I say "unfortunately"? Because the nonreligious forces were unfamiliar with the politics of a popular election; they had not considered the actuality of democracy. Sounds familiar no? And so they insisted on an election that only further isolated them. Can we really blame Ayatollah Khomeini alone for the outcome of the constitution? Ayatollah Khomeini was not sure if a modern Iran could handle his Islamist theories right away. He expected his students to slowly prepare Iran for further ‘Islamicisation’ of the country. But his students disagreed. They believed that the opportunity for the implementation of their leaders’ ideas had arrived and that the Islamists should seize the moment and go all the way to the end.
Unfortunately, the non-religious sectors of the society helped this process.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE ISLAMIC REVOLUTION AND THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC?
Very much like the difference between Zionism and the Jewish state. The Islamic revolution is a decentered and free flowing force that embraces diversity and encourages new ideas and a variety of methods in spreading the revolution around the Islamic world. The Islamic republic, however, is the crystallization of the ideas of this revolution in the institutions of the Iranian government. The Islamic republic is fixed and organized around the central figure of Ayatollah Khomeini (and later Ayatollah Khamenei) who is claimed to be not only the leader of Iran but the leader of the Islamic revolution and the spiritual leader of all Muslims around the world.
The "spiritual leader" as an institution is where these two complementary concepts collide and intersect. In case of a conflict between the revolution and the state, it is always the Islamic republic’s interests that overrules the interests of the Islamic revolution. This principle has been the source of many compromises that the Iranian leadership has been forced to make throughout the last 30 years.
Ayatollah Khomeini is the most influential leader of the second half of the twentieth century next to Mao. He is significant because for Islamism, he is not only Marx and Lenin, but Stalin, and Trotsky as well. He theorized the concept of an Islamic government, he created the organization and strategies that led to the victory of the revolution and right after that, rather than getting caught between the Stalin/Trotsky dichotomies of Socialism in one state versus permanent revolution, he chose to have both.
At the end I would like to stress that political Islam or Islamism is not a byproduct of Zionism, but a response to global modernity and the international accumulation of wealth, productive forces and capitalism. Yet in its formation, Islamism has been influenced and inspired by Zionism. The disappearance of Zionism as the state ideology of the Jewish state would not halt or wipe out Islamism from the face of the planet. Rather, it would alter the course and the strategies that various Islamist movements would adopt to resist the global forces of capitalism and the influences of a pro Western regime as Capitalism’s only offered mode of functioning.