Why an “Islamic” Revolution?

In the early years after 1979, people abroad looked at the Islamic Revolution in Iran with amazement and disbelief. Political scientists, economists, historians and even religious figures tried to make sense of what had happened and was then still happening.“The Iranian Revolution: Uneven Development and Religious Populism” is a 1982 article for Fred Halliday, an Irish academic and specialist of the Middle East, wherein he argues that the Iranian Revolution must neither be “assimilated” into greater Iranian history nor be regarded as “original” especially by comparing it to other modern revolutions. He writes that the Iranian Revolution was “a comprehensively reactionary revolution” because it essentially went against the progress that the country was witnessing prior to 1979. Since the French Revolution of 1789 and onwards, the revolutions which came after it advocated for an improvement of the greater population’s economic situation, “re-new” (create) national myths and most importantly establish a democratic regime. Unlike the Revolutions in Russia in 1917 and China in 1949 among others, the Iranian Revolution took place in a country which had a high socio-economic standing. Khomeini rejected not just western values but also the native culture(s) of Iran — he rejected history. Claiming that his legitimacy derives from the Prophet Muhammed and various former Shi’a leaders, rather than what the Shah was advocating when glorifying Ancient Persia, Khomeini instilled the ultimate power of the country in the hands of the Faqih, the religious authority that would allegedly lead the nation through its divine inspiration. He was a charismatic leader who mobilized the populace to believe in his “ideology of revolutionary legitimacy” against the Shah’s supposed authoritarian regime. “Regression is the basis of the whole revolutionary program,” says Halliday.

Islam only became an important agent in Iran during the 1970s which is why social scientists were troubled to know where and how to classify this event because a new ideology based on Conservative-Islamism had succeeded in overthrowing a regime. Not only is the Iranian Revolution the first Islamic revolution but also the first “modern” revolution. People who were benefiting from the capitalist system and the modernization efforts that Iran had implemented were also the ones demanding regime change — it was never just the poor or uneducated. Almost all the demonstrations, protests, political strikes and political confrontation happened in cities/urban areas. Halliday refers to this as the intertwining of “traditional” and “modern” which made the Iranian Revolution possible. An unexpected alliance was established to counter the Shah’s strong grip to power between the (1) Intellectuals, (2) Devout Muslims, (3) Secularists and nonbelievers, (4) Bazaar Merchants, and (5) leftist students. Interestingly, the three major parties which were the clergy, the nationalist-conservatives and the pro-Russian communists (Tudeh) did not interfere, opting to only sympathize with the protestors. 

The interrelation of three important factors helped the revolution succeed and have it adopt its islamic nature: (1) a history of foreign interventions, (2) rapid and advanced development in the industrial sector and (3) several clergy having the gift of being charismatic. The Shi’a clergy simply had the political capacity to convey their nationalist messages during a period of profound economic transformation when some foreign powers were quarrelling over Iran’s wealth. Nobody expected the Shi’a clergy to have any agency whatsoever in a potential vital regime change. They seized a once in a lifetime opportunity and it payed off. Khomeini was intrinsically dismissed as harmless but did, against all odds, obtain what he wanted and succeeded in enforcing his extremist vision for Iran and vowed to export this vision to the supposed impoverished Shi’a communities of the greater Middle East region. 

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