Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993).

Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1993).

John Foran, Fragile Resistance: Social Transformation in Iran from 1500 to the Revolution (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993).

Middle East Watch, Guardians of Thought: Limits on Freedom of Expression in Iran (New York, 1993).

Mansoor Moaddel, Class, Politics and Ideology in the Iranian Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

Homa Omid, Islam and the Post-Revolutionary State in Iran (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

The Iranian revolution of 1979 and subsequent seizure of power by Islamic clergy has affected how social theorists analyze revolutions. With the exception of Marxist theorists, during the 1960s and 1970s analysts rarely considered ideology to be a significant causal factor. After the upheavals in Iran, even some structural theorists began to argue that ideologies were critical after all to explain both the outbreak and outcome of revolutionary conflicts. Yet ideological explanations of the Iranian revolution remain unconvincing. A number of analyses overly simplified the role of ideological conversion, beginning with the outcome — the victory of one clerical faction and the establishment of an Islamic Republic — and working backward to rationalize the succession of events. In fact, during the revolutionary struggles, major segments of the population never supported the creation of a theocracy.

To argue convincingly that an ideological shift towards a theocratic Islamic regime preceded its formation, the analysis would have to show that the Islamic movement’s leadership was open about its ideology and goals, and that a majority of those who participated in the revolution supported such goals. Such analysis also would have to account for timing: Was an ideological shift a precipitating factor for collective action? And finally, it would have to explore the compatibility of interests and demands between the broad movement that overthrew the monarchy and the narrow clergy-dominated regime which now wields control.

Fragile Resistance explores the causes of the revolution and the impact of ideology. John Foran constructs a theoretical model by synthesizing principal variables from the dependency, world system and mode of production perspectives, which he combines with conceptions about pre-existing social structures and political “cultures of opposition” in Iran. He rejects a reductionist view of ideology, viewing it instead as potentially autonomous and thus essential in any analysis of revolution.

Of the various cultures of opposition prevalent in the 1970s in Iran, militant Islam succeeded in seizing state power. Khomeini rose to prominence because of his long-term uncompromising stand against the Shah, his personal piety and simplicity, and his positions on important political issues. According to Foran, Khomeini succeeded in distilling a populist Islam that appealed to major social groups, although his primary social base was among lower-rank ulama, theology students, and bazaar merchants and artisans. His anti-imperialist politics also attracted secular intellectuals, leftists and workers. In addition, Khomeini’s religious idiom was popular among the urban and rural marginal groups whom he extolled as the mostazafin (dispossessed).

Despite the book’s impressive theoretical analysis and empirical evidence, it suffers from an overly broad scope — centuries of Iranian history — and the large number of variables Foran incorporates prove unwieldy. Foran’s analysis overemphasizes the role of fundamentalist Islam in the revolution. An analysis that focused instead on the demands of major social groups in the revolutionary struggles would have resulted in a different picture, highlighting the role of pre-existing networks and the institutional autonomy of mosques. Although the Islamic Republic has succeeded in eliminating some aspects of Iran’s dependence, the level of repression has not declined. Fragile Resistance also lacks focus on the timing and nature of the demands of major social groups in the revolutionary struggles, proposing more generally that Khomeini’s appeal was his critique of the monarch’s dictatorship and subservience to foreign powers, not an aspiration to establish a theocracy (for which he gave no public sign).

Mansoor Moaddel’s Class, Politics and Ideology in the Iranian Revolution focuses directly on the role of Islamic ideology in the revolution, including during the post-revolutionary years. In addition to providing an excellent analysis of class conflict and political development over the past several decades, Moaddel seeks to explain the emergence and hegemony of Islamic revolutionary ideology after the coup d’etat of 1953 in terms of a decline of secular ideologies and the emergence of clerical unity, the latter increasingly supported by the petty bourgeoisie, merchants and landowners antagonized by the state’s development policies and land reform (140). Revolutionary Islam was also fostered by intellectuals who rejected liberal democracy and pluralism as “Western.” Khomeini’s contribution to this Islamic ideology was to argue for the establishment of an Islamic government.

Although Moaddel argues that ideology cannot be reduced to class interests, at times he fails to remain true to his theory. For example, he maintains that although bazaaris joined the struggles against the monarchy, once the shah was overthrown they opposed the socioeconomic transformations promoted by the advocates of radical Islam. To explain merchants’ success in blocking these changes, Moaddel uncovers a second, pre-existing, conservative Islamic ideology with a “built-in bias in favor of the property-owning classes” (246). This, he argues, led to the ascendancy of a conservative Islam so powerful that even Khomeini, who had pledged to support the downtrodden, was forced to retreat and seek alliance with bazaaris (251). It would have been more appropriate to invoke merchants’ interests, rather than shifting to conflicting ideologies, to explain their politics.

Theology and Discontent by Hamid Dabashi is a good intellectual history of the writings of eight influential twentieth-century Islamic thinkers. As an analysis of the connection between ideology and revolution, the book is a failure. Dabashi asserts that “the Islamic Ideology was the crucial, perhaps even indispensable, mobilizing force behind the massive demonstrations of public discontent with the Pahlavi regime”(4). The book’s shortcoming is the lack of documentation to substantiate such claims. Dabashi presents no evidence that velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist) was popularly acknowledged by the various sectors of the revolutionary coalition. Considerable evidence exists to suggest that this doctrine was entirely unknown, even among some of Khomeini’s close associates. In asserting its popular importance, Dabashi simply repeats the official version (415-418). Restricting the focus of his study to the 1979 overthrow of the monarchy allows him to avoid dealing with post-revolutionary developments that would challenge such propositions.

Islam and the Post-Revolutionary State in Iran by Homa Omid and Guardians of Thought by Middle East Watch are empirical studies of post-revolutionary developments in Iran. Although neither directly addresses the Islamic Republic’s ideological foundations, their evidence and analyses undermine arguments for the ideological compatibility between the participants in the revolution’s collective actions and the eventual formation of the theocratic state. Guardians of Thought examines the process of imposing political control, and convincingly demonstrates the ideological incompatibility between broad segments of the intelligentsia and the current regime, as evident in censorship and repression of the press, writers, filmmakers, academics and political dissidents; suppression of cultural heritage; and religious litmus tests for students seeking entry into colleges and universities. The regime has even put its own officials on trial for issuing permits for books that were later deemed subversive by higher authorities, further illustrating the incongruities between the Islamic regime and the vast majority of intellectuals in contemporary Iran.

The strength of Omid’s book derives from her use of primary sources to illustrate the incompatibility of the demands of major actors in the Iranian revolution and the establishment of the theocratic state; the weakness is the absence of a theoretical framework. She argues that prior to the revolution, various Islamic organizations, thinkers and activists equated Islam with liberalism, the only exception being Khomeini and a small group of his followers (50). But even Khomeini’s pre-revolutionary writings generally advocated a “collegiate” government rather than a single authority (60). Omid examines various institutions, social sectors and facets of political life under the Islamic Republic, concluding that “the first serious attempt at setting up an Islamic government in the twentieth century has proved to be an abysmal failure”(219).

Ervand Abrahamian’s latest book, Khomeinism, challenges the standard views that Khomeinism is identical to fundamentalism, arguing instead that “populism is a more apt term” (2). Once in power, Abrahamian argues, populist movements inevitably emphasize the importance of cultural, national and political reconstruction, not socioeconomic revolution. Abrahamian argues that Khomeini’s populism took shape early in the 1970s when he began emphasizing class divisions and oppression. Furthermore, in the 1970s Khomeini rarely mentioned doctrinal issues. Some of Khomeini’s political allies and advisers were completely bewildered when they first heard him discuss the concept of velayat-e faqih after the revolution (30).

Abrahamian’s analysis is always excellently conceived and empirically grounded. He correctly underscores the fact that Khomeini’s pre-revolutionary public statements emphasized imperialism and the pillage of national resources, dictatorship and the absence of political freedom, and moral decadence and the erosion of Islam. He is imprecise, though, in pinning down the timing of Khomeini’s shift to an emphasis on injustice and the interests of the downtrodden, placing it only in the “1970s.” The timing is significant precisely because of what it reveals about the relationship between ideology and revolution. In fact, Khomeini’s ideological shift and forceful rhetoric about oppression and injustice did not occur until after the monarch was deposed, which provided an opportunity for the lower classes to demand radical changes. This also fostered the emergence of a rapidly growing but divided left, which proclaimed the cause of the working classes. At the same time, the state apparatus was controlled by two competing factions, the liberals and a faction of the clergy. Khomeini’s shift to radicalization served to bolster his power at the expense of the left, while at the same time undermining liberals who could not make such a shift. Ideology changed to accommodate popular mobilization, rather than the other way around.

Plenty of evidence exists to support Abrahamian’s conclusion that Islamic fundamentalism was not the source of revolutionary activism, even though broad segments of the revolutionary coalition called for the establishment of an Islamic Republic. Most, though, expected independence, freedom and social justice, not a theocracy. To maintain power, a segment of the clergy adopted repressive mechanisms to exclude coalition partners and to demobilize various social groups and classes that had participated in the revolutionary struggles. The regime pursued a relentless campaign to gain ideological support for its brand of Islam. Yet, even among the clergy, only 15 to 20 percent appear to support the current regime. The clergy’s assumption of power and the regime’s integration of religion into the state and the economy have thereby subjected Islam and Islamic ideology to attack and challenge.

How to cite this article:

Misagh Parsa "Ideology and Revolution in Iran," Middle East Report 196 (September/October 1995).

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