The Emergence of Islamic Reaction:
A Look at Iran’s Pre-Revolutionary Years
The 1979 revolution in Iran marked a significant shift in the country’s political landscape, dividing its history into two distinct periods. This turning point also marked a transformation in the role and performance of opposition forces, as well as in the intellectual and cultural space within Iran. Specifically, the revolution marked a transformation for the left in Iran.
The 1979 revolution was a widespread and spontaneous movement driven by the demands and rights of the people. It encompassed various issues, from calls for housing and basic citizenship rights to demands for freedom, welfare, and equality. The revolution was not the result of any specific political party or force, but rather a popular uprising against the monarchy and the king, in pursuit of freedom, equality, prosperity, and a dignified life for all Iranians in the 20th century.
The 1979 revolution had no relation to Islam. It was anti-revolutionary. The failure of the 1979 revolution was due to the anti-revolutionary actions of the Iranian bourgeoisie and their Western supporters, who recognized that in order to halt the powerful movement that threatened to sweep away Iranian capitalism along with the Shah, they had to revive Islam and resort to violence against the people.
The United States and other Western countries could not tolerate the potential for the anti-Shah movement in Iran to evolve into a social revolution that could bring the left to power. Despite the weaknesses of the Iranian left at the time, this was a real possibility. From the start of the revolution, slogans such as “Our oil worker is our stubborn leader” and “Equality, brotherhood, workers’ government” were heard in the streets.
The West, particularly the United States, could not allow the revolution to progress towards such slogans, especially in a country like Iran with its military power and proximity to the Soviet Union. The West realized that it could not defeat the revolution by simply supporting the Shah. An alternative strategy was to appeal to the forces of the Islamic opposition.
From the Tasu’a & Ashura marches, which were among the first movements that transformed Islam into a mass movement against the king, the United States and other Western European countries had established their strategy for opposing the Iranian revolution. The Islamic forces leading the march had prohibited the slogan “death to the king.”
Compromises had been made since then, the monarchy and religion came forward together against the 1979 revolution; To the degree that the anti-shah movement became more leftist and radical, the West placed more hope and reliance on Islam. From the moment it appeared in the revolution, Islam was completely opposed to the radical demands and goals of the revolution.
With the formation of the Guadalupe Conference between the heads of Western countries, in which they decided to bring Khomeini to Paris and make him the “leader of the revolution,” the West abandoned the king – but not necessarily the monarchy – and moved towards the scenario of a joint government. Khomeini and Bakhtiar would work together, with Bakhtiar in Tehran giving his consent to Khomeini in Qom. Bakhtiar announced in an interview that “the current state is taking care of the affairs and Khomeini is very welcome to go to Qom.” At this point, the city became known as the Vatican of Iran.
Upon his arrival to the country, Khomeini immediately established a new state in Tehran. He tasked Mehdi Bazargan, a liberal politician, with forming the state, and made it clear that the Pahlavi’s regime is not a legal. “You are illegal, the state we say is a state that relies on the choose of the people, relies on the decree of God, you must either deny God or the nation.” Khomeini said.
Khomeini while was using the concept of the nation’s will, launched a heavy attack against autonomous councils that had emerged in various regions of the country. He emphasized the importance of the Islam and implementation of sharia as a whole concept of the revolution and accused those who opposed his vision of an Islamic State of being enemies of God and promoting separatism.
The calculations were upset by the radical grassroots movement. Bakhtiar and Bazargan were rejected by the people, and Khomeini couldn’t have dealing to handle the mounting mass protests demanding fulfillment of their revolutionary demands and the Shah’s departure if he had not initiated the campaign to seize the American embassy. Even though the embassy seizure briefly halted the people’s movement, the suffocating grip of the Islamic regime ultimately spread across Iran due to the war with Iraq, effectively crushing the revolution. Following Khomeini’s transfer to Paris and appointment as the “leader of the revolution,” the process of quelling the revolution – ironically dubbed “the revolution” – began. This process culminated in the invasion of June 30, 1981, and the subsequent war with Iraq. Thus, a contributing factor to the imposition of Islam and the revolution’s suppression in the name of the revolution was the deliberate and calculated action of the United States and Western nations from above.
Pan-Islamism, Khomeini, and Velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) would not have gained a foothold in Iranian politics without the approval and assistance of the West, which was deeply concerned about the left and radicalization of the revolution. This counter-revolution was meticulously planned and became a sophisticated method of subduing the revolution. However, the central question remains: What factors enabled Islam to assume this role? How was it possible for the people to embrace ideologies as regressive as pan-Islamism and Khomeini’s reactionary vision under the guise of revolution?
During the approximately fifteen years leading up to the 1979 revolution, Iran experienced a series of political and cultural shifts that created conditions favorable to the emergence of Islamic reaction under the guise of revolution.
If we divide the contemporary history of Iran into two periods, the first is marked by the constitutional revolution of the early 20th century. This liberal and progressive movement opposed the feudal monarchy and championed justice, law, and parliament. The constitutional revolution in Iran was made possible by a coalition of various groups, including liberal reformers, clerics, merchants, shopkeepers, students, market guilds, workers, and radical members of secret societies. Together, they worked to establish a parliament and constitution. This marked a significant victory after a long history of conflict and animosity between religious/secular reformers and religious conservatives. The increasing dominance of European powers over Iran in the second half of the 19th century, along with the establishment of closer ties with the capitalist world economy, played a pivotal role in forging this alliance and setting the stage for revolutionary developments at the turn of the 20th century. Notably, Iran’s trade with Europe experienced a substantial uptick from the 1880s onward. #
If one were to examine the intellectual, artistic, and literary standards and values of the constitutional period in Iran, it becomes apparent that they were heavily influenced by Western liberalism. There was a concerted effort to implement Western civilization’s accomplishments in fields such as health, education, justice, science, art, and citizenship rights within Iranian society. The thinkers of this period acted as proponents of Western culture and civilization, hoping to awaken Iran’s supposedly “neglected” and backward society with the fruits of Western civilization in their works.
The intellectuals of the constitutional era not only do not hold negative opinions of the West, but they view advanced Western culture and civilization as their model. These intellectuals are not adherents or enthusiasts of the culture of the masses, but rather, they are opposed to and critical of the backward culture and superstitions that pervade society. In the works of writers and poets from that period, it is not uncommon to see people being characterized as superstitious, backward, neglected, asleep, and so forth.
This movement has clear and positive demands, including the establishment of a parliament and constitution, the separation of powers, justice, public health, universal literacy, modern science, and advanced culture and art. In essence, the movement seeks to implement in Iran the advancements that were achieved in Western Europe at that time, since Iran was considered to be “asleep” and neglected, lagging behind by hundreds of years.
This intellectual movement persisted until the mid-1950s, with its last notable figures being Sadegh Hedayat and Sadeq Chubak. While Hedayat was critical of religion and orientalism, he believed in the superiority of Western culture and civilization over his own. He was a nationalist, but his nationalism did not conflict with modernism. We still reading and reffering to Hedayat’s works today, as there are few others after him whose words hold as much significance.
The end of this period is marked by the land reforms, which requires further investigation to fully understand the reasons. The decline of liberalism, exemplified by the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, as well as the general decline of liberal and libertarian ideals in the Western world, and the emergence of pro-independence and anti-Western popular movements in the Third World, were fundamental factors that led to the failure of the progressive movement in Iran.
Since the early 1940s, progressive, secular, liberal, and libertarian ideals have lost their representation within the intellectual and protest culture of the period. Any presence they have is now very limited and weak. The era of enlightenment has ended, and a new era of mediocre and subpar intellectualism has begun, where even liberalism is too radical for them.
The literature that emerged during the revolutionary and protest movements in Iran after the 1953 coup, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, can be considered reactionary rather than revolutionary. Many of the prominent writers of this period prioritized religious affiliations over constitutional ideals, and their works were characterized by a strong sense of nationalism, traditionalism, and antipathy towards the West and Western civilization.
Although nationalism was a part of the constitutional movement, opposition to Western civilization was not a characteristic of it. However, in the second period, nationalism became strongly anti-Western and pro-traditional. Constitutional thinkers were also nationalists, but they did not necessarily follow or idealize the culture and traditions of the masses. They were often critical of the tradition and culture that later intellectuals sanctified as “our own people’s culture and traditions.” This trend became more widespread after land reforms. The influx of villagers into the city as workers contrasted with the intellectuals who remained in rural life/thought. The most famous works of this period largely ignored urban life, with the city often regarded as a symbol of filth and Westernization.
This period marks a regressive turn, with feudal values taking hold in Iran’s cultural and artistic society. The prevailing belief is that anything related to us is inherently honorable and dear, but unfortunately, this primarily means upholding feudal traditions. The national and cultural achievements of Iran, from poetry and mysticism to music and theater, are all viewed through the lens of feudal tradition, superstition, and religion. This is a far cry from the criticisms and rejections of these traditions that underpinned the constitutional revolution.
The intellectuals of the constitutional era aimed to introduce the latest scientific and cultural discoveries and establish modern education in Iran, while the “intellectuals” of the later period are supportive of the clerics and religious education. Despite the Shah’s claim to modernize the country, he prioritizes preserving religious traditions. He even establishes the Religion Corps to strengthen people’s religious beliefs. During this period, the Shah of Iran actively supported the construction and equipping of religious centers, with over 50,000 mosques being built in just a decade, according to Dariush Homayoon, the Former Minister of Information and Tourism of Iran.
On the other hand, this reactionary intellectual movement has its own influences. Jalal Al-Ahmad, whose book “Gharbzadegi” (Westoxification) is a manifesto of this movement, is influenced by Ernst Jünger, a German writer and thinker with fascist tendencies. Other representatives of this movement include Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, whose works are widely translated in Persian. This line of thought, which advocates “returning to one’s own tradition and culture in confronting the West,” has its origins in the West itself by a strong colonial view of the dominated countries, but it is a backward trend and has no place in the progressive protest culture of the West.
During that period, the left was strong in Western countries and the anti-Vietnam war movement became a powerful, widespread movement in the US and Western Europe, with its own literature, music, and culture, especially popular among young people. This movement was the foundation of the hippie movement, a progressive, anti-war, anti-authority, pacifist, and egalitarian movement. However, the protest culture in colonized countries rejected this movement. In Iran, the protest culture was critical of hippies, considering them frivolous, and instead favored “our own culture and tradition.” For instance, non-political young people in Iran listened to the music of the Beatles, but preferred more traditional folk songs over Bob Dylan or John Lennon, in contrast to “political intellectuals.” Of course, there were exceptions, but this was not the norm.
The idea of relying on one’s own culture and venerating national and local traditions has always had advocates and writers in the West, and even today, postmodernism essentially promotes the same. Naturally, such beliefs can be found in countries like Iran. However, the tragedy is that during that period in Iran, this right-wing and marginal line of thinking in the West became the dominant intellectual trend in Iranian society and a protest and political culture against the Shah. It was considered modern and progressive, while the left and progressive culture that was widely accepted and spread among Western youth in the same period was condemned and rejected in Iran.
In the next part, I will examine the political tendencies in this period.