Iran’s Revolution 30 Years On: the Quest for Authenticity

“Religious despotism is most intransigent because a religious despot views his rule as not only his right but his duty.” — Abdolkarim Soroush

The French philosopher Michel Foucault, at the request of one of Italy’s biggest dailies Corriere della Sera, went to Iran to cover the growing unrest and protests against the increasingly despotic regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.  What Foucault found upon his arrival not only surprised him but shook him to his very core.  In an interview he later recalled:

Among the things which characterize this revolutionary event, there is the fact that it has brought out — and few peoples in history have had this — an absolutely collective will.  The collective will is a political myth with which jurists and political philosophers try to analyse or to justify institutions . . . nobody has ever seen the “collective will” and, personally, I thought that the collective will was like God, like the soul, something one would never encounter.1

In some respect owing to his implicit Orientalism, Foucault attributed this phenomenon of the “collective will” to the “power keg called Islam.”  This, however, is only part of the story.

Last February marked thirty years since Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Iran.  The aged cleric has evoked an entire panoply of charged reactions and emotions ever since: from love and adulation to fear and hatred.  He bestowed on the world its first theocratic republic and a legacy which to this very day continues to be contested and replete with paradox and irony.

There is of course the perennially asked question of whether Iran did in fact experience a “religious” revolution.  By all accounts the revolution took place off the back of a broad coalition, which incorporated the educated middle classes, Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, Marxist-Islamists, Liberals, Nationalists, politicized clergymen, shanty town dwellers, bazaar merchants, and the pious masses.  It was, to quote the Oxford-based Iranshenas Homa Katouzian, a “revolt of society against the state.”2  The shah’s sultanistic practices and abuse of arbitrary power (estebdad) left him without a single class to prop up and defend his regime.  Even a vast swathe of the technocratic classes and Western-educated intelligentsia, who were, at least in part, dependent on the regime for their way of life, turned against their erstwhile patron.

Iran’s revolution was the last popular revolution of the twentieth century.  While being a revolt against the dictatorship of the Shah, it was also a revolt against colonialism and Western interference in Iran’s domestic affairs.  It is this aspect that gave the revolution its unmistakably modern flavor.  While the battle against estebdad and neo-colonialism was at the forefront of the revolutionary movement’s concerns, on a less observed front, another battle was taking place upon the contested site of the fractious Iranian Self.

The most famous and oft-cited work preceding the revolution that sought to grapple with this dilemma was Jalal Ale-Ahmad’s short book, Gharbzadegi (1962/1341) or Westoxification.  In his youth Ale-Ahmad had links to the communist Tudeh Party and later became a supporter of the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, even defending the latter’s house against hired hooligans and street toughs.  In an unprecedented move, Mossadeq nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which brought down, on himself and his country, the wrath of a declining British Empire.  Britain had its economic interests to defend, and the Eisenhower administration’s Cold War politics had little room for the democratic and nationalist aspirations of the developing world; it was decided Mossadeq had to be overthrown.

After the American-backed coup which ousted Mossadeq, Ale-Ahmad witnessed not only the unchecked rise of the Shah’s autocracy, but also the penetration of Western consumer culture and mores, sapping the strength of the traditions and customs of his forefathers, eroding Iranians’ national integrity and sense of self.  In order to combat this perceived cultural “malaise,” Ale-Ahmad, much as the revolutionary Islamist thinker Ali Shariati would later, urged a “return to self” (bazgasht beh khish).  We shall return to this theme shortly.

Today inside Iran an altogether more perplexing variant of the tradition of estebdad continues.  Iranian dissidents such as journalist Akbar Ganji and cleric Hojjat al-Islam Mohsen Kadivar (to name a few) have gone so far as to declare that a form of sultanism, albeit in theocratic garb, continues to stymie Iranians’ hopes for a democratic future.3  Unlike the Shah’s dictatorship in which absolute power was amassed by a single individual and then later consolidated with the formation of a one-party state in 1975, however, the situation in Iran today is more intricate and elusive.  While undeniably the lion’s share of power rests with the Rahbar (Supreme Leader) and the various governmental, military, and parastatal organs under his command, multiple sources of power work against the kind of sultanism typical of the Shah’s regime.

The Rahbar‘s rule is ideologically sanctified by Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of velayat-e faqih (Rule of the Jurisconsult), the concept that dissolved hundreds of years of tradition according to which “the order of the clerical community (ruhaniyyat) was in its disorder.”  That credo testified to the Shi’ite ulema‘s thitherto loose-knit organization, dispersed authority, and independence from the central government.  With the institutionalization of concept of velayat-e faqih, a state-sanctioned push toward a form of “caesaropapism” was initiated,4 whereby a small group of politically active mullahs tried their utmost (with mixed results) to corral and co-opt their colleagues unresponsive to the call to think, work, and teach in accordance with the precepts of the Islamic state and state-ideology.  (It’s important to note just how idiosyncratic and controversial Khomeini’s justification of clerical rule was, both then and now.  Not a single Grand Ayatollah at the time of the revolutionary upheavals put his weight behind the concept of velayat-e faqih, with some like Grand Ayatollahs Kazem Shariatmadari and Abolqasem Kho’i openly dissenting.5)

Iran is thus, for all intents and purposes, run by means of a precarious modus vivendi between a plethora of disparate power centers, leaving us with a power-structure approximating a brand of oligarchy.  Though the entrenched factionalism of the Islamic Republic is by no means a mere reflection of this oligarchical structure, it is symptomatic of this deeper and more systemic problem.  Power is never “total” even though the ruling establishment and its backers often find themselves inclined to pursue such a direction.

The notion of velayat-e faqih, first explicated in Khomeini’s text Hokumat-e Islami (Islamic Government) written during his exile in Najaf, Iraq, contended that the senior clergy’s right to rule derived from their unparalleled knowledge and ability to interpret the Islamic canon: the Qur’an, Sunnah, and the Hadith of the infallible Imams.  In short, the ulema‘s exclusive right to exercise ijtihad was translated by Ayatollah Khomeini into an exclusive right to political rule.  Many have remarked on the homology between this politico-philosophical vision and the political vision expounded in Plato’s Republic, whereby the Philosopher-Kings derive their right to rule by virtue of their wisdom and ability to espy the light of the transcendent, while the rest of us languish in an abject state of ignorance and insurmountable darkness.  Though the reality is in fact far more complicated than this brief sketch will allow us to convey, it is of little surprise that Iran’s disaffected post-revolutionary intellectuals have since turned to the likes of Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Friedrich Nietzsche to craft a counter-hegemonic discourse capable of putting paid to the “totalizing” claims made by powerful elements within Iran’s ruling establishment.

While it’s crucial to note the elitist kernel of the Khomeinist creed of velayat-e faqih, it is also important that we pay heed to the fact that the man himself, perhaps paradoxically, was also a populist, who spoke the common tongue and assimilated much of the rhetoric of the Left, famously mimicking Marx’s Communist Manifesto, calling for “the oppressed of the world [to] unite.”6  Rather than a mere façade or instrumental manipulation en route to the total assumption of power, this populist dimension illustrates the contradictions which bedeviled the multiple imaginaries of Ayatollah Khomeini himself.7

The recent history of the Islamic Republic has seen a raft of Reformist politicians and their sympathizers endeavor to augment and empower the regime’s avowedly “popular” other half, enshrined in the Constitution and confirmed by means of regular elections at both the local and national levels.  The problem which Reformists have come up against time and again is of course the unaccountable and highly conservative clerics who dominate half of the Guardian Council and the Judiciary.  Their ability to vet prospective candidates, ban putatively “un-Islamic” legislation, and finally, their indifference/unwillingness to rein in vigilante groups threw a proverbial spanner in the works for much of the Reformist president Mohammad Khatami’s time in office.

Ironically, however, the logic of state power and the clerisy’s involvement in the mundane affairs of running the country has sparked a rapid secularization of religion and religious knowledge.  The exigency of finding “sacred” solutions to worldly problems had the unintended consequence of transforming fiqh and the practice of Islamic jurisprudence into “contested knowledge,” which ceased to be the exclusive domain of the seminaries (howze) of Qom but rather came to engage civil society at large.  This, in turn, has led to what the French scholar Olivier Roy famously called “the failure of political Islam,” bringing the Iranian intelligentsia, including those who were instrumental to the revolution’s Islamicization, to the realization that “Islam is not the solution.”  In fact, the original politicization of religion by Islamic intellectuals such as Ali Shariati, which at the time was thought absolutely indispensable to the mobilization of the masses, has since faded into the intellectual mise-en-scène — a relic of times past for which the Iranian public care little and have little time.  The Iran of the nineties and noughties has seen its leading roshanfekran such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Said Hajjarian, and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabistari urge the necessity of a separation of Shi’ism’s own figurative church and state, not only to save politics and galvanize Iranian democracy, but also to save religion itself.  Paraphrasing Immanuel Kant, we might say that Iran’s new intellectuals found it necessary to “deny the politicization of religion in order to make room for faith.”

The lexicon of Iran’s new religious intellectuals fed off the discontent and anger felt by Iranian society at large and women in particular and was in turn itself readily translated into Iranian youth culture — the widespread decline in piety and move toward “private” as opposed to “public” understandings of spirituality.  Much like their Catholic brethren before them, they had come to the realization that religiosity imposed from above merely breeds more hypocrites!  Individuals become obsessed with public displays of piety, hollow affirmations, and rituals for rituals’ sake, as opposed the inner content of prayer, meditation, and communion with the Divine.

Shariati famously made the distinction between two incarnations of Shi’ism: the Safavid and the Alavi.  While the former fastidiously obsesses about zaher (outer self) and the hollow pledges of piety to the political theology of the state, the latter emphasizes batin (inner self) and thus the inner and profound dimensions of faith, stressed by the first of the Shi’ite Imams, Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad.  The Khomeinists have been on more than one occasion compared to their Safavid predecessors, and the empty tautology whereby velayat-e faqih has emerged as the criterion of its own self-validation is proof of the latter-day decrepitude of a once revolutionary movement.

The desire for a form of freedom approximating Isaiah Berlin’s “negative freedom,” whereby the personal sphere is vouchsafed and protected from state interference, is widespread amongst young Iranians.  This sentiment is more than understandable given that since the revolution not only the public but the private realm has been politicized virtually in its entirety.

Young Iranians, who make up the overwhelming majority of the population, desire a respite from being interpreted politically in spite of themselves.  They want to shield themselves from a distinctly Iranian variation of the Sartrean “gaze” that reifies and fixes them in their designated social roles (as ideal “revolutionary” archetypes) along with the concomitant expectations accompanying such roles.

While Ale-Ahmad’s critique of the West came out of a legitimate desire to counter the political, economic, and cultural imperialism, which came to dominate so much of what he saw all around him, this same critique has since emerged as an ossified ideological dogma, operating like a kind of litmus test of one’s “fidelity to revolution principles.”

Ale-Ahmad’s life can be read as a parable of a trend that is not unique to Iran and casts a dreary shadow over much of the history of the Arab world as well: the disillusionment with the promises once harbored by the secular ideologies which defined much of the 20th century, in the face of colonialism and Western modernity.  While Ale-Ahmad perceived “the West” as a rival and foe to be understood and challenged, Ayatollah Khomeini, in a gesture that Nietzsche might well have expected, transformed the Islam/West divide into a matter of moral valuation.  When the West — especially America in particular — was transfigured into the “Great Satan” (Sheitan-e Bozorg), at least in the minds of the participants, the battle between East and West became a Manichean one of well-nigh cosmic proportions.  Such a “reactive” rendering of Ahriman vs. Ahura Mazda obviously preceded Khomeini and will continue to spread its poison, aggravating the ignorance rampant on both sides of the ideological divide for the foreseeable future.

Much of the intellectual toil done in Iran and its diaspora since 1979 has sought to reconsider the metaphysical duality revived by the Imam.  The realization that the West was never a closed totality party to a metaphysical essence in tandem with the cognizance of the irreparably fractured and incomplete nature of the Iranian Self has called into question the Manichean metaphysics of times past.  There is no longer any “original” self to recuperate — rather “authenticity” has become a more humble matter of coming to terms with this fracture.  Neither East nor West has ever been eternal.


1  Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press 2005): 253.

2  Homa Katouzian, Iranian History and Politics : The Dialectic of State and Society, Routledgecurzon/Bips Persian Studies Series (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

3  Akbar Ganji, “The Latter-Day Sultan: Power and Politics in Iran,” Foreign Affairs November/December (2008).

4  Abbas Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi’ism (London: I.B Tauris, 2009).

5  Olivier Roy, “The Crisis of Religious Legitimacy in Iran,” Middle East Journal 53, no. 2 (Spring 1999).  Though unfortunately I don’t have the space to go into this issue here, the question revolves around the constitutional amendments of 1989 prior to Khomeini’s death when the link between velayat and marja’yyat was formally severed.

6  Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley ; London: University of California Press, 1993): 31.

7  Daniel Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran (Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2001): Chapter 1.

Sadegh Kabeer is a PhD student in Politics and International Relations.  The focus of his research is Iranian nationalism and political Islam.  He works with the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran.  Visit his blog Eteraz Online at <>.