Ethics & Public Policy Center

Iran’s Revolution Reconsidered

Published in Law and Liberty on February 20, 2019


When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced a fatwa (legal opinion) against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, it was completely in line with the Eastern and Islamic cultural and religious tradition. As Mustafa Akyol explains in his Liberty Forum essay, Rushdie, who had neither home nor heritage in Iran, was sentenced to death there for blasphemy—a cultural and religious offense in the Near Eastern world. Akyol recounts the West’s shock as it awoke to these foreign concepts of shame, honor, and the sense of the sacred.

Reflection on Khomeini and the 1979 Iranian Revolution would not be amiss now that it has reached the milestone of four decades in power. Let me use this as an occasion to delve into some of the consequences of the revolution and the political health of that region of the world—they are of a piece.

Democratic Declarations Abandoned

wrote last year in this space on the vast gulf between Khomeini’s pre-revolutionary statements and his actions once in control of Iran. While he was in exile, he gave assurances of his democratic bent. He was quoted as saying that “there is no repression in Islam. There is freedom in Islam for all classes—for women, for men, for whites, for blacks, for everyone”; that “Islam will . . . ensure freedom”; that “repression has been buried and will not return”; and that “we are not afraid of freedom of expression.”

But we know what happened after his return to Iran. Once he was secure in power, as Misagh Parsa has pointed out, Khomeini rejected democracy because of its “Western dimension” and founded the current Islamic Republic of Iran, elevating the authority of the clergy above all civil authority. In 1979, Iran went from a progressive, Westernized, Zoroastrian-friendly kingdom to an Islamic state enforcing sacred law lead by a cleric intolerant of minority religions.

The Iranian Revolution, I believe, was a harbinger of what was to come in the region, including the 2010-2011 Arab Spring, a revolution (of sorts) followed by re-Islamization. It perplexes us, for when we think of revolution we think of something novel yet to come, something that completely or at least predominately breaks from the past. So in the West, we look back at the 1979 advent of an Islamic state with disappointment; through Western eyes, the revolution is stillborn. There is no democracy, no freedom of speech, or freedom of religion as we in the West understand these concepts. There are few civil and religious liberties. We call this a failure. But what if it isn’t?

Hannah Arendt, in On Revolution (1963), considers that word in its original use and sense. “Revolution” meant “restoration.” It was a concept borrowed from astronomy and used metaphorically in politics, Arendt writes, and was understood as a cyclical movement—a revolving around again, a restoration and a returning to a previous state. Writes Arendt:

If used for the affairs of men on earth, it could only signify that the few known forms of government revolve among the mortals in eternal recurrence and with the same irresistible force which makes the stars follow their preordained paths in the skies.

Restoration to a form that had been in the past—that was the old sense of revolution. Modern revolution, ushered in after the French Revolution of 1789, is a different animal. It now meant, according Arendt, “to change the fabric of society” rather than just the “structure of the political realm.” Or as Thomas Paine put it in his Rights of Man (1791), “a renovation of the natural order of things.” The modern understanding of revolution has come to mean, most importantly, “a new beginning,” a rejection of all that has come before, a break from the past and a necessary linear progression toward an as yet unknown future. There’s no stopping it, it will happen and one must choose on which side of history one wants to end up. As Arendt claims, the concept of “historical necessity” is the most consequential idea after the French Revolution.

This understanding of history is pervasive today, and undergirds our understanding of revolution. Scarcely do we read or hear of anyone who does not speak as though sooner or later, the Middle East, after its current paroxysms, will accede in to destiny and give way to secular democracy, the only path to progress. Progress as we define it in the West is inevitable and limitless.

The history of the Middle Eastern countries in the 20th and thus far into the 21st century can be viewed through this lens: the attempt by Western nations to import and goad Middle Eastern countries into a “new beginning”—a modern revolution—breaking away from their historical political structures and onto a linear, secular, and ever-progressive path into the future. And that’s because we conflate Enlightenment-inspired liberal democracies with structural modernization. Although certain liberal ideas can be the seedbed of better medicine and paved roads, they are not a tightly tethered cause-and-effect.

Success has been manifested in various ways: from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular Republic of Turkey, where even the wearing of a fez was prohibited, to the modernization attempts of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran. But what has happened to all that progress, many of us ask?

Eternal Return of the Same

What we have seen instead is the old way of revolution at play in the Middle East. The revolving back to an Islamic society: The revolution in Iran worked in such a way that a king who was attempting to usher in secularism and progress (structural and intellectual) was toppled and an Islamic theocratic structure was formed—one that has lasted 40 years now. Seen in this light, the 1979 Revolution could be called a successful revolution, a restoration of the country. The same might be said of Turkey and the re-Islamization of the land of Atatürk. We can add to these, the heinously violent attempts at re-islamization by ISIS in the territories it held in Iraq and Syria. There are others, and the degree of success, as we are styling it, varies: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. This type of revolution does not sit well with our Western sensibilities.

Nor does it always sit well for the people in these countries. I make this connection because, although it might not be the best way to understand the history of that region in the last 40 years, I believe it is helpful, and opens up other avenues for us to explore. I do not doubt at all that many people in those lands desire more respect, economic opportunities, more civil liberties, but along with that many of them still want to keep their religion. That is, they want a more expansive understanding of their human dignity but they also want to continue to practice Islam. And they’re trying to figure out how to reconcile these desires. We in the West do not make it easy for them with our binary choice. I’ve addressed this before when I wrote about the need for a revolution of conscience.

Plato and the Qu’ran

In the city of Qom is Iran’s premier Shi’a Islamic seminary; this is where the Ayatollah Khomeini studied. The curriculum at Qom includes Plato and Aristotle, which is what clerics-to-be (like the young Khomeini, once upon a time) study. Iran, as Gerard Russell writes in Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms:Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East (2014), kept alive these philosophers. Although Russell’s primary concern is the state of the small and disappearing religions of the region, he says something very perceptive and fascinating about the Ayatollah Khomeini:

In fact, his idea that Iran should be run by the ‘most learned cleric’ not only marked a sea change from the traditional Shi’a view that government was intrinsically wicked but is not found in the Koran. Instead it is perhaps the closest approximation on earth to Plato’s vision, set out in his Republic, of a state that is run by the “wisest philosopher.” Khomeini always denied that there was a connection, although he approved of Plato and once said that he considered him “sound.”

And this brings me to what I’ve long believed to be at the heart of Near Eastern events: fideism, and the struggle between faith and reason. In Iran, Plato and Aristotle may still be taught in some seminaries, but with a religion that subjects reason to faith rather than harmonizing the two, the teachings of these classical philosophers can easily be twisted or cast aside. I believe the struggle for structural modernity along with the continued practice of Islam, will only come about when the deeper intellectual problem is solved: the proper coupling of faith and reason. Only then can all the world see that one can indeed practice one’s religion with sincerity, while participating in a society that also respects civil liberties, encourages economic growth, and makes structural and technological advances. For it is a lie that a people must give up their religion in order to have human dignity.

One last reflection: We in the West suppose that democracy is some kind of cure for Islamist radicalism. We’re foolish to think so. Every attempt at democracy, and every democratic-like government that has been set up in Muslim-majority countries, has inflicted great harm on its religious minorities. It is no cause for celebration that most of these populations are in such a bad state that the only way to curb religious extremism is rule by a hard and sometimes cruel tyrant. But what that should show us is that the fundamental problem in the Middle Eastern world is not necessarily the form of government, but the intellectual and moral state of the majority of the people. This is why I say they need a revolution of conscience. (We do, too!) In my conversations with religious minorities from people in those lands, the strong man was always what kept the majority at bay.

Iran and the rest of the Middle Eastern world do not need any more revolutions or Western foreign policy interventions. They need a revolution of conscience: the moral power of human dignity, which Akyol touches on that at the end of his essay. The best way to help that region, is to continue to strike that chord.

Luma Simms, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written on the life and thought of immigrants for First Things, the Federalist, and many other publications.

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