The Islamic Revolution

Iran’s Islamic Revolution : The Three Paradoxes

By: Abbas Milani

from a section entitled “The Claim To Power” :

The Islamic revolution was in a sense a replay of Iran’s first attempt at a democratic constitutional government, one that took place in the course of the “constitutional revolution” of 1905-07. At that time, a coalition of secular intellectuals, enlightened Shi‘a clergy, bazaar merchants, the rudiments of a working class, and even some members of the landed gentry came together to topple the “oriental despotism” of the Qajar kings and replace it with a monarchy whose power was limited by a constitution (mashruteh).

Indeed, the new constitution emulated one of the European models of a liberal-democratic polity – one that allowed for elections and separation of powers, yet had a monarch as the head of the state. In those years, the most ideologically cohesive and powerful opposition to this new democratic paradigm was spearheaded by Ayatollah Nouri – a Shi‘a zealot who dismissed modern, democratically formulated constitutions as the faulty and feeble concoctions of “syphilitic men”.

Instead, he suggested relying on what he considered the divine infinite wisdom of God, manifest in sharia (mashrua). So powerful were the advocates of the constitutional form of democracy that Nouri became the only ayatollah in Iran’s modern history to be executed on the fatwa (order) of fellow ayatollahs. For decades, in Iran’s modern political discourse, Nouri’s name was synonymous with the reactionary political creed of despots who sought their legitimacy in Shi‘a sharia.

In a profoundly paradoxical twist of politics, almost seventy years later, the same coalition of forces that created the constitutional movement coalesced once again, this time to topple the Shah’s authoritarian rule. Each of the social classes constituting that coalition had, by the 1970s, become stronger and more politically experienced.

Nevertheless, they chose as their leader Ayatollah Khomeini, a man who espoused an even more radical version of sharia-based politics than the one proposed by Ayatollah Nouri. While Nouri had simply talked of a government based on sharia (mashrua), Khomeini now advocated the absolute rule of a man whose essential claim to power rested in his mastery of sharia, and for whom sharia was not the end but a means of power.

In the decade before the revolution, some secular Iranian intellectuals like al-Ahmad – imbued with the false certitudes of a peculiar brand of radical anti-colonial politics – paved the way for this kind of clerical regime by “rehabilitating” Nouri and offering a revisionist view of Iranian history wherein the clergy emerged as leaders of the all-important, over-determined anti-colonial struggle. It mattered little to these intellectuals that some forms of anti-colonialism – like that of Nouri and his later cohorts – were rooted in pious xenophobia and not progressive nationalism.


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