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Essay response: How not to understand Islamist politics

Saeed Rahnema argues that Alistair Crooke's understanding of the Iranian revolution and recent events is deeply flawed

October 17, 2009
8 min read

In his declared efforts to create connections between Islamists and the west, Alastair Crooke resorts to praise for fundamentalist leaders and provides a distorted analysis of the Iranian revolution, the recent electoral coup and the subsequent popular protest movement. In this he follows a tradition of self-declared Islamologists in the west who share perceptions about the people of the ‘Orient’ as being universally religious and in search of a way of life fundamentally different from that of westerners.

To begin with, he reduces the 1979 revolution to a religious uprising whose demands and aspirations, he claims, were to establish an ‘Islamic alternative’ with an ‘understanding of the self or the world’ different from ‘a particular western consciousness’ imposed on them for 300 years. One has to assume that he is not aware of the fact – and hence admonishes those who are – that the revolution was essentially against the Shah’s dictatorship and US dominance, and for political freedoms, democracy and social justice. He further reduces the religious inspiration of the revolution to the thoughts of Ali Shariati.

We read that ‘it is 30 years now since the Iranian revolution, and it is approximately 30 years since Ali Shariati … coined the term “Red Shi’ism” to describe the ideas propelling the upheaval that was to mobilise and energise tens of millions in Iran.’ Some factual errors merit correction here.

First, Shariati, who died two years before the revolution, was one among several major Shi’i voices which participated in the anti-Shah movement. They included Seyyed Mahmood Taleghani, Mehdi Bazargan, Morteza Motahari, not to mention Ruhollah Khomeini. While to some outsiders, all these clerical and lay Shi’i figures may seem similar, they were in fact very different and each had their own separate and significant followings. Second, Shariati’s concept of Red Shi’ism was coined much earlier before the time of the revolution.

Crooke grieves that Red Shi’ism is still ‘misunderstood’ and says ‘the Iranian revolutionaries are widely seen, in the west, to have been a coalition of forces, in which the leftists played a major part.’ This is an established historical fact, only denied in the formal history of the Islamic regime. The revolution was indeed an informal ‘coalition of forces’. This included the secular left and liberal, religious and non-religious intellectual women and men, artists, poets, lawyers, students, workers and civil servants, and other elements of the new and traditional middle classes.

As an example, the workers’ showras (councils) that were formed in private and public institutions prior to the Shah’s downfall, crippling the country’s economy by shutting down the national oil company, major industrial plants, factories, educational institutions and ministries, were predominantly formed by left and liberal individuals. In the Union of the Councils of the largest public conglomerate of the country (IDRO, the Industrial Development and Renovation Organisation of Iran, with over 110 major state industries), of the 16 co-founders from different industrial units, none, including the present author, was religious. In fact, we had to actively solicit and recruit a few religious people to join the founding body.

Crooke’s portrayal of Shariati’s relations with the left is also problematic. We read, ‘Shariati was no doubt aware that the “Red Shi’ism” tag would appeal to leftist components in Iranian society, and help unite the coalition.’ This is puzzling, for a few lines above Crooke had taken to task those who misunderstood the revolution as consisting of a ‘coalition of forces’, yet here he offers that Shariati wanted to ‘unite the [non-existent] coalition’.

The main problem, however, is that one of the concerns for Shariati and other Muslim reformers at the time (unlike the new genre of Muslim reformers discussed below) was to counter the political influence of the socialist left among youth and students. It is true that Shariati’s anti-clericalism and anti-Shah stances had gained the respect of the left, but Shariati was no friend of the left and never wanted to ‘unite the coalition’.

Backward and reactionary

Crooke also has serious misconceptions about Khomeini. Linking Khomeini to Shariati’s Red Shi’ism, he writes, ‘Khomeini thus endorsed not just the material welfare, but good education and healthcare for all the people, as a pre-eminent responsibility of Islam.’ In fact, Khomeini’s focus was cultural ‘purification’ of society; and his famous saying, ‘economy is for donkey[s]’ (eghtessad mal-e khar-e), points to the fact that material welfare was never his priority. Neither was education on his agenda (especially in the case of women).

Crooke tries to substantiate his claims about Khomeini by quoting none other than the Ayatollah’s son, Ahmad, who stated that the reason why his father became an ‘Imam’ and popular with the masses was that ‘he fought the backward, stupid, pretentious, reactionary clergy’. The fact, however, is that Khomeini himself was the embodiment of the backward and reactionary clergy.

It is with this flawed understanding of the Iranian revolution that Crooke ventures into his analysis of the recent electoral coup and we learn of his support for Ahmadinejad. In the same manner that he failed to recognise any significant roles played by non-religious or non-Islamist forces during the 1979 revolution, he contends that the recent upheavals reflect clashes between the ‘red’ and the ‘black’ Shia.

He bemoans the fact that some of the pillars of the revolution, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, are ‘holding back the progress of the revolution’ in pursuit of ‘self-interest and self-enrichment’. Granted that Rafsanjani and many other clerics opposing Ahmadinejad are corrupt. But so are many of the clerical and non-clerical supporters of Ahmadinejad. On corruption, lies and false qualifications, both sides can compete very effectively.

Claiming that ‘Ahmadinejad seeks to break the hold of some of the hugely wealthy clerics’ does not add up unless Crooke can provide at least some instances when Ahmadinejad actually dealt with such corruptions during his presidency.

Crooke boldly declares that ‘Iran is not facing a popular uprising … and those opposed to the revolution represent a small minority.’ He conveniently concludes that events have shown that ‘the opposition did not have legs: it did not broaden, it shrunk.’ An interesting choice of analogies given the way in which the current regime broke the legs, limbs, backs and heads of the peaceful demonstrators on the street and in prisons.

The world saw millions of Iranians frustrated with 30 years of this ‘Islamic alternative’, waging nonviolent demonstrations. The Islamic Guards and Basijis under the direct order of the Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad ruthlessly suppressed the opposition. They killed, detained and gang-raped young women and men. Hundreds were brutally tortured, mutilated and murdered in the name of the ‘revolution’s progress’. The demonstrations shrunk, but not the opposition, which has actually expanded, particularly after the disgusting news of systematic rape and beating to death of detainees in different prisons.

The real rationalists

Moving on to discuss Islam and Islamists in general, Crooke argues that Islam, like Christianity, has witnessed both literalist and rationalist traditions. He is absolutely right. But the analysis becomes absurd and tragically funny when to him the champions of the rationalist trends in Iran are the likes of Khomeini, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.

Leaving aside the obvious flaws in this argument, one can hardly accept as ‘rational’ some of the bizarre actions of the present state under Ahmadinejad. This includes dropping a copy of some government policies and programmes into a well in Chamkaran, where he believes the 12th Shia Imam is in occultation, for his approval. Or his claim of having seen a halo around his head while speaking at the UN general assembly.

Can we imagine putting this sort of ‘rationalism’ in the category of great Islamic rationalists such as Al-Kindi, Razi, Farabi, Biruni, Avicenna, Averros and countless others? A very minimal knowledge of the Islamic traditions of thought would show that Khomeini and Ahmadinejad, and their counterparts in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, are the continuation of literalist, anti-rationalist traditions. An Islamic rationalist trend does exist in present day Iran through the likes of Mohammad Shabestari, Mohsen Kadivar, Reza Alijani and others, who live under constant threat and harassment by Crooke’s heroes.

These rationalists do not seek a ‘radically different understanding of the human being’. They do not reject modernity. Unlike their predecessors, they believe in the separation of religion and state, are against the establishment of an Islamic state, and thus cannot be identified as ‘Islamist’ anymore. We can see the same trend in other Muslim-majority countries, from Turkey, Sudan, and North Africa to Indonesia.

Crooke is right in criticising the west for its one-sided support of Israel and siding with the Salafis of Saudi Arabia. But Khomeinists, Hezbullah and Hamas are not the alternative solution to the problems of the Middle East and the so-called Muslim world.

On the contrary, the future of Muslim-majority countries is in the hands of the educated secular men and women, both religious and non-religious citizens, who want to live and love like their western counterparts. They don’t want an ‘Islamic alternative’. What they want is a democratic society, where everyone is free to believe in any religion or ideology, free to choose their dress, what to eat and drink, and who to love. These are human needs, rights and desires.

Saeed Rahnema is professor of political science at York University, Toronto

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