Essay: Red Shi’ism, Iran and the Islamist revolution

From the Iranian revolution to the Palestinian struggle, it has often been Islamic ideas that have inspired resistance to imperialism. Here, Alastair Crooke argues that the left needs a more complex understanding of the thinking, critical forms of political Islam

October 17, 2009 · 18 min read

It is 30 years now since the Iranian revolution, and it is approximately 30 years since Ali Shariati, its foremost ideologue, coined the term ‘Red Shi’ism’ to describe the ideas propelling the upheaval that was to mobilise and energise tens of millions in Iran, and millions more around the globe. It remains one of the most significant events of the era.

When Shariati raised the banner of ‘Red Shi’ism’, it was not intended to suggest that the revolution was Marxism cloaked in a Shia rhetoric, as a few in the west may assume. Shariati was contrasting the revolutionary ethos that he and his colleagues were projecting with that which he termed ‘Black Shi’ism’ – the Shi’ism of ‘mourning’, as he called it.

‘Black Shi’ism’ was the dead hand of static, hidebound passivity: the Shi’ism that had sold out the people for a comfortable place under the establishment sun. It was the Shi’ism of ‘quietism’ and passivity that advised the people to bear the travails and deprivations of today and to await the reward in Paradise tomorrow.

The Shi’ism of transformation

‘Red Shi’ism’ was the Shi’ism of transformation; it was dynamic, and it made the radical assertion that people’s day-to-day needs were not just a call upon the state – they were a prime responsibility of Islam. Imam Khomeini thus endorsed not just material welfare but good education and healthcare for all the people as a pre-eminent responsibility of Islam, rather than one appertaining to the state alone.

Shi’ism, in the course of the revolution, was being transformed. After years as a static force of waiting and enduring, it became again a dynamic movement for political, social and economic change – and social justice. It was a return to Shi’ism’s true roots, which had always been planted in the bloodstained soil of a search for justice, Shari’ati and his colleagues believed.

Thirty years on and still this aspect is misunderstood. The Iranian revolutionaries are widely seen, in the west, to have been a coalition of forces, in which leftists played a major part, that overthrew an autocratic Shah. And that was it – full stop.

While Shariati was no doubt aware that the ‘Red Shi’ism’ tag would appeal to leftist components in Iranian society, and help unite the coalition, the adjunct attack on ‘Black Shi’ism’ was far from irrelevant. A major, if not the essential, component of the revolution was a struggle of ‘religion versus religion’. It was not just a struggle against the US; it was not just a struggle against secularism – it was a struggle against the more dangerous foe of clerical conservativism that had emptied Shi’ism of its fundamental commitment to justice.

Indeed, according to Imam Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, ‘What made him [revered by the people as their] “Imam” and led to the historic and victorious Islamic movement, was the fact that he fought the backward, stupid, pretentious, reactionary clergy.’

It is, in a sense, a continuation of this same struggle that is taking place in Iran today in the wake of the recent presidential elections. As a leading Shia cleric said to me, ‘No revolution can stand still; either it goes forward, or [effectively] it goes backward.’ He was expressing his concerns that the forces of passivity, of ‘Black Shi’ism’, and of the closed, security mindset, were again imposing stasis.

What is confusing in present events is that some of the forces that are being accused of holding back the progress of the revolution represent some of its very pillars from 1979. Should, therefore, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani really be called a ‘reformist’, as much of the western press likes to label him? Do these labels make sense now, in the wake of the election? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s so-called ‘conservative’ platform was essentially the complaint that some of those clerical pillars of 1979 – the circles and family around former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani – had pursued self-interest and self-enrichment at the expense of the people. Ahmadinejad seeks to break the hold some of these hugely wealthy clerics, through their charitable foundations, have on the controlling heights of the economy. Should he more appropriately, then, be labelled a ‘reformist’?

Ahmadinejad, in accusing Rafsanjani, reputedly one the wealthiest of Iranians, was effectively likening the ex-president to a Gamal Mubarak, the ‘businessman’ son of President Mubarak of Egypt. Not surprisingly, Rafsanjani, already bitter at his defeat at the previous election, became enraged at the implied threat to his position, and determined to neutralise it.

Western governments like to project their policies as supporting ‘reformists’. But what does this mean? Was Mir Hossein Mousavi a reformist while in office as prime minister? I believe that much of the confusion among some western policy-makers about what is happening in Iran stems from their fixation on seeing Iran through a cold war prism.

There is an influential current in the west that sees the Iranian revolution as little more than a hollow tyranny that is resented by a majority of Iranians, who still yearn for freedom. Basically, this is the ‘colour revolution’ narrative transposed from the cold war. It implies that given a solid poke from the west, the vacuous edifice of the Iranian state would implode, together with Islamist resistance more generally.

This optic is wrong. Iran is not facing a popular uprising by the people against the revolution. It is more complex than this simplistic template. There are divergent Iranian views, which cut across institutions and classes, about how to resolve the present stasis and recover the momentum of revolution, and there are forces of passivity and entrenched interest at play. There are going to be difficult decisions, but none of this is likely to pose a threat to the revolution itself. Those opposed to the revolution represent a small minority, even within the Mousavi camp, and are mostly drawn from one segment of Tehran. As events have shown, the opposition did not have legs: it did not broaden, it shrunk.

This cold war-esque misreading of events suggests that 50 years after the first Islamist revolutionary resistance movement was formed in Najaf in Iraq, the Islamist revolution is still barely understood in the west. Many remain bemused. Why is there an Islamist resistance at all? ‘Against what are Muslims in revolt?’ westerners ask.

Even now, there seems little clarity about the causes and thinking behind the Iranian revolution. Was it nothing more than a populist kick against power and the Shah’s heavy-handedness that was hijacked by the ayatollahs, as many assert? Do they really imagine that it was this, and this alone, that mobilised tens of millions and remains an inspiration for many movements today? Such explanations, rooted in western historicism, seem blindingly inadequate. In Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution, I argue that the revolution was essentially a grand ‘refusal’ to accept an understanding of the self or of the world about us dominated, for the past 300 years, by a particular western consciousness, and to evolve the Islamist alternative.

Islamism, in short, is not irrational – it is no whimsy of divine caprice. It is accessible to reasoned explanation, and it is grounded in a profound difference of view with contemporary understanding of the human being and with the Cartesian notions of procedural rationality and dualism.

Twin pillars of modernity

Western modernity has stood on two pillars. The first has been described by historians as the ‘great transformation’. It began in Europe in the 18th century, and was based on a moral philosophy that saw human welfare yoked to the efficient operation of markets. Humans, pursuing private desires and needs, would intersect with others, through the market mechanism, to maximise not just individual welfare, but community wellbeing too.

Closely associated with this was another idea, taken up by English Puritans, that had its roots deep in Anglo-Saxon history. It saw the ‘invisible hand’ of Providence also at work in politics to bring about another ‘ideal’ outcome. This view held that the jostling and hurly-burly of political contention between the Anglo-Saxon tribes in the earliest of their societies had given rise to a spontaneous harmony and political order. From this political ‘market’, English Puritans believed that the Anglo-Saxon institutions, representing the epitome of personal freedom and justice, had spontaneously arisen.

Such key ideas about politics and economics were transported to the Americas with the Pilgrim Fathers to become, for those such as Thomas Paine, the archetype for the US system of government. The concept of the nation-state, democracy and human rights all flowed from this Protestant current. These powerful ideas have dominated western thinking for more than 300 years. By the 1920s, they had brought Islam to the brink: it was in crisis – and holding on by its fingernails.

Of course the ‘great transformation’ did not come about either naturally or spontaneously: The wish to create efficient markets had required massive state intervention and the subordination of other important social, communal and political objectives to this overriding end. Making markets ‘free’ was, and is, an artefact of state power. Historians describe it as a utopian project that would be incompatible with any contemporary form of democracy. The transformation had brought stresses that took 19th-century Europe to the brink of revolution – and beyond.

In the century leading up to Islam’s crisis in the 1920s, the transformation had been exported to the Muslim world. There was a rush by the west to create ethnically unitary nation states in the former western provinces of the Ottoman Empire. A powerful nation state with a monopoly of violence was seen as the only structure with enough instrumental power to force through the social changes required to impose market liberalisation on Muslim societies.

As in Europe earlier, the impact of transformation was truly traumatic. Approximately five million European Muslims were driven from their homes between 1821 and 1922 – as the west created nation-states in former Ottoman provinces.

The Young Turk determination to emulate Europe’s secular liberal-market modernisation in Turkey came at terrible cost. One million Armenians died, 250,000 Assyrians perished, and one million Greek Orthodox Anatolians were expelled. Kurdish identity was suppressed, and finally Islam was demonised and suppressed by Kemal Ataturk. Islamic institutions were closed and the 1,400-year-old caliphate was abolished.

Islam was in crisis. Disorientated and demoralised, under siege from enforced secularism in Turkey, Iran and elsewhere, and with Marxism enticing away its younger members, it began a journey of discovery. It sought a solution to its problems by finding a new ‘self’.

Islamists returned to the Qur’an in search of the insights that would help them to find the solutions to their problems. The Qur’an is no blueprint for politics or a state; in fact it takes a jaundiced view of theological speculation. It is, as it states frequently, nothing new. The Qur’an is intended as a ‘reminder’ of old truths, already known to us all. One of which is that for humans to live together successfully they must practice compassion, justice and equity towards each other. This insight lies at the root of political Islam.

Complete inversion

It is a principle that represents a complete inversion of the ‘great transformation’. Instead of the pre-eminence of the market, to which other social and community objectives are subordinated, the making of a society based on compassion, equity and justice becomes the overriding objective – to which other objectives, including markets, are subordinated. It is not, therefore, a form of social democracy. Social democracy accepts the principle of market efficiency but attempts to mitigate its effects on those who are its victims. Islamism, by contrast, seeks to invert the market paradigm completely.

It is revolutionary in another aspect. Instead of the individual being the organisational principle around which politics, economics and society is shaped, the western paradigm is again inverted. It is the collective welfare of the community in terms of such principles – rather than the individual – that becomes the litmus of political achievement.

In short, Islamists are re-opening an old debate, one that is at the root of both western and Islamic philosophy. It was originally posed by Plato when he questioned the ends and purpose of politics. Is politics no more than a race by politicians as to who can claim to satisfy human appetites, desires and wants more fully, or is there ‘telos’, a ‘higher purpose’, to politics – such as justice, for example?

Some westerners are troubled that after two centuries of settled opinion, their vision is being questioned anew. One US conservative commented to me recently that with Descartes, the west had discovered ‘objective truth’ through science and technology. It had made ‘us’ rich and powerful and Muslims could not bear that, he believed. They knew that ultimately they would be forced to acquiesce to western ‘truth’. But what is happening is very far from this simplistic vision.

Islamists see all too clearly the limitations to the Cartesian process of thinking: its internalisation of the moral order within the ‘self’; its displacement of any wider external ‘order’, with Cartesian ‘reason’ emerging as the power to ‘make’ rational ‘order’ according to correct procedural standards; and the notion of the vantage point of ‘I think’ somehow placing the mind and ‘self’ outside the world about us – detaching us from both things and feelings.

Descartes separated the material world of ‘real’ things – which could be touched, tasted, felt or viewed, and were to be explained and classified through scientific rationality – from the world of ‘ideas’ associated with fantasy, superstition, magic and illusion. There was ‘reality’ and, separate to it, the make-believe and illusionary figments of human thinking unrestrained by reality. This narrow duality formed the stepping stone to modern notions of the western ‘self’ and individualism in its many variants.

This duality also gave the west its concept of the ‘rational order’ – a moral order – that is ‘made’ by humans through the exercise of internal human will and action. Until this time, most humans held to a ‘rational’ and moral order to the world about us that was external to ourselves. This order was to be ‘discerned’ from a contemplation of the signs in nature and within us.

The Islamist revolution, therefore, is much more than politics. It is an attempt to shape a new consciousness – to escape from, and challenge, the most far-reaching pre-suppositions of our time. It draws on the intellectual tradition of Islam to offer a radically different understanding of the human being, and to escape from the hegemony and rigidity of Cartesian literalism. It is a journey of recovery of insights from that ‘other history of Being’, as the French philosopher Henri Corbin termed it, that is far from over.

Free to think again

It has many shortcomings and setbacks – as recent events in Iran have shown – but its intellectual insights offer Muslims (and westerners too) the potential to step beyond the shortcomings of western material consciousness. This is what excites and energises. A Hezbullah leader, when asked what the Iranian revolution had signified for him, replied unhesitatingly that Muslims felt themselves free to think once again.

It is not possible, therefore, to make sense of the Iranian or wider Islamic resistance without understanding it as a philosophic and metaphysical event too. It is the omission of this latter understanding that helps explain repeated western misreadings of Iran, its revolution and other events in the region.

Hezbullah is using techniques that stand outside of the usual repertoire of western politics in order to transform Muslims. It is not because Hezbullah provides better community services that its leader, Seyed Hassan Nasrallah, is revered throughout the Muslim world.

Hezbullah is using myth, archetypal narrative and symbolism to explode the Cartesian severance between subject and object, and between objective reality, on the one hand, and fantasy, make-believe and superstition on the other. Hezbullah uses these means to re-ignite creative imagination. The opening of this intermediary layer in Cartesian dualism allows people to begin imagining themselves in a new way; and by imagining themselves differently, to begin to act differently. As they begin to imagine themes differently and act differently, the way they see the world about them changes also.

Of course there is another side to Islamism. Islam, like Christianity, has witnessed, from the outset, a struggle between a narrow, literalist and intolerant interpretation in opposition to the intellectual tradition grounded in philosophy, reasoning and in transforming knowledge. It is the latter that informs movements such as Hezbullah and Hamas.

Perversely, for the past 50 years, it is to the literalists, often called Salafist, that the west has looked to circumscribe ‘threats to its interests’ in the Middle East in a repetition of cold war containment thinking. Western commercial ties and its hold over the region seemed threatened by the upsurge of revolutionary spirit among Islamists.

The US and Europe turned to a more docile and apolitical variant of political Islam, which they believed would be more compliant. But in so using the literalist puritan orientation, the west has misunderstood the mechanism by which some Salafist movements have migrated through schism and dissidence to become the dogmatic, hate-filled and often violent movements that really do threaten westerners, as well as their fellow Muslims.

This transformation of a narrow literalism into a more dangerous form occurs because the west has tried to use a particular puritan current – Saudi-orientated Salafism – for its political ends. Salafists of this type – that is, those who follow a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and certain sayings attributed to the Prophet, and who try to practice an exact imitation of the conduct of the early Muslim believers – are for the most part, peaceful, pious and reformist Islamists who stand aloof from politics and from national and local elections. They are properly ‘apolitical’.

But the US and Britain have primarily used this current to try to contain an Islamist resistance that has unsettled its protégés and frightened Israel.

A coincidence of interest over oil and military matters has given rise to a 50-year Saudi-western alliance; but also – more importantly – to one of the two flawed premises underlying the moderate/extremist template of today. By this way of thinking, if apolitical, docile Islam is the moderate element to be supported, then Hamas and Hezballah by definition become the ‘extremists’ to be opposed and ultimately eliminated.

Wrong side of the divide

The west is situated on the wrong side of the divide – backing narrow literalism and dogma versus intellect. It is perhaps not surprising that a literalist and dogmatic west has contributed to literalism in Islam also. But by holding on to this flawed perception that it is supporting docility and ‘moderation’ against ‘extremism’, paradoxically the west has left the Middle East a less stable, more dangerous and violent place.

Traditionally, those on the left in Europe have assumed a cautious, if not jaundiced view of the Iranian revolution, retaining a suspicion of all religiously-inspired movements. Michel Foucault, the celebrated French philosopher, came close to censure and ejection from intellectual life after writing a series of articles from Tehran describing the sense of freedom generated among Iranians inspired by the revolution that caused outrage on the left. To a certain extent, his reputation never fully recovered.

The 1979 revolution was an event that has never conformed easily to western notions of what ‘a revolution’ should be. I have tried to show in this short article that the Iranian revolution should not be dismissed as some discontinuity of history, an aberration to be explained away rather than to be understood.

The wider Islamist revolution faces a huge struggle against a burgeoning, western-backed, narrow, intolerant, reductive, anti-heterodox Islam that is pumped up with petro-dollars. But this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that political Islam of the Hezbullah, Hamas and Iranian variety is founded on one central principle – the struggle for justice, placing equity, compassion and social justice as its overriding objectives, to which other objectives should be subordinated.

Ali Shariati was clear that the ‘prophetic function’ of the Shia religion ‘acted as a vehicle of protest against accepted values and present policies of the dominant society’. He might well have added the rider, ‘whoever they may be’. Given that he saw the ‘true’ function of religion as a struggle against ‘religion misused in support of the status quo’, there can be little doubt that Shariati, were he alive today, would be reminding some of those pillars of ’79 of those original ideals for which they all risked life and liberty.

Alastair Crooke is the author of Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution (Pluto Press, 2009)

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