February 11 was the fortieth anniversary of the triumph of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. As the last considerable revolution of the past century, and a major push-back against modernity, it casts doubt on a great number of widely accepted dogmas of social progress.
The ideals of the Age of Enlightenment such as the inevitability of progress of secularism and civil society, the dominance of rationalism over superstition; and the rise of human dignity and valor are somewhat doubted by this and similar upheavals.
The movement that was conceived and initiated by modern Iranian secularists as a civic protest was appropriated by the Shiite clergy, who for their part, turned it into a mass movement. Thanks to the western educated allies of the so-called revolutionary ayatollahs, the usurping of the movement and ascent to power by the ultraconservative religious elite were stealthy and well encrusted in modernist jargon.
After the revolution, however, the leaders spared no time to reverse their promises of tolerance, respecting universally approved human rights, and democracy. Responding to a question about his promise of democracy and equality posed by his hand-picked president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini, simply replied he had “tricked” the nation by the promises he had made during his exile in France.
The main slogan of the 1979 revolution, “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic” was a non-starter. Conventional freedoms were never professed by the leaders. Khomeini made it abundantly clear that freedoms were allowed “as long as they did not contradict Islam”, and the judge would be the Ayatollah and his lieutenants. This arbitrariness evidently did not sink in at the time, mainly because the aging Ayatollah was respected and trusted by the people. He radiated simplicity and holiness.
“Independence” and “Islamic republic” were realized - only to prove their historical irrelevance. “Independence” came to mean independence from “American imperialism”, and this was gained rather swiftly when thousands of American personnel left Iran, and the U.S. embassy was taken over by Islamic militants.
Emboldened by the unexpectedly easy victory, Shiism international, wrapped in a nationalist cloak, took momentum. It broke out of Iranian borders to carry the message of revolution to other ‘oppressed’ Shiite brethren across the world. At that decisive moment, the new Islamic Iranian regime, inexperienced in complexities of regional politics, thrust the country into the bottomless Middle Eastern quagmire and its endless conflicts.
No other experiment in social theory could have so exquisitely proven the intellectual poverty of the revolutionary ideals of third world theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, and their Iranian incarnate, Ali Shariati.
To the general public, independence came to forcibly mean rejection of modern culture, pejoratively dubbed as “American culture.” The expulsion/negation of western and secular trained experts and expertise ensued. Thus, the writing was on the wall: Iran was going to follow the well-trodden path of third world revolutionary movements - the path of war, repression and bankruptcy.
No other experiment in social theory could have so exquisitely proven the intellectual poverty of the revolutionary ideals of third world theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, and their Iranian incarnate, Ali Shariati. The rapid descent into tyranny was inevitable. Once again it became clear that deconstructing a country’s way of life could be attained; reconstructing its social fabric and establishing a totally new indigenous identity and method of governance however was delusional.
To their disbelief, Iranians became aware of their regime’s avowed rejection of progress and welfare. They also soon learned that in order to consolidate its power, the regime had prolonged the Iran-Iraq war at the expense of its own people who suffered over a million casualties. It was the war with Iraq that helped the Islamic regime forge its ideological system – create and organize its praetorian "Islamic Revolution Guards Corps" and establish its iron-fisted rule.
The regime was also hell-bent on devaluing and disparaging Persian heritage, and replacing it with religious fables and fervor. But, when the need arose to encourage the youth to self-sacrifice, they had no qualms about using patriotism as a propaganda tool.
The Islamic Revolution also demonstrated that there could be innumerable levels of decline in governance.Rasool Nafisi
Unhappy with the reign of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, many modernists and leftists surrendered to the Islamic avalanche and allowed it to roll over them. At the time they thought “nothing could be as deplorable as the reign of the lackey Pahlavi dynasty”. They were agonizingly awakened to the bitter reality that there could be indeed many worse stages of bad governance.
As Iran fell from the status of a progressive “traditional society” to a “third world country”, Iranians were forced to embrace the new norms with fear and uncertainty. Those who could migrated. Those who felt there was still hope, remained and experienced the physical and psychological brutality of the new regime.
Some of the Islamic modernists in the ranks of the revolutionary regime, who had hoped for a “pure” Islamic state, were quickly disillusioned and defected. Those who believed that the Iranian people had lived with tyranny throughout their history and the Islamic Republic was no exception continued with the business as usual approach. On the other hand, the Bazaar merchants and other traditionalists, who had supported the clergy in their struggle, felt that they now had a shot at an “organic” state of their own. They were out to get their share of the bounty and were indeed richly rewarded by the grateful Ayatollahs.
The Iranian people also learned the hard way about the degrees of brutality and depravity of the so-called "Revolutionary Ayatollahs".
The fact that the previous regime had treated its opposition harshly was a well-known fact. But, as the new regime unfolded, the Iranian people suddenly woke up one morning to find out that their belief system was questioned - that they were considered as strayed Muslims, who had to repent all they had believed in for generations. A punitive regime unfettered by the normal laws of modern society unleashed random and wanton violence on its citizens, defining such actions as “revolutionary rage”.
It was hell-bent on exposing the public to methodical, brutal violence as a means of social control. Public hangings and lashings were re-introduced after a century of respite. The right of the society to take corrective action was replaced by tribal laws of "qisas", retribution. Cruel and unusual punishments were becoming the norm. Citizens were punished just for trying to live their lives. Under the new order, they were not only punished for what they did, but also for what they didn’t.
Iran today can be defined as a republic of grief. Sorrow, martyrdom, vengefulness, and hatred infuses the society, propagated through innumerable state-controlled mosques, pulpits, scores of television and radio channels...
Iran today can be defined as a republic of grief. Sorrow, martyrdom, vengefulness, and hatred infuses the society, propagated through innumerable state-controlled mosques, pulpits, scores of television and radio channels, as well as supervised school teachers and administrators. Both the supreme leader and president are former religious sermonizers who are expert at making people shed tears by reciting sorrowful tales of the martyred Shi'ite Imams. It is not unusual for these leaders to open a government business meeting with an abrupt tear-jerker sermon. Happiness is all but forbidden. Even weddings are not supposed to include dancing and cheerful music. Islamic apparatchiks are hard at work on orders of the Supreme Leader to introduce “Islamic joviality”, but so far, no success is in sight.
I have observed for forty years the gradual metamorphosis of a mostly secular society into a strange cavalcade of modern repressive apparatus controlled by those who claim to be on a mission from Allah. The theology of oppression continues to be perfected by well-paid clerics. These leaders offer nothing to the nation except martyrdom and self-sacrifice for the faith. The regime makes up for its ineptitude by callousness and wanton punishment. Corruption has become endemic and is effectively used to retain the loyalty of the network of its supporters.
After forty years in power, the regime shows no sign of moderation. It is a revolution without a Thermidorian phase. Lessons learned from the model of the Islamic Republic are being replicated by latecomers such as Rajab Tayeb Erdogan of Turkey.
What does all of this say to the evolutionary ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and the triumph of rationalism, let alone the end of history theory? The rapid crumbling of the secular state, dispersion of the modern middle class across the world, and endless social engineering to enforce religious dictums hint at troubling realities. It demonstrates the vulnerability of secularism in the Islamic world and how the veneer of modernity could be easily sponged off, even from the political culture of a nation that had seemingly embraced modern values for an appreciable period.