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The Birth Of Islamism In Iran History Essay

The world had only known Khomeini for the first time in late 1978, when he was exiled in France due to his opposition to the Pahlavi monarchical regime in Iran. From Neuphele le Chateau, one of Paris suburbs, this battle that Khomeini launched against shah and his pungent speeches against America, gained large and unprecedented media coverage that introduced Khomeini as one of the most revolutionary figures of the 20th century.

In the 20th century, especially as the media took up form and developed from newspapers to radio and then to television, news of revolutionaries such as Nasser of Egypt, Castro and Guevara in Cuba travelled with immense speed, but, Khomeini was viewed differently. He led the only successful Islamic revolution in the 20th century that was destined to accomplish victory. What was different about Khomeini and his Islamic revolution was that he was not communist, capitalist or pan-Arab nationalist. He was an Islamic leader and secondly a leader to the Iranian people. His slogan was “Not Easterly, Nor Westerly, One Islamic Republic”.

But a question is put forward and discussed by authors such as Asef Bayat (ref) in that “Why did Iran of the late 1970s with a thriving economy, wealthy middle class, repressive political system, massive military might, and powerful international allies go through an Islamic revolution?”

To many scholars of political islam, the Iranian revolution was a fruit of an ideological process and the result of an Islamic movement that spanned through decades from the early 20th century until complete bloom in 1979 (Asef Bayat Ref). It has been suggested that through the deeply religious Iranian society, the Islamists invested their efforts to slowly mobilize and prepare for an Islamic theocracy. This was achieved through institutions such as the “hawzeh” (seminary) and its sermons, public preaching especially Friday prayer speeches and publications that they were able to recruit, train and mobilize and conjure the opportunity to take power and through the emergence of Islamic discourse culminate an Islamic revolution (Hamid Dabashi Ref, Mansoor Moaddel Ref).

In addition to Islamic discourse put out by Moaddel and Dabashi who also focus on internal factors, others such as Anthony Parsons and Nikkie Keddie regard the Islamic Revival through the Hawza and the people as a struggle against Western Identity and the assertion of the Islamic identity that people seek. It is in this argument that Parson believes that the Iranian revolution came about due to the fact that the “bulk of the Shia population of Iran knew both what they did not want (the continuation of Pahlavi rule) and what they did want (a government controlled by religious leadership, the historical guardians of the Islamic Iranian tradition).” On the other hand, as Keddie argues and Bayat mentions in his essay: “two additional factors played a role: a growing association between secularism and western control and a government associated with the western powers”.4

Furthermore, the revolution has also been viewed from a social dimension i.e. the breakdown of traditional social order (Said Amir Arjomand Ref). To elaborate, scholars have viewed that this breakdown is as a result of socioeconomic changes that the regimes in power initiated from the Qajar to Pahlavi. These regimes, through their socioeconomic changes as Arjomand argues, have not been able to integrate the disarrayed strata of society into its own socioeconomic model or structure. This therefore resulted in the regimes pushing the “deprived ones” (mustaz'afeen) to the arms of the clergy in the Hawza thus ready to mobilize them as they grew in number since the 1960s.

Finally, a third dimension to the Islamic revolution in Iran is discussed through Structural Factors and class interests. Scholars such as Halliday and Milani argue that the contradiction between socioeconomic development and political autocracy gave rise to the conflict and the social classes became the major tools in the revolution. This can be further explained by the role of the regime where the high degree of state intervention in capital accumulation through oil and military sales eroded the mediating role of the market (bazaar) thus making the state a target for conflict and opposition by the bazaaris (ref Parsa Misaq, Halliday, Milani).

To look at the factors that can best help explain the birth of Islamism in Iran, it would be necessary to look at the three dimensions outlined above through a historical sketch of history from the Qajar era to the Pahlavi regime’s actions. Although this subject is deep, and many articles and books have discussed this topic, this essay will only touch up on Islamic groups, their ethos, mobilization and revolutionary maneuvers in the Iran. This essay will give background to Islamic mobilization from the early 20th century and its possible effects on the Khomeini Islamic revolution. Also, the essay will further discuss the factors leading to an Islamic revolution through an Iranian Shia outlook and perspective; from the Qajar dynasty to the demise of the last monarchical Pahlavi regime in Iran in 1979.

Qajar Dynasty and the Revolutionary movement:

Although Iran was under the rule of the Qajar dynasty, it was seen as being subordinate to Russian and British influences. The Soviet had the influence and control over the North (oil fields) of Iran, whereas the British controlled the South via oil trade and rights (ref). These were known as “regions of influence” that gave rise to a large burden of debt on Iran. The year 1905/6 saw a major turning point in Iran with the introduction of the Constitutional Revolution. This revolution led mainly by the Bazaaris, and it led to the Birth of the Parliament and the “mashruteh” constitution, a secular Belgian constitution, with 156 members of whom mostly were form the merchant class of Tehran (ref).

The constitutional movement in Iran had its first signs with a role in the Tobacco movement in Iran in 1892; this was first nationalist-religious movement against foreign intervention and influence led by Ayatollah Shirazi (ref). This movement gave the clerics their first attempt at political legitimacy. To reach a future Islamic constitution, the clerics had to safeguard their strength and position as a group. The clerics led by Fadhlullah Nouri turned into a force against the 1906 constitution, deeming it too constitutional without a hint of Islamic law. They (the clerics) therefore rallied towards a “mashru’a”, or an Islamic constitution which was signed in 1906. Although the Islamic constitution failed at the end, due to Russian and British occupation (ref) and the execution of Nouri, the clerics would yet find another route to combine nationalism and the clergy into an anti-government political opposition. These gave rise to future movements throughout Iran since the end of the First World War, ranging from preachers such as Mirza Kouchik Khan in Rasht to secular activists such as Khalu Qurban and Ehsanallh Khan (ref).

Pahlavi Monarchy and the Secularization of Iran

After Britain’s victory in the First World War, they appointed a new government in Iran headed by Wuthoq Al-Dawla who signed a treaty putting the management of the military and financial affairs of Iran under British Control. Hassan Modarres a cleric and Member of Parliament opposed the law and exerted pressure on Ahmed Shah Qajar to reject the law. This led to discord and tension mounting giving rise to major revolutions in the northern and southern parts of Iran. Sheikh Mohammed Khiyabani Tabrizi and MP led the military movement in Azerbaijan and Mirza Kojik did the same in Gilan both claiming Jihad against the Qajar government leading to the resignation of Wuthooq Dawla as Prime Minister and the appointment of a journalist Dia-eldeen Tabtabaei by the British as a new Prime Minister. The appointment of the new Prime Minister and his subsequent meetings with an army officer named Reza Khan that paved the way to a new monarchy to rule Iran. Reza Khan overthrew Ahmad Shah Qajar and established an authoritarian government that valued nationalism, military might and above all secularism (Michael P. Zirinsky; "Imperial Power and Dictatorship: Britain and the Rise of Reza Shah, 1921-1926)

After overthrowing the Qajar, Reza Shah claimed ownership to agricultural lands in Iran and officially registered them in his name. On the other hand, he had a deep interest in building a secular modern state, one that would lean on the examples of Turkey under Ataturk. In 1934, Reza Shay made a visit to benefit from the secularization experience. They both shared a common view and opinion on Islam and the state, to paralyze the role of Islam in society and banning the veil among other things. In addition Reza Shah went further to touching and trespassing on the corner stone of the Shia faith, the consolation of Imam Hussein during Muharam.

Reza Shah came to power as king amid conditions of political instability and years of civil war, foreign occupation. Many of the measures he undertook undermined the Islamic institutions and the clergy. The Shah banned the clerics from wearing the turbans and forced them to wear western attire. He replaced the judicial system with western educated lawyers. Furthermore, the Hijri Islamic calendar was abolished, whilst the veil was finally banned and so were Friday prayer sermons and religious education in schools. Reza Shah attempted to fully secularize Iran, and his clash with the clergy became harsher after he violated the sanctity of the Shrine of Masumeh Qom after his wife entered the shrine without the veil, this prompted the caretaker (a cleric) of the shrine to ask her to wear appropriate clothes. As an effect, the caretaker was punished by a brutal beating.

By the mid to late 1930s, the friction between the Hawza clergy and the Shah was even more intense. In 1935, a demonstration in Mashhad Shrine of Imam Reza erupted as clerics denounced the Shah calling him the new “Yezid” (Umayyad Caliph that ordered the Dead of Imam Hussein). This was all as Reza shah was seen enforcing heretical innovations, and the end result of the four day standoff was the army breaking into the “divine” shrine of the 8th Shia Imam killing dozens and as hundreds more lay injured (refs). The future would prove that the clerics would not yield easily, but like Khomeini would analyse and note down these happenings in their writings: “The Faydiyeh School comprised hundreds of students, they used to flee to the fields in the morning and come back in the evening. Why? Because they feared being caught by policemen and guards, who would insult them, harm and beat them. Even the clerics of Tehran were beaten, humiliated and their clothes ripped apart so they would not leave the police station” (Unveiling of Secrets, Khomeini 1944)

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