Hello my name is Rowan Blake and my dissertation is on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran (I couldn’t think of anything funny, so here is some work form my undergraduate years): The aim of this essay is to examine the factors that significantly contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, which culminated in the revolutionary overthrow of the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi on January 16th, 1979, and the creation of the world’s first modern Islamic nation-state, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The overthrow of the Pahlavi monarch shocked many in the Western world because from the end on World War II until the late 1970’s Iran appeared to be a rock of stability in the turbulent Middle East, as it was a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, political radicalism and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as modernizing and adopting some Western institutions (such as a parliament and a constitution, which did not however, limit the absolute power of the Shah) and cultural values (such as Western dress and the banning of the veiling of women).
Many leaders in the Western world simply ignored, or seemed totally unaware of, the civil unrest that was fermenting within Iran, which is adequately demonstrated by a remark made by U. S. President Jimmy Carter in 1978, only a year before the Islamic revolution, in which he states that Iran was an ‘island of stability and tranquility’ in the Middle East. When discussing the topic of Islamic fundamentalism (or any kind of fundamentalism for that matter, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism etc. it must be noted how cultural perceptions and stereotypes influence the way in which people think in relation to the topic. When the words ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ are used in the Western media, the images that are conjured up in our minds are of militant, retrogressive, women oppressing, terrorist extremists who are dedicated to the destruction of the West, and in particular to the destruction of the ‘Great Satan’ – the United States.
Thus, when Western people think of fundamentalist movements, our cultural perceptions (usually formed as a result of the selective and sensational nature of the world’s main, Western ominated, media corporations) results in a view of these movements as being unrepresentative of the greater population, backward, and inherently dangerous to domestic, regional and international security. However, upon closer examination it can be seen that many Islamic fundamentalist groups enjoy broad political support from all socio-economic groups (but usually draw most of their support from the poorer rural and urban classes), and are often the only effect voices of opposition to the repressive regimes that rule most of the Muslim world.
Islamic movements can thus be very diverse and have various, and often conflicting, ideologies (as demonstrated by the current civil war in Afghanistan between Taliban extremists and the more secular and socialist Mujahideen), which results in some Islamic groups being more extreme, radical and anti-Western whereas others are more secular, accommodating and less anti-Western (few, if any, Islamic groups could be classed as pro-Western).
However, all are grouped under the label of ‘fundamentalist’ in the common view of the West, despite the variety and depth in their different ideological interpretations of Islam and its relations to real life issues. A more unbiased look at a religious fundamentalist movement reveals that it is primarily a call for the return to the basic foundations (fundamentals) of a faith. Hence for Muslims, Islamic fundamentalism refers to a return to the underlying principles of Islam.
These fundamentals are that the Quaran is the literal word of God, and that God’s will is to be observed by strict adherence to the Sharia (the Islamic laws that govern most aspects of a Muslim’s life) and by following the Sunnah (which means ‘example’) of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. To be able to further understand the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran it is first necessary to briefly examine the broader Islamic revival that began in the Muslim world in the 1950’s as a response to a number of interrelated internal and external factors.
One of the most significant factors in the rise of Islam in the Muslim world was the failure of different ideologies (Arab nationalism and Arab Marxism) to satisfy the needs and demands of the Muslim people. The main catalyst for the failure of these competing ideologies was the failure to destroy the state of Israel. Additionally, the creation of Israel in 1948 was an issue that united Muslims across the world, as they viewed Israel as an example of Western supported Zionist imperialism, which rekindled past memories of their own bitter colonial experiences.
Furthermore, the humiliating defeat of three of the most powerful Arab nations (Egypt, Syria and Jordan) in the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel forced Muslims to look for a more indigenous solution to their problems (Arab nationalism and Arab Marxism, it seems with hindsight, were doomed to fail as they were both Western concepts that were ‘transplanted’ into a hostile and alien environment that was not conducive to these ideologies) that would unite them all in the pan-Islamic tradition.
Indeed, many Muslims attributed the limited success of the 1973 Yom Kippur against Israel to the return of Islam to prominence in the Arab nations (or as some suggest, to the ‘Will of Allah’). Another major factor that significantly contributed to the global revival of Islam was essentially an anti-Western cultural backlash. After centuries of Western domination, which resulted in the erosion of traditional Islamic morals and practices, Muslim people began to feel threatened as their traditional society was being changed according to foreign (and in their view, immoral) values to the detriment (or so they believed) of their societies.
The deterioration of traditional Muslim societies combined with economic dependence upon (and exploitation by) the West, the West’s continued support for unrepresentative and repressive regimes (due to the Cold War policy of backing stable regimes, regardless of their levels of democratization in order to prevent the spread of communism), as well as the failures of Westernization to solve the myriad of socioeconomic problems in the Muslim world (such as high levels of poverty and unemployment), led to an almost wholesale rejection of Western values, culture and (to a lesser extent) institutions, which prompted calls for a return to a more traditional Islamic society (such as those that existed before European colonialism). Shiitism, the official state religion of Iran, is a distinct sect of Islam that has traditionally been revolutionary in its nature because it gives religious justification, and support for, the fight against oppression as well as giving justification for (and glorifying) human sacrifice and martyrdom. Throughout the Iran’s long history the only strong and credible opposition to the Shah and his policies came from the Iranian Shiite clergy, which they fulfilled as part of their traditional role as the defender of the weak and oppressed against tyranny and dictatorship.
The Shiite clergy strongly resisted any attempts at foreign domination (or dependence), that they perceived as being detrimental to their nation (and their own distinct religious class and values), because as Iran became increasingly secular and Westernized, the clergy lost a lot of their support (politically and economically), and hence influence, because they were viewed by the ruling regime as hindering progress (and hence modernization) and possessing ‘antiquated’ values, a view that was also shared by the growing number of Westernized urban elites and bourgeoisie merchants. During the eighteenth century Iran (or Persia as it was then known) came under the increasing pressure from Imperial Russia and Britain. Russia aimed to make Persia ‘obedient and useful’ in order to capture the ‘major share of the Persian market’, whereas Britain valued Persia as a buffer state protecting its enormous investments in India, as well as another lucrative market for British goods. Russia and Britain, thus competed fiercely for influence in Persia, and after creating their respective spheres of influence in the late 1800’s they obtained a multitude of favourable trade concessions from the ruling Qajar dynasty.
Thus, it was in the granting of favourable trade concessions to foreign nationals (and/or nations) at the expense of Iran as a whole, as well as dependence on foreign powers (economically and militarily) that created the fiercest resistance to the Shah by the clergy. For instance, in 1872, the Shah Nasir ed-Den granted to Paul Julius de Reuter (a British subject) such comprehensive monopolies in the construction of railroads, canals and irrigation works, the use of all uncultivated land, the harvesting of forests, as well as the operation of banks, public works and mines; that he had (the Shah) in effect sold his country. The British Prime Minister, Lord Curzon called these concessions ‘the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamed of, much less accomplished’.
The granting of these trade concessions led to firm resistance by the clergy with the effect of some of the concessions being cancelled by the Shah. Needless to say that Nasir ed-Den did not survive long (he was assassinated in 1896). In fact, over the past 360 years, only four shahs died of natural causes whilst still in possession of the throne (the rest were either dethroned or assassinated. It seems that there is a consistent pattern recurring pattern in Iranian politics, that of royal complicity with foreign powers, followed by mob uprisings in the streets (usually motivated and/or led by the clergy) and the inability of most shahs to maintain their grip on power.
Three main incidents occurred in Iran that demonstrated to the population (and in particular to the clergy) the inherent dangers of foreign domination and dependence. The first of these incidents, the Tobacco Protest of 1890-2, began when the Shah Nasir ed-Den granted to a British company a complete monopoly over the production, distribution, sale and export of tobacco, which lead to regular protests and demonstrations over a protracted period by both merchants and the religious ulama (experts in Islamic law). The Shah, in order to placate the protesters abrogated the treaty two years later, which led to heavy economic and trade penalties by the British for annulling the treaty, and hence underlined the regime’s (and nation’s) dependence upon Britain.
In fact, it is argued by Iranian academics that the roots of Iran’s antiimperialistic social movement began in the Tobacco Protest, in which the ulama played a considerable role, and hence came to be seen inseparable from the broader goals of social reform. Hence religion came to play an increasingly significant role as the only effective voice of protest against the Shah and foreign domination. The second of these incidents occurred during World War II, when in August/September 1941 the Allies occupied Iran and forced the Shah Reza Khan Pahlavi to abdicate in favour of his son (Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the last of the Shahs) due to his pro-German sympathies.
To the Iranian people, this incident was a blatant violation of their sovereignty and further illustrated the extent to which their nation was dominated by the West, because (as was demonstrated by the Shah’s forced abdication) the West could overthrow the ruler of Iran at their whim and hence dictate who rules the nation. The third, and probably most significant, incident occurred in 1953 when the Shah fled Iran to Rome after a popular nationalist coup d’etat led by Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Mossadegh. However, Mossadegh’s plan to nationalize Iran’s oil threatened the strategic interests of Western nations and oil companies, because it could set a precedent for other Persian Gulf nations which could also become tempted to nationalize the oil industries in their own countries (again to the detriment of the West), as well as directly threatening the supplies of oil from Iran to Western nations (in particular the United States).
Thus America, with British support, orchestrated the dramatic reversal of the Mossadegh coup (in which they made no attempt to conceal their roles), and the Shah returned from Rome to Tehran aboard an American military plane with the head of the CIA at his side. The coup had a significant impact on the views of the Iranian people in relation to the Shah and America, because the Shah was perceived to have lost his legitimacy as a ruler as he was increasingly viewed as an American puppet, and it was widely regarded that no regime in Iran could survive without foreign support. Also, the coup signaled the rise of America as the hegemonic foreign power in Iran (as opposed to Britain and Russia), as well as created further dependence upon the United States.
The Shah became heavily dependent on US support to be able to maintain his autocratic grip on power, as evident by the massive purchases of high technology American weapons and the creation of the CIA trained SAVAK (The National Information and Security Organisation), the Iranian secret policy, which was the Shah’s main instrument of terror and repression. With the return of the Shah, the West’s (and yet again, in particular the United States) involvement in Iran (politically, economically and militarily) increased significantly. After the 1953 coup, the Pahlavi regime became increasingly repressive in order to eliminate all opposition to the Shah and to further the Shah’s personal goal of the transformation of Iran into a modern Westernized and secular nation.
In 1961 the Shah officially initiated a series of bills, known collectively known as the ‘White Revolution’, which aimed at the modernization (and increasingly Westernization) of Iran. The White Revolution did achieve some success in legal, educational, health and especially land reform (the Shah, to eliminate the political influence of rural based landlords, confiscated some of their land and redistributed it amongst the peasantry, a move which also aimed at creating a large peasant dominated support for the incumbent regime), but it failed in its overall aim to transform Iranian society because the majority of the benefits of these modern reforms went to a small and growing number of urban elites, and not to the masses of urban and rural poor for whom the reforms were meant to benefit the most.
The failure of the White Revolution further polarized Iranian society between the small Westernized urban elite and the poorer rural and urban majority, and further symbolised to most Iranians the inability of Westernization to solve their problems (such as unrepresentative government, high levels of unemployment and poverty), which further prompted calls for a more indigenous and increasingly Islamic solution. This disillusionment with Westernization and secularization created a backlash against the Shah and his modernization programs which were seen as only benefiting a minority of Iranians to the detriment of the nation as a whole. It was at this time (1961), that Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini (a leading Shiite cleric living in exile from Iran) first rose to prominence as the most vocal and strident critic of the Pahlavi monarchy and its close association with the West.
Due to his popularity and charismatic personality, Ayatollah Khomeini managed to wield the diverse elements of the resistance (which consisted of moderates, fundamentalists, nationalists and Marxists) into a broad social movement that led to regular strikes, subversive guerilla activities and demonstrations (which created a vicious cycle, as any increase in acts of defiance to the regime resulted in an increase in repression) that brought the nation to a standstill, and forced the Shah into self-imposed exile on January 16, 1979, when he had lost the support of his staunchest ally, the army, which would no longer be called upon to fire at the demonstrators.
The rise of Islam in Iran hence can be seen as part of a continual process in which religion was the only force capable of uniting the nation against repression and foreign domination, as well as being the only ideology that seemed able to help the poor and oppressed masses (as is indoctrinated in the Shiite faith). The rise of Islam (in its Iranian and global contexts) can hence be explained as essentially an indigenous solution to the problems of the Muslim people, as well as representing a rejection of the ‘immoral’ Western values, culture and institutions, which were viewed (combined with the legacy of Western imperialism) as the root cause of most of the modern Islamic world’s problems as well as being responsible for the societal breakdown of Islamic nations.
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