Iran’s Revolution: Religion and Revolution in a Post-Secular Register
Looking back at the Iranian Revolution from the present, two events stand as critical indicators of the importance of this revolution; first, the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001; and second, the collapse of the Soviet Union and similar Communist regimes after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The fall of the Communist Bloc ended the Cold War which had pitted Western Democracies against what were deemed totalitarian states adhering to a Marxist-Leninist ideology. The Cold War had fueled a decades-long campaign of militarization on both sides of the divide and it is generally agreed that the fall of the U.S.S.R. was directly connected to its expenditures during the invasion of Afghanistan in which the US fought a covert operation against the Soviets and their Afghani counterparts. Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the “principal architect” of the 9/11 attacks were both directly involved with the Mujahideen opposition to the Afghanistan regime.
If Afghanistan was the death knell of Soviet military might and economic stability, 9/11 forever identified in the popular consciousness a new mortal enemy of Western Democracy, Islamist militancy. Although 9/11 dramatically ratcheted up Western reaction to Islamism, the Iranian Revolution and, specifically, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, laid the groundwork for the contemporary stand-off between Islamism and the West. Both the Cold War and the War on Terror propelled massive military efforts. While much of the political focus has since shifted to the campaigns of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is in important ways the latest permutation of a formula of Islamist politics that encompasses Iran, the Taliban, and other Islamist efforts. Before Iran, Marxist ideology had operated as critical organizing force in nations that were fighting against the influence of Western political and economic systems. After 9/11, Islamism has putatively taken on the role of global champion of the oppressed and downtrodden. Such developments defy modern narratives of the inevitable march of secular progress. Before the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade later, very few analysts could have predicted that Soviet Communism would utterly fall apart and Islamism would rise in its stead.
The Iranian Revolution crystallized a political direction for Islamist movements that prior to the crisis of the Shah’s regime followed more religious and cultural pathways towards their goals of reviving Islam. In fact, many analysts expected that the new regime that would replace the Shah would be more or less secular and pluralist. The utter defeat of all other elements of the opposition by the theocratic Khomeini forces surprised and continues to confound analysts of modern politics. The ideological sources of the Iranian Revolution did include Marxists and secular liberals, but the dominant voices were strongly Islamic, even if they also embodied left-wing stances. One notable left-wing influence on the Revolution was Ali Shariati, whose writings and lectures reveal a somewhat sophisticated grasp of Marxism and Western culture. Shariati was opposed to theocracy and proposed a populist view of Islam infused with a Marxist perception of class struggle. The Capitalist West was not the pinnacle of progress, but the exploiter of the masses and “Red Shi’ism” was the antidote to both the “Black Shi’ism” of the religious establishment in Iran and the capitalist domination of economic power.
Of course, the role of liberator of the oppressed is not genuinely fulfilled by most Islamism. Shariati’s Marx-infused Islamic theology clearly sides with the economically disadvantaged, while the deceptive co-optation of Red Shi’ism by Khomeini during the Revolution and its subsequent suppression afterwards was a betrayal, not a fulfillment of Shariati’s vision. This is abundantly clear when it comes to the Khomeini regime’s strictures on women. Shariati denounced customs that he argued did not flow from the inspiration at the core of Islam, but from provincial accretions that led to veiling women and denying them the right to equal education with males. But Shariati also did not easily welcome Western customs either. Shariati rhetorically attacked both the “stupefying culture of indecent Western modernism” and “conservative, anti-human, anti-Islamic ethnic traditions” of his own nation. This sort of strong rhetoric is both bracing, yet also carries its own potential pitfalls.
Frank Herbert, author of the science fiction series “Dune,” coined an epigraph for his novel’s exploration of a futuristic quasi-Islamic messianic figure. “When religion and politics ride in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way.” Although Western observers are easily critical of Islamism’s theocratic politics, they often forget that most European nations had and some still do have state-sanctioned religions and tax-supported clergy. The United States turned from this European model, but prior to the War for Independence many of the colonies had established churches. Marx’s famous invective, “religion is the opium of the masses” was aimed directly at the European religious establishment. Though Marx believed that atheism would spread and become the philosophy of the revolutionary proletariat, the 20th century saw a remarkable resurgence of religion and its incursions into politics. In fact, a superficial reading of history will reveal that for most human societies, religion was identical with politics and ethics, as well as the guardian of sacred cultural narratives and performer of their rituals. Divorcing religion from politics is a new modern experiment and many feel that it is too bound up with a Western modernism that also imposes capitalist alienation and opportunistic political incursions. Even Christianity has had its moments of revolutionary reinterpretation, such as the Liberation Theology that undergirded the resistance to U.S. client regimes in Central and South America. The role religion has played in revolution is not a simple matter of reaction, though there is more than enough reaction to horrify most sensitive observers. Religion goes back very deep into human history, perhaps to the dawn of the species. As Atheist Communism has faded from the vanguard of human aspiration and radical Islamism challenges Western secular power quixotically, one cannot predict what new forms and configurations religion, politics, and revolution may take in the future.
But, we can ask whether religion can function as a new anti-capitalist and potentially revolutionary opposition? For Marx, opposition to capitalism that would achieve socialism could only occur within fully integrated capitalist nations and he identified the working-classes as the collective subject of the revolution. Islamist opposition to the West is often ambivalent about capitalism. Shariati stood in close relation to an anti-Western stream of Marxism that took its cues from Frantz Fanon among others. On the other side of the world from Iran, Latin American Liberation Theologians had notable successes in Brazil and Nicaragua, though as with the Taliban of Afghanistan, Western (mostly US) military power decisively defeated most of these movements. Presuming that the historical trend continues where Western power defeats Islamism, one could expect a future transition in these nations from Islamism towards some new oppositional strategy. Perhaps, a second coming of Marxism? If so, we can be fairly certain this new Marxism will not be the same as that which triumphed in the Bolshevik Revolution for a short time.
Revolutionary Subjects?: Marxism vs. Islamism
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or the Levant) emerged in direct descent from “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” which has clear connections with the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization created by Osama bin Laden, in that its Jordanian founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was involved in anti-Soviet and Taliban fighting in Afghanistan, as was bin Laden. The US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime left a space for extremist mobilization that took in elements of Hussein’s military and Kurdish fighters. Iran reportedly aided al-Zarqawi’s entrance into Iraqi Kurdistan territory, which raises interesting questions about the future of Shia Islamism’s relation to this ferociously Sunni movement. As ISIS consolidated its influence in Syria and Iraq, it declared itself to have achieved the revolutionary goal of creating a worldwide caliphate that would unite all Islamic societies against apostates and non-Muslim enemies. This declaration has forced the worldwide networks of Sunni Islamist militants to take sides for or against al-Baghdadi’s rule.
This destabilization of previous state boundaries in an already contested region dramatically ups the ante that various Islamist forces have been playing out for decades. As noted in my earlier essay on the Iranian Revolution, the emergence of Islamism as the successor of Communism in the role of the primary enemy of Western Democracy poses a vexing problem for the analyst of revolution. Whereas Soviet Communism and its satellite states deployed a recognizable – if often rejected – logic of modern progress through capitalism beyond to socialism, Islamism typically harkens to pre-modern models for its political ideals. No self-respecting Marxist would ever accept Islamism as their successor, but Marxists do need to ask why their revolution has been so globally defeated and why a “Worldwide Caliphate” has begun to ape the political postures of the Communist International?
Marx opposed religion to science and an industry was forged of “scientific socialism” which tried to unify into a single neo-Hegelian “aufhebung” the theory and praxis of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with socialism. Against everyone’s expectations, including Marx himself, that revolutionary praxis didn’t reach its zenith via the secularized working class in Germany, Britain, or the USA, but rather the religiously traditional capitalist backwater of Russia. Trotsky famously analyzed the reasons for this historical anomaly in terms of “combined and uneven development” in which a rapacious capitalism could actually exploit the still mostly feudal populace of Russia with greater impunity than in more developed and democratic nations, triggering the Bolshevik Revolution, which was actually only commandeered by the Bolsheviks, not unlike how Khomeini used and discarded the “Red Shi’ism” of the followers of Ali Shariati in the Iranian Revolution. Mao Zedong took Trotsky’s revision of Marxism even further when he made the Chinese agrarian peasantry the foundational class of his quasi-Leninist revolution in China. Counter to Marx’s own expectation, no anti-capitalist revolution has ever occurred in a core capitalist nation. The international opposition to capitalism that was once identified by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao as crucial for the success of a worldwide Communist revolution has devolved in every corner of the globe – with some lingering exceptions – into new forms of nationalism, religious fanaticism, and other decidedly anti-modernist non-Marxist forms, most visibly of all to the USA, Islamism itself.
If all hitherto existing history is the history of class struggle, what is the class character of religious struggle? The worldwide caliphate of al-Baghdadi is certainly not declaring any intentions to abolish class rule, and so, perhaps class struggle will yet erupt within the breast of Islamism itself. Back in the USA, internal political struggles over the relation of religion to politics have continued to fester as the Christian Right has tried to advance its own forms of theocracy or religious laws. The irony of American Christians paranoically trying to pass legislation banning sharia law for the tiny sliver of American Muslims who might desire such an alternative to secular courts, while at the same time these Christians are trying to ban abortion, same-sex marriage, and other offenses against their religious values is palpable. What has happened to the religion that was the sigh of the oppressed creature and a protest against real distress?
Looking at the conflict between the Western Democracies and the Islamist insurgents a realistic perspective would have to admit that Islamism’s global pretensions are doomed. Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State may be able to hold on to its new territory, but there seems to be little prospect of the worldwide caliphate as anything more than an illusion of grandeur. While the USA may not be the unstoppable force it once was, it still seems more than capable of containing the global pretensions of Islamism, despite the notable blunders of the post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Such a judgment no doubt sits quite comfortably with a Marxist perspective, yet there remains the persistent question of whether there is any revolutionary progress possible beyond Fukuyama’s “End of History” as simply the global extension of liberal capitalist democracy to every corner of the world?
Perhaps the rise and fall of the “Arab Spring” hints that things are not so simple as a displacement of class struggle by Islamic militancy. The uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and other nations shared many similarities with struggles for liberal democracy despite the fact that Islamism did sometimes win temporary victories, as in the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi to the Egyptian presidency, only to be forcibly deposed by the Egyptian Military after little over one year in office. The significance of Morsi’s ouster is that it seems to signal an explicit rejection of Islamism within the Egyptian populace. Several struggles continue, such as Syria, to reveal something of a triangulated conflict with the old Western-backed regimes of these nations challenged by both Islamists and advocates of democratization. Although the USA once did back repressive regimes such as those of Mubarak, Hussein, and others, the lesson that seems forced upon us by the rise of Islamism is that there may be no tolerable alternative to allowing Arab states to democratize and perhaps the revolutionary sequence proposed by Marxism of capitalism leading to socialism may yet see new life.