Contributing writer Conor Hogan examines how the history of Iranian uprising illuminates the resilience of its inhabitants
Firdaus Noman shook her head. “How can a woman’s face be the enemy of Islam?” She asked angrily. Anees took her hands in his. “For these idiots it’s all about sex, maej, excuse me. They think it is a scientific fact that a woman’s hair emits rays that arouse men to deeds of sexual depravity. They think that if a woman’s bare legs rub together, even under a floor-length robe, the friction of her thighs will generate sexual heat which will be transmitted through her eyes into the eyes of men and will inflame them in an unholy way.” Firdaus spreads her hands in a gesture of resignation. “So, because men are animals, according to them, women must pay. This is an old story. Tell me something else.”
– Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown.
Who suffers most when the parties of God establish power in the real world? The answer has always been, and always will be women. Salman Rushdie understands this intimately. In August of this year, an attempt was made on the author’s life, leaving him permanently maimed. This assassination attempt came as a result of the decades-old fatwah issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the former religious leader of Iran, calling on all Muslims worldwide to target Rushdie over the publication of his novel ‘the Satanic Verses’. To reiterate; the head of a foreign state publicly contracted the murder of a citizen of another country for the offence of writing a work of fiction. Only one month after the attack on Rushdie, a 22-year-old woman, Masha Amini, was viciously beaten to death by the same regime’s pervasive Religious Police for the improper wearing of a hijab; the stimulus for nationwide anti-government protests.
The battle between civil society and theocracy wages on. At present, if you are to open any newspaper you will see how the parties of God are behaving around the world. In Russia, the Christian Orthodox Church has played a significant role in its support of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In the United States, the overturning of Roe vs Wade has dismantled 50 years of legal development towards the provision of abortion rights to women, and according to the offensively Catholic Justice Clarence Thomas, it is now considered desirable to reconsider other rulings which have provided civil liberties to the country’s citizens. The great shame of our own nation has been Catholic institutional abuse and the state’s continued complicity in this abuse. It makes a serious difference, both philosophically and morally, whether a person attributes their presence to the laws of biology, the laws of nature and the laws of evolution, or they attribute their presence to a celestial deity. While this belief in and of itself may seem a relatively benign delusion, religion with political force is anything but. The convergence of religion and state is not merely undesirable, rather it inevitably results in violations of the rights of that state’s citizens. It seems as though those within the Islamic Republic of Iran, who have been forced to live under the dogmatic rule of the despotism for almost 40 years now, have grown tired of being oppressed by ordinary mammals who claim to be acting on divine orders.
While the complete unification of religion and state can only be said to have come with the 1979 Revolution, the two have never been entirely separate in Iran. The once Zoroastrian people were converted to Islam soon after the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century, but refused to adopt the Arabic tongue, and the survival of Persian culture and language past the religious conversion remains a source of pride in the country. Furthermore, the conversion was not to the Sunni majority, but rather Shi’a Islam became the official religion of the Persian Empire and remains the official religion of Iran to this day. The Shi’a sect, from its inception, perceived itself to be the party of the minority and of the oppressed. A lively debate persists within Shi’a about the role religion should play in the state, namely between those who believe Sharia should be imposed now, and those who believe that religious rule is not appropriate until the return of the Twelfth Imam. So, at its root there is a considerable discrepancy between Iranian society and many other Arab nations.
Radical Islam’s hold over Iranian politics had been instituted by the two ruling orders which preceded the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty, the Shah of which was to be deposed in the uprising of 1979. Before his cursory empire, Iran had been governed by two other ruling families who were responsible for major religious input in the country; the Safavids, which in the 16th century gave Iran Shi’a and the Qajars, which granted the Muslim clergy -the ulema- political power. This would lead to the first Iranian revolution of the 20th Century, when in 1906 the citizens of Iran rose to force the ruling Qajars to adhere to a democratic constitution. This would be the first of many times in the last century that Iranians would revolt in the hope of liberation from religious oppression.
The discovery of oil in Iran in the inter-war years would lead to Britain and the United States’ historical support for the upholding of radical Islamism in the country. The establishment of the Anglo-Iranian oil company (now BP) prompted the extraction of oil and, needless to say, concessions from the Qajar dynasty, whose rule by the 1920s had become decrepit. Fears of a socialist revolution led to British support of the military coup in 1921 which would put in place their long-time allies, the Pahlavi dynasty, who would satisfy the oil interest of foreign powers while instituting a dictatorial autocracy. In the years following the Second World War, in an uncharacteristic display of humanitarianism, the British allowed for greater popular participation in Iran’s government. This led to the election of Iran’s communist party to parliament in 1951 and the subsequent nationalisation of the country’s oil industry, and thus this democratic experiment was hastily terminated. A coup was orchestrated by the British and the CIA, and with the Shi’a clergy as ringleaders, demonstrations were held to depose the communist Prime Minister, Mossadegh. This, of course, is contradictory to a religious institution which purports to stand against oppression. But fears of a further shift to the left, which is the direction in which the Iranian people seem to vote when given the chance, may have led to the appropriation of clerically owned land, or even a rejection of religion altogether. As such Britain and the United States developed a shared goal with the ulema; to suppress secular nationalism in Iran. Because for both, this is the real enemy. With secular nationalism comes the threat of the resources of the region being reclaimed for the people of that region rather than for the benefit of foreign powers, and the most effective barrier to this eventuality is a far-right, undemocratic Islamic state system.
The United States stands to gain nothing from the fall of the theocracy in Iran. The only people who do are Iranians. It is principally for this reason that change must come from within the country. Outside interference would only poison the well. Iranians are acutely aware of how Western meddling had not only ruined democracy in their nation in 1953, but had acted as the inciting incident for the eventual rise to power of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and allowed for his hijacking of the initially secular revolution of 1979.
What the Islamic Revolution of 1979 would become could be more accurately described as an Islamic counterrevolution. The uprising by the people of Iran did not set out to establish an Islamic state. Every layer of Iranian society took to the streets to oppose the autocracy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi only to find that by the end their revolution had been hijacked from them by a cast of militant religious zealots. While undoubtedly an autocrat, before the revolution Iran did see economic and social improvement under the Shah’s so-called White Revolution, a trickle-down modernisation of Iranian society. This was vehemently opposed by one particular Shi’a cleric; Ruhollah Khomeini, whose main complaint was the un-Islamic nature of the reform which would grant greater rights to women, including suffrage. Where Khomeini gained popular support was in his condemnation of neglect of the poor by the Pahlavi Dynasty. In spite of, or perhaps as a result of the modernisation of the country, many individual Iranians did not enjoy economic success. Mechanisation of agriculture displaced farmers, who were forced to move to urbanised areas which did not have enough jobs to meet the demand of its growing population. And so, Iranians were already protesting against a government that was perceived as being unresponsive to their needs. When separate demonstrations were held by a small group of Khomeini supporters after the publication of an article criticising the cleric, the Shah’s police and army forces began firing on these protestors. Their Iranian compatriots marched with them in solidarity. The majority of Iranians in 1979 marched in opposition to oppression and violence towards their countrymen, only to find that by the end their revolution had been seized by the very clerical cast whom they had safeguarded, and who would go on to use violence and suppression to impose an even worse dictatorship of their own.
The particular type of totalitarianism employed unironically has its own religious name; Wilāyat al-Faqīh, or The Guardianship of the Jurist. The upholding of the Islamic constitution is entrusted to a single religious scholar, and the ultimate authority written into the Iranian constitution is not the will of the people, but of Allah, who, in his absence of course, is represented by the Supreme Leader, the god-given title now assumed by Ayatollah Ali Khameini; a semi-literate fascist crackpot bordering on senility. In spite of the wretchedness endured under his theocracy’s bumbling attempts to make good on the grim protocols established by his predecessor, the country, as it always has, exists in a state of dual personality. For Iran is not a nation of serfs. Under the nose of the regime, Iranians continue to live as if they had their freedoms, making and consuming alcohol, accessing the internet and defying the dress code so women still cut an alluring and enticing figure if so desired (if they’re right about one thing, it’s that the ‘improper’ wearing of the veil, when delicately hugging only the back of the hair, can indeed inflame in ways that are by no means holy). There have been innumerable protests since Khamenei’s ascension, first among Iran’s rebellious youth, but in these most recent of protests every demographic of the Iranian populace has again taken to the streets calling for the fall of the regime, from Saqqez to Tehran and Kerman to Shiraz, as they did in 1979 to depose the Shah. Lenin once described a revolutionary situation as one that occurred when the ruled no longer wanted to continue in the old way and the rulers could no longer maintain rule in that way. This revolutionary situation has returned to Iran.
Iran has, and always will be, home to a revolutionary people. Prior to their enforced Islamization, Iran had been personified not by oppression, theocracy, or inhumanity towards women, but as a civilization that the ancient and modern world owe for an incredible amount of contributions to the fields of science, literature, mathematics, art and, in an ill-fated irony, the first known drafting of human rights. And so, what do we owe Iran in their fight against theocracy? We must drain the swamp of the creed in which these toads swim. It must be ensured in the case of all religious despots, the mullahs, popes, rabbis and ayatollahs, that attempts to establish power in the real world, the only world there is or ever has been, by claiming to have divine authority over the rest of us will be challenged not only in the authority they impose, but in their percolation of superstition, indoctrination and dogma; the tendrils of these theocracies which seep into civil society. Iran is owed acknowledgement that a religious state and a civil society are in fact a contradiction in terms. Once that is taken for granted, within our own lifetime no doubt, we will see great things happen in Iran. Reform in the political landscape can only and must only come from the immense fortitude of those within the country. The fortitude needed by supporters outside the regime is, in comparison, meagre. It is our responsibility to challenge not only the barbarity of their rule, but to denounce outright the very authority invoked by these tyrants as an authority which does not exist.