New Insights into the Islamic Republic of Iran

Published on Global, by Ali Fathollah-Nejad, May 22, 2011.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 is considered a defining moment because the Islamic Republic replaced an authoritarian monarchy that was friendly to the West. The revolution, moreover, linked religion to politics in an unprecedented way. Books by Hamid Dabashi, Elaheh Rostami-Povey and Arshin Adib-Moghaddam discuss the country’s history and its influence beyond its own borders.

Arguably the most important reason for the international interest in Iran is its strategically pivotal geography. Like some of its Muslim neighbours, it has tremendous oil and gas reserves. For the United States, the revolution in Iran was nothing less than a geopolitical shock. 

Revolutionary dynamics in the Arab World have recently rekindled the debate in the West on “political Islam”. To get a good understanding of the phenomenon, however, it is necessary to define it properly – which, so far, has hardly been done.

The issue is generally approached from two directions. The cultural-essentialist or Orientalistic school holds that Islam determines political, economic and social realities. Orientalists argue that the entire Muslim world is not only somehow monolithic, but even downright resistant to change. Samuel Huntington’s book “The clash of civilizations” is a prominent expression of such thinking. This school is not alone in emphasising religion as the single most important defining feature of society, Islamist fundamentalists say so too.

The competing school emphasises structural aspects that have evolved in history. Its analyses take a wide range of factors into account, namely socio-economic conditions, political trends, historical change, class conflict and revolutions.

The current Arab Spring has dealt the Orientalist school a severe blow, and may yet discredit it once and for all. Obviously, there is a widespread desire in Muslim societies for change, and the revolutionary motivation is not primarily rooted in faith. Rather, the desire for universal freedoms and social justice is making itself heard in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.

The books about Iran discussed here do not belong to the Orientalist camp. Nonetheless, each author assesses the topic from a different angle.

Struggle for democracy:

In “Iran: a people interrupted” (2007), Hamid Dabashi analyses nearly 200 years of history from the literary-intellectual and political perspectives. The author takes his readers on a trip through time, revisiting major historical events. With unparalleled eloquence, he argues that Iranians have been fighting for democracy and against “foreign and domestic tyranny” for more than a century. Dabashi says the anti-colonial Tobacco Revolt at the end of the 19th century, the Constitutional Revolution at the beginning of the 20th, the nationalisation of the oil sector under Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in the 1950s and the “Islamic Revolution” at the end of the 1970s were the most important steps in this process.

He disagrees with the notion of Iran being caught between tradition and modernity, calling it a “fabricated paradox”. Instead, he argues that since the 19th century an “anti-colonial modernity” marked by the struggle against both domestic and foreign oppression has defined Iranians’ emancipatory experience … //

… These three books by noted scholars lay the foundation for a better understanding of Iran and “political Islam”. They theoretically and empirically assess the context in its entire complexity. Without such comprehensive knowledge, Western understanding cannot add up to more than biased knee-jerk reactions. The books show that political trends do not come about in a vacuum, but rather are rooted in complex settings with domestic and foreign social, economic and political factors. The idea of a “monolithic Islam” is not only wrong – it is dangerous. (full text).

(Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a political scientist. He is preparing his PhD thesis on Iran’s role in a changing world order at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the University of Münster in Germany. His articles on Global

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