There are many possible explanations for the unrest that has broken out in Iran since the presidential elections last month. One thing that has become quite clear is that there was a pre-existing plan by enemies of the Islamic State to exploit the political uncertainty of the election period for their own purposes, regardless of the results; now perhaps we can see where the resources that the Bush administration had committed to destabilising Iran have been used. However, it is pointless to blame Iran’s enemies for the trouble; they have done only what they said they would. The onus is on Iran and its allies to counter their machinations and ensure that they are unsuccessful. It is too early as yet to be confident that that has been achieved. It remains a distinct possibility that these troubles will be seen in future as the beginning of the end of Iran’s Islamic experiment.
If that is the case, postmortems will focus on one factor above all: the naivety and ineffectiveness of the state and its institutions in terms of their public presentation and communication skills. Virtually every Muslim activist who has visited Iran in the last three decades, or has had dealings with Iranian officials abroad, must have been both impressed by the commitment of many of its youth and officials, and appalled by the lack of clarity in their own thinking, and their inability to explain the Revolution effectively to others. The unfortunate reality is that the ideals, vision and significance of the Islamic Revolution have not been understood even by many of its own officials and representatives, and have therefore not been effectively communicated either to the rest of the world, or to many of Iran’s own people. This is why so many of Iran’s young people, including the greatest beneficiaries of the Revolution, can now be manipulated into joining protests against the election results, despite the fact that the protests are being directed and exploited by enemies of the Islamic state with objectives that go far beyond the understanding of most of those who are taking part in them.
There are perhaps two particular areas of misunderstanding that have most grievously weakened the Islamic state. One is that of the fundamental nature and objectives of the Islamic government. The fact is that Imam Khomeini’s unique understanding of this crucial area of Islam has not been widely grasped by others in Iran. One reason for this has undoubtedly been the traditional apoliticism of the Shi‘i establishment, in which Imam Khomeini’s theory of Valayet-e Faqih, comparable with traditional Sunni understandings of khilafah, has still not been entirely accepted. While many ulama in Iran have appreciated the status and influence given them by the success of the Revolution, they have remained ambivalent about the ideological basis of the Revolution, and so have failed to convey it to their students and followers. The attitude of Shi‘i exceptionalism taken by many Iranians since the Revolution, as well as the sectarianism of many Muslims outside Iran, have also prevented them from benefiting from the political thought of the wider Islamic movement. The result is that in political and social thought, much Iranian discourse since the Revolution has been based on ideas imported from the West.
This has fed into the second major area of misunderstanding: of the nature of the West, and the image of itself that it promotes. Because the Revolution has not managed to free itself of the political language of the West, such as “democracy”, by developing an alternative political language based on Islamic sources and concepts, such as those used by Imam Khomeini, many young Iranians have been seduced by the West’s claims to represent universal values and a universal version of modernity. This is why intellectuals and media speaking in terms of these Western concepts have been able to undermine the Islamic system and institutions, sometimes unintentionally, but often knowingly and deliberately.
Discussing these issues in such abstract terms is not, of course, to disregard the very real social and political problems beneath the troubles in Iran. But however dramatic these may appear, they are in truth only the normal vicissitudes of political life in any society. The larger point is that many of the dissatisfied in Iran are seeking solutions not within or through the Islamic system, but by challenging it, to the glee of Iran’s enemies.
For 30 years Iran has stood virtually alone as a beacon of Islamic political power in a West-dominated world. Its example has inspired Islamic movements elsewhere, including many that would not recognise its leading role, totally transforming the political dynamics of the entire Muslim world. But there has never been a guarantee of its success; Islamic Iran may yet fall, like numerous other attempts to re-assert the power of Islam in recent centuries. If that happens, it would undoubtedly be a grievous loss to the Islamic movement, particularly in places such as Lebanon and Palestine; but whatever Allah’s plan for the future may be, the wider impact of Iran’s Islamic experiment can never be reversed.
Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist.