The continued centrality of Islamic Iran, 25 years after the Revolution

Developing Just Leadership

Iqbal Siddiqui

Dhu al-Hijjah 10, 1424 2004-02-01

Special Reports

by Iqbal Siddiqui

We open the section with IQBAL SIDDIQUI, editor of Crescent International, discussing the centrality and relevance of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the Islamic State that it created, to the struggle of the contemporary global Islamic movement.

A great deal has changed in the quarter-century since Iran’s Muslims forced the Shah into exile, and welcomed Imam Khomeini back to establish an Islamic State; many of these changes have stemmed, directly or indirectly, from that momentous event. The sight of one of the strongest pro-western states in the Muslim world being humbled by a people’s commitment to Islam and the political leadership of an alim shook the West and provided a strong confidence-boost to Muslims everywhere. For a while all roads led to Tehran, and all talk was of repeating the process in other Muslim lands.

Twenty-five years later the world appears a different place, and not only because of events since September 2001. The global Islamic movement, born, some might suggest, after the Islamic Revolution, remains the main challenger of Western hegemony, and the struggle between the West and the Islamic movement is the main engine of contemporary history. But to some Iran seems to have drifted from the centre of this maelstrom to its margins. Although this is partly a matter of perception, it is also partly true. We have reached a stage, however, at which neither Islamic Iran nor the Islamic movement can afford to allow this drift to continue.

This change in perception of the Revolution can be attributed to several factors. One is the natural depression that follows such an emotional high as a Revolution; everything afterwards is bound to be anti-climactic. One result of this is that the work the Islamic State has done, supporting Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Palestine and Lebanon, has tended to be overlooked as people have grumbled that Iran has not done more in other areas.

Having said that, it is true that Islamic Iran itself, for a number of reasons, has not provided the sort of leadership and support that movements elsewhere were expecting. Some initial expectations were unrealistic; Imam Khomeini repeatedly reminded Muslims that Iran could not "export" its Revolution; that it was the responsibility of others to "import" it, or do the necessary groundwork in their own countries to achieve similar results. It is also true, however, that Iran turned inward to some extent, because of the need to consolidate itself and defend itself against attack: direct military attack in the 1980s and huge political pressure throughout its 25-year life. The fact that this pressure has led it to unfortunate and mistaken positions on certain issues, such as Chechnya and relations with India, has understandably disappointed people.

However, much of this marginalization can be attributed to other factors. One is undoubtedly the fact that it is a predominantly Shi’a country, and that this has both shaped and coloured the form of the Islamic Revolution and State. There is, unfortunately, a stubborn seam of sectarianism in the Ummah – among Sunnis and Shi’as alike – that has made it easy for Iran’s enemies to portray the Islamic Revolution as a Shi’a phenomenon, irrelevant to the rest of the Ummah. The US, assisted by the Saudis, has played this card for all it is worth, encouraging and financing anti-Shi’a activities around the world and promoting the Taliban and similar groups as alternative, Sunni models for Islamic movements. Equally damaging, some Shi’as have been happy to claim the Islamic Revolution as a triumph of Shi’ism rather than of Islam, thus excluding and alienating most of the Ummah.

All this has been compounded by huge propaganda campaigns against Iran, accusing it of having failed to establish a genuine Islamic state, of having established a dictatorship of the ulama, of being undemocratic or illiberal, of promoting terrorism or of being in secret alliance with the US or Israel: basically of anything that can be used to discredit Iran in any part of the Ummah. Such is the skill with which this propaganda is conducted that it has undoubtedly had an enormous impact on perceptions of Iran, even among Islamic movements that would not normally accept anything they perceived as coming from American or pro-Western sources. Unfortunately Iran itself, and its supporters elsewhere, have often failed to make themselves heard against this flood of mis- and disinformation.

It would be easy to analyse the reasons for Iran’s apparent marginalization in far greater detail; there are many more factors to be considered. However, two things are becoming increasingly clear. The first is that the West recognises that Iran remains a major factor in the global Islamic movement, and so is determined to destroy it somehow. Westerners recognise that they cannot occupy it by stealth, as they have Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, nor invade it militarily (Afghanistan and Iraq). But, having besieged it by occupying the surrounding countries, and now constantly increasing political pressure on it, sooner or later they will move to destroy Islamic Iran completely. It is not difficult to imagine Iran facing in the next ten years what Iraq faced during the 1990s, with the West hoping not to have to attempt in Iran what they are currently failing to do in Iraq.

The second is that the Islamic movement, having allowed its focus and efforts to dissipate in misguided efforts that have resulted in serious losses for the Ummah, now finds itself under unprecedented attack and immense pressure. Now, more than ever, the global Islamic movement must understand that the Islamic movement in Iran has not only succeeded in overthrowing one of the most powerful states in the Muslim world, but in establishing in its place a model of Islamic government that has proved durable and stable despite the enmity of the world’s dominant power and the scepticism of most of those who should have been its allies and supporters. The movement must realize and acknowledge the qualities of this Revolution that have enabled it to survive where many movements have failed: the fact that it is based on a political understanding – the ijtihad of Imam Khomeini – that is both deeply rooted in the political traditions of Islam (being based on precedent within both the Sunni and Shi’i traditions) and also profoundly modern: both concordant with the realities of modern societies and aware of how any model of Islamic governance must be flexible enough to learn from experience. This is in stark contrast to the partial, formulaic and rigid understandings that have failed totally elsewhere, and which continue to be promoted by some movements.

Both Islamic Iran and Islamic movements elsewhere must realize that they are natural allies, linked whether they like it or not, and must move closer together to be able to confront the enemies of the Ummah. Above all, the Islamic movement cannot afford to allow Islamic Iran to be undermined, subverted or destroyed. Twenty-five years is both a long time for a Revolutionary state to survive in such difficult circumstances, and a very short time for it to establish itself; it is long enough for a state to fail, but hardly long enough for it to establish its success. It remains a work in progress, an embryonic, experimental state still going through a process of trial and error; the Islamic movement must do everything possible to support it. At the same time, Iran must also re-engage with the Islamic movement. Now that both are under attack, the future of both will depend largely on how successfully we stand together against the storms rising against us.

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