The danger of Iran repeating the errors of Islamic movements elsewhere

Developing Just Leadership

Abu Dharr

Sha'ban 16, 1425 2004-10-01

Guest Editorial

by Abu Dharr (Guest Editorial, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 8, Sha'ban, 1425)

The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 was a watershed in contemporary history. Those of us who are old enough to remember the time before the Revolution remember a period in which Muslims everywhere were subject to repression whenever they tried to establish Islam in its entirety.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 was a watershed in contemporary history. Those of us who are old enough to remember the time before the Revolution remember a period in which Muslims everywhere were subject to repression whenever they tried to establish Islam in its entirety. Colonialism had been defeated: Muslims fought, shed their blood, and gave their lives, only for nationalist and socialist military officers to take over power. Before Imam Khomeini, Muslims everywhere were political orphans. In the darkest hours of this night, governments whose only loyalty was to their Western masters unleashed terror against movements whose crime was to declare rabbuna Allah (“our sovereign is Allah”). Hasan al-Banna was shot down in a street in Cairo; thousands of members of the Islamic movement were subjected to torture and years of detention; Sayyed Qutb – the unsurpassed Islamic thinker of the time, whose ideas and writings were profound and inspirational – spent many years in jail before being hanged; members of Islamic parties such as Hizb at-Tahreer al-Islami were forced into hiding, under threat of betrayal, discovery and retribution. Taqi al-Deen al-Nabhani, the founder of Hizb at-Tahreer, had to spend the last decades of his life incognito. In decades of sustained opposition to the secular regimes of Muslim countries, which regarded Islamic movements as their real enemies rather than zionism or imperialism, Islamic activists could not count even one significant breakthrough.

Even now, almost a century after the loss of a centre that had long before been reduced to little more than a symbol, many Muslims have not recognised the need for all-out opposition to the secular states and anti-Islamic establishments that openly declare their enmity to Islamic government, Islamic authority and Islamic unity in any form.

These politically-oriented Muslims were relatively new to “Islamic opposition politics.” In their raw analyses of history, the Islamic state ceased to exist with the destruction of the Ottoman khilafah in 1924. That much almost all Islamic movements can agree on. They also agree, by and large, on the need to re-establish the Islamic state, and that the responsibility rests on the Ummah as a whole. The ways in which they have responded to the challenge of re-establishing the Islamic state, however, have varied considerably. Even now, almost a century after the loss of a centre that had long before been reduced to little more than a symbol, many Muslims have not recognised the need for all-out opposition to the secular states and anti-Islamic establishments that openly declare their enmity to Islamic government, Islamic authority and Islamic unity in any form. This is why so many Islamic movements, particularly those who present themselves as “political parties”, are still trying to change the established orders from within, instead of standing in all-out opposition to them; for example the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, the Jama’at-e Islami and the various “Islamist” parties in Turkey. It is only the fact that these parties pose relatively little threat to the established orders that makes them more acceptable to the powers-that-be than the more “radical” movements that are far more intensely suppressed. Yet their followers see their relative acceptability as a sign of success; hence the importance they place on getting members into parliaments, local government, state government, ministries, and other positions. The US equivalents of these simplistic movements are now anxious to get some of their own into Congress. The only thing left is to field some “Islamic candidates” to the Israeli Knesset!


The Islamic Uprising in Iran a quarter of a century ago is too important and too special for Muslims to simply watch it wander from its original and true course. We remember all too clearly the impact this breakthrough had on Muslims everywhere. For the first time in modern history, Muslims had risen against a corrupt government and its imperialist and zionist sponsors, and were able to take control of their own country, and begin to show the rest of us how things should be done.

Of course, the road forward was not likely to be smooth. The sponsors of the Pahlavi regime could not be expected to sit and watch a people shape their own future on the basis of their Islamic faith and commitment. Throughout the last 25 years, America and Israel have been working to bring the Islamic government in Iran to its knees, with the support of their Western allies, Iran’s pro-Western neighbours and even supporters within Iran. Iran’s borders amount to some 8,000 kilometers; American troops are now based across six thousand kilometers of this border. This grim scenario has been gradually built over 25 years, and has passed almost unnoticed by most Muslims, and even most Iranians. There has never been any cessation of hostilities between the followers of the line of Imam Khomeini (r.a.), who refuse to compromise when it comes to the independence and sovereignty of the Islamic state, and the numerous other interests wanting to shape the state on their terms.

Part of our object in this new column is to look at some of the gaps that have developed since the passing of Imam Khomeini (r.a.), many of which are rooted in earlier events, and how these gaps have caused serious problems about which we can no longer remain silent. But before we walk into this sensitive area, one point needs to be made absolutely clear. This is that none of the points we make are intended to express any criticism of Imam Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the successor to Imam Khomeini (r.a.) as Rahbar of the Islamic State. Many of the points we make will be highlighting natural processes in the evolution of post-Revolutionary state and society. Others will indeed involve criticism of errors and failures in Iran, mainly on the part of those who have been responsible for aspects of Iranian government and policy at the executive level. It was inevitable that such errors and failures should emerge over a quarter of a century in an unprecedented and highly-pressured historical situation; unfortunately they have contributed greatly to what many now see as the Islamic experiment’s current stagnation.

Sometimes frank statements of truth can be bitter pills to swallow; we hope no-one will consider this column to be too bitter a pill. We say what we say only to express our honest understanding of the issues. If we are correct, we appeal earnestly to Allah to accept our humble words to our humble readers. If not, we request Allah’s forgiveness and correction from anyone able to do so; without, we hope, descending into personal issues or hidden agendas. Ameen.

It was in this situation that the Islamic movement in Iran achieved the Islamic Revolution. Part of the reason for this success, compared to the failures elsewhere, is that the Muslims in Iran came from another historical reading of political opposition. As followers of the Shi’i school of thought, they carried with them a sharp appreciation of some of the ways in which Islamic governments began to deviate from the principles and the direction of the Prophet (saw) and his heirs, beginning with the establishment of the Umayyad monarchy. Sunnis also recognise the deviation introduced at that point; hence the distinction drawn between the khulafa’ al-rashideen, the “rightly guided khulafa’, and the later so-called khulafa’, but did not take the same firm stand against it. (We will not discuss Shi’i evaluations of the khulafa’ al-rashideen, as this matter remains debated among Shi’is, with relatively few recognising yet that Imam ‘Ali, although he may have been best qualified to lead the Ummah, was evidently also aware that his leadership needed the “election” of the Muslims, who were not, as a whole, able to overcome their ethnic and tribal impulses and accept Imam Ali’s leadership. This understanding on Imam ‘Ali’s part largely explains why he recognised the khilafah of his three predecessors.)

Regardless of the historical debates yet to be concluded, the fact is that the Islamic movement in Iran emerged from the centuries of oppositional Shi’i politics that began with Siffin and Karbala. At the same time, this movement was characterised by a profound clarity of political understanding; everyone had become politically knowledgeable and conversant. In the years after the Revolution, virtually all who recognised the leadership of Imam Khomeini (ra) were characterised by their profound and confident understanding, rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah, of issues concerning the US, the Soviet Union, Israel, Saddam’s Iraq, the so-called Mujahideen-e Khalq, and the enemies of the wilayat-e-faqih. The Imam’s clear and forthright statements against Israel, the US and the rest of the mustakbireen (hubristic powers) were in stark contrast to the woolliness of scholars who were full of knowledge when it came to “religious Islam”, but void of knowledge when it came to “political Islam”. Even in Iran that clarity could not sustained at its original level in a world full of confusion and chaos.

After Islamic Iran had been forced to accept a ceasefire in 1988 with Saddam, who had attacked the Islamic state with the support of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Mujahideen-e Khalq, and every other conceivable enemy of Islam, and Imam Khomeini had died a year later, the forces of “Islamic opposition” came under attack from new enemies: the current expediencies and expectations of nationalism, secularism, sectarianism and consumerism. A domestic social and psychological battle was joined that has not been settled yet. For some Iranian Muslims, the best way out of this struggle is to retreat from “political Islam” to “religious Islam”, from those ulama who carry with them the collective political and social components of Islam to those other ulama who are willing to set aside the spirit of Islamic opposition that dates back to “Ashura, and retreat instead to the passive, quietist understanding of Islam that dominated Shi’i thought before the change in approach that culminated in the dynamism of Imam Khomeini. This is the understanding that takes nothing from the lessons of Islamic history but lamentations and expressions of grief during Muharram.

The danger is that this internal battle in Islamic Iran will be settled with both sides compromising with each other, until Iran drifts back to the world of secular nation-states on terms acceptable to the enemies of Islam, or at the very least until Iran is effectively neutralized vis-a-vis Israel. At a time when Muslims everywhere should be learning from the Islamic movement in Iran, the danger now is that Islamic Iran will repeat the errors of Islamic movements elsewhere.

The Muslims of Iran must not be left exposed to a creeping isolationism. They have to understand not only that there is a global Islamic opposition that is coming of age, but also that there is a world of oppressed peoples looking for a way to justice and equality. Some in Iran have felt that Muslims elsewhere have not supported them as they should have; some Muslims outside Iran expected more from the Islamic State. In fact, both were operating under severe constraints, but drew strength and inspiration from each other. Imam Khomeini established Islamic Iran as a beacon of hope for the world’s oppressed peoples; now is not the time to give up. The apolitical ulama have nationalists, sectarians and many types of secularist on their side; they also have a war-weary population many of whom are willing to retire from the front line of Islam. The political-social ulama have Allah, the Islamic movement and the oppressed peoples with them. The day may come when the officials of Islamic Iran are forced to show their hand: they may follow the example of Imam ‘Ali and Imam Hussein, or they may choose pragmatism and “realism”.

If the latter happens, it will be ‘Shi’as” who accept the political status quo, while ‘sunni” Islamic movements develop the politics of principled rejection of establishments and the transformation of Muslim societies by means of truly legitimate Islamic states.

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