The threat of sectarianism and nationalism to the line of the Imam

Developing Just Leadership

Abu Dharr

Rabi' al-Awwal 11, 1425 2004-05-01

Guest Editorial

by Abu Dharr (Guest Editorial, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 3, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1425)

In order to properly understand the achievement of the late Imam Khomeini (r.a.) and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, we need to understand them as being simultaneously located within four concentric circles: the oppressed peoples, the Islamic peoples, the Shi’i peoples, and the Iranian peoples...

In order to properly understand the achievement of the late Imam Khomeini (r.a.) and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, we need to understand them as being simultaneously located within four concentric circles: the oppressed peoples, the Islamic peoples, the Shi’i peoples, and the Iranian peoples. Note that each of these categories are referred to as "peoples" rather than a single people, as none of them has an over-riding homogeneity that can justify their reduction to a single "people". This may be considered quite obvious when we speak of the oppressed, the Muslims and the Shi’is. But some Iranian nationalists will have a serious problem with us referring to the Iranian peoples. This is only to be expected, considering the extent to which the Euro-secular issue of nationalism has imposed itself not only on Muslim peoples, including not only Iranians, but also on Turks, Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, Malays and so on.

If we accept and operate within the definition of Iranians as "one people", we accept as a historical fait accompli the creation by European colonialism and the forces of European imperial geopolitics of a nation-state cobbled out of historic Persia. This is the origin of the name "Iran" and the "Iranian nation," and we should not accept the imposition of such definitions on us by the force of imperial power and the imperialists’ determination to create colonialist "facts on the ground" in the same way as the zionists are today striving to create "facts on the ground" in occupied Palestine. Such a definition of Iranian nationhood and nation-statehood is wholly unfounded, as well as being contrary to the contemporary historic reality that throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world, people’s convictions, grievances, principles and divine commitments transcend the geopolitical infrastructure of nation-states by which we understand the Middle East.


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.

Be that as it may, the Islamic Revolution – whether we like it or not – was anchored within these four spheres: the world of the oppressed, the Islamic context, the Shi’i domain, and the Iranian reality. While Imam Khomeini provided the defining and guiding leadership of the Revolution, the centrality and importance of the oppressed and Islamic elements of these concentric spheres were clear for all to see, particularly of course the oppressed and struggling peoples of the rest of the Muslim world. The Shi’i and Iranian elements, on the other hand, integral and inseparable as they were, were never emphasised or even overtly displayed in any public or official sense. They were implicit in the forms and structures established by the Revolution, inevitably considering the Shi’i and Iranian nature of the society that brought the Revolution about, but were never flaunted or boasted of. It may have been a unconscious reflection of the tone and style implicit in the example set by the Imam, with his constant dwelling on the plight of all oppressed peoples and the common issues facing all Muslims, that virtually all leaders and officials of the new Islamic state understood and expressed their policies and decisions in terms of the global and inclusive spheres of the oppressed and the Muslim Ummah.

Imam Khomeini repeatedly told us, after all, that the future belongs to the oppressed. Among the key mottos of the Islamic Revolution was the Qur’anic ayah: "And We want to confer privilege on those who are oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them heirs" (Surah al-Qasas, 28:5). Imam Khomeini constantly referred and appealed to the downtrodden, the barefooted and the impoverished of the world. The evidence of this ethos in the shaping of the Islamic Revolution was instrumental in the allegiance and support that Iran and Imam Khomeini attracted among Muslims from the tropical areas of southeast Asia to the equatorial areas of Africa. It became the norm for both ordinary Muslims and Islamic movements to wait for the Imam to present his convictions on the issues of the day – be they the Palestinian issue, the Afghan issue, the Salman Rushdie fitna, or whatever – before determining their own positions.

It was this natural affinity felt for the Imam by the dispossessed the world over that most scared the world powers and those committed to the maintenance of the existing unjust, exploitative, international order and social orders. Ironically, however, it was precisely this global and general commitment to the Imam within the spheres of the oppressed and the global Muslim Ummah, that prompted an unintended backlash among some Shi’is – the sectarian or ‘Safavid’ Shi’is, as Ali Shari’ati called them – and nationalist Iranians. These trends have been among the most damaging and dangerous to the spirit and progress of the Islamic Revolution.

These two elements were clever enough to ride the wave of the Imam and the Revolution, but later began to interpret the emphasis on the oppressed and global Muslim ummah as a de-emphasis of their peculiar understanding of Shi’ism and a rejection of their Western-imposed sense of nationalism. For them, the pendulum had swung too far into the spheres of the oppressed and the Muslims; something had to be done. The most obvious and first hint of their resurgence was the gradual removal from the discourse of the Islamic Revolution and State of public references to the oppressed of the world and the larger Islamic Ummah; hence the once-common references to the mustad’afeen and millet-e-Islam have all but disappeared. Another clue has been the increased emphasis on nationalist symbols, such as the Iranian flag and the national anthem. Increasingly, Muslims notice that Iranian officials and institutions seem to favour relations with other Shi’is, rather than treating all Muslims alike. The anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, marked in February each year, is no longer an occasion for bringing together members of all four concentric circles of society within which the Imam located the Islamic Revolution; instead, over recent years, it has increasingly become a conclave of Shi’is – and mainly Iranian Shi’is at that.

Little wonder, then, that many of the oppressed Muslims in the world, who pledged their support to the leadership of Imam Khomeini and set out to follow the example of his movement in their own countries and societies, have long since concluded that the Islamic Republic now operates only in the Shi’i and Iranian spheres. The positions and example of the current Rahbar, Imam Khomeini’s successor Ayatullah al-Udhma Sayyid Ali Khamenei, indicate that the breadth of vision of Imam Khomeini lives on in Islamic Iran; but the behaviour and statements of many officials of Islamic Iran fail to live up to the standards set by the late Imam and by those who are still following his lead. All to often, it appears that there is little understanding of his ethos or commitment to maintaining it.

The sectarian and nationalist model of Iran that they project plays into the hands of the US, Israel and other western powers who remain committed to subverting the Islamic State and undermining the model it offers for mustad’afeen elsewhere. This is a peril to which the Revolutionaries of Islamic Iran must awake before it is too late and the Islamic State remains so in name but loses its essence in practice.

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