Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Towards "Secular Nationalism" in Iran

Towards “Secular Nationalism” in Iran

Ali Asghar Kazemi
November 2009

While nationalism in the Moslem world is commonly considered as an alien ideology imported from the West, Persian nationalism has been emerged from a religious ground. Shi’ism is an outgrowth of this phenomenon that distinguishes Iranian from other Arab and non-Arab Moslems in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

Up until the advent of the Islamic regime in Iran, national consciousness has been with Iranians parallel to their religious traditions. In other words, religious nationalism formed an inherent trait of the Persian identity for a long period of time[1]. This feature helped Iranians to consolidate, fight against their enemies and secure the country from disintegration and collapse. However, this trend has changed its course during the past several years. A new generation of Iranian intellectuals, academics and educated people is gradually moving away from the political Islam and traditional religious values toward a more universal and secular approach to various issues of society and the nation.

The progressive “Green Movement,” that emerged amidst the controversial presidential elections of June 2009, can be considered as the social and political manifestations of this new tendency. Upon a series of bloody clashes with the regime during the post-elections turmoil of June 2009, the movement has turned to radical and secular nationalistic slogans that aim at the very foundation of the religious system.

What is the substance of this new nationalistic awareness? How far this movement is capable to pressure the regime for fundamental changes? What are the implications of changes for the domestic and foreign affairs of the nation?

Islam and Nationalism
Nationalism has essentially a secular nature that originated from European civilizations. When it reached the Middle East it brought some fruits but it did cause serious dislocation to Moslem societies and produced serious challenge to traditional Islam.
With the gradual disappearance of Western colonialism from Asia and Africa, the struggle for self-determination and political independence led the Islamic communities to adopt nationalism as their liberating ideology. Thus, the quest for sovereignty and statehood created a sense of political nationalism that inevitably diverted and diluted the consciousness of belonging to the wider Islamic community (ummat.)

The relationship between nationalism and Islam is not always clear and various writers at different times and occasions have given different thought and explanation to it. As a matter of principle, Islamic doctrine adheres with the idea of “internationalism” and thus, theoretically, it should oppose such ideology. Some Moslem scholars have condemned nationalism as a regressive move to pre-Islamic tribalism.[2] Others have supported nationalism as long as it has its source and driving force in Islam. In some instances, nationalism in Moslem countries has attained the status of sacredness. In this kind of nationalism, protecting the nation from foreign aggression is considered as a “religious duty,” because only in a free and independent nation can there be a “religious self-respect.”[3]

Islam’s internationalism, along with its spiritual and political unity, stem from its pure monotheism. Thus, the kind of nationalism that emerged from secular and material interests is principally repudiated by Islamic doctrine. In this conception, nationalism without religion is inconceivable in Islam, since it is loyalty to the nation whose gate is religion.

Persian Nationalism
As we said previously, Persian nationalism expressed and articulated through the adoption of the Shiite doctrine fundamentally distinguishes Iranian Moslems from the other creeds in the broad spectrum of the religion of Islam. It has served as a strong unifying force against Persian enemies and rivals in the past centuries. But, with the ascendance into power of the clergies after the 1979 revolution in Iran, the political thrust of the religion gradually diminished and people became dismayed of the poor performance of politico-religious institutions.

As regards the evolution of nationalism, Shiite doctrine shall be viewed in two historical periods: before and after the 1979 revolution in Iran. The trend of nationalism in pre-revolution Iran is more or less similar to other movements in the region; in the sense that it was basically guided by a sense of self-determination, sovereignty and independence within the context of secular political system. The impact of Shi’ism has been considerable during the constitutional revolution of 1907. The later development of nationalist sentiment in Iran after World War II was also the product of secular intellectualism, whose effectiveness as a political force was marred by the lack of support from the religious sector.[4]

The Shiite fundamentalism that gradually took over Iran’s revolution of 1979 is considered analogous to the French Jacobin nationalism. In fact, the pattern of interaction and the trend Iran’s revolution resembles in many aspect to the French revolution of 1789. Five distinct phases can be observed in both historic events:1)The collapse of the “ancien regime” ; 2) the rule of the moderates; 3) The ascendency of the extremists; 4) The reign of terror; and finally 5) The “Thermidorian” period.[5]

The nationalist image of Iran’s revolution, manifested in form of the Shiite fundamentalism, bears many signs of the French Jacobin nationalism. In both cases they developed in the midst of foreign war and domestic turmoil. The main characteristics of this development can be observed in the following common features:

First, they became utterly suspicious and fiercely intolerant of domestic dissents. Thus, they made every effort to annihilate any group or faction which appeared to be lacking in faith and loyalty to the homeland “ la patrie” and “Vatan-e- Eslami.” They both fought vigorously any tendency toward partition and provincial autonomy.
Secondly: both revolutions relied heavily on force and militarism to attain their ends. They did not hesitate to use terror and violence to intimidate and cope against domestic dissenters. [6] As to foreign enemies, the whole nation and all the resources were set in motion. The Islamic devotees seeking martyrdom in war against the infidel regime of Baathist Iraq are example of nationalist manifestation under the banner of religion.
Thirdly: both movements have become fanatically religious. Finally, the common characteristics of the two nationalist movements lied upon their excessive missionary zeal. They both used every conceivable means to secure popular conformity.[7] This later trait pushed people away from strict religious norms to more tolerant secular values.

Secular Nationalism
With a view to make the traditional Islam more responsive to the needs of the present modern society, a number of progressive attempts have been initiated by Iranian elites, intellectuals and reformist during the past decade. They were all Moslem zealous who developed and lived within the religious system established after the revolution. Some of them even came from radical students followers of the late founder of the Islamic regime in Iran, who jumped over the walls of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and participated in the hostage taking American diplomats for 444 days.

The coming into power of the hard-line government in 2005 and its reelection in June 2009 was a serious blow to reformist groups’ ideals paving the path for the resurgence of a strong opposition front which later became known as the “Green Movement.” Thereafter, the green color which was merely the identity sign for one candidate became the emblem of a movement which is now standing as a challenging opposition front with new goals confronting the incumbent regime.

Thirty years after the revolution in Iran, people now seem to be changing their views and values in a direction opposite to that pursued and advocated by the Islamic regime. Despite earnest effort by the system to Islamize the nation, people sense of nationalism is being diverted towards secular values more attune with Western liberal democracy. This is indeed a major setback for hardliners who seek to enforce their backward interpretation of Islam for the whole nation. Their main objective is to dominate public and private life of the people.
As we said earlier, the new nationalistic movement in Iran stems from a different environment that is dissimilar from the past. We may attempt to recognize characteristics of the new movement in the following way[8]:

1) It is primarily a reaction against an ideology that has become unbearable for many even among religious figures;
2) It is an antithesis of a political system that came into power in a very particular point of time and circumstances that is no longer responsive to the actual expectations of the people;
3) It is a self-propelled movement with no official platform and has no particular leadership inside or outside Iran;
4) It is a “positive nationalism,” meaning that it is not against the current trend of the international society but it strongly objects the existing domestic divergence from that trend and wants to rehabilitate the true Iranian identity and status in the present world;
5) It is omnipresent and it uses all old patriotic and revolutionary slogans of the past as a tactical challenge against the ruling system;
6) It is a secular, forward-looking and peace-loving movement that denies all sorts of segregation, subjugation, arms races and interventions in the internal affairs of other countries and wants to live in peace with all people and nations.

Although the traditional Persian nationalism has a tendency to be dormant in quiet times, the new emerging secular consciousness tends to be dynamic and alert to the critical condition of present Iran. Persian nationalism which, was once associated with religious faith as a driving force in the fulfillment of national and political aspirations, is now awakening in a new environment. They still stem from the same main source that is people with their faith and loyalty. But, it appears that the substance of the devotion is being transformed to secular values.
While Persian nationalism transpired from a religious premise in the past, it is now changing its course to secular values of the modern society. What we are witnessing now in Iran is a profound metamorphosis in people’s expectations and demands. Though the supporters of the “Green Movement” occasional and sporadic manifestation might be perceived as typical urban unrest with low level violence, its persistent dynamism during the past months infers the thrust of a real deep revolution[9]. The ramification of this transformation is not yet quite clear; nonetheless the impact is inevitable for present Iran. [10]/

Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. See: www.aakazemi.blogspot.com
* Students, researchers, academic institutions, media or any party interested in using all or parts of this article are welcomed to do so with the condition of giving full attribution to the author and Strategic Discourse. ©All Copy Rights Reserved.

[1] This dates back to about five centuries ago, during the Safavid dynasty when the Persian king (shah) conceived Shiism as Iran's official religion, largely to distinguish themselves from Ottoman Turks and Arabs. Shiism is Iranian or” Iranianized” Islam. Its very existence signifies the irrepressibility of Iranian nationalism. See: Hooshang Amirahmadi, From political Islam to Secular Nationalism Iranian Archives 1995- 2006

[2] This is the view expressed by Muhammad al-Ghazali. Cf. E.I.J. Rosenthal, Islam in the Modern National State, London; Cambridge Univ. Press, 1965. Pp.109-110

[3] See; Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of Muslem Brothers , London; Oxford Univ. Press, 1969 . p. 264.

[4] -Iran’s national Front ( Jebheye Melli) came into existence as a coalition of political groupings revolving around Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. It began to fragment and ultimately collapsed with the approach of the showdown between the prime minister and the Shah of Iran in 1953.

[5] Cf. Hosein Bashiriyeh, The State and Revolution in Iran 1962-1982 ( Beckenham Kent : Croom Helm, 1984), passim

[6] . The same is true about those who one way or another turned back to the regime, including the entourage of the spiritual leader who accompanied him in his journey from Paris to Tehran. Almost all of them were either executed, jailed, exiled or isolated from political activities.

[7] Cf. Carlton J. H. Hayes, “ Five types of Nationalism,” in Ivo D. Duchacek Conflict and Cooperation Among Nations, New York: Holt,Reinhart and Winston, Inc., 1960, pp. 44-51

[8] I have taken these characteristics from my earlier article “ Rise of New Nationalism in Iran” See: Strategic Discourse, October 2009.

[9] Some people prefer to call the phenomenon a “velvet revolution,” referring to the experience of colored movements in Georgia and Ukraine, but the comparison seems irrelevant in the case of Iran.

10 For more sources on the subject see:
Christoph Marcinkowski "Islam and Nationalism in Iran", Iranian nationalism is to remain a driving force behind Iran’s foreign policy. Security Watch Policy Briefs Special Report, Oct. 2006
- Naser Ghobadzadeh Value Changes in Iran (Second Decade of the Islamic Revolution)
Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 77-108, Fall 2004
- Jonathan Manthorpe, "The roots of radical Islam Meddling by western powers fueled the radicalization of Middle East", The Vancouver Sun 27 September 2001

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Iran: Islamization vs. Secularization

Iran: Islamization vs. Secularization

Ali Asghar Kazemi

November 2009



The controversial presidential elections of June 2009, which ignited a social crisis in Iran, had a definite impact on the society and truly polarized the nation in two antagonistic camps: pro-government conservative hard-liners on one side and reformist opposition groups on the other. At first the quarrel was limited to the results of the elections which were alleged to be performed with widespread frauds. Ruthless reaction of the government to peaceful manifestations of the unconvinced people pushed the opposition to take a much more radical stand against the whole Islamic regime. This prompted the religious leader to find about the cause and origin of this prolonged crisis which is still threatening the very foundation of the system.

Radical conservatives, while claiming foreign involvement in this turmoil, believe that the Islamization process should continue with much stronger vigor until the nation has converted to zealous followers and supporters of the religious regime. Reformists on the other hand contest that the crisis is a natural response of the people to years of repressive rule, deception and injustice. They express the opinion that as long as the country is under a backward system of government, democratic changes are almost impossible. They believe that Islam has limited capacity for transformation and adaptation to the needs of our time. Therefore, they suggest that secularization is an inevitable and necessary trend of the future of Iran.

Despite earnest attempts of the ruling regime in Iran to impose the strict law of Shari’a, as interpreted by the Shiite doctrine, the result was frustrating. Thus seemingly, the process of Islamization of all vital sectors of the society during the past three decades was quite unsuccessful. We have said that some political elites have singled out Western “social Sciences” taught at the higher education, as the main cause for this failure. Some others are still trying to put the blame on “Western imperialism” and enemies of Islam, who are incessantly conspiring to topple the Islamic regime.

To what extent these arguments hold true in present Iran? What are the main causes of the young generation distancing from Islamic traditional principles and leaning towards secular values? Why those who were brought up in the Islamic environment are now rising up against the ruling system and reject the Islamization process under the guise of what we may label “national secularism”?

Islam as State Religion

Iran is a typical country which after its people accepted Islam in the first century of the Hegra,[1] replaced its former religion and followed the Shiite school. In this respect, some scholars believe that Persians extreme devotion to the Shiite doctrine and its symbol of faith and martyrdom stems from their spiritual and cultural background. They believe that Shiism is an outgrowth of dominant Persian social and political traditions, translated into a more bearable and tolerable doctrine associated with Islam.[2]

The state in its modern sense, is not one of the fundamental elements in the building of Islamic society, but emerges through the institution of Caliphate or Imamate for the protection of Moslem community (Ummat).[3] The word ‘Islam’, commonly used as synonymous to ‘religion’, is a misinterpretation that usually confuses the Western conception of – for example- Christian faith. Rather, Islam is an expression including in its total meaning: religion, politics, economics, society, etc.[4] Therefore, the notion of Church and state separation widely debated in Christianism seems not relevant to the relation between Islam and state. Since, according to the Islamic doctrine, Din (religion) and Dowlat (state) are both expression of Islam.[5]

One of the most important institutions in Islam is the mosque. The mosques in Islam are the focal point and the main place of gathering for both religious and political purposes. They usually supplant traditional forum for modern Western political parties. They are run and maintained ordinarily with private fund and endowment.[6] Before the advent of the Islamic regime in Iran, the power of secular government traditionally stopped at the doorstep of the mosque. Being literally self-sustained and politically independent, the mosques have played an influential role in the social and political business of Moslem countries. The mosques played an undeniable role in bringing down the monarchic regime in Iran. Many governments in the Middle East have always had to deal with the mosques and in order to limit their influence of religious institutions over political business of the states, by devising laws and regulations to control their activities.[7] In present Iran, the mosques are managed and to some extent funded by the state. In other words, the state has the absolute prerogative to appoint the religious authority of each mosque and supervise his activities. This means that they are no longer independent institutions and consequently cannot deviate from policies and guiding principles of the ruling system. This issue has been one of the major arguments of the opposition groups as well as independent clergies who believe that the state should not meddle in the business of local mosques.

Impact of Modernism on the Moslem World

The trend toward secularization in the Moslem world in the last hundred years has meant a decline in the overt influence of religious ideas and organization upon social and political life.[8] As we said earlier, unlike other religions, Islam is not merely a religion; it is a culture, a polity, a legal system and a whole range of social institutions. In consequence, the Islamic Shari’a is not only a constitutional system but also an ideal of conduct and behavior as well as legal code dealing with every-day life.[9]

Not until late nineteenth century the conservative Islam of the time realized its painful dislocation caused by the technological superiority of Western civilization, but also found itself invaded by Christian missionaries which paved the way for colonialism.[10]The once great civilizations of the Middle East, which under Islam had experienced a long period of conflict, hostility and socio-economic stagnation, suddenly realized that they were far behind European states. In fact, for centuries they had looked backward to nourish from the greatness of their civilization and their memory, while Europe had gone into various stages of industrial and social revolution. Progressive Moslems, in contact with the West, felt this backwardness deep in their minds and their souls. Thenceforth, religion was perceived the major stumbling block and thus the demand for change through secularization of states political system spread all over the Moslem world.

Moslems had to choose between two courses of action: either to go along with the strict dictate of religion (the medieval synthesis); or to face the realities of the modern world.[11]The choice proved to be a difficult one and no consensus to this time seems to be established. Practically, some Moslems tried to adopt an almost alien concept of faith, applying a little Protestant- style reformism to their creed. Others opted for secularism and still another group adhered to fundamentalism which preaches Islamic Shari’a’ as a political ideology.[12]

During the nineteenth century, modernist movements developed in the Moslem milieu of Egypt and Indian Subcontinent to interpret the Qur’an and Tradition so as to bring practice in Islam into general conformity with certain aspects of Western thinking of those days.[13]Despite some independent attempts by certain Moslem scholars to show the necessity of the separation of the spiritual and temporal powers in Islam, the reform did not go far before it was resisted by a fundamentalist group called Moslem Brotherhood. Neither the socialist movement of Jamal Abd-al-Naser nor the subsequent moves toward left and right, proved to be effective in establishing a secularized democratic state. Egyptian Islam today is characterized as apologetic and political and all reformers have reacted in these two directions.[14] In other Moslem countries such as Iran, the trend was somehow different in form and in substance.

Trend to Secularism in Modern Iran

Attempts at secularization of political power in the Moslem world of the twentieth century, begun with Kamalism movement in Turkey. Kamal Ataturk, the Turkish officer who overthrew the old Turkish monarchy after World War I, is the first to challenge the influence of religion (Islam) in Turkish politics. He deposed the religious elements in Turkish political instructions and substituted them by secularized ones.[15]He removed the veil from Turkish women, as a symbol of their emancipation in social life and instituted land reforms and social-bureaucratic reorganization.[16]

In Iran, Reza Shah the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty, made similar attempt around the same period .The ruler displayed implacable hostility to the tight grip of Moslem clergy over many aspects of public life, including education and justice, and took steps to break their power and prestige.[17]

As a consequence, the clergy lost direct control of much of its vast trust funds and religious laws gave way to civil and criminal codes. Licenses were required for the wearing of clerical garb. Traditional religious teaching gave way to state schools and a host of other changes, which restricted religious section to meddle in the political life, were instituted by the ruler. The object of these transformations was not religion per se, since Reza Shah was believed to be a faithful Moslem. Rather, it was perceived that for revitalizing Iran’s social structure, religious precepts hindering the development process had to give way to a secular system.

The secularization process in Iran somehow meant Westernization of all aspects of life including for example compulsory Western clothes, replacing many different tribal, regional and traditional costumes.[18]The attempt, which was later, pursued by his son Mohammad Reza Shah, failed to produce the desired effect. What it did, however, was the deepening of hatred and grudge of the clergy class and their followers. The hatred later mounted into what is now known as Islamic Revolution, which caused the fall of the Iranian monarchy in 1979.

Before the revolution, the secularist trends in Iran were growing in the sense that the political leadership of the Islamic clergy and their traditional influence on the educational system reduced. The secularization, however, did not mean “anti-religiousness but rather a-religiousness.”[19] Some groups and individuals have made attempts, though not on a systematic basis, to purify or “regenerate” Islam, but they have not gone too far.[20] During this period, religion was not so much frontally challenged as a system of beliefs by the political elites, as it was peripherally ignored. Where religion was accorded deference by the ruling system, it was often as a political force.[21]

The Islamic regime put all its efforts to reverse the secularization process in Iran by force and unprecedented vigor. However, it seems the more the state pushed for Islamization of the nation, the more people distanced from the official creeds and restrictive principles of the religious system. The post- presidential elections crisis was a symptom of people discontent about the political trend. Despite all the impediments on the way of the reformist movement, it seems to pursue with vigor its secular objectives and demands. The “Green Movement” is now in a face to face encounter with the Islamic regime and poses a real threat for the incumbent government. But, its success depends on a number of factors which seem very difficult to achieve in present time.


The process of secularization in the Islamic World in general and in Iran in particular, did not follow a unique and concrete identifiable pattern; rather it was disparate and in some cases blurred by other aspects of political life. However, from recent development, it is safe to say that the conflict between the “mosque” and the “palace” is gradually rising to a critical point. Some countries have already attempted to align their political apparatus and socio-economic system with the growing exigencies of Islamic doctrine, but the process has proved to be a difficult one and in some instances painful.

In Iran, while the Islamization process in post-revolution failed to generate the expected outcome for the Islamic regime and in some instances counter produced, the secularization was not quite successful either. The reason is believed to be the substance of traditional culture and mores in the society. Average Iranians are by nature spiritual and fatalistic. The new generation and educated people are very much eager and enthusiastic to adhere to many values and norms of democracy. Concepts such as independence, freedom, social justice, human rights and other attributes of Western style polity are much cherished by people, but they are not yet prepared to accept their rudiments. The shadow of deep-rooted of authoritarian culture is still present in today Iran. For example, tolerance as the most basic requisites of democratic process is almost absent in personal and collective interactions. The problem is more or less the same in Moslem countries of the Middle East.

In sum, the idea of secularism, though still very much cherished by liberal and intellectual Moslem, seems to have little appeal among traditional layers of developing Moslem societies. In some places, secularism is considered as the residue of Western influence and imperialism; thus, a return to religious ideas is perceived synonymous to anti-imperialistic movement. In other cases, religion is gaining momentum very dangerously as an ideological drive to face the ever growing danger of globalization.

Iranians seem now to be more and more leaning toward a “new nationalism” as an alternative expression of their secular objectives. This could be arbitrarily labeled as “National Secularism,” which is indeed a clever way to express opposition against the present religious system and to circumvent harsh reaction of conservative hardliners.

We shall further elaborate on this dimension in our future comments. /


Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. See: www.aakazemi.blogspot.com

* Students, researchers, academic institutions, media or any party interested in using all or parts of this article are welcomed to do so with the condition of giving full attribution to the author and Strategic Discourse. ©All Copy Rights Reserved.

[1]. Hegra or Hegira is the year of migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in A. D. 622, according to most account on September 20. This is the milestone of Moslem calendar dates counted on lunar or solar system.

[2]. CF. Morteza Motahari, Mutual Services of Islam and Iran [in Persian] (Ghom, Iran: Sadra Publishers, 1980), p. 122.

[3].It is argued that the Prophet founded a religion and a state at the same time, but his main goal was that of religion and the founding of the state was only secondary. CF. Ibid. p. 8.

[4].CF.Richard p. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 243.

[5].Sayyed Qutb. Quoted in Idem.

[6].The main institution providing financial support to Mosque is wagf which confers the right to use the fruits and return of property without transferring ownership. The wagf is extended to all kinds of voluntary charitable purpose of the Moslem community.

[7].Government control over mosques activities has been mostly performed through financial and administrative regularizations regarding wagf institution and other assets of the mosques.

[8].CF. Morroe Berger. Islam in Egypt Today: Social and Political Aspects of Popular Religion, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 2-9.


[10].Cf. Religion in the Middle East, op. cit. pp. 26-7.

[11].CF. e.g. Daniel Pipes, In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power, (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), passim.

[12].Moslem Brotherhood founded by the Egyptian scholar Hassan Al-Banna was an outgrowth of the Islamic movement which insisted on a return to the Qur’an and the Tradition (Sunna) of the Prophet. Similar fundamentalist movements emerged in Iran Fadaiyan-e-Islam, Pakistan Jamaat-e –Islami. Though founded on different grounds, their objectives were more or less the same asserting political role of Islam in the daily business of state and social life.

[13].The initial inspiration of the Egyptian movement stemmed from the ideal of Pan-Islamism of Sayyed Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (Assad Abadi, the Iranian version) 1839-1897 who preached for the union of all Moslem states into a great empire. Interestingly this ideal was seized by the opportunist and reactionary Turkish Sultan Abdul-Hamid, who in fear of the overthrow of the Ottoman dynasty, laid emphasis on the Ottoman claim to legitimate succession of the early Caliphs of Islam. See: Religion in the Middle East, Ibid. p. 28.

[14]. CF. Jacques Jomier, “Islam in Egypt”, in Ibid. pp. 31-47 at 47.

[15].On 1 November 1922 the Turkish National Assembly stripped the last Ottoman Sultan of his power and proclaimed itself the sovereign authority. It permitted the existence of a Caliphate divorced from the Sultanate. But when Mustafa Kemal came to power eliminated the Ottoman Caliphate for good by a decree of 3 March 1924.

[16].See e.g. Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).

[17].See e.g. Donald N. Wilber, Iran: Past and Present, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 125-129.

[18].Ibid. p. 128.

[19].See. Marvin Zonis, The Political Elite of Iran, (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 148.

[20].Ahmad Kasravi, a controversial Iranian scholar, and his followers endeavored to render Islamic teaching meaningful for our times but he ended up giving his life on the matter. He was assassinated by a Moslem fanatic belonging to an underground group called Fadaiyan Islam (Devotees of Islam), CF. Ibid. pp. 148-149.

[21].CF. Ibid. p. 149.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Iran, Islam, and Secular Social Sciences

Iran, Islam, and Secular Social Sciences

Ali Asghar Kazemi
October 2009




In our previous commentary on the problem of Iran’s recent social turmoil after the presidential elections of June 12, 2009, we alluded to the issue of “Social Sciences” that  has caused widespread alarm among conservative hard-liners.

In that article  the emphasis was made essentially on the question of religion in general and Islam in particular as an ideological dynamic, influencing the function of  society in the domain of human actions and interactions. It was argued that religion has to do with human mind, ideas, the belief system, values, attitudes, and behavior. While politics as an interdisciplinary branch of social sciences, deals essentially with the pursuit of power and to some extent the distribution of values in society. Thus, the marriage of the two may inhibit man from his choice between the rational and the spiritual. This is indeed a major dilemma on the way of an ordinary citizen who wants to remain aloof of the impact of official creeds, unless he lets himself dragged by the formalistic rituals of  the dominant religion.


Secular Approach to Social Sciences

As we know, social sciences are not “science” as we understand in the field of hard or pure sciences, such as physics, chemistry, astronomy etc. They form a body of knowledge accumulated during times from the antiquity to the present that comprises everything that relate to the study of human beings in their individual and collective interaction. This even encompass the subject of religion in its entirety as well as philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, economics, politics and the likes, that in one way or the other entail man’s life in his natural and artificial environments.

Once our knowledge of the spiritual and material world was limited to a  range of dogma inherited from holly books as well as classical philosophers and scientists’ traditions. Some of these were later endorsed by the Christian church through sanctifying Aristotelian teachings which had to be accepted blindfolded and no one was permitted to pose question on their truth. Renaissance changed the methodical knowledge of the world by scientific inquiry and the domain of metaphysics became restricted to the inner-self in the Christian world. Amazing discoveries, inventions and innovations in all fields of sciences are the propitious outcomes of this period.

Of course, the Christian world had to pay dreadful price for this transition. Beside the horrifying experience of persecution and harassment of scientists and intellectuals, protracted wars among sects and nations ended up with some sort of balance between the Church and the State or the temporal and spiritual powers. The hundred years war of fifteenth century resulted continuous conflicts over the distribution of power between religious and temporal sectors, church and the state or popes and the kings. In the seventeenth century the same issues provoked the thirty years war. The resurgence of secularism replaced the medieval theocratic paradigm and ushered the age of enlightenment.


Religion and Secular Conception of Power

The secular consideration of power began its reappearance with Machiavelli’s doctrine of pragmatism in political theory. The basis of this doctrine was to answer the question of what needs to be done by a ruler to remain in power. That is to say that the necessity of political life often required the breaking of moral law. [1] Machiavelli’s princes, unlike Plato’s philosopher-kings, ruled because they were shrewd in manipulating power. Thus, power became devoid of virtue. For Machiavelli, good and evil were traits of all human beings and a successful ruler had to be “part lion and part fox.” [2]

Bertrand Russell wrote that faith, ideology and religion as a whole are undisputed elements in forming the power of a state.[3] Indeed ideas influence the development and use of command over power and violence. In cases were nations are not fully developed from a political-democratic standpoint and party politics as well as other social institutions lack the necessary appeal to unite people in the pursuit of their objectives , religion can fill the gaps. Translated into ideology when put into motion, religion may assume a determinant role in a society, provided it is properly used.[4] It can also weaken a state, and deteriorate its internal and external relations if its potential power is not directed toward constructive path and is used in the pursuit of evil objectives.


Secularism in the Christian World

In the turn of twentieth century it was the general feeling of most learned social scientists that everywhere in the world, religion was in the decline. The argument stemmed from the fact that religion was “opposed by powerful forces.”[5]Some even argued that religion was under the most serious threat that it had ever been in the past centuries.[6] The magnitude of the threat was even compared to the advent of Reformation in Europe but the change was characterized as an anti-religious trend rather than a crisis within the sphere of religion.

Humanism, which was commonly an alternative to theism, developed in Europe chiefly from a belief in the science and an exaggeration of human power and freedom. It was an intellectual movement that opposed the “religious institution.” In the nineteenth century the reaction to religious norms and institution was negative and the emerging idea antagonistic.

The main trend away from religion during the past centuries is considered as the growing sense of secularism[7]which Christianism had put in the doctrinal concept of church and state separation. This was probably an inevitable and necessary complement of the processes of social and political adjustment after the scientific discoveries and revolution in the field of industry and technology.

An immediate consequence of the industrial development was the emergence of a new social class called urban industrial proletariat, which led to the rise of socialism and Marxism as an ideological means for social adjustment. Among these latter ideologies, some did not negate religion and were ready to coexist and cooperate with it and others, which were antagonistic to any religious institutions. Marxism-Communism and its derivatives are examples of the latter type.

Secularism requires that all matters pertaining to man-to-man relationship be determined by representatives of the people, while relationship between men and God be determined by religion.[8]  This position, however, was not endorsed by those who believed that all aspects of life without exception be governed by religious principles formulated many centuries ago and whose interpretation is solely in the hands of the ruling clergies.

The issue of secular state as opposed to a state governed by religious principles has become a fundamental problem of many traditional countries with diverse ethnic and religious background. Religion, in fact, serves both as a divisive and uniting factor in various countries. Practice of secularism also is not easy in territories of multiple religions such as e.g. India. This country has been subject to territorial partition and numerous turmoil because of religion. The peculiar aspect of Indian secularism is that religion and politics get mixed up taking advantage of the democratic system, while the evolution of a common civil law is blocked in the name of minorities’ right in a secular state.[9]


Islam and Secularism

The Islamic conception of religion and its evolution rests upon principles different from Christianity as regards social, economic, legal, political and the way of life in general. Hence a comparative study on the impact and influence of religion in social and political affairs may be obscured by the fact that for example, Christianity and Islam are evolved from and founded upon different conception of religion. Thus a discussion on the subject of secularization of political power can naturally not be based on similar sets of assumption and elements contributing to it. The Islamic conception of religion is more or less what religion has been through most of the course of human history.[10] The secularization process in the Islamic world, thus, shall be viewed and judged against its own distinct evolution.

In this sense, secularization is defined as the process by which political and social activities, explicitly controlled by the religious institution, come under the power of non-religious or temporal body. The definition, however, does not explain the whole conception as interpreted in Christianism and Islam, two major monotheist religions of the world.

It has been suggested that, for example, secularization in the Middle East has had the effect of substituting the European conception of religion by the Islamic doctrine.[11] There may have been such understanding in times among Moslem scholars, but this does not seem to be representative of a general belief. This was the fact and apprehension of a minority fundamentalist Moslems who opposed to that conception and nowadays seems to reemerge throughout the region.


While secularism is considered as the main characteristic of Western conception of religion, in the world of Islam no elaborate and widely endorsed philosophical expression of the subject can be found. Thus, various attempts by rulers or intellectuals to establish a secular system of government, political institution and social tradition in predominantly Islamic nations have not proved to be fruitful and practically possible. Kamalism movement in Turkey, Nasserism in Egypt, Pahlavism in Iran and other cases are typical example of such failure, which in the long run worked even against the very viability of the political system. In most cases cited above, the trend was not merely a process of secularization but it was viewed by conservatives as an all-out offensive against the religious institutions which otherwise meant an anti-religion movement. This has given rise to some misunderstandings that still persist in our own country and elsewhere in the region. Islamic fundamentalism is a direct consequence of this misapprehension.

The contrast between the secularization attempts and processes, particularity in the Christian world and Islamic community will be further discussed in our future commentaries. [12]

Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. See: www.aakazemi.blogspot.com

* Students, researchers, academic institutions, media or any party interested in using all or parts of this article are welcomed to do so with the condition of giving full attribution to the author and Strategic Discourse. ©All Copy Rights Reserved.



[1] . See e.g. David E. Apter, Introduction to Political Analysis. (Prentice Hall of India, New Delhi, 1981, p.77.

[2] .see: Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellism. (New Haven: Yale University press. 1962), Quoted in David E Apter, Ibid.P.78.

[3].CF. Bertrand Russell, Power, A New Social Analysis, (New York: Norton, 1938), PP.145-156.

[4]. This is especially true in the case of the Third world states where political parties as key organizations for uniting people of different and rather immature opinion can not perform social and political results. A party, said, Edmund Burke, is a group of men united to promote, the common good in accordance with a principle upon which they are agreed. In the Third World the most widely accepted principles belong to religious teachings.

[5] .CF. Montgomery Watt, “Religion and Anti-Religion”, in: A.J.Arberry ed. Religion in the Middle East, (London: Cambridge University Press .1969), vol. 2. PP.605-639 at 605.

[6]. Idem.

[7].The process of secularization is sometimes distinguished from the idea of secularism, which is defined as an attitude of mind or set of beliefs with its focus in the assertion that there is nothing beyond this world. In this respect scientific materialism, humanism, naturalism and positivism are all considered forms of secularism. See Ibid. 609-610.

[8] .K. Subramanyam, “Norms and Interests,” in Strategic Analysis, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, February, 1985.p.1035.

[9] .Idem.

[10]. CF. Montgomery Watt, Religion and Anti -Religion. Op. cit. p. 609; see also: Hamilton A.R. Gibb. Religion and politics in Christianism and Islam. (Persian translation) passim; Modern Trend in Islam. (Chicago:1947)


[12].see my earlier writings on the subject in: Ali Asghar Kazemi, Religion and Politics...    Monograph, Tehran 1985.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Iran: Roots of the Post-Elections Crisis

Ali Asghar Kazemi

October 2009


“A new world society is gradually emerging.

It is growing quietly, imperceptibly in the minds

and hearts of men. The tumult and the excitement,

the anger and the violence, the perplexity of spirit

and the ambiguities of expressing are the pangs of

the birth of something new. We of this generation

are called upon to work for this new order with all

the strength and capacity for suffering we possess.

S. Radhakrishnan[1]



Thirty years after the advent of the revolution, that brought an Islamic regime in Iran, religious leaders are still looking for ways and means to transform the society into a rigid bloc of faithful and zealous citizens who fully submit to the official principles and precepts put forward by them. While during the past three decades every effort has been made to disseminate religious teachings at all levels of public education, from the kindergartens to the universities, seemingly the result has been frustrating.

The post-presidential elections public turmoil, that brought the country to the brink of a real social revolution, was another vivid indication that the whole scheme of “Islamization” of the society was an ineffective and futile social investment. Since, the effort merely counter-produced and youngsters who were brought up with Islamic rigorous teachings after the revolution simply did not show interest to them and much less to obey them blindfolded. Indeed, this phenomenon should not surprise anybody who has a little familiarity with the very rudimentary concepts of the philosophy of education and social sciences.

Misconception about Social Sciences

With a view to cure this incongruity, the Islamic system recently came to the conclusion that the problem emanate from the dominance of the Western “social sciences” books and materials taught by Western educated and/or oriented teachers and professors in the higher education structure. To that end, a new round of purge has been initiated at different levels of educational institutions and expert committees are being set up once again to remedy the problem once for all!

How far this conclusion about Western “social science” is logical? Can the Islamic regime succeed in its new effort to eradicate the roots of restlessness among students and educated people against the system by simply changing the contents of textbooks? Where should we look for proper answer to the problem?

Problem of Religion and Politics[2]

From the beginning of human history, man has been guided by two strands inextricably woven in his very nature, the rational and the spiritual. These forces have influenced human destiny in varied patterns and in different periods when one or the other may have been more prominent.[3] Religion has been the great force for the disciplining of man’s nature, though it has also worked against his fate by denying the domain of reason.[4]

Religion has to do with human mind, ideas, the belief system, values, attitudes and behavior. Politics as an interdisciplinary branch of social sciences, deals essentially with the pursuit of power through “the art of influencing, manipulating, or controlling [groups] so as to advance the purposes of some against the opposition of others”[5] The struggle over conflicting ideas, values and interests directed by religious beliefs have existed throughout history. Great religions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and last but not least Islam have at one time or other claimed to have answers for all problems of the society. But, history bears good witness that almost in all cases, religion married to temporal power, became imbued with a formalism which deprived it of its moral and spiritual values.[6]

Some religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have sought to base their beliefs on tangible elements and hold that the two sides of human nature, the rational and the spiritual, should work together.[7] Western religions have been long engaged in the struggle to come to term with the spirit of reason.[8] In later periods, scientific developments overshadowed faith in traditional beliefs. The process led to the intellectual questioning of the metaphysical view of the world and the revival of animistic science in the period of Renaissance.

Since the Renaissance two divergent lines of thought have prevailed in the philosophical perspective. One deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, and the other, that belonged to cultures which escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking retained the view that the real world is completely internal to the observer.[9]

Where to put the blame?

When Socrates was executed for religious heresy, it was not merely an act of religious fanaticism, such as later became common, but rather a serious response of society to subversion. The early Christianity was attacked by the Roman government not only out of religious exclusivism in modern sense but because it was seen as revolutionary and subversive, a threat to the organization of society. The Christians incurred the supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offense. They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education and violated the religious institution of their realm.[10]

Once it was believed that only religious and metaphysical limitations could restrain rulers and power-holders from committing acts of violence and suppression. This may still prove a valid argument, only if we can make a definite distinction between religious ideology and the actual process of politics. But when the frontiers between the two realms fades away and one identifies its very existence with the other, then, the moral and metaphysical constrains to power-holders become irrelevant. In such circumstances, religion fails to its duty. With the alienation of power-blinded men from moral restraints, aggressive behavior and suicidal tendencies occur.[11]

In today’s world, where hope and peril run side by side, among great and vital issues of our time are those which involved the suppression of the evil which drive societies toward wars, hostilities and terrorism. How then the whirlwind of revolutionary social forces can be directed towards a safe and constructive path?

Considering the fact that constitutional foundation of world order and international law have proven inefficacious for the maintenance of peace and assurance of democratic process, the problems remain to be tackled with in future are the minimum moral and spiritual requirements in order to preserve peace, security and human dignity in a tormented world.

In the absence of a superior authority over and above nation-states, claiming sovereignty and political independence, power with legitimacy is the necessary instrument of governments. Without these latter, political order could neither be established nor maintained and guard society against anarchy. Power without legitimacy spawns tyranny and violence, corrupts the mighty and crushes freedom.[12]

In a general sense, individual quest for power has the effect of leading a ruler to act against the will of the people.[13] But when religion becomes politicized and gets involved in the competition for power, it has the effect of encouraging its followers to act against the accepted norms of civilized nations. As a result, domestic power struggles spill over into the international system. The immediate implication of such behavior is to impose its will and ideology on another state(s).

Religion can help people to establish harmony in their souls, to illuminate human spirit, and to liberate nations from despotism and tyranny. But surely it cannot supplant politics, in the sense it is understood in our contemporary world system, dominated by sovereign nation- states, national interests and competition for power. Religion, says Radhakrishnan, “is the direct apprehension of the Supreme. It is in the attaining of a state of illumination. While the reality is omnipresent, human being is able to apprehend it directly in his own inmost being.”[14] When statesmen attempt to measure -or make semblance to do- political events and social phenomena of the real world by religious standards, they are merely submerged in their illusion.

Future of Religions

Religious belief and faith of any kind have always posed dilemma for humanity. Like a two-edged sword, religion has been hard for men to live without, and almost equally hard to coexist with. Just the same, when man is passionately submerged in his religious obsessions, he is tempted to preach it to others. If they prove deaf to his preaching, he is often tempted to impose it by fire and sword. [15]

Religious wars of the past are now over, but the legacy of intolerance, persecution and slaughtering of man by man on ideological and religious grounds is still with mankind. Religion has become scapegoat for obstipated “old leaders clinging too long to power in a world they no longer understand,”[16] and for power hungry younger generation deeply indoctrinated in myths and delusions. The world no longer represents the long cherished compassionate and fraternal ideals of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

Encountering realities of this tormented world is a difficult task of the new leaders of our time who are not trained to overcome the lust of power. Religion has the potential ability to free politicians from the evil forces that enslave their spirit. But politics cannot help an obstinate religious to straighten his conduct or to regain his purity. No institutional or legal patterns, no revolutionary theologies, and no chastisement of the other world can make a society to become a safe place to live, unless the people set out to rid of spiritual poverty. In this respect, it is rightly argued that “the quality of our life is the evidence of our religion.” [17] Indeed, religion in this context is not incompatible with politics, neither is it in competition with it in the pursuit of secular power, but it is its mentor.

Religions will lose their redemptive power, if societies are not prepared to accept their human and spiritual principles. People need not to adore saints and their illusions; they have to seek redemption through faith and reason which lead to the path of salvation.


From the dawn of human history to our present time, prophets, philosophers, thinkers, academics and social scientists, disregard of their native origins and beliefs, have helped men to understand their social environment and to overcome the evil of tyranny and despotism in their communities. They should be respected and be given credits for their achievements. Western social and political sciences are not in dissonance with the essence of religions and spiritual needs of human beings. On the contrary, they teach us how to comprehend and deal with evil propensity of political leaders who use religious principles to promote their power and greed despite the will of the people. /


Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. See: www.aakazemi.blogspot.com

* Students, researchers, academic institutions, media or any party interested in using all or parts of this article are welcomed to do so with the condition of giving full attribution to the author and Strategic Discourse. ©All Copy Rights Reserved.

[1] Religion in a Changing World, (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd, 1967) p. 15.

[2] Parts of this article are readapted here from my earlier writings in : Ali Asghar Kazemi, Religion and Politics …, Monograph , Tehran, 1985.

[3]. CF. S. Radhakrishnan, Religion in a Changing World (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1967), p. 18.

[4]. Ibid. p.9.

[5] Quincy Wright, The Study of International Relations, ( New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1965), p.130

[6]. CF. Jacques Pirenne, Tides of History, op. cit. p. 407.

[7]. Ibid. p. 34.

[8]. Ibid. p. 35.

[9]. Henry Kissinger, American Foreign Policy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Inc. 1974), p.48.

[10]. CF. Edward Gibbon, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I, (New York: Modern Library), p. 448.

[11]. CF. R. Strausz- Hupe and Stefan T. Possony, International Religions (New York, 1954) p. 11. Quoted in Robert L. Pfaltzgraff and James E. Dougherty, Contending Theories of International Relations ( New York : J. b. Lippincott Co. , 1971 ) p. 91..

[12]. Robert Strausz-Huoe, Power and Community (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1956), p.3.

[13]. This is for example the case of Iran in the pre-revolution period as well as during the past years when the essence of religion gradually changed in the pursuit of political power.

[14]. Religion in a Changing World, op. cit. p. 102.

[15].CF. Charles Yost, The Insecurity of Nations- International Relations of the Twentieth Century, op. cit., p. 212.

[16]. Idem.

[17]. Ibid. p. 110.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Iran: Reform vs. Revolution

Iran: Reform vs. Revolution

Ali Asghar Kazemi


“Men do not start revolutions in a sudden passion… Revolutions do not spring overnight. Revolutions come from the long suppression of human spirit. Revolutions come because men know that they have rights and they are disregarded.”

Woodrow Wilson*[1]

* * *

Revolution is an old concept in social theory. It has several distinctive indicators that make it different from other kinds of social events and political phenomena, such as coup d’├ętat, rebellion and insurgency. The first and most obvious is that revolution has a large popular support. Secondly, it has a leadership who directs the movement and social forces. Finally, it aims at a redistribution of political power[2], although social, economic and cultural changes may not accompany this change. How can we explain revolutionary movements in our present international order? How much religious fervor in the Middle East is leading to revolution? Why people prefer revolution to reform?

The Ground for Revolution

Revolutionary writers such as Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon and Regis Debray, believe that violence is an important element of revolution. But, violence is surely not the objective; rather it is the tactic leading to revolutionary goals. History has also recorded “non-violent revolution,” Such as Gandhi’s peaceful movement in India.[3] The truly essential dimension of revolution lies on the rejection of a regime legitimacy and the denial of its right to enforce laws and regulations of the state.

Contrary to the purely Marxian theory of material and economic deprivation, some social scientists (such as e.g. Durkheim and Lasswell), have attempted to establish a thesis that the main causes of revolution is “frustration.” Brian Cozier defines frustration as “simply the inability to do something one badly wants to do, through circumstances beyond one’s control.”[4] But frustration is not believed by many to be the necessary and sufficient ground for revolution. Alienation and justice along with other grievances of social life help to fuel a revolution. Masses should really feel that they are unjustly treated. Aristotle attributed revolutionary feelings to discrepancy between men’s desires and their perceived situation with respect to equality and inequality. He saw revolution springing from a political disagreement over the basis on which society ought to be organized.[5]

The ever widening gap between people’s expectation and actual fulfillment, especially in the third world, is a cause for frustration and alienation, preparing the ground for social and political conflicts. The nature of ideology is also an important factor in helping to resolve social problems or instigate conflict leading to turmoil’s and revolutionary movements.

The purely ideological rationalization of revolution rests upon the vision of a life free from every form of oppression, equally, brotherhood, justice etc. It is on the premises of such beliefs, whether religiously inspired or not, that leaders justify the suffering, terror and chaos which are the usual products of revolution.[6] It is also under the cover of such reasoning that the society begins to nourish totalitarian bureaucrats, dictatorship and tyrant leaders. Thus some scholars have rightly suggested that the intellectuals provide the breeding ground of revolution, but ultimately, themselves become the victim of their own creature.[7]

When people begin to show discontent of the ruling regime which has closed the doors for dialogue, two alternatives remain open to masses. They can openly challenge the existing government or regime in a revolution or for example a secessionist insurrection, depending upon which of the two modes is more ripe or accessible. If on the other hand, it perceives that the first alternative is likely to be countered with force and coercion; usually people can do nothing but accept with humiliation and resignation the dictate of the ruling regime and probably wait for the opportune moment to revenge.[8]

Revolution, meaning an unauthorized and unlawful behavior against socio-political institutions of a state, which includes the use of force against the government, is considered by some as a symptom of national sickness.[9] Outside the more or less traditional ideological confrontation between the two camps of socialism and capitalism, the underdeveloped world is caught in the web of religious heresy which manifest in ideological conflicts.

Religion and Revolution

The new emerging religious-ideological appeal to third world Moslem states is indeed an unprecedented challenge for the international system and world order as a whole. The use of religion as a new ideological tool to change the status quo has led to revolutionary ideas. The lack of democratic political structure in traditionally closed and socially backward societies has given birth to a new set of norms for the third world people looking for change.

Since the notions of social change, justice, and equality are perceptual, people often fail to realize that they are unjustly treated or their human rights are being disregarded. In such circumstances, masses need a leadership or somebody to make them aware of their situation and to take their cause to the street. Indeed, it is a bitter fact that in many cultures and religions inequalities and injustice are accepted as facts of life, a heritage of fatalism. For example, Brahmin-Parish caste in India has tended to consider as just the flagrant great inequalities in the life and treatment of people.[10]

For the intellectuals the problem presents other forms. These latter become gradually alienated from the system and being to lose confidence in themselves. Thus, they tend to move from “mere criticism to a withdrawal of political loyalty.”[11] They too need an organizer or a political leader in order to make known their position. In this case, party politics is an important factor in shaping public opinion and challenging a regime’s legitimacy.

Religion can serve as a unifying element to supplant political parties. The objectives would no longer be to promote the states or national goals through a rational dialogue but to change the status quo by uprising and revolution. In such circumstances, reform in socio-political and economic institutions and structures, through gradual reform and democratic process, do not satisfy the wishes and unleashed desires of people for change. They are prepared to much less of a stake, but to get it through a revolution. This is the case where means overshadow the objectives, and uncertain revolution is preferred to a sure evolution and reform.

Revolution and Social Change

Many social and political scientists who adopt a macro approach to human phenomena and social change tend to regard conflict and revolution as a normal concomitant of group existence.[12] They view conflict as serving positive social purposes.[13]

With regard to the phenomenon of “revolution”, contemporary social scientists have provided various explanations depending on the area of their expertise or research. On the whole, they seem to agree that certain social factors serve as source of human conflict leading to turmoil, upheaval and revolution. They are: socio-economic discrepancies, the aggressive impulse resulting frustration, dissonance between the actual and the ideal, withdrawal and alienation from existing social structures etc.[14]

Thus, for example, the social and political development in traditional Iran, which otherwise simply meant the process of “Westernization” did not produce the necessary ground for a gradual evolution and reform toward a modern democratic state. But it did produce a “cultural shock” to certain layers of the society deeply attached to the prevailing religious and traditional norms. In other words, what the imperial zealous dictator, the Shah, wanted to achieve through rapid-but unbalanced- socio- economic and political development, in fact counter- produced the desired effect.

A partial explanation for this failure, which led to what later became the now Islamic fundamentalist revival and revolution, is that the economic boom of the seventies provided the people with the necessary means to acquire without much thought or effort what they could purchase from the West. This dimension of development did not pose unbearable difficulties, but the missing part of the puzzle was the whole gamut of cultural, technical, political and bureaucratic gap along with other aspects of the development which could not be easily bought by money (at least not in the short and medium term).

The acquisition of superficial comforts of the West with petrodollars, without an understanding of how the West arrived at this stage of welfare and consumption, produced a sense of euphoria mixed with alienation.

Revolution and Alienation

Alienation is a very difficult concept to define in political process of a society. It is usually described as a state of mind or perception of people who lose touch with their norms, culture and feel no affinity for their environment.[15] In such situation, people perceive the society or government as being hostile or indifferent to their true causes, wishes and their very existence. They are convinced that no matter what they think, say, or do has no bearing upon the course of events and no one cares about their position, beliefs, action or reaction.

There are several causes for alienation. They are rather complex depending on the nature of the society about which one is talking. But generally they can be grouped into certain broad categories with regard to Third World states; they are cultural, socio- economic and political.

Backwardness, illiteracy, poverty, ill health, inequality, injustice, moral deficiency, religious fanaticism, fatalism etc… are among principal elements which count for alienation. It is to be noted that alienation may occur despite economic and material prosperity. This is especially true for developed nations of the West, where people feel bored and alienated due to lack of challenge and monotonous life. It was also true in the case of pre-revolution Iran, where at least this dimension of life was more or less satisfied. But immature political structure, illiteracy, lack of justice and to some extent religious precepts created an environment which could no longer accommodate with the exigencies of a rapid economic development.

This leads us to accept the argument that any society is part of an evolutionary process which proceeds by means of two seemingly contradictory mechanisms.[16] On the one hand, the span of possible adaptation which is constrained by the physical environment, the internal structure, i.e. social, cultural, political set up, and above all, by previous choices (i.e. the built- in beliefs, norms, and customs).[17] On the other hand, evolution proceeds not in a straight line but through a series of variations which appear anything but obvious to the chief actors.[18]

History, tradition, values, religions, cultures and other pressures from natural or artificial environment- domestic or international- accumulate in the process of change and evolution. Any rupture in this chain in the hope of making the change possible may create the risk of doing more harm and violence to the whole structure of the society.[19]


The life in our modern societies is becoming more and more unbearable and people are becoming increasingly restless, feeling alienated and alternating between faith and doubt, hope and anxiety. The demand for social, economic and political change and expectation of a world different from the existing one, have caused people to look for alternatives. In the Middle East and elsewhere, religion is re-emerging as a source for hope, inspiration and salvation. At the same time a trend toward fundamentalism is clearly observable.

People are losing faith in their political system and politicians; they are seeking refuge to religions in the pursuit of their cause. Religion is now fueling social unrests and serves as a pretext to legitimizing the canalization of social forces toward revolution. Gradualism and reform no longer satisfy the increasing appetite of people for rapid change. Revolution is being used by frustrated groups to embark upon unconventional and sometimes irrational actions such as terrorism, in order to gain recognition and make their cause known.


[1]* Quoted in C.L.Sulzberger, Unfinished Revolution: America and the Third World (New York: Athenaeum, (1965), p.5.

[2]. CF. Thomas B. Crassey, “Some perspectives on Revolution,” in [U.S.] Naval War College Review, vol.XXIX, No.3 (Winter 1977), pp. 19-29, at p.20.

[3]. CF. Thomas B. Crassey, Ibid, and p.20.

[4]. Brian Cozier, The Rebels (Boston: Beacon press, 1960), pp.15-16; also quoted in Ibid. p.21. See also: Ted Robert Gurr, “Psychological Factors in Civil Violence, “World Politics, XX (January, 1968), Passim.

[5]. Aristotle, Politics, translated by Benjamin Jewett (New York: Random House, Modern Library, 1943), Book V, Chapter 2, p. 212. See also e.g. Chalmers Johnson, Revolutionary Change (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1966); Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Wiking Press, 1965); Crane Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution (New York/; W.W. Norton and Company, 1938).

[6]. CF. Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, op. cit. p. 238.

[7]. CF. James H. Meisel, Counter-revolution: How Revolutions Die, (New York: Atherton Press, 1966, pp. 3-16, 209-220.

[8]. Interestingly there is a tradition in Shiism called taqieh which has exactly the same connotation. It means that if the Shiite following perceive danger in their opposition and struggle against the usurping power, they may remain silent or concede to the illegitimate authority by expediency until the opportune moment.

[9]. Kulski, op.cit. p. 467.

[10]. Mao Tse-Tung’s biggest problem in 1928 was getting the peasants to realize that something was wrong with Chinese society and something better could be achieved.

[11]. James E. Dougherty / R.L. Pfaltzgraff, op.cit. p. 239.

[12]. CF. Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, Contending Theories of International Relations, op. cit. p. 233.

[13]. See e.g. Lewis A. Coser, The Function of Social Conflict, (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964); Jessie Bernard, “Parties and Issues in Conflict,” Journal of Conflict Resolution I (March, 1957).

[14]. Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, op. cit. p.236.

[15]. See e.g. Theodore A. Couloumbis and James H. Wolf, Introduction to International Politics: Power and Justice, (New Delhi: Prentice Hall of India private Limited, 1981), p. 372.

[16].Henry Kissinger, “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy,” op. cit. p. 44.

[17]. This is my interpretation of Kissinger’s statement.

[18]. Kissinger, Ibid. p. 45.

[19]. CF. Idem.