Forty-one years ago today, 10 days after the return of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini to Iran from nearly 15 years in exile and almost a month after the departure of the Shah, a ferocious mob took control of the royal palace and the triumph of the revolution was declared. At this point it was not yet called the Islamic Revolution – the Islamists abducted the state some time later.
In 1963 Mohammad Reza Shah launched a series of reforms, the official aim of which was to propel Iran forward, meaning westward. The reforms’ unstated, though rather obvious aim, was to weaken the existing power groups – the landowners and especially the clergy – and build a new base among what up until then had been the lower classes. The reforms were attractively called the “White Revolution” or the “Shah and People” revolution, though the Iranian people, for the most part, was not particularly eager to join in.
The introduction of literacy studies and vaccinations, reaching every village, was welcomed by one and all. However, the accelerated development of higher education, without providing employment to new graduates, broadened the cadres of intellectuals seething at the Shah. The land reform, intended to create a new middle class supportive of the Shah, backfired, causing massive internal migration of villagers to the cities, which were unprepared to absorb them.
The landowners, now stripped of their lands, were enraged, as well as the clergy, as the waqf was a major landowner. The latter also fumed at the fact that the revolution had attempted to oust them from their superior status, in fact achieving the exact opposite. The mosques filled with people, including intellectuals who had previously shied away from any religious affiliation.
The regime’s openness to the West was perceived as a sign of weakness, while the attempt to cultivate and emphasize the nation’s links with its ancient history met with contempt. The Iranians, after all, had been Muslims for 1,300 years; why should they all of a sudden (in 1971), join in a lavish and incredibly wasteful jubilee celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the foundation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great while people went hungry in the streets and were jailed for voicing their opinions?
The 1979 revolution toppled the shah, one of its slogans being “Neither East nor West – the Islamic Republic”. It was an utter rejection of the “plague of Western culture.”
Who, then, succeeded in Westernizing Iran? Who emptied the mosques, causing the Iranian masses to define themselves as non-religious (not even as secular Muslims!), the youth to prefer Western music, women to remove their hijab and dress less modestly? What forces achieved what the Shah had failed to do – weaken the status of the clergy, who now refrain from appearing in public wearing a mantle and the traditional turban, for fear of being attacked in the streets? Who is responsible for the huge traffic jams before the tomb of Cyrus on Cyrus the Great Day (the day when Cyrus entered Babylon), jams so overwhelming that in the past three years the roads leading to the tomb have been closed?
The culprit of all these is, of course, the Islamic Republic. Iranian identity is torn between the Iranian school and the Islamic school. The former looks to the West since the Iranians are an Indo-European people and not a Semitic people. As a consequence of this split identity, whenever the regime pulls in one direction, the people pulls in the other. In the 1940s, intellectual Ahmad Kasravi said that Iran should place its regime in the hands of the clergy in order to break the spell of Islam. Kasravi was murdered in 1944, before seeing his prophecy fulfilled to the letter: the Islamic Republic realized the dream of the Shah.
It should be noted, however, that the picture painted above – of today’s Iran compared to the same country before the revolution – is a gross generalization. Iran is a country of different shades and contrasts, and at each point in time, there have been those who have supported the regime and its stated mission.
Dr. Thamar Eilam Gindin is a linguist and scholar of ancient Persia and modern Iran at the Shalem College in Jerusalem.