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Islamism and Modernism

Islamism and Modernism
The Changing Discourse in Iran

A timely study of the historical, religious, and social forces that have shaped Iran throughout the past century.

Series: Number 24

November 2007
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292 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 figure, 6 tables |

While many previous books have probed the causes of Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979, few have focused on the power of religion in shaping a national identity over the decades leading up to it. Islamism and Modernism captures the metamorphosis of the Islamic movement in Iran, from encounters with Great Britain and the United States in the 1920s through twenty-first-century struggles between those seeking to reform Islam's role and those who take a hardline defensive stance.

Capturing the views of four generations of Muslim activists, Farhang Rajahee describes how the extremism of the 1960s brought more confidence to concerned Islam-minded Iranians and radicalized the Muslim world while Islamic alternatives to modernity were presented. Subsequent ideologies gave rise to the revolution, which in turn has fed a restructuring of Islam as a faith rather than as an ideology.

Presenting thought-provoking discussions of religious thinkers such as Ha'eri, Burujerdi, Bazargan, and Shari'ati, along with contemporaries such as Kadivar, Soroush, and Shabestari, the author sheds rare light on the voices fueling contemporary Islamic thinking in Iran. A comprehensive study of these interwoven aspects of politics, religion, society, and identity, Islamism and Modernism offers crucial new insight into the aftermath of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution fought one hundred years ago—and its ramifications for the newest generation to face the crossroads of modernity and Islamic discourse in modern Iran today.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One. The First Generation: The Politics of Revival, 1920s-1960s
  • Chapter Two. The Second Generation: The Politics of Revolution, 1963-1991
  • Chapter Three. The Third Generation: The Politics of Islamism, 1989-1997
  • Chapter Four. The Fourth Generation: The Politics of Restoration, 1997-2005
  • Conclusion. The Politics of Oscillation
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Farhang Rajaee is Professor of Political Science and Director of the College of Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He previously taught at the University of Tehran and the Iranian Academy of Philosophy.


The Islamic Revolution of 1357 [1979] was indeed the victory of the project of modernity over that of modernism.

Saeed Hajjarian, Az Shahed Qodsi ta Shahed Bazari; Orfi Shodan Din dar Sepehr Siyassat (From Sacred Witness to Profane Witness: The Secularization of Religion in the Political Sphere), 1380/2001


On February 1, 1979, an Air France Boeing 747 carrying Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini landed at Tehran's international airport. After fifteen years of exile in Turkey, Iraq, and France, he was arriving as the leader of an ongoing revolution. From the airport he went directly to the cemetery where the martyrs of the revolution were buried, and declared: "I will appoint a government, I will crush the present government." He achieved what he claimed: in a few days the age-old Persian monarchy fell and an Islamic government replaced it. Here, the adjective Islamic refers to a particular Shi`i interpretation of politics and polity. Shi`a is an Arabic word meaning "party" or "faction." It originated as the name of a group of Muslims who supported the candidacy of Ali (assassinated in 661) to be head of the newly founded Islamic state after the death of the Prophet in 632. Shi`ism was a minority view before becoming the official religion of Iran in the sixteenth century and the foundation of the state after the 1979 revolution. This book captures the intellectual development among the ruling elites who fomented the revolution and have guided postrevolutionary rule.


The revolution took everyone by surprise. Very few thought the regime of the Pahlavis, the most powerful monarchy in the Third World and an "island of stability" in the region, would fall so easily and quickly. It was widely believed that the long-established process of modernization, reforms, and development in Iran would never be threatened by a religious movement that might ultimately succeed in creating a seemingly archaic social and political norm. Moreover, since all segments of Iranian society, regardless of creed or ideology, participated in the upheaval, few expected that a group of hard-core Islam-minded activists would become predominant. How did the ancien régime fall? Why did the dominant political group in the new regime become victorious? A response to these questions would require two completely different books. The historical reasons for the fall of the old regime differ from those for the formation of the new regime—here, the Islamic Republic. The two stories involve diverse protagonists. The present work is interested in the origin of the Islamic Republic and its evolution. It will be concerned with the causes of the fall of the old regime insofar as they help the reader grasp the evolution of Islamic discourse more clearly.


Each of these questions can be, and has been, the subject of independent inquiries, and, indeed, many studies have focused on the reasons for the fall of the Pahlavi monarchy. Surprisingly, though, very few studies have focused systematically on the outcome of the last phase. How did the protagonists of the Islamic movement survive the second half of the revolution? There are many works dealing with the emergence of religionism and even Islamism in general, but fewer works specifically address the Iranian Islamic movement. There is, of course, some good scholarship that focuses on particular groups that participated in the revolution (for example, Abrahamian 1988, Chehabi 1990, and Siavoshi 1990), but none of it looks at the Islamist movement as a whole. Some books published in Iran have attempted to tackle this question, but they are either very descriptive or highly opinionated (for example, Davani 1360/1981 and Rouhani 1362-1364/1983-1984).


The present book is concerned with the second phase of the revolution and its general connotation meaning and implications. Those who took power in 1979, with Khomeini as their architect, came from a wider milieu, which had taken shape over decades, and that shape was in turn rooted in a wider intellectual terrain, one developed throughout Muslim history. This book aims also to capture that milieu; it analyzes the origin, formation, development, and fate of the Islamic movement in Iran. At the same time, the incongruity of the establishment of Qom as the most important Shi`i center in the face of the Pahlavi dynasty's radical modernism has to be explained.


Ever since the challenge of modernity disrupted the sociocultural life of the Muslim world, the people of that region have tried to present their own responses to the new challenge. The present study is mainly concerned with those responses, which are presented within a theoretical framework as well as within the historical context and heritage of Islam. The result has been a complex, paradoxical system that appears to share traditional norms, though its content and message are radical. Moreover, Islam comprises a multifaceted body of thoughts and approaches, and this heterogeneity has made some scholars, perhaps hastily, talk about "the failure of political Islam" (Roy 1994). This study portrays these various groupings and their views within the Iranian Shi`i context.


As long as Islam-minded Iranians felt that modernity was helping the people, they supported the forces of modernization, but when "modernism" swept Iran and the region, they instituted movements aimed at resisting it. This book begins with this moment of resistance and captures the various postures the movement has taken. The resistance movement against modernism (the aim of what I call the first generation) began with a quietist political stance combined with gestures of refusal, challenging modernism through what I call a revival of Islam and a refutation of modernism. Later, the extremism of the 1960s gave more confidence to concerned Islam-mined Iranians and radicalized the Muslim world. Activist Muslims of the second generation took more critical views of modernism and modernity, and claimed to present Islamic alternatives to the latter. By making an ideology out of Islam, they gave rise to the Islamic Revolution. Following the victory of the 1979 revolution and the restoration of lost confidence, many hoped that a more sober attitude toward modernity would emerge. Instead, the revolution gave rise to a radical force that turned Islam into an instrument of violence. I call this trend Islamism and radicalism, and its proponents (the third generation) have become an important force in the politics of postrevolutionary Iran. At the same time, the failure of Islamism has given rise to a serious reconstruction of Islam as a faith rather than an ideology, and the goal of the fourth generation has been to combine Islam and modernity by trying "to Islamize modernity." This book captures the views of these four generations of Muslim activists.


Two sets of broad questions guide the discussion throughout this study. First, why did the Islam-minded movement's protagonists gain power in the revolution, when both traditional (the bazaar, the ulama [scholars of Islam], and the old nobility) and modern (the middle class, the intelligentsia, and the masses) social forces participated in dethroning the Pahlavis? Second, what is the content of the alternative polity they proposed? Is it viable? Or is it, as labeled by some, an anachronistic restoration of the traditional Muslim polity? In responding to these broad questions, I was guided by the following more specific inquiries: What was the origin of the Islam-minded movement in Iran? When did modernity turn into modernism in Iran, and how did it help give birth to the Islam-minded movement? Were the protagonists politically oriented from the very beginning of their formation? How did they organize themselves? What were their original objectives? How did they evolve into a radical revolutionary group? What was the impact of outside factors? What contributed to their politicization—internally, regionally, and internationally? How sophisticated are their views and theories on various issues pertaining to statesmanship and governance? What are their views on government, the economy, culture, society, foreign policy, and the world system? What is their modus operandi? How will the "New Information Civilization," globalization, and the "multiple worlds of postmodern thinking" of the 1990s and beyond influence their fate?


The interplay of Islam and modernity was my main concern in researching and compiling this work. While the interaction between the two has produced occasions of mutual fecundation and a constructive battle of ideas, their degeneration into isms, i.e., Islamism and modernism, has produced an almost century-long zero-sum battle between opposing worldviews, marked by recurring coups, uprisings, resurgences, and revolutions. The primary reason for this battle is that behind the isms lies a feeling of stasis, a condition void of dynamism, nuance, or imagination.


Any ism denotes an ideology—not a way of approaching the world as a thinking agent, but a seeming certitude that claims to possess all the answers. An ideology is a project with a clear blueprint that requires only mechanical implementation. It provides assurance because it offers easy answers to the most difficult and fundamental questions. Approaching the world through the lens of an ideology renders redundant the human processes of constantly thinking, evaluating, facing hard choices, and balancing. The ideologies of modernism and Islamism are extreme and selective approaches to the understanding of modernity and Islam, respectively. Islamism has betrayed many of the tenets of Islam as a divine message; as a way of life; as a civilization, polity, and state; as a religion; and as a body of thought composed of a moral and ethical system. Modernism has done the same to modernity, to its political and philosophical foundations, and to liberty as its core value. In any society in which Islamism and modernism have taken root, these twin degenerations have wrenched those societies from their past and from their organic development. Modernism became the dominant paradigm in the Muslim world during the first half of the twentieth century, and Islamism enchanted it in the second half.


It is important to note that both Islam and modernity were responses to the powerful grip of traditionalism. The prophet of Islam brought the message of rescuing individual freedom from the grip of tribalism, just as modernity was an attempt to undermine the hold of the church and the feudal system. Table I.1 canvasses the main features of the categories employed here.


Since Muslims' fate was tied to modernity, their venture in the modern world, particularly from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century became linear as well. Thus, at any given historical moment, the dialectical interaction of any pair of these concepts produced the predominant path or paradigm, leading to the generational unfolding of revival, revolution, Islamism, and post-Islamist restoration. Intellectually, Islamism reached its climax in the 1990s and in the disastrous events of September 11, 2001, when self-proclaimed defenders of Islam crashed passenger planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.


I call this event the climax of Islamism because its "defenders" shocked the rest of the Muslim world and awoke Muslims to the fact that their religion had been hijacked, taken hostage, and misused for perverted objectives. Things are beginning to change today: most Muslims live within the paradigms of post-Islamism, and modernism is under attack in the West, where many view the world from postcolonial and postmodern perspectives. Post-Islamists hope to revive the basic tenets of Islam and embrace modernity. They aim for a restoration of "Muslim politics," which they define so as to reconcile the teachings of Islam with the imperatives of the modern technological world. Postmodern sensibilities seem to reject modernism's atomistic fragmentation of the human life-world and the consequent loss of social harmony and cohesion, taking instead a holistic view of human life and paying respect to all human achievements, Western and non-Western. The post-Islamist generation seems to appreciate and utilize the achievements of postmodernity to deconstruct Islamism and its ideology. Indeed, Islamism and modernism are by-products of modernity's advent as a new paradigm in human civilization production. In no part of the Muslim world has this dynamic unfolding been as vivid as in Iran, where, in 1979, a major revolution occurred with the aim of creating an Islamic state and an Islamic alternative to modernity.


Antecedents to the Revolution of 1979


Existing accounts of the causes of the revolution take various approaches. The most prevalent explains the revolution as a conservative, traditional, and religious response to too much modernization occurring too quickly. Others apply theories such as "social breakdown," "Davis's J-curve," "Marx's theory of revolution," "resource mobilization," and the "conjunctural causal model." For example, Foran applies them not only for analyzing the 1979 revolution but also for discussing Iran's social history from Safavid times to the postrevolutionary period (Foran 1993). He claims, however, that the conjunctural causal model is more applicable than other explanations because it takes several factors into account, most notably the "world system, modes of production, situations of dependency, the nature of state and political culture" (13).


Even here, the main assumption is that outside challenges proved too great for Iranian society to overcome. While this approach seems more comprehensive and promising than others, it requires modification in certain respects. Like most models applied by outsiders, this model imposes an external logic on the unfolding of events in Iranian history. Its positivist outlook treats a complex religious ethos as merely a socioeconomic variable. More particularly, it overemphasizes the role of various modes of production; the emphasis on the arrival of a dependent capitalist mode of production misses the enormous cultural and religious underpinnings of the revolution. It seems that what has to be modified in the conjunctural causal model relates to these modes of production and to its emphasis on dependency. As one Iranian scholar, Mashayekhi, rightly points out, economic dependency came very late to Iran, since "in the early 1960s . . . the dependency problematic was in the formative stage" (Mashayekhi 1992, 93). While all factors are given their due consideration in the current study, the central emphases will be on the fate of "Iranian civilization" and on Iran's perception of itself in its encounter with modernity and industrial civilization.


The revolution occurred because three main currents came together in the late twentieth century. First, the genuine voices of modernization in Iran, so disrupted by the Pahlavi dynasty, were revived, and sought to construct a new inclusive identity for Iranians. The revolution was a call for Iranians to return to their cultural home. Second, a politics of restoration—focused on reversing what I call the "erosion of confidence" (za`f-e esteqlal)—last voiced by Mosaddeq, was once again returning. As a result of the infiltration of Iran by outsiders, which Iranians felt had become total in the 1960s, a powerful plea for nativist restoration became the dominant paradigm in the 1970s. The third current was a shift in the international system, which tolerated and even celebrated various brands of nativism as the information and communication revolutions began turning the world into a global village. While the first and the third trends served as cause and catalyst, respectively, it was the second factor, the politics of restoration, that played the key role. The erosion of confidence was doubtless affected by all those conjunctural causes, but the subjective, mental, and ontological dislocation that forced the Iranian nation to lose an authentic perspective on its existence lay at the heart of the contention between the state and society. Indeed, if a certain degree of dependency dominated the Iranian body politic, it had less to do with economics than with what has rightly been termed "psychological dependency" (Sreberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi 1994, 11).


The internal logic of Iranian political and social history tells us that Iranians have been haunted by their inability to produce and renew their civilization since the fall of the Safavid dynasty, in 1736. Though they created a state and some governance, and even produced some commanding leaders, such as Nader Shah, who invaded the Indian subcontinent in 1738 (and brought the Peacock Throne to Iran from Delhi), the paucity of their statesmanship and civilization was telling. This lack showed itself clearly when Russia defeated Iran in the wars of 1813-1828, which resulted in an enormous loss of territory. Most subsequent attempts to restore Iranian national pride and independence met with failure: reforms undertaken in the mid-nineteenth century ended with the poisoning of popular nationalist prime minister Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir (1807-1851); reform attempts from the 1870s through the 1890s ended with the king's assassination in 1896; the attempted reform of constitutionalism ended with fourteen years of crisis and a foreign-assisted coup in 1921; nationalist reforms ended with another foreign-assisted coup and the 1953 exile of Iran's most popular nationalist leader, Mohammad Mosaddeq (1882-1967); and the populist movement of the early 1960s ended with the crushing of movement and the exile of its leader in 1963.


These experiences of protest, rebellion, coup, and revolution attest to a state of anomie in contemporary Iranian life. The main reason for this anomie was the persistence of the notion of an erosion of confidence. No wonder revivalism, the return to indigenous values, and authenticity became persistent themes in Iran's recent past: from Amir Kabir to Khatami, nearly all notable figures in Iranian cultural and political discourse, including Seyyed Jamal Assadabadi (d. 1897), Mirza Hassan Shirazi (d. 1895), the protagonists of constitutionalism, Mohammad Mosaddeq (d. 1967), Jalal Al-Ahmad (d. 1969), Ali Shari`ati (d. 1978), Mehdi Bazargan (d. 1995), and Khomeini (d. 1989), advocated self-reliance and authenticity as the solution to the problems Iran was facing. Of course, each proposed his own particular means of authenticity.


In the early nineteenth century, Iranians first realized that their societal problems stemmed from their outdated state and its modes of economic production. To catch up with the West, a process of reeducation was necessary. Iran had to revise its understanding of life, society, polity, and selfhood. No wonder the first students dispatched abroad were called "the caravan of understanding" (karevan-e ma`refat) (Farmanfarmayan 1968 and Mahbubi-Ardakani 1368/1989). Then came systematic attempts at modernizing the country; the first, initiated by Amir Kabir, resulted in the establishment of the first modern-style university in Iran. An across-the-board modernization plan introduced in the 1870s led to a modern form of governance and statecraft. Interesting to note is the fact that in all of these processes, two factors were prevalent. First, the sophisticated social classes of Iran—the religious class (ulama), the nobility (a`yan), the landowners (malekin), and the merchants (bazaar)—all participated in and contributed to the process (Rajaee 1994b). During the constitutional revolution against both arbitrary internal rule and the foreign influence exerted through concessions in the latter part of the nineteenth century, these classes composed the revolutionary coalition. Second, a complicated theoretical and intellectual debate was launched to explain the intricacies of modernity and the difficulty of adopting it to Iran's old ways (Adamiyat 1340/1961).


The road to progress and development was being paved slowly but steadily. By 1900, a group of prominent and skilled intellectuals with long-term plans for the new Iran had emerged. For example, they created civic societies whose main objective was to propagate their project of Iranian modernity. The pages of the proceedings of the first and second parliaments are filled with such debates. Then, under pressure from the chaos and disorder following the postconstitutional revolution, as well as from the impact of World War I and the inability of the young Iranian parliamentary system to cope with mounting economic, political, and social problems, the Iranian polity came to a deadlock. The interference of foreign powers, notably Britain, that were unable to tolerate disorder and chaos on the border of the newly established Soviet Union inspired a coup in 1921, which brought to power Reza Khan, a man with no roots in any of the Iranian social classes. A powerful figure, he centralized governmental authority in Tehran, and the intellectuals who wanted so badly to implement their dreams of a modern Iran saw in him a protector (Dolatababdi 1336/1957, vol. 1).


What these intellectuals did not know was that Reza Khan had his own plans, and he gradually eliminated any competitors, inaugurating himself as Reza Shah Pahlavi, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty. He hijacked the modernization process already in progress and stripped it of all its intricacies and sophistication. In place of modernization, he inaugurated a project of pseudomodernization (Katouzian 1981), or what I call modernism. Reza Shah fundamentally relied on the army, and the more he consolidated his power, the more he alienated Iran's various social classes. The Pahlavi regime associated itself with outside powers partly because neither Reza Shah nor his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, could derive his political power from any indigenous social force.


The Pahlavi dynasty created a baseless state. Faced with a problem of legitimacy during most of its precarious existence, the regime relied so heavily on foreign interests that they should be considered a component of the Iranian polity during the Pahlavi era. The British helped Reza Shah come to power, and in 1941, when it suited them, they persuaded him to leave for a death in exile and supported the inauguration of his son as the new king. Threatened by the nationalist forces led by Mohammad Mosaddeq, Mohammad Reza Shah asked outsiders for support: in 1953, a British and American coup against Mosaddeq helped restore Mohammad Reza Shah to his position of power. In the wake of the popular uprising of 1979, the American general Robert E. Huyser traveled to Tehran and convinced the shah to leave, never to return.


The Pahlavis' reliance on foreign support had exacerbated the Iranians' lack of confidence, self-identity, and self-respect. The protagonists of the Islamic movement capitalized on this loss of confidence and propagated the notion of "the return to the self," which in their view would restore Iran to its rightful national and international position. This explains the appeal and popularity of Khomeini, even for the most secular and nationalist of Iranians. Today, after almost three decades of Islamic rule and despite a great deal of social and economic hardship, the one positive point to which everyone refers is the restoration of Iranian self-confidence. Thus, while discussing this erosion of confidence as the main cause of the nation's distress, I have tried also to follow social-movement theories carefully. Although I recognize their contribution to our understanding of group behavior and collective actions, the more I investigated the cultural and civilizational aspects of Islamic and Iranian history, the more the internal logic of that part of the world manifested itself. Where common bonds led to common patterns of behavior, I have acknowledged and applied general research tools, and where unique analysis has shown itself to be necessary, I have applied that as well.


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