The 1979 Iranian Revolution: Islamic Revolution or Failed Liberal Revolution?

Written by Emma Ward. Edited by Nathaniel Robinson.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution shocked the world. One of the reasons Iran was so shocking was that it was completely opposed to the archetypal European revolutionary tradition. It did not create a liberal enlightenment, and was not guided by a new revolutionary ideology that would shape future concepts in the world (if we are classing religion separately to ideology). Instead, it created a society that seemed to go backwards in time; with an all-encompassing religious identity and a regime known internationally for its tyranny and repression. What is perhaps overlooked is that the Iranian Revolution did not begin its course with these goals in mind, indeed in the early days it could hardly even be classed as a religious revolution. It may be more prudent to view the Iranian Revolution as a liberal revolution that was hijacked by Khomeini, who filled the position of leader where there was a vacuum as the Shah’s control receded.

The conventional date of the start of the revolution is January 1978, when a newspaper attack on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the future Iranian leader and committed Islamic revolutionary who was in exile at this time) was followed by a protest by around 10,000 people. In fact, protests over the political, economic and social conditions in Iran can be traced back to 1977, specifically in May when Reza Shah promised the International Commission of Jurists that the SAVAK (the secret police) would not resort to torture and that political dissidents would now be tried in civilian rather than military courts. Before this Amnesty International had described Iran as ‘having the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts, and a history of torture beyond belief’, a commentary which may seem ironic when set against the Human Rights violations committed after Khomeini comes into power.

In reality, during street clashes on November 14th 1977, the phrase which became symptomatic of the revolution, ‘Death to the Shah!’ had already been coined. As well as political concerns, the social conditions of individuals was causing grievances; in autumn of 1977 an ‘urban renewal’ of Tehran meant bulldozing the city’s slums, destroying the homes of countless residents, causing protests, sit ins and a group of protesters to march on the Shah’s palace. Shantytowns, slums and squatter settlements had expanded in cities during the 1960s and 1970s, populated by poor rural peasants and farmers uprooted as a result of Iran’s rapid industrialisation. Unfortunately, this poorly governed industrialisation had gone hand in hand with inflation, a scarcity of basic necessities and had brought down real wages, which stimulated unrest: there were about 27 major strikes per year in 1975 and 1976. Furthermore, as convincingly argued by Mansoor Moaddel, increased worldwide trade – particularly with western countries such as Britain and the US – had adversely affected the petty bourgeoisie and merchants in Iran and thus created an anti-western sentiment which became present in bazaars; this is significant as they were key arenas in which revolutionary discourse and activism arose from. Clearly there were already deep-set grievances and a strong demand for change embedded in society before revolution began in the name of Khomeini or even necessarily Islam, and the protestors were hoping for real, liberal change that was worlds away from Khomeini’s repressive regime that resulted.

When religion was originally utilised by the revolutionaries and others who wanted to see change, it can actually be seen as being moderate and unifying. Khomeini did not arrive in Iran after returning from exile until 1st February 1979, and ‘the majority of Iranian people had not heard his treatise’ when they were pouring on to the streets in 1977 and 1978 according to Shadi Gholizadeh. In fact, even the Shiite clerics, who were key organisers of the revolution before his return, ‘did not believe, were unaware, or did not take seriously Khomeini’s intention… to go ahead with implanting his vision of the Islamic order’. The forty-day mourning cycles that followed deaths created by the revolution were a way of bringing the Iranian populace together and creating a common grievance; that of a tyrannous ruler, who had created poverty by favouring western capitalism over Iran’s social and religious traditions, killing innocent citizens who dared to oppose the regime. There has also been much historical discussion over the power of Shiite discourse in unifying the people against the Shah and other enemies, a unification which would be impossible without a shared culture and religion that stretched back nearly 500 years. Perhaps without this religious unification a secular civil war would have taken place which may have caused many more deaths and the type of long term instability that has haunted Afghanistan. This does not justify the regime which Khomeini created, but juxtaposes it with the sort of liberal, democratic regime that the majority of the population hoped to create.

The misconception that the Iranian Revolution was a fierce religious jihad from its early days is a reflection of the extreme Islamic struggle that is held up on a stage today, and the International isolation that followed the revolution. Islam is often given a bad press, but we must not overlook the examples of secular, democratic Islamic countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia. Had the wishes of the Iranian people in the early days of revolution be honoured, Iran may have been added to this list. As events transpired, Khomeini’s effectiveness as a leader and his ability to align revolutionary objectives with Islamic fundamentalist principles unfortunately sealed Iran’s future an Islamic Republic.