Every February, Muslims around the world mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which established the prototypical Islamic state of the modern era in Iran. This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the American assault on Iraq in 1991 (the US bombing campaign began on January 16, 1991, and the land war — if that is the right word — lasted from February 23-27). These two events, thirteen years apart and apparently quite separate, are in fact closely linked.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran was a key point in two related historical trajectories: the struggle of Muslim peoples to establish Islamic social institutions and systems to order their societies, and the western drive to control and exploit the whole world for the benefit of a small capitalist elite. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran was both the Iranian people’s rejection of non-Islamic, secular patterns of order and governance, and a reaction against the hegemony of the west. The challenges facing Iran’s Islamic movement after the Revolution were two-fold: to establish an Islamic society, and to resist the attempts of the west to subvert the Revolution and reassert its hegemony.
Before the Revolution, the West believed that its hegemony was secure, that political secularism was entrenched throughout the Muslim world, and that Islamic movements were powerless. The Revolution changed all that. It inspired Islamic movements across the world, and shocked the West, prompting it to move far more forcefully against Islamic movements everywhere. It is these two factors that have made the confrontation between Islamic movements and the West the main feature of world history during the last two decades.
For most of the 1980s, Saddam Hussain was the West’s key instrument against the embryonic Islamic state, invading Iran in 1980 and fighting an eight-year war with weapons and money provided by the West and its Arab puppets. This strategy weakened Islamic Iran materially, but did not defeat it. In another sense, by demonstrating the West’s implacable enmity to the Islamic State, the war may even have strengthened it. But Iraq’s failure to defeat Iran left the West needing a new approach. Again this was based on Saddam. The precise role that the US played in Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait in August 1990 is debatable and irrelevant. What is clear is that the invasion provided the West with a pretext for occupying the region. More than half a million US and other troops were moved into the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf region, and a similar number of Iraqis were killed in the ferocious attack that followed. Iraq’s economic and social infrastructure was destroyed, but Saddam Hussain left in place to serve as the West’s bogey-man.
Saddam Hussain and the US occupation of the Arab world both remain in place. For ten years, Iran and Iraq have topped the list of the West’s enemies. Islamic Iran is declared a major threat in the West’s political rhetoric, but Iraq is the one under constant attack. Iraq remains subject to almost daily air attacks by US and British aircraft, and over 2 million Iraqis have died as a result of Western economic sanctions, although Western officials (such as former defence secretary William Cohen in his briefing to president George W. Bush on January 10) acknowledge that Iraq poses no threat to anybody. The only possible explanation for the West’s continued war on Iraq is that it is a demonstration to the rest of the Muslim world — and to Iran in particular — that the US is capable of every brutality necessary to protect its interests. This is a common strategy used by all bullies: beat up the smallest kid as a warning to the others.
Of course, during the last 22 years, the Islamic state has also been subject to numerous direct US attacks, albeit more subtle ones. Islamic Iran’s survival through this period is an achievement in itself. The fact that it has made errors in its institutional, political and social development (which was inevitable for the first Islamic state of the modern era) should not divert us from this truth. While Islamic movements continue to struggle all over the Muslim world, in circumstances now even worse than those faced by the Islamic movement in Iran before the Revolution, the Islamic state stands, despite all its flaws, as a mote in the eyes of our enemies and a beacon and an example for Muslims everywhere. This is a reality we cannot afford to forget.