The Islamic Revolution in Iran inspired and raised expectations among Muslims all over the world. Over 20 years later, it has not been followed by Islamic Revolutions in other Muslim countries. ZAFAR BANGASH, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, considers the experience and progress of the global Islamic movement during this period.
Muslim activists often feel nostalgic about the eighties and express disappointment that revolutions similar to the Islamic Revolution in Iran have not occurred in other parts of the world. Immediately after Iran’s revolution, there were great hopes for dramatic changes in Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria and Pakistan; nothing of the sort happened. Instead, Islamic movements in almost all these countries were brutally crushed. The greatest disappointment was in Algeria, where the Islamic movement, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), won a convincing victory at the polls but was denied power by the Algerian army, which has killed more than 350,000 people in the last 10 years.
The Egyptian regime was the first to launch a campaign of terror against its people. After Anwar Sadat’s execution during a military parade in October 1981, the Gama’a al-Islamiyyah staged an uprising in parts of southern Egypt. The response of the regime, backed and financed by the US and Israel, was swift and brutal. Not only was the insurrection bloodily suppressed, but kangaroo military courts were established in which those accused of resisting the regime, as well as their relatives and even defence lawyers, were attacked, beaten up, intimidated or charged with sedition and other offences. Hundreds of people were hanged after farcical trials based on ‘confessions’ that were extracted by torture. The Mubarak regime, like others in the Middle East, also threatened to rape the wives, daughters, sisters or mothers of the defendants, in order to extract confessions. Aware that Muslims would rather court death than allow their women to be dishonoured, the regime used such confessions to send hundreds of men to the gallows and consign tens of thousands to dungeons. Thanks to American and zionist help, the Egyptian regime was able to crush the Islamic movement.
Events elsewhere were no better. Algeria’s case is typical; perhaps we should not have been shocked. We need to ask an even more basic question: was it realistic to expect that the old order in Algeria would simply and peacefully hand power over to the Islamic movement? At the same time, Muslims need to ask whether it is enough, or indeed desirable, to use an armed uprising to overthrow the old order? What other options do Muslims have if they are dissatisfied with the existing order and there are no avenues left to bring about change by peaceful means? These and similar questions must be addressed in order to achieve a better understanding of what has gone wrong and how to put it right.
While it is natural to be impatient for change, given the sorry state of the Muslim world, is it realistic to hope for it without doing the proper homework? If Iran-style revolutions are to occur elsewhere, it is imperative that similar effort be made, both intellectually and physically, as went into bringing about the revolution in Iran. In fact, considering the inertia that had to be overcome in Shi’i theology, the revolution that Imam Khomeini brought about is even more remarkable. He had not only to motivate the people but also first to convince the Shi’i ulama that their theology needed modification, through ijtihad, in order to open it to direct participation in politics. Muslims in the Sunni world do not face such theological inhibitions; they only have to mobilize the masses to overthrow the corrupt socio-political order in their societies. But even mobilizing the people is proving an almost impossible task.
We need, therefore, to ask why Muslims elsewhere have not managed even a fraction of the achievement of Imam Khomeini in Iran. There are several reasons. First, it requires muttaqi leadership. Taqwa has to be defined more broadly than simply being personally pious. There are millions of Muslims in the world who give an impression of piety; some of them no doubt really are pious, but unfortunately only in a narrow, individual and ritualistic sense. We need to rediscover the Qur’anic definition of piety and righteousness, linked not only to belief in Allah, the Day of Judgement, the Angels, the Books and the Prophets, but also in spending one’s wealth to help one’s relatives, the needy, the poor and destitute, and taking positive action to free people from debt and bondage (2:177). Similarly, taqwa must mean awareness of Allah in a way that one is constantly striving to establish a just and righteous society and implement His Laws on earth. It is in this area that most Muslims are wanting.
Second, there must be a clear understanding of the nature of the present system in Muslim societies. There is a general lack of appreciation of this point. Many Muslims, including many leading figures in the Islamic movement, have mistakenly assumed that there is nothing wrong with the existing systems; that all we need are honest people to work them instead of the people we have now. This simplistic approach has caused much confusion among Muslims and has led many Islamic movements up blind alleys. Participation in elections organized by the secular establishment is a clear example of this kind of faulty thinking. While elections per se are not the issue, who organizes them, and how they are manipulated and conducted are more serious issues that must be addressed. A secular system holds elections to reinforce its own values; such a system will not allow an “Islamic” political party to come to power. We have seen this in Algeria as well as in Turkey, with tragic consequences. It is this mixing of the secular with Islamic ethics and morals that has created havoc in Muslim affairs.
So if Muslims are not to participate in elections organized by the secular establishment, how can they come to power? The answer can be found in the Seerah of the noble Messenger, upon whom be peace, and also in the example of Imam Khomeini in Iran. In Makkah, the noble Prophet did not participate in the assembly held at Dar an-Nadwa (the People’s Assembly); nor did he accept leadership even when it was offered to him (with the condition that he stop speaking against their gods). This the Prophet rejected outright. He did not jump at the offer, as so many leaders of Islamic parties do at the first opportunity. He preferred to endure suffering and persecution rather than accept an offer that involved compromise with the existing unjust order. It was precisely because of his adherence to the Prophetic Sunnah that Imam Khomeini succeeded in Iran. He rejected the existing order in Iran in its entirety, as alien to the ethos of Islam, spoke fearlessly against it and mobilized the people to overthrow it.
Another important feature of Iran’s revolution was that the Imam did not ask the people to take up arms against the Shah’s regime. While the regime unleashed its immense firepower and indulged in an orgy of killing, there was no violent response on the other side; instead, there was moral exhortation to the soldiers not to kill their own people. After causing the deaths of more than 80,000 people in less than nine months, the soldiers of the Shah’s army themselves rebelled against their officers. Once that happened, the game was up.
In Algeria, unfortunately, something very different took place. Instead of bringing people out on to the streets in non-violent protests, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was sucked into an armed conflict that the military were itching for. In fairness to FIS, it did not have control over the unfolding of events once the Algerian military intervened to prevent them from taking power. The ruling military junta unleashed a reign of terror on Algeria’s people, all the while blaming the violence on the Islamic movement. It quickly became clear that the military were primarily responsible for the atrocities, and by 1997 military operatives sickened by the slaughter had escaped the country and exposed the regime’s responsibility in French and British newspapers. But western governments and human rights organizations simply ignored them because it did not serve their purpose to highlight the crimes of a pro-Western regime whose policies they fully support.
In fact, regimes in the Muslim world as well as their western backers have learnt far more from the revolution in Iran than have Muslims anywhere. Some Muslims got caught in the sectarian trap, while others fell victim to their own limited understanding of what an Islamic revolution is. These setbacks notwithstanding, the situation is not totally bleak. Muslims need to remind themselves of the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, as well as the convincing defeat of the zionists by the Hizbullah in Lebanon. These are no mean achievements, even if they have not resulted in the sort of progress that Muslims had hoped for.
There are also other bright spots on the horizon. The intifadah in Palestine draws directly from the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran and from the Hizbullah’s victory in Lebanon. There is now a symbiotic relationship between them; the Hizbullah showed not only that the Israelis can be defeated but that they can be routed in such a way as to make their military superiority completely irrelevant. The intifada is applying some of these lessons to great effect. The odds that the Palestinians face and the sacrifices they are called upon to make are immense, but the struggle was never meant to be easy. The forces of evil ranged against them have immense firepower as well as resources.
Muslims will have to make up with iman what they lack in material resources. It is at this level that they have no equals, yet the struggle ahead will still be difficult. Many more sacrifices will have to be made before Muslims are able to do their duty and secure their rights in a world that is at present ruled according to the law of the jungle: “might is right”.