To truly understand Iranian Islamic politics, Westerners need to leave behind their preconceived notions of modernization, religion and revolution, says Karen Armstrong, contemporary and historical religion’s most prolific author. She spoke at the Chautauqua Institution on August 5. Revolution in the West, she said, is historically a transitional phase that goes from a religious view of the world to a more secular one. But when the 1979 Iranian revolution ushered in a theocratic religious state, it was, in essence, a “theology of revolution.” For Western people, that was “a contradiction, a perversity.”
It’s just this kind of misunderstanding — and especially misunderstanding around Shia Islam (the ruling majority in Iran) — that’s led to a lot of mistakes on the part of the US in the Middle East, Armstrong claimed in her Chautauqua talk. How can we ever “win hearts and minds” among Muslims if we don’t know anything about these hearts and minds? she asked.
Armstrong began by exploring the building blocks of Islam and Shiism. The ideal of “justice and equity for all” is a central tenet of the Koran, she explained. However, again and again in Muslim history, Armstrong pointed to the injustices carried out by governments against Shiites. “Shia… speaks of the well-nigh impossibility of implementing a sacred imperative… a holy mandate, in our violent, self-centered, selfish, flawed world.” As a result of this, Shia is at its core a “piety of protest,” she argued, a constant challenge to mainstream society. The idea of a sectarian revolution, in this light, begins to makes sense.
Central to Shiism are the imams — descendents of Muhammad — and their systematic exile and assassination described in the Koran. These ancient injustices, Armstrong said, begin an ideological progression in Shiism that continued to 20th-century Iran’s modernization and subjugation to the West. We have to remember, she said, that “modernity has not always been experienced as beneficial.” Indeed, “our experiences have been very different from those of the colonized peoples.”
Modernization may have brought increased levels of education and prosperity to countries like the US, but Iranian Shiites experienced modernization as a series of losses: religious identity lost to secular leaders, oil reserves lost to Western businessmen, and a long and proud history of self-direction lost to colonial powers.
“In such a setting,” she said, “secularism, Western style, and modernity doesn’t seem lovely and liberating. It seems literally lethal.” And it was in this environment of injustice that Shiism — ever Iran’s revolutionary religion — once again rose to power, under Ayatolla Khomeini, in 1979.
Khomeini’s rise was experienced by Shiites as a real-life “passion play” that mirrored exactly the persecution of imams described in the Koran. As Khomeini began speaking out more and more against Iran’s secular Shah, all of the Shah’s tactics — imprisoning Khomeini on the anniversary of the death of the sixth imam, for example –infuriated Iran’s Shiites, and convinced them that Khomeini was the prophesized “hidden imam.”
At this time the United States, Armstrong pointed out, was ignorant about the situation: “Into this seething maelstrom arrived President Jimmy Carter. He wanted to give his friend and ally the Shah help and support. He was on his way to India, thought he’d just drop down. If somebody in the State Department had known about Shiism and had their eye on what was going on they could’ve said, ‘No not this month Mr. President.’” Instead, Carter joined the “passion play” and took on a very important role: Satan.
This passion play, however, was just the first stage of the Iranian revolution. “We’ve got many many phases yet to go,” said Armstrong. Sooner or later, we must “learn to read one another’s symbolisms, and learn to live together in our polarized world.”