Khomeini's Iran

Courtesy Reuters

From the very beginning of the Iranian Revolution, the West-and particularly the United States-seems to have been struck by a peculiar sort of political blindness. The first signs of revolt passed unnoticed. The explosions of rage in the spring of 1978, first in Tabriz and then in Qum, were attributed to "obscurantist mullahs" hostile to the Shah's agrarian reform. The immense demonstrations by millions of Iranians, as well as the strikes in the administrations, factories, schools, universities and oil fields which paralyzed the state and in the last analysis caused the monarch's inglorious departure, were attributed to the "fanaticism" of the Iranian people. How could it have been otherwise, it was asked at the time, since the population was following a reactionary old cleric in revolt against a man who had devoted his entire life to modernizing his country?

Rare were those who suggested that modernity is not necessarily synonymous with progress or well-being, or that the concepts of economic development current in the West-where quick material gain is often the only valid criterion-does not necessarily correspond to the true needs and interests of developing nations. Rarer still were those who pointed out the pitfalls of labeling an entire people fanatics simply because they were virtually unanimous in expressing their will. Even a study of Iranian history and psychology would have revealed that the Iranians, while believers, are at the same time one of the least observant and most tolerant in the region. A mosaic of ethnic groups and religious communities, Iran has nonetheless been the scene of an astonishingly small number of strictly religious conflicts over the past two centuries.

If such is the case, how could Islam have played the role of prime mover in the Iranian revolution? To ask this question is to forget that other religions in other times and places have also provided an ideological dimension to political movements, and on occasion have been used to form states. The Italian preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) rose against the

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