Stephen Chan: Political Tought on the Just Rebellion, part 3. This part is going to be cen­tered on modern-day Iran. Or, that ter­ri­to­ry that sits where ancient Persia used to sit. The great empire that chal­lenged Greece. The great empire that chal­lenged Rome, often extreme­ly suc­cess­ful­ly. The coun­try that freed the Hebrew slaves to return from Babylon. The coun­try that insti­tut­ed the first writ­ten char­ter of human rights to do with free reli­gious wor­ship. The coun­try that per­haps more than any oth­er set its mark in the world, prob­a­bly with its ancient reli­gion of Zoroastrianism pre­fig­ur­ing some of the key motifs of Christianity as we under­stand it today. Maybe one of the great under­sung civ­i­liza­tions of the world’s his­to­ry, and cer­tain­ly in its mod­ern guise thor­ough­ly mis­un­der­stood. The rev­o­lu­tion of 1979 that over­threw the Shah was some­thing which rapid­ly became a cler­i­cal tri­umph and seemed to be a theoc­ra­cy ruled by Ayatollahs with­out any thought, and a theoc­ra­cy which was very much denot­ed by extreme vio­lence and cer­tain­ly vio­lent rhetoric towards the West.

What lies behind all of this? The Shah of course was installed by Western pow­ers, very very much because of the like­li­hood that he would secure British inter­ests and American inter­ests in BP’s stake in the petro­le­um indus­try in that coun­try. There were oth­er roy­al fam­i­lies who claimed the throne, but this was the one cho­sen by impe­r­i­al pow­ers. And he mod­ern­ized the coun­try. But at the same time what he did was to estab­lish an extreme­ly repres­sive gov­ern­men­tal net­work of spies, and a great deal of per­se­cu­tion, impris­on­ment, and tor­ture. All of these were hall­marks of the Shah’s regime under­neath the resplen­dent glit­ter of the so-called Peacock Throne. So that a very great deal of dis­si­dent thought which could not flour­ish under his regime back home sprang up out­side of Iran, in places like Great Britain, in places like France. 

In Britain for instance, a stu­dent, a gen­tle­man called Soroush study­ing here in London came under­neath the spell of Karl Popper. In Paris how­ev­er, we see the begin­nings of the intel­lec­tu­al career of a gen­tle­man called Ali Shariati. He went to Paris to study for his doc­tor­ate at the Sorbonne and came under­neath the influ­ence of Jean-Paul Sartre and the entire exis­ten­tial­ist cir­cle, at exact­ly the same time as peo­ple like Frantz Fanon also came under­neath the spell of Sartre. In fact Sartre wrote the pref­ace not only to Fanon’s most famous work, but also wrote the pref­ace to one of Ali Shariati’s most famous works.

What I want to do today is to give just a brief indi­ca­tion of just how impor­tant Shariati was to the rev­o­lu­tion in Iran. Don’t for­get the Ayatollahs did not seize pow­er imme­di­ate­ly. The upris­ing against the Shah was a cohab­i­ta­tion between pro­gres­sive intel­lec­tu­al forces and reli­gious forces. It was only at the end of a bit­ter civ­il strug­gle between the two forces that the Ayatollahs were successful.

But in the brief inter­val after the over­throw of the Shah, there was as it were a Tehran Spring,” where hun­dreds of new record­ings of previously-banned forms of music began to flood on to the local mar­ket scene. New books, new mag­a­zines, flow­ers of a hun­dred dif­fer­ent intel­lec­tu­al stripes flourished.

And the impor­tance of Shariati, who had in fact died just two years before the revolution—probably died a bro­ken man because he had been tor­tured in prison by the Shah—became extreme­ly impor­tant. It was impor­tant to the Ayatollahs as well. So much so that they have tried to adopt and then sub­vert the key prin­ci­ples of his teach­ings, and under­stood the basis of his think­ing. Don’t for­get the Ayatollah Khomeini was him­self an exile in Paris and came under­neath the influ­ence of Palestinian intel­lec­tu­als. He under­stood the whole idea all of immis­er­a­tion. He under­stood the doc­trines from Latin America of immis­er­a­tion. So that he under­stood vocab­u­lary that Shariati was using.

What Shariati tried to do was to bring to tra­di­tion­al Iranian thought a num­ber of new influ­ences. First of all he under­stood that this thought had to be reli­gious to a large extent. But bemoaned the very very antique form of cler­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion in Iran. Basically the church could not run a social pro­gram. It was mired in the past. Shariati actu­al­ly looked towards the Catholic Church and then par­tic­u­lar­ly towards the Church of England as mod­els for how a cler­i­cal class could take for­ward pro­gres­sive ini­tia­tives and pro­gres­sive thought.

Shariati tried to apply mod­ern social sci­en­tif­ic prin­ci­ples to the con­struc­tion of new thought. But his key and bedrock prin­ci­ple, his lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy as it were, for the lib­er­a­tion of Iran was very very much that there can be no thought, there can be no lib­er­a­tion, there can be no new human­ism, with­out a spir­i­tu­al foun­da­tion. There can be no mod­ern­iza­tion with­out the spirit.

Now, this is very very much to say that he saw a cul­tur­al dimen­sion to the whole process of lib­er­a­tion from dic­ta­tor­ship, and a whole cul­tur­al dimen­sion to the idea of estab­lish­ing a new mod­ern nation­al iden­ti­ty, free from dic­ta­tor­ship of the sort that was embod­ied in the per­son of the Shah. And in this way in prop­a­gat­ing this kind of doc­trine, a doc­trine which was not quite a the­ol­o­gy but which drew upon the­o­log­i­cal influ­ences while claim­ing at the same time that the­ol­o­gy had to be prop­a­gat­ed by a reformed cler­i­cal class, and say­ing that a cer­tain Marxist approach to his­to­ry which was not eco­nom­ic at its foun­da­tions but cul­tur­al in its foun­da­tions could also be applied to under­stand­ing how Iran could be tak­en for­ward, he made him­self the most pro­gres­sive intel­lec­tu­al of his day in Iran. 

And he remains to this day. He went home after Paris, taught in a pri­vate reli­gious col­lege, was con­stant­ly spied upon by the agents of the Shah. Managed to nav­i­gate in some way a path­way through the dif­fer­ent extremes of Iranian polit­i­cal soci­ety at that moment in time, even when the Shah’s army were round­ing up Marxist guer­ril­las and exe­cut­ing them sum­mar­i­ly. Shariati was always some­one who was going to be in dan­ger, and man­aged until the end of his life and his career to avoid arrest. But in the end he was in fact incar­cer­at­ed by the Shah. And although released before his death, as I said prob­a­bly died a bro­ken man. But with an accom­plish­ment which was sig­nif­i­cant enough for the cler­ics, for the Ayatollahs, one Ayatollah after the oth­er, one supreme leader after the oth­er, to try to claim that they too are the true fol­low­ers of Ali Shariati.

Further Reference

Course infor­ma­tion