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

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.