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.