NEW YORK – Forty years ago on Monday, Iran made the last great revolution of the 20th century. Protesters had forced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a despotic monarch who claimed to be modernizing his country with the help of Western techniques and Westernized elites, into exile. On Feb. 11, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a cleric banished by the shah, triumphantly returned to Iran to assume — some might say, hijack — the leadership of what had been an ideologically diverse revolutionary movement.
The Iranian revolution was a full-blown mass rebellion against top-down socioeconomic engineering by a rich, undemocratic technocracy. It was the “first great insurrection against global systems,” as the French thinker Michel Foucault correctly termed it, “the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.” Its madness and insanity seem more familiar today as “populist” revolts against self-interested elites erupt across Europe and America, racial-ethnic-religious supremacists thrive in the heart of Western modernity, and the West no longer seems a perfected exemplar of secular democracy.
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, however, an ideological animosity for Islam and Iran, and complacent self-adoration clouded mainstream Western interpretations of the revolution — particularly after Iranian students took Americans hostage. For those convinced that the West is best, it was too easy to denounce the populist upsurge in Iran as hopelessly backward and typically Islamic.
As V.S. Naipaul put it, Iranians, “people of a high medieval culture,” resented the West’s superior modern civilization while being pathetically dependent on it.
Building on this insight, the historian Bernard Lewis, later counselor to the Bush administration, described an inferiority complex among Muslims, which, exacerbated by their failure to catch up with the modern West, had evidently pushed many of them into “Muslim rage.”
These hugely influential theories forged in response to the Iranian Revolution made a “clash of civilizations” between raging Muslims and rational Westerners seem inevitable — even, necessary. “They hate our freedoms,” President George W. Bush claimed, as he prepared American citizens for long wars in Iran’s neighborhood.
The consequences of such supercilious narcissism are manifest today: catastrophically failed wars, and the implosion of large parts of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. More recently, a pathological obsession with regime change in Tehran has made the United States break with its closest allies and dragged it deeper into treacherous waters in the Middle East.
As both Iran’s Islamic Republic and its supposed enemy, the modern West, confront profound internal challenges, we urgently need different perspectives — especially those that allow people in the West to identify with Iran’s long struggle for democracy and national dignity.
Certainly, the reckless American votaries of regime change need to realize that mass political consciousness in Iran always was, and has remained, strongly anti-imperialist. Bullied by Britain and Russia in the 19th century, Iran experienced a faster growth in anti-colonial sentiment than most countries in Asia and Africa.
A national sense of identity was already evident in Iran’s “Constitutional Revolution” in 1906 — one of the first such constitutional reforms anywhere. However, Iranian desires for self-determination were frustrated even long after decolonization, the central event of the 20th century, fulfilled them among many colonized peoples.
As Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s liberal-minded prime minister, complained at the United Nations in 1951, Iran’s claims to sovereignty were being cruelly ignored though “hundreds of millions of Asian people, after centuries of colonial exploitation, have now gained their independence and freedom.”
In 1951, Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the vast majority of whose profits over the decades had been appropriated by British people. That same year, Mossadegh was overthrown by a coup backed by Britain and the U.S. While Nehru’s India and Sukarno’s Indonesia increasingly spoke with the accent of freedom, Iranians had to suffer the dominance of “hide-bound, small-minded” white men, who, as Christopher de Bellaigue wrote in his biography of Mossadegh, “went around in tailcoats as if nothing had changed.”
Iran’s unconscionably delayed liberation from Western imperialism partly explains the revolution’s ferocious anti-Westernism. The country’s long-standing and profound suspicion of the West was then strengthened by Western support for Saddam Hussein’s vicious assault on Iran. There is simply no chance, after the recent re-imposition by U.S. President Donald Trump of a suffocating regime of sanctions on Iran, of mass Iranian support for American regime-changers.
It may be more rewarding to try to see Iran the way many Iranians might see their country four decades after their revolution. It does not, for instance, mitigate the ruthlessness of the clerical regime to examine how Iranians have struggled to define democracy within the parameters of their revolution.
The overthrow of a brutal monarch opened up in Iran questions that, as recent events show, are far from being settled in even so-called advanced democracies: What is a “people,” and who gets to represent it?
Khomeini imposed his own answers. But, contrary to what the exponents of Muslim medievalism alleged, his Islamic republicanism, which required regular elections as well as clerical “guardianship,” was an ultra-modern invention. Khomeini literally forged a tradition of clerical Shi’ism.
More importantly, it has been consistently challenged, most strikingly from within its old guard, as Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi brilliantly describes in his new book “Revolution and Its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran.”
The democratic opposition has not only helped spawn many civil rights movements and sparked a rich intellectual and cultural life. It has periodically brought to the fore such reform-minded political leaders as former President Mohammad Khatami, Mir Hossein Mousavi and, more recently, President Hassan Rouhani.
Cliches, such as “revolutions always fail and devour their children” won’t help us understand the complexity of changes in Iran since 1979: how, for instance, the great success of Islamic social-welfarism — an exponential growth of literacy and fall in mortality and fertility rates since 1979 — has generated ever-higher expectations and profound discontent among the country’s young population.
Indeed, as disaffected Brazilians and Filipinos turn to far-right demagogues, yellow-vest protesters riot in France, and calls for “national liberation” echo in Iran’s old imperialist enemy, Britain, we must abandon the shattered prisms of “Muslim rage” and re-focus the Islamic revolution in a broader context.
No doubt the first great insurrection against global systems had distinctively Iranian elements. But it is time to recognize that it was also another radical phase in a universal and seemingly endless search for national and popular sovereignty.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”