Riding the Wave of Islam's Past

By Hiro, Dilip | The Nation, February 9, 1985 | Go to article overview

Riding the Wave of Islam's Past


Hiro, Dilip, The Nation


On Febraury 11, Iran will celebrate the sixth anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the Shah. Today many Western commentators view the Islamic Republic of Iran as reactionary, not revolutionary. They argue that revolutions are future-oriented, fired by the vision of a new society. In Iran, however, the clergy who were in the forefront of the anti-Shah movement and who now run the government believe that the Koran and the Sharia (Islamic law) provide the sole blueprint for the ideal society.

Iranian leaders consider the Western analysts' opinions irrelevant.

They are only about how Moslems throughout the world view their regime. They see Iran as re-creating the Islamic society that existed in the days of the prophet Mohammed and Imam Ali. They ousted a corrupt, Westernized elite from power, freed Iran from U.S. domination and reclaimed their independence. Since 1979 they have followed a genuinely nonaligned course.

Such achievements are highly attractive to many Third World capitals, which regard joining either the Soviet or American camp as incompatible with their newly acquired political independence. When nonalignment in the international arena is combined with the lofty morality and anti-imperialism of an Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the mixture becomes irresistible, especially to the young and educated in many Moslem countries. Following Ayatollah Khomeini's line means not only rejecting materialistic capitalism but also atheistic Marxism.

Khomeini's appeal has had widespread repercussions in the Moslem world. In the winter of 1979, fear of a hostile backlash from fundamentalists kept Saudi Arabia's King Khalid from joining the Camp David peace process. In November of that year Khomeini's teachings partially motivated guerrillas who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Among those involved in the operation was Salafiya, a group which advocates a kind of democratic political Islam based on the practices by a caliph who was chosen democratically by the populace, they point out, so monarchy has no place in Islam. Khomeini has used the same argument to impugn the rulers of the Persian Gulf states.

To blunt the effect of the Ayatollah's criticisms, the monarchs began enforcing Islamic law more strictly. In Saudi Arabia, revitalized Committees for Public Morality went into action, closing hairdressing salons, for example. The Saudi government has cracked down on all non-Islamic religious services in the kingdom. The rulers of Kuwait yielded to popular pressure to reconvene the National Assembly, dissolved in 1976. In Iraq, President Saddam Hussein was compelled to hold the parliamentary elections that leaders of the ruling Baath Socialist Party had promised twelve years earlier. In contrast, the Iranian regime held five referendums or elections during the first year of the revolution.

The war between Iran and Iraq has taken on the characteristics of a jihad. Although he heads a secular political party, Hussein resorted to traditional Islamic imagery to inspire the Iraqi military. In October 1980 he used the eve of teh religious feast Id al-Adha as an occasion to make a televised speech commemorating Iraqi victories in the war and urging his soldiers to cut off their enemies' heads: "Strike powerfully, because you are truly God's sword on earth. The necks you are striking are those of aggressor Magians, collaborators with the lunatic Khomeini." For its part, Iran portrayed its drive to take Najaf and Karbala, Shiite holy places in central Iraq, as the first stage of a march to Jerusalem to liberate Islam's third-holiest shrine.

While stridently anti-Zionist, Iran has also criticized the secular orientation of the Palestine Liberation Organization. When the P.L.O. Split in the spring of 1983, spokesmen for the Islamic Republic leaped to express their misgivings about Yasir Arafat. "The Palestinians are weak because their movement's criteria are not in accordance with genuine Islamic principles," Iranian President Ali Khamamei said. …

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