The Iranian Revolution 1979, often referred as the Islamic Revolution gives an impression of a religious movement against a non-religious regime, especially for having a religion mentioned in its name, “Islam” in the “Islamic Revolution”. How correctly does this statement describe the Iranian Revolution? How do we define religious movement and non-religious regime? I would define “religious movement” as the movement or revolution by a religious group to defend their beliefs which were challenged by the “non-religious regime”, which is defined as the regime that deviates from such beliefs.
In this revolution, the monarch of Pahlavi dynasty was ended and substituted by an Islamic Republic under the lead of the religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Referring back to the definitions of the two phrases I had mentioned above, can we equate Ayatollah Khomeini to “religious movement” and the Shah of Pahlavi dynasty to “non-religious regime”? In this essay, I would describe the differences that the Shah of Pahlavi had brought into Iran, and why religious figures like Ayatollah Khomeini went against such reform.
However, to what extent does religious grievances have a causal role in the revolution? Like many other revolutions, it is difficult to simplify only one factor, eg religious or economic as the cause of a revolution. Often these different factors combined to result in a built up of resentment against the regime by the revolutionary groups. This essay would also look into the different factors that led up to the Iranian Revolution. The modernisation of Iran or then Persia started as early as 1906, when the Constitutional Revolution took place.
This revolution was a nationalist movement against the overgrowing foreign power such as Britain and Russia, especially as an economic concern. The government introduced policies that would increase the import of foreign goods in the country in the means of increasing revenues. However, the local merchants and shopkeepers (bazaaris) saw these policies as threatening to their economic interest since increased import means increased competition. Eventually, a majles or parliament was formed by Muzaffar ad-Din Shah of Qajar dynasty to release the pressure by the revolutionary coalition in August.
This marked Iran first modernisation of the government by introducing a constitutional monarchy despite having been executed only for five years before dismissal of majles in 1911. The failure of majles was due to the radicalism of the parliament itself for limiting the eligibility to vote to ulama (muslim clerics), theology students, and noblemen, while women were denied of their right to vote. Majles also faced disapproval by the conservative clerics and landowners, who were concerned that majles would reduce their power.
In this instance, we can see that an attempt in modernising Iranian government by introducing democratic constitution failed due to difference in beliefs between the pro-constitution groups and the conservatives. Reza Khan Pahlavi founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 after overthrowing the previous Qajar dynasty in a coup with the support from Britain which was trying to protect its oil interest from the communists. He became the Shah, and introduced the name Iran (Land of the Aryans) to replace Persia. Reza Shah initiated the Western modernisation of Iran.
He reformed the national education system by removing ulama as the religious teachers in madrasah (religious school) and introducing the western educational system. This gave rise to a new middle class consisting of the liberals as opposed to the old middle class which consists of the traditionalists ulama and bazaaris. Gender chances were modernised by Reza Shah in allowing women to enrol in the Teheran University, in addition to the ban of veil and the encouragement of Western clothing. Other than westernising education and women chances, Reza Shah also repressed the judiciary power of the Shari’a court and replacing it with secular courts.
Unable to tolerate with Reza Shah’s repression of the religious way of life, a demonstration was held by the religious movement in Qom against the secularisation approach in 1935. This demonstration was defeated by the soldiers who killed over 100 of the demonstrators. In 1941, Reza Shah was forced to step down from the throne, and his son, Mohammad Reza rose as the succeeding Shah. This was an attempt by the Britain and USSR to block German influence in Iran after being suspicious of Reza Shah’s friendliness with the Germans.
At this point of this essay, we can see that Reza Shah introduced severe religious repression, from removing the ulama in education to replacing the shari’a court with the secular courts. The major religious suppression was seen in the ban of veil for women. In Islam, the women are required to cover themselves when they go out of the house, so when veil was made illegal, they did not have the freedom to exercise their religious belief. Despite introducing religious grievances, the Pahlavi dynasty was not overthrown during the reign of Reza Shah, instead during his son’s reign, Mohammad Reza.
Why does the religious movement surface later in the westernisation efforts by the Shahs? During Reza Shah’s reign, as mentioned above, a demonstration protesting Shah’s secularisation was held in Qom, so the movement against westernisation had occurred before the reign Mohammad Reza. However, the movement was not popular, and due to its small size, it was easily defeated by the soldiers. What are the factors that arose during the reign of Mohammad Reza that sparked the Iranian Revolution? Mohammad Reza continued to modernise and westernise Iran.
However, his efforts were not just unsuccessful, but increasing the resentment of different groups on his regime which eventually form a coalition to overthrow him. In 1963, Mohammad Reza introduced the “White Revolution”, supposedly to concrete his position as the autocratic leader that modernises Iran. Under the White Revolution, women were given the right to vote, a way by Mohammad Reza to gain support. While the Westerns were for female suffrage, the Iranian were unexpectedly against the idea.
The enfranchisement and unveiling of women was disapproved by Ayatollah Khomeini, an influential leader of the opposition who have a view that such reform on women would “ruin their honour” and “opening a way to corruption and prostitution”. Ayatollah, directly translated to “the words of God” was a title carried by Khomeini as a cleric in Shi’i Islam that has a higher level of religious knowledge and piety, so their judgements on religious issues have huge influence on the people. Khomeini began to give out speeches and sermons to spread the evilness of Shah that was viewed to be threatening towards Shi’i Islam.
To protect himself, Shah arrested Khomeini and exiled him to Turkey. In exile, Khomeini continued to spread his Shi’ism revolutionary ideas via cassettes and letters through the mosque networks. Khomeini expanded his view from traditionalists to the leftists, nationalists, and the Marxists to bring about each group’s resentment towards Shah to form a stronger coalition. The emergence of Khomeini as an opposition face and leader gave a hope or realisation to each group that they have more power than they thought they had.
This was a major difference between reign of Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza in which the former did not face a major opposition from a coalition of groups including leftists and Marxists, but only from small religious groups. Apart from religious issues, economic problem was a factor of Iranian revolution. Iran experienced an economic boom in early 1960s to 1970s due to its rich oil source. The oil industry revenues showed increment from $45 million in 1950 to $1. 1 billion in 1970, which then further increased to $20. 5 billion in 1976 following the increase of oil prices.
While prosperity of the country is supposed to be a strong card for the government to gain support from the citizen, unfortunately this did not happen to Mohammad Reza. He introduced land reform- redistribution of lands from ulama and landowners to rural peasants and farmers. This effort was done to prevent the peasants from revolting as such in the case of the Great Fear during French Revolution. However, the peasants did not receive any benefits from this reform, since the growing population in the cities by increasing migrants from the rural resulted in increase of housing rent.
The incomes they made from the agricultural activities on the received land were not used to increase their standard of life, but simply used to sustain their lives in the urban area. On the other side of the coin, the ulama and landowners were obviously alienated in this reform. The ulama especially, were unsatisfied with it since their religious endowments were abolished. This does not only mean that their income was disrupted, it also depicts a reduction of power or influence of the religious group.
The bazaaris were also majorly affected in Shah’s attempt to modernise Iran. The increasing large industry and international economic exchange threaten the traditional bazaar (markets) as the centre of community gatherings to exchange news and knowledge. Bazaar is located at the centre of each city and surrounded by mosques, public bathhouses, and religious schools (madrasahs). The decrease of the autonomy of bazaars would not just affect the local economic transactions, but also the local communications in the community.
Traditionalist and nationalist Iranian viewed this as a threat in Iranian identity. The ending of the economic boom in 1977 also put a pressure on the bazaaris. Following oil price drop, inflation took place in Iran after spending much of its flourishing oil revenues for unnecessary government expenditures such as the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great luxuriously. Shah put a price restriction on the bazaaris in order to control inflation as well as arresting the bazaaris who were suspected of making huge profits.
During the inflation period, not only the bazaaris were pressured, but the middle class as well when wages were frozen, and taxes were increased by the government to sustain the state income. At this point, Shah had demonstrated his weakness and inability to solve the state economic problem justly, almost similar to the Crown in French Revolution that was overthrown for his inability to deal with the increasing debts. Now, to answer the primary question, “to what extent does religious grievances lead to Iranian Revolution? , I can conclude that religious grievances played a major role in shaping the Iranian Revolution.
Westernisation policies by the Shahs completely abandoned the Shi’ism teachings, resulting in the opposition by Ayatollah Khomeini. The emergence of Khomeini as the revolutionary spoke person managed to unite the different groups to form a coalition against the commonly hated Shah. However, does economic reform by Shah play a role as important as religious grievances in igniting the revolution? Would Iranian Revolution still take place if no inflation happened and no bazaaris were pressured?
The economic issues resulted in the growing dissent towards Shah by different groups including the peasants and the old middle class, and the emergence of Khomeini as a result of religious grievances fuelled these dissatisfactions towards Shah, eventually costing him his regime. In other words, religious movement acted as a unification platform for different groups under the Shi’ism revolutionary ideas against the Westernisation by the Pahlavi dynasty. Therefore, I agree that religious grievances are the major role in inspiring the Iranian Revolution, but not simply undermining other factors.