The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East

The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East

by Reuel Marc Gerecht

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Middle East expert Reuel Marc Gerecht argues that the Middle East may actually be at the beginning of a momentous democratic wave whose convulsions could become the region's defining theme during Obama's presidency. He describes the powerful Middle Eastern democratic movements coming from both the left and right and argues that America must reassess democracy's


Middle East expert Reuel Marc Gerecht argues that the Middle East may actually be at the beginning of a momentous democratic wave whose convulsions could become the region's defining theme during Obama's presidency. He describes the powerful Middle Eastern democratic movements coming from both the left and right and argues that America must reassess democracy's supposed lack of a future in the region.

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"Today's rebellions are fueled, not by autocracy per se, but by failed autocracy." —Stanley Kurtz, Claremont Review of Books

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The Wave

Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East

By Reuel Marc Gerecht

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1334-2


The Iranians

Perhaps the most important fact to remember about the Islamic revolution is how popular it was among well-educated Iranians. Of all the Iranian teachers and students I've known, of all the Iranian exiles I've met on four continents over three decades, very few of them were actually for the shah in 1978. Most were passionately for Ayatollah Khomeini. It took them a while to realize what the great Marxist (onetime Stalinist) French orientalist Maxime Rodinson saw quickly: Khomeini was really Tomás de Torquemada. The Iranian educated class, long alienated from the Pahlavi dynasty, abandoned the ancien régime. There are many reasons why secular Arab dictatorships did not succumb to Islamic revolutions after 1979 even though Iran's rebellion was enormously appealing to devout and angry Arab Muslims. Having the benefit of seeing Iran's revolution quickly devolve into bloody internecine strife, where the radicalized urban poor ate middle-class revolutionaries, Arab elites hung on tightly to their corrupt Westernized autocrats. They have hung on to them ever since, although their grip is loosening.

Thirty years on, it is still difficult to isolate all the intellectual components that went into the left-wing-Shiite Islamist Molotov cocktail that exploded into revolution. Although the Middle East was awash with Marxism after World War II, the Iranian fascination with class-based analysis and anger was acute. The Iranian communist party, the Tudeh, which means "the masses" in Persian, was the strongest communist party in the Middle East. It had a near vise grip on the best and brightest who'd been produced at home and abroad by Reza Shah's and his son's determination to have a Westernized, well-educated elite.

Historically, Shiism has developed as a creed for the oppressed (Sunnis being the oppressors). The marriage of Marxism and Shiism was natural, even for those who believed in God more than Marx. Ayatollah Morteza Mottahari, a founding father of the Islamic revolution and close associate of Khomeini's who made a specialty of critiquing Marxists who draped themselves in the faith, published important works explaining Shiism and its revolutionary mission. His Resurrection could just as well have been used by Latin-American socialist revolutionaries to enlist Jesus in their cause. Separating Marx from God among Iran's "red mullahs" was a task that even the most intellectually sensitive clerics could not do. And if divines couldn't do it, lay intellectuals were hopeless.

Iran's democratic evolution is unique and profound in the Middle East precisely because the Iranian elite's commitment to left-wing causes was so thorough. Iranians combined God with Marx fervently. As Iran's theocracy has spiritually imploded since the death of Khomeini in 1989 (Khameneh'i, Khomeini's charisma-free successor, was never going to carry the revolution's chiliastic expectations), this intricate weaving of God and man has nearly come apart. Soul-scorching self-criticism has followed in its place. Iranians have come so far so fast — a second "intellectual revolution," to borrow from the scholar Mehran Kamrava, has occurred in the country since 1989 — because many of them have realized, especially among the pro-revolution intellectual elite, that they erred profoundly in their naive enthusiasm for the revolution. The enormous pride Iranians had in the revolution — they alone among the Muslim Middle East's oppressed peoples actually pulled one off — has converted into reflection and self-criticism. The real Iranian revolutionaries, the ones who still believe in an Iranian mission civilisatrice, are the big men of the Green Movement — Mir Hussein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and even the weaker-willed Mohammad Khatami — and, as importantly, the lesser-known intellectual heavyweights who have literally rebuilt Iran mentally and morally since 1989.

Conspiracy theories still punctuate Iranian conversations. Conspiracies are spiritual safety valves in societies where power always operates posht-e pardeh, "behind the curtain." It is a crutch for people who want to avoid responsibility for their own actions. But towtieh-ju'i, "conspiracy-mongering," is much less vibrant in the ruminations of Iran's pro-democracy writers of the past twenty-five years. The Islamic republic is no longer chiefly the victim of titanic forces — the Americans, Russians, or British. These intellectuals do not recast history — rare is the Iranian writer like Abbas Milani, a historian at Stanford University, who can honestly look at the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and say that Iranians, especially senior members of the clergy, were as instrumental to that coup's success as were American or British intelligence officers. Few Iranian intellectuals care to remember, as Milani does, that Mosaddeq was no angel and that the Tudeh really was a serious challenge to both monarch and parliament. The West's real and imagined sins still often figure prominently in the thoughts of Iran's reformist intellectuals. But there is perspective now where earlier there was none.

In 1979 Iranians became responsible for their own fate. Exiled monarchists may love to blame the revolution on Jimmy Carter, the CIA, and the British foreign intelligence service MI6. But the men who actually made the revolution, and their sons and daughters, certainly don't. Mohammad Khatami's famous books, Fear of the Wave and From the World City to the City World, are in great part about Iranians becoming intellectual adults. Behind Khatami's endless fascination with Western philosophy is the not-so-subtle theme that Iranians, and other third-world Muslims, can and must confront the intellectual and material awesomeness of the West. Iranians must remain true to themselves — to the nation, the faith, and the revolution. But they can and should evolve. Stasis — reflexive fear of the West — can only grievously wound both Iran and Islam. Self-confident adaptation is the key to an Islamic renaissance. The twenty million Iranians who voted for Khatami in 1997 (the evening before the election the ivory-towered affable cleric thought he'd get at best two million votes) were clearly saying that adaptation — that is, cultural collaboration with the West — wasn't a stumbling block.

Contemporary Iranian reflection on Ali Shariati (1933-1977) — the Marxist-Islamist father of the revolution — serves well to illustrate the enormous change in Iran. Even more than Khomeini's writings on the clergy and an Islamic state, Shariati's works were instrumental in developing the religious national pride and righteous indignation that was the jet fuel for Khomeini's later assault on the shah in the 1970s. Shariati blended Shiism's rich history of heroic martyrs, a Nietzschean love of supermen, third-world-friendly Marxism (Frantz Fanon), a touch of Sigmund Freud, a dash of Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, and a big splash of the nineteenth-century, anticolonial, globe-trotting, free-spirited über-Muslim nationalist, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani.

A Westerner (at least this one) can have a hard time reading Shariati's speeches that he gave in Tehran in the 1960s and 1970s as works of history, philosophy, or political reflection. They are a mind-bending mess of ideas that are, at times, almost impossible to follow. But they do emote. Shariati had a genius for university-educated Iranians' central nervous system. He knew their guilt and shame (simultaneously loving and loathing the West and their own culture). He could project their deepest desire to triumph simultaneously over their own weaknesses and the West. Perhaps above all else, he could sense the faith dying for his own kind — Iranians who'd imbibed enough of the West to neuter a conception of the divine that gives bliss, solace, or sense of earthly and ethereal brotherhood. In its place, Shariati substituted action — power — as a creed. As with the socialist liberation theologians of Latin America, faith for him could never happen while standing still. One's soul became the public square. Islam's profound preference for orthopraxy over orthodoxy — it's not what you believe (that's between you and God) but what you do outwardly as a Muslim that matters — made his politicization of the faith easier. Shiism was rolled into nationalism, nationalism into Shiism, and the whole thing lit on fire (not too difficult to do since the Iranian identity has been for a millennium overwhelmingly Islamic and for four hundred years inseparable from Shiism). Mixing Marx with Arab tribesmen, Shariati saw "Red Shiism" as the birth faith of Islam — the revolutionary quest of the prophet, his cousin and son-in-law Ali, his sons, and their descendants, to fight for justice, which means the liberation of the oppressed. But owing to the strength of the enemies arrayed against them, and as important, the weakness of Shiites themselves, "Black Shiism," the faith of autocrats and their submissive, always-mourning flock, stole Islamic history. Shariati was determined to take it back. Shiite quietism, the age-old recognition that fate was usually cruel to the followers of Ali, was replaced with a very modern, fearless quest for self-actualization.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Iranians were a potpourri of emotions as the old world died and the new world had not yet taken hold. Opportunities for middle-class Iranians and the poor were growing. A profoundly traditional people who'd become increasingly deracinated from their small-town roots and faith, Iranians were anxious. Shariati was that rare public intellectual: he could animate the past. In a way no cleric could, he made the Caliph Ali come alive. The historic Ali, like the Prophet Muhammad, is nearly impossible to see accurately in contemporary primary sources (the prophetic and early — "rightlyguided" — caliphal period isn't chronicled by Muslims until the eighth and ninth centuries, by which time certain images and story lines had undoubtedly become canonical). Shariati took the believers' historic affection and made the man into a modern-day progressive superhero. Where the historic Ali and his followers were likely animated by the all-consuming fear that without righteous leadership, Muslims individually would be unable to enter heaven, Shariati's Ali is a hero of the common man whose communal objectives are much more mundane than avoiding eternal damnation.

Shariati created a parallel religious world through the Hosseiniyeh Ershad Institute in Tehran — a place of religious education free of clerics (revolutionary leftists always have a hard time with clerics) where men of little real faith, like the French-educated, Sartre-admiring Shariati, could be proud believers and patriots. Shariati gave an imaginary religious history to left-wing Muslims that allowed them to remain Muslims — something they desperately wanted. Today in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and in the Shiite ghettos of Bahrain, a visitor can see flags of Ali and his son Hussein, Shiism's iconic martyr. It was Shariati — as much as Khomeini, or Lebanon's Hezbollah guide Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, or Iraq's intellectually refined and charismatic Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr — who remade history so that Islam's creed of earthly suffering, quiet martyrdom, and resurrection, became a warrior's faith with flags and Qu'ranic-emblazoned headbands. One of my Persian-language tutors at the CIA, a soft-spoken man of even softer leftist convictions, nearly took my head off in 1986 when I suggested that Shariati might be the most overrated modern Iranian intellectual. His writings, so I thought, had aged poorly under Khomeini, who'd created a theocracy that Shariati surely would have reviled. For the "thinking Iranian," those who'd rather read poetry or a good novel than take another dip in the Qu'ran (probably the vast majority of Iranians, even perhaps in the holy city of Qom), Shariati was as sacred as Khomeini. My Persian tutor never forgave me for my misstep.

Yet Shariati's views are no longer holy. Indeed, the great intellectual ferment that defines Iranian society since the death of Khomeini in 1989 — a ferment that has much greater literary depth (far more people read more books, newspapers, and magazines) than was the case in the 1960s and 1970s, when Iran's pro-revolutionary writers at home and abroad were far fewer and their production far less — has largely discarded Shariati's views. Where Shariati and his great intellectual brother, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who introduced the word gharbzadegi, "Westoxification," into the Persian vocabulary, consumed left-wing Western philosophy to produce a virulently anti-Western creed, Iran's post-Khomeini intellectuals and dissident clerics have consumed, far more critically, a much larger range of Western thought and produced a view of the world that if not pro-Western is no longer anti-Western. These intellectuals and clerics are at ease discussing the West's achievements and sins, and often more concerned with dissecting Iran's "pathology of despotism" (Khatami) and the building blocks of the flawed Iranian character.

Although few Iranian intellectuals are as unsentimental in their reflections as Mahmood Sariolghalam, who teaches at Shahid Beheshti University, Iran's post-Khomeini intellectuals are in broad agreement with him about where the real devil lies. For Sariolghalam, whose intellectual elegance and wit have made him a widely read and much admired thinker, the principal faults lie not in the West — in the lingering echoes of European imperialism, America's support of the shah, or the value-free consumerism that accompanies globalization. The biggest problems are overwhelmingly Iranian in origin, and the only solution is for Iranians to become much more rational in their personalities and democratic in their politics. "We need a new Iranian," Sariolghalam told us in 2003, "an Iranian who is responsible, fair, hardworking, devout but not fanatical, self-assured, self-motivated, knows limits, takes pride in his land, is willing to take criticism, is not gullible, and is not boastful." In person Sariolghalam can be arresting, a social scientist's curiosity married to an Iranian poet's concern for deep-rooted beauty. Always good-natured but unrepentant, he has kept his head down since the June 12, 2009 elections, but continues to teach.

But as the post-June 12 tumult revealed, the Iranian character has probably advanced further than what Sariolghalam thought possible when he was witnessing the collapse of Khatami's presidency. Iran's secular and religious dissidents went into a great funk when Khatami failed to stand his ground after Khameneh'i unleashed his police state against students, liberal intellectuals, and refractory pro-democracy clerics in 1999. Western Iran-observers largely followed suit, seeing the Khatami years as a brief, failed experiment in liberalization. Most Western commentators, especially those on the American Right, did not appreciate Khatami's relative "liberalism," his evolutionary importance, and how much the intellectual revolution that had elected him on May 23, 1997, terrified Khameneh'i, who for the first time probably realized his Islamic republic was in danger of rapidly evolving into "their" Islamic republic. In his very public prosecution in 1999 of Khatami's Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri, Khameneh'i revealed how much he feared change and first-generation revolutionary rivals who considered their credentials and accomplishments equal to his own. Like Mir Hussein Moussavi, Nouri could remember when Khameneh'i was a little man, put forth by Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the real power at the time of Khomeini's death. Of no great clerical or intellectual status, who unlike Hashemi-Rafsanjani didn't enjoy Khomeini's affection and daily attention, Khameneh'i was supposed to be nonthreatening. His promotion to Khomeini's office was to guarantee a consensual leadership among the ayatollah's trusted lieutenants.

A disciple of both Khomeini and Montazeri, and an interior minister for Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami, Nouri challenged Khameneh'i and the status quo by underscoring and mocking his fear of democracy and the United States. Like Khatami but more aggressively, Nouri led the way to a democratic understanding of Islam, which has probably taken the high ground even among clerics. The brilliant and widely read reformist cleric Mohsen Kadivar, who has now taken refuge in the United States, may have best summed up a growing view among men of the cloth, especially among those who have grown to maturity since 1979, when he wrote:

We can be religious in a way that allows us to obey all divine rules and dictates while observing those legal and natural rights of man that have been guaranteed by Islam. In areas where there are no religious dictates or prohibitions — and in my opinion most social, political, and economic, and cultural areas fall under this category — we can refer to the "legal conditions" of mankind. Many of the tenets of human rights that are being observed outside of Islam and Iran can be adopted in areas where religion is silent ... We accept this rationality because it does not contradict our religion and is [in fact] necessary for our religiosity and Muslim identity.


Excerpted from The Wave by Reuel Marc Gerecht. Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Meet the Author

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is a former director of the Project for the New American Century's Middle East Initiative and a former resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Gerecht also served as a Middle East specialist in the Clandestine Service at the Central Intelligence Agency.

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