In the space of a single century, Iran experienced two revolutions. The first revolution, in the first decade of the 20th century, took Iran forward. The second , in the 1970s, put the clock back.
I witnessed the second revolution as a journalist while I have studied the first revolution as historian and, over the years, met and conversed with some of its actors.
As the waves triggered by the Arab Spring continue to affect so many countries, I wish to share with our Arab neighbors some observations regarding Iran’s experience.
The first Iranian upheaval, known as the Constitutional Revolution, took place in 1906 at a time that Iran was an economically underdeveloped and poverty-stricken nation. Iran was also suffering from centuries of social and cultural decline to the point that a majority knew nothing of the nation’s brilliant history and civilization.
Many of those who helped foment the Constitutional Revolution were intellectuals and/or politicians who had studied in the West or spent years there on trade or diplomatic missions. During their stay they had witnessed Europe’s historic ascendancy and wondered about circumstances that had made it possible.
They had reached a consensus that it was thanks to pluralist government and the rule of law that Europe had succeeded in emerging from the Dark Ages to build a modern civilization. Their aim was to sow the seeds of new ideas in Iran, hoping that, given time and opportunity, this would produce similar results.
Without support from religious leaders at the time, Iran’s small intelligentsia might not have been able to tackle the task of changing the course of history.
Our intellectuals succeeded in winning the support of a substantial chunk of the clergy, and persuaded the Shah, Muzaffar ad-Din, to issue edicts establishing a parliament and a modern judiciary.
However, once Muzaffar had passed away, his son and successor, Muhammad-Ali Shah, tried to cancel the new constitution and ordered the bombardment of the parliament building.
To justify his anti-constitutional stance, Muhammad-Ali persuaded and bribed some clerics into launching a new ideology of rule-by-shari’ah (mashrouyah) against rule by consent (mashruteh).
Their argument was that an Islamic society did not need a constitution, especially one inspired by Western models. The clergy were fully capable of meeting the needs of society and guaranteeing equity and justice.
Very quickly, however, the attempt to restore despotic rule in the name of religion failed.
A good part of a divided clergy sided with the people in demanding the restoration of constitutional government. Muhammad-Ali was forced into exile. Thus, Iran was able to start a new journey towards modernization and the rule of law. Within six decades, Iran was transformed from a lethargic society stuck in historic hiatus to a dynamic one with a buoyant economy and a creative culture.
The second revolution, in 1979, was to change all that. This time, we witnessed the reverse of the alliance that had ended Muhammad-Ali Shah’s brief despotism. A substantial section of our Westernized intelligentsia put itself under the leadership of reactionary mullahs who wished to destroy he very concept of constitutional rule in the name of mashrouyah.
Unlike the 1900s, this time Iran was a powerful state with a developing economy and an impressive record of cultural, financial and industrial progress. Also, our intelligentsia was wider and more deeply rooted in society. Thus, it would have been able to assume the leadership of the second revolution, as had been the case in the first one. In assuming leadership, the intelligentsia could have attracted support from large segments of society.
Sadly, our intelligentsia missed the historic opportunity and, beset by divisions, failed to offer a clear alternative to rule by the clergy. Like nature, society abhors a void. Someone had to fill the void created by the fall of the Shah. A small group of reactionary but firmly united clerics were able to impose their rule by filling the void. Once they had consolidated their hold on power, they left no space for the intelligentsia, establishing a new despotism, in the name of religion.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Over three decades, the so-called Islamic Revolution has arrested Iran’s historic progress by creating a despotic regime with a religious façade. It has led our nation into costly adventures that have harmed both Iran and the region.
As change sweeps through the region, the Arab intelligentsia should ponder Iran’s experience which, I believe, is more of a warning than a model to emulate.