In the 1920s, Turkey, Iran and Egypt—the three nations that for centuries had set the agenda for Islamic debate and dissent, including the promotion of various heresies—found themselves set on trajectories that led to the unknown.
In Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, a new leadership tried to put as much distance between the nation and Islam as possible. Its Kemalist system was founded on the concept of secularism which, in its Turkish interpretation, meant the control of religion by state. In the new Turkish Republic, religion was what the state decreed it to be.
In Iran, the new Pahlavi Dynasty, though not as committed to secularism as the new Turkish leadership, tried to build a system in which Islam would be no more than a religion, and thus part of a bigger and more complex reality. The new dynasty emphasized Iran’s pre-Islamic “glory” and promoted a new nationalism based on Iran’s “Aryan identity,” rather than its adherence to “the Arab religion.”
For its part, Egypt was in an even deeper crisis as far as the role of religion in society was concerned. Historians have not paid enough attention to the role that Western ideologies—both of the left and of the liberal right—played in reshaping the Egyptian political psyche in the early decades of the 20th century. Yet a closer look at the intellectual scene in Egypt at the time reveals a remarkable political and ideological diversity with Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism, Egyptian nationalism, socialism, communism, fascism and liberal conservatism all securing constituencies of their own among Egyptians. It is interesting that, to the Egyptian intellectual elite, religion appeared to be a matter of the past and a set of beliefs incapable of offering answers to the challenges faced by a nation under foreign domination.
Anyone contemplating the political scene in the three key Muslim countries in the early 1920s might have concluded that Islam as a political force had been pushed into a historic retreat. However, such an analysis would have been wrong and based on a superficial understanding, for in all three countries Islam took defensive action, first by organizing its retreat and then by seeking a new role.
In Turkey, Islam withdrew to Sufi fraternities, often organized as secret societies, or socio-religious grassroots movements posing as charities. The Hizmet (Service) movement led by Fethullah Gülen is a modern example.
In Iran, because the Shi’a version of Islam has always had its own organization, the clergy could withdraw to the space they had carved out for themselves over the centuries. The leading ayatollahs simply moved to Najaf, in newly created Iraq, to ward off pressure from the Shah in Tehran. And as was the case in Turkey, Sufi fraternities flourished, especially in the major cities. The huge crowds of pilgrims who visited Shi’a shrines in Mashhad and Qom showed that religion could not be simply written out of Iranian life.
In Egypt, Al-Azhar tried to preserve a role for itself. But the absence of an organized and deep-rooted clergy, as in Iran, left a vacuum that was later to be filled by the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt also lacked the strong Sufi movements that flourished in Turkey and Iran. However, political Islam had one distinct advantage in Egypt: the legacy of the so-called An-Nahda (Awakening) movement that had opened the whole issue of religious reform in the 19th century.
The man from the East
The key figure in that debate had been Jamaleddin Asadabadi, an Iranian political activist who dreamed of creating a strong, modern (that is to say, European-style) state under an “enlightened despot.” Born in Asadabad, west of Tehran, Jamaleddin, who had never visited Afghanistan, rewrote his biography to say he was from that country, adopting “Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani” as his nom de guerre to hide his Shi’a faith when operating in predominantly Sunni countries such as the Ottoman Empire and its Egyptian province. To be fair, Jamaleddin never claimed that he was a Sunni Muslim. Rather, he just practiced taqiyah (dissimulation).
Some sources claim that Jamaleddin was sent to Istanbul and later, in 1871, to Cairo, by the Shi’a clerical leadership in Qom to probe the possibility of spreading Shi’ism in the Ottoman Empire. Others claim that Jamaleddin was sent on a mission to counter the growing influence of the reform movement launched by Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula.
One of Jamaleddin’s best biographers, Muhammad Mohit Tabataba’i, only partly confirms that. He writes: “Jamaleddin was never trained and recognized as a cleric and presented himself to the maraj’e [religious authorities] in Qom as muballigh [a propagator of the faith]. However, it is doubtful that he was given any special mission by the ayatollahs. In any case, he was too much of a political animal and too proud to take orders from anyone.” The same writer also notes that during his travels to the Ottoman Empire, and later to France and Great Britain, Jamaleddin was deeply influenced by Western liberal thought. “His aim was to bring the Muslims into the contemporary world,” Tabataba’i writes. “He wanted Muslims to create Western-style states while retaining their religious faith.”
That analysis is bolstered when one considers Jamaleddin’s relations with a number of Iranian political reformers, notably Mira Malkam Khan and the prince Manuchehr Mirza. Later, Jamaleddin’s name was also cited in connection with the assassination of the Qajar monarch, Nasserddin Shah, by Mirza Reza Kermani in May 1896. It is also certain that Jamaleddin was one of the founders of the first Freemason lodges operating in Egypt, Turkey and Iran.
Jamaleddin’s biographers assert that his ideas played a crucial role in inspiring the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1905. In other words, Jamaleddin, or “Seyyed Gamal” as Egyptians affectionately called him, regarded religion as an instrument in the service of politics rather than the other way round.
The idea of Islam as an instrument of politics was to become a crucial ingredient of modern Islamism in its many different versions, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to Khomeinism to Al-Qaeda–style radicalism.
The 1920s political scene in the Islamic heartland also included the parallel drama of rivalry among European powers. The dominant power in the region was Great Britain. However, it faced a growing challenge from the new Soviet regime in Russia with its radical communist ideology of anti-Imperialism and justice for the poorer nations. The late 1920s also witnessed the emergence of another ideological challenge to British domination. This was fascism, first developed in its relatively mild form by Benito Mussolini in Italy and, from the 1930s onwards, in a harsher version by Adolf Hitler in Germany. In its different versions, fascism soon carved a constituency of its own in the heartland of Islam, notably in Turkey, Iran and Egypt.
To counter these two radical ideologies, the British could not rely on liberal democracy which, offered in whatever version, appeals more to reason than to emotion. Liberal democracy is a live-and-let live proposition, and is thus regarded with suspicion in kill-or-be-killed situations, especially when religion or obsessive nationalism are concerned.
Religion as a political weapon
The idea of using Islam as a weapon in conflicts and wars with rival European powers had first appeared in the late 18th century following Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt. During that episode, the French general had spread the rumor that he had converted to Islam and aimed to “liberate” all Muslims under the rule of the kafir (infidels)—meaning the British, in this case. Later, the British toyed with similar ideas that found an echo in a number of novels, including Benjamin Disraeli’s Connigsby. During the First World War, the rumor was spread that the German Kaiser had converted to Islam. The British retaliated by spreading the rumor that a Muslim holy figure who had been in hiding for centuries was about to return and lead the armies of Islam in a war against the Germans. The fantasy was to become the theme of John Buchan’s fascinating novel Greenmantle, published in 1916. Later, as Col. T. E. Lawrence tried to enact “Greenmantle” in the real world, his so-called “Arab Uprising” captured the British imagination.
The Greenmantle idea found a new use in the late 1920s when the Anglo–French company that owned and operated the Suez Canal faced repeated disruptions by Egyptian workers influenced by communism and Arab nationalism. One way to counter this was to challenge the “godless” ideologies of communism and nationalism with popular religion, in this case Islam. Thus, when Hassan Al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the canal company was quick to recognize that it shared an interest with the new movement. The use of the term “brotherhood” was also reassuring as it echoes the vocabulary of Freemasonry, in which members of the movement’s lodges take an oath of fraternity and regard each other as “brothers.”
Some critics of the Muslim Brotherhood insist that the movement was a British colonial creation from start to finish. There is scant evidence to back such a claim. What is certain, however, is that the canal company and Banna’s new movement did have a number of common interests and that the company did support the Brotherhood, at least in its early years in Ismailia. The fact that the Brotherhood later turned against the British indicates two things: first, that the Brotherhood had become surefooted enough not to need Anglo–French support and, second, that having created its own support network, it could now claim to set its own agenda. In the meantime, the threat that communists and, later, proto-fascist groups had posed to the canal faded, not to be revived until President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers raised the banner of Arab nationalism.
The use by major Western powers of religion as an instrument of imperial policy is no mystery. The most glaring recent example is the support that the United Sates gave to radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan as part of the broader struggle against the Soviet Empire.
During the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, Britain faced a similar threat in Iran. In Egypt, communists and nationalists had threatened British interests in the Suez Canal. In Iran, the threat came, from the same groups, to the Anglo–Iranian Oil Company, which held a total monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian petroleum. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Iranian sentiment was overwhelmingly pro-German. Over 4,000 German agents, many disguised as “technical advisors,” operated in Iran. They spread the rumor that Hitler had converted to Shi’ism and that his new name was “Heydar,” one of the titles of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the first Imam of Shi’ism. The swastika, the insignia of the Nazi party, was presented as “the broken cross” and a sign that “Heydar” had smashed the symbol under which the “Infidel” had fought the crusades against Islam. Some mullahs, notably Abu Al-Qasim Kashani, a future ayatollah, sympathized with the Nazis because of their hatred of the British. Others, like Grand Ayatollah Mohammad-Hossein Borujerdi, however, believed that Britain and Nazi Germany represented “the bad” and “the worse,” respectively, and that it was prudent to favor the lesser of the two evils.
Pro-German sentiments were also strong among the Iranian military, indoctrinated by the Aryanist ideology that claimed that Germans and Iranians belonged to the same ethno-cultural family. The army’s two rising stars, Zahedi and Shah-Bakhti, both brigadier-generals, were strong pro-German figures. However, surprisingly, various Iranian brands of Nazism failed to attract a mass following. One group, led by Muhammad Nakhshab, consisted of a few dozen activists. Another, known as the Socialist Workers’ Party of Iran (Soumka), led by Davoud Monshi-Zadeh, never managed to become a truly nationwide organization. A milder version of Aryanism, propagated by the Pan-Iranist Party, did attract mass following, but only for a while.
In contrast, a surprisingly large number of Iranians were attracted to Leftist ideologies, notably the Soviet brand of Communism. The Tudeh Party, created in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941, became a genuinely popular movement. At one point, together with its front organizations, it published 11 daily newspapers and dominated the Iranian intellectual scene. At its peak it claimed to have over 50,000 card-carrying members.
By 1944, it had become clear that the Axis, led by Germany, would lose the war. That in turn would spell the end of Nazi political influence as a threat to British interests in Iran. However, the Communist threat, backed by the Soviet Union, remained. Britain and Russia had been rivals for domination in Iran since the 19th century, a rivalry briefly interrupted by the Second World War when they were forced to become allies. With the war soon to end it was certain that Russia would once again resume its dream obtaining access to a warm-water port by dominating, if not actually annexing, a weakened Iran.
Were there Iranian forces that could resist such an outcome? Even before the war ended the question was posed by the British ambassador, Sir Reader Bullard, a fanatically anti-Iranian personage, and the embassy’s resident Iran “scholar” Anne Lambton. Both were convinced that relying on Iranian nationalism was virtually impossible. Its Aryan version, expressed by intellectuals like Kazemzadeh Iranshahr, was deeply hostile to Britain and bent on taking historic revenge. Its less aggressive version, represented by such people as the popular poet Muhammad-Taqi Bahar, was more inclined to side with the Soviets against British Imperialism.
Bullard and Lambton were not wrong in identifying communism as a serious challenge to British influence in Iran. The Tudeh appealed to almost all levels of urban Iranian society. Many intellectuals were either full members or sympathizers and fellow travelers. More importantly, perhaps, the Tudeh was even attracting a segment of the Shi’ite clergy with such charismatic mullahs as Mustafa Lenkorani and Ali-Akbar Burqa’i. In 1945, the Tudeh won an even higher profile by taking part in a coalition government with three Cabinet ministers.
Lambton believed that Iranians would not be able to develop a national ideology capable of both resisting the communist challenge and preserving Britain’s interests. Any form of secular Iranian nationalism would become anti-British. The only option left was to promote an “Islamic solution” for Iran. That was to become the theme of a celebrated paper that Lambton published long after the war. In it she developed the idea of rule by a religious authority, a concept that existed in Shi’ism as velayat-e faqih but had no political connotations. It involved putting vulnerable individuals, such as widows and orphans, under the protection of a respected cleric to prevent anyone trying to take advantage of them. While Lambton was one of the first to interpret the application of velayat-e faqih in political terms, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had also developed its political doctrine of religious government.
Could one bring the Egyptian and Iranian experiences together and develop a new Islamist ideology capable of facing the challenge of secularist, often anti-Imperialist, ideologies?
An ambitious young man from Esfahan was to provide an answer. His name was Mujtaba Mirlowhi and he was destined to become the founder of the Iranian version of the Muslim Brotherhood and, decades later, the father of the Islamic Republic set up by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In the next part of this series, Amir Taheri looks at the links between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Fadayan-e Islam, a group whose founder was a major influence on the future Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Read the first part of this series here.