Still Smoking

James Buchan

  • An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari’ati by Ali Rahnema
    Tauris, 418 pp, £39.50, August 1998, ISBN 1 86064 118 0

Some time in the middle of the Seventies in Iran, a Marxist revolutionary named Bizhan Jazani warned from prison against an appeal to religion in the struggle against the Shah. ‘This attempt to revive religion,’ he wrote, ‘is highly dangerous for it could play into the hands of the reactionary clergy.’ Jazani suffered the fate of Cassandra. For that, approximately, is what happened in Iran. The Muslim insurgents known as the People’s Mujahedin, Mehdi Bazargan and Ali Shari‘ati, the subject of the biography under review, made Islam palatable to a generation of young Iranians and thus delivered them up to a clergy with a long list of unfinished business. To borrow a phrase from another revolution, they were the useful idiots of Ayatollah Khomeini.

As late as 1974, when I first visited Iran, not merely the Court and officer class but a great number of townspeople were openly impatient with religion. Islam in its Iranian version, known as Shi‘a Islam, reeked to them of feudalism, passivity, poverty, the past, the previous dynasty, the bazaar and the provinces and what the Shah in a speech in Qom in early 1963 had called ‘black reaction’, meaning the clergy.

Shari‘ati reminded young Iranians that Islam was the religion of the FLN in Algeria and the Palestinian fedayin. His lectures, a cocktail of primitive Islam, French existentialism and anti-colonial Marxism, proved intoxicating to the young Iranians of the Sixties impatient with the compromises of their parents. Shari‘ati’s image of women – vigorous, independent, responsible, pious and chaste – enchanted a whole generation of Persian women torn between their historical seclusion and the femininity of the West. In the great demonstrations against the monarchy of late 1978, Shari‘ati’s picture was carried on placards.

Ayatollah Khomeini, a pure scion of a hereditary clergy and the seminary, whose interest in the West was such that he pretended not to distinguish Marxism and Judaism, duly returned from exile in 1979 and put a stop to all that. His concern was not primarily with individual rights or liberties but with the creation of a perfect community. He and his clerical supporters pushed through a constitution that enshrined a new theory of government that he had developed in lectures in exile in Iraq in the Sixties: velayat-e faqih, or the divine right of the clergy to govern until the Second Coming. For the purposes of European readers, the most disreputable instance of velayat in action is the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

In this new order, there was no room for lay religious enthusiasts. Shari‘ati had died, in a sort of despair, in Southampton in 1977. Bazargan had a spell as prime minister but resigned when he found Khomeini would not let him govern. Those of the Mujahedin who had survived the prisons of the Shah were defeated in a ferocious battle with the clerical regime in 1981. The organisation is now based in Iraq.

Since then, Shari‘ati has gradually been expunged from the history of the Islamic republic. Those clerics who had been happy to associate with him in a common front against the monarchy, such as Khomeini’s successor as revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, are now far beyond such attachments; though often in speeches and Friday sermons one comes on exploded fragments of Shari‘ati’s language, still smoking. One can still buy his works in the bookshops opposite Tehran University, but they are no longer in the windows and the apprentice has to go out back. The sumptuous official history of the Revolution, Bar resi va tahlili-e nehzat-e Emam Khomeini (‘Investigation and Analysis of Imam Khomeini’s Movement’) by Seyyid Hamid Rowhani reproduces portions of Savak documents – Savak was the Shah’s security service – to argue that Shari‘ati was one of its agents.

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