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  • The Islamization of the Social Movements and the Revolution, 1963–1979
  • Behrooz Moazami (bio)

My religion is my politics, and my politics is my religion.

—Ruholla Khomeini

This essay ponders the Islamization of the political and social movements that took place in Iran in 1979 despite the presence and active participation of a relatively strong and modern secular movement. Why did the revolution take an Islamic turn? I examine the Islamization of the revolution as an open-ended process rather than as an outcome of the hegemony of Shi’i culture in Iran or as the political response of traditional forces of society, represented by the ulema, against the modernizing Pahlavi regime. I argue that the Islamization of the political and social movements throughout this period and the revolution itself was the result of political processes. I show that Khomeini’s radical political leadership, unwavering since he had first entered the national scene in 1962, was critical to politicizing the environment (including that of the religious establishment) and forming and promoting a national identity around Islamic ideology during the revolutionary period of 1977–79.

My examination of the politics of religion and the relationship of politics and culture during the revolutionary period can be called “anti-culturalist,” for I propose that sudden changes in religious mood and practices, and their expression in the political sphere, can be better understood in terms of the development in the political sphere than as independent phenomena. Politics at the time of acute crisis, I argue, became the arbiter of the cultural shift (or, for that matter, the religious shift) because of the power inherent in political discourse. Politics is the struggle over the distribution of power. Thus a political crisis is earthbound, rational, and power driven; it cannot be driven by culture. When society undergoes sweeping political change, all existing relations, including those structuring the relationship of cultural and political spheres, are subordinate.

This position is in contrast with Antonio Gramsci’s view that hegemony over culture is a precondition for hegemony over politics in democratic societies. It also disputes the relational claim that the interaction between culture and politics is an ongoing dialectical process. At times of acute crisis, the relation of politics to culture is different: politics becomes the determinant. The Islamization of political and social movements (or, for that matter, politicization of the religious environment), and later the revolution, was a political phenomenon, not an expression of the cultural or religious foundations of traditional forces. I demonstrate this by developing four arguments. First, as just argued, politics dominates culture in times of crisis. Second, opposing political forces in times of social upheaval will gain or lose power through what Leon Trotsky calls “the method of successive elimination.”1 Those who fail to sway events [End Page 47] to their own advantage will be eliminated by those who can. The determining factor in such struggles is often the differential radicalization of social movements. This was Trotsky’s analysis of the Bolshevik Party’s rise from minority status after the February revolution in 1917 to their decisive position in October. Third, the formation of identity is the result of a sustained interaction in political and social space, where boundary setting through shared experiences and memories takes place.2 The process of identity formation definitely became intense during this period of political and social transition. Fourth, victory in political struggle leads to the internalization of the acquired identity among the movements’ participants.

In this anti-culturalist account of the Iranian revolution, the doctrinal source of Khomeini’s radicalism is located in his mysticism. Indeed, I document that, contrary to common belief, Khomeini was not representative of Shi’i institutional power in Iran; his ideas, in fact, were in many ways antithetical to those of the religious establishment—they were closer to the Sheikhism and Babism of the nineteenth century than to the ideas underpinning the institutionalized religion of the mid-twentieth century. I survey Khomeini’s unorthodoxy and especially the impact of mysticism on his radicalism, the politics of his promotion to the position of source of emulation, and his use of this position to mobilize religious and political forces, which are keys to...


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pp. 47-62
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