40 Years On – The Iranian Revolution: Progress, Syncretism & Martyrdom

Demonstrators hold up a poster of exiled Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini during an anti-shah demonstration in Tehran, the Iranian capital, on Dec. 10, 1978. The Iranian revolution in 1979 had a powerful effect on the wider Muslim world, particularly among Shiites.
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Forty years on, the Islamic revolution is an historically exemplary form of 1970’s Marxist-religious syncretism. We can note as I will explain further below that there was also the Sandinistas and a few less successful attempts at Marxist-religious syncretism during the same period, for example, the Soviet-backed Somali Democratic Republic under Mohamed Siad Barre. Iran was the historically exemplary form of this ideological syncretism because, in terms of securing the revolution’s most central tangible political objective, it was so successful – they actually succeed in getting BP’s interests in Iran nationalized. So even if all the Marxists were subsequently purged, they actually got a result. And it had world-changing implications for the ideological development of a whole kaleidoscope of anti-imperialist movements worldwide.

Catherine Shakdam gave a superb interview for Sputnik in which she articulated some excellent insights into the role which Shi’ism played in the Islamic revolution. She pointed out that, in Shia Islam, martyrdom is never sought or desired, but that it is engaged in when it is necessary to defend a people or to defend fundamental principles of justice. She argued that the Shia understanding of martyrdom recognizes that, in order to defend fundamental principles of justice, it is sometimes necessary to “go right to the end of one’s belief-system,” and that this preparedness was manifested, not only during the 1979 Islamic revolution itself, but also during the 7-year Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq was used as a proxy by an imperialist agenda in an attempt to destroy the Islamic revolution.

One interesting point in Catherine’s analysis was that, in secular form, “martyrdom” had also been seen as a necessity in both the French and American revolutions.

The need in the present time to understand martyrdom and the need at times to “go right to the end of one’s belief-system”, to carry it to its logical conclusion, also happens to be the subject of the new YouTube series by Joaquin Flores. Joaquin’s new series, The Political Soldier, explores precisely these themes – sacrifice, martyrdom, and the meaning of struggle. This has a particular meaning given the ostensibly secular nature of Western societies, which Joaquin views as being problematically at odds with the sacrifices needed at the present juncture.

In developing her own theme, Catherine proceeded in the Sputnik interview to clarify that the Islamic Republic’s constitution clearly states that Iran supports the rights of all oppressed peoples everywhere, and reserves the right to assist them in their struggles for freedom. However, the Iranian armed forces have never acted on this constitutional principle in a way which violated international law. For example, Iran’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict was initiated only at the request of the sovereign and legitimate government of Syria.

 

Listen to the Sputnik interview right here, below

 

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During my own interview with Andrew, I focused on the role of ideological syncretism in the Islamic revolution.
I see the Islamic revolution as the historically exemplary form of 1970’s Marxist-religious syncretism, while I also noted the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (syncretic Roman Catholic communists) and a few less successful attempts at Marxist-religious syncretism during the same period, for example, the Soviet-backed Somali Democratic Republic under Mohamed Siad Barre.

Iran was the historically exemplary form of this ideological syncretism because, in terms of securing the revolution’s most central tangible political objective, it was so successful
– the revolution actually succeed in getting British Petroleum’s interests in Iran (formerly the Anglo-Persian Oil Company) nationalized. So even if all the Marxists were subsequently purged, they still got a result.

“Like Saturn, the revolution devours its children….”
– Jacques Mallet du Pan

And the 1979 Iranian revolution had world-changing implications for the ideological development of a whole swathe of anti-imperialist movements worldwide, because it was ideologically syncretic (an alliance of Shia Muslim clerics and Marxists)…..

To understand the political conditions in which the Islamic revolution developed, we have to go back at least to the 1953 CIA-backed coup d’etat. Sadly, Dr. Mossadegh had been unable to implement his economic program. The Islamic revolution was an ideological response to the failure of secular socialist and anti-imperialist politics in Iran to realize its aims.

I believe that the Islamic revolution is one of the factors, but certainly not the only factor, which helps to explain why there has been a gradual rehabilitation of religion in Marxist theory over the past several decades, for example in the work of both Habermas and Žižek. In addition to the effectiveness of religious-Marxist syncretism in mobilizing people in Iran, Nicaragua, etc, the main reason for this rehabilitation of religion within Marxist thought is that capitalism has by now largely discarded religion as an aspect of its ideological apparatus. Furthermore, insofar as religion is often a totemic force for nationalism, it may serve as a mobilizing force for economic nationalism, whose aims often cohere with those of Marxists in a globalized economy wherein capital runs amok, ignoring borders or issues of national sovereignty. Another reason for this gradual rehabilitation of religion within Marxist thought in recent decades has been that Marxism has begun to return to its Hegelian roots. The influence of Hegel’s phenomenology of religion has been one of the factors explaining a gradual softening of Marxists’ attitudes toward religion – they are today more prepared to consider religion from the phenomenological point of view.

However, the tipping-point in this ideological development was during the 1970’s, as manifested in Iran and Nicaragua.

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