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SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated 15 February 1996

book review

repackaging khomeini

Ervand Abrahamian,Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Robert Blecher

The poster reproduced on the cover of Ervand Abrahamian's Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic portrays Ayatollah Khomeini cradling a Quran in one hand and waving to the cheering crowd with the other. He stands at the center of a mass of supporters representing a variety of social groups: veiled women and girls, professional men, army officers, and militants. Far from a merely decorative ornament, this image encapsulates the message of Abrahamian's book: Khomeini stands, quite literally, at the center of the Iranian Revolution. All attention turned toward him, he is the force binding together the masses, providing them with unity, identity, and purpose.

Setting out to rehabilitate Khomeini's demonized image, Abrahamian argues that the West has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The revolution, Abrahamian emphatically tells us, was not a "religious crusade obsessed with scriptural texts, spiritual purity, and theological dogma"(3), but rather a populist upsurge marked by ideological flexibility and dissent against an oppressive socio-economic order. Transcending the narrow focus of Western authors who have failed to delve beneath the revolution's scripturalist language and imagery, Abrahamian interprets Khomeini's "sermons, decrees, press interviews, and political declarations"(12) in a populist frame. Given the economic, political, and social needs to which Khomeini responded, the revolution is best understood as the work of a pragmatic reformer, not that of fundamentalists who sought to enforce an obscurantist vision. Abrahamian explores his general argument, laid out in the introduction, in the succeeding five chapters, each a self-contained essay.

Clearing the conceptual ground for his analysis, Abrahamian's first chapter debunks the notion that the revolution was "fundamentalist." He gives two major reasons for this: the term "fundamentalism" originated with American Protestantism and is not useful for describing Islamic theology; and the term implies a fixation on the past, a view Abrahamian explicitly refutes. In the following chapters, Abrahamian sketches the basis for his argument that the revolution was a populist one. Exploring first Khomeini's vision of the state, he traces the development of Khomeini's views from Kashf al-Asrar (1943), which embraced the traditional Shi`i position that monarchy is permissible, to the revolutionary doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih (1970), which declares that monarchy is incompatible with Islam. More important for the central argument of his book, Abrahamian then shows how Khomeini's discourse on society came to reflect a populist position and cites examples of the imbrication of Islamic and class-based discourses in Khomeini's writings.

Each of the remaining essays are more narrowly focused, exploring separate aspects of the revolution's populist orientation. Abrahamian first addresses Khomeini's support for private property and the gradual incorporation of the middle classes: while Khomeini initially "arous[ed] anger against. . . the propertied middle classes," by 1982 he "began to tone down his language," emphasizing "the importance of harmony between the middle and lower classes"(51-53). While Abrahamian does not discuss the middle classes until his narrative reaches the 1980s, other scholars have emphasized the role of the middle-class bazaar merchants in the revolution itself, and even in earlier Iranian politics.[1]

While Khomeini may have avoided antagonizing the propertied classes, he nevertheless adopted the symbols of radical discontent, exemplified by the Republic's conspicuous 1979 celebration of May Day. Long a part of Iranian anti-establishment political culture, May Day was understood as a confirmation of the revolution's radical character not in any way contradictory to its Islamic nature. In the chapter "History Used and Abused," Abrahamian describes the Republic's penchant for distorting history in order to discredit the secular left and bolster its own populist and nationalist legitimacy. Abrahamian examines several instances in which the Republic's official history portrays the `ulama [clerics] at the head of popular anti-establishment movements (the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-10; the Jangali Resistance of 1915-21; the opposition to the rule of Reza Shah, 1921-41; and Mossadeq's Administration, 1951-53). Abrahamian argues that in fact the `ulama's role was considerably more circumscribed than official accounts portray.

Abrahamian concludes with an assessment of "The Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics," pointing to the long history of suspicion and mistrust that marks Iranian political culture. Abrahamian concedes that the numerous imperialist interventions in Iran warrant some suspicion; he is critical, however, of the way such narratives aggrandize imperialists as omnipotent agents and reduce Iranians to mere marionettes. This mentality, he concludes, has negative repercussions for democracy and pluralism since simple disagreement is understood as conspiratorial treason. Abrahamian attempts to remove the negative stigma from the term "paranoia" -- to de-pathologize it -- by arguing that he means a "political style and mode of expression, not a clinical and deep-seated psychological disorder"(115-116). His attempt, however, is unsuccessful. At the end of the chapter, he explains the killing of over one thousand prisoners in 1981: "Real fears had merged with unreal ones"(131). The murders were not the result of a certain "political style," but rather of delusional fantasies.

The last two chapters, on the distortion of history and paranoia, raise important concerns about the term "populist" as a useful category of analysis. If the "use and abuse" of history is a tool to garner "populistic legitimacy"(92), no nation is without populist currents. In the recent debate over defining the National History Standards in the United States, for instance, both sides have accused the other of shaping historical narratives for political purposes. Similarly, the xenophobic policies and attitudes of the United States and many Western European countries show that "irrational paranoia" may well describe Western political culture as much as Iran's. The point, of course, is not to deny cultural difference, but rather to problematize "populism" as a singular explanatory tool: if populism is so widely diffused, we must pay close attention to its local colorations. While Abrahamian does contextualize the Iranian case and even briefly compares Khomeinism with Latin American populism, his conclusion that the Iranian Revolution was a "populist" one obscures its similarities with and differences from other movements. Abrahamian's conclusion gestures toward an area for further research, in which "populism" functions not as an end point, but rather as a provocative beginning for a more detailed evaluation of the notion of populism itself.

A greater shortcoming, however, is Abrahamian's depiction of Khomeini as the singular power behind the revolution, an image that emerges, as noted above, on the book's cover. The imam is a movement, a system of belief unto himself: Khomeinism. Perhaps Abrahamian's intense focus on Khomeini is not surprising given the highly demonized image that Abrahamian sets out to combat. Abrahamian succeeds in rehabilitating Khomeini, but at the price of reinscribing him as the principal focus of attention.

This fettishization of Khomeini effaces the rich and broad-based cultural system through which Khomeini articulated his messages -- the system that he tapped, for instance, in 1963 when his likening of the Shah to Yazid, the hated seventh-century Islamic ruler, led to mass demonstrations (an event curiously absent from Abrahamian's analysis of the Republic's distortions of history). While Abrahamian's extensive use of Khomeini's writings -- many available only in Persian -- adds a degree of insight rare among English-language treatments of the revolution, his narrow focus on these writings contributes to his marginalization of the cultural context that made possible the reception of Khomeini's message. As a result, Abrahamian's book is provocative and important, but ultimately remains only a partial account of the development of Iran's recent political ideologies.

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1. Hamid Algar discusses the `ulama's opposition more broadly than Abrahamian, describing their frequent alliance with the urban mercantile classes (236). Algar, "The Oppositional Role of the Ulama in Twentieth-Century Iran," Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500, ed. Nikki R. Keddie (Berkeley: U of California P, 1972) 231-255. See also Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (New York: Pantheon, 1985) and Henry Munson, Jr., Islam and Revolution in the Middle East (New Haven: Yale UP, 1988).