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Dynamics of ideological change in authoritarian systems

April 19, 2001
The Iranian

From Daniel Brumberg's Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran (University of Chicago Press, April 2001). Brumberg (homepage) is a professor at the Department of Government, Georgetown Univeristy, Washington DC.


That many academics, journalists and policy makers were surprised by President Khatami's May 1997 electoral victory and by the ensuing struggle over Khomeini's revolutionary legacy is understandable. After all, it was difficult to square these events with either of the two dominant theories of charismatic revolution.

On one level, Khomeini may be the 20th century's last example of a "pure" charismatic leader. His authority was born of a profound and genuinely felt crisis of identity. Khomeini sought to remedy this disenchantment through a revolutionary cris de coeur that was hostile to all forms of economic activity and political organization.

When he reminded Iranians that the purpose of the revolution was not "to have less expensive melons," he affirmed the irrational if understandable aspiration for collective dignity that inspired the revolution.

Yet if his charisma radiated a spiritual logic that could not be reduced to a vulgar struggle for power or wealth, his quest to give his people a new identity was also animated by a rational approach to politics and religion. Khomeini articulated a utilitarian instrumentalism that viewed religion as a provided a useful tool for attaining collective political and social ends.

Echoing the Third World ideologues of his day, he not only held that Islam was a "total ideology;" but also insisted that this ideology could be represented by an elected Majles that articulated the "interests" of the Iranian people.

Which then, was the real Khomeini? And more important, which was the real Iran? Was the Islamic revolution an irrational quest for utopia? Or was it about creating institutions that could address the social and political interests of Iranians?

This book seeks to answer these difficult questions. Tracing the genesis and transformation of what I call a system of contending authorities, it will show how Khomeini's own efforts to accommodate competing visions of political community set the stage for an ideological struggle over his legacy in the nineties.

Spurning all notions of linear development, particularly those that posit a neat path from revolutionary charisma to stable authority structures, I invite the reader to understand how a system that strove to accommodate notions of rationality and constitutional rule to the imperatives of charismatic rule and clerical traditionalism, encouraged change while imiting its ideological and political scope.

Beyond telling this particular story, this book offers a broader lesson that should interest social scientists seeking new insights into the dynamics of ideological change in authoritarian systems.

Bridging the gap between the study of culture and political ideas on the one side, and historical institutionalist analysis on the other, it offers a sobering reminder that the images of authority that political actors bring to social and political conflicts are not mere rationalizations of material interests one side, or reflections of some cultural essence on the other.

Viewed as integral elements of a state and the ideological legacies it bequeaths, these institutionalized images constitute decisive forces that can broaden or quickly limit the space for political and ideological change.

Chapter Seven
Children (and one Father) Of the Revolution

And so...twelve years after the Islamic Revolution, after the many sacrifices and hardships suffered by Iran's youth, Majles Deputy Zadsar reached the staggering conclusion that the "most fateful historic event is establishing the uniform foreign exchange rate."

Zadsar made this claim some months after President Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Khamane'i had purged the Majles of many radicals.

Determined to silence critics of a controversial economic reform program, Rafsanjani stood by as conservative clerics accused former Minister of Heavy Industries Behzad Nabavi and other radicals of undermining the revolution's Islamic principles.

Stunned, Nabavi sent Rafsanjani an open letter in which he recounted his stalwart efforts to defend these values and warned that the "children of the...revolution" were being purged by the very state that they helped to create.

This chapter traces this second stage in the battle over Khomeini's's legacy and evaluates how it helped reshape the ideological contours of post-Khomeini Iran. While highlighting what Ashraf has called the "disintegrative" potential of Khomeini's charisma, I will endeavor to demonstrate that the process by which the Imam's legacy fragmented into its constituent parts was not wholly random.

Indeed, if the 1991-92 purges encouraged some children of the revolution, and one father, to advance a more democratic -- even liberal -- interpretation of Khomeini's legacy, this development owed much to a utilitarian and populist logic that was a central to Khomeini's dissonant ideological vision.

Chapter 8
Disenchantment, Charisma, and...Reform?

By the midnineties the growing spiritual and symbolic disenchantment of the postrevolution generation seemed to be pushing Iran in this very direction. Alienated as much by the state's dogma as by its intolerance of just plain fun, many youths either became apathetic, or they committed an even more shocking act: they turned to Western culture for inspiration!

The clerics responded by intensifying their campaign against the "cultural onslaught." But such efforts only created greater disaffection.

At this point the reformists stepped in. Seizing the initiative, they tried to lift the young out of their existential doldrums by recasting Khomeini's charismatic legacy in a more democratic and pluralistic light. For a second time Iran's history, disenchantment gave way to charisma.

Purchase this book here from Amazon.com

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