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Mostaz'af and Mostakbar
The idea of a classless society entered Iranian revolutionary discourse via the Marxist-Leninist left and was coded by Islamist groups


June 23, 2005

From Chapter 3 of Minoo Moallem's "Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran" (University of California Press, 2005). Moallem is Department Chair and Professor of Women Studies at San Francisco State University. See her homepage.

Not a Class War but a War of Position: the Mostaz'af and the Mostakbar

Hail, Muslims of the world and the mostaz'afan under the rule of the oppressors. Rise and unite and defend Islam and your destinies, and don't be afraid of the tumult of those in power because with the will of God. This century is the century of the victory of the mostaz'afan over the mostakbaran and justice over falsehood. -- Ayatollah Khomeini

Formal, organized political activity, even if clandestine and revolutionary, is typically the preserve of the middle class and the intelligentsia. -- James C Scott

It is in the name of Mostaz'af [the downtrodden] that Khomeini led the revolution. While the revolutionary period can be characterized by the intensive negotiation of contesting political forces, certain ideas, such as Mostaz'af, enabled the re-negotiation of hegemony by reconstructing a central consensus through which revolutionary reality could be filtered.

The concept of hegemony and a war of position is borrowed from the work of Antonio Gramsci. By hegemony I refer to both the competing social and ideological forces and those forms of representation that are the major sources of domination. I also use the war of position to emphasize ideological struggles over the building of hegemonic alliances between classes and the direction of the Islamic movement of opposition to the state during the revolution.

The power of Mostaz'af is located not only in its polysemy and its capacity to bring together different experiences and identities, as well as popular and high culture, but also in the ways in which it can bring together the local and the global. In addition, the concept of Mostaz'af brought all fractions of the movement together with masses of people in their opposition to the state as the incarnation of a powerful ruling class.

On a number of occasions related to his call for the end of idolatry wherever it existed, Ayatollah Khomeini called for all Muslims of the world to unify with the disempowered mostaz'afan of the world. I am investigating here the notion of mostaz'af that emerged in the context of the Iranian revolution of 1979 and that was used to mobilize the people, specifically the Shah's "White Revolution" and the Islamic Republic's cultural revolution. Such revolutions rely less on people as active participants in the revolutionary process than on what is good for people and should be done for them.

Mostaz'af is important for two reasons: its relationship to the pluralized moment of the revolution and its importance as an emblem of the new sign system, which changed a religious system into a militaristic system. Turning the Quran into a militant text, Khomeini argues that:

If you study the Quran, you see that there are a number of verses on war, ordering war. War against who[m]? Against the powerful... The Quran is an invigorating book, a book that motivated Arabs who did not know that much to overturn some of the most oppressive and brutal empires of the day. If the Quran and Islamic teaching functioned as an opium, they would have not been able to expand universally, and it would have been impossible for them to disturb empires.

The mostaz'af provided space for the formation of a unified, religious, nationalist oppositional subject. This concept unifies those who have been disempowered nationally and internationally. It also bridges the public and the private, since mostaz'af incorporates the notion of za'if, which refers to the weak.

Traditionally, the word za'ifeh, which derives from za'if, has been associated with femininity and was used to refer to a woman living under the protection of a man. As a concept, mostaz'af has the power to mobilize both the protectors and the protected under the banner of Islam. In the case of men, the word has the power to mobilize those who have been emasculated in the process of colonization and modernization.

During the revolution, mostaz'af was used to include women because of their disempowerment and objectification by consumer capitalism and to invoke their need for mobilization. Thus, mostaz'af brought together various classes and ethnic groups, as well as men and women, to create a religious nationalist community, an Islamic ummat, the invocation of which created space for a revolutionary position, which addressed the deterritorialization of the nation-state and located subalternity both inside and outside of the nation.

The concept imbricated power relations in cultural, political, and economic spheres. It had the potential, therefore, to speak for those subjects in multiple positions of powerlessness. Because of this, religious meanings found a linguistic expression for the militancy of the mostaz'af and for opposition to the mostakbar. Both positions were seen as illegitimate, since they represented either a surplus or a deficit of power, wealth, and privilege.

However, the nationalist effort, in its cultural and religious drive to give the mostaz'af a voice, and the construction of the voice of the mostaz'af as the voice of authenticity were central to what Foucault calls the "authentification of the revolution".

It should be noted that mostaz'af functioned as an indigenous concept, distinguished from the modern and imported concepts of the left such as proletariat, ranjbaran (laborers), karegaran (workers), and dehaghanan (peasants)-used to invoke the exploitative nature of the Shah's regime.

Ayatollah Khomeini also used the concept of mostaz'af to marginalize competing nationalist, Marxist, and socialist groups. Far from forming an avant-garde group, the mostaz'af included all those who were disempowered locally as well as globally. As a concept and as a signifier, it linked the local and the global not in a class war but in a war of position, creating links through its identification of power as both a temporal and a spatial relation.

In this process, culture became the main locus of power; the cultural nationalist framework of an Islamic vision placed the mostaz'af in polar opposition to the mostakbar. It was used to undermine the diversity and particularities of the revolutionary struggles from the general strike of oil workers to the participation of masses of women, from the demands of ethnic and religious minorities to peasant revolts. It also blurred differences between urban and rural classes.

While multiple sites of contestation were the order of the day during the revolution, the working of hegemony made it possible for the discourse of revolution to become invested in power by winning the consent of those who participated in the revolution. Revolutionary discourse engaged with particular images and signifiers in order to enable unification and to ease the transmission of power from one state elite to another.

Such unification was important for bringing together the various groups participating in the revolution and for reconciling their contradictory demands in order to create an oppositional framework that worked effectively to put an end to the Shah's reign.

This unification enabled a positioning beyond the modernist categories of worker, laborer, or proletariat and created space for fluidity, multiplicity, and the inclusion of various classes and groups. In addition, this category allowed the disempowered to be addressed not as an abstract category but as people located in particular cultural and religious traditions. As a result, it was able to distinguish itself from the humanist subject of the modernist revolutionary discourses of secular nationalists and other groups on the left.

The notion of class-based and classless societies, which were used extensively in the context of Iranian oppositional movements, remained abstract in Iranian society. What was referred to as class in Iran remained an ambiguous concept, since neither class divisions nor class culture and class mobility could be defined rigidly in Iran. In addition, class structure, especially in the rural and tribal parts of Iran, was not based on class antagonism but was modeled after family relations, specifically paternalism, communal welfare, and family care.

Ayatollah Khomeini used the Quranic word of Mostaz'af to incorporate such ambiguity, yet to respond to the application of class antagonism and classless society in the discourse of the Islamic guerrilla movement and younger generation of Islamic students who were intrigued by this vocabulary.

Ayatollah Khomeini challenged the idea of the "classless human" proposed by a student (talabeh) of Islam: He states: "These groups of people, who have emerged and are from a religious background, are likeable but they are mistaken... They think Islam has come to make a classless human ... meaning that they all have to live in the same way in this world and there should be one state to support them. They all have to pay taxes to the state and serve it at the same time."

The idea of a classless society entered Iranian revolutionary discourse via the Marxist-Leninist left and was coded by Islamist groups as Jame'eh-e bi tabaghe-e towhidi (classless monotheistic society). In his attempt to claim an indigenous discursive space -- na sharghi, na gharbi, jomhouri-e eslami (neither west nor east but an Islamic Republic) -- Khomeini interrupted such discursive continuity between religious and secular notions of a classless society.

In the post-revolutionary era, numerous groups who participated in the revolution -- from the oil workers, whose strike immobilized the machinery of the Shah's economy, to peasants to women's resistance movements -- were suppressed and rendered abject in the name of the revolution. Those who achieved hegemony then became the protectors of revolutionary values, along with their conflicts and contradictions.

The massive participation of women in demonstrations against imposed veiling in Tehran was condemned by factions of the revolutionary movement, both secular and religious, as an act of collaboration with the westernized elite of the ancien régime and its ignorant victims, such as entertainers and prostitutes. The participation of prostitutes and women entertainers in the demonstrations was used as proof of the misbehavior of "good revolutionary" women.

Women were blamed for betraying revolutionary ideals by intentional and unintentional collaboration with counter-revolutionary forces and for distracting the revolution from its primary concerns. By blurring the boundaries of respectability separating pure women from impure ones and by transgressing the revolutionary/counter-revolutionary border, women became the first targets of disciplining and containment within the terms of revolutionary discourse.

The epithets mostakbar (powerful) and mostaz'af (disempowered) were applied as markers of the boundary between those who had access to representational power (even though their power was illegitimate, since it was associated with the contaminated spheres of the ancien régime and the West) and those who did not. As a result of a particular sign system that emphasized a constant antagonism between the mostakbar and the mostaz'af as signifiers of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary subjectivities, militant religious and cultural meanings became the main focus of the regulatory forces of the new state elite in the post-revolutionary era.

Through the production of gendered bodies and Muslim bodies as the surface for the inscription of an Islamic nation and the idea of the mostaz'af, which was positioned in opposition to the mostakbar, cultural and religious nationalists were able to write their meanings onto the events of the revolution. However, mostaz'af is now a category in crisis in post-revolutionary Iran as a result of the narration of the Islamic nation in the territorial space of the nation-state and in the diaspora, where the nation has left its territorial boundaries, which are divided by gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity.

>>> Minoo Moallem's "Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister" is available at

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