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
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
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
hegemonic alliances between classes and the direction of the
Islamic movement of opposition to the state during the revolution.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
global not in a class war but in a war of position, creating
its identification of power as both a temporal and a spatial
In this process, culture became the main locus of power; the
cultural nationalist framework of an Islamic vision placed the
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
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
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,
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
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
numerous groups who participated in the revolution -- from
the oil workers, whose strike immobilized the machinery of the
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
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 Amazon.com