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An outsider's perspective of the revolution

By Sayed S. Husein
September 20, 2000
The Iranian

For someone who is not an ethnic Iranian, I am a great admirer of The Iranian. In the course of some research, pertaining to the 1979 revolution in Iran, I came across this magazine. I found the articles very informative. More importantly, the magazine seems to have a distinctive flair for objectivity.

A good measure of my interest in this magazine, apart from specific academic interest, is simply to connect and share the experience of people going through somewhat similar political circumstances. Belonging originally to Iran's neighbor Pakistan, I am no stranger to bad governance, dictators, or the use of religion in vain. The chronology, or the details might differ, but the essence is more or less the same.

A survey conducted by The Iranian on how people felt about the 20th anniversary of the revolution in Iran was specially interesting and thought-provoking. The response by the readers showed wisdom, realism, and resolve not to take things at face value. The pain and suffering which had to be undergone, to create such a perception, was also apparent.

Although the survey was primarily to solicit the opinion of the Iranian people, who had been directly touched by the revolution, there are other dimensions to this revolution which affected, to a varying degree, Muslims around the world. It is true that a revolution in any country is quite necessarily personal to its inhabitants. The causes and effects of the revolution are also explicit to the conditions involved in the subject country. But revolutions, based on ideologies transcending national borders, tend to be more than a national event. We saw that with Marxist revolutions.

The Islamic revolution in Iran, because of its ideological disposition (that is how it has been perceived, in and outside Iran), transcended the borders of Iran. The reverberation of this revolution, apart from directly affecting the people of Iran, touched others (mostly Muslims) outside Iran, and to some extent continues to do so. Hence, what the people outside Iran felt about the revolution, and to what degree this revolution affected them, are pertinent questions, which might be of some interest to Iranians.

The initial impact of the revolution worldwide was quite astounding. It had to be. Iran was an oil-rich country with a population of around 50 million; it had significant geopolitical importance, and also had potential to be a nuclear power. Thus when Iran gave the world its first radical Islamic republic the broad ramification was quite predictable. The term ``Islamic fundamentalism'' found a new, lasting meaning and connotation.

The leaders of the revolution denounced both capitalism and communism, as corrupt and exploitive. As expected, this resulted in suspicion, and apprehension amongst both. Muslim states, mostly having various forms of unrepresentative governments, were also generally apprehensive of the way things were unfolding in Iran. Fear of export of revolution from Iran, assumed disturbing proportions in many Muslim states, and they braced themselves to counter it in whatever way possible.

The general Muslim population had mixed feelings; ranging form hostility to admiration. Majority of the Muslims were then living, and unfortunately continue to live presently, in countries with uncertain political conditions, endeavoring to shake themselves free form the shackles of the colonial past. Coping with the realities of living in a modern high-tech world, at the same time holding on to their religious and cultural traditions, was not proving to be an easy task. In most cases it had been difficult achieving the right, or even workable equilibrium. Democracy, stable economy, or rule of law were either nonexistent, or still in initial stages and people desperately looked for change.

The revolution in Iran was thus seen as a possible catalyst for redemption by a large segment of the Muslim population worldwide. The revolution gave them hope; after all a Muslim state could be in accordance with the tenants of the religion, and still be modern and vibrant. There was certain admiration, even if guarded, for the way people succeeded in removing a well-entrenched monarch. Off course not everyone saw this revolution in such favorable light. Many felt that the leaders of the revolution, would unleash repression of another kind in the name of religion, as the task of running a modern state would be beyond them. Many others were hostile towards the revolution purely on ideological grounds.

What happened thereafter is part of history. The revolution set in motion events and activities which had wide implication for Muslims everywhere. The extended process of political retribution, just after the revolution, made people quite uneasy outside, raising fears of cycle of a violence derailing the revolution form its populist agenda. The Iran - Iraq war, apart from taking a heavy toll on men and resources of both countries, had a divisive effect in the Muslim world. The hostage crisis resulted in hardening of Western, especially American public opinion, not only towards Iran and its Islamic state. The long drawn Salman Rushdie affair was seized by a certain section of the world press, to paint anything Islamic as repressive and a threat, especially to Western civilization.

Outside Iran it was not the revolution which was under scrutiny by world public opinion, but Islam itself and its notions were put to trial. Anything, from the veil to the Islamic judicial system to jihad, received wide, and for the most part, adverse publicity. Jihad especially came to be feared as something sinister, akin to a modern form of terrorism. The fall out of such negative images naturally had discriminatory effects on Muslims everywhere.

Such uproar to some extent was inevitable. A successful revolution, on the basis of Islam, was bound to tread on many exiting systems, and apprehension even hostility from these quarters was to be expected. But the problem was compounded, because the revolution failed to better the conditions of the people of Iran, and they continued to suffer. It is this aspect, which placed the revolution to its widely perceived negative image. An internally successful revolution, in line with the aspirations of the people, might have endured many external handicaps.

That the revolution could not meet the expectations of the Iranian people is quite evident form the feelings expressed by them. The revolution, after two decades of political pulls and pushes, is now becoming more indigenous in character, gradually responding to local needs and demands. Hopefully the changing political dynamics, evolved as a result of the revolution, would increasingly start reflecting the objectives of the Iranian people. Muslims around the world will also welcome this.


Born in Pakistan, Sayed S. Husein has masters degrees in political science, international relations and Islamic history. He is a business consultant and freelance writer in the United States.

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