The Iranian revolution was a product of the contradictions of combined and uneven development in Iran.
It was not Islamic ideology and/or Shi’a discourse that radicalized the revolutionary processes, but the power struggle itself brought the radicalization of the revolution.
Many of the slogans and key concepts during the revolutionary process were essentially democratic and borrowed from the West. But once the Pahlavi regime was swept aside, the drive toward Islamization began.
If there were any ideological guiding force behind the revolution, the only ideology with a hope of mass support was populism which Khomeini incorporated all its significant aspect, appealing to the people’s sense of: nationalism, respect for liberty and freedom, economic well-being, cultural heritage, and self-respect.
This ideological mobilization was not possible without the contribution of moderate, secular, and leftist groups.
Exclusive concentration on the oppositional potential of Shi’aism and its tradition of struggle and the organizational power of the mullahs embedded in their control over the mosques and bazaars, however, has led many analysts to focus largely on the ideologies’ origins and leader who advocated them. Thus they confuse the process of tactical coalition formation, in which different social groups shift their support to favor such leaders, with the process of ideological conversion, in which the participants tend to adhere to leaders’ ideologies.
Failing to distinguish political coalition from ideological conversion, such analyzes treat Shi’a Islam as it had a universal appeal to all social groups and classes.
Shi’a ideology and/or Islam played no role or did little in the conflicts and collective actions of Iranian working people and entrepreneurs (bazaaris) who constituted the central actors in revolutionary conflicts and overthrow of the Shah’s regime.
The Islamist projects by which the Iranian revolution is identified and remembered have been imposed on popular movements for democracy by Khomeinist intellectuals and their partners; otherwise ordinary Iranian people’s notion of utopia being their own idea of existing society minus its most disagreeable and oppressive features plus democracy.
Khomeini created a broad coalition of social forces ranging from traditional social groups and the clergy to the intelligentsia and modern middle-classes against the Shah’s authoritarian regime. Although the coalition was primarily based on tactical considerations by all sides, they all agreed upon a loose religious-oriented populist strategy that rendered Khomeini with the maximum political capital to Islamize the Iranian state.
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