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Constitutionalist forces in Tabriz (date?)

Where it all started
Democratic concepts emerged during the 1906 Constituional Revolution

October 18, 2000
The Iranian

Excerpt from Janet Afary's The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911. (1996, Columbia University Press). The Persian translation, titled Enqelaab-e mashruteh-ye Iran, was published in Iran this summer by Nashr-e Bistoon. Janet Afary is an associate professor of Middle East studies & women's studies at the at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. She has published articles in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the Journal of Women's History, and the journal of the National Women's Studies Association, as well as in other journals and edited collections.

In the present study, I have moved away from a single narrative that privileges the political dimensions of the revolution and instead have explored its multiclass, multicultural, and multi-ideological dimensions. The Constitutional Revolution was not, I will argue, only a political revolution ~ where one set of elites replaced another ~ but also a social and cultural revolution with a significant grassroots dimensions. In addition, this study will show that the ethnic, class, and gender dimensions of the movement were not obscure, insignificant, and marginal issues with no crucial bearing on the political events. On the contrary, they were at the very heart of the revolution, defining its scope, its limitations, and its political directions.

I have also focused, more than in previous accounts, on the influence of social democratic activists and organizations and have attempted to show that three divergent concepts of democracy emerged during the Constitutional Revolution: 1. a European-style parliamentary democracy represented by the Majlis-i Shawra-yi Milli (National Consultative Assembly) and the 1906 constitution, 2. a series of social democratic tendencies that were inspired predominantly by Transcaucasian social democratic associations in tsarist Russia, and 3. multiple expressions of radical democracy that manifested themselves in a variety of grassroots councils and societies, some of which called themselves anjumans (councils). The complex interaction of the three sets of institutions and democratic ideologies, their attempts to challenge both the royalist government and the conservative 'ulama, ultimately defined the course of the revolution. This struggle took place in the context of imperialist rivalries ~ especially between the two major contenders for power in the region, Russia and Britain ~ but had a dynamic of its own.

Chapter 1 explores the background to the revolution and the destabilizing ramifications of greater political and economic interaction with the capitalist world-economy in the late nineteenth-century Iran. On the one hand the process of dependent development encouraged by the European powers turned Iran's economy into a periphery exporting raw materials to the more industrially advanced metropolis, with an Iranian government that readily submitted to foreign demands for concessions. On the other hand increased contact with the more democratic and industrialized institutions of the West also encouraged Iranian intellectuals to call for a reform of their traditional society, to demand greater political representation, and to ask for limits on the authority of the absolutist government. In addition, customs reforms enacted by the Belgian officials in the government of Muzaffar al-Din Shah (1896-1907) created further political resentment among merchants and artisans, leading to a series of protests in major cities during the years 1900 to 1905.

Chapter 2 begins with a discussion of the 1905 Russian Revolution and its impact on the East and continues with the description of secret and semisecret prerevolutionary societies that were formed in Iran in 1904-1905. After months of strikes and a series of sanctuaries at the Shah 'Abd al-'Azim Shrine, the city of Qum, and the garden of the British legation in Tehran, Muzaffar al-Din Shah agreed to a constitutional monarchy in August 1906. The coalition that made this initial victory possible included groups with differing political agendas such as members of the 'ulama, who resented the increasing centralization of powers in the hands of the government, local merchants, who opposed customs tariffs on their exports, and liberal and radical intellectuals from the secret societies. This last group included merchants, educators, religious dissidents, Freemasons, and freethinkers. The influence of religious dissidents, especially Azali Babis, was significant in many of the prerevolutionary societies that were formed in Tehran, Isfahan, and Kirman. By camouflaging their secular and modernist views, which significantly differed from the beliefs of the mainstream Shi'ite 'ulama, religious dissidents and freethinkers helped create a broad nationalist coalition with wide public appeal that called for limits on the authority of the shah.

Chapter 3 examines the composition of the First Majlis (1906-1908) and its accomplishments. The December 1906 constitution reduced the powers of the shah and his ministers, gave administrative autonomy to the provinces, granted limited suffrage to adult men, established the groundwork for a new secular legislature, and guaranteed freedom of the press. A large number of grassroots urban councils appeared in the period, including the Tabriz Anjuman and other radical councils of Tehran and Tabriz. The provincial, departmental, and popular anjumans, especially the more radical councils of the north, were influenced by social democratic organizations and political tendencies from Transcaucasia, especially the Iranian Organization of Social Democrats in Baku and its branches throughout Iran. These councils brought a new sense of political autonomy and cultural identity to the provinces. Almost everywhere, formation of such grassroots societies was accompanied by the opening of modern secular schools, first for boys and then, in some major cities, for girls as well. The authority of the 'ulama was challenged in both educational and legal matters as modern schools came to replace traditional religious schools and as courts of appeals of provincial councils, rather than the clerics, began to settle local community affairs.

Chapter 4 turns to the ratification of the Supplementary Constitutional Laws that became the subject of intensive debates in the spring of 1907. The response to this document would define many of the ideological debates of twentieth-century Iran. The secular constitution of 1906 had implicitly challenged the authority of Shi'ite institutions and traditions by moving into the domain of the shari'at (religious laws). Recognizing this, the conservative clerics led by Shaikh Fazlullah Nuri distanced themselves from the revolutionary movement and drew closer to the shah. Progressive Majlis delegates such as Hasan Taqizadah hoped to ratify a bill of rights that guaranteed freedom of expression, association, and publication as well as equal political rights for (male) citizens, regardless of ethnicity and religion. But Nuri, with the support of other orthodox clerics, and, eventually, the backing of the pro-constitutionalist 'ulama of Najaf, succeeded in ratifying article 2, which on paper gave supreme authority to a committee of 'ulama in Majlis.

Chapter 5 explores the popular culture of the revolutionary period and the radical newspapers that constructed new narratives of resistance and social change. The journal Sur-i Israfil developed in its pages an unprecedented critique of the social, political, and cultural traditions of Iran. The poet 'Ali Akbar Dihkhuda used satire and allegory to mock superstitions, belief in predestination, and patriarchal traditions that degraded women and children: as a result Sur-i Israfil editors had a number of confrontations with the conservative 'ulama. Other newspapers, such as Habl al-Matin, warned the public of imperialist machinations in Iran, focusing on the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention, which partitioned Iran into two spheres of influence.

Chapter 6 discusses the debates on land revenue reform in the Majlis, the formation of village councils, and other forms of rural resistance. Popular calls for land reform, coupled with an acute budget deficit, encouraged the Majlis to abolish tuyul land allotments. The reforms increased government revenue but did not improve village earnings. Furthermore, the reforms of the Majlis were not broad enough to create a mass peasant-based movement, one that could help sustain the reforms. Submitting to the pressure of wealthy landowners and politicians, the Majlis opposed the formation of councils in small towns and large villages and in some cases, as in Gilan, sent troops to disband them.

Chapter 7 looks at the women's anjumans and other social and cultural institutions that were created by elite and urban middle-class women of Tehran, including schools, clinics, and theaters. Shaikh Fazlullah Nurri issued a fatwa (religious edict) against women's education, arguing that it would lead to undesirable changes in gender roles. Nevertheless, women's schools continued to flourish. Some activist women published letters in the newspapers of the period in which they condemned the actions of the religious-conservative opposition and called for greater recognition of women's rights to education. A number of radical male journalists, Majlis delegates, and poets supported the women's movement. Together they would speak out on other issues, such as child marriage, polygamy, and easy male divorce, and even call for women's suffrage in the Majlis. Nearly all, however, saw women as primarily mothers and wives. They stressed that a more educated woman would become a better mother and housewife and produce children who could lead Iran to modernization more quickly and efficiently.

Chapter 8 turns to the period known as the Lesser Autocracy (June 23, 1908- July 16, 1909) and the civil war of Azerbaijan in 1908-1909. On June 23, 1908, the Majlis was bombarded by members of the Russian Cossack Brigade who were in the service of Muhammad "Ali Shah. When many leading revolutionary intellectuals of Tehran were forced to flee into exile, Tabriz became the new center of national resistance. Azerbaijani social democrats, with the help of the Tabriz Anjuman, organized a resistance army. This volunteer army, which also included Azeri, Armenian, Georgian revolutionaries from Transcaucasia, was headed by Sattar Khan, the folk hero of the Constitutional Revolution, and his colleague Baqir Khan. For nine months Tabriz resisted the royalist forces. Eventually the siege was brought to an end by Russian intervention and occupation of Tabriz in April 1909.

Chapter 9 analyzes the multiethnic and international dimensions of the resistance during the Lesser Autocracy. Iranian exile intellectuals in Europe reached a broad audience and called for the reinstitution of the constitutional government in Iran. Transcaucasian social democrats sent to Azerbaijan and Gilan several hundred volunteer fighters who, armed with a more sophisticated military technology, bolstered the nationalist resistance. With the royalist forces locked in the struggle with Tabriz, provinces in the south and the north gradually joined forces to reinstitute the constitutional government, first in their locality and then in Tehran. In July 1909 a revolutionary army from Gilan, together with Bakhtiari tribesman from Isfahan, reconquered Tehran and reestablished the constitutional government.

Chapter 10 examines the composition of the Second Majlis and the role of the influential Democratic Party. Muhammad 'Ali Shah was deposed and sent into exile in Russia. His twelve-year-old son was crowned Ahmad Shah and represented by a regent. The Democratic Party, headed by social democrat Taqizadah, was made up of both liberals and social democrats and soon gained an important minority representation in the Majlis. The party's radical social agenda, and its support for separation of religion and the state, were reflected in party newspaper Iran-i Naw, which broke new ground with its analyses of the Iranian events and the European politics of the period.

Chapter 11 turns to the summer of 1910 and the Bakhtiari-Democrat government. The Democrats hoped to modernize Iran through a centralized state and a parliamentary government, but their attempts at centralization angered various non-Persian tribes that also resented the greater authority of the Bakhtiaris in Tehran. The Democrats' efforts to bring change via parliamentary reform likewise floundered. The Second Majlis and the government were dominated by landowners, tribal leaders, and members of the nobility who had little interest in continuing the social and political reforms of the revolution. The public's earlier admiration for constitutionalism was now replaced with cynicism and distrust toward a new generation of politicians who seemed to care for no one but themselves. The assassination of the ranking cleric, Sayyid 'Abdullah Bihbahani, the forcible disarmament of the resistance fighters, together with the unpopular taxes of the Democrat-Bakhtiari government, further eroded support for the Democrats by late 1910. A conservative parliamentary majority was now formed in the Majlis. The rupture of the coalition that had reinstituted the constitutional government, and the growing popular antagonism toward the government, gave the green light to Russia and Britain to intensify their political intervention in Iran.

Chapter 12 discusses the role of the American financial adviser Morgan Shuster, who arrived in Tehran in May 1911. Shuster's fiscal reforms, and his active collaboration with the Democrats in thwarting an invasion by the former shah, briefly bolstered the Democrats' position in the Majlis. But these actions were not enough to undo the political and social shortcomings of the Second Constitutional Period. Hostile Russian and British governments, which no longer tolerated Iran's political independence and resented Shuster's appeals to the world community, called for dismissal. Russian troops moved to the city of Qazvin, outside Tehran, and threatened to march to the capital and close the Majlis. Pressured by the British and Russian legations, the regent and the cabinet ministers closed the Majlis on December 24, 1911, and brought the Constitutional Revolution to an end.

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