This collection of five essays along with an important epilogue is the latest publication of one of the most original scholars of Iran. As in his earlier works, Abrahamian challenges the dominant explication of Iranian politics. This book is not only a challenge to "fundamentalists" but also to essentialist views on Islam and the Orientalist analyses of the Middle East. It argues, in a not-so-implicit manner, that there are various interpretations of Islam and that those who rule Iran today under the banner of defending Islam have brought a great deal of innovation and reinterpretation to it.
In the first essay, "Fundamentalism or Populism," Abrahamian argues that Khomeinism (the term he assigns to the ideology of Khomeini and his followers) is Iran's version of Latin American populism (e.g., Peronism). He argues that the term fundamentalism is misleading because it connotes an atavistic, unchanging adherence to a set of dogmas. In meticulous detail, Abrahamian contends that Khomeinism is indeed very innovative, changing and modem. It is a populist but fascistic route to the industrialized world, not a rejection of it. According to Abrahamian, whenever dogma and Islamic principles have contradicted the interests of Khomeinists, they have reinterpreted the Islamic tenets. The constitutional structure of the polity that Khomeinists created has more in common with de Gaulle's Fifth Republic than with the Golden Age of Islam. Abrahamian quotes Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (the then-speaker of the Parliament and current president) as saying that 80 percent of the Islamic Republic has no precedent in Islam. The Parliament, the president, the prime minister, the cabinet, income tax policies, etc. are institutions and policies with no Islamic antecedents. Abrahamian argues that Khomeini was a conventional traditional senior cleric prior to the 1969-70 period. However, in the 1970s he metamorphosed into a populist, heavily borrowing concepts and language from (without giving credit to) Islamic modernists and secular radicals such as Dr. Ali Shariati, Jalal Al-e Ahmad and the Mojahedin Khalq. Khomeinist populism is basically a radical middle-class movement that has organized urban poor (especially those of recent rural origins) against the upper class and foreign imperialists. It relies on a heavy dose of rhetoric with few specific policies and programs. It virulently attacks the imperialists, the upper class and secular Iranians but consistently upholds the right to private property.
In the second essay, Abrahamian analyzes Khomeini's writings, declarations and interviews to decipher his views on private property, society and the state. The only constant in Khomeini's world view is his belief in the sanctity of private property, which he regards as a "gift from God." His view on society, however, went through three stages. First, from 1943 to 1970, Khomeini's conception of society was an organic one, one in which all social strata were dependent on all others in the sense that all body organs are dependent on each other for healthy functioning. In the second stage, 1970-82, Khomeini viewed society as composed of two antagonistic classes engaged in a constant struggle; the mostazafin (oppressed, poor, meek) against the mostakbarin (oppressors, rich). In the third stage, 1982-89, when Khomeini had to deal with governing a post-revolutionary society, his view became one of a semi harmonious trichotomy, one in which the middle class was given prominence.
Like his views on society, Khomeini's views on the state changed over the years. In his early writings (1940s) he supported monarchy. His view in this period was similar to that of other traditional Shii clergy who, following al-Ghazali, believed that a bad government was better than no government and that rebellion against a ruler was tantamount to rebellion against God. By 1970, however, Khomeini claimed that monarchy was incompatible with Islam and developed the concept of the "guardianship" of the ulama (religious leaders). The immediate post-revolution period caused Khomeini to refine his views on the state as a limited institution. Khomeini's conflicting views on the state and society compounded post-revolution problems, producing gridlock between the conservative Council of Guardians and the radical majority in Parliament, the former often vetoing bills on the grounds that they were un-Islamic and violated the sanctity of private property. As part of the solution, Khomeini developed the notion of the absolute rulership of the ulama and concomitantly gave the leader (i.e., himself) the power to override any Islamic principle (or law) for the sake of keeping "Islamic government" (i.e., Khomeinists) in power.
In the third essay, "May Day in the Islamic Republic," Abrahamian analyzes how an event which was initially a Western, secular, socialist festival celebrated by Iranian communists, socialists and trade unionists was taken over by Khomeinists who ostensibly rejected these alien principles and struggled against these political forces. Through a combination of radical rhetoric (but not of any action improving the life of workers, i.e., a labor law), repression of the Left, and reinterpretation of the lives of the Prophet and Imam Ali, Khomeinists monopolized this event. However, with the repression of both the Left and unions, May Day has been tamed. Nevertheless, its continuing existence is testimony to the symbolic strength of the leftist tradition in Iran.
In the fourth essay, "History Used and Abused," Abrahamian, in meticulous detail, refutes some of the most important and sensitive myths created by the Islamic Republic. Khomeinists have attempted to rewrite history in order to create the myth that the clerics have always stood with the poor and the nation against the kings, feudal landowners and the imperialist powers, and that in all critical historical moments, the Left has stabbed the anti-imperialist movement in the back. The current regime, relying upon torture, has televised recanting and the rewriting of history, has woven together these myths, propagated through mass media, school textbooks and postage stamps. The purpose of this essay is to debunk these Khomeinist myths.
In the last essay, "The Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics," Abrahamian analyzes the role of "national character" explanations of Iranian politics and then explicates the historical roots of the existence of the paranoid style in Iranian politics without giving it an explanatory-variable status. The epilogue also analyzes the post-revolution conflicts between the two most important wings of the Khomeinists in the aftermath of Khomeini's death.
A few comments on these essays would seem appropriate. In the first two essays, Abrahamian seems to equate "private property" with "capitalist private property." For Abrahamian, Khomeini's support of private property is "reason alone" that "the Islamic Revolution can be considered a bourgeois revolution" (pp. 58-59). In fact, in the Middle East, at least, both private property and commerce predate the bourgeois mode of production. The Prophet Mohammed's first wife, Khadijeh, was one of the richest merchants in Arabia. Imam Ali (whom Shiis consider the legitimate heir to Mohammed), Abu Bakr (whom Sunnis regard as the Prophet's heir) and the Prophet Mohammed were all property owners. Their support for private property does not make them bourgeois nor the mode of production of seventh-century Arabia capitalist. Bazaaris have for centuries supported the clerics because Islam provided a justification and protection for their property against the monarchs who tended to take some of it away. This fact alone, however, does not make bazaaris capitalists. It seems analytically useful to make a clear-cut demarcation between the modern/capitalist and traditional/pre-capitalist sectors and modes of production. In reality there is a great deal of articulation between the two modes; sons and daughters of bazaaris attend modern schools and universities and get modem middle class jobs; bazaaris use telephones and electricity in their shops and homes. In the Iranian context certain classes belong to the two worlds of pre-capitalism and capitalism: the urban poor of recent rural origins, bazaaris and clerics. These strata have been the backbone of what Abrahamian calls Khomeinism.
I disagree with the utility .of using the term Khomeinism because it reduces a general phenomenon in the Middle East to its Iranian variant. Similar socioeconomic strata in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey also support movements which the term "fundamentalism" seems to encompass. Moreover, there are also movements with somewhat different social bases in Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan that share many resemblances with what Abrahamian calls "Khomeinism." Considering the fact that their ideological and political leaders, such as Mowlana Abu al-Ala Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna, Hasan Turabi, Ayatollah Baqir Hakim and Rashid al-Ghannoushi either predate Khomeini or differ from him, the term "fundamentalism" which subsumes these local variants, seems more appropriate. Also the term "Khomeinism"-as "Marxism" or "Leninism" is used-conveys the perception that Khomeini was a philosopher whose system of ideas has gained currency among followers, a notion which Abrahamian has successfully refuted.
Abrahamian also stresses the similarity between Iranian and Latin American class structures that entail similar populist political movements. For Abrahamian, the shah's Iran, like many Latin American politics, was a comprador bourgeois society with informal dependence on the West, an anti-imperialist middle class and a proletariat unorganized by the Left. It appears to me that despite superficial similarities, there are major class differences between Middle Eastern and Latin American societies. In Latin America, the colonial conquest and imperialist economic exchange have marginalized, if not completely destroyed, the pre-colonial modes of production. In the Middle East, on the contrary, the West entered late and was never able to completely dislodge the pre-colonial socioeconomic sectors. The pre-capitalist sectors continue to produce and exchange along the same technology and relations of production they have had for centuries, from carpet-weaving to guild-like relations in the bazaar. In Latin America, however, the agribusiness is geared toward the world economy, which entails the existence of an agricultural bourgeoisie, the dominant social class in these policies. In Iran-like other oil-rich countries of the Middle East-the state, through its ownership and control of oil, natural gas and other minerals, is the single most important and powerful economic actor, which has retarded the emergence of a powerful (agricultural or industrial) bourgeoisie. Certainly, the massive influx of rural poor into urban centers is a Third World phenomenon, but whoever organizes and leads them in whatever sort of social structure could determine divergent politics. The process of proletarianization, the rate of rural to urban migration, state policies and the existent mode of production are factors that influence the politics of the urban poor. In one situation the Left or populists could organize them; in another it might be the Islamic fundamentalists.
I have profound misgivings in regarding the Islamic fundamentalist movements to be the Middle East's equivalent to populism in Latin America. Insofar as class backgrounds of the leadership, social-class bases of the constituencies and ideological proclivities are concerned, the Middle East's equivalents to Latin American populism are Nasserism in Egypt, Baathism in Iraq and Syria, and Qadhafi's Islamic socialism in Libya (and perhaps the so-called African socialism in sub-Saharan Africa). In Iran, there is no populist movement; the constituencies that support populism have been absorbed into other groups, such as liberal democrats (radicalized modern middle class), monarchists (petty-bourgeois army officers), the Mojahedin and other radical Leftists (industrial proletariat and large sections of the educated urban petty bourgeoisie), as well as the Islamic fundamentalists (recent rural-to-urban migrants).
The fourth essay is a piece of courageous scholarly endeavor. To demystify some of the most salient myths of a regime that has executed teenage girls for handing out opposition newspapers, that has put up a $2 million bounty for a British citizen for writing a novel, and that has many of its Intelligence and Security officials prosecuted in European countries for the assassination of exiled opposition figures, could be hazardous to one's health. Many astute observers, including Salman Rushdie himself, believe that the primary objective of the death fatwa was to intimidate into silence scholars and critics who might present precisely the sorts of analyses and information that Abrahamian provides in the fourth essay.
In the last three essays, in his desire to defend the Left against Khomeinists' charges, Abrahamian leaves the impression that the Tudeh party was merely sympathetic to Moscow and that the Khomeinists' allegations of spying and being a tool of the Soviet Union's foreign policy were unfounded. Perhaps the sole issue upon which all political groups and parties in Iran share almost unanimous agreement is the dependent nature of the Tudeh. Not only the secular liberal democrats of the National Front but also the Marxist Left consider the Tudeh to have been organizationally, ideologically and politically a tool of the Kremlin. Abrahamian, who is one of the foremost authorities on the Tudeh, is strangely silent and ambiguous on these charges. This omission could be acceptable from lesser scholars or on issues with insufficient primary sources. But the memoirs of former Tudeh politburo members in exile and former KGB officials stationed in Tehran (i.e., Vladimir Kuzichkin) should more than confirm the allegations. The impression of sympathy for the Tudeh is confounding, considering that in his earlier works, Abrahamian called himself a democratic socialist (The Iranian Mojahedin, 1989) and his analytical framework was neoMarxist in the tradition of E. P. Thompson (Iran between Two Revolutions, 1982 and 1983, p. 6), which was explicitly opposed to the orthodox Marxism of the traditional Left that the Tudeh epitomized.
A minor error is Abrahamian's statement that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic absolutely forbids foreign concessions and loans (p. 139). In fact, Article 81 only forbids foreign concessions; Article 80 allows foreign loans if approved by the Majlis. Article 80 states: "The receiving and granting of loans or aids, domestic and foreign, by the government, should be done with the approval of the National Consultative Assembly [Majlis]."
The target audience of these essays seems to be the readers of this review, those intimately familiar with the Middle East and Islam. At certain points, even some knowledge of modern Iranian politics is assumed. This is quite unfortunate because it deprives uninitiated undergraduates of an otherwise informative book. For example, Khomeini's interpretation of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali as manual laborers would certainly mislead an undergraduate who may not know that in fact they belonged to the highest status sector of the most noble tribe (Qureysh) in Arabia and that Muhammad was raised by Ali's father, who was the caretaker of the Kaaba, the single most important attraction-and perhaps money maker-in Mecca. Extensive explanations in footnotes could have easily remedied shortcomings of this nature. Abrahamian' s sophisticated analysis is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the Iranian revolution. Informed lay persons as well as academics and graduate students would benefit from this well-argued book. The uncommon wit and lucid style of this work make it truly a pleasure to read.