Shia Clerics the Leading Forces Behind the Revolution

  December 14, 2023   Read time 3 min
Shia Clerics the Leading Forces Behind the Revolution
Shi‘a clerics had a century-old history of political activism in Iran. Although high-ranking ayatollahs seldom violated the dominant philosophy of political quietism in the seminaries, those who did always found significant support among the younger generation of seminary students who often came from the countryside and working-class families.

Despite that fact, the regime always attributed social unrest to communists. In the mind of the secret police and the regime’s propaganda machine, not only did linking the protests to communist conspiracy discredit it in the eyes of the religious masses, it further justified the regime’s atrocities and ensured support in the Cold War mentality of its American and European allies. Calling the Qom protests of 1975 a communist conspiracy also forced the grand ayatollahs to issue statements condemning communism. Only one day after the seminary campus was cleaned up from days of riots, the three most influential ayatollahs tried to distance themselves from the unrest. Ayatollah Golpaygani declared: “The newspapers have published trumped up accusations against the clergy. I refute these accusations categorically.

In the sacred realm of Shi‘ism, there are no sympathies for communist ideas.” Grand Ayatollah Shari‘atmadari, one of the most influential sources of emulation, also issued a statement emphasizing that “the Shi‘a clergy and the seminaries have irreconcilable differences with communism and materialism. Those students arrested during the unrest in Qom have no communist sympathies. I deny all such assertions in the newspapers.” Fear of communist infiltration forced many high-ranking clerics to wonder about the political aspirations of the younger generation of seminary students. One ayatollah admitted that “the issue of raising a ‘red flag’ forced many grand ayatollahs not to take any serious steps toward securing the release of the students.”

In retrospect, the 1975 protests were the first signs of an emergent Shi‘i revolutionary drama. Hitherto, the majority of the sources of emulation objected to the dominant culture industry that promoted the unimpeded westernization of society. But the question of monarchical legitimacy seldom entered their critical discourse. Even Ayatollah Khomeini did not question the legitimacy of monarchy until during his exile in Najaf in the 1970s. In June 1975 the grand ayatollahs in Qom and Mashhad sensed the specter of a distinct transformation. And indeed, a generation motivated by Ali Shari‘ati’s (1933–77) emancipatory theology was gathering force to step out of the seminary quarters and onto the unknown grounds of an emerging revolutionary movement.
With the exception of Ayatollah Khomeini, all the grand ayatollahs viewed Shari‘ati’s revolutionary discourse with suspicion. A young Pariseducated sociologist from a famous devout family in the holy city of Mashhad, Shari‘ati castigated the clergy for their inaction against tyranny. He argued that the clergy had turned Islam into a religion of superstition and deception. He advanced a theology in which prayer and politics, submission and subversion, mystical seclusion and revolution conjoin in a struggle for justice. He called his theology the Alavid Shi‘ism, Shi‘ism of action, of resistance, of martyrdom, as opposed to the clerical stagnant Safavid Shi‘ism of the court, of the ceremonial and otherworldly concerns. The grand ayatollahs in Qom knew that Shari‘ati’s writing colored that red flag flying on top of the seminary minarets.
University campuses in Iran, particularly after the CIA-designed coup that toppled the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, had always been a theater of student protests. These protests transformed major campuses (particularly Tehran University, Tehran Polytechnic, and Aryamehr Technical University, along with the universities of Mashhad, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Shiraz) into a battleground between dissident students and riot police. But the university security forces often would contain these rallies within the university premises, and students seldom could break out of the police blockade and spread the demonstrations out onto the city streets.
The Shah now turned to his imperial ambitions of reviving the ancient Persian Empire. With the elimination of major opposition organizations complete, and under pressure from his Western allies, the Shah began a hesitant policy of political liberalization. The policy was primarily focused on improving the condition of prisons and gradually releasing those who had either served their terms or commuting their sentences. The majority of these prisoners were journalists, poets, novelists, and other dissidents with Left tendencies, mostly Marxist but also Islamist. This was to prove a major miscalculation on the Shah’s part.

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