The last total revolution turns 40

The Iranian revolution was the last grand illusion of the 20th century.

Iran revolution anniversary Reuters
A soldier stands guard in front of a picture of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Khomeini during the anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution, February 1, 2016 [File: Raheb Homavandi/Reuters]

I can close my eyes and hear the chants: “Marg bar fascism! Marg bar fascism!” It was a fine summer day in July 1979. I was a graduate student at the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I had just returned to Iran for the summer break, and my homeland was in the frenzied grips of an historic revolution.

“Death to fascism! Death to fascism!” That is all we could scream, a crowd of a few thousand gathered at the football field of Tehran University to rally against the Islamists trying to claim the revolution for themselves. We were an eclectic crowd – some were leftists, some were not; more than half of us were women, some scarfed, many not; some men wore beards, many not – but we all had one thing in common: We could all recite the poetry of Forough Farrokhzad and Ahmad Shamlou faster than we could any verse of the Quran. And we too had a claim on this revolution.

Islamist thugs were disrupting the rally, cutting the wires of loudspeakers, diving into the crowd with knives and brass knuckles, punching, kicking, cursing. They were organised, determined, fearless, violent. They knew what they were doing. We did not know what to do.

We were mostly students, inexperienced in street fights, many of us from poor or middle-class families, some from the provinces. The Persian accents of our attackers, without an exception, were from southern Tehran – nasal, colloquial, limited in vocabulary, vile, violent. They were particularly nasty with the young unveiled woman among us.

They succeeded. They disrupted our rally. The cries of “Death to fascism!” eventually died out. 

The end of total revolution

Today the ruling regime in Iran is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the successful establishment of the Islamic Republic on the ruins of a collective dream for a free and open Iran whose tragic death Iranians at large have been mourning for the last four decades.

The Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, which swiftly degenerated into the formation of Shia mullahcracy thinly camouflaged as an Islamic Republic, was the last grand illusion of the 20th century. It came on the heels of two other total revolutions – the Russian revolution of 1917 and the Chinese revolution of 1949 – which inspired a number of other popular uprisings, including the Cuban revolution of 1953, the Algerian revolution of 1954 and others.

These three total revolutions – the Russian, the Chinese, and the Iranian – were all of the same significance as the American revolution of 1775 and the French revolution of 1789 in scale and universal significance.

The Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, to be emphatically distinguished from the Islamism of the Islamic Republic which became its exclusive beneficiary, gave a particularly universal expression of the mixed blessings and paradoxical perils of postcolonial revolutionary zeal. After these events, the postcolonial world was cured and delivered from any and all ideological delusions of a total revolution.   

As evidenced in the Green Movement of 2009 and the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011, both the language and the inspirations of revolutionary momentums of the 21st century have been of an entirely different character and disposition. The Islamic Republic put the myth of “the West” the measure of truth or falsehood at the epicentre of regional and global politics. The Green Movement and the Arab Spring decentred and dismantled it. 

By the time of these uprisings, we had already learned how to shift our focus away from the illegitimate state and seek democratic sovereignty in the nation. There were no delusions about the totality of their outcome.

Today, the Islamic Republic in Iran, Israel in Palestine, the ruling Saudi clan in the Arabian Peninsula, the military government in Egypt and the murderous Asad regime in Syria are made of identical cloth – illegitimate state apparatus violently suppressing the democratic will of nations they rule in and out of their postcolonial borders. But the civilising power of these nations has withstood not only the tyranny and brutality of these regimes but also the onslaught of their byproducts – armed groups like ISIL.

The larger geopolitics of the region 

The charismatic terror of Ayatollah Khomeini during the decade of his reign from 1979 to 1989 did not subside with his death. Neither his successor, nor the institution of theocratic reign he crafted commands anything near his personal power, but his takeover of the revolution determined the course of the history he left behind.

Today Iranians face towering enemies on their historic path to freedom – the ruling theocracy and its militant apparatus, the diaspora opposition and their entirely discredited politics, the regional Saudi-Zionist alliance and above all the lunacy that is the United States under President Donald Trump.

Iranians, with their vast and expansive political culture, will overcome them all as they walk towards a future only they can write for themselves. The standoff between the daily realities of a normative life in Iran and the treacheries of this congested front of animus coming their way is historically bent towards the defeat of the enemies of the commonweal of national sovereignty.

The Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 succeeded in liberating an entire nation from the calamities of an authoritarian monarchy, but the Islamic Republic devoured it, established a brutal theocracy, and in the process delivered Iranians from any and all delusions about regime legitimacy.   

In the making of the catastrophic Islamic Republic, however, the US, the Soviet Union, and their regional agents were all implicated.

The Iranian revolution was initially widely popular in the region until the US and its allies enabled and encouraged Saddam Hussein to start a war against Iran that lasted eight brutal years and killed hundreds of thousands of people on both sides. As the war fuelled Iranian-Arab rivalry, this helped Khomeini define the popular rebellion as “Shia-inspired”, turning the worldly and cosmopolitan character of the Iranian revolution into a xenophobic and religious one, from which he benefitted immensely.

The December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan allowed the newly formed clerical regime to start expanding its network of proxies in its immediate neighbourhood and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon paved the way for the creation of Hezbollah, which solidified its extraterritorial outreach.

Over the next few decades, the domestic affairs of Iran became increasingly overshadowed by the dissolution of the ruling Islamic Republic into the geopolitics of the region and its rivalries with the Saudi-Zionist axis. In 2009 the Green Movement was the last chance for a democratic substitution and the altering of the course of the post-revolutionary Iran, but the ruling clerical and paramilitary forces viciously crashed that hope. 

The Islamic Republic and its nemesis

The atrocities of the Islamic Republic over the past 40 years have created an expatriate opposition equally atrocious in its treacherous powermongering. The People’s Mojahedin Organisation (MEK), the monarchists, and their various incarnations have come together collectively to form and discredit the Iranian political opposition. These organisations are now actively collaborating with the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia towards “regime change” in Iran, which would mean massive calamity for millions of Iranians.  

Victorious in the midst of all this is the common sense and the collective purpose of Iranians themselves and their past experiences gathered from the failed monarchy, the fanatical Islamism that followed it, and the quagmire of regional geopolitics into which their ruling regime is increasingly drawn and lost.  

Today the fate of the Islamic Republic can be summed up in the characters of two women, both of them named Masoumeh. One is Masoumeh Ebtekar and the other Masoumeh Alinejad. Masoumeh Ebtekar was one of the Iranian hostage takers during the 1979-1981 American hostage crisis and is currently vice president of Iran for Women and Family Affairs. To this day she benefits from her role in this criminal act, which Khomeini used as a smokescreen to brutally eliminate all legitimate rivals to his autocratic rule.

Meanwhile, Masoumeh Alinejad is also reaping benefits from her public political decisions. She made her name more palatable to an American tongue by calling herself Masih Alinejad (Masih is Persian and Arabic for messiah) after she ran away from her homeland and worked her way up to the top of the American mediascape. Under the false flag of bourgeois feminism, she has become a useful servant at the service of the US imperial machine, happily posing for photos with US secretary of war and propaganda, Mike Pompeo.

These two Masoumehs represents the cruelties of two opposing regimes: the ruling Islamic Republic on one side and the US and those trying to topple it on the other. One is a fanatical and myopic zealot, the other – a vulgar and loutish career opportunist. They personify nothing but the banalities of two identical evils. In between, stand millions of Iranian women and men in fateful charge of their personal, public, and national dignity, who still remember how it all began 40 years ago.

Soon after that summer day in 1979, the Islamists took over the Tehran University football field and turned it into a makeshift mosque in which they brought masses of their supporters and institutionalised the Friday prayer propaganda to denounce their enemies and steal the revolution all to themselves.

They won. We lost. But 40 years later something even more important happened: Our dreams of a different and better world have been implanted into the collective consciousness of a big-hearted, forgiving, and triumphant people. The Islamist won that battle but lost the war for the hearts and minds of a nation with a memory that far exceeds the limited imagination of a gang of degenerate octogenarian clerics on the verge of senility.

The fate of the Islamic Republic is now threatened by the whims of a juvenile delinquent like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), a war criminal like Benjamin Netanyahu, and a lunatic like Donald Trump. The dreams of the Iranian revolution that the Islamic Republic usurped and betrayed remain alive and well in the hearts and minds of a brave nation which is triumph over its own cruel history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.