As the recent movements in Tunisia and Egypt unfolded, two questions pressed upon the public mind: why were these revolutions happening, and what might be to come? So too it was in 1979, when the Shah of Iran was overthrown. While these three revolutions are in many ways very different, by considering them together five common factors emerge.

One is that the founding political projects of each state had become depleted, leaving dictatorial regimes with little legitimacy and governments reliant on corruption and violence for their survival. Another is that dominant belief systems had been recently transformed, and specifically that there was a turn away from traditionalist interpretations of Islam, a rise of new religious forms that are compatible with democracy, and a powerful demand for autonomy from religious and political leaders alike. A third feature is that the population of each of these societies was young, and the young were politicised. A fourth is the presence of pro-democracy sentiments in international politics (such as the ‘Carter factor’ in Iran or the ‘Obama factor’ in Egypt). Finally, faced with this array of challenges, each state attempted to neutralise or destroy the force motrice of social and political change by either repressing people or making life within the country so otherwise intolerable that they were compelled to emigrate. A phase of protest may begin when a politicised and active population realises that a regime dominates without purpose or legitimacy, and when people realise they have no further future within it. When their readings of the world also change, and if this happens at a time when the regime’s international legitimacy becomes weak, then protests may be transformed into full blown revolutionary processes.

In Tunisia, the Islamic party Ennahdha (Renaissance), and in Egypt the Ekhvan-al-Moslemin (Muslim Brotherhood), have also both been talking about democracy, human rights, and the abolition of gender discrimination.  Here, too, we observe a similar process of transforming systems of belief. We have yet to see whether this transformation is authentic. If it is not, then like Khomeini they may attempt to capture the state to enforce their duty-bound and power-based versions of Islam. If there is a real transformation, however, they may seek to redefine their goals and instead of aiming for political power, orient towards freedom. In this case they would not aim to control the state and operate from within it, but to move into society and advocate Islam as a discourse of freedom. In any case, such an apparent move toward democratic values demonstrates that these parties are aware they will have to reinvent themselves if they want to play a future role in politics. In each case, when the aim of any group of people is to secure their freedom and independence, their goals can only ever be compatible with a liberation Islam and never with Islam as a discourse of power.  Before our eyes, therefore, we have four kinds of Islam: that of velayat-e faqih, that of Al-Qaeda, various forms which are compatible with democracy, and Islam as a discourse of freedom. The common denominator of the first two is violence, and of the second two, democracy.The presence or the absence of viable alternatives for rebuilding a rights-oriented state and society is felt all during a revolution, but becomes acutely felt after it is won.  It is thus a decisive factor, for when revolutionary alternatives are not forthcoming and the other factors above are not themselves transformed, then dictatorship will be able to reconsolidate. Such power always, of course, quickly becomes devoid of any purpose but self-preservation, and hence will move continually towards exhaustion and death. But even in such circumstances, if the process of revolution is continued and initial defeats lead to determined perseverance rather than regret and desperation, then the hopes of freedom and democracy have a real chance of being fulfilled.

States without projects

The power of a state may be grounded in any number of ways: large land ownership, military strength and bureaucracy, religious institutions or alliances with other (often more powerful) states. But a state must also create certain social and political goals for itself in order to secure its legitimacy. In Tunisia, for example, the state project was one of modernisation and secularisation; in Egypt, the construction of Arab Nationalism, the liberation of Palestine and socialism; in pre-revolutionary Iran, modernisation and nationalism; and in post-revolutionary Iran, the project of Islamization.  What unites each of these different ideological projects is that in all cases the state could neither sustain nor advance them in the face of massive social change, and instead sought ways to retain power without the legitimacy of social purpose. We saw this in Mubarak’s regime, which was meant to become a beacon of Arab nationalism, but was expelled from the Arab League after signing a peace treaty with Israel.  The situation was even starker in Iran. During the 1979 revolution, the future regime promised the people democracy, freedom, independence and development; its guiding principles sprang from a new, freedom-oriented form of Islam.  These shaped the first draft of the post-monarchist constitution, which laid out principles for democratic governance, and was prepared and approved by Ayatollah Khomeini himself.  However, a change in international circumstances -- the occupation of American embassy -- provided the power-seeking clergy with an opportunity to write people’s authority out of subsequent drafts, and the constitution changed dramatically as the anti-democratic doctrine of velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist) was enshrined.  Islam, redefined as the ideology of the “supreme leader,” was prioritized over independence, freedom, and development, transforming the revolution into a revolution for an Islam of the clergy. Later, after the Iran-Iraq War had ended and Khomeini had condemned Salman Rushdie to death, he made this power absolute with the creation of velayat-e motlaqhe faqih (the absolute authority of the faqih). It was prioritized even over the fundamental pillars of Islam to such an extent that one of his closest clergymen, Azari Qomi, declared that the supreme leader even had the authority to suspend Tawhid (the oneness of God.)  Since then, the protection of this religious authority has become the Iranian state’s most important obligation, taking priority over all others (ojebe vaajebaat) – and without pretence of seeking popular legitimacy.  In the first presidential election of 1980 in Iran, for example, my ‘radical Islamist’ rival secured only 4 percent of the vote. Since that time, in any relatively free election, the supreme leader’s favoured candidate has never received even 10 percent.  Similar processes have taken place in Egypt and Tunisia in recent years.

When a state becomes devoid of any social and political purposes beyond its own preservation, we can say that it has grown old. Such inflexibility breeds fragility and is one reason why, even when these societies were charged with revolutionary sentiment and purpose, the states proved incapable of reform. Further, when the lion’s share of a state’s budget is absorbed by its military and bureaucracy, it also becomes too cumbersome to accomplish much of anything at all.  Prior to the revolutions in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, each of the states had thus grown ever more distant from its society. Their revenues were drawn not from taxes and domestic production, but through economic relations with other states. In Iran this boiled down to oil income; in Tunisia and Egypt, mainly international aid and foreign debt. This outsourcing of the national economy was so extreme that the relationship between state and society was reversed – society became dependent upon the state for its livelihood, rather than the reverse. In such a society, talent is intolerable as it is perceived as a potential threat to the status quo, and hence the longer a dependent state survives the more inefficient it becomes. A society that cannot provide opportunities for the development of human talents, in which people are therefore regarded as subhuman, becomes a society dominated by humiliation. It is not a sustainable condition.

A new Islam in Islamic countries

Religious faith is a powerful social force – for conservatism and domination, and for creativity and liberation. Its transformation has proven to be an essential factor in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, as it was in the Iranian revolution before. Prior to the revolution in Iran, for example, the dominant forms of traditional Islam, understood by revolutionaries to be rooted in various discourses of power, became major targets of criticism by many intellectuals.  In order to contribute to that critique, Ali Shariati and I met in Paris in 1964.  We both agreed that the existing Islam, which disregarded rights and focused solely on duty in the form of non-reflective and blind obedience, was not compatible with progress and democracy. We agreed that if this reflected the spirit of Islam, we should have the courage to suggest an alternative belief system that could accommodate the development of human talents. After extended study, we agreed that power-based Islam stood in opposition not with Islam itself but with the freedom-based guiding principles of Islam that are stated in the Koran.  To develop this alternative argument, we decided to criticize the existing Islam, while undertaking the task of developing an alternative discourse of Islam, in which I focused on developing Islam as the discourse of freedom.  It was the proposition of an Islam of freedom that to a large extent helped to mobilize the youth.  Many clergy, Khomeini above all, also identified themselves with this new interpretation of Islam.  From his exile in France and in more than 124 interviews, with our guidance, Khomeini formulated such an Islam, openly committing himself to the defence of a faith in which freedom and independence were recognized, human rights would form the foundation of law, and discrimination based on belief, gender, class and ethnicity would be removed. Iran was to become a thoroughly democratic and republican state, in which neither Khomeini nor the clergy would play an executive role.  To take a specific example, despite what is commonly believed about the desire for an Islamic state, the Prophet Muhammad’s aim in Mecca was to build an open society based on a system of councils. This was of course ignored soon after his death. During the 1979 revolution, the earlier project became a point of reference, but as the clergy began to creep into power they also began to forbid this experiment.


That these were not Khomeini’s actual intentions becomes clear if we consider his previous dictatorial views laid bare while he was in exile in Iraq; these later appeared when his positions appeared to change drastically into his doctrine of the velayat-e faqih. But the deeper renaissance of Islam through discourses of freedom had permeated society by this time. It was in part this that allowed the Iranians to overthrow the Shah’s regime through nonviolent methods (the “victory of flowers over bullets”), and this in turn that set precedents for subsequent revolutions in Eastern Europe and now in the Middle East.

However, in my view only Islam as a discourse of freedom can be truly liberating, for it is incompatible with all forms of power, including those that carry the democratic adjective.  This is because such belief is a method through which individuals expand freedom and independence in all areas of life, and must thus be separated entirely from the state, even when the state identifies itself as a right-oriented form of power.

It is not difficult to see that the desire to create an open and transformative society is incompatible with forms of belief that justify the seizure of power through violent means. It is perhaps for this reason that we are observing great transformations of Islam amongst Muslims in Islamic societies. It is also clear that these transformations are part of a process in which people who have been passive become freed from their subservience and begin to take an active role in shaping their destinies, refusing to be humiliated and demanding conditions in which their dignity and rights of citizenship are acknowledged. This is a dramatic shift in the belief systems of these societies, which has contributed to the spread of democratic revolutions.

To build open societies, people need access to guiding principles that are based on and that create discourses and practices of freedom.  One of the most important tasks in all societies today is thus to expand notions of freedom in religious and secular systems of belief.  The free flow of such knowledge may eventually make it possible for people to regain the freedom, independence, and dignity which have been stolen from them by power.  History teaches us that organized struggles that simply aspire to seize the state have often been grounded in ideas which are themselves dictatorial (such as leading society into communism, establishing racial superiority, or forcefully institutionalizing Islam). Such beliefs soon become ideologies, and thus are the first victims of the systems they imagined they would create.  Once these ideas become emptied of their original meaning, it is important that the ideologies which remain are denied opportunities to justify themselves. In any case, apart from the experience of velayt-e-faqih and Al-Qaeda Islam, obviously there is a third experience, that of Turkey, which is undertaken despite having a state that is based on the principle of laicite.  Would Turkey have the same experience if instead of having a laicite state it would have an Islamic state? We don’t know the answer to that.  So we have four different forms of Islam before our eyes: Velayt-e-faqhi Islam, Al-Qaeda Islam, democratic Islam and the Islam as a discourse of freedom which was presented in 1979 Iranian revolution.

The foreign factor

Foreign relations play a key role in determining how far the hollow ideologies of dictatorships can actually go, particularly when we notice that these states are left with only one internal base, whether it is economic (like large land ownership), political (such as a monarchy) or cultural (for example, the clergy). In all cases, such states are distanced from their people and thus have to develop an external base of support in the form of dependency on foreign powers through either exporting oil or importing aid.  In protests in Iran last year, people with the dualist slogan made this clear: ‘Obama – you are either with us, or with them [the regime].’ More recently, Egyptians made the same demand.  And in Libya, Gadaffi’s son, Saif-Eslam, threatened that if the people did not stop protesting the United States would occupy the country. In other words, in the throes of revolution, both the state and the people were demanding the support of the United States and Europe.  In my view, the right policy would be one of non-interference, accompanied by a policy of defending human rights. Such a policy is incompatible with military intervention, which can trap a country in a civil war; hence, the prospect of establishing democracy in Libya is extremely dim.  After all, democracy cannot be imposed externally, as it can only be developed with the active participation of the people themselves. Still, we have seen that American society is not prepared endorse dictatorship – there seems to be a sense that the only way to diminish the threat of terrorism and stem flows of immigration is to support democratisation and development in these countries. The American government is also unable to effectively support such dictatorial states. To some extent, it no longer requires them to exist politically, and economically speaking it cannot oppose their development when this is regarded as necessary for the expansion of global markets. And when, as in the 1979 Iranian revolution, the CIA failed to predict the rising tide of revolution in North Africa and the Middle East, people in these countries realized that the American government was ill prepared to confront the new situation. Yet it matters that Obama’s government demonstrates it is not willing to support dictatorship. The young people have paid attention to this significant point.

Youth on the move

The wave of revolutions from North Africa to the borders of Pakistan is an indicator that young people in these countries are on the move, and moving towards what might be seen as an international revolution. Other contemporary popular movements, after all, share many of their more universal ideals. When a dictatorial system become incapable of either neutralising or destroying the dynamism of the young, then this energy may be reoriented towards transforming society. But for this possibility to be realized, one last factor must fall into place: the development of political principles and methods that will allow these young people to create new forms of society that are open and transformative. In order to do this, they should develop an independence of thought and the ability to make free and autonomous decisions (in other words, a free intellect.)  They should be committed to studying the real condition of existence, and not accepting mediated versions of reality that distort them through prisms of power.  They should also struggle against censorship in all its forms, as this prevents both clarity of understanding and independence of judgement.  Such transformations need to be accompanied by a spirit of friendship and companionship that can cross borders of class, gender and ethnicity, and that resists all forms of discrimination. They also require a commitment to ending violence in society, to reducing and diminishing violence wherever it is perpetrated.  Such changes will make it possible to develop a love of creativity and initiation, and of spontaneity (without which creation cannot be). And finally, the youth should retain idealism and hope, and the capacity to imagine other, brighter and more open futures. While such principles are necessarily revolutionary, they are even more important in projects of social transformation today. For these are precisely the principles that are being ever more repressed by systems of neoliberal power, which reduce human beings to labour machines rather than recognizing them as collections of such talents and possibilities.

The revolutionary situation

What do we see in Tunisia and Egypt, as in Iran before? A weakly-externalized, dependent state with a discredited ideology, commanding an increasingly corrupt rentier structure and shrinking social base, depleted of any goals other than its own preservation, becomes confronted by a society that has developed specific goals of its own.  Such confrontations are irreconcilable for states fearful of flexibility, and this inflexibility is transformed into a further motivation for popular resistance.  The inflexibility of these regimes not only ensured the rise of revolution, but also its victory.  As foreign powers are either unwilling or unable to prop up the dying regime, or in the hope of damage limitation moves towards the people, this too becomes a source of strength for struggle. Most importantly, these confrontations have emerged within major moments of cultural change.  The transformation of religious faith which now embraces ideals of human independence, freedom, dignity and rights both provides people with a critical lens through which to view the actual character of the regimes they are struggling against, and some prospective ways of conceiving of the future society.   Contrary to popular fears, the faith of freedom is more powerful than that of power – there is a reason that the Islam of Iran’s ‘flower-over-bullet’ revolution gained mass support, while the intrinsically violent Islam of Al-Qaeda has become so despised among the absolute majority of Muslims around the world. Finally, in all such confrontations and struggles, a majestic moment of decision will arrive, and the military, state bureaucracy and even some forces that have been directly involved in oppression will be faced with a historical choice.  They have to choose between recognizing the decisive willpower of the people for change, and loyalty to the inflexibility of a dying regime.  When they move away from the state and join the people, the regime collapses.

But what might happen then? One additional point must be made, for it is often raised. Iran’s initially successful democratic revolution was soon thereafter reconstructed into another form of dictatorship. Is this inevitable? After all, people tell me – this seems to be the fate of revolution: following the French revolution, the Bolshevik (if we consider the final capture of the Russian state by the Bolsheviks a revolution, rather than a coup), and in Iran, the enthronement of the absolute rule of the jurist (velayate motlageh faqih). Such reconstitutions of dictatorship and the spread of violence are not natural results of revolution as such – but they are predictable consequences of the resilience of underlying structures and cultures of dictatorship and closed forms of thought and social action. In Iran, for example, it was made possible when violence became sanctioned in multiple ways by the articulation of multiple threats (such as the occupation of the US embassy, economic sanctions, and the Iraqi invasion), implemented through new ‘revolutionary’ institutions (such as the Revolutionary Guards and newly-armed Stalinist organisations), and the dominance of discourses of power (such as velayat-e faqih or the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’) over new discourses of freedom. It is thus important to understand any revolutionary movement as an ongoing process of de-violentization and transformation in all areas of social and political life.