Today we welcome a guest post from Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, author of In a Pure Muslim Land: Shi’ism between Pakistan and the Middle East, publishing this April from UNC Press.
Centering Pakistan in a story of transnational Islam stretching from South Asia to the Middle East, Simon Wolfgang Fuchs offers the first in-depth ethnographic history of the intellectual production of Shiʿis and their religious competitors in this “Land of the Pure.” The notion of Pakistan as the pinnacle of modern global Muslim aspiration forms a crucial component of this story. It has empowered Shiʿis, who form about 20 percent of the country’s population, to advance alternative conceptions of their religious hierarchy while claiming the support of towering grand ayatollahs in Iran and Iraq.
In a Pure Muslim Land is available for pre-order now.
Tehran, Beirut, Lahore: The Party Capitals of the Iranian Revolution
The Iranian Revolution of February 1979 continues to baffle us. On its fortieth anniversary, there is widespread incomprehension in the US and Europe why the Iranian people went for a ride with the Mullahs. Why on earth did a country that was seemingly on the verge of becoming the next South Korea willingly pull the emergency brake on its bullet train to modernity? Nostalgia looms large when observers point out that in an alternate version of history, Iranian women would still be wearing miniskirts and bathing suits instead of “black tents”. Why did Iran’s people have more faith in bearded clerics than in their dashing former leader, the Shah, who turned the Swiss winter resort of St. Moritz every year into the European extension of his imperial glamour? When one follows the coverage of the Iranian Revolution, disillusionment and failure are the catchwords of the day. Analyses and features underline that the Revolution did not live up to its promises and the initial excitement. The upheaval surely devoured its own children, meaning liberals, leftists, and dissident clerics, who were driven into exile, arrested, or executed. Think tanks and analysts have long predicted that the regime will ultimately collapse, that repression and economic hardship will mean that Iran, the pariah in the international system, is doomed. In sum, the Revolution was an experiment that went terribly wrong. It never managed to catch on outside the borders of Iran, with the notable exception perhaps of the Lebanese Hezbollah.
A different picture emerged recently, on the evening of February 10, in the Pakistani city of Lahore. Hundreds of Shi‘ite men and women had assembled in the sprawling, shiny complex of a major religious institution. Each participant wore a headband that read “I am a revolutionary” in Persian. Pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei adorned the walls. Iconic images from 1978 and early 1979 flashed on a big screen in front of the audience. A giant bouquet of bright red flowers next to the stage spelled out in Pakistan’s national language Urdu that this was not a mere commemoration but indeed a celebration of the Iranian Revolution. An Iranian cleric hailed the fortieth anniversary as a testimony to the depth of Ayatollah Khomeini’s analysis of the time and as a manifestation of Muslim unity and Islamic resistance. This view was amply echoed by prominent Sunni speakers, who praised Iran’s uniqueness in the world and its striving for the dignity and rights of the downtrodden masses. Iran, in their words, remained the only existing Islamic state.
In my forthcoming book, In a Pure Muslim Land. Shiʿism between Pakistan and the Middle East, I explain this continuing appeal and luster of Iran’s revolutionary moment. I argue that we are ill-advised to downplay the implications of 1979. As I show in the context of Pakistan, whose Shi‘ites make up roughly forty million people, the full influence was not visible until the early 2010s. Around this time, a new generation of Pakistani Shi‘ite scholars emerged, who was fully educated in Iran and finally aimed at implementing the Iranian lesson in their own country. If we only focus on the early history of the Revolution, the war with Iraq from 1980-1988, or the rise of the reformist movement in Iran during the 1990s, we miss these crucial and long-term global effects. At the same time, sectarian Sunni organizations in Pakistan had realized the danger of Khomeini’s appeal much earlier. They responded by adopting and reworking Shi‘ite symbols and slogans. In “sunnitizing” the Revolution, they were trying to turn the tables against the Shi‘ites and to make the case that the latter had no role to play in their sectarian vision of Pakistan.
Even forty years later, the Iranian Revolution manages to polarize. Critique and sober analysis of the country and its undemocratic theocratic-republican system is surely warranted. A triumphant attitude, however, that revels in the mullahs’ failures and ridicules Iran’s self-view of providing an alternative political system comes with costs. It would mean that we miss much more than just a flashing revolutionary party in Lahore.