The Left and the Mullahs in Iran
23 Jan 2009
- After the Iranian revolution, Marxist-Leninist “OIPFG” (People’s Organisation of Fedayeen Guerrillas), the most popular leftist movement of contemporary Iranian history, is a typical example of such stigma. Needless to say, there were leftist intellectuals and small groups who did not bow to the supremacy of Khomeini. In this article, the word “left or leftist” will only refer to the pro-Soviet political bodies, namely the Tudeh Party and a faction of OIPFG, called Majority. They were both engineered by the Kremlin to unconditionally support the “anti-American” Islamic Revolutionaries of Iran (IRI). Majority was created resulting from a split in the OIPFG in 1980. The other part of this organisation, called Minority, continued fighting the “bourgeois” IRI alongside several other leftist groups; these opposition groups were systematically and gradually slaughtered, dispelled, or dismantled by the regime.
The OIPFG was founded by a group of young educated or student revolutionaries at the end of the 1960s. It proclaimed its struggle in 1971, when a group of armed Fedayeens captured a rural police station called “Siahkal”. Regarding the absolute dictatorship of the Shah’s regime, they believed that acquiring freedom and social justice can only occur within armed struggles of the revolutionary vanguard, which, in turn, will culminate in a mass revolution. Other “non-violent” ways were considered complaisant and ineffective, both due to the failed experiences of Tudeh Party and Front National (a large pro-Mossadegh spectrum). These two main opposition groups were not able to mobilise people against the Shah’s absolute dictatorship.
Considering the international unrest of the 1960s, the terms, like terrorism, adventurism, petit bourgeois utopia etc., were not labels of such armed movements at that time. France and Germany were overwhelmed by student demonstrations in May 1968, almost causing a revolutionary situation in France. Numerous left-wing groups emerged in Germany, Italy, France and other Western countries. Armed groups like the IRA in North Ireland and ETA in Basque were involved in armed struggles. Revolutionary activities in Latin America attracted popular support in European youth. Their struggles were considered a “heroic” exercise of people’s freedom. Even European states (especially those headed by Socialist or Social Democratic parties) had to consider the sympathy of their intelligentsia for such revolutionary and anti-American movements. Castro’s idea of “bullets, not ballots, were the way to achieve power” had political sense. Régis Debray became Mitterrand’s adviser for Latin America. He was a co-fighter of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 and a revolutionary author whose book, ”Revolution in Revolution”, inspired the Fedayeens.
Needless to say that armed struggles were then spared of any connotation of terrorism or political Islam. A great number of Western youth with leftist or alternative worldview had sympathy for Palestine Liberation Front; they used to wear a Palestinian scarf as a sign of their solidarity with Palestinian militants. The Front represented more than a passing similarity to today’s appealing Islamist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Although the socio-economic conditions, that favoured armed struggles in Latin America, were not similar to those of an Islamic society like Iran, the Fedayeens’ armed struggle was largely inspired from the communist revolutionary experiences in Latin America. They theorised that armed struggles would promote a mass revolution in Iran as happened in Cuba. There is not a page of history from the early founders of Fedayeens dealing with Islam and its role in such a revolution. In their analyses, an important social factor like Islam is completely absent.
Contrary to some priests in Latin America, Mullahs in Iran could never reconcile with collectivism, socialism and materialism of the left. From Safavid Dynasty to the Shah (except under 16-year Reza Shah‘s reign), the Iranian clergy or Mullahs have always created a common bond with the monarchy. This alliance was later used by colonial powers to keep the status quo. A 16-year period under Reza Shah aside, Mullahs have been growing their socio-political power since the compelling “Shiitisation” of Iran by the Safavids in 16th century. In the 1960s, Ayatollah Khomeini opposed Shah’s land reform and right of voting to women; hence, he organized an Islamic movement opposed to Shah’s “un-Islamic reforms.”
Neither Tudeh party, a pro-USSR party, nor Marxist-Leninist OIPFG, could introduce Marx’s view, that "Religion is the opiate of the masses”, into their social analyses; instead, they considered “anti-imperialist” Muslim movements as their strategic allies. It is no wonder then that, after the Iranian revolution, the leftist Tudeh Party and the Majority (non-pro-Soviet)—despite their previous rivalry and deepening friction—came together to unconditionally support “anti-imperialist” Khomeini and his Islamist movement, until these “profane atheists”, like other leftists, succumbed under Khomeini’s Islamic sword in 1982.
Their blind support of the Islamic regime reached a treacherous level, namely their collaboration with the repressive Islamists and right-wing paramilitary thugs of the regime, who were engaged in a nationwide campaign of identifying and arresting the “agents of imperialism”. Many thousands of these so-called “agents”, including a number of minors, were executed. A great number of these victims were teens or young people, who were murdered for demanding basic freedom and democracy.
The working class, that these pseudo-leftists pretended to support, lost the little rights they had won during the revolution, which they attempted, in vain, to keep after the revolution. Their new independent trade unions were banned and replaced by Islamic societies formed by the Ministry of Labour. Their profit share and bonuses, established under the Shah, were nullified. The right of strike was disbanded. Wages remained low; many factories were shut down; and their workers were fired without any unemployment benefit. As they took to protests, many workers were arrested, jailed, and executed by the Islamic regime. Still, this spectrum of the left continued supporting the Mullahs’ regime.
For this genre of the Iranian left, things like human rights, individual freedom, women’s rights etc. were not any concern. They were preoccupied with divisions based on class, ideology, and any class-related antagonistic factors. In this perspective, they argued that the domestic capitalists consistently represented interests of the imperialists and all that mattered; the role of Mullahs and their traditional ties with feudalism and traditional capitalism was selectively ignored. In his famous book, History of Thirty Years, Bijan Jazani, a founder of Marxist-Leninist OIPFG, gave an overwhelmingly credit to Ayatollah Khomeini as a “revolutionary” Mullah of “petite bourgeoisie”. The 14 centuries-old Islamic laws, Sharia, under Khomeini’s “Velayt-e-Faghih” (God’s state), which was described in Khomeini’s book was amazingly ignored by the left from then on. Khomeini had these fascist, misogynist, and anti-socialist ideas before the 1979 revolution; still, he was accepted and praised by a spectrum of the left as a symbol of struggle against the Shah. To conclude, Islam as a divisive or a monolithic factor was not taken into account by these leftists.
The British colonists, in their attempt to maintain commercial monopolies and economic resources in Iran, played their part in propping up the Mullahs too. They used religion to maintain their hold over the vast colonies. When democratically elected popular Iranian PM Mossadegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, putting this vital resource out of the British hand, the US-UK engineered a coup that ousted PM Mossadegh. He was replaced by the Shah, a despot. The clergy, led by mighty Ayatollah Kashani—an influential Mullah, who had already sworn to topple the democratically elected government—played a vital role in ousting Mossadeqh.
The establishment of the communist states in the 20th century was—for some leftist Muslim activists like the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran—a pole of anti-colonialism, a political alliance to bolster an anti-capitalist, anti-West front, whereas for Shiite Mullahs (like Khomeini), “communism is the atheism” and hence was demonised as a “Kufr” (profanity). The emergence of Marxism was seen by Islamic movements, especially by the Iranian Mullahs, as an alien demon to undermine the religious society. Although the Islamist political entities have Stalinist methods of organisation, they are more anti-communist than anti-West. The atheist culture and legacy of communism is a much bigger problem and more dangerous enemy than Western colonialism. Communism has always remained the main challenge to any Islamic political body in the favour of the colonial power of British Empire or US hegemony.
This anti-socialist character of Islamic movements in general and particularly that of Shiite Mullahs in Iran was the missing link, which could not connect a big spectrum of Iranian left with the reality. They fell into the Khomeini’s trap, what finally cost them thousands of lives besides a bad reputation.
Born in Iran, Jahanshah Rashidian studied psychology in France and is currently a German national. He is a freelancer and writes on democracy, secularism, and human rights issues in several languages. He maintains a blog at Jahanshah Rashidian.