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Iran’s protesters are secularizing the 1979 revolution

What we see happening in Iran is the emergence of a new discourse that combines old traditions and new ideas that will strengthen a home-grown democracy.

SalamPix/ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Iranian demonstrators set fire to the building of Hozeh Elmieh whilst protesting high prices and the poor state of the economy under President Hassan Rouhani. Qazvin, Takistan, Iran, January 01, 2018. SalamPix/ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Through the slogans chanted by protestors one can clearly see that large sections of the Iranian public no longer have hope in reform and, unlike in the Green movement, are directly targeting the political system of the regime. 

They are not only determined to overthrow the dictatorial religious state, but are saying that they want "independence and freedom" in a new-model Iranian Republic without ‘Islamism’.  They are loyal to the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution, but are now demanding a secular version of it. 

Furthermore, the new constitution being introduced by secular and Islamic opposition separates state from religion and does not include any official religion. As Abolhassan Banisadr has repeatedly argued, the religion that was usurped by the state should return to its real place, the hearts of believers.

Iran will soon see the birth of a home grown and secular democracy.

All the indicators are telling us that even if these protests recede in the short term, Iran will soon see the birth of a home grown and secular democracy.

One of the main slogans during the 1979 Revolution was “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic!” In numerous interviews made while he was in Paris at the time, and distributed all over Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini stated that Iran would become a democratic country under the Islamic Republic and that the legitimacy of the system would come from popular votes and observation of human rights. 

Khomeini repeatedly stated that in an Islamic Republic, freedom of expression would be guaranteed within a culture of free and pluralistic debate, and that Iran would be a republic like France. 

Khomeini emphasised democracy and freedom to such an extent that a leftist magazine, Nouvel Observateur, published his picture on the front page with the title ’Ayatollah Liberté’. Not ‘Ayatollah liberal’, but ‘liberté’. [1]

The Iranian public were therefore led to believe that they would achieve independence, freedom and democracy through the Islamic Republic. Yet as soon as Khomeini returned to Iran, the clergy around him began to do away with the unprecedented freedoms that had emerged after the dictatorial monarchy was overthrown. 

The ensuing struggle between dictatorial and democratic fronts within the country’s leadership lasted for more than two years. The last nail in the coffin was when the newly elected president was overthrown in a coup in June 1981 after refusing to stay silent about the destruction of freedoms.

The same people who had put faith in the Islamic Republic soon learned that the state was using religion to justify widespread and ongoing repression.

The same people who had put faith in the Islamic Republic soon learned through everyday experience that the state, as an institution and an instrument of power, was using religion to justify widespread and ongoing repression.

They saw that this exploitation transformed religion from a form of human spiritual expression into a brutal dogma under which violent policies were carried out.

When Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997, many people decided to give the Islamic Republic another chance to embrace freedom and liberty while maintaining its status as a ‘religious state’. 

However, not only did the president fail to fulfil his campaign promises; he also acquiesced to the addition of extra-constitutional powers of ‘executive order’ to the Supreme Leader’s authority. 

While Khatami even described himself as an "errand boy", the taste of power was too strong for him to resign. The result was a curbing of already limited freedoms and, with Khatami’s consent, a brutal crushing of student protests in 1999.

This not only finished off the ‘reformist project’, but enabled the Supreme Leader to engineer the presidency of a more populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Again, Khatami submissively gave his consent to the fraudulent election.

By this time, Iranian society had learned through the reformists’ extensive 'education' about the 1979 Revolution to equate revolution with violence and repression, and had developed a deep aversion towards the possibility of another revolution. 

Consequently, when the Ahmadinejad’s second presidential term was engineered, many people confined their protest to the question ‘Where is my vote?’ In the second term, this was also brutally crushed.

The reformist movement was dead, but stayed alive in a zombie form by dominating opposition discourse and support for ‘moderate’ Hassan Rouhani's presidency. Large sections of Iranian society again decided to give the regime another chance.

Rouhani then failed to fulfil his own promises. The Iran-US nuclear deal failed to deliver a golden goose. Worse yet, against his promises, his budget prioritized the clergy, religious institutions and Revolutionary Guards at the expense of ordinary people who were suffering from chronic unemployment and poverty as well as insecure jobs. This coincided with an increasingly acrimonious war within the regime and the ineptitude of the supreme leader to put an end to it. 

The most downtrodden people in society then reached the conclusion that the problem was not with any of the regime’s particular factions, but with the regime itself. The opportunity for protest against the regime as a whole arose when a well-known monarchist leader outside of Iran, Javad Khadem, tried to organize a protest around economic grievences in the city of Mashhad. 

The Revolutionary Guard tried to extradite this for their own purpose. Before the demonstration, they arrested the four monarchist organizers and prepared to infiltrate the protest with pro-monarchist chants in order to suggest that Rouhani’s harsh economic policies were pushing people towards the monarchists. Yet as soon as the demonstration started, many thousands of people spontaneously joined in and began to chant against the regime.  

As the regime was taken by surprise and could not seize control of social media in time, news about the demonstration spread across the country, particularly into the small towns that are suffering most under harsh economic conditions.

The slogans these demonstrators chanted gives us some insight into the nature and goals of these protests. As a whole, there are two kinds: chants about hardship and the regime’s corruption; and strategic political chants which reflect political views in more than seventy towns and cities where demonstrations have taken place. 

In the city of Qom, the main centre of Islamic schooling and one of the most traditional and religious cities in the country, people were chanting “We don’t want the Islamic Republic.” In other cities, they chanted: “They have turned Islam into a stairway (to rise to power) and made people miserable” and demanded that the clergy leave the country alone

The shift in aim from discontent with parts of the regime to a rejection of the regime itself is best exemplified in certain slogans that have been heard all over the country, including: “Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic”, “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei”.

Finally, there is one thing we did not hear in the demonstrations: the chant of ‘Allah Akbar’. This slogan was chanted incessantly during the 1979 Revolution and reflected its spiritual and non-violent nature. Since then, these words have been expropriated by both the Iranian regime and terrorist organisations, which commit heinous acts in their name.

Today’s protestors thus removed the slogan from the political scene. The secularisation of revolution demands the liberation of these words from violence and the reclamation of them as an expression of spirituality and connection with intelligent life and absolute being. It is a return to “political spirituality”, which the French intellectual Michael Foucault once described during the Iranian Revolution:

“for the people who inhabit this land, what is the point of searching, even at the cost of their own lives, for this thing whose possibility we have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity, a political spirituality. I can already hear the French laughing, but I know that they are wrong.”[2]

The marriage of religion and state has failed miserably. It failed because the power of the state expropriated religion to justify horrendous acts and in the process alienated religion from spiritual expression and paths offering alternatives to futures of violence, hate and fear.

What we see happening in Iran, in its prisons, in thousands of debating groups in houses and student camps in the mountains, deserts and forests, is the emergence of a new discourse that combines old traditions and new ideas to strengthen a home-grown democracy. Its regional and global ramifications cannot be overestimated.


[1] First published in Le Nouvel Observateur,October 16-22, 1978.

[2] Michel Foucault, ‘What are the Iranians dreaming about?’ in Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 208. 

About the author

Mahmood Delkhasteh has a sociology doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently working on a new book based on his doctoral dissertation, Islamic Discourses of Power and Freedom in the Iranian Revolution, 1979-81. He has held lecturing positions at the American University—Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan) and Kingston University (UK). He presently works as an independent researcher, columnist and political activist.


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