September 27, 2003


REGIME CHANGE IN IRAN: A REASSESSMENT: A quarter-century ago, Iran underwent a regime change, which became one of the main factors shaping the Middle East's subsequent history. What does this case study show us about regime changes in general and the nature of Iran's revolution itself? (Barry Rubin, June 2003, Middle East Review of International Affairs)

The politics and ideologies dominating the region can best be seen as the product of two great regime-changing revolutions: Egypt in 1952 and Iran in 1979, respectively. Explicitly or implicitly, these major innovations were taken as exemplars of the proper ideology and methodology for seizing and holding power. They were not merely political revolutions but also represented comprehensive worldviews and paradigm shifts.

Now advocates of a third revolution have appeared, though they are still far more prevalent in the United States than in the Middle East. This third revolution would be one which advocated as its main features: democracy, moderation, human rights and civil liberties, a more free enterprise economy, friendship with the West, and peace with Israel, among other features. It is the model that has basically triumphed in most of the world, but certainly not in the Middle East. The idea is that Iraq would be a starting point and would then become a model whose success would encourage others to follow in its path.

One could argue that the failure of the two old revolutions in their own countries would encourage--indeed, make inevitable--their abandonment as a model for other places. The fact that the Arab world and Iran have suffered so many failures and defeats in the last half-century, while not attaining any of their major goals, should be very persuasive arguments. That this has not happened is due to many factors, though it can be most simply explained by the regimes' determination and clever strategy in maintaining the beliefs that justify their existence.

What is undeniable, though, is that even today, the overwhelming majority of Arabs--though, ironically, not necessarily most Iranians--still see the two frameworks represented by these past revolutions as the very foundation of their political views and even of their personal self-image. Although the product of these two revolutions--Arab nationalism and Islamism--can be seen as rival interpretations, they also have a great deal in common. They seek to answer the same question, solve the same problem, and share the same goals. Their sense of right and wrong, friends and enemies, methods and prescriptions, overlap far more than they conflict.

Both movements spawned by these two different revolutions attempted to answer the same basic question and provide the answer to it: Why were the Arabs, Iranians, and Muslims in general behind the West? How could they catch up and surpass the West? While the prescriptions were not entirely the same, both rested on revolt, mobilization, and conflict with the West.

While both could be said to embrace value-neutral technology, and Arab nationalism took the ideology of nationalism from the West (as well as other techniques from the Communist states), both also rejected the basic path taken by Western Europe and North America. A path which includes embracing such concepts as democracy combined with free enterprise, an emphasis on moderation and gradual reform, and a defense of the individual's rights against the state.

In this process of surpassing the West, democratic rule and moderation in general were largely discredited as useful tools for Arabs or Muslims in pursuit of their dreams. Cooperation with the West and with the existing political order was seen as illegitimate, though in practice often pursued. The proper goals of Arab politics were seen as being the expulsion of Western influence, the unity of all Arabs (and of all Muslims for the later Islamists), the destruction of Israel, mobilization of the masses from above, a statist and socialist-style approach to economic development, all under the aegis of a charismatic leader.

The problem with Islam is obvious enough to most sensible observers: it is too totalitarian, in the non-pejorative sense. That is to say that because of the unique circumstances of its early success and the fact that Mohammed actually took control of the State, it became not a counterbalancing authority and a social institution, but a state authority. But the answer to too much totalitarianism can hardly be, as Islamicism assumes, to become more totalitarian. If the 20th Century served any useful purpose--a dubious proposition--it demonstrated the ultimate unwokability of statism/totalitarianism and the inferiority of any and every such system--whether communist, Nazi, socialist, or Islamic--to liberal democracy. When History came to its End, that end was the conclusion that:
What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
-"X" (Francis Fukuyama), The End of History? (The National Interest)

It must be apparent then that the first two revolutions referenced above--the national socialist and the Islamicist--are and were doomed to failure.

Now, it is the very great tragedy of the Islamic world that its period of decolonialization and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire happened to occur at just the time when elites in the West had despaired of liberal democracy and embraced totalitarianism themselves. As Paul Berman writes in Terror and Liberalism, Islam simply adopted the very worst ideas of Western modernity, BOOKNOTES: Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman (C-SPAN, June 22, 2003):

LAMB: OK, then go to the politicized version. What are the things that would be required in a society for them to say, OK, we`ll stop the terrorism?

BERMAN: Well, I mean, the goal of the terrorism, as conceived of by the followers of this kind of thinking -- the goal of the terrorism is to advance the notion of jihad, which is the struggle for Islam, as conceived in this version, and the goal plainly -- I mean, the goal is at different levels. At one level, it`s -- it`s really to destroy the kinds of societies that are not upholding the principles of this version of Islamism.

LAMB: Those principles are?

BERMAN: Those principles -- well, the principles of this kind of Islam -- let me explain further that I`m saying -- other people would answer this question by saying that the goals of this kind of terrorism are specific political goals, that the goals are to force Israel to withdraw its settlements or to force the United States to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia or to force certain other specific kinds of political issues. But that`s not actually how I understand the movement. My understanding of the movement is really that the goals are much larger, much more revolutionary than that, that if those relatively small things were the goals, they could be approached in a rather different way.

The goal really is to -- is to make a revolution all over the world. And the reason I speak about totalitarianism and why I`m interested in Camus and the philosophers of totalitarianism, theorists about totalitarianism from 50 years ago or so, is this, that I think that the radical Islamist movement is a totalitarian movement in a 20-century style, that -- my theory is this, that after World War I, a whole series of extremely revolutionary movements arose, and they arose for the purpose of overthrowing what I think of as the essentially liberal doctrines -- not liberal in the right-wing, left-wing version, but liberal in the sense of -- the liberal doctrines of -- of Western culture.

And by the liberal doctrines, I mean the notion of the separation of church and state, the notion that there should be a difference between the private and the public, the difference between the government and the society, the difference between the government and -- and economics, the notion that in one`s own mind, we can think in different -- in different categories at the same time, that in part of your mind you could be religious, and in another part of your mind, you can be scientific or rationalist. It`s the notion that -- that a society -- the liberal idea is the notion that a society based on those ideas will -- will progress. You can offer progress for -- for all mankind everywhere. This had been a large governing idea throughout the 19th century. And it wasn`t in practice everywhere, but people subscribed to this idea and had a great faith in it. There was some reason to have a faith in it.

World War I came along, and the idea came to seem preposterous because World War I was so horrible, so industrialist -- industrially murderous that -- that people who were thinking in those old terms of the liberal optimism in the 19th century were unable to conceive it -- conceive of it, unable to explain it. And as a result, in the years after the war, a series of movements arose which were rebellions against the old liberal idea. Each of those movements had the same idea, which was to overthrow liberal civilization and replace it with a civilization of a different sort, rock-like, granite, without any separation of spheres, a single sphere, permanent, unchanging, eternal, governed by a leader with a single organization or a single party and -- and like that.

LAMB: Name the -- just for examples, the leaders and the countries you`re talking about.

BERMAN: Right. The first of these movements was Lenin`s, and the movement was Bolshevism or the Communist Party, and then Lenin to Stalin. The next of them was Mussolini, who founded the fascist movement in Italy a very few years later. Franco, with the fascist movement of Spain, Hitler with the Nazi movement in Germany, the Iron Guard in Romania, the extreme right in France, and so forth, through almost every country in -- through every country in Europe and many countries around the world. And each of these movements was different from each of the others.

At the time, if anybody had said to you there`s something in common between the Bolshevism of Lenin and the Fascism of Mussolini, they would have said that`s -- that`s preposterous. Those movements are opposite. But from our perspective now, looking back on them, we should be able to see that all of those movements had a lot in common. And what they had in common was this urge to rebel against liberal civilization, the principles of liberal separation of spheres, replace that with a rock-like, granite society, the permanent, unchanging society with the single party, the single leader, and so forth.

So each of those movements had, in this respect, the same idea. They all arose in the years -- in the immediate years after World War I. They -- those movements all arose in Europe. But at the same time, the same inspiration spread to the Muslim world, and it spread into the Muslim world in -- a kind of Muslim totalitarianism arose which had all of the main principles of totalitarianism in Europe. It arose in the 1920s and `30s. It had different strands. One of those strands is the one that was finally given a theoretical shape by Said Qutb in his commentary on the Quran. Another of those strands is the one that finally evolved into the Ba`ath Party of Saddam Hussein. But these different strands really had a lot in common.

But in any case, they had the same idea as each of the European totalitarian movements, which was to effect a revolution in the world everywhere, not just to effect a few more -- a few local reforms, not just to -- not just to make a few political demands on someone, maybe be a little rough about it, but to advance one`s cause in a reformist or small fashion, not just to get a slightly bigger slice of the pie, but instead to make a complete revolution that was going to change thoroughly the whole of mankind.

LAMB: So Lenin and Mussolini and Hitler and others all had the same goal as the Islamists do?

BERMAN: In this deepest of ways...

LAMB: In the big -- in the overall...

BERMAN: In the -- in the overall, deepest of ways, they have the same goal. In all other ways, once we leave the very deepest level, they each had different goals and -- and one opposite from the other, and they -- one fought wars with the other, and each one was different. But at the very deepest way, it was all the same.

And this deepest way was to overthrow liberal civilization, replace it with a different kind of modernity, which was -- that is to say, a different kind of modern society, benefiting from science and technological advance but which, unlike liberal society, was going to be solid, without any internal divisions, without any feelings of skepticism or doubt, a society that would be absolutely perfect, without cracks or contradictions, a society therefore that would last forever, or as the Nazis would say, a thousand years.

This is sad enough, that the horrifically dysfunctional ideologies around which Islamic politics has organized itself are a product of Western intellectuals, but what's even worse is that these selfsame folk are still wallowing in their generations long crisis of confidence and seem unable to recognize the End of History, the failure of their utopian dreams, and the need to loudly and confidently reassert the superiority of Western wisdom circa 1776. Every time some nitwit academic opens his/her mouth and natters on about the validity of other cultures and all we have to learn from them and denigrates our own, they reinforce the notion that other nations have other options. They don't.

The remaining totalitarianisms of the world--be they communist, national socialist or Islamicist--have to liberalize and become Western if they are to enjoy any kind of future worth having. They have wandered down cultural dead-ends and must change or perish. Multi-culturalists do them no favor by lying to them--wittingly or un--about the relative value of other systems. The outcome of the clash of civilizations is predetermined; all we're in the process of deciding now, as we have been for two hundred plus years, is how much damage is incurred before those who diverge from Western norms are brought into line.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2003 6:55 AM

The notion that Islam has organized itself around western ideologies -- of any kind -- is absurd.

First, historically, the bahavior of Muslims today is completely consistent with the behavior of Muslims 700 or 1,300 years ago.

Second, although people posting on this blog have displayed a stupefying range of opinion about what the bad western ideologies of the 20th century actually consisted of, even in that wealth of options it would be hard to find any close examples in the Islamic world.

Wittfogel's notions of oriental despostism, though out of favor (and out of print) are closer than any of the western forms of totalitarianism, including Wittfogel's own.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 30, 2003 2:59 AM

Yet Saddam considered himself an inheritor of Stalin and Hitler. Strange....

Posted by: oj at September 30, 2003 8:06 AM

Harry, if you are saying that Mohammed was like Arafat or Assad or (fill in the blank), alternately using religious fervor and sheer oppression to control his people, you are absolutely correct. I have waited to see that point made in the media, but I guess none of them want to wind up like Salman Rushdie.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 30, 2003 11:17 PM