The Religious Revolution of the 1970s: The Case of Iran

The Religious Revolution of the 1970s: The Case of Iran September 30, 2016

I have been doing a series of posts about the global revival of religious politics during the mid-1970s. As part of this, I have offered a framework for what was happening at this time, suggesting why discontent being expressed in those traditional religious forms. Throughout, we must stress the effects of the 1973-75 economic crisis.

At many points, Iran’s religious politics offer a surprisingly close analogy to the US pattern. One of the pivotal events of this era was the 1979 revolution against the regime of the Shah, a movement that stirred Islamist sentiment worldwide, and by no means only among Shi’ites. If we trace the origins of that movement, we see many points of similarity with the model I offered recently.

What was new in the Iran of the late 1970s was not that Islamic beliefs and political ideologies came into existence, but rather they came into public view after long repression. As in the West too, it was especially threats to values of gender and family that proved most explosive.

At first sight, we might think that the rapid rise in oil prices after 1973 should have been an enormous boom to major producer nations like Iran, and should have enriched their regimes. In the short term, the Shah’s government did indeed profit mightily, but that did not prevent growing economic grievances fueling anti-government protests.

From the 1950s, the Shah’s regime was strongly devoted to modernization and Westernization, which attracted populist resentment. In some ways, the Shah’s economic policies did indeed increase prosperity, boosted by enviable oil wealth, but the resulting urban growth and mass migration caused severe disruption. Between 1955 and 1980, the population of Tehran alone swelled from 1.5 million to almost five million, not counting major growth in suburbs and satellite towns. Government services could never keep pace with this growth, leaving millions of newly urbanized residents in desperate need of facilities for health, education and social welfare – services that in many cases they found from their local mosques. With a characteristic Third World demographic profile, Iranian fertility rates in this era were approaching 7.0 children per woman, with the consequence that large numbers of adolescents and young adults faced poverty and unemployment, and were easily available to be recruited by protest movements.

Urban poverty and despair contrasted painfully with expressions of imperial wealth and power, and Iran’s ostentatious alliances with the West and Israel. Against this background, expressions of imperial pageantry – such as the 1971 commemoration of the Iranian monarchy – only served to highlight gross inequality, and imperial megalomania.

Foreign alignments became very sensitive from 1973 onwards, with the sudden openness to Islamic politics. For many reasons, Iranians felt little direct involvement with the Arab-Israeli conflict, which among other things involved populations that were both Sunni and Arab. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war had discredited the secularist Arab nationalist regimes of Egypt and Syria, although without offering a real substitute. For some years, Arab hopes were pinned on the romantic revolutionary movements of the Palestinian guerrilla movements – militantly secular, and often Christian-led. In 1973, though, the far more impressive performance by Arab armies in the Yom Kippur war raised the possibility of the states themselves actually defeating Israel, while the subsequent oil embargo showed the potential for economic action against the whole West. Meanwhile, the Palestinian movements dissolved into infighting, usually driven by the machinations of the various states sponsoring their activities.

Almost overnight, Islamic unity was a closer and more promising prospect than it had been for many years, yet the Shah’s Iran remained aloof from the embargo, and provided crucial oil supplies to the US. (Ironically, the Shah had been a prime mover in escalating the price of oil, although he rejected the embargo). That act decisively proved the Shah’s estrangement from any Islamic loyalties. At once, his government was betraying the faith, the nation, and the Iranian people.

I have suggested that elite attempts to control and restructure family patterns were among the most sensitive and potentially disastrous actions that regimes could take. Nowhere, perhaps, is this linkage clearer than in India, where the post-1975 State of Emergency permitted the sterilization of several million poor citizens in the name of population control. The popular fury unleashed vastly benefited the opposition, out of which emerged the Hindu fundamentalist BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Although India stood at an extreme here, Iran also tried to impose its own near-overnight cultural revolution. Modernization campaigns involved frontal attacks on traditional religious ideas and elites: the Shah’s White Revolution was officially proclaimed in 1963. Among many revolutionary changes, the regime promoted women’s interests and independence. Women received the suffrage in 1967, Comprehensive family legislation in 1967 significantly raised the minimum age at marriage from around thirteen to eighteen, while restricting polygamy. The government tried to make divorce more difficult, making it harder for men to dismiss unwanted spouses unilaterally with little effort or ceremony. Abortion was legalized. By the early 1970s, Iran was one of the leading non-Western nations in terms of women’s equality and women’s rights. Apart from official policies, social attitudes were transformed by the arrival of television, which showed many Western programs, with their depictions of women and of romantic relationships.

One particularly sensitive area was the veil, which had actually been banned by the Shah’s father in the 1930s. Although not actually illegal in later years, the veil became a focus of gender politics. Widely abandoned by Westernized elites, by the 1970s its use became a symbol of resistance to the regime.

Traditionalist critiques of the Shah also drew on other sexual themes. Although the regime had not sought any liberalizing of laws against homosexuality, critics widely deployed anti-gay charges against the court and the elites, suggesting that such practices reflected the Shah’s systematic decadence. One sensational issue involved the alleged mock marriage conducted between two men at Court. Anger at such alleged misconduct fueled the ferocious anti-gay reaction of the Khomeini years, when homosexuals faced the death penalty.

In another way too, the Iranian experience recalls US events, and that is in the central role played by new forms of media in mobilizing populist sentiment.

Religious conservatives naturally challenged the regime through the 1970s, but their voices were muted in multiple forms. Apart from the direct threat of repression and secret police activity, the regime and its US allies bought off many determined opponents and persuaded them to exercise self-censorship. The declining US role in such activities after 1977 proved highly damaging to the Shah’s survival. As the Shah offered liberalization, so mosques and their weekly sermons became a primary means of distributing anti-regime propaganda.

Even before that, though, censorship could not silence the exiled radical clergy, who deployed innovative techniques of media and propaganda. Based in France, the Ayatollah Khomeini frequently preached incendiary sermons against the Shah’s White Revolution, and among other things urged soldiers not to fire on demonstrators. Once these messages were smuggled into Iran on cassette tapes, nothing could prevent their near limitless duplication and circulation. Khomeini’s radicals also benefited from the US-sponsored improvement of the once-inadequate Iranian telephone system. Overseas activists could read Khomeini’s words over the now efficient telephone lines, so that Iran-based activists could transfer them to audiotapes.

Through such means, the Islamist opposition achieved an impact far beyond anything available to the secular anti-regime forces. Victory fell to the best propaganda networks, and the most efficient use of available mass media. Religions have the virtue of many centuries of experience in such matters.

On multiple grounds, then, I think we can legitimately compare the revival of religious politics in 1970s Iran with that in the US in the same years.


I offer a footnote here, about what has happened in the years following the Islamic Revolution. As everyone knows, the post-1979 Iranian regime was fiercely Islamist, and ordinary people rejected its values forcefully. Iran today has some of the world’s lowest fertility rates, which usually portend widespread secularization. I have made this point before, but I was stunned to read the following from the excellent Malise Ruthven:

In Iran, which arguably boasts the world’s only Islamist government, clerical governance has led to a steep decline in religious observance; in 2011, the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance lamented that after more than 30 years of theocratic rule, only three percent of Iranians attended Friday prayers. (Prior to the revolution, the figure was almost 50 percent.)

Um, wouldn’t that make contemporary Iran about as secularist and non-religious as, oh, Denmark or the Netherlands?

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