The 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution has sparked the usual lamentations from many Iranians. They revolted for democracy only to have the Machiavellian mullahs hijack their revolution and squash its liberal aspirations.
Such soothing revisionism is the wont of Persians, especially those who now live in the West and routinely contort history to fit their preferred narrative. The uncomfortable truth: In 1979, the vast majority of Iranians wanted an Islamic government. They may not have understood all the dimensions of the theocracy that Ruhollah Khomeini was contemplating, but they certainly wanted their spiritual leaders to oversee the temporal realm.
Iran is today the most consequential Muslim state in the Middle East precisely because the revolution wasn’t a story of democracy betrayed, but rather an Islamist pledge that Iranians first redeemed and then came to regret. Forty years ago, Iranians had masuliyat, responsibility for their own fate, and they chose poorly. The political and religious writings of disgruntled revolutionaries have often been fascinating — the most “progressive” in the region — because the authors confess their own mistakes. They don’t blame America for the despotism brought on by their zealous embrace of a revolutionary faith.
In the 1970s, behind all the glitter of the shah’s modernization, Iran was experiencing a spiritual revival. The same was happening throughout the Middle East, where the magnetism of secular dictatorships had faded and Islam as an explicit politico-cultural creed had gained ground. In Iran, religious books topped the best-seller lists and annual pilgrimages attracted large numbers. Men with beards and women wearing religious attire became a common sight in the universities and even government offices. Iranians then, unlike those today, filled the mosques on religious commemoration days. Anthony Parsons, an unusually astute British ambassador, recalled in 1976 “a well-informed professor at Aryamehr University [Iran’s MIT] telling me that about 65% of his students were motivated by Islam and about 20% by communism while the neutral remainder would always side with the Islamist groups if it came to trouble.”
Two intellectuals would do much to popularize Islamist themes, although neither would live to see the triumph of the revolution. Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s 1962 book Gharbzadegi, whose title loosely translated as “Westoxification,” was a celebration of indigenous values untouched by Occidental intrusion. Born of a religious family, Al-e Ahmad was a clerical student who fell under the influence of Marxism, and he saw Islam as inextricably intertwined with the Iranian identity. Casting aside Islam, as westernized Iranians often did, degraded an essential part of being Persian. For Al-e Ahmad, Islamic history was glorious; Occidental history, a prelude to aggression. The charge of Westoxification became an effective gravamen against those who understood that modernization, by definition, meant borrowing ideas from Europe and America. Al-e Ahmad died in 1969, but his critique gained power as tier-mondisme became the dominant creed in Middle Eastern universities. Another intellectual, Ali Shariati, further electrified Iran’s lower- and middle-class youth, who were attending universities in ever greater numbers, with his own equally contentious reading of Islamic history.
Shariati cleverly developed religion as an ideology of rebellion. With a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in the sociology of religion, he reconceptualized Shiism as a religion of dissent and presented the Prophet Mohammed as a rebel seeking social justice. He clearly understood that most Iranians were looking for a belief system anchored in Islam. Shariati offered his mesmerized listeners a chance to accept modernity while holding fast to beloved traditions. Pivotally, he divided Iran’s clergy into two historical categories: red and black mullahs, the former being the harbingers of social justice, the latter its antagonists. Shariati died in exile in London in 1977 of natural causes, but soon his death was attributed to the shah’s secret police. In the Iran of the 1970s, no one died of natural causes. The revolutionaries needed their martyrs.
Bolder and more charismatic than Al-e Ahmad and Shariati, Khomeini, too, understood the religious impulse in Iran’s developing rebellion. Expelled from Iran in 1964 because of tenacious opposition to the shah, Khomeini in 1970 published a series of lectures entitled “Islamic Government” that called for clerical rule. The ayatollah’s contempt for democracy and his hatred of religious minorities are clear in the book. Despite later claims by many that they didn’t know about this text, copies of his “theocratic theses” were widely available, including one at Harvard’s Widener Library. In private correspondence, meetings, and telephone calls, the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis apprised many in Washington of the lectures’ contents — and was denounced by some in the State Department as a Zionist for doing so. On December 30, 1978, perhaps a bit late, the New York Times even profiled the book.
In the 1970s, Iran had approximately 9,000 mosques, and they were usually filled with worshipers. No secular party could command such a constituency or national network. Mosques were not privileged sanctuaries for the revolutionaries: Published documents from SAVAK, the shah’s intelligence service and secret police, reveal that the organization maintained tight surveillance of mosques. Dissident mullahs were regularly arrested, exiled, or banished to different parts of the country. But the mosque remained a resilient national institution despite the harassment. The shah could shut down the Tudeh Communist party, but not the mosque.
As the revolution unfolded, Khomeini’s media-savvy aides tried to sanitize the ayatollah, especially for Western audiences, and sweep aside his inflammatory positions. But the public-relations management of an antediluvian figure straight out of the Old Testament was difficult, as Khomeini rarely concealed his contempt for liberalism. The Imam, as his followers called him, understood better than most that the masses were clamoring for Islamic rule. This was his revolution, and it was waged for religious redemption. He regularly mocked those questioning clerical participation in government and stressed that the Prophet Mohammed “ruled, engaged in politics, and fought wars, never saying, ‘Let me sit at home and devote myself to prayer and devotional reading; what business do I have with politics?’” In interviews he was insistent about the real source of authority: “I want to make it clear that government is the right of the religious jurists.” As for laws passed by an assembly, they “should not be contrary to the principles of Islam.”
The ayatollah was, of course, not the only opposition leader. Iran had secular parties, such as the venerable National Front and the Liberation Movement headed by the respected Mehdi Bazargan. Most of the leaders of the opposition favored compromise with the shah, who was offering them a constitutional monarchy with a free press and freely elected parliament. Yet no liberal politician dared to challenge the Imam. The opposition leaders appreciated that if they defied him, they would stand alone, deprived of public support and with no role in the future of the country.
To be sure, the Iranian people may have hoped for a more benign religious rule. But they should not be looked upon as victims of clerical fraud. The revolution may have featured a coalition of forces, but the most important leader was Khomeini. He could summon millions to the streets and banish any man who challenged his vision. In 1979, the Iranian people revolted for Islam. Having lived under a theocracy for four decades, they are, of course, entitled to buyer’s remorse.
Mr. Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.