The Persian Question, part II: a Brief History of Populism, Religion, and Radicalism

By Robert Ames

As you may know, populism has been something of a recurring theme in recent elections. You may also know that Iran held a presidential election on May 19 and the incumbent, Hasan Rouhani, won. In his first speech after the election, Rouhani appealed to reformist sentiments and committed himself to further international engagement, though some on the American right may well assume these to be false promises. He won by a wide margin, so it would be hard to deny his popularity, but, it would be comparably difficult to affirm his populism; the challengers seemed to have a monopoly on both populism and electoral drama throughout the campaign. In the first presidential debate of this election season, Rouhani’s then-challenger Qalibaf, taking a page from Occupy’s playbook, tried to strike a populist note by positioning himself as the champion of the 96% and enemy of the 4%. Then, just days before the May 19 vote, Qalibaf, arguably the most prominent conservative candidate, dropped out of the race. He took a similarly anti-establishment approach as he bowed out and endorsed Ibrahim Ra’isi, framing Ra’isi him as the best candidate to defend “the intellectual fundaments of original revolutionaries” from “pseudo-revolutionary opportunists.” Ra’isi, the head of Astan-e Quds Razavi, Iran’s wealthiest religious foundation, suggested increasing cash subsidies for the poor as his only economic policy proposal in the first debate. So, what’s the deal with these apparent conservatives championing the fight against poverty and framing themselves as leaders of the resistance to liberalization and globalization?

Given the past year of European and American elections, it might be something familiar; from Brexit to Trump to LePen, plenty of rightists have struck a populist pose and attacked elites. Is that what's going on here? Have Ra'isi and Qalibaf simply jumped aboard an international right-populist bandwagon? I'd say no. As Payam Mohseni has pointed out, Qalibaf’s departure from the election and his and Ra’isi’s appeals to the poor are obviously responses to the immediate, contemporary, and specifically Iranian context: “The goal,” according Mohseni (in The National Interest) was “to consolidate anti-Rouhani and disaffected forces (not just conservatives) behind Ra’isi.” And, indeed, despite the electoral defeat, the hard line isn’t going anywhere. But, the story of leftist vocabulary finding its way into the mouths of the Iranian right is longer than just this election.

Ayatollah Khomeini is, retrospectively, and especially among Western non-specialists, the figure most responsible for the 1979 revolution and the Islamic Republic established in its wake. What most Americans probably don’t understand, though, is what exactly was revolutionary about him in the first place. The short answer is that his political vision broke with what was, before him, a usual tolerance of monarchy and disinclination toward social revolution on the part of Twelver Shi’i clergy.  He, however, rejected monarchy wholesale, judging “king of kings” to be “the most detestable of titles” and framing Husayn ibn ‘Ali (the third Shi’i Imam)’s struggle as having been one “to liberate the people from hereditary monarchs.”  Some of the slogans he championed in the lead-up to the revolution include: “Islam belongs to the oppressed, not to the oppressors,” “oppressed of the world, unite,” “Islam will eliminate class differences,” and “In Islam there will be no landless peasant.”


As the above slogans demonstrate, Iranian Islamism hasn't historically conformed to the same left-right distinctions familiar in American electoral politics. Having come to power in a revolution that resulted from years of activism by socialists of various stripes, Khomeini and his ideological heirs never quite gave up the rhetorical appeals to social justice and anti-colonial third-world solidarity that the left introduced to Iranian political discourse in the decades leading up to the 1979 revolution. The cash subsidies mentioned above are one of the most obvious cases in which this rhetoric has yielded a long-standing policy application.

In his History of Modern Iran, Ervand Abrahamian explains, “The 1979 revolution has often been labeled fundamentalist. In fact, it was a complex combination of nationalism, political populism, and religious radicalism.”  This combination is indeed complex. So complex, in fact, that I’ll not try to distinguish political populism from religious radicalism, but will instead aim to illustrate the ways in which they overlap.

Earlier Iranian reformists, including Mirza Malkum Khan (1833-1908) and Fath ‘Ali Akhundzadeh (1812-1876) in the Qajar period (1785-1925) and Ahmad Kasravi (1890-1946) in the early Pahlavi era (1925-1979), had relationships to Shi’ism that were complicated, if not outright hostile, but as reformism gave way to radicalism throughout the sixties and seventies, newer generations of Iranian intellectuals, though inspired by Marxism and the (leftist, Third Worldist) global anti-colonial struggle, came to see some value in Shi‘i themes. For example, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the mid-twentieth century author most famous for 1962’s nativist Gharbzadegi, a title has been translated as West-struckness (the most literally accurate translation), West-toxification, and Euromania, a socialist since his days as a student in the 1940s, came to sense that the left’s distance from religion was directly proportional to its “distance from the masses” in whose name it agitated; for example, during the 1953 coup against the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossadegh, “when push had come to shove and the ayatollahs Kashani and Behbahani had come out against Mossadegh, the religious leaders were able to deliver the crowd.”  Religion, therefore, seemed necessary to lend leftism greater appeal with the masses, and on a personal front, when Al-e Ahmad’s cleric father died in 1962, Ayatollah Khomeini himself arranged a memorial service, which Jalal Al-e Ahmad attended, after which he spoke in person with the Ayatollah, who, it is said, read and admired Gharbzadegi.  

Ali Shari‘ati, a French-educated sociologist ten years Al-e Ahmad’s junior, attempted to close the distance diagnosed by Al-e Ahmad by combining “a thoroughgoing cultural commitment to Shi’ism with a demand for economic justice.”  In this view, “the Prophet Muhammad had been sent to establish not just a new religion but a dynamic society in permanent revolution moving toward a classless utopia” and the first Shi’i Imams “had opposed the early Caliphs not just because they had usurped authority be because they had betrayed the true mission by compromising with the powers-that-be.”  

As these few examples illustrate, the appearance of populist, and, perhaps more importantly, leftist themes, in the rhetoric of the self-appointed heirs of the 1979 revolution, is hardly unique to this most recent election. Religious justifications of liberalization and integration with the global market aren’t new either, but appear to have been less poignant in this election—after all, pragmatists base their rhetoric on promises to deliver tangible results and not in casting themselves as players in compelling myths. So, although the recent election Iranian gives the appearance of having been a contest between a right-wing populist and pragmatic internationalist, the relationship between populism, leftism, and Islamism in Iran is considerably more complex and longer-standing than attention to recent trends alone would suggest.