Islamism and Democracy

In 1978-79, a mass movement headed by Ruhollah Khomeini’s faction of the Shi’i clergy toppled the corrupt and authoritarian government of the Shah of Iran – a major American client who had for decades resisted any concession to popular participation in his country.

As the Iranian Revolution progressed, it became apparent just how brittle the state apparatus had become under the Pahlavis, and how disconnected from society; the Shah and his advisors consistently failed to grasp the extent of popular alienation, and the army was too fragmented and dependent on the monarch to counter the revolutionaries when the Shah proved indecisive.1 With the Shah seriously ill and no longer confident of American support, his centralized state simply collapsed.

For its part, however, the new clerical government proved scarcely less authoritarian than its predecessor; while it accommodated Iran’s constitutional and parliamentary tradition, it vested ultimate power in unelected religious bodies such as the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader. The Republic’s revolutionary tribunals, draconian laws of personal conduct, persecution of independent media and scholars, and attempted destabilization of neighboring governments – all in the name of Islam – appalled the West and set a grim precedent for the involvement of Islam in modern politics.2 The United States, which had seen an important client replaced with an implacably hostile populist government, became particularly antagonistic to the new Republic and its Khomeinist ideology.