The divide in Iran’s green movement

The divide in Iran’s green movement

 How can we explain the contradictions of the green movement in Iran – with a pro-Islamic Republic leadership in Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, but at the same time, a secular, vocal fringe in the grassroots street protests? The confusing mix of phenomena surrounding the movement – young people chanting Allahu akbar from the rooftops; women taking off their hijabs in public protests; Mousavi fondly reminiscing about the early brutal and messianic times of the Islamic Republic, and so on – is an indication of the curious relationship between Islam and secularism in Iran.


Ayatollah Khomeini’s idea of the supreme Islamic jurist was an attempt to synthesise Shia Islamic traditions with the realities of the modern state. Yet Khomeini’s Islamism was only the most muscular idea to emerge from the revolution. Less well known is the philosophy of Ali Shariati (1933-1977). Shariati’s unique political theology is part of what maintains the hope that Islam can reach across the religious and secular factions of the green movement – in a way that mirrors the big tent of the Islamists and the left in Iran before, and after, the revolution. The fact that Shariati also died two years before the revolution further increases the sense that his thought still has to be properly tested in reality.


Shariati’s Islamism is notoriously hard to pigeonhole. Educated in France and influenced by Jean Paul-Sartre and Frantz Fanon, Shariati forged a brand of revolutionary Islam quite unlike that of other ideologues such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb. Drawing on Marxism, Sufi mysticism, Shia history, and third worldism, he proposed an Islamism in which only the most revolutionary breaks in the history of Islam constitute its authenticity. And so, significantly, he cast aside all due respect for religious authority and institutions; declaring that they “do not have a handful of knowledge“. Shariati’s continuing appeal lies in the idea that one is not forced to make the Faustian bargain between religion and the secular state.


Still, it would be going too far to see Shariati as a Luther-like figure spreading revolutionary, reformationist ideas about Islam. Some secularists blame him for making Islamic ideas seem acceptable to urban Iranians in the run-up to 1979 – thereby assisting Khomeini’s project, even if the two had very different ideas. And more importantly, Shariati’s texts are themselves profoundly contradictory – wavering from passages that sound almost like militant feminism, to extolling the virtues of the modest, Islamic dress code and painting a cliched picture of western women reduced to sexual objects.


What is far from clear is the true influence of Shariati’s ideas among a newly politicised generation of young Iranians. But there is certainly a legacy of ideas which Shariati played his part in that allows one to understand the politics of Islam and secularism in Iran – to the extent that green movement supporters can pen analyses with titles such as “Neither theocracy nor secularism?” We could also include recent contradictory events such as the fact that anti-government protests were triggered by Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral (echoing the politicised mourning rituals leading up to the revolution), whilst at the same time the colour green faded away from the violent Ashura street clashes in December (indicating a drift away from Mousavi’s leadership).


Furthermore, dissatisfaction with the religiosity of the green movement has led to proposals for a “real green movement” – and, most contradictory of all – a “secular green movement“. The future of Iranian politics may thus lie in what it means to be both secular and Islamic. Or, alternatively, in the abject failure to break from a very real dichotomy Shariati spent his career denying.