Syria looks set to become a Sunni-flavored Iran

An Islamic State fighter carries the group’s flag in Raqqa, north-central Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Islamic State fighter carries the group’s flag in Raqqa, north-central Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When the Iranian revolution against Muhammad Reza Shah’s regime launched in the late ‘70s, it wasn’t a social revolution aiming at changing society but rather a political one with legitimate demands, similar to what Syrians once were looking forward to achieving in 2011. When all this started, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the most central and inspirational figure in the Iranian revolution, was still in exile. This is a story that happened 35 years ago and we cannot but see the rhyming of its events with the current Syrian imbroglio.
In 1975 the regime of the shah took further steps to consolidate its power over Iranian people. It abandoned the existing two-party system and introduced a single political organization – the Resurgence Party. While the sole party was gaining more control over territory and population, it threatened groups that had previously enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy from the government, namely the bazaar merchants and religious clerics (ulama). Like in Syria, the Iranian one-party regime kept the people in check and enforced its policies – while at the same time glorifying the monarchy at the expense of Islamic scholars, controlling bazaars and reducing the significance of Islam in daily life. These policies angered both the ulama and bazaar merchants, triggering an alliance between them against the regime.
The alliance between opposition forces and ulama was to add pressure to liberalize and perhaps to topple the regime of the shah. Westernized urban professionals, students from the new secular universities and theological seminaries, bazaar merchants and ulama were protesting against the shah. Many of them were driven by political, economic and social factors; quite few were driven by religious motivations.
INTRODUCING COURT reforms for trials of political dissidents and releasing political prisoners due to US pressure didn’t help the shah much. The Iranian regime’s violations of human rights and its use of torture against political prisoners were staggering, much like what we see in the Syrian regime’s torture chambers and prisons.
The opposition factions became emboldened to speak out, organizing themselves into professional associations and student organizations, publishing pamphlets and distributing manifestos criticizing the regime’s violation of human rights and demanding freedom of press and assembly and escalating its activities by resurrecting old political organizations and forming new ones, notably the National Front and the right wing of the ulama.
The religious clergy didn’t have an action plan against the shah. Indeed, the majority of them thought that it was not their place to partake in political activities. While some opposition forces were reformist, believing in restoring the constitution and establishing a constitutional monarchy under the shah, such as Mehdi Bazargan, a reformist politician and a representative of the forces of the secular National Front, some were more intransigent and militant, such as Khomeini, accepting no deal with the shah and aiming to overthrow him and install a new system.
Khomeini’s proposal was to create an Islamic state modeled on the Koran and the community of the prophet and led by the men of religion because their knowledge of Islamic law was, he felt, vital for managing the affairs of state.
Although Khomeini’s proposal was declined by the majority of opposition forces, his words found resonance during the momentum of the revolution across Iran, attracting more and more people to his side.
Many urban workers were recent migrants from the countryside living in crowded shantytowns in and around Tehran.
Marginalized in their rural areas and not yet fully incorporated into urban life, they were receptive to the calls for protest by the spokesmen of Islam. Working classes joined students, merchants and ulama in streets against the shah’s repression.
Exactly as in Syria, demonstrators’ cries for reform, freedom and restoration of the constitution took a more radical tone, demanding the death of the shah and the return of Khomeini.
More religious terms started to slip into protesters’ slogans, replacing the older “non-religious” ones. The revolutionary protests reached a peak during the 10 days of the Muharram, a period of ritual mourning for the death of Imam Hussain important in the Shi’ite calendar.
Framing anti-regime protests in this ceremonial period firmly put the whole revolutionary movement in a religious framework.
After the shah fled Iran in January 1979, the triumphant Khomeini was welcomed by huge crowds as he returned to Iran in February. This point was decisive in setting Iran’s future trajectory. Would Iran now be dominated by the religious establishment, secular elites or both? In an attempt to answer this question thousands of lives were lost. Now we know the answer – the religious establishment won.
Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan prime minister to bring political order and economic stability, but the latter failed to do so effectively due to his limited powers compared with a ruling organization known as the Council of the Islamic Republic, which issued laws and decrees to constantly veto the Bazargan government’s policies. Transformation into religious frameworks continued, starting from schoolbooks to the highest forms of education, enforcing Islamic teachings in social life and creating a religiously-colored rhetoric in media and political discourse.
Universities closed for two years in an attempt to review all educational subjects to ensure they complied with Islamic teachings. We see the same changes happening in Syria, especially in rebel-held areas and refugee camps both inside and outside Syrian borders.
All non-religious books were substituted by religious or religiously- colored ones. Should Syria avoid the Afghanistan scenario of warlords winding up in control of specific regions, Syria is more likely to move in the direction of a Sunni, perhaps more fragmented Iran-style regime.
As in Iran, opposition factions, religious and non-religious, are unwilling or unable to solve the question of what Syria should look like in the future or whether it should be dominated by a religious establishment or secular elites.
Obviously, so far Islamic factions have had the upper hand.
The attempt to improve political, economic and social conditions for Syrians turned into a dominantly social revolution aiming at changing social structures. Islamic insurgent groups, most notably the Nusra Front, Jaish al-Fatah and Jaish al-Islam, are not only fighting against the Assad regime in an attempt to sieze power, but also enforcing specific codes of religious conduct in the areas they hold, putting the whole upheaval in a religious framework – Sunnis against the rest.
The author is editor of Mashreq Politics and Culture a Journal with focus on the Middle East & North Africa & Middle Eastern- Western Relations.