Armstrong explores the intertwining of revolution and religion


Karen Armstrong speaks in the Hall of Philosophy during Friday’s Interfaith Lecture. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

“The theology of revolution — for Western people, that sounds almost a contradiction in terms,” author Karen Armstrong said.

Armstrong returned at 2 p.m. Friday to the Hall of Philosophy to bring the Week Six theme, “Religion in Iran: The Many Faces,” to a conclusion. Armstrong, recognized author and 2008 TED prize winner, lectured Monday as well. Armstrong’s Friday lecture was titled “The Theology of Revolution.”

She cited the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who said that western revolution typically involves a shift in worldview, from religious to secular. Not so for Iranians — their revolution resulted in a theocracy.

For Iranians, the 1979 revolution was a religious experience, and religion was a motivator, not just a tool, of revolution.

The United States would have been able to make better decisions had its government understood Shia Islam more thoroughly, she said.

“We have no hope of winning the battle of hearts and minds if we don’t know what’s in people’s hearts and minds to begin with,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong briefly reviewed the tenets of Shia Islam. She emphasized that that the health of the Muslim community, or ummah, signifies the health of Islam.

“If they see the ummah, the community, humiliated by foreign powers or in the hands of tyrants or corrupt rulers, they can feel as religiously outraged as a Christian might feel if he or she sees the Bible spat upon,” Armstrong explained.

These questions of politics continue to plague Muslims.

“The Shia is a tragic story,” she said. “It speaks of the well-nigh impossibility of implementing a sacred imperative … in a violent, self-centered, selfish, flawed world.”

Pre-modern empires are inherently unjust, she explained. Their economies are based on the subjugation of the vast majority of the population. Such subjugation was not conducive to Muslim beliefs, what Armstrong termed “the Quranic ethos.”

The fourth and fifth imams left politics, instituting the Shiite convention of “sacred secularism.”

“Secularism is one of the hallmarks of modern society, and here we have a religious movement also talking about the disciplined and principled separation of religion and politics,” Armstrong said. “Why? Because (Shiite Muslims) say it is impossible to incarnate the true divine imperative in this flawed world.”

Despite their withdrawal from politics, Shiite imams remained a threat to the caliphs and were steadily killed. This continued until the 12th imam disappeared.

“Shia is a piety of protest. It takes it stand on offering a challenge to mainstream society,” she said, explaining the self-flagellation Shiites experience during the Day of Ashura, when they recall the death of Husayn, Muhammad’s grandson and an imam.

“We have such a literal-minded view of religion … (Shia Islam) is a particularly symbolic, mythological religion, well-described as something that in some sense happened once but which also happens all the time,” she said.

Shiites believe the battle between good and evil is perpetual and timeless. Many rituals in which Shia Muslims partake are penitent; they identify with those ancient peoples who sat idly by and did not help Husayn when he was slaughtered. The tradition of the passion play, too, encourages audience participation and reaction. The passion play narrates Hussayn’s life, death and subsequent martyrdom.

“(The audience members) are meant to think of their own sorrows at this time,” Armstrong said.

The climax of the passion play, Armstrong said, is not when Husayn dies, but when he puts on the white shroud of martyrdom.

Iran was never officially subject to colonization, but it was treated as such. In the 19th century, Britain and Russia vied for control over Iran; the shahs were at the whim of the more powerful governments. In 1906, Iranians had a revolution in which the mullahs and secular leaders cooperated and created a constitution and a parliamentary government.

In 1908, Britain discovered Iran’s oil resources and interfered continually in Iran’s internal politics. In 1924, a new Iranian dynasty emerged, intent on reformation and modernization. In 1935, hundreds of Iranians peacefully protested the required western-style dress; the new shah gave his soldiers permission to attack.

“In such a setting, secularism, western-style and modernity doesn’t seem lovely and liberating,” Armstrong said. “It seems, literally, lethal.”

In 1953, Iranians ousted their shah and instituted a secular regime that wanted to nationalize Iranian oil. This didn’t sit well with Britain and the United States.

“The British intelligence and CIA staged a coup and brought the shah back,” she said.

The fate of Iran seemed lost to Iranians, out of their control.

“The United States lost its innocence in Iran,” Armstrong said. “(The Iranian people) thought you were their friends, and this seemed a betrayal.”

In 1962, the shah instituted a series of reforms known as the White Revolution.

“His reforms meant traditional agriculture waned; people had to take refuge in the towns … huge gulfs were opening up between rich and poor,” she said.

Tehran divided itself between the pre-modern and the modernized.

“(The Iranian people) felt (like) strangers in their own country,” Armstrong said.

Then, the shah closed parliament; his secret police were trained to brutalize. Shia Muslims struggled to adapt to their new environment.

In 1963, Ayatollah Khomeini began his rise to power. Amongst the students in his classes on ethics and mysticism, he would speak about the flaws of the Iranian government, off the record. Eventually, he moved his discussions to his pulpit.

“He didn’t speak like the ordinary ayatollahs. … He spoke in very direct words that even the poorest people could understand,” Armstrong said.

Throughout his life, Khomeini pursued a mystical, philosophical journey of subjugating the ego and preparing to lead the people of Iran. In 1963, he felt ready to do so.

Western authorities didn’t understand Khomeini’s appeal to the Iranian people; he seemed grim and reserved. Armstrong explained that the symbolism surrounding authority differs amongst western countries and countries like Iran.

“For Shiites, Khomeini was a very recognizable figure,” Armstrong said. “His downcast eyes, his sort of monotonous delivery — they were all signs of what was called the ‘sober mystic,’ the mystic who had got his faculties totally under control and was not vying for effect but was just speaking, quietly, the truth.”

The Iranian government sought to retaliate against Khomeini, and the secret police managed to kill several theological students in the process. Khomeini was imprisoned for several days Unfortunately, Armstrong explained, this mission was carried out on a day of significance to the Shiites — the anniversary of the death of the sixth imam.

Once he was freed, Khomeini spoke out against the government’s actions and was imprisoned again.

“All over Iran, there were riots,” Armstrong said, as the Iranians expressed their rage at the oppression of Khomeini, the veritable voice of the people.

Khomeini’s exile reminded the Shiites of the hidden imam — separate from the people, but still communicating. Like the other imams, he had been persecuted and imprisoned by an unfair ruler. He dodged death, and eventually, the people expected him to return. Khomeini himself perpetuated these comparisons, drawing analogies between the shah and Yazid, the ruler who ordered the slaughter of Husayn and his family.

After an offensive article about Khomeini appeared at the bequest of the shah, 4,000 students rioted. The shah continued to play the role of Yazid, ordering the assassination of Khomeini’s son and refusing to let others mourn his death. All of this happened in the midst of the month during which Husayn’s death was memorialized.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter arrived to aid his ally, the shah, in the midst of this turmoil. Armstrong pointed to this and the subsequent incidents as instances in which a better knowledge of Islam and Iranian culture could have well served the United States government.

In this way, Armstrong explained, Carter filled the symbolic role of the tempter in the passion play of Husayn.

“In popular (Shia Islam), the (tempter) is a rather pathetic creature,” Armstrong said.

This devilish figure is not overwhelmingly evil but is a trapper and an oppressor. The Iranians believed that the shah would not have done what he did without the encouragement of the United States.

The revolution began and soon expanded.

“It was experienced as passion play on a giant scale,” Armstrong said. “When the people defied the curfew and came out to brave the Shah’s solders, they would put on the white robe of the martyr.”

This wasn’t a quest for death, Armstrong emphasized. This was quest to witness; witness is the root of the word for martyr.

“People were witnessing to an ideal of justice and equity that they felt should dominate their lives,” she said.

Armstrong believes the elimination of the shah was only the first stage of the revolution.

“What we see now with Ahmadinejad, it’s simply another stage of the revolution,” she said.

Armstrong described the lessons to be learned from the ongoing Iranian revolution.

“The Shiites were right,” she said. “It is difficult to incarnate a divine and sacred imperative in our world. And the revolution proved it.”

Revenge and nihilism have crept into Islamic culture, but these are not Islam, Armstrong said.

“Our modernity came across to the Iranians as cruel,” Armstrong said.

Carter, a man who supposedly advocated for human rights, supported the shah. To the Iranians, this seemed paradoxical.

“We are in this mess together,” Armstrong said. “We have to keep on struggling to create a world of justice and equity. Getting rid of religion may not be the way to do it because a secular regime, as the shah showed, could be just as cruel as any religious bigotry. But we are in this mess together. We helped to create one another. We have to learn to read one another’s symbolisms and learn to live together in our polarized world.”