by Ramin Mazaheri for the Saker Blog
“We are the nation of martyrdom, we are the nation of Imam Hossain, you better ask.” – Iranian Major General and Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, July 27, 2018
That injunction for education was in response to US President Donald Trump’s threatening “all-caps tweet” to Iran. The exchange provides a rather timely news peg for this article, and it also confirms its necessity; this article relates the importance of Imam Hossain in modern Iranian society.
Despite the good advice, I doubt Trump will ask anyone about Imam Hossain, and it appears certain he lacks the intellectual stamina for “such a long” article.
The previous part of this series – ‘Cultural’ & ‘Permanent Revolution’ in Iranian Revolutionary Shi’ism – is rather necessary reading in order to understand this part…unless one is already familiar with the life and death of Imam Ali, is aware of the foundation of the Sunni-Shia intellectual schism, and also has (at least) an areligious historical perspective on the political situation of the early Islamic era immediately following the death of Prophet Mohammad. Hossain immediately followed Ali, his father, so such background knowledge will help one to fully grasp the historical-cultural-political-religious links presented here.
In this previous segments of this 11-part series I have mainly discussed facts: Why the World Socialist Web Site’s 3-part series claiming that “Islamic Socialism is a sham” is false and blind; how the centrally-planned economy of the Shahs paved the way for the socialist-inspired economy of the Islamic Republic of Iran; why “privatisation” in Iran is a misleading misnomer; and a 4-part sub-series on the Basij, a much-misunderstood institution which actually reflects the attempt of revolutionary Shi’ism to redistribute wealth and power to the poorer classes & to solidify support for Iran’s unique structure and culture.
While the goal of this series is to show how Iran is the ignored success story of socialism, it is also to shed light on the Western blackout of honest, accurate & balanced discussion on modern Iran. Therefore, I thought that discussions of Imams Ali and Hossain should have gone first, as they are the major motivating force of modern Iran…but that would have immediately turned off the receptivity towards learning new perspectives on Iran among the often anti-religion Western leftists. Therefore, I have saved these two religious-philosophical & cultural discussions for the end, because I wanted my discussion of Iran’s unique creations to be factual & structural and not philosophical. We can’t argue the clear facts which prove Iran’s socialism – not anymore.
But Iran’s (now totally-clear) socialist policies cannot be explained or understood solely by an intellectual lens of “socialism” – “socialism” does not fully explain the unique creation of the Basij, the unique creation of the post of Supreme Leader, the unique creation of the bonyads or state charity cooperatives to help run 10-15% of the economy, etc. For full comprehension, religious-cultural knowledge must be added.
Because Iran is a unique (revolutionary) country, this means they have implemented policies which truly have no parallel. It also means the reasons for such policies are often not accepted by others, and even more rarely understood. The WSWS refuses to add in this component of “religion” – thus, their series could only falsely claim that Iran’s revolution was seemingly totally inspired by the Iranian Communist Tudeh Party, in a rather selective rewriting of history which aimed to marginalise the role of religion in Iran.
All of these unique (revolutionary) polices, structures and ideas can indeed be explained by socialism because they are socialist…but something crucial will still be lacking; one cannot fully understand them without clarifying additional philosophical, cultural and religious tenets which run deeper in Iran than the obviously vitally nourishing economic-democratic ideas of 19th-21st century socialism.
Is this more new scholarship linking Iran and socialism? Possibly, but links have already been made for many decades
The previous part drew the parallel – and quite likely for the first time ever – between Imam Ali’s failed “Cultural Revolution”, after the original political Revolution of Islam, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Similarly, I cannot report finding internet links between Imam Hossain and the Trotskyist theory of “Permanent Revolution”, either.
However, I am not here to take credit. While I feel that Ali / China link was perhaps not able to be made in the heyday of the Iranian Revolution – as it is quite possible the true aims / goals / results of the Chinese Cultural Revolution were not known – the link between Hossain and “Permanent Revolution” was quite clearly obvious.
I contend that if I can’t find a record of this historical parallel being explicitly made there are clear reasons why:
The internet does not include the the cassette tapes, mosque lectures and fragile mimeographs which were the method of political communication in 1970s Iran.
Perhaps most Iranian thinkers wanted to give more credit to Islamic revolutionary figures, who were more relatable to the average Iranian.
The Revolution of 1979 was intensely patriotic: A repeated claim was that Iran already contained all it needed to have a modern, revolutionary, just society – holding up non-Iranian figures hurts that claim. And it’s not as if Trotsky, Mao or other foreigners were going to sue Iranians for using their ideas without attribution….
Iranian socialists were discredited-by-association in the 1980s by the horrific, detested, traitorous, totally illegitimate, most definitely NOT socialist cult known as the Mujahideen Khalq Organisation (known as the MKO or MEK, or People’s Mujahideen in English). Their unthinkable actions – stealing corpses to inflate body counts for propaganda purposes, fighting alongside Saddam, massacring Kurds, assassinating Iranian scientists, thousands of other terrorist acts, etc. – likely caused many to step away from proudly espousing the socialist intellectual lens which was so prevalent in the 1970s. It is mind-boggling to me that intelligent Western leftists ask me about the MKO as if they are some sort of viable leftist option in Iran…but it’s a big world, filled with too many insane cults – on the left, right and centre – to keep track of. The unforgivable MKO has also been gallingly whitewashed in the West by hundreds of millions of dollars from the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and France (where they are now headquartered). Support for the MKO on the part of West repeatedly sends the Iranian government into an absolute tizzy, and rightly so – it is proof of the West’s appalling and murderous intentions against Iran (as if more proof was needed….).
I will quote extensively, as in the previous part, from seminal Iranian Islamic revolutionary thinker Ali Shariati – I think readers will see for themselves how very clearly he adapted some key Trotskyist ideals in his modern portrayal of Imam Hossain. Whether Shariati admitted it or not, “Permanent Revolution” is all over his ideas, slogans, analyses, etc.
I can verify from personal discussions with older, politically active that (duh!) Trotsky was indeed one of the key figures on their minds in the 1970s and beyond.
But I am only a journalist reporting what I have found: the explicit link is not found, but I am both a poor journalist and poor researcher. I do not seriously expect Iranians to tell me that Imam Ali-Mao links were widely made, but I do expect them to tell me Imam Hossain – Trotsky links were.
Regardless, credit for linking Ali / China & Hossain / Trotsky – plus another $0.50 – will only get me a cup of coffee, as the saying goes (at least it did prior to inflation); the main thing is to understand modern Iran in order to promote human brotherhood.
The huge misunderstanding on ‘martyrdom’ between Iran and the West
It is often said that “self-sacrifice” and “martyrdom” are the main principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iranian society today…but this fact is of almost of no value to Westerners, because in 2018 there is a fundamental misunderstanding between the West and Iran on what “martyrdom” means and is.
Two parties cannot create mutual understanding if definitions of words are totally different. This article aims to rectify that.
But to do that, it is necessary for non-Muslims to learn about Imam Hossain, the grandson of Mohammad, the son of Imam Ali, and the 3rd Shia Caliph but who was not a Caliph for Sunni because Hossain was cheated out of it by Muawiyah, founder of the Umayyad dynasty and the 6th Sunni Caliph (this last statement is a universal historical consensus and not solely a Shia one – this was all explained in the previous part of this series).
In short: in 680 AD Imam Hossain (spelled Husayn or Hussein or Hossain in Arabic) marched off to certain death at Karbala, Iraq, rather than sanction the government of the Umayyad dynasty, which Imam Hossain and his father perceived as insufficiently Islamic and insufficiently revolutionary. This martyrdom has inspired a feeling of “Permanent Revolution” within Shia Iranians.
Many anti-religion leftists falsely assume this martyrdom was solely the result of a dispute on religious doctrine – I suppose it was, but I am 100% certain it was an intensely political act as well. Nobody is forcing anyone to accept the religious aspect – Islam can never be forced – and this means that non-Muslims can view Ali and Hossain in a purely political, areligious, historical context. But the widespread failure to do this has had huge consequences in modern political analysis.
The yearly pilgrimages to Karbala, Iraq, to commemorate Hossain are among the largest peaceful gatherings in human history. Even though 10-20 million people attend, they are totally ignored by Western media. That’s a pity, because even though “God is dead” to Western culture, the Arba’een pilgrimages shows how very, very, very living it is to Shia. Like that or not – this galvanising power cannot be ignored. As Soleimani said to Trump: “you better ask” about Hossain.
As I explained in the previous article, the Revolution of Islam was a sweeping & immediate political revolution as well as a revolution in religious thought and practice. This duality cannot be argued in the slightest, nor is there a single reason why they should be contradictory. Therefore, socio-cultural-historical parallels abound with other the great political revolutions in human history.
Non-Muslims and Westerners have much to glean politically from the Revolution of Islam, if they can only set aside their anti-religion bigotry. Again: one can examine the early Islamic age from an areligious perspective because it was a political & social revolution, unlike Christianity after the life or the death of Jesus son of Mary.
Regardless, the political structures and daily life in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2018 cannot be understood without grasping the importance of Imam Hossain in our collective unconscious. Unlike Jesus in the secular West, Hossain is a constant, universal presence in Iran (and for the many non-Shia, as well), and a perpetual reminder of the need for moral political action.
The second, failed generation of Islamic revolutionaries
As the previous article described, to many Iranian thinkers like Ali Shariati, after Prophet Mohammad’s death Islam was literally hijacked by slackening revolutionaries who forgot the socio-political message of Mohammad in order to create the imperialist Umayyad empire.
In 656 Imam Ali became Caliph and tried to stop this ideological and religious slackening, and thus represents, in modern terms, the Cultural Revolution in the Revolution of Islam, just as China had a Cultural Revolution years after their Chinese Communist Revolution (or quite similar to how Iran had the world’s only other official Cultural Revolution, from 1980-83).
But, in 661 Ali is assassinated. Ali’s son Imam Hassan becomes the Caliph (the 5th to Sunnis, the 2nd to Shia) but he has inherited a shattered administration. He is forced to abdicate to the politically & militarily powerful governor of largely Christian Damascus, Muawiyah, who is declared Caliph. The wishes of Mohammad are denied, the bloodline of Mohammad is broken, and the officially-secular & imperialist Umayyad dynasty is founded.
Imam Hassan, daughter of Mohammad’s daughter Fatima and Imam Ali, retires to Medina and dies in 670. After Ali’s death Umayyad clerics spent 60+ years making state-ordered ritual curses of Ali during public prayers, so Hassan was clearly in a very weak position. When he dies he is even denied burial next to his grandfather, Prophet Mohammad, and his relatives in Medina. I quote from Ali Shariati’s Martyrdom and Martyrdom:
“Imam Hassan, the manifestation of loneliness and isolation in Islamic Society, even in the Medina of the Prophet, clearly shows how the Truth-seeking party in Islam is utterly shattered. The new force of revolution completely overwhelms everyone and everything and conquers in every domain. Now it is Hossain’s turn.”
That “new force” is those who split off to create Sunni Islam, which is why the Shia Shariati continues, unequivocally:
“Hossain inherits the Islamic movement. He is the inheritor of a movement which Mohammed has launched, Ali has continued and in whose defence Hassan makes the last defence. Now there is nothing left for Hossain to inherit: no army, no weapons, no wealth, no power, no force, not even an organized following. Nothing at all. ”
Not only does the first two sentences of that paragraph name nearly all the males in my family, but it should emphatically make clear the historical-ideological view of Shia Islam, and how it obviously sharply differs from Sunnis.
The post-Mohammad era: When Shi’ism was truly an underground & political movement
Just as I wondered if Mao had any idea of Imam Ali’s message of Cultural Revolution, I wonder if Lenin had any idea of what Hossain stood for? I rather doubt it, but I’m certain the he, too, would have approved.
To paraphrase Shariati, who is paraphrasing Lenin: Hossain and the very few true revolutionaries are aware that the revolution is being compromised, and are asking – “What should be done?”
Certainly, there were no lack of ideas of appeasement being flung at Hossain: fatalism (God wishes it this way), are you so innocent that you can rectify the whole community, jihad is not the only path to God, asceticism is so personally pleasing, don’t oppose a Damascus which is spreading Islam, people judge by what they see so Islam must show a rich face to the Byzantine Romans and Persians to win them over, many temples and churches have been replaced by mosques, Islam is gaining in importance, Muslims are getting the top jobs, don’t cause trouble when there is Holy War against Christians in Europe and Zoroastrians in Iran, opposing those aristocrats is unrealistic and combative, we must win over our own aristocrats, do not mix earthly matters with heavenly ones, etc.
It all adds up to a call of: support the ruling system, and end your idealistic, permanent revolution.
This is something rejected by revolutionary Shi’ism, because the results of such a choice are clear:
“Sixty years have passed since the migration of the Prophet. Everything earned by the Revolution has been destroyed. All of the successes earned a century before have been abolished. The Book brought by the Prophet is placed on the spears of the Umayyad (literally, during their first war against Imam Ali). The culture and ideas which Islam had developed through jihad, struggle and efforts in the hearts and minds of the people became a means for explaining the Umayyads rule.
“Yes. In these black times the ignorance of aristocracy is being revived. Power is being dressed in piety and sacredness. The desires for liberty and equality created by Islam in the hearts of those sacrificed for power or policy are breaking down. Tribal (sectarian) ignorance has replaced the humanitarian revolution.
Jihad has become the means for massacre. Religious taxes are a means of public plunder. Prayer is a means of deceiving the public. Unity has been covered with the mass of profanity. Islam has become a chain of surrendering.
Nations are being taken into slavery as before.”
Obviously, Marxist- and socialist-inspired condemnations abound, as is the desire for modern revolution.
It is perhaps natural that when the Iranian Shia Shariati focuses on the 50-year period between the death Mohammad until the martyrdom of Hossain – from 632 until 680 – he is intensely critical of the lack of political revolutionary commitment on the part of the entire second revolutionary generation except for what is a very real “Shiite Resistance Movement”, which is truly an underground political phenomenon.
Imam Hossain answers Lenin’s question
In 680 the Caliph Muawiyah dies. Muawiyah’s betrayal of the House of Mohammad culminated in the handing of the caliphate to his son, Yazid. This ended the consultative and democratic caliphate and inaugurated monarchy and the Umayyad dynasty.
Yazid would go on to commit terrible atrocities at the Battle of Al-Harrah, which led to the looting of Medina by the Syrian army in 683, and then even an unthinkable siege of Mecca, leading to the burning of the Kabaa. The siege only ended when Yazid died from falling off his horse. These acts obviously damaged Umayyad authority among the People and strengthened the argument of the early Shia.
By 750 the Iranian-Iraqi Abbasid Revolution would kick the Umayyads out of the entire Middle East, while the Great Berber Revolt had kicked them out of the Maghreb just a few years prior. West and East Africa were not yet Muslim at this time.
The ethnic (Arab) elitists but religiously-tolerant Umayyads only found fertile soil in Europe, ruling Spain for several centuries. The Abbasid Caliphate would rule Islam for five centuries, replacing the feudal Arab Caliphate with a multi-ethnic, religiously tolerant Islamic Golden Age that lasted until the Mongol Invasion in 1258. The Mamluks of Egypt fought off the Mongols, thus sparing not just the Maghreb but all of Africa, and also allowing the Abbasids to re-center the Caliphate (religiously, but not politically) until the Ottoman conquest in 1517.
Thus a truly “Muslim World” – one in which unity is based only on Islam and not Arab ethnicity & Islam – does not begin until after the Umayyads. Shia obviously feel that Imam Ali and Imam Hossain perceived this sooner than anyone.
Shariati describes the view of Hossain back in 680: Hossain surely foresaw the crumbling of the Umayyad’s legitimacy – due to an obvious slackening of revolutionary integrity, the corruption of revolutionary ideals and culture, and the renunciation of political & social involvement;
“Imam Hossain, as a responsible leader, sees that if he remains silent, Islam will change into a religion of the government. Islam will be changed into a military-economic power and nothing more. Islam will become as other regimes and powers.
He is alone, unarmed. Opposing him is one of the most savage empires of the world which is being covered over by the fairest and most deceiving cover of piety, sacredness and unity which the ruling power possesses. He is alone. He is a lonely man who is responsible to this school of thought.
Whoever is more aware is more responsible, and who is more aware than Imam Hossain? What is his responsibility? He is responsible to fight against the elimination of the truth, the destruction of the rights of the people, annihilation of all of the values, abolition of all of the memories of the Revolution, destruction of the message of the Revolution, and to protect the most beloved of cultures and the faith of the people, for their destruction is the aim of the most filthy enemies of the people. They want to once again create the unknown, mysterious deaths, exiles, putting people in chains; the worshipping of pleasure, discriminations, the gathering of wealth; the selling of human values, faith, honor, creating new religious foolishness, racism, new aristocracy, new ignorance and a new polytheism.”
It’s a powerful historical analysis, and one which combines modern, socialist-inspired political thought with Abrahamic morality. The Shah had obviously re-created these evils, but it’s clear that just toppling a tyrant is no guarantee of revolution.
It should thus be clear how Iranian Revolutionary Shi’ism was created, how it was shaped by the lenses of socialism, and why it galvanised mullahs and masses far more than the Tudeh Party ever did.
But Hossain was totally weakened and could not depose the powers in Damascus. Therefore, he used his one weapon – his certain, aware death at Karbala.
The death of Imam Hossain – the birth of ‘living artists’ in the future
Hossain, then in Mecca, was invited by the people of Kufa, Iraq, (the future first seat of the Abbasid Caliphate 70 years later, showing they maintained their revolutionary zeal & culture ) to be their leader. Kufans had come around after 20 years of rule by Muawiyah. Hossain accepts.
However, Hossain gets word that Yazid’s troops were killing his sympathisers and blocking the gates – going to Kufa thus means certain death, given Hossain’s lack of power and resources.
Imam Hossain had two choices: go to Medina and swear allegiance to the new Umayyad dynasty, or march to the certain death at Kufa. Sanctioning imperialism is never Islamic, nor a modern revolution. Seventy kilometres from the Kufa gate Hossain’s band of family and loyal companions, 72 people, chose to fight the Battle of Karbala.
“He leaves Mecca to reply to the question, ‘How?’… (to) all those who can see, feel, understand and thus suffered and felt themselves responsible, who are thus looking for a revolution, (and) are then asking “What should be done?”
Clearly, the aware death of Hossain was selected by revolutionary Shi’ism as a direct answer to the title of Lenin’s famous pamphlet, which he took from a Russian book from 1863 which called for socialist self-sacrifice (martyrdom, to Iranians).
I quote Shariati at some length, because I cannot decide what should be omitted, and also because Western readers must drastically re-orient their conception of the word “martyrdom” if they want to understand the Shia and Iranian version (and the version very close to Sunni Muslims, as well.)
“The great teacher of martyrdom has now arisen in order to teach those who consider jihad to relate only to those who have the ability, and victory to be only in conquering. Martyrdom is not a loss, it is a choice. A choice where by the warrior sacrifices himself on the threshold of the temple of freedom and the altar of love, and is victorious.
Hossain, the heir of Adam, who gives life to the children of mankind, and the successor of the great prophets, who taught mankind ‘how to live’, has now come to teach mankind ‘how to die’.
Hossain teaches that ‘black death’ is the miserable fate of a humbled people who accept scorn in order to remain alive. For death chooses those who are not brave enough to choose martyrdom. Death chooses them!
The word shahid, martyr, contains the highest form of what I am saying. It means being present; bearing witness; one who bears witness. It also means that which is sensible and perceptible; the one whom all turn towards. Finally it means model, pattern, example.
Martyrdom: to arise and bear witness in our culture and in our religion is not a bloody and accidental happening. In other religions and tribal histories, martyrdom is the sacrificing of the heroes who are killed in the battles of the enemy. It is considered to be a sorrowful accident, full of misery. Those who are killed in this way are called martyrs and their death is called martyrdom.
But in our culture, martyrdom is not a death which is imposed by an enemy upon our warriors. It is a death which is desired by our warrior, selected with all of the awareness, logic, reasoning, intelligence, understanding, consciousness and alertness that a human being has.
Look at Hossain. He releases his life, leaves his town and arises in order to die because he has no other means for his struggle to condemn and disgrace his enemy. He selects this in order to render aside the deceiving curtains which covered the ugly faces of the ruling power. If he cannot defeat the enemy in this way, at least he can disgrace them. If he cannot conquer the ruling power, he can at least condemn it by injecting new blood and the belief of jihad into the dead bodies of the second-generation of the Revolution revealed to the Prophet.
Quite a passage – far from being a tragedy or a screaming kamikaze pilot hopped up on speed, Iranian martyrdom is based on intelligent and sensitive awareness. It is obviously highly political, and contains an urgent and progressive (anti-reactionary) political message.
In summary, in our culture – contrary to other schools where it is considered to be an accident, an involvement, a death imposed upon a hero, a tragedy – (it) is a grade, a level, a rank. It is not a means but is a goal itself. It is originality. It is a completion. It is a lift. It itself is midway to the highest peak of humanity and it is a culture.”
This is the “martyrdom” which is imbued in Iranian culture. How imbued is it? Iranians hear the word multiple times daily in the common greeting between two friends or even two strangers: “Gorban-e-shoma” (“I will be your martyr”). Many Iranians will say that I am over-exaggerating the literal importance of this phrase, but that IS the literal translation. To me, commonplace linguistic phrases reveal a culture’s true soul; but it is true that nobody is really promising immediate martyrdom on the other’s behalf.
(I always thought this Farsi phrase grew out of Koran 4:86 – “Answer a greeting in kinder words than those said to you in their greeting, or at least as kind. God keeps account of all things.” What could be a kinder greeting to a total stranger than promising to die for them?)
However, only the thick-headed would imagine Iranian martyrdom to be only concerned with death – such a society would quickly empty itself of inhabitants.
Martyrdom is also the constant little sacrifices of one’s individual well-being for the sake of society, and in much, much less drastic forms than death. Martyrdom essentially exists in order to activate the “living artist” who improves society by moving beyond mere individualism.
Martyrdom and Martyrdom and ANOTHER Martyrdom
“In European countries the word ‘martyr’ stems from ‘mortal’ which means ‘death’ or ‘to die’. One of the basic principles in Islam and in particular in Shiite culture, however, is ‘sacrifice and bear witness’. So instead of martrydom, i.e. death, it essentially means ‘life’, ‘evidence’, ‘testify’, ‘certify’.”
Martyrdom is, of course, one of the central messages of Jesus to Christians…but not as significantly to Muslims, however: the Koran explicitly rejects the idea that God could allow a messenger and prophet of God to be killed in such a way. Indeed, for Islam Jesus was not killed on the cross – it was only made to appear that way by God. In Islam faith always wins over evil, therefore the death of Jesus on the cross is illogical – how could Jesus’ executioners have won?
That is a complicated issue, but bringing it up helps us clarify the roots of the difference in the meaning of “martyrdom” to Muslims and Westerners. It also helps illuminate why the martyrdom of Imam Hossain is so important in Islam – he is essentially the primary Abrahamic martyr to Muslims.
But I think Shariati rather significantly misunderstands “martyrdom” as defined in the West. Although he is correct that they view it in a far more negative fashion than in Islam, I think Shariati’s view is wrong by failing to include two key points:
Firstly, Shariati does not acknowledge that – for Christians themselves – there is also a positive message of Jesus’ martyrdom: which is, that the key is to emulate Jesus when it comes to his martyrdom.
However, I believe that West European Christians (not East European) have proven incapable of grasping this positive message. Therefore, the point is moot for the Western half of the continent.
Secondly, Shariati did not grasp that many West Europeans mistakenly appear to think that because Jesus died for our sins, Jesus thus ended the need for more martyrdom. This quite significantly compounds the disagreeableness of “martyrdom” to Westerners.
Indeed, “martyr” is a term used only to disparage in Western European cultures. The only time one hears it in English is in the phrase “Don’t be a martyr”. The word and concept are similarly totally absent in French.
The word “martyr” is never even used to describe who has died unjustly (the primary view in Sunni cultures) – not for a Palestinian protester killed by Zionists, nor a Jew killed in the Holocaust.
For the West, I believe that martyrdom has evolved to mean “an unnecessary exaggeration of suffering” – as though you are pretentiously claiming that you are doing something on the level of Jesus Christ. When it comes to martyrdom in the West the message is unambiguous: don’t do it at any time. As I am aware of the Iranian version and its elevation of martyrdom, I always found this cultural difference quite, quite surprising.
I think the negative Western view reveals two flaws, as martyrdom is clearly a positive thing: a fundamental cultural indifference to unjust suffering, at least when compared with Muslim and Iranian culture, and also a distaste for suffering on behalf of any cause. The latter observation is caused by the rampant individualism of the capitalist West: anyone suffering for a cause necessarily and annoyingly reminds them of their fundamentally self-centred lives – thus their society discourages it.
There is also rampant nihilism in the West, which is not at all the same as religious fatalism, and which is yet another cause of their distaste for martyrdom: if all is pointless, why die for anything? Martyrdom is thus negatively associated with a needless death, when for Sunni Muslims martyrdom is associated with an unjust death, and for Shia it is associated with a selfless death.
Thus Westerners view “martyrdom” as both a needless death as well as a negative, self-aggrandising act, while Sunnis view it positively but primarily as an act of injustice, whereas Shia & Iranians view martyrdom as a necessary, positive way to effectuate social change. Therefore, we really are talking about “Martyrdom and Martyrdom and Martyrdom”.
Martyrdom to Iranians is thus actually the equivalent of English “altruism”.
But, just like martyrdom, altruism conflicts with Western capitalist-imperialist ideology, as it is the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.
We should thus not be surprised that “altruism” is a word which almost never heard in Western daily discourse, nor in their political discourse.
Therefore, even prior to Basij teenagers being forced into wartime self-sacrifice by Western aggression, “martyr” was something with negative connotations for Westerners and positive connotations for Iranians.
The Western denigration of martyrdom forces the denigration of Iranian revolutionary Shi’ism
This Iranian conception of “martyrdom” should explain much in the first 8 parts of this series, no?
Why wage revolution against the Shah for decades? Why sit in opposition to East and West? Why be so uncaring of Western public opinion? Why be so stridently revolutionary? Why condemn Israel when it only reaps trouble? Why give 15% of the economy to charity foundations? Why create the Basij? Why refuse to participate in the dominant neoliberal ideology of global imperialist capitalism?
“I cannot see the Iranians agreeing to continue to suffer while Tehran continues to finance foreign movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen,” Jean-François Seznec, professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, told France24 media just yesterday. You can’t see it, really, Mr. Hotshot professor? I can, because I understand the Iranian conception of “martyrdom” – you clearly are another clueless academic.
(And I know that polls show that all of these non-Iranian revolutionary movements – as well as in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere – are massively supported in a democratic majority in Iran).
Martyrdom – in the unique Iranian definition, of course – is a large part of the answer to all those questions I just posed. Whatever the West wants to hide, forget or put a smiling capitalist-imperialist face on – Iran chooses martyrdom, or would like to.
So we must relearn what Iran means by “martyrdom” – they are talking about “Iranian Shia martyrdom”. The right terms in English are really: self-sacrifice, altruism, social justice.
These desires explain why 10-25 million Iranians have joined the Basij – for the overwhelmingly majority it is essentially just a social hobby which encourages (moderate, dull) self-sacrifice for societal betterment. You do get some social and monetary benefits, which are especially of importance to the lower class, but for many Basiji it also fills this emotional need that “I need to martyr some of myself and my time for others”. This emotional need exists exactly the same in the West, but it does not exist in the same intensity, nor does it exist in a government-supported form.
The West, with their different definition of “martyrdom”, and in combination with their hatred of socialism & Islamic democracy, wants people to believe that Iranian “martrydom” is all wild-eyed death when it it is 99.9% the mere provision of some rather mundane civil service / community improvement instead of watching TV. Iranian are not THAT great at being martyrs!
Yet the West hears “martyr” and assumes the worst about those who support Iranian revolutionary Shi’ism,
For an example, I return to the book on the Basij I reviewed in this series, Captive Society, by Saied Golkar. It is the only book ever written about the Basij in the West, but it is clearly a book which is against the Basij.
Golkar is discussing the WSBO – the Women’s Society Basij Organization, which is the main Basij group for women.
“The ideal family, which is promoted by the WSBO, is called the Islamic Revolutionary family or ‘family of holy defense’. The Islamic revolutionary family has specific features, according to WSBO head Minoo Aslani. The family is the place of modesty and chastity, where women take moral care of their family members. It is a place where women encourage charitable and spiritual affairs among their children and husbands, and where women should speak about religion and the Islamic Revolution.”
To many this is a happy, typical, politically-modern home concerned with moral social conduct. For Westerners and those who oppose modern Iran – this is some sort of horror, because the government should never get involved with these types of values, as they are purely personal (and thus should vary extremely wildly, apparently).
Golkar thus descends into fear-mongering, and surely finds plenty of receptive minds in the West: Golkar refers to a scholar which labelled this kind of family a “martyropath family”. He believes that Basij women are being brainwashed into training a “martyropath,” or a person who is enchanted by death and wants to die to preserve Iran.
To me the only “-path” of any sort here is Golkar, for so obviously trying to portray Basij families as fascist psychopaths. It is incredible that this supposedly-objective scholar is trying to portray a “martyropath” as a credible description of an average Basiji.
But this is what people always do with Iran – they portray them as insane, death-loving, religious fundamentalists instead of human beings.
No Iranian woman (who does not belong in a mental institution) trains their child for martyrdom – they only train their children to be altruistic and selfless. There should be no doubt that in probably every single case of martyrdom known to man, it was ultimately done against the mother’s wishes (and a father’s). I am not a parent myself, but I think any parent would immediately agree with that.
As has been reported for the case of martyrs in Iran during the Iraq war: to choose a martyr’s death is a lonely and individual decision, and families did their best to stop it. However, this does not mean that – after the deed was done – families did not also see the glory in the death of defending their community, family, nation; this is no different than in any other nation with any of their soldiers.
The reality is this: Basiji women are merely being encouraged to be modern revolutionaries, and that is what is frightening to the counter-revolutionary West.
Just as there is a downside to the West’s “never martyrdom” approach, there is a downside to Shia Iran’s “martyrdom please” approach as well. For example, missing a couple meals during Ramadan does not make one the world’s greatest Muslim martyr. It is quite easy for Iranians to puff themselves up as great Muslims and revolutionaries because they have mentally accumulated 10 million insignificant instances of where they put the needs of someone else first, i.e., simply done the right thing. If any culture could break their own arms from patting themselves on their own backs, it is Iran.
However, a society full of martyrs is certainly far, far more desirable than a society full of self-serving individualists, no? This is essentially the point to take away from this article, I think.
The message of Imam Hossain remains a political beacon
The willful ignorance of the revolutionary, unique and socialist-inspired structures of revolutionary Shi’ism which created Iranian Islamic Socialism is only dangerous for Westerners: they are the ones who are misled about the nature of modern Iran; they are the ones who have such a terrified, “Muslim martyropaths will get me” worldview; they are the ones who are deluded by the paranoia that it is Iran which is targeting them and not the other way around; and they are the ones whose societies are worsened by the failure to transplant some of Iran’s unique solutions to modern problems in their own country; I could go on and on listing such problems.
It should be now quite clear that Iranians have re-intepreted the martyrdom of Imam Hossain to coincide with something quite similar to the Trotskyist socialist concept of “permanent revolution”.
We should see how something like the Basij – whether one approves of them or not, and I am officially neutral on their value – clearly was originally created to try and incarnate this idea of Perpetual Revolution for which Trotsky (and Lenin and other socialists) had different yet very similar notions. By constantly recruiting new members, training them in modern revolutionary Shi’ism and granting them affirmative action spots in the universities and government, it is clear that they are an effort to constantly refresh the Islamic Revolution and to constantly reshape Iranian culture in favor of Iranian Islamic Socialism. Again, I merely condense here the objective conclusions proven in my 4-part sub-series on the Basij and do not judge nor promote.
Obviously, revolutionary Shi’ism did not sprout overnight, nor did it need a war to make its values widespread; it has all existed in Iran for some time, yet it was the Islamic Republic of Iran which made these the officially-sanctioned values of the government for the first time ever.
Hopefully people will realize that Iranian “martyrdom” and its “permanent revolution” is something which is based both on ancient sources of unimpeachable morality as well as the unimpeachable modern political ideas of democratic progress and economic equality. The slogans of 1979 – “Every place is Karbala!” and “The martyr is the heart of human history! – reflect this reality.
“Every place is Petrograd” and “The revolutionary is the heart of human history” could have been taken from Trotsky.
Agree with Iranians or not, modern Iran is indeed revolutionary, and thus quite in keeping with its ideological heroes – Prophet Mohammad, Imam Ali, Imam Hossain, Lenin, Mao, Trotsky, Castro, Algeria and others. It is clear who deserves top billing; it’s amazing that Western leftists still do not even know the cast of main characters…but that is out of ignorance or willful blindness.
I hope these articles have also shown that one need not be an Iranian nor a Muslim to accept that the Iranian Revolution is proof that Islam can be a progressive revolutionary force once again. One also does not have to be a Muslim to see that socialism will not advance globally without first accepting those facts.
This is the 9th article in an 11-part series which explains the economics, history, religion and culture of Iran’s Revolutionary Shi’ism, which produced modern Iranian Islamic Socialism.
Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
‘Martyrdom and Martyrdom’ & martyrdom: understanding Iran
‘The Death of Yazdgerd’: The greatest political movie ever explains Iran’s revolution (available with English subtitles for free on Youtube here)
Iran détente after Trump’s JCPOA pull out? We can wait 2 more years, or 6, or…
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.