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Imam Khomeini constructed political identity with Islam as focal point

By Xavier Villar

On the 34th anniversary of the passing of Imam Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic Revolution, his figure remains crucial not only to understanding the current political landscape of the Islamic Republic but also to comprehend the general discourse in the Muslim world.

We can decipher Islamic discourse as one that seeks for Islam to become the central political point in Muslim communities. 

Islamism should not be confused with the concept of Islamization, which is merely the granting of certain visibility to Islam in cultural spaces without necessarily translating into the articulation of Islam as a language in international relations, public policies, etc.

The School of Imam Khomeini has understood that the Orientalist perspective continues to be the framework from which Muslim populations located outside the Eurocentric narrative are observed.

Orientalism perceives Western ideology or paradigm as universal and capable of being used, without any issues, to comprehend and explain non-Western phenomena. It is important to consider that for the School of Imam Khomeini, the West is not merely a geographical location but an ideology.

According to Islamists, the normative Western perspective holds that Islam cannot be constructed as a political tool. Therefore, discussing Islam as a political identity alternative to the West-backed Pahlavi regime would be a distraction from the primary causes of the revolution.

Islam would still be seen as an epiphenomenon, a smokescreen.

From Iran, specifically from the political articulation of Imam Khomeini, it is considered that the Islamic revolution was an event triggered, among other reasons, against Eurocentrism.

It was not only about the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) but also about breaking away from the Orientalist framework that views Muslims as lacking agency. This anti-Eurocentrism was manifested in attempts to achieve a cultural transformation aimed at "de-Westernizing" Iranian society.

Revolution minus Western grammar

Islamist historiography perceives this Revolution as the first one that did not follow Western grammar, making it unpredictable for academics and experts.

The example often cited is the book "Iran: Dictatorship and Development" written by Fred Halliday months before the 1979 revolution. The book attempts to predict possible scenarios once the Pahlavi dynasty disappeared, which was already evident at that time.

However, Halliday never considers the possibility of an Islamic Revolution among his various predictions. Instead, he discusses nationalist government, socialism, a new monarchy, and so on.

Thus, it is evident, the idea of using Islamic language to achieve political emancipation was and continues to be unimaginable in the Western narrative.

Islamism argues that Imam Khomeini constructed an autonomous identity with Islam as its focal point. According to this interpretation, the founder would have denied the universality of Western epistemology while simultaneously challenging the known historical sequence from Plato to NATO.

The revolution would have been the materialization of an Islamic identity, inserted in an alternative genealogy of anti-colonial resistance with its own grammar that cannot be expressed in the Western language of national liberation or Marxism.

In this way, it would have provided an answer to one of the most pressing questions for Islamism: how can Muslims live politically, as Muslims, in the contemporary world?

Displacing West as normative discourse

The importance of Imam Khomeini's ideology is manifested in his political mission, which successfully displaced the West as the normative discourse.

This process was carried out exclusively using the language of Islamic tradition, without any reference to doctrines considered Western, unlike other Islamic reformists.

Imam Khomeini wrote as if the grammar of the West did not exist. This irrelevance is prioritized by his followers because it materialized the construction of an autonomous Muslim political identity.

The fact that he wrote as if the West did not exist also signifies that Islam cannot be reduced to the Western category of "religion” devoid of politics.

The idea that there is something universal called "religion" would imply a transhistorical essence that disregards the differences between the various projects that invoke the figure of God.

From the perspective of the Islamic Republic, speaking of Westernized "religion" implies accepting the notion as a private belief separate from the political realm, as is understood in the West.

The discourse of religion, however, is only understood when complemented by the narrative of secularism.

Secularism should not be understood simply as the absence of religion or its exclusion from the public sphere but as a normative project that constructs its own boundaries.

For the Islamic Republic, secularism is neither natural nor the culmination of a historical process. It is seen as a disciplinary discourse, a political modality that deems certain political sensitivities as valid while excluding others by considering them as a threat.

Using the language of religion is not merely a descriptive exercise but carries a clear prescriptive intention. The ultimate goal is to regulate the space of Islam.

Saba Mahmood, a professor of anthropology at the University of Berkeley, says despite the claim of religious neutrality, the modern secular state is involved in regulating and controlling religious life in a way that has not been seen before.

The idea of a "French Islam", which is compatible with the French national project, for example, exemplifies this regulation of religious life, as stated by Mahmood.

Islam and colonial category of 'religion'

Imam Khomeini succinctly captures the idea that Islam cannot be reduced to the colonial category of "religion" in these words:

"If we Muslims do nothing but pray, beseech God, and invoke His name, the imperialists and oppressive governments will leave us alone. If we had said, 'Let us concentrate on the call to prayer for 24 hours and recite our prayers' or 'Let them take away everything we have, for God will take care of it, as there is no power greater than God, and we will be rewarded in the hereafter.' If we had said all that, they would not have bothered us."

His idea is that Islam cannot be reduced to a mere ritualistic-moralistic matter, devoid of a political essence. It is precisely the political articulation of Islam that prevents its dissolution.

In the Islamic Republic, the non-political Islam of Saudi Arabia - the one that lacks the political intention to become an alternative identity to the West - is presented as an example of an Islam that feels comfortable within the colonial category of "religion".

One of the differences expressed by Iranian Islamism regarding regional Islamization projects is that Islam cannot be reduced to a set of finite characteristics.

This notion is expressed by Imam Khomeini himself in a series of letters to the then-president and current Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.

In these manuscripts, he states that the Islamic Republic may abolish any specific manifestation of Islam to ensure its survival. This, which in the opinion of many experts is an indication of Imam’s nationalist thinking, should be seen as an example of an Islam that cannot be limited to its historical manifestations but always transcends them.

Espousing Islamic unity

Another characteristic of the Imam Khomeini School of Thought is that despite Imam Khomeini considering himself a member of the Ja'fari school, the main juridical school of Shiism, his political practice is seen as an attempt to bridge Sunni and Shia Islam in what Islamic experts refer to as a "post-mazhabi" vision – mazhab or madhhab meaning juridical school in Arabic.

This pursuit of Islamic unity is crucial to understanding the self-representation of the Islamic Republic as the political home for all Muslims, a kind of great power capable of defending the entire Islamic community against attacks of Western hegemonic powers.

One last pillar of Imam Khomeini’s School is the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih, translated as "Guardianship of the Jurist," which is the most important political vision of the late leader of the Islamic Revolution.

The various sermons that Imam Khomeini delivered in the Iraqi city of Najaf in 1970, where he was in exile, were compiled into a book by his students.

This doctrine breaks with the traditional Shia political quietism. This quietism, known as "intizar," involved waiting for the arrival of the Imam Mahdi – who, according to Shia tradition, is in occultation and will return at the end of times – along with the establishment of justice and equality on earth. Shia followers could only wait for his arrival and accept the illegitimacy of any government in his absence.

Imam Khomeini changed this conception, transcending the idea of quietism. The notion no longer involves passive waiting for the arrival of the Imam Mahdi but rather creating the necessary political and social conditions for his return.

According to this perspective, Imam Khomeini understood that the problems of Iran and the Islamic community at large cannot be resolved solely through theological means but need to be addressed through a political approach.

Indeed, he was able to create an Islamic political identity that transcends national and sectarian identities. He understood political agency as the ability of Muslims to decolonize themselves and reweave their societies within the Islamic historical tradition.

This decolonization aims at dismantling the global colonial order. Therefore, for his followers, the significance of Imam Khomeini lies in his ability to break the identification between the "universal" and the "West".

In other words, thanks to Imam Khomeini, the West is revealed as just another particularism.

Understanding the Islamic Republic thus means understanding the rejection of Western discourse and the need to articulate independent and autonomous political visions. 

Xavier Villar is a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies and researcher who divides his time between Spain and Iran.

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Press TV)

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