Towards a Decolonial Global Solidarity

Catherine Sameh

Beyond Shariati:
Modernity, Cosmopolitanism, and Islam in Iranian Political Thought
By Siavash Saffari
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017, 213 pages, $32.99 paper.

IN THE WAKE of the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution, it is worth reflecting not so much on what has changed or stayed the same in Iran, but on the particular rhetoric and policies of the United States that have endlessly fanned the flames of war against Iran for the last four decades.

While president Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton is the most recent and especially bombastic practitioner of such an approach, the assumptions that undergird his drive to war with Iran are continuous with the preceding administrations.

The Islamic Republic, so the argument goes, is exceptionally brutal, barbaric, and irrational. Its leaders are singularly deceptive and murderous. Iran cannot be engaged through standard diplomatic procedures. It only understands the language of violence and suffering.

Such an argument emerges from the logics that have long ensnared Iran inside the colonial matrix of power, or the project of Western modernity and its dark colonial underside.*

When Iranians overthrew the Shah, their Western-backed dictator, in the effervescent moment of 1979, they sought among other things to rupture the U.S. colonial stranglehold on Iran. Among those who took part in the revolution, many were followers of the ideas of the Iranian sociologist and revolutionary, Ali Shariati (1933-1977).

Considered one of the ideologues of the revolution, along with Ruhollah Khomeini, Shariati formulated a left Islamic liberation politics in critical conversation with worldwide anti-colonial thought.

In Beyond Shariati: Modernity, Cosmopoli­tanism, and Islam in Iranian Political Thought, Siavash Saffari, Assistant Professor of West Asian Studies at Seoul National University, engages the work of Shariati and “neo-Shariatis” to “reread the intellectual foundations of the 1979 revolution” and shed light on the more recent “grassroots democratic movement in Iran” and the “gradual exhaustion of Islamist politics and the Islam/modernity binary that has helped to sustain and legitimize it.” (14)

While numerous (Iranian and non-Iranian) scholars have explored Shariati’s body of work, Saffari is the first to consider Shariati together with his later followers, and the ways in which they are extending his work in Iran today.

Activism and Consciousness

In the introduction Saffari reviews the biographical literature on Shariati, including a book by Shariati’s wife, Pouran Shariat-Razavi. Shariati was born in 1933, the son of a “politically active and reform-minded Islamic preacher” who would have a deep and lasting influence on Shariati. (6)

Shariati and his father were founding members of the Mashad branch of the National Resistance Movement, an underground organization supporting the nationalist leader Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was ousted in the 1953 British-American coup after nationalizing the Iranian oil industry.

Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Literature from the University of Mashad, Shariati went to Paris in 1959 and earned his Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in 1963. At the Sorbonne he was influenced by the work of sociologists and Islamic scholars who were part of the faculty there, as well as the writings of Martinique-born psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon and French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.

Politically involved in revolutionary and anti-colonial activism while in Paris, Shariati was moved by Fanon’s writing on colonialism and the Algerian revolution, and began translating Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth into Farsi.

Saffari writes that while Shariati was initially attracted to guerrilla warfare, he eventually concentrated his revolutionary thinking and writing on “raising the consciousness of the masses over waging armed struggle,” arguing for revolutionaries to ground notions of resistance in culturally-specific discourses. (7) Shariati returned to Iran in 1964, where he was arrested and briefly jailed for his anti-Shah activism in Europe.

Returning to Mashad after his release, Shariati was eventually hired as a professor of history at the University of Mashad. A beloved teacher and dynamic speaker, Shariati received numerous invitations over the next several years to lecture on campuses across Iran, including the newly established Hosseinieh Ershad, a “modern religious institution aimed at engaging young educated urban classes in debates about Islamic thought, culture, and history.”

It was there that Shariati further developed a “revolutionary Islamic ideology that called for popular awareness, action, and movement in the face of oppression and injustice,” critiquing the Pahlavi regime, as well as at “traditional religious doctrines and the pro status-quo position of the clergy.” (8)

A site of anti-Shah activity, Hosseinieh Ershad was closed in 1972 and Shariati went underground. In 1973 he was arrested and jailed for 18 months, and after his release lived in Mashad under virtual house arrest. Unable to teach or speak, Shariati exiled himself, despite a travel ban against him, in 1977 to Belgium then England. Three weeks later, he died of a heart attack.

Shariati’s New Relevance

Shariati’s death was mourned worldwide by revolutionary activists and leaders, and he became a potent symbol in the revolutionary activism of late 1970s Iran, a fact often leveraged to critique his ideological limits and consign his thought to the dustbin labeled “mistakes of the past.”

Debated as a contributor to the rise of the Islamic state or a dreamy utopian irrelevant to the present, the full intellectual contributions of Shariati are often missed. One of the important interventions of Saffari’s book is to illuminate the current relevance of Shariati through his contemporary interlocutors, what he calls the “neo-Shariatis,” Iranian activists, intellectuals and scholars.

As Saffari notes, Shariati’s work enjoys wide readership in Iran today, including among youth. New doctoral students are engaging his work and prominent neo-Shariatis like Reza Allijani, Taghi Rhamani, Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, Ehsan Shariati, and Hashem Aghajari have been part of Iran’s vibrant reform movement, often resulting in their imprisonment and exile, or dismissal and prohibition from university teaching jobs.

The popularity of Shariati’s work speaks to his enduring significance for those interested in thinking about intellectual and political thought outside a Eurocentric framework, and about the relevance of local knowledges to the world at large.

Additionally, while Shariati drew “on concepts from the Shi’i tradition, by citing various Sunni scholars and by distinguishing between the oppressive and emancipatory aspects of Shi’ism, he effectively highlights the commonalities between progressive currents in the Shi’i and Sunni traditions.” (12)

Saffari’s methodological approach to Shariati’s and neo-Shariatis work is that of dialogical comparison. Drawing on this framework as developed by comparative political theorist Fred Dallmayr, Saffari seeks out the border-crossing and binary-shattering implications of Shariati and his followers who, in conversation with other critics of Western hegemony and Eurocentrism, offer responses to modernity that challenge rather than reproduce global relations of power.

In Chapter 1, Saffari considers the ways in which religious and secular critics of Shariati have focused on how his ideologization of religion and discourses of Iranian and Muslim authenticity have enabled the Islamic Republic to reinscribe the Islam/West binary.

Neo-Shariati thought offers an alternative reading, centering the ways that Shariati challenges both “authoritarian modernism and conservative traditionalism” and offers Iranians a path for crafting an indigenous modernity on their own terms. (38) Such terms, argue neo-Shariatis, are being articulated in the various struggles for religious reform and grassroots democratic activism inside Iran.

In subsequent chapters, Saffari explores the ways in which Shariati’s work opens up the possibility for thinking of individual autonomy inside an ethical-religious order that turns “the modern subject toward its others.” (127) Deeply critical both of capitalism’s consumer-driven and sexually exploitative modes of individualism, and of Islamist collectivisms that compromise individual freedoms, Shariati and the neo-Shariatis offer an account of Iranian modernity that constructs rights-bearing subjectivity and public religiosity as compatible, rather than antagonistic.

No to an “Islamic state”

As Saffari argues, implied in Shariati’s thought and elaborated by the work of neo-Shariatis, is the rejection of an Islamic state, the formation of which Shariati did not live to see. But also articulated in this work is an account of modern Iranian subjectivity and robust civic participation very much informed by Islam.

While the revolutionary government claimed Shariati as their own immediately after the revolution, during the past three-plus decades his “Islamic discourse has fallen increasingly out of favor with the official guardians of the post-revolutionary regime.” (10)

Shariati and neo-Shariatis, argues Saffari, propose a kind of revolutionary Islamic epistemology that gestures implicitly away from a stale ideology held hostage by the state, and towards a progressive and ethical self-subject in relation to the world. In this sense, neo-Shariatis engage in dialogue with other scholars and activists who challenge the secular/religious, modern/traditional binary in thought and politics alike.

In my work, I consider the ways in which Iranian women’s rights activists also contest these binaries and civilizational discourses, reconfiguring the legacy of Iranian anti-colonial thought from an explicitly feminist perspective.

In his conclusion, Saffari rightly states that while Shariati did address gender, he failed to offer a comprehensive analysis of women’s oppression. I would extend this critique to say that Shariati’s call to Iranian women to look to Islam for an indigenous, anti-colonial and liberatory account of the self was articulated primarily in gender-differentiated terms, enabling the post-revolutionary state to proclaim “women’s equality” while juridically enforcing their inequality.

Nonetheless, Shariati’s thought remains critically relevant for those living under post-colonial authoritarian states and those in the heart of empire. Saffari’s generative project offers a fresh look at Shariati’s epistemological insights, and more importantly locates Shariati and the neo-Shariatis as indigenous thinkers contributing to a globally engaged and cosmopolitan politics from below.

This important book will prove highly valuable to anti-colonial activists and scholars, who can think with Ali Shariati and the Iranian experience to democratize their own locales and decolonize the world.

*The term colonial matrix of power comes from the Argentinian scholar Walter Mignolo and other Latin American scholars associated with the collective on modernity/coloniality/decoloniality. Drawing on the decolonial ideas of Anibal Quijano, Frantz Fanon, and others, the collective theorized Western civilization/modernity as a 500-plus year history of economic, political, epistemic, aesthetic, and environmental destruction of other civilizations and worldviews.

July-August 2019, ATC 201