Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Who are the Shiites?

First Published: The Worker, Vol 11, No 4, February 28, 1979
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Islamic Republic? If you believe the media, these two words should send shivers up your spine. Since the Iranian revolution started last year, the press has been full of outrageous racist lies about how “modern” the Shah was and about how backward, medieval and savage the Muslims are.

A few facts to start with. Islam did not invent the story of Jews as Jesus killers to justify centuries of anti-semitism. Islam was not the religious power in Italy which helped out the Nazis. Cromwell was not a Muslim when he “cured” the Irish of their heresy by burning them alive in their churches. The barbarities committed by British, French, German and U.S. Imperialism were never done in the name of Allah. All that was the work of “good Christians”. They’ve got a hell of a lot of nerve to call the Muslims any names.

So, what is the religious background? Who are the Shiites? Who are the ayatollahs and mullahs you can see on TV in the streets of Tehran?

Basically, the Shi’ite branch of Islam is a “Protestant” sect, and, like the Christian Protestants, they have usually been more progressive than the “Catholic” Sunnis. In fact, Shi’ite Islam is a somewhat democratic religion with no established hierarchy; no heavy bureaucracy of priests and bishops who just sit back and collect their money. Each Ayatollah (there are about 400 of them in Iran) is a leader because he has won the support of the people by his learning, by his political leadership and by his ability to get things done for the people. For the past 80 years, the Ayatollahs have mostly won the support of the people because they have been the leaders of the resistance to imperialism and their Iranian lackeys like the Shah.

This revolution is the latest and greatest in a long tradition. In the 1890’s the Ayatollahs denounced the concessions granted to the British, called for a boycott of tobacco, wrecked the economy and overthrew the government. In 1920 the Shah’s father was in the pocket of the British Oil bosses, so the Ayatollahs aided a revolt which threw him out of the country. In 1953 the Ayatollahs supported the government of Premier Mossadegh who wanted to nationalize the oil fields and end imperialist domination. The CIA organized a coup and installed the latest Shah to protect the oil which the U.S. had just grabbed from the British in the post World War II redivision of the spoils. And now, again, the Ayatollahs have lead the resistance.

The reason the Ayatollahs play this role is the democratic set-up of the religion. They have to lead where the people want them to go. And this is also why there are big differences among the Ayatollahs. Khomeini is a centrist: he is definitely anti-imperialist, he supports the Palestinians, and hates the fascist regimes in Israel and South Africa. But he told Le Monde that the people must not have any “systematic collaboration” with communist elements. But Khomeini’s is not the final word; there are Ayatollahs to the left of him. The most important Ayatollah in Teheran is Mahmoud Talegahni who is called the “red mullah“ because of his progressive stand. He spent 18 years in the Shah’s jails, he has long been known as an organizer of support for the workers’ cause. His son is a leading Marxist-Leninist.

But, an Islamic Repulic will not be a proletarian dictatorship. A strong, disciplined and popular organization like the Bolshevik Party must be built to lead the Iranian revolution to the next necessary step where all power is transferred to the working class. We know that our Iranian comrades will move ahead to that position soon.