How Iran’s Theocrats Allied With — and Then Crushed — the Left
- Bani Khoshnoudi
Sociologist Chahla Chafiq was a 25-year-old Marxist activist during the 1979 Iranian revolution. Now in exile in France, she looks back on the tensions between socialism, feminism, and anti-imperialism that have roiled Iran’s opposition politics for decades.
- Interview by
- Liza Featherstone
Since the September murder of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by Iran’s so-called “morality police” for violating that country’s mandatory hijab law, Iranians have been demonstrating in the streets and going on strike. Chahla Chafiq is a writer and sociologist who was active in the 1979 revolution, which overthrew the US-backed regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and was the beginning of Ayatollah Khomeini’s long theocratic regime. Chafiq went into exile in 1982 and has lived in France since then. Jacobin spoke with her over Zoom on Thursday, in English and French, with translation from award-winning Iranian American filmmaker Bani Khoshnoudi.
Can you talk about how you got involved in left politics as a student, in the years leading up to the revolution?
Like the teenagers we’re seeing in Iran now, I first joined the student movements in high school, in the years before the revolution. I was an avid reader and interested in the sociopolitical aspects of what was happening. When I was a university student, about three years before the revolution, I was studying sociology and again joined the student movements. At the time, there were civil liberties in terms of what you could wear and what music you could listen to. But there was no political freedom, to organize or be part of a political movement.
Since we were not able to have political meetings, [organizing] would often happen in the context of sports, or we would go hiking in the mountains, and that’s where we would discuss what we were reading. When texts were banned, we would get them from underground channels. And the way that we were able to read and study these was to get together in private places in small groups, but only with people that we were sure of, that we could trust.
Right before the revolution, I became part of a circle of Marxist-Leninists and joined a left student organization. There were so many groups underground, and once the revolution started, they all came out. They were all attracting a lot of members from the student movements. There was the Tudeh party, which was the classic pro-Soviet party, and there was Fedayeen, an urban guerilla party more similar to the Cuban leftist movement. Fedayeen was also pro-Soviet but maybe not as aligned as Tudeh. My group was close to a third party, Line Three, which was the independent left. We believed that the Soviets were an imperialist force, so that’s why we were not pro-Soviet.
There were so many different parties. There was also the Mujahedin [People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran], which mixed a Muslim line in with the leftism. But our group was nonreligious.
What was the relationship between these left groups and the religious groups?
Before the revolution, there was rivalry within factions in the Mujahedin, and there was even some violence. The Marxist branch of the group wanted to get rid of the religious thinking, and they actually killed some of the religious members. Then it became a more Marxist party. And then, when the revolution had started, they reached consensus around some issues. Many political activists got out of prison, and that’s when the more Muslim thinkers started to come back and take over that tendency. And they constituted the party as it grew during the revolution. It grew quickly.
The Mujahedin had a lot more membership among the high school and university students. But the other leftist groups did have some influence. It’s very complicated! But the Mujahedin party we know today is the continuation of that history.
After the revolution began moving forward, Tudeh supported Khomeini. Fedayeen split into a number of different groups. When they started to break up, most of their members went and supported the Tudeh line and thus supported Khomeini also. Those leftists supported the imams because they thought that was the anti-imperialist line.
Khomeini didn’t use the word “anti-imperialism.” He talked about “Big Satan” and “Small Satan.” The Big Satan was the United States. The Small Satan was Europe. The leftists who went toward him translated that as anti-imperialism in their minds. In their minds.
Chafiq emphasizes this last point, raising her eyebrows and speaking in English to ensure that I get it.
My group was independent. We were not supporting Khomeini or his line or his discourse, but we were not clear on it, either.
One thing that the whole Iranian left agreed upon was this anti-Western, anti-imperialist line. It was the most important thing.
Once Khomeini returned from exile, they were starting to censor and ban a lot of newspapers and other writing. The left groups had been taking to the streets to protest that. But at that moment, everyone who supported Khomeini considered all these leftist groups as their number-one enemy and wanted to get rid of them. It was not mutual for the Left. The Left still considered the number-one enemy not to be Khomeini but the West!
Something that I consider the biggest error was that, from the beginning, none of these groups were attentive to the place of women and feminism, because feminism for us meant Western feminism. It was an idea that came from the West. Since the left groups were all, across the board, anti-Western, feminism was something that they did not consider putting forward. This was a big error.
Soon after Khomeini came back, on March 8, 1979, women took to the streets for an International Women’s Day march against the imposition of the veil. Many leftist groups saw them as suspect. The American feminist writer Kate Millet, who wrote a book about her visit to Iran, was attacked not only by Iranian leftists but also by the Left in the United States. Because she supported the demonstration of the women against the veil, people said, “What right do you have, from what position are you speaking? We’re anti-imperialists.”
That was the ambience at the time.
Ideas of human rights and civil rights and all of this — the general idea of rights — were not so important because they considered that socialism would fix all those problems.
This [inattentiveness to feminism and to human rights] was not just in the leftist groups, but also in the [liberal] pro-democracy groups. They, too, thought it was not a priority to focus on those issues because they would be fixed when the rest of the things were fixed.
Did the Left at the time believe that Khomeini was going to deliver socialism?
They never thought that Khomeini would bring socialism. They thought that he was just one step toward the socialist state they wanted to bring. They were aligned behind him because he represented this anti-Western anti-imperialism. The other thing was that they didn’t think that this mullah and other mullahs standing with him would be able to form a power structure that could hold. They thought that he would have some power, and then he would leave. And that’s when the Left would bring themselves together and create their own power structures. It would be like a transition period, like in the Russian Revolution.
It is even worse than the sort of authoritarianism of the Shah. Even though there was some censorship, some expression was allowed — whereas this system is completely totalitarian. There are zero liberties and complete censorship. In my book The New Islamist Man (or Person), I describe how, through these different methods and especially the political prison, they installed this fascist system.
Nobody had the slightest idea of what an Islamist power structure could be, using fascism and killing people to keep its power.
Iran created a model for the new Islamist person that would exist in this new society. And the first victims were the Muslims themselves. They were either killed or reformed into this model that the regime had created.
It’s through this system that they created — which started also with the veil — what is called the “morality police.” The system was implemented especially in prison, a place where they have total control, like a laboratory of what they could try. Especially this idea of confession and repenting, which is still used, but was especially used against these political prisoners, as a way of breaking and controlling their minds.
The Shah had his secret police, but you knew who they were. You could recognize them. Whereas Khomeini said, we are going to create a secret police of thirty million, which was more or less the whole population. He created these Islamist surveillance presences everywhere, in every place of work and every place of study within the whole society. This is how they’ve been able to keep the power for more than forty years.
The new generation hasn’t made these mistakes because they’ve grown up in and lived through this Islamism that was so foreign to my generation. So they know exactly what they’re fighting against.
An important part of this huge mistake [during the revolution] was the confusion around Khomeini as a religious leader. What many people missed was that he was not just religious. He had a political religious ideology that he wanted to impose. Khomeini had this whole theory of religion taking power over society, through the Sharia laws, the Islamic laws. There was confusion about this among the left groups in Iran, and overseas, too.
It’s important to note that the student movements outside of Iran were very powerful back then. Every year the Confederation of Iranian Students was sending messages of support to Khomeini — and these were leftist groups. And yet Khomeini never hid his views or his thoughts. In the 1960s, during what we call the White Revolution, the Shah’s regime was doing show reforms, like giving women the right to vote. (It was absurd because the right to vote in a monarchy, where you can’t really pick your leader, makes no sense.)
But at that time, Khomeini attacked this idea of giving the women the right to vote, saying that women are supposed to stay at home. It was a misogynistic attack, but none of the left groups took it seriously, or even criticized him for that. He was always who he was. All the opposition groups were happy with him because he was radically against the Shah.
There were these Muslim opposition figures in the West who were close to Khomeini and were translating everything that he was saying but filtering out some of the stuff. But that doesn’t explain his support from the Iranian public, which was listening and reading his words in Farsi. So they should have known what he was saying. He was not hiding his ideas. There’s a common misconception that he was lying and got people to believe him. But we must take responsibility.
We lied to ourselves.
You’ve said that as a Marxist, during the Revolution, along with your left comrades at the time, you didn’t think that issues like the veil were important, because they were not materialist. What experiences or observations changed your mind?
It has a lot to do with trauma. Once Khomeini was installed and this new power structure was emerging, I had to go into hiding because I was on a blacklist, and they were looking for me. At the same time, they were beginning to impose the veil. So I was going out still without a veil, but these guys with Kalashnikovs that were now working for the regime were stopping the women on the street and saying, “Put it on, put it on, put it on.” At this moment, I started to ask, “How could we not have known that it would be like this?”
After that, when I was in exile, reflecting on that, I realized what had happened and how it had happened. And that’s when I realized that I needed to write about these issues to deal with these multiple layers of trauma that came from that time. I was so close to so many people that were massacred in the prisons; this has to do with an error that I was also a part of.
At this point in our conversation, Bani Khoshnoudi, our translator, begins to cry. After a few moments, we continue.
So it has become important for me to write about what happened. And to be able to put forward the fact that the woman question was so central to all of this. To reflect on that memory, to reflect on what had taken place, what the mistakes were, what the actions were, and the repercussions. I take up this whole issue of the veil, the woman question and the mistakes in a new book called Rendez-vous Iranien avec Simone de Beauvoir. In 1979, a global delegation of feminists sponsored by Simone de Beauvoir traveled to Iran to support the women’s movement there. I only realized how important that was later when I was in France. In French, a rendezvous is a meeting or an appointment. I write about how I missed the appointment with Simone de Beauvoir, but today’s youth are not missing it. But they are losing their lives.
It seems like you’re hopeful about the young people’s movement right now. What do you think can happen? What might happen?
I’m hopeful because in the last ten years, we’ve witnessed many, many dissident movements happening within the country that are becoming more and more radical, mostly around economic issues. Wages, working conditions, inflation, and all this; retirement, teachers. It’s happening in many different sectors, but each time they’re becoming more confrontational. Bus drivers, too; I mean, it’s a long list. The slogans and demands are becoming more and more radical. And they’re now converging and attacking the head.
It’s important that now the essential slogan that’s uniting everyone is “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Because this regime’s vertebrae have been women’s oppression. It starts from there, and they also oppress every other sector of society. The regime’s patriarchal system also oppresses men. So that’s why everyone right now is united, coming to consciousness of this shared problem. We don’t know how long this is going to take, but we do know that it’s the beginning of the end.
Yes. The oil workers are on strike in solidarity with the protesters, not a sector we’d usually associate with feminism.
The oil workers’ strikes were also important during the revolution against the Shah. Back then, they were on salary, and now they are contract workers, so I hope it can be sustained. There are other factories shutting down, too.
And the veil, the hijab, which was such a symbol, like a flag of this regime, is being burned. Even women who do wear it are saying it’s not important and that it’s not normal to impose it.
Someone on Twitter asked, “Don’t you want to go back to your peaceful or calm normal life from before?” I said, “No, no, we don’t. We can never go back to that life. That was not at all normal.”
You’ve explained that the Left made a mistake in supporting the regime for anti-imperialist reasons. But I wonder how you think the relationship between the United States and Iran should inform our understanding of what’s happening now. These two countries are always on the brink of scary conflict, possibly a nuclear conflict. And the United States does still hold more power in that situation. How should that shape our understanding as internationalist leftists?
It’s important for Americans to know that Iranian people are not their government. Just as it’s important for us to know Americans are not their government. What people, what Iranians like us, but also Iranians who are in Iran, have demanded from the Western countries is to not interfere with this struggle that the Iranian people are waging. Not to fight the Iranian people’s fight.
A big problem is the attitude of some diaspora groups. Many of these people work in American universities and the press, like the New York Times. And they’re taking the Islamic Republic’s discourse and claiming to the American government that they represent Iranians’ issues. Also in the European Parliament, there are people speaking on behalf of Iranian women, but arguing to keep the regime there — people who benefit from keeping that regime in place. They’ve for many years played both sides. And now they’re presenting themselves as representatives of what Iranians want.
So in terms of the intellectuals who are part of these regime-apologetic networks, what kinds of arguments are they making? What kinds of arguments should give us pause when we hear them, in your view?
These people use this idea that if this regime falls, we’re going to fall into a civil war, and it’s going to be much worse. And we don’t know what’s going to come.
They are creating this fear, a panic, around that. It’s something that they’ve been pushing for many, many years. And, of course, that is an idea that comes from the regime.
The second thing is that they create this doubt, this unnecessary doubt, around activists inside Iran, saying that maybe they’re working for a foreign power like Israel. And creating this doubt allows the regime to be justified in its repression of these people, even environmental activists — people who have also been killed in the prisons, or have been tortured, or we don’t even know what’s going on with them. They’ve disappeared.
The third point is that since there are elections in Iran, they say, “Look, it’s an authoritarian democracy. There is some democracy, there’s some room to maneuver, and there’s voting. So there, it’s not a completely totalitarian system.”
And the fourth thing is that they use the presence of women in civil society to say, “Look, it’s not the Taliban.” Whereas actually, women who are involved in civil society are part of the resistance, and they’re fighting to be there. It’s not because they’re tolerated by the regime. Say you had a body that gets a bacteria or virus, and its defenses start working. It’s as if, instead of saying, “Okay, it’s my immune system,” you’re giving the credit to the bacteria that attacked you. I was at a conference where someone made that analogy, and it was quite effective! Westerners are so afraid to have a colonial mindset, but when you talk about it in those terms, it becomes much clearer.
But how should we understand the role that the United States may be playing within the country? I mean, we are all leftists. We know the history of how the United States and its intelligence forces do get involved in “enemy” countries.
We don’t see everything. The relationship between the US government and Iran is with the Islamic Republic. It’s not with the people. And [the governments] have many meetings that are unofficial meetings. Although the facade is that “they’re angry with each other,” they’re negotiating. Even around what happened in Afghanistan, Iran played an important role between the Taliban and the United States and the discussions they had. And these diaspora lobbies are important because they continue this relationship when the meetings are not happening. These are the people who are getting the message of the Iranian government across to the United States. In that meeting last week, Joe Biden was sitting there and smiling at the camera.
Something that I think might surprise some of our readers — that I’m hearing you say under the surface — is that you don’t think the United States necessarily wants this regime gone.
I am sure that the United States does not want to get rid of the mullahs. This Iranian government has good relations with China and Russia, but even for other countries, it can be helpful to have it as a power in the region.
How does the US government benefit from keeping the mullahs in power?
Short-term interests matter in foreign policy. Little of it relates to a long-term idea or process. We saw during the Cold War the support that the United States gave to political Islam to combat Soviet influence. And after the Iron Curtain came down, that’s when it became their enemy, right? Maintaining the Islamic Republic in that area allows the United States to have this common enemy with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel.
The current Iran is beneficial to everybody except for its own people.