[Engaging Books is a monthly series featuring new and forthcoming books in Middle East Studies from publishers around the globe. Each installment highlights a trending topic in the MENA publishing world and includes excerpts from the selected volumes. This installment involves a selection from the OneWorld Publications on the theme of Radical Histories of the Middle East. Other publishers’ books will follow on a monthly basis.]
The Radical Histories of the Middle East series explores popular struggles for social justice, national self-determination, and anti-colonial liberation in modern Middle Eastern history.
Table of Contents
Khalil Maleki: The Human Face of Iranian Socialism by Homa Katouzian
Contested Modernity: Sectarianism, Nationalism, and Colonialism in Bahrain by Omar H. AlShehabi
A Rebel’s Journey: Mostafa Sho‘aiyan and Revolutionary Theory in Iran by Peyman Vahabzadeh
Call to Arms – Iran’s Marxist Revolutionaries: Formation and Evolution of Fada’is, 1964–1976 by Ali Rahnema
Khalil Maleki: The Human Face of Iranian Socialism by Homa Katouzian
The first biography of one of Iran’s most original socialist thinkers and activists
Khalil Maleki (1901–1969) was a selfless campaigner for democracy and social welfare in twentieth- century Iran. His was a unique approach to politics, prioritising the criticism of policies detrimental to his country’s development over the pursuit of power itself. An influential figure, he was at the centre of such formative events as the split of the communist Tudeh party, and the 1953 coup and its aftermath.
In an age of intolerance and uncompromising confrontation, Maleki remained an indefatigable advocate for open discussion and peaceful reform – a stance that saw him jailed several times. This work makes a compelling case for him to be regarded among the foremost thinkers of his generation.
About the Author
Homa Katouzian is the Iran Heritage Foundation Research Fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is the author of numerous books on Iranian history, society and literature. In 2013 he was awarded the first SINA Outstanding Achievement Award for Exceptional Contributions in Humanities.
‘Khalil Maleki is not only an authoritative and insightful account of the political life and ideas of Iran’s foremost democratic socialist during the middle decades of the twentieth century, but an erudite and incisive analysis of the country’s intellectual and political history through that fateful century. It is based on a wealth of primary sources and the author’s own lifetime of prodigious scholarship.’ – ALI BANUAZIZI, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, BOSTON COLLEGE
‘A major contribution to the recovery of the rich, but lesser-known, tradition of the Iranian Left. Khalil Maleki’s life, and his intellectual journey, tell the story of the complicated road Iran travelled in its desire to achieve a “national” modernity, and to be at “home” with the modern world. In this context, Dr Katouzian’s work deserves considerable scholarly attention for its achievement.’ – ALI MIRSEPASSI, PROFESSOR OF MIDDLE EASTERN AND ISLAMIC STUDIES, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
‘Drawing on his lifetime’s work on Iranian modern history, Homa Katouzian has provided us with a rich and authoritative account of Khalil Maleki’s political and intellectual life.’ – ROHAM ALVANDI, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL HISTORY, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS
Available for purchase
March 2018 | 320pp | £30/$45 | ISBN 978-1-78607-293-1 | eISBN 978-1-78607-294-8
[From the introduction:]
Various factors led to the emergence of Reza Khan, but once he appeared on the scene he proved to be the ‘saviour’ many educated Iranians had longed for. Even his establishment of a dictatorship went down well at first, to the extent that when he bid to become shah in 1925, he also had the support of the ulama in Najaf. He quickly brought general security and stability to the country and began a process of modernisation, in fact pseudo-modernism, since it was a case of straight copying from the West. However, it did not take long for dictatorship to turn into the traditional arbitrary rule (estebdad), a modern form of a ‘one-person regime’ as the shah himself described it, which increasingly began to alienate various social classes, so that when, in 1941, he had to abdicate in the wake of the Allied occupation of Iran, he had very few friends left in the country. An example of his reforms was sending state students to study at European (mainly German, French and Belgian) universities, from which at first Maleki benefited, only to be returned to Iran before he had completed his studies on the false charge of being a communist. And an example of the shah’s arbitrary rule was the arrest and incarceration of a group of young men (later known as the Fifty-Three) in 1937, who included Khalil Maleki, on charges of belonging to a communist organisation, which they did not (Chapter 1).
Shortly after Reza Shah’s abdication, the Tudeh party was formed by some members of the Fifty-Three and other democratic and anti-fascist (mainly young) people, which resembled the resistance movements in occupied Europe’s popular fronts. Its membership ranged from Marxists through to social democrats, democrats and liberals. It took Maleki a couple of years to join the party mainly because he did not trust certain members of the Fifty-Three, and, when he did, he began to lead the young party dissidents who were critical of many of the attitudes and policies of its leadership (Chapter 2).
Once again, the country was almost on its knees in many ways, except that the occupying forces stopped it from falling apart or getting entangled in revanchist and factional struggles of the kind that was experienced after the revolution of February 1979. The Tudeh party was, to say the least, the best organised and, sometime later, the most popular party in Iran in spite of its internal disagreements. It organised (though not exclusively) the trade union movement, and its press and publications spread new political values and encouraged modern cultural and literary activities. After the 1943 Soviet victory at Stalingrad, it became the strongest centre of social and intellectual activity, and Maleki was one of its most famous and most popular writers, journalists and teachers, at the same time as he was the elder member of the internal party critics (Chapter 2).
The party’s support for the 1944 Soviet demand for the concession of north Iranian oil, which Maleki endorsed, put it in a difficult situation, but the party made the biggest stir when its members demonstrated in support of the Soviet demand under the protection of the occupying Soviet troops. However, the internal party disagreements came to a head in 1946 when the party leadership supported the Azerbaijan Democrats’ forceful declaration of autonomy which smacked of separatism, and forced their own local party organisation to join them as a result of Soviet pressure. Maleki led the opposition to that policy which failed abjectly, and this provided the turning point that ended in the party split of January 1948. This was under Ahmad Qavam’s premiership with whom – against Maleki’s advice – the Tudeh leaders had formed a short coalition government which they later regretted (Chapter 2).
The winds of the Cold War had begun to blow in 1946 and the Tudeh party split could have been an indirect result of that, although the splinter group still had faith in the Soviet Union (though not the Soviet embassy in Tehran). But it did not take Maleki long to see through Soviet communism. By this time the Tudeh, having been banned in 1949, had become a fully-fledged Stalinist party. Meanwhile, the conflict with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) had begun to flare up, which had as its background the great oil workers’ strikes of the mid-1940s, the rejection of the Soviet demand for the north Iranian oil concession and the general dissatisfaction with AIOC’s interference in the political affairs of Iran. That is how the National Front (NF) led by Mohammad Mosaddeq and the newspapers Bakhtar-e Emruz and Shahed, which supported it, came into existence. Maleki began to write in Mozaffar Baqa’i’s Shahed, criticising British policy in Iran as well as the Tudeh party and the very current and popular conspiracy theory of politics (Chapter 3).
Maleki had become a socialist who firmly believed in parliamentary democracy, while during that period and for a long time to come the Tudeh and other Marxist-Leninists regarded democracy as a bourgeois conspiracy, and contemptuously described Western liberties as bourgeois freedoms…
Contested Modernity: Sectarianism, Nationalism, and Colonialism in Bahrain by Omar H. AlShehabi
An innovative reading of the modern roots of sectarianism, nationalism, and absolutism in Bahrain and the Gulf during the British colonial era
Discussions of the Arab world, particularly the Gulf States, increasingly focus on sectarianism and autocratic rule. These features are often attributed to the dominance of monarchs, Islamists, oil, and ‘ancient hatreds’. To understand their rise, however, one has to turn to a largely forgotten but decisive episode with far-reaching repercussions – Bahrain under British colonial rule in the early twentieth century.
Drawing on a wealth of previously unexamined Arabic literature as well as British archives, Omar AlShehabi details how sectarianism emerged as a modern phenomenon in Bahrain. He shows how absolutist rule was born in the Gulf, under the tutelage of the British Raj, to counter nationalist and anti-colonial movements tied to the al-Nahda renaissance in the wider Arab world. A groundbreaking work, Contested Modernity challenges us to reconsider not only how we see the Gulf but the Middle East as a whole.
Omar AlShehabi is Director of the Gulf Centre for Development Policies and Associate Professor in Political Economy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait.
‘This is a crucial corrective to misleading and injurious narratives about the perpetually “sectarian” Gulf and its people. Credit to AlShehabi for historicizing the interrelated problems of sectarianism and colonialism in modern Bahrain, the Gulf region, and the wider Arab world.’ – USSAMA MAKDISI, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, RICE UNIVERSITY
‘With great ambition, rich empirical detail and theoretical nuance, this book successfully sets out to rewrite the history of modern Bahrain from the mid-nineteenth century until the present day… The result is a convincing and original new explanation of the lineages of modern Bahrain, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Bahraini history, the modern politics of the Gulf and the rise of sectarian politics in the Middle East.’ – TOBY DODGE, KUWAIT PROFESSOR AND DIRECTOR OF THE KUWAIT PROGRAMME, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS
‘AlShehabi offers an insightful and a fresh perspective that challenges dominant narratives on contemporary sectarian politics in Bahrain and the other states of the Arabian Gulf. While situating the Arab Gulf countries within mainstream debates on Arab al-Nahda, the book provides well- argued analyses of the Gulf-specific colonial experiences and the colonial roots of “the modernized absolutist rule” in the region.’ – ABDULHADI KHALAF, PROFESSOR OF SOCIOLOGY, LUND UNIVERSITY
‘Written by one of the most astute scholars of the contemporary Gulf, this book presents an authoritative critique of the “ethnosectarian gaze”… Grounded in meticulous archival research and a fascinating retelling of Bahraini history, the book provides a wide range of fresh and compelling insights into debates around nationalism, identity, colonialism, and the production of knowledge. An indispensable work that breaks new ground in Middle East scholarship.’ – ADAM HANIEH, READER IN DEVELOPMENT STUDIES, SOAS
Available for purchase
May 2019 | 288pp | £30/$40 | ISBN 978-1-78607-291-7 | eISBN 978-1-78607-292-4
APPROACHING ABSOLUTISM, NATIONALISM, AND SECTARIANISM IN THE GULF
‘Of the whole population of about 100,000 souls, some 60,000, chiefly townsmen, are Sunnis and about 40,000, mostly villagers, are Shiʿas.’ 
Thus did Lorimer, the legendary British colonial officer, begin his discussion of Bahrain in his famous Gazetteer, presenting his population census figures for the islands in the early twentieth century. Using ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Shiʿas’ as the basic units of analysis when discussing Bahrain, the Gulf, and the Arab world more generally, remains the dominant mode of thought even in the twenty- first century . It seems obligatory that any discussion of the region opens with a passage similar to the above. Such an ethnosectarian reading runs across the Western political spectrum, from the right to the left. The celebrated leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, for example, would opine: Bahrain is about 70% Shiʿa, and it’s right across the causeway from Eastern Saʿudi Arabia, which is also majority Shiʿa, and happens to be where most of the oil is . . . By a curious accident of history and geography, the world’s major energy resources are located pretty much in Shiʿa regions. They are a minority in the Middle East, but they happen to be where the oil is .
Disregarding the dubious evidence for these estimates , the quote serves primarily to show how such sect-based readings of the region remain pervasive throughout the West, even within so- called progressive circles. Furthermore, these sectarian demarcations are usually intersliced with ethnic cleavages – Arab, Persian, Huwala, Baharna, Kurds – that are presented as primordial, clear- cut and unshifting identities that are products of age-old local rivalries – in the words of President Obama, ‘rooted in conflicts that date back millennia’. 
This book seeks to destabilize such preconceptions and provide an alternative window of view. It takes as its case study a country that, as Chomsky’s quote shows, has become a poster child for discussing ethnosectarian political practice and mobilization in the region. Specifically, it presents a new reading of events in Bahrain in the period of the first quarter of the twentieth century. This marked the first time in the island’s modern history that overt mobilization based on ethnosectarian identities became a predominant feature of politics. Something changed during this period. Suddenly, the prescribed ethnicities and sects of the different groups became the paramount factor in politics, and political mobilization and practice became ethnosectarian.
Equally significant, and in many ways constituting a much more important goal of this book, is to reveal the other political thoughts, discourses, and movements that emerged during this period, and which such ethnosectarian readings have served to hide and obscure. This period also witnessed the rise of the al-Nahda renaissance in Bahrain, extending its currents from areas elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world into the Gulf. The thoughts, writings, speeches, and actions of the individuals that formed this group laid the first seeds of Nationalism, Arabism, Liberalism, and Islamism in Bahrain and the wider Gulf. This first group of local modernist reformers, whose thoughts later came to dominate politics on the island throughout the twentieth century, have been completely ignored in the English literature, being reduced by the British colonial officers and most writings since to labellings based on sects and ethnicities. To my knowledge, not a single study written in English has tackled this first group of al-Nahda reformers in Bahrain, whether within the literature on the Gulf or al-Nahda more widely in the Arab world. This is despite the extremely prominent and crucial role they continue to play in shaping the political and cultural scene of Bahrain and the wider Gulf, particularly the subsequent rise of Arab nationalist, Islamist, and leftist forces. Central to understanding these newly emerging thoughts and movements would be highlighting the actors, leaders, discourses, myths, spaces, and actions that led to their emergence and constituted their body of traditions that were produced, transmitted, modified, and carried across people, time, and space .
The episodes covered in this book are important not only because they were the first modern case of sectarian and nationalist mobilization in the Gulf, but also because they occurred in a period that long preceded the advent of oil, the ‘rentier state’, or Islamism in the region, mantras that have become staple explanations in today’s analysis of ethnosectarianism. Instead, this was a period that witnessed the fall of regional empires, both the Ottoman in Turkey and the Qajar in Iran, combined with the planting of the first seeds of the emergent new states in the region. This was also a time that marked the height of colonial intervention in the Arab world, and Bahrain was ground zero for British presence in the Gulf. New modern discourses and modes of thoughts also began emerging, not least of which was al-Nahda, the literary and intellectual renaissance that swept across the Arab world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
- Qatar Digital Library (henceforth QDL), ‘Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf. Vol. II. Geographical and Statistical. J G Lorimer. 1908’  (265 / 2084), IOR/L/PS/20/C91/4, http://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100023515712.0x 000042 (all links accessed on 11 November 2017).
- ‘The Gulf’ will be used to refer to the body of water between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran that is also referred to as the ‘Arabian Gulf’ or ‘Persian Gulf’ in the literature.
- Noam Chomsky, speech at FAIR 25th anniversary meeting, https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v= yY3yVQ0sxXo, minute 4:30.
- Even if one were to adopt an ethno-sect statistical lens, there is little solid evidence to support, for example, that individuals who follow the Shiʿa faith are a majority in the Eastern Province of Saʿudi Arabia, particularly in the largest metropolitan area of Dammam, Khobar, and Dhahran. Similarly, all the largest cities located on the coasts of the other countries bordering the Gulf (the body of water around which the vast majority of the oil is concentrated), including those of Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, and Oman, would suggest an opposite conclusion to Chomsky’s, with Bahrain, Bandar Abbas, and Basra being the three possible exceptions. Even the often quoted seventy percent figure in Bahrain lacks statistical evidence as a basis (the only official census of 1941 showed a fifty-two percent vs. forty-eight percent Shiʿa to Sunni split), and is mainly perpetuated by repeated recycling of the figure in Western academic and media circles.
- Barack Obama, ‘State of the Union Address 2016’, https://mic.com/articles/132466/state-of- the-union-transcript-2016-obama#.DDupWynlZ.
- Thus, although this book will draw on Hobsbawm’s concept of invention of tradition by the state, it focuses more centrally on traditions as the produced and lived experiences and collective memories and discourses of political movements. For more on traditions in this sense see: Karma Nabulsi, Traditions of War: Occupation, Resistance, and the Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). I have also benefited greatly from discussions on traditions of anti-sectarianism during the Conference on Arab Traditions of Anti-Sectarianism, convened by Abdel Razzaq Takriti and Ussama Makdisi in December 2017 at Rice University and the University of Houston.
A Rebel’s Journey: Mostafa Sho‘aiyan and Revolutionary Theory in Iran by Peyman Vahabzadeh
The first in-depth study of Iran’s maverick liberation theorist of the twentieth century
Following the 1953 coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Mossadeq and restored the rule of the Shah in Iran, Mostafa Sho‘aiyan became a key figure on the country’s militant left. From a life underground he contributed significantly to the study of Iranian history and politics, and developed a unique theory of revolution.
A Rebel’s Journey provides fascinating insights into the life and work of this singular theoretician. Peyman Vahabzadeh sets Sho‘aiyan’s thought in the context of his time and place, and explores how his revolutionary theory might contribute to today’s expanding movements for social justice and liberation.
About the Author
Peyman Vahabzadeh is Professor of Sociology at the University of Victoria, where his research focuses on the power of collective action and social movements. He is the author of Violence and Nonviolence and editor of Iran’s Struggles for Social Justice, among other works in English and Persian. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
‘Through a comprehensive study and analysis of Sho‘aiyan’s writings, Vahabzadeh seeks to revive his work, not merely by demonstrating his contributions to Iranian revolutionaries but by demonstrating his value as an international thinker with continued relevance. Vahabzadeh accomplishes this by engaging with Sho‘aiyan’s revolutionary theories…to suggest how they could be used by today’s Left in launching resistance against the capitalist world system.’ – MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL
‘An original intellectual, a prolific writer, a poet, a Marxist theorist, a revolutionary leader, a critical thinker, a visionary of a future that never was – what strange interpreter of dreams has Peyman Vahabzadeh unearthed from the forgotten layers of a people’s history. We once thought Mostafa Sho‘aiyan was a mirage – in this utterly brilliant work of revolutionary love you’ll learn he was for real.’ – HAMID DABASHI, HAGOP KEVORKIAN PROFESSOR OF IRANIAN STUDIES AND COMPARATIVE LITERATURE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
‘This is an elegant and original account of the life, times, and intellectual and theoretical contributions of the Iranian revolutionary Mostafa Sho‘aiyan. It is, in particular, a timely work, emphasising Sho‘aiyan’s continuing relevance in an era of “savage, globalised capitalism”.’ – STEPHANIE CRONIN, ELAHÉ OMIDYAR MIR-DJALALI RESEARCH FELLOW, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
‘An elegiac meditation on one of the most sophisticated revolutionary political theorists of modern Iran. Meticulously researched, A Rebel’s Journey resituates Sho‘aiyan’s long-neglected oeuvre at the center of the Iranian intellectual history and the history of anti-colonial liberation struggles of the Global South.’ – BEHROOZ GHAMARI-TABRIZI, PROFESSOR OF NEAR EASTERN STUDIES, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY
‘Deeply informed and passionately engaged, this is an exceptional work of scholarship, reconstructing the life and thought of pre-revolutionary Iran’s most exceptional figure on the left. Vahabzadeh has done a wonderful job of intellectual restoration and remembering, while showing an intriguing path forward to the revolutionaries of our time.’ – AFSHIN MATIN-ASGARI, PROFESSOR OF MIDDLE EAST HISTORY, CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, LOS ANGELES
‘An outstanding interpretive and critical overview of the vast body of Mostafa Sho‘aiyan’s writings. Peyman Vahabzadeh masterfully reveals Sho‘aiyan’s cosmopolitan and frontal theory of rebellion, and his singular and uncanonical leftism.’ – MOJTABA MAHDAVI, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA
Available to purchase
January 2020 | 352pp | £30/$40 | ISBN 978-1-78607-620-5 | eISBN 978-1-78607-621-2
THE MAKING OF A SINGULAR REVOLUTIONARY
A full-fledged historic war is upon us. Whether we want it or not. So one must confront the past by relying on the simultaneously destructive and generative forces of the futures—the forces that are presently few but also the greatest and most creative forces of being. There is no other road to salvation (rastgari).- Sho‘aiyan, RRC 14
Unlike his contemporaries, Mostafa Sho‘aiyan wrote quite extensively about his own life, activities, and concerns even at the time when he lived underground as one of Iran’s most wanted men. He introduced to the Iranian political culture the uncommon legacy of openness, inasmuch as such openness would not jeopardise dissident activists. Thus, Sho‘aiyan challenged the long-cherished inclination toward secrecy, an unfortunate consequence of living under a dictatorship. In fact, by bringing out into the open the inner life of militant activists of his time—and this is rather counterintuitive—he promoted the struggles of a generation of Iranian activists who, having come of age in the 1960s and lost all hope of challenging the authoritarian rule over their country through legal-constitutional means,  had embarked upon an armed struggle to untangle itself from the ‘repressive development’  that imposed upon the young, educated women and men the dim horizon of becoming soulless functionaries living in a rapidly changing society devoid of democracy, participatory political life, and social justice. It is partly thanks to his documented reflections that today we are able to reconstruct the highlights of his life and offer a fairly accurate biography. It emerged as a feminist motto in the 1960s, but Sho‘aiyan lived the truth that ‘the personal is political.’
THE FORMATIVE YEARS
Sho‘aiyan’s first experience as an activist took place, he recollects, during the premiership of General Haj Ali Razmara (1901–51; premier, June 1950–March 1951). Mostafa must have been fifteen when he ‘was drawn to politics,’ joining the Pan-Iranists, an alliance founded as a loose group in 1941. In 1951, Pan-Iranist members Mohsen Pezeshkpour (1927–2011) and Dariush Forouhar (1928–98) founded the Iranian Nation Party Based on Pan-Iranist Principles (Hezb-e Mellat-e Iran bar bonyad-e Pan-Iranism). The Party contained three cliques: one was royalist while the other two were pro-Mosaddeq and anti-imperialist. Disagreements soon forced the Party into a split, with Forouhar leading the Iranian Nation Party and Pezeshkpour and others founding the Pan-Iranist Party . In any case Sho‘aiyan ‘became a member of the Pan-Iranist Organisation under the flag of Mehrdadiyun’ (OLM 52). He refers to the pro-Mosaddeq faction within the Pan-Iranist Party, led by Mohammad Mehrdad (d. 2005), known as the Parchamdaran (literally the ‘flag- bearers’). Sho‘aiyan parted ways with the Pan-Iranists after the popular uprising of 21 July 1952 that forced the Shah to reinstall Mosaddeq as premier (SOLI 13; OLM 52). But this was not because his professed ‘chauvinistic attitudes’ had diminished. On the contrary, he reflects sardonically, ‘Later, with a few classmates and neighbourhood friends, we organised a circle whose slogan, as we offered it in absolute humility, was “Iran Above All”!’ (OLM 52). At this time, he attended Tehran Industrial Secondary School, was a top student, and worked night shifts to support himself (SOLI 11).
The 1953 CIA–MI6-engineered coup overthrew the democratically elected nationalist government of Premier Mosaddeq and smashed the dreams of a nation for democratic self-govern- ance. This was when Sho‘aiyan began his self-didactic process—a mode of existence that he steadfastly continued until his last day. This is also when he began leaning toward Marxism. As he sarcastically recollects, ‘My becoming a Marxist was truly extraordinary! How glorious is our modesty, we who become Marxists—and a pure Marxist, too, one who [suddenly] enjoys a thorough grasp of [Marx’s] philosophy and philosophical contributions in a lived fashion— without even reading one of Marx’s writings!’ (OLM 52). ‘In any case, I also acquired this humble character of immediately regarding myself a knowledgeable and full-fledged Marxist’ (OLM 52). In the post-coup years, young Sho‘aiyan found his way to Mesgarabad Cemetery in the south-east outskirts of Tehran where he spent extended periods of time alone writing poetry, short stories, and reflecting . Over a decade later, in an exchange with his former comrade Marzieh Ahmadi Oskui (1945–74), Sho‘aiyan recollects:
I have frequented for years, even the most fertile (ruyandehtarin) periods of my life, in the cemeteries and especially in the ‘silent expanse of Mesgarabad’ in sorrow… But my dear, I am not ‘buried’ in Mesgarabad. The events of social life pushed me to Mesgarabad to bury me there. On the shoulder of my legs, my dead body fell upon Mesgarabad. But behold the magic of dialectic: Mesgarabad hurled me out of its tombs alive .
- Representing this generation’s turning point in political views are the defense statements of Bizhan Jazani and Hassan Zia Zarifi, founders of the armed group the surviving members of which staged the legendary attack on the Siahkal gendarmerie post in February 1971—an operation that inaugurated urban guerrilla warfare that lasted until the 1979 Revolution. See Nasser Mohajer and Mehrdad Baba Ali, Beh Zaban-e Qanun: Bizhan Jazani va Hassan Zia Zarifi dar Dadgah-e Nezami [In the Language of Law: Bizhan Jazani and Hassan Zia Zarifi in the Military Court] (Berkeley, CA: Nashr-e Noghteh, 2016).
- ‘Repressive development’ captures my characterisation of the Pahlavi era: economic development through peripheral participation in world capitalism and political repression. See: Vahabzadeh, A Guerrilla Odyssey (op. cit.), pp. 1–5.
- Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions, pp. 257–8.
- See Salehi, Mostafa Sho‘aiyan, pp. 33–5.
- Mostafa Sho‘aiyan and Marzieh Ahmadi Oskui, ‘Darbareh-ey she‘r-e “Cheshm beh rah”’ [‘On the Poem “Awaiting”’], (unpublished typed carbon copy, 1973), pp. 9–10 (letters in this volume are individually paginated).
Call to Arms: Iran’s Marxist Revolutionaries Formation and Evolution of Fada’is, 1964–1976 by Ali Rahnema
A groundbreaking study of the Iranian People’s Fada’i Guerrillas, their ideology, actions and impact on the 1979 revolution
On 8 February 1971, Marxist revolutionaries attacked the gendarmerie outpost at the village of Siyahkal in Iran’s Gilan Province. Barely two months later, the Iranian People’s Fada’i Guerrillas officially announced their existence and began a long, drawn-out urban guerrilla war against the Shah’s regime.
In Call to Arms, Ali Rahnema provides an exhaustive history of the Fada’is, beginning by asking why so many of Iran’s best and brightest chose revolutionary Marxism in the face of authoritarian rule. He traces how radicalised university students from different ideological backgrounds morphed into the Marxist Fada’is in 1971, and sheds light on the ideological theory and practice of the Fada’is, their evolution and internal disputes. While the People’s Fada’i Guerrillas failed to directly bring about the fall of the Shah, the political and psychological conditions they created, the ideals and archetypes they established, and the forces they put in motion, namely the student movement both in Iran and overseas, had a lasting impact on society and saw their objective achieved.
About the Author
Ali Rahnema is Professor of Economics at the American University of Paris. He is the author of An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari‘ati, Behind the 1953 Coup in Iran and Superstition as Ideology in Iranian Politics.
Available to pre-order
February 2021 | 608pp | £35/$45 | ISBN 978-1-78607-985-5 | eISBN 978-1-78607-986-2
[From the introduction:]
Mehdi Bazargan, a Muslim social democrat, and the founder of the Iran Freedom Movement, recalled that “the idea of armed resistance against the [post-Mosaddeq] coup regime took shape around the beginning of 1964” . In Bazargan’s opinion, the shift in tactics, from peaceful and legal political dissent to armed struggle, followed “the repression of the last nationalist and religious attempts at legal resistance, the devastation and dispersion of the opposition, the defeat of the nationalist movement, and the elimination of the possibility of conducting a legal opposition movement”. In Bazargan’s political assessment from March 1964, “all opposition groups and organizations, with their differing ideologies, reached a single conclusion”. They agreed that “the only means of struggling against the regime was through armed struggle” .
The eventless exile of Khomeyni in November 1964, which created no political ripples, was followed by a series of violent outbursts. Prime Minister Hasan-ʿAli Mansour was assassinated on 21 January 1965 by Mohammad Bokharaʾi, a member of the armed branch of the “Coalition of Mourning Groups”. On 10 April 1965, an attempt was made on the Shah’s life at the Marble Palace, by Reza Shamsabadi. Finally, on 20 October 1965, members of the Islamic Nations Party were rounded up after clashing with the gendarmes in the hills around Darband. This party, led by Mohammad-Kazem Bojnourdi, was the first political group to enter armed struggle against the regime. According to Bojnourdi, “in the Shah’s undemocratic and police state, every move would have been severely repressed”. He concluded that “the response to the bayonet had to be with the bayonet” .
From the insurrectionary attempt of the Islamic Nations Party in October 1965 to the Siyahkal strike of February 1971, the radical opposition was seriously thinking about armed struggle. They discussed and studied it, formed an ideology, gradually constituted clandestine and semi- clandestine groups, and even engaged in military operations, without publicizing their identities. During those five years on the surface everything seemed calm and quiet. The regime believed that the Shah’s White Revolution had won the hearts and minds of the peasants, workers, women, and middle class. True as this may have been, the opposition craved for political freedoms, and the right to vocally disagree and organize.
The news of a military strike at Siyahkal on 8 February 1971 caught the regime by surprise. It marked the beginning of a Marxist–Leninist guerrilla war of counter-violence against the regime, with all its intended and unintended consequences. The armed activities of the guerrillas, even though it abated considerably after June 1976, continued through to the Iranian revolution of February 1979.
To narrate meaningfully how seriously the activities of the guerrillas impacted the lives, outlook, and existential being of young politicized urban Iranians, it would not suffice to enumerate the operations carried out by them, and against them, tally their members and sympathizers, or count their dead and wounded . The Iranian guerrilla movement, through its praxis established a frame of reference, an ethos and an archetype for Iranian political activists. It would be fair to say that its struggle and comportment established a code of conduct for the politicized youth. The battle conducted by the Iranian guerrilla movement captured the imagination of urban Iranians, especially its youth, and confronted them with important political questions on how to engage with authoritarian rule.
As soon as the news of Siyahkal had become public, all shades of the opposition, as well as Iranians concerned with the country’s political gridlock, faced a new reality. A new answer had been provided to the question “what is to be done”. Armed struggle, an abstract and hypothetical option floating in Iran’s political air was now an option. In the face of public complacency, the young newcomers had taken it upon themselves to initiate regime change.
The fact that armed struggle was launched did not imply people flocking to it. Yet, the insurrectionary action of the guerrillas had created a personal, social, and ethical dilemma for those who believed that the regime denied them their constitutional rights. Taking up arms by some must have weighed on the conscience of others who believed that the Shah’s regime was dictatorial, exploitative and a cog in the imperialist world order. For most of the opposition, irrespective of their decision to actively join the guerrilla movement, countering violence with violence seemed morally correct.
A large majority of the Iranian opposition opted to continue with their normal life, standing by to watch the battle between the armed guerrillas and the regime. In private, and in friendly circles, however, a significant segment of the silent urban majority rooted for the guerrillas. Sympathizers of armed struggle who could not join the guerrillas due to the high stakes, respected the uncompromising stand of those who did. To many urban Iranian activists, the cause of the guerrillas was just irrespective of their ideology. They were looked upon as the progeny of Iranian heroes in times of national desperation, Kaveh the Blacksmith, Babak Khorramdin, Yaʿqub Lays- e Saffari, Hasan Sabbah, Sattar Khan and Mirza Kouchik Khan. In 1978/1979, the mindset of insubordination cultivated by the guerrillas turned into full insurgence.
Joining the guerrilla movement remained the preferred choice of a special kind of political dissident. At a historical moment when few dared to challenge the powers to be, and even a fewer rose to confront it, defiance and intransigence were virtues passed on by the guerrillas to many young urban Iranians. By the late 1970s, the guerrilla movement had unintentionally cultivated its own underground folklore. In a closed and frightened society where information was strictly regulated, the guerrilla’s exploits were overblown as superhuman feats led by heroes. Facts and rumour meshed to create wishful and laudatory narratives of an epic saga, part true and part fantasy. Grand tales of valour, gallantry and true grit surrounded the activities of the guerrillas. Poems were written about their chivalry while songs were attributed to their selflessness. Hamid Ashraf, Ahmad Zibrom, Reza Rezaʾi and Ashraf Dehqani, among others, became political and social symbols and role models. While high school and university students marvelled secretly at their exploits, the armed opposition acted out their dreams and fantasies.
The armed movement was responding to a socio-political need for self-respect and self- affirmation in a society where opposition to the regime had been villainized, discredited, and written off. The guerrilla movement became the awakened conscience of the opposition, the path to empowerment of the politically impoverished. The guerrilla initiative survived long enough to impose its political and psychological mark on society. As gun battles raged, and the regime relied more and more on arbitrary arrests, torture, summary trials and executions, it alienated more students and people of all walks of life. The Shah’s reaction to the unexpected guerrilla movement was that anyone involved with the “riots and the upheavals”, be they involved with bloodshed or not, should face execution . For five and a half years the guerrillas exposed the worst face of the regime.
- M. Bazargan, Shast sal khedmat va moqavemat, jeld-e aval, Tehran: Rasa, 1375, p. 382.
- Bazargan, Shast sal khedmat va moqavemat, p. 382.
- K. Bojnourdi, Khaterat, Tehran: Daftar adabiyat-e enqelab-e eslami, 1378, p. 16.
- For some estimation of those combatants killed and imprisoned including the Marxist guerrillas see: E. Qaneʿifard, Dar damgah tarikh, LA: Ketab, 2012, pp. 308, 314. MERIP No. 86, March/April 1980, E. Abrahamian, “The Guerrilla Movement in Iran, 1963–1977”. P. Vahabzadeh, A Guerrilla Odyssey, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010, pp. 257–259.
- A.N. ʿAlikhani, Yaddashthay-e ʿAlam, vol. 2 (1349–1351), Bethesda: Iranbooks, 1993, p. 253. Hereafter referred to as ʿAlikhani. All references to ʿAlam’s diaries edited by ʿAlikhani are to the edition published in the U.S. and distributed by Iranbooks.