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David Jacobson

Learning the lessons of 1979

History haunts the world. All our actions are informed by past experience. We act as if history repeats itself. Sometimes it does; sometimes it does not.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 has cast a dark shadow, from the American diplomatic hostage crisis to, indirectly, the rise of al-Qaida. And it is through the prism of 1979 we should view this rise of the Arab street. But 2011 could resonate in history more positively. First, however, the democratic-minded have to learn the lessons of 1979.

Why is the Iranian uprising so important in understanding these rebellions now erupting in the Arab world? What can it teach those who value democracy?

Many of us forget that that revolution began as a secular, mostly left-wing revolt against the autocratic rule of the shah of Iran. Khomeini, who would become the ayatollah who tormented the United States, astutely used his brigades to hijack the revolution.

Secular leaders of the initial revolution made a tragic mistake. They saw the Islamists as an essentially progressive force. They thought they could control them. Actually, it was the other way round.

Iran is not Arab. But there are important similarities across the Arab and Persian worlds. Significant parts of the Arab world share domestic fractures that characterize Iran. In both, sectors of society that are middle class with a centrist Islam are arrayed against a fundamentalist Islam — the Islamists. We in the West have, going back to the traumas of 1979, paid attention to only one side of that split — the Islamist movements.

But relatively secular and civic forces have been, gradually and unevenly, building up across the region.

The Middle East has been long lagging behind the rest of the developing world in important social indicators. But that is the Middle East as a whole. Those trends, such as women in the work force, have been more positive in more secular countries — like Tunisia.

Yes, the poor are at the heart of the rebellions right now. But next we will see different elites battling to claim leadership over the masses. That is the critical point: Who will succeed in that struggle? That will tell us whether to celebrate or to recoil at the latest explosion of the Arab street.

The question is, can the lessons of 1979 be learned?

The hijacking of the revolution by the Islamists in Iran generated untold misery for the world. The Sunni Saudis began competing with the Shia Iranians for the allegiance of the Muslim world. They sent enormous sums of money abroad for building hardline schools, or madrassas. Saudi Wahhabism sowed the seeds of al-Qaida. The gentler streams of Islamic practice from Indonesia to Nigeria now face an invidious challenge from these radicals — 1979 was a disaster for almost all concerned.

We forget the other side of the Iranian revolution — the more secular and centrist Muslim forces that lost. They did not disappear. We see their arc growing from Tunisia, to Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and in the Green movement in Iran. We in the West hear more about the menacing arc of Iranian hardliners, Hezbollah in Lebanon and other militant groups like Hamas.

The Islamists appear to be a minority on the ground in Egypt and, most certainly, in Tunisia. The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been careful, initially, to keep a low profile. But already there are increasing numbers of the Brotherhood active among the protesters.

The Brotherhood and other Islamists will emerge with greater assertiveness if the uprising makes further strides. To gauge future developments, we must keep an eye out for the struggle that will then shift to the different elites. To the extent that the secular and centrist Muslims make concessions to Islamist groups, we have a problem.

It is not encouraging in that light that Mohamed ElBaradei, presently the most visible opposition figure, is reportedly in talks with the Brotherhood to form a unity government. The "March of Millions" to take place today could also be telling. Reports indicate that in recent days older, more disciplined contingents of the Brotherhood are appearing at protests.

Another sign to look for: expressions of anti-Western sentiment have been marginal. No burnings of American flags. No attacks on Western embassies. If the tone shifts that, too, will be a reason for concern. The democrats will have their complaints about the West, but anti-Western sentiments will not be a central part of their ideological arsenal.

What is the lesson of 1979? Keep the Islamists out of power. Do not bring them into government. Let a civic and centrist Islam assert itself. Even if the rebellion is democratically successful in only a couple of countries — like Tunisia and Egypt — we may begin slipping out from the shadow of 1979. The year 2011 will then shine for the Middle East, and for the world as a whole.

David Jacobson is professor of sociology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and a fellow at the Exeter Center for Ethno-Political Studies at the University of Exeter. He is completing a book, Of Virgins and Martyrs: Woman's Status in Global Conflict.

Learning the lessons of 1979 01/31/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 31, 2011 7:14pm]

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