Revolution as Revelation
The Republic of Iran has always offered Americanists something of a mirror—the sort that simultaneously distorts and magnifies. Tehran’s famous street art provides the most obvious example, its murals revealing Lady Liberty’s face as emaciated, dead-eyed, a tortured, dying captive of the so-called land of freedom. Similarly, the flag of the USA is rendered such that the bars of the stars and stripes plot out the trajectories of bombs falling on unsuspecting cities, a tromp-l’oeil that lays bare what the American state keeps largely out of view. Such art emphasizes the United States as a ravenous economic and military force, ravaging the world, a hypocritical hegemony couching its predation in platitudes about liberty. Yet in its parallels with the US that Iran reveals much of benefit to Americanists, as well. Iran, after all, is a constitutional republic, founded upon the principle of separation of powers, with sovereignty explicitly located in the people—again, in its political and legal framework, Iran offers a kind of mirror. This is especially the case with the afterlife of the 1979 Iranian Revolution—the resonance and recurrence of revolution, as act and ideal, in the lives of Iranian citizens.
The centrality of revolution in the case of Iran parallels the centrality of revolution in America. In both cases, the revolution is not limited to a finite historical moment (1776 or 1979) but is a recurring trope through which history is understood. Revolution, moreover, becomes a characteristic of consciousness for citizens of the (revolutionary) state. The revolution becomes an “inheritance,” that, as Darren Mulloy puts it, is understood and “often expressed in strikingly personal terms.” One facet of such inheritance, I argue, is a revolutionary subjectivity, a sense of self—as citizen, understood through citation of mythologized national history and ideals associated with the founding—that manifests what Catherine Albanese calls the “mainstream national consciousness lived under the canopy of the myth of Revolution.”
Citizens of both Iran and the United States display such a revolutionary subjectivity, with revolution approached as both particular and eternal, a matter of a rag-tag band of patriots in a specific period, for instance, but also and more importantly of universal ideals of freedom versus tyranny. Ideology is always prioritized over economics, the intellectual and devotional aspects of revolution places above other, more practical concerns, as history is transformed into myth. Similarly, the citizen, as a specific legal and political status, is less important than the romantic understanding of citizenship as an ongoing engagement in revolution.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini’s posthumous address to the citizens of the republic he helped found offers a striking case study in the articulation—and creation—of a revolutionary subjectivity. This text offers a useful mirror for Americanists by magnifying some aspects—popular sovereignty, an eschatological understanding of citizenship and the project of the state, revolution itself as an ongoing process requiring citizens’ participation and a universal goal for the oppressed around the world—while also grounding such notions in a specific register alien to the American project—not only an explicitly Shia Islamic symbolic vocabulary and sense of sacred history but also a language that foregrounds religion-as-such. Khomeini eschews the sleight of hand that repackages “good religion” as acceptable within a secular framework and, instead, insists that “religion” and “politics” are necessarily one and the same, what he calls “politico-religious.”
Indeed, Khomeini identifies such division between “religion” and “politics” as key to political oppression and the suppression of true religion. Conceiving of religion and politics as separate is a global problem—one which can lead to “the downfall of religion”—for which revolution is the necessary solution. Revolution, then, involves recognizing the “politico-religious” and embracing it under the banner of true religion, Islam. Within Khomeini’s larger narrative of history, Islam has become subject to the corruption that previous prophetic messages were subject to in the Qur’an’s own historical narrative. The revolution thus replicates the revelation, as the present jahiliyya (in which tyrants insist that religion and politics are seen as separate categories) demands a correction, a return to truth. Shia history likewise provides Khomeini with a template for—serves as a prolegomenon to—the current and ongoing revolution. Rites of remembrance and collective mourning are read as acts of condemnation of and protest against tyranny and oppression; “cries of lamentations” become the voice of proto-Revolutionary gatherings and the Infallible Imams who “became martyrs as a result of attempting to eradicate oppressive governments” emerge as proto-Revolutionary leaders.
Islamic eschatology subsumes the eschatology of the revolutionary state, with the actions of individual citizens oriented in relation to—and understood as consequential in relation to—a cosmic drama wherein the state plays a role. Bruce Ackerman argues that “Even though the Ayatollah was an immensely popular figure, he had consistently constitutionalized his charisma into a complex structure firmly grounded in popular sovereignty,” yet here we see how Khomeini frames such sovereignty as part of a cosmic struggle, one wherein transhistorical oppression, rearing its beastly head “in each age and era” must be countered not only by “historical martyrdom” but also by “cries of protest of the oppressed against criminal leaders throughout history until the end of time.” “[T]he crimes of the tyrants” must not merely be “condemned”; with sovereignty comes responsibility, and revolutionary citizens are expected to act in the here and now—action that comes at great risk and requires sacrifice. Revolutionary subjectivity hinges upon continual re-creation and re-engagement of the revolutionary dynamic.
Revolutionary citizens continually contribute to the birth of a new order via their own sacrifice, suffering, and pious dedication to ideals. Such giving of self to revolution is a universal option, available to all, as Khomeini makes clear. Popular sovereignty is understood as promising a universal model wherein the oppressed worldwide, the “deprived people of the world,” embracing true religion and revolution, can “Rise up and fight for your rights” against the tyrants and their stooges, “take charge of the affairs of your country.” Khomeini’s message is “recommended for all… the oppressed peoples of the world regardless of their religion or nationality,” though religious affiliation, of course, will become corrected once one embraces revolution—revolutionary subjectivity is, truly, a politico-religious consciousness in Khomeini’s understanding.
And so too in the United States of America.
I am no expert on Iran, no expert on Khomeini, but I find this text profoundly useful for thinking comparatively about American dynamics so often identified as exceptional—and yet which, when seen through the mirror offered here, can be read instead as examples of a broader typology, a subjectivity tailored to but in no way unique to the American context. The revolutionary subjectivity described by Khomeini is distinctly Iranian, to be sure, but also recognizable as a concept that Khomeini’s American nemesis, Ronald Reagan, though his “politico-religious” language was tuned to another register, engaged in and perpetuated, citing the sacred past and mapping out an eschatological future.
Smaller scale examples make more striking comparisons and illustrate the need to think of revolutionary subjectivity as a comparative phenomenon. The Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, in their 2016 occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, claiming that the conjoined moral and political project of the United States was hanging by a string and that only through return to religion (understood as, in Khomeini’s term, “politico-religious,” as the stuff not just of Jesus but of the Jesus of the Founders) could save the state. Wearing copies of the Constitution in their breast pockets, these self-proclaimed patriots took up arms to enact their revolutionary responsibility, the stitching of sacred history to the present moment made explicit on the cover of those texts, where a portrait of George Washington was featured, offering a quill pen to the viewer, a mirror image of the present, physical pen with which the bearer was to sign a pledge on the back cover, “with the original Signers,” declaring theirself to be “one of We, the People,” a revolutionary citizen, committed to the struggle for liberty that began in 1776 and continues to the present day. Surely members of the Moorish Science Temple of America, parading with their conjoined Moorish and American flags, declaring themselves to be “citizens of the U.S.A.” and explicating that citizenship as participation in an eschatological drama of realigning the values and society of the state with its original, divinely-designed ideals are not so different, either. Part of the appeal of revolution and its seductive subjectivity—as surely Khomeini and Reagan, as worldly leaders, both knew well—is how easily it can be overlaid onto different situations, how neatly its framework makes sense of—gives meaning to—the political situations of different communities, speaking to the various “deprived people” and offering assurance that the tyrants they face will not stand forever. Indeed, they cannot stand, for tyranny, in this mythic dichotomy, is the opposite of religion, the “downfall of religion,” just as revolution is the proper reorientation of religion (understood as true religion) as central to and inextricable from politics (understood as true politics).