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A Shift in Tolerance

December 11, 2019

Through precedents established in history, the world has developed a perception that often views revolutions as overall beneficial events. However, one clear example of this falsity is through the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although Persian culture previously valued religious tolerance and acceptance, Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution caused a regime change whose influence led to the suppression of religious diversity. Further, through the exclusive endorsement of a single religion, the new theocracy has lead to a change in the way people view religion and has accounted for a significant loss of religious faith in many Iranians, including my own family. As a result of the Revolution, animosity expressed by government officials heightened, leading to a more disunified community. The brutality also served as a major factor that drove hundreds of thousands of people out of the country. Ultimately, the Revolution of 1979 triggered a domino effect that lessened the overall prosperity of the country and permanently impacted its future for many years to come.




While the old Iranian monarchy had its flaws, the general consensus agrees that life was overall better off under the Shah, or Iranian king, and traditional Persian values of tolerance were held to a much higher esteem. The origins of this cultural value can be traced back over 2,500 years to the leadership of Cyrus the Great. One unique custom that Cyrus and other Persian leaders followed was their permittance of conquered subjects to continue practicing their own religions without fear of persecution. “The Persian empire embraced a host of languages and cultures, and the early Persian rulers were careful to grant considerable latitude for this diversity” (Stearns 97). This same value of religious acceptance continued into the modern-day history of Iran, all the way up to the most recent monarchy. Under the Pahlavi Dynasty, Iranians were able to enjoy lives with an abundance of rights and freedom, enabling the country to flourish. In an Associated Press interview with Reza Pahlavi, Crown Prince of Iran (Jan. 2018), he himself describes how the country became a melting pot of different cultures, religions, and ethnicities, all of which coexisted as one united society. In an effort to secure this unity, the monarchs of the kingdom also stressed the idea of secularism. However, with this distinction between religion and government, the shahs made it clear that they stood an overall neutral position in the aspect of religion and did not overly support nor undermine the belief systems of the people. Religion was, in its most basic form, a private matter. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, the Iranian people failed to recognize the totality of their freedoms, which was one of the main factors leading to the Revolution in 1979.

The Iranian Revolution laid the foundations for an entirely different form of government, and several factors are attributed to the cause of this drastic change. One of these factors was the people’s general discontent with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah himself. For starters, his policies were unpopular with many Iranian citizens. To make matters worse, his decision to exile Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shia cleric who had been preaching against him, only fueled the uprising against him. People began to accuse the Shah of irreligion, which was devastating to national unity. Khomeini began to orchestrate revolts and protests against the Shah’s regime from outside the country, which eventually forced the Shah to give up his throne and flee Iran. His departure officially brought an end to the constitutional monarchy and gave rise to the Islamic Republic, which also subsequently brought an end to the religious tolerance characterized by the Pahlavi Dynasty (Afary). Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini immediately returned to the country amid much support and rejoice, and he soon became the new Supreme Religious Leader. He quickly introduced new policies and instituted many reforms that completely opposed the Shah's previous rulings. A theocratic government structure was established, which at the time seemed like a wonderful idea. However, while Khomeini’s arrival originally brought about much celebration, the Iranian people would soon be stripped of many of their freedoms. Consequently, this would result in a drastic shift in values that would change Persian culture and give it a turn in the wrong direction.

After the revolution, Shia Islam became the official state religion of Iran, and morals shifted as less value was placed upon religious diversity, leading to more and more dissension among the people. One aspect of the new nation that completely reshaped Persian culture was the unjust treatment of religious minorities. The Revolution brought about a new constitution which, according to a United States Institute of Peace (USIP) report, states that “all laws and regulations must be based on ‘Islamic criteria’ and… [that] citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, ‘in conformity with Islamic criteria.’” This ‘Islamic criteria,’ in essence, just makes it so that the Iranian government can legally discriminate against religious minorities without repercussion. Moreover, Iranian authorities do not even make an attempt to hide their religious intolerance and discrimination. Arya Parsipur, the author of Limu Shirin, The Bitter Story of Life After the Iranian Revolution, describes how “politicians are handpicked based on their commitment to Islam… [and] then through their power inject and execute such values into the society.” ‘Casual’ Muslims who did not strictly follow the faith suffered from harsh consequences, and the ensuing chaos and violence served as a contributing factor in many people’s decisions to leave the country. Rights were taken away and unjust policies were instituted, all in the name of Islam. Angered by the so-called ‘Islamic policies,’ people began to not only leave the country but also lose faith in the religion as well. Religion had been forced onto people so much that it started to become more of a legal obligation to be Muslim rather than a personal choice (Parsipour). Khomeini had promised religion would resolve all of the current problems brought by the Shah. Not only did this end up being completely false, but Khomeini created even more issues for the country. This had a detrimental effect on people’s views of religion, and a perfect example of this is my father, who lost faith in the religion due to the new image that was being painted for Islam. As one could imagine, this has had a significant effect on our family’s belief system, which could have been extremely different had it not been for the event. Ultimately, the endorsement of a single religion had an extremely detrimental effect on Persian culture and changed its outlook on religious tolerance for the worse.

Despite the devastating cultural effects that the Revolution had on Iranian lives, there are many people today who still argue that the event was essentially a positive moment in history. There are also some supporters of the Revolution that say that Persian culture actually benefited from the new values. One of the main arguments in support of the change is that it was necessary to resolve the issues presented by the poor rulings of the Shah. Several claims about the Shah describe his ignorance of people’s needs as well as his violent actions towards political protestors. However, it is important not to discount the fact that he always had the people’s best interests in mind. Mohammad Reza introduced many new developments, “such as land reform, an expanded road, rail, and air network, and the eradication of diseases such as malaria” (Hsu). He also continuously stressed that religious affiliations or beliefs were a private matter and never imposed any regulations that restricted that freedom. Moreover, if one was to compare the benevolent and tolerant virtues of the Shah to the suppressive and selfish ideals of the Supreme Leader, the monarchy clearly stands out as the better power. A second argument that is commonly posed in favor of the Revolution is the contention that unification under a single national religion serves to strengthen the cultural identity altogether. While this may be true for certain scenarios, in the specificity of the new regime, Islam is imposed upon people, and forced conversion in no way equates to true belief in a religion. Furthermore, the supposed ‘strengthening’ of cultural identity through a unified religion is administered only through fear of discrimination. In other words, people’s compliance with Islam is based on fear, not because of unity or shared beliefs.

Through the revolution, the lack of religious acceptance within Iranian society has led to devastating effects on Persian culture. Persian values have shifted to place more emphasis on religious exclusivity and intolerance. The consequent brutality that has pervaded the nation has left a deep scar on Iranian people. We see the prevalence of disunity and dissension among groups who once lived side by side in harmony for centuries. I find it shocking that an event with such positive intentions, like the Revolution, was able to completely reshape the set of values upheld by Iranian culture. Furthermore, the fact that the Revolution was originally intended to better Iranian lives actually highlights the contrasting results that amounted from it. It comes to show the truly unpredictable and substantial power achieved through unity. Although the Revolution didn’t satisfy the wants of the people, that doesn’t mean that fighting for a just cause always ends poorly. Instead, the Revolution should be viewed as a motivational tool that encourages people to fight even harder in order to regain their rights and make the necessary cultural changes that their societies require.

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