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A street vendor sells photographs of political leaders in the early 1980s
Courtesy United Nations (John Isaac)

The Revolution of 1979 brought about a fundamental change in Iranian attitudes toward politics. Under the monarchy the political culture had been elitist in the sense that all major governmental decisions were made by the shah and his ministers. Most of the population acquiesced in this approach to politics. The fusion of traditional Shia Islamic ideals with political values during the Revolution resulted in the emergence of a populist political culture. The principal characteristics of this political culture are pervasive feelings that the government is obligated to ensure social justice and that every citizen should participate in politics. These feelings are acknowledged by the political leadership, which constantly expresses its concern for the welfare of the mostazafin (disinherited) and persistently praises the people's work in a host of political and religious associations.

The transformation of the political culture owed much to the charisma of Khomeini. He was determined not simply to overthrow the monarchy but also to replace it with a new society that derived its values from Islam. Khomeini believed that the long-term success of such an ideal Islamic government was dependent on the commitment and involvement of the masses. He envisaged the clergy as responsible for providing religious guidance, based on their expertise in Islamic law, to the people as they worked to create a new society in which religion and politics were fused. Khomeini's reputation for piety, learning, and personal integrity, as well as his forceful personality, have been important factors in the mobilization of thousands of committed followers to carry out the desecularization of the country's political institutions.

Mass political involvement has been both an objective and a characteristic of postrevolutionary Iran. Political participation, however, is not through political parties but through religious institutions. The mosque has become the single most important popular political institution. Participation in weekly congregational prayers, at which a political sermon is always delivered, is considered both a religious and a civic duty. For political aspirants, attendance at the weekly prayers is mandatory. Numerous religiopolitical associations are centered on the mosques. These organizations undertake a wide variety of activities, such as distributing ration coupons, investigating the religious credentials of aspirants for local offices, conducting classes in subjects ranging from the study of Arabic to superpower imperialism, and setting up teams to monitor shop prices and personal behavior. These organizations tend to be voluntary associations whose members devote several hours per week to their activities. Although most of these voluntary associations are for men, several are specifically for women.

Religious, rather than secular, organizations thus have the most important political roles. Factories, schools, and offices also have Islamic associations that undertake functions similar to those of the mosque voluntary associations. Although many secular groups exist, the majority of such associations as industrial and professional unions, university clubs, and mercantile organizations have acquired religious overtones. These private organizations generally have religious advisers who provide guidance to members on prayer ritual, Islamic law, and Shia history. Associations that try to avoid mixing religion with business are suspected of being anti-Islamic and risk having their articles of incorporation revoked.

The Iranians who accept the dominant role of religion refer to themselves as hezbollahis. They tend to be fervent both in their profession of religious belief and in their loyalty to the Islamic Republic. Self-identified hezbollahis join the numerous mosque-related voluntary associations, the Pasdaran, and the personal staffs of the leading ayatollahs. Given their strong commitment to the regime, it was inevitable that hezbollahis would resent those whom they perceived as critical of the government. By 1987, however, it was still not possible, owing to the lack of field research in Iran from the time of the Revolution, to estimate what percent of the adult population considered themselves true hezbollahis, what percent was generally indifferent and simply acquiesced to regime policies, or what percent strongly disapproved of the government.

Data as of December 1987

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Iran Table of Contents