Insurgent Iran: Is This Liberation Theology (Back) in Action?

Happy New Year everyone! It already looks like it going to be an exciting one, with riots in Tehran, Palestine solidarity activists trying to march into Gaza to protest apartheid, and more student occupations planned on campuses from Croatia to California.

I am particularly inspired by the Iranian students and workers who have taken to the streets to try and bring down the dictatorship there. As the Lenin's Tomb blog argues well, this is not some Gucci revolution. These students are working class students, and now their cousins from working class districts like South Tehran are joining the fray and kicking the cops in the face, blowing up police stations, and chanting "Allahu Akbar" and "Death to the Dictator".

This is also not simply a revolution of polite liberal atheists, as some here in the US would like to have it. This is not a revolt AGAINST the 1979 Iranian revolution, it is a continuation of the unfinished business of that revolution. It may be a revolt agianst a Muslim dictatorship but this doesn't mean that this revolt and the form of society it might create to replace that dictatorship will be liberal, secular, or pro-US imperialism.

1979 was a moment where Marxists, socialists, and Muslims rose up together, where largely Muslim workers took over their factories and set up direct democratic councils (shoras), animated by a prophetic and revolutionary vision put forward by Islamic socialists like Ali Shariati. It was a moment analogous to the liberation theology movement of Christian workers and peasants in Latin America which was going on at the same time.

Since then, the revolution was coopted into a counter-revolutionary Islamic dictatorship, a kind of Islamic Stalinism based on the imperatives of production for the nation at all costs, smashing workers protests, and extreme patriarchy.

There are signs this counter-revolution is wearing thin. As the excellent book Iran on the Brink documents, workers councils (shoras) have reemerged in recent years as part of a renewed rank and file labor movement. And this year, since last spring's disputed elections, students and many other layers of society have joined the militant workers in opposing the regime. These past few weeks older and more religious layers of the working class have come out in full force after the regime attacked and killed 8 protestors, vilating the traditional ban on killing during the holy day of Ashura. Ashura is the Shia day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn Ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad, who was killed by Yazid, a king who Shia Muslims see as a tyrant. During the Iranian Revolution, Ali Shariati and others called the Shah, the U.S.- backed dictator of Iran Yazid and thousands of people in the street shouted "Yazid will fall."

The same thing happened this week but now people are calling the leaders of the Islamic Republic Yazid. The spirit of Shariati and Islamic liberation theology is very much alive on the streets of Tehran:


Seeing this shows what workers and students can do and it inspires me to keep organizing here against our own Yazids and tyrants. It also inspired me to go back and revise a paper I wrote a few years ago comparing the Islamic socialism of Ali Shariati and the '79 revolution to the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutierrez. I wrote this after taking a seminar with Gutierrez when I studied theology at Notre Dame. Here is a short summary of the paper, and it is embedded below. I would greatly appreciate feedback and criticism from anyone interested.

Ali Shariati was an Islamic socialist leader during the Iranian Revolution. Gustavo Gutierrez is one of the most prominent Latin American Christian liberation theologians. This paper compares their theological ideas. Both argued that people of faith should engage fully in political struggles for human liberation against capitalism and imperialism. In this, they draw from and challenge their respective religious traditions. They also draw from and challenge the Marxist tradition they shared.

This essay also reflects critically on methods of religious studies, liberation theology, comparative theology, and Marxist philosophy of history.