Shahram Akbarzadeh, Rebecca Barlow
Shahram Akbarzadeh and Rebecca Barlow: ‘The Institutionalisation of political Islam in Iran’, in Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed), Routledge Handbook of Political Islam (London: Routledge, 2012). pp. 142-153
Publication year: 2012

The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1980 brought Islamism out of the shadows and into the corridors of power. This was an unprecedented development. Political Islam had emerged as the antithesis of the status quo, an alternative to secular policies and creeping Westernisation. In Iran, what started out as a revolutionary ideology was transformed into official ideology for the new regime. Islamism came full circle. Seemingly overnight, it was transformed from a battle cry for revolution into the pillar of a new system of government. Political Islam in today’s Iran is a status quo ideology that protects the vested interests of many in the clerical establishment, as well as those who have identified with, and benefited from, this transformation. This chapter explores the institutionalisation of political Islam in Iran.

The institutionalisation of Islamism following the 1979 popular revolution was not without difficulties. The major impediment to political Islam in Iran was the fact that it gained prominence on the back of a mass movement thirsty for political, social and economic trans­ parency and accountability. Engrained in the 1979 revolution was a desire to establish a new democratic system where the political leadership was answerable to the people and represented their national interests. The idea of a republic was appealing to the masses that protested against the corruption of the Pahlavi monarchy. Popular sovereignty was at the heart of the republic model. However, rule by the people did not sit easily with the Islamists and had to be demarcated within the limits set, as they claimed, by God. Tension between the popular and the divine models of government was evident from the very first day of the new regime. This tension is entwined in the Iranian constitution which maintains divine caveats to popular sovereignty and is even carried into the official name of the state: the Islamic Republic. The surge of popular resentment against the political establishment following the contested 2009 presidential elections was a reminder that the above tension remained unresolved. Street protests challenging the Supreme Leader and his role at the top of the state hierarchy have raised pertinent questions about the capacity of political Islam as a status quo ideology and what it means for civil rights. This chapter presents an account of political Islam in power and traces its implications for civil rights, with a special focus on women’s rights in Iran.