Iran, Shi’i Muslims and the Arab Spring in Retrospect

Now that the so-called Arab Spring has dragged on into other seasons, the future of ongoing revolutions in the region remains to be seen. But the past six months and the discourses surrounding the perceived role of Iran, the implications that Islam dominated the protests, and the speculations regarding a Sunni-Shi’i divide may or may not offer a look of what is to come.


Media and policy analysts were quick to conclude that the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square would provide the opportunity for a Muslim Brotherhood takeover much like Ayatollah Khomeini implemented velayat-e faqih, the rule of the jurists, after he took power in Iran. In the alarmist words of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:

“A specter is haunting the West. In 1979, the United States watched a street revolution in the Middle East and saw its stalwart ally, Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi, ousted, only to be replaced by a theocratic Islamic Republic. Now, watching another street revolution in another Middle Eastern country, many people seem spooked by this memory. Fears of an Islamic takeover are not limited to Glenn Beck, with his predictions that the fall of Hosni Mubarak will lead to the rise of an Islamic caliphate bent on global domination. … Serious conservative politicians such as Mitt Romney and John McCain describe Egypt’s Islamic opposition in terms not so dissimilar from Beck’s. On the left, The (Washington) Post’s Richard Cohen writes, ‘The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare.’ Leon Wieseltier (of the New Republic) believes the Islamists will attempt a Bolshevik-style takeover.”1

As unlikely as it may be for American politicians and journalists to agree with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president also declared that the revolutionary fervor in the Middle East was due to the continued success of the Iranian Revolution. His claim was aided by the serendipitous convenience of Mubarak stepping down Feb. 11, 2011, the same day as the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Iran’s Green Movement was demonstrating that same week in solidarity with Egypt’s pro-democracy activists while calling for similar changes in Iran, with opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi under house arrest. Ahmadinejad even suggested that the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, was behind the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, clearly linking these historical moments to Islam. He was quoted as saying “a new Middle East will emerge without the U.S. and Zionist regimes, and there will be no room for the arrogant in the region.”

In addition, Iranian scholars such as Abbas Milani and Asef Bayat have compared Egypt with Iran. Milani concurs that the 1979 Iranian Revolution has echoes in Egypt. Among other similarities, he points out that Egypt, as the most important center of Sunni learning, parallels Iran as the most important center of Shi’i learning; both countries have competed with each other for hegemony over the Islamic world; and the U.S. had similar relations with Iran under the Shah as it did with Egypt under Mubarak.2 Bayat, in contrast, makes a very different assertion in his 2007 (pre-Arab Spring) book Making Islam Democratic, where he outlines the dissimilar trajectories of Iran and Egypt. He later contends that Tunisia and Egypt are examples of “refolutions,” which are unlike traditional revolutions. Rather, they are paradoxically “revolutions that want to push for reforms in, and through the institutions of the incumbent states.”3

Aside from the obvious theological differences between the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision of Sunni Islam and Iranian political Shi’i Islam, which is not accepted or promoted by the majority of Shi’a outside of Iran, Egypt’s revolution was led by technologically gifted youth and therefore dubbed the “Facebook Revolution.” The youth are unlikely to view the United States as the “Great Satan” or to promote a more modern version of “Westoxification.” The secular and the religious, Muslims and Christians, were united in Tahrir Square, though that initial unity has sadly broken down. Cairo in 2011 is a very different place from Iran in 1979. Despite these early comparisons, ironically, there was much ado about the ongoing and deepening public spat between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian president. This led to Ahmadinejad’s backing out of a key role at OPEC in May, demonstrating that Iran, especially since the disputed 2009 elections, is not a united power. Ahmadinejad’s hopes to minimize clerical power in Iranian politics go against the system set in place by the victory of the Islamic Revolution.

Rather than likening Egypt’s revolution to 1979 Iran, some argued for a more relevant comparison in the failed 2009 “Green Revolution,” perhaps the first youth-led revolt against an unpopular president that was organized using Twitter. Even U.S. President Barack Obama recognized this in his Arab Spring speech of May 19, 2011:

“And this speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stands for the rights of protesters abroad, yet represses its own people at home. Let’s remember that the first peaceful protests in the region were in the streets of Tehran, where the government brutalized women and men, and threw innocent people into jail. We still hear the chants echo from the rooftops of Tehran. The image of a young woman dying in the streets is still seared in our memory. And we will continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights, and a government that does not smother their aspirations.”

Like Obama, the Iranian opposition painted the Arab protests as a reverberation of its own 2009 anti-government movement. As Ahmedinejad’s regime continued to crack down on Iranians who attempted to demonstrate in the streets of Tehran, the protesters openly defied the Iranian Revolution by chanting in February: “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayyid Ali,” referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution. It was reported that the Iranian democracy movement made Egyptian activists, specifically Google executive Wael Ghonim, its poster boy, wondering whether the green wristband worn by Ghonim was a sign of solidarity with Iran’s Green Movement. Shervin Malekzadeh reminds us that during the height of the 2009 protests in Iran, the Washington Post ran an article under the headline, “Arab Activists Watch Iran and Wonder: Why Not Us?”; today, the situation has unexpectedly reversed.4

But are the revolutions Islamic? Olivier Roy as well as Asef Bayat have argued that the protests represent non-ideological movements, led by a “post-Islamist generation.” “Where have the Islamists gone?” asks Roy in his New Statesman article “This is not an Islamic Revolution.”5 Roy posits that for the leaders of today’s uprisings, the 1979 revolution was their parents’ affair and as such, ancient history. Instead, while some of them may be practicing Muslims, they keep their faith separate from their political demands and “they are operating in a secular political space, they do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.” Meanwhile, with the death of Osama bin Laden and the debated irrelevance of Al-Qaida, the revolutions have been viewed less and less as “Islamic fundamentalist” but rather as “asecular.”


If Tunisia and Egypt were the relatively peaceful first wave of the Arab Spring, commentators have insinuated that the later uprisings – Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria – are its second wave, marked by violent crackdowns. These were also analyzed through an Iranian lens, noting Iran’s financing of Syria and suggesting a new sort of Cold War emerging between Saudi Arabia and Iran for control of the Gulf.

The New York Times’ Michael Slackman writes that Iran’s influence grows while the power of the Saudis wanes. Even though he acknowledges that “Shiism is hardly monolithic, and Iran does not speak on behalf of all Shiites,” he tells his readership that “members of that sect are linked by faith and by their strong sense that they have been victims of discrimination by the Sunni majority.”

Violent protests in Bahrain have turned the focus to that country’s Shi’i majority, which make up approximately 70 percent of Bahrainis. Like all binaries, this Sunni- Shi’i divide, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II’s 2004 warning that a “Shi’a Crescent” would destabilize the region, are never so simple. Not all Shi’a automatically support or would benefit from Iranian leadership. Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University questions “Why would the Islamic Republic help a democratic uprising in Bahrain, while viciously suppressing one of their own?” Instead of helping the Shi’a population of Bahrain, Dabashi proposed instead that Iran serves as a model for how the rulers of Bahrain could repress protesters. Indeed, despite some Iranian demonstrations in support of Bahrain’s Shi’a, and Iran’s government lashing out at the arrival of Saudi troops, allegations that Bahrain’s Shi’i opposition was inspired and aided by Iran were unfounded. The risk of Iranian interference, while certainly on the minds of the Saudis and Americans, was being used as well by Bahrain’s monarchy to justify its tough response. Painting Bahrain as an external struggle was an attempt to mask the internal brutality of its regime (another American ally). Bahraini Shi’a received support from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shi’a, not from Iran. Moreover, Bahraini activists, at least initially, had stressed national unity through the slogan “Not Shi’ite, not Sunni, just Bahraini.” They had Shi’i activists symbolically pray behind a Sunni shaykh and Sunni activists pray behind a Shi’i imam.

Sharmine Narwani of Oxford University writes that this Sunni/Shi’i divide is as artificial a construct as viewing geopolitics in the region as an equally binary struggle between a “bloc” that supports existing U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East countered by an Iran-led “Resistance Bloc” that seeks to end foreign hegemony and embrace regional and national self-determination. Others envision the struggle as between a U.S.-Saudi axis and the prodemocracy uprisings. Joseph Massad of Columbia University writes: “Part of the U.S.-Saudi strategy has been to strengthen religious sectarianism, especially hostility to Shiism, in the hope of stemming the tide of the uprisings. This sectarianism targets not only Iran but also Arab Shias in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and even in Oman and Syria, while simultaneously encouraging anti-Christian zealotry in Egypt.” Is this a neo-colonial repeat of French colonial divide-and-conquer strategies in the Middle East and Africa?


Edward Said first called attention to media representations of (Shi’i) Islam and the Iranian Revolution in his 1981 book Covering Islam. Sadly not much has changed in the past three decades. It is time for policymakers and journalists to seek out and listen to a much more nuanced understanding of Middle Eastern politics and to avoid augmenting unnecessary fears. The United States must develop a more cohesive foreign policy that does not differ country-by-country depending on whom its allies are regardless of their human rights abuses. Olivier Roy has maintained, in fact, that it is the waning of U.S. influence in the Middle East that has allowed a legitimate demand for democracy to be expressed, if not yet achieved.

Additionally, academics and political commentators need to evaluate the tendency to always compare, and question the logic of examining history and past policies as models for present realities. Analysts have likened the momentous events of the Arab Spring not only to the Iranian Revolution, but also to the French Revolution and the fall of the Iron Curtain, and implied that Egypt copied the Tunisian “Jasmine Revolution” while proposing that the country should follow the model of Turkey. History does not always repeat. Labeling as “copycats” the spread of anti-government protests to other countries denies due respect to the individual circumstances and personal sacrifices made by the activists in each country.

Are policymakers and scholars so afraid of the unknown that they must always search for a past example? They should adjust expectations, amend policies and examine the Arab Spring for what it is – a series of movements initiated by the youth, the deprived and the disillusioned – and not the Islamists. These protesters are tired of the “old guard” of leaders who have monopolized political power for far too long. They are tired of rulers and politicians who have encouraged corruption and uneven distribution of wealth in countries where the majority are unemployed with no promise of a better future in a tough economy. These are movements for democracy, but not the democracy the West has tried to claim credit for promoting in the region. Despite a long, rich history in the region, the final chapters of the modern Middle East narrative have yet to be written.

Mara A. Leichtman is assistant professor of Anthropology and Muslim Studies at Michigan State University.






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