Two Interpretations of Religion: The Tudeh Party and Iran’s 1979 Constitution

By Kelly Skinner

After Iran’s 1979 “Islamic” Revolution, Foucault noted that Islam was pervasive throughout Iran’s political discourse, rendering secular political options obsolete (Behrooz. Foucault in Iran, 82). This was largely due to the association of Islam with nationalism during the Revolution as it was used as a symbol of resistance against both the Shah and Western imperialism (Mirsepassi. Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran, 100). This left the secular-identifying political groups in a difficult position– would secularism remain central to their ideology or would they forge political alliances based on other factors? In mid-1979, as Iranian leaders were in the midst of creating a constitution which would define the new Islamic Republic, the political stakes could not have been higher. One of these secular parties, the communist Tudeh Party of Iran, forged an interesting path in their approach to this question, ultimately putting their economic goals above any other consideration. The Tudeh Party’s response to the growing presence of political Islam included identifying multiple interpretations of religion and espousing one interpretation as aligning with the party’s own goals. This also included identifying which versions of an Islamic Economy mostly closely aligned with their own economic platform. The Tudeh Party publicized these ideas in various interviews and articles published at the time, including those printed in Mardom, Ettelāʿāt, and recorded in the international press by the FBIS-Daily Service.

In early June, before the official June draft constitution was published, the Tudeh Party published their goals for the new constitution in Ettelāʿāt. Secretary General Nurredin Kianuri stated:

… the new constitution must include the following principles: full national independence and sovereignty in all political, economic, cultural, social and military affairs, democracy meaning the provision of all freedoms and fundamental rights, the right of the masses (tudeh mardom) to participate in determining their own destiny through strong social institutions, ensuring the national rights of the peoples (hoquq-e melli-ye khalqhā) and nationalities living in Iran within the framework of our unified and indivisible homeland, social progress that guarantees the comprehensive industrial, agricultural, and cultural progress of society, its dynamics and its people and the flourishing of human character, moral values, and spirituality. Public welfare for all the toilers (zahmatkashān) and the provision of the right to work, education, treatment, rest and housing etc. The health of the country’s economic construction in order to secure the interests of the vast majority of people and cut off the possibilities of plundering the natural and human resources of our country. (Ettelāʿāt 12 Khordād 1358/ 2 June 1979)

After the publication of the June draft, the Tudeh Party’s positions changed very little though the draft had included little of what they had argued for. However, their goals for the new document did have one significant shift, the inclusion of a cooperative sector of government in their ideal economy. In late August, the Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom, stating,

The economic system of the Islamic Republic of Iran should be based on three sectors: public (dowlati), cooperative (ta’āvoni), and private (khosusi), with regular government planning. The governmental sector is the main economic factor of the country and is the basic device for its dynamics and the advancement of the economic objectives of the revolution. (Mardom 29 Mordad, 1358/ 20 August 1979)

This new part of the Tudeh’s platform was repeated in another instance in which a Tudeh Party spokesman qualified their advocacy for these types of ownership by adding that this was what the party believed, “under the current circumstances” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Ayandegan in Persian 1979. “Tudeh Gives Views on Constitution.” 2 August 1979). This is interesting, because while cooperative ownership is not featured in the June draft, these three types of ownership are popular in many conceptions of an Islamic economy, including in the ideas of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, and Mas’ud Rajavi. 

This shift can be explained by the Tudeh Party’s new support for leftist conceptions of an Islamic Economy. In late July 1979, Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom arguing that there are two different interpretations of Islam. What the Tudeh Party claimed to be the modern interpretation was the Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini and other revolutionaries followed. This interpretation supported the same economic goals as the Tudeh Party. The article states:

In this regard, we should especially name Imam Khomeini and also other Islamic thinkers such as Ayatollah Taleqani, Doctor Ali Shariati, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, and others. This Islamic ideology, political and societal, that thanks to their efforts and the appearance of collective other Islamic thinkers of our country and was named “Monothesistic insight” (binesh-e towhidi), was a very important spiritual flag in the first stage of the of the victorious Iranian revolution against the Pahlavi dynasty and for  the establishment of an Islamic Republic and still in in the current revolutionary phase plays a progressive role in expanding and spreading the achievements of the revolution (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979)

In the same article, the Tudeh party also claims that in this new interpretation, Islam had become a social ideology, “Imam Khomeini by preserving his strict loyalty to all Islamic beliefs and Shi’ism, has given a new impetus to this trend and today Islam in countries is more and more formulated as a social ideology” (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979).

Not surprisingly for a communist party, the Tudeh Party’s support for Islam and an Islamic Economy only mentions the leftist proponents of an Islamic ecnomy, perhaps except for Khomeini. However, in his speeches during the Revolution, Khomeini too, often spoke of lifting up the oppressed, something the Tudeh party seems to have taken note of as they even adopted Khomeini’s rhetoric. In a press conference given on October 9th, 1979, Kianuri lays out the “content of the revolution” that the Tudeh party would support. These points include the following: “Fundamentally changing for the better the living standards of millions of plundered people, i.e., the working classes or, to use the term coined by Imam Khomeyni, the Mostaz’afin [the deprived]” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Bamdad in Persian 1979. “Kianuri Press Conference”). Notably, Mostaz’afin, originally a Qur’anic term, was first used to talk about economic class in Shariati’s translation of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth into Persian as Mostaz’afin-e Zamin (The Oppressed of the Earth) (Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, 47). Khomeini’s use of this term shows, at least to the Tudeh, that he is combining Islam with class struggle. 

On the other hand, the Tudeh party’s use of Mostaz’afin also attempts to show the Iranian people that although they often use different language to express their agenda, it is remarkably similar to Khomeini’s own goals. This is also evident a month later when in an interview a German newspaper Kianuri states, “The Shi’ite religion has democratic roots and in history it was linked with popular national and anti-imperialist forces… We are making every effort to find a common language with Khomeyni, because objectively he is playing a progressive role in Iran’s development” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979). Kianuri justifies this position by saying, “between scientific socialism and the social content of Islam there are no unbridgeable differences rather, many common aspects” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979).

Following this strategy, the Tudeh Party, although not agreeing with the form of government instituted by the new constitution, did support the overall constitution due to the leftist economic principles in the document. In November 1979, Kianuri stated:

Some articles of the constitution are positive and others negative… We support the articles relating to the structures of the economy in the Islamic Republic. The economy will be based mainly on the national sector… despite the great resistance shown by the bazaar. (FBIS-Daily Service 20 Nov. 1979)

This is interesting because Khomeini has historically been an ally of the bazaar in the lead up to the Revolution and relied on their support to oust the shah (Abrahamian, Khomeinism, 41).  In the view of the Tudeh party then, the final constitution marks a victory of Khomeini’s revolutionary rhetoric over his more conservative tendencies. However, the economic focus of the Tudeh Party may have been shortsighted as the party would be banned by the new government only a few years after the Revolution, in 1983.

Secular political groups in Iran had to adapt to the changing meaning of Islam during and after the Revolution. The Tudeh Party did this by accepting the fact that Iran’s constitution would include principles for an Islamic Economy. Following this acceptance, the Tudeh Party then identified the proponents of an Islamic Economy whose ideas were most similar to their own economic beliefs. This included Shariati, who was known as the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution, though he died before its fruition and Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution, as well as Bani-Sadr and Taleqani whom the party endorsed for the Assembly of Experts. Even after the final draft of the constitution was published, the Tudeh Party still supported the document, which famously included theocratic elements such as Velāyat-e Faqih, due to its inclusion of leftist economic principles.

Image obtained from Tudeh Party of Iran

Three Strikes: Somaya’s Story

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault. Based on prevalence data from 2000 to 2018 across 161 countries, the World Health Organization estimated that 1 in 3 women throughout the world are survivors of sexual and/or physical violence. Insiya Raja interviewed Somaya Tarek, a brave Egyptian woman who exemplifies the struggles women continue to face, not only in experiencing sexual assault but also in speaking out about it. 

Strike I

On October 25, 2015,  Somaya Tarek was publicly harassed in a mall in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis After Somaya threatened to call security, the man turned around and slapped her in the face twice. The entire incident was captured on closed-circuit television, and the security video from the mall was leaked. When she went to the police, the officers laughed at her, joking about the incident. No investigation followed and the man was not charged by the police. 

This did not deter Somaya, who made the rare decision of personally speaking out in Egyptian media about the incident. She posted the video on her Facebook that night, which had over 400,000 views by the next morning. As her case began to garner national attention, talk show hosts invited her to speak. She agreed to an interview with Reham Saeed, a famous TV talk show host, which aired on the private network Al-Nahar. Reham had invited Somaya, telling her that she needed to be “honoured for her courage.”  She went to the interview, and before she entered, a man from the production team told her she was not allowed to take her phone on stage and must leave it with him. 

When they went on camera, Saeed told Somaya, “I’m not bringing you here to make you a hero. Do you think you were dressed appropriately?” Any expectations that the presenter would treat Somaya with empathy and trust were quickly dashed. Saeed questioned her aggressively, blaming Somaya for provoking harassment by wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and even accusing her of being the one to catcall her assailant. Somaya asked for the termination of the interview and the return of her phone; instead, she was handed a paper to sign. After four hours, when she got angry and threatened to call the police, they finally returned her phone and let her go.

One hour after this dramatic incident, Saeed’s show aired on TV, showing private pictures of Somaya, including in a bathing suit, which had been stolen from her cellphone. Somaya was accused of being indecent, and Saaed argued that if a woman dressed provocatively, it is no surprise she would get harassed. Saeed concluded with the remarks: Just as there are harassers in the streets, some girls have really gone beyond the limits. You won’t like this, but this is the truth. Keep your girls in check and nothing will happen to them.

Saeed’s crass accusations and misogynistic behaviour sparked outrage amongst women’s rights advocates, who launched a social media campaign calling for the suspension of the show. Bowing to pressure from the activists, Al Nahar’s management suspended Saeed’s show for several months. 

After a whole year, the court finally sentenced the harasser, identified as Hany A., 28-years old, to one month in prison and a fine of 100 Egyptian pounds–about $6 U.S.. After he appealed his sentence, his jail-time was reduced to two weeks. In 2015, under the Egyptian penal code, the minimum punishment for sexual harassment and assault was six months in prison or a fine of 3,000 Egyptian pounds. However, the court said the video was not enough proof to establish that. The court also told Somaya’s lawyers that Hany was handed the minimum possible sentence because of the media fuss Somaya had created, and that they did not like media interference in a trial.  

The culture of victim blaming and shaming was pervasive, and Somaya came to be known as the “Mall girl” in the media, with a hashtag even arising from the moniker, فتاة_المول#. However, after Somaya first spoke out, she also received hundreds of messages from girls all over Egypt who said that they had faced similar harassment but had been too afraid to speak out. They told her they were waiting for someone else to make the first move. In 2017, a global movement would shake the world, as women inspired by the #MeToo movement in 2017 would speak out. However, it is in this year that Somaya would suffer the consequences of her speaking out. 

Strike II

Two years to the day of her assault, as if marking the anniversary of his first crime, Hany, a released assailant, attacked Somaya again. But this time, he tried to kill her. After slashing her face with a box-cutter–causing a 20mm gash from behind her ear to her cheek–he left her bleeding on the pavement in the Korba district of Heliopolis. It was 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon in a busy Cairo street, but Somaya could not find anyone willing to help her. She ran by herself to three different hospitals, but all of them refused to treat her. Finally, at the fourth hospital which was private, she was taken in. 

It took 50 stitches to close the wound across the side of her face. It appears this attack was not only meant to disfigure Somaya, but to kill her.  Somaya re-appeared on several other TV shows, and publicly accused him of attacking her with a knife, with the large gash on her face still an unhealed wound. 

The police arrested Hany a second time, and investigators said that he confessed to the attack. Under Egyptian law, the minimum sentence for attempted murder is seven years. Hany was sentenced to eight months in prison.  

The second attack was Hany’s revenge for Somaya going public with the case in 2015. However, the attacks against Somaya did not end there. The public nature of the case caused scrutiny amongst the broader population of Egypt. In Somaya’s experience, 90% of the comments on the forums she had posted on after getting out of the hospital, were critical of her. Amid all the victim-blaming, the cruellest comment that Somaya saw constantly was that she got what she deserved

Two months after the incident, after she had been told that more than 70% of her scar was permanent, she went online on Facebook to express the desire to take her own life in front of 60,000 viewers. However, in comment after comment, people continued to shame her, often encouraging her to go through with suicide. 

Strike III

Hany was released in 2018, after which he began stalking and threatening Somaya. He showed up at her house, at her work, and at her family’s homes. Every time she would find a new job, he would be waiting for her outside. A man called her, claiming to be Hany’s brother, and said that they would “take her mother” if she did not go to the police and said that she had identified the wrong person. 

While Hany was free, Somaya was constantly under threat. Fearing for her safety, she moved ten times in just two years. She complained to the police, but nothing was done to rearrest the man. She tried many times to flee Egypt,  and finally got out in December 2021 after she was able to obtain a visa to Spain. 

Somaya is currently living in Spain. Her lawyer has filed her asylum application under Spain’s gender violence category. Even though the application process is taking time, Somaya says that she finally feels safe and is grateful to be able to take a walk on the street without overwhelming fear. 

The Broader Situation in Egypt

In 2013, a research study conducted by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) revealed that over 99.3% of Egyptian girls and women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. A member of Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) said in 2016 that this widely circulated statistic is “exaggerated,” that sexual harassment has started to “recede,” and that the numbers incorrectly suggest that “all women on the street are harassed.” The NCW,  the only “national independent women machinery in Egypt,” was established by a Presidential decree in 2000;  the members of the council are appointed by the President of Egypt himself. 

Recently, the Freedom Initiative (NGO) released a report entitled No One is Safe which found that Egypt employs abuse in detention as a method to coerce, punish, and bring a population under the control of the state. According to Allison McManus, Research Director at  the Freedom Initiative:

Sisi will declare “the year of the woman” and the new National Strategy on Human Rights will claim it prioritizes gender-based violence and sexual harassment, but the Egyptian state fails to protect women like Somaya who do not conform to strict gender laws. This is because the state sees the mandate of women’s empowerment through its claim to “guard morality” in a way that is narrowly heteronormative and patriarchal. 

In 2011, officers in the Egyptian army subjected women to “virginity tests” in Tahrir Square, a practice that continued to be carried out against female political detainees under President Sisi. Mainstream and local media coverage of violence against women in Egypt has contributed to the culture of victim-blaming. In December 2011, a woman who was dragged and beaten by soldiers became known as the ‘blue-bra girl’ after her abaya was pulled over her head during the assault. The media demonized her and accused her of provoking the attack, with commentators asking why she would wear such a provocative bra, or why she did not wear more layers of clothes under her abaya. However, the pervasive violence carried out systematically by both state and society has come under increasing criticism on social media in recent years. 

Women human rights defenders in Egypt have faced persecution. Last year, two TikTok influencers, Mowwada al-Adham and Hanin Hossam, 22 and 20 years old respectively, were arrested for posting content on social media. Hossam was accused of human trafficking after inviting her followers to join the social media platform Likee, and the court sentenced her to ten years in prison. A 2018 cybercrime law has been used to punish women for expressing their opinion online, violating “family values” and undermining  “public morals,” with imprisonment of up to five years in some cases. Recently, Egypt’s highest court upheld a prison sentence against Amal Fathy, a well-known activist, who had spoken out against sexual harassment on Facebook. Egypt has also placed travel bans on women who have been active and vocal advocates and activists, and frozen the assets of women’s rights organizations such as Nazra for Feminist Studies and the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. 

The situation of women is not unique to Egypt, and initiatives like SAAM remain extremely important in the world today. A special thanks to Somaya for telling her story and continuing to inspire women everywhere.

Book Review: Muslim Sources of the Crusader Period: An Anthology

MUSLIM SOURCES OF THE CRUSADER PERIOD: AN ANTHOLOGY. EDITED AND TRANSLATED, WITH AN INTRODUCTION, BY JAMES E. LINDSAY AND SULEIMAN A. MOURAD. 312pp. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2021. ISBN: 978-1-62466-984-2, £19.99 (Pbk).

By Charlie Ough

Western conceptions of the Crusades are traditionally formulated around a Christian vs. Muslim dichotomy and bounded chronologically between Pope Urban II’s declaration of the First Crusade in 1095 and the fall of the last of the mainland Latin Christian, or “Frankish”, strongholds – Acre – in 1291. However, more recent scholarship utilising Arabic sources has demonstrated how “Holy War” soon became subsumed by regional political rivalries, pitting Muslim-Christian coalitions against opposing alliances also crossing confessional boundaries for dynastic and territorial advantage. Furthermore, this new anthology, Muslim Sources of the Crusader Period, translated by James Lindsay and Suleiman Mourad, extends the timeline of the period to place this apparently aberrant Latin Christian incursion into the region more firmly into its Middle Eastern and Mediterranean contexts.

Indeed, the authors’ professed aim in collaborating on this work was to demonstrate to their own History and Religious Studies students the “complexity of interaction between Franks and Muslims in the broader context of Islamic history” (xi). The most useful way to do this, they believed, was simply to collect and translate the documents that they would wish to use in their own classes. Broadly speaking, they have achieved their aim as the sources themselves, many previously unavailable in English and ranging from more traditional historical chronicles to poetry apostrophising on the beauty of Frankish women (79), succeed in superseding their sometimes narrow presentation to constitute an invaluable primary resource for scholars and general readers alike.

After an introduction setting out the authors’ intentions and reasons for selecting the material they did, mostly on account of the sources being contemporaneous to events and hitherto unpublished in English, the book is divided into six chapters based around the form of the texts included in each. Chapter 1 is comprised of “Travel Literature and Geographical Guides” and succeeds in presenting the by no means-uniform, and often conflicted, views of Muslims toward the Crusader states described as “dirty” but also possessing “marvellous” fortifications (21). The sources included in this part also beautifully demonstrate the ease of movement and ideas across the Muslim and Mediterranean worlds at this time with the Valencian-born Ibn Jubayr spending much of his journey from Grenada to Mecca at sea on Venetian ships (15). Chapter 2, on “Jihad Books and Juridical Directives”, then serves to corroborate the editors’ argument against the opinions of “modern apologists” who downplay the importance of violent, military jihad (xvi). Still, they assert that, although many authors in the Middle Ages did stress the importance of warfare against Islam’s enemies, death in this cause did not constitute a sure-fire guarantee for acceptance into heaven (47). The useful biographies the translators provide further foreground that, though jihad may have been forcefully encouraged by Sunni religious scholars, the political needs of the day meant that many Muslim rulers would sooner side-line and ignore more “fanatical” jurists than fight inexpedient or suicidal conflicts with Christian neighbours (48).

By far the longest in terms of both pages and chronological scope, however, is Chapter 3 which includes the more traditional Islamic writing forms of “Chronicles, Memoirs and Poetry”. This section pushes the boundaries of the established narrative of the period by beginning with the assertion of the historian Ibn al-Athir that the Crusades in the Holy Land were part of a much larger Christian “march against the lands of Islam” starting with the capture of Toledo in 1085 (59), often treated separately in the West as part of the Spanish “Reconquista”. The sources then cover events in the Middle East itself right up to the sacking of Alexandria in 1365 by Peter of Cyprus (149). However, while the sources are given in chronological order regarding the events they describe, authors writing at different times but concerned with the same events are, therefore, presented alongside one another enabling useful comparisons between the way different contexts and positionalities influence the information given. The questions the translators provide at the end of each source further highlight this, for example when comparing the reasons given by Ibn al-Qalawisi for the success of the First Crusade with those offered by Ibn al-Athir writing roughly a century later (68). Moreover, this chapter challenges the Muslim-Christian dichotomy by accentuating the importance for Sunni rulers in re-establishing Orthodox practice in formerly Shi’i-ruled cities (84), the differentiation by certain scholars between “Syrian” and “foreign” Franks (86), and the overwhelmingly positive view given of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (119) who was often openly opposed to the Pope.

The last few chapters are shorter and consist of: Chapter 4 on “Biographies”, including Ibn ‘Asakir’s on Jesus used to suggest similarities between the need, in both Muslim and Christian eschatology, to occupy Jerusalem before the end times can begin; Chapter 5 on “Correspondences, Treaties and Truces” highlighting the cordial, and often affectionate, letters between Christian and Muslim rulers and both sides’ habitual use of the religious language of their recipient in which to couch their letters; and Chapter 6 detailing the “Inscriptions” both Shi’i Fatimid and later Sunni rulers used to assert their legitimacy and ownership of castles, mosques and cities. The addition of several appendices – including Appendix B entitled “Quranic Verses on War and Peace” – further serve as useful educational tools providing necessary cultural context for students and other uninitiated readers.

The way the editors have presented and couched the documents in the collection is, however, also the source of the book’s most significant shortcomings. Much is made by Lindsay and Mourad in the introduction about how they reject the terms “Muslims” and “Crusaders” as “analytical categories that reflect unvariegated unity, cohesion, common approach” (xiii) in order to evince more accurately the complex and changing political relationships of the era. While many of the sources themselves do, indeed, speak of the Realpolitik that superseded religious divisions, the whole collection, in presenting only “Muslim” sources, is predicated on the assumption of a strict divide between a homogenous, wholly-Muslim Middle East viewing the “other” of intruding Christians. Their reinforcement of this dichotomy is then corroborated by the inclusion of a source on the Christians of Mount Lebanon (15) who had lived in the region for centuries and had no connection to the Crusaders besides their religion and before the latter’s arrival in the “Holy Land”. The translators’ choice to include this piece instead presents these Christians more as objects of study for an otherwise homogenous Muslim world than as fellow inhabitants of the region also reacting and adapting to the arrival of “The Crusader Period”.

The presentation of only Muslim documents, moreover, ignores one of the central problems identified by the authors i.e. that Crusades scholars predominately lack knowledge of Arabic (xiv). This is in spite of the tantalising admission by Ibn Jubayr that the Christian scribes of Acre wrote in Arabic (19) which demonstrates that the language should not be equated solely with Muslim intellectual production and that the translation of non-Muslim sources from the region would also serve to counterbalance scholars’ fixation with European-language sources. Indeed, this would provide a much richer and more accurate account of the reaction of the region’s peoples to the Crusades as non-Christians still made up a large proportion of the population throughout the period, even constituting a majority in Egypt until well into the fourteenth century.[1]

Still, this anthology does reinforce the case that sources written by Muslims, and the existing inhabitants of the Middle East in general, are vital to a fuller understanding of the reality of the Crusades which continues to be distorted for political gain by both the Western far-right and Muslim extremists. The questions posed by the editors at the end of each source also highlight important points and challenge the unconscious biases of Western readers and students. Though it by no means constitutes the last word on providing a balanced account of the period, while their rendering of the Arabic term din as “religion” seems to ignore recent decolonial debates, Lindsay and Mourad’s translations are otherwise clear and up-to-date. This then, largely, allows the sources to speak for themselves in terms of their interest and accessibility for the reader and their publication constitutes a valuable addition to the primary material available in English. Therefore, this volume constitutes another step on the way to enabling those lacking knowledge of Arabic to broaden their knowledge of the period and counter their preconceptions of Medieval Islamic society. At the same time, its not insignificant shortfalls and omissions should serve as a call for additional translation work to be done to provide a more diverse and representative body of material.

[1] Robert Holland, In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 168.