OpinionSchools & Higher Education

From the mullah state to US campuses: The woke’s failed history lesson

Can Western progressives learn from the history of the Iranian Revolution, that “ate its own” liberals and radicals?

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers an address on Oct. 19, 2022. Source: Channel 1 (Iran) via MEMRI.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers an address on Oct. 19, 2022. Source: Channel 1 (Iran) via MEMRI.
Tirza Shorr
Tirza Shorr

On May 25, 2024, the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Sheikh Naim Qassem, second in command of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, congratulated and encouraged Hamas-supporting student protests in the West. Hamas’s leadership also thanked the student protestors. Iran and its satellites have long been keen observers of Western trends, and are aware of American youth’s growing hyper-criticism, encouraged by social media, of their own societies and governments, even in relation to authoritarian foreign dictatorships.

Khamenei and Qassem may have taken a cue from the warm online reception of Western youth in November 2023 for the viral social media distribution of the 2002 “Letter to America.” Attributed to Osama bin Laden, the letter appeared the year after Al-Qaeda toppled New York’s Twin Towers, justifying the attack as “defensive jihad” against “U.S. aggression,” promising further escalation until the withdrawal of American forces from Muslim lands, and criticizing American cultural values and U.S. support for Israel.

After facilitating Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, Iran, like Russia and China, has been active in grooming subversion in the West via social media, including widespread use of bots. The ayatollah regime certainly has not missed that the young Western social media audience is Israel-critical, as surveys have shown.

Distributed on X (Twitter), Khamenei’s letter manages to pander to the left by using leftist jargon while simultaneously using antisemitic tropes and da’wa—Islamic outreach. Khamenei decried Islamophobia in his first letter to Western youth in 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. This time, Khamenei addressed young protesting Americans, more than 2,000 of whom have been arrested since April after a wave of protests and campus encampments.

He tells them that they “now formed a branch of the Resistance Front,” and invokes an antisemitic trope: “The global Zionist elite…owns most U.S. and European media corporations or influences them through funding and bribery.” Just as in 2015, Khamenei advises students to “become familiar with the Koran.” Perhaps the viral social media trend of conversion to Islam, even among queer people, has also not escaped the regime’s awareness.

The Iranian supreme leader also emphasized the importance of professors joining the protests and criticizing the American “government’s police brutality,” referencing claims popularized after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, which were fired up during massive Black Lives Matter protests.

In an interview, Hezbollah’s Qassem, like Khamenei, applauded and encouraged Western student activists. He said campus protests realized his organization’s ambitions to affect U.S. elections and Biden administration policy. Qassem said that since the Arab American population is relatively small (about one million), encampments were a useful pressure tactic on the Democratic Party to fracture and eventually erode U.S.-Israel relations.

In the same vein, Hamas’s statement of April 25, 2024, also criticized the Biden administration for violating college protesters’ individual rights and freedom of speech, asserting the students were on the “right side of history” against Israel, described as “neo-Nazi Zionists.”

These calculated, direct appeals to the progressive left have been used by Iran and its proxies in its political and psychological war against Israel and the West for years. Examples abound: One notable instance is when former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quoted American rapper Tupac Shakur’s lyrics after the killing of George Floyd to garner favor with Western youth.

Similarly, beginning in 2014, Hamas has made concerted efforts to appeal to the West. Hamas took part in the International Red Cross’s international law training in 2015. It published a supplemental document to its antisemitic 1988 Covenant in 2017, which contains politically correct “liberation language.” It marketed its “Great March of Return,” meant to agitate and breach Gaza’s border with Israel, as a “human rights march” in 2018, with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and others giving speeches there in front of a large poster of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

What seems counterintuitive to most Western observers—both classic liberals and conservatives—is the apparent contradiction between the above appeals to the “woke” and the actual violent and genocidal ideology and actions of Islamist movements. Yet, historically, Iranian Islamists appeased the Left when convenient—beginning with their union with Iranian Marxists aimed at toppling the Shah before its Islamic Revolution of 1979. According to exiled Iranian leftist Chahla Chafiq, Khomeini supporters saw the leftist groups as their “number-one enemy and wanted to get rid of them. It was not mutual for the Left. The Left still considered the number-one enemy not to be Khomeini but the West!”

The lessons for college students

If social media clips highlighting the geographical, political and historical ignorance of Western youth are reflective of reality, college students might do well to review the events of the Iranian Revolution and learn its lessons:

“Iranian leftists ‘never thought that Khomeini would bring socialism,” according to Chafiq. “They thought that he was just one step toward the socialist state they wanted to bring…. They thought that he would have some power, and then he would leave. And that’s when the Left would bring themselves together and create their own power structures. It would be like a transition period, like in the Russian Revolution…. Nobody had the slightest idea of what an Islamist power structure could be, using fascism and killing people to keep its power, which is exactly what [the mullahs] did.”

Iranian Marxists, many of whom were students, joined forces with Islamists to topple the Shah’s Western-aligned monarchy. Chafiq recalled, “Khomeini didn’t use the word ‘anti-imperialism.’ He talked about ‘Big Satan’ and ‘Small Satan.’ The Big Satan was the United States. The Small Satan was Europe. The leftists who went toward him translated that as anti-imperialism in their minds.

In the West, the revolution was applauded by French philosophers such as John Paul Sartre, his partner, foundational feminist Simone de Beauvoir, and the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault. In the United States, Princeton professor Richard Falk, and Columbia professor, Palestinian American political activist and the Foucault-influenced father of postcolonial studies Edward Said wrote glowingly of the revolution.

Freely forgiving its sins, Foucault and the other intellectuals were impressed with the revolutionary potential of Islam, since communism was quickly fading as an option for the West. Similar to progressives who overlook Hamas’s illiberal policies, Foucault, who himself was gay, made excuses for Khomeini’s sentencing of homosexual men to death during the revolution, saying they were Shah supporters and that Khomeini used the fact they were homosexual as an excuse to execute them.

Foucault, who covered the Iranian Revolution as a journalist, welcomed the Islamic government’s “political spirituality” against the evils of capitalism and called Khomeini “a kind of mystic saint.” Yet, outside of the intellectuals’ detached, alternative ideological universe, reality showed that in the end, the new Islamic Republic of Iran would murder or exile Iranian Marxists by the thousands.

Until that point, though, leftists and Islamists shared antipathy for the free-market policies and Western values and alignment promoted by the Shah. Islamists and Leftists admired the USSR, which likely assisted the Revolution, along with its satellites Cuba and East Germany. Playing their part in “Third World” solidarity, Cuban leader Fidel Castro praised Khomeini as a revolutionary anti-imperialist, while Castro’s comrade Yasser Arafat provided the terror services of his Palestine Liberation Organization during the revolution, including collaborating with the taking of more than 50 American hostages, initiated by Iranian students.

The revolution forced out Iran’s new, moderate prime minister Mehdi Bazargan with other “liberal” leaders—“liberal” became a slur in Iran, just as it is in today’s progressive circles.

Yet, sure enough, after Khomeini used the Iranian left to come to power, he began banning moderate and even Islamic leftist parties in quick succession, including the Muslim People’s Republic Party and the popular People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) between 1980 and 1982. The regime executed more than 2,600 MEK members and used the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to close down the “counterrevolutionary” press and arrest or execute other opponents, their aides and families.

Like Mao, Khomeini led a “cultural revolution”—but his was an Islamic one. The Iranian Cultural Revolution purged leftist elements in the educational system, the military and state bureaucracy, with some being accused of the capital crime of takfir (apostasy). Chafiq juxtaposes the Iranian regime’s model citizen, “the new Islamist man,” with that of the new Marxist man, to be created by the conditions of the new (Islamic) society, adding, “The first victims were the Muslims themselves. They were either killed or reformed into this model that the regime had created.”

Indeed, the regime shot protestors, including children, and bombed the Islamic Republic Party’s office, killing around 70 officials. In 1983, members of the Soviet-aligned Tudeh Party were forced to confess on Iranian television, a policy ironically copied from the USSR by the Iranian regime. In a criticism applicable today, an analyst of the revolution observed that the liberals were “disorganized” and the leftists “unrealistic,” accounting for their failures.

Iran scholar Gilles Kepel wrote that with all of the opposition forces vanquished, only the malleable poor urban youth and workers remained in service of the revolution, as military personnel in Iran’s long war with Iraq, especially in the underage Basij corps, or the modesty/morality police. The poor and martyrs’ families received financial and educational incentives and subsidies as rewards (a practice also employed today by the Palestinian Authority’s “pay for slay” policy).

Yet, even after the revolution’s repression was revealed, some Western intellectuals found it hard to criticize. Edward Said wrote that Western coverage of the revolution was offensive because it blamed Islam for the policies of Khomeini. Said ignored that Khomeini himself had clearly laid out his Islamic ideology in books published before the revolution, especially the belief in the infallibility of the leader (Vilayat e-Faqih). Said complained that not enough attention was paid to the revolutionary role of Ali Shariati, an Islamic socialist and friend of renowned Martinique writer and Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon (who theorized that colonized people’s violence against their colonizers was cathartic and justified). Khomeini eventually came to suppress Shariati, too.

To Said, presenting a theoretical counter-narrative to the critique of the Iranian Revolution took precedence over actually coming to terms with Khomeini’s regime of terror and its extremist root ideology. Said wrote, true to the main thesis of his 1978 book “Orientalism,” that Western hostility made “figures like Khomeini typify an Islamic world seen as being ‘populated by shadowy (although extremely frightening) notions about jihad, slavery, subordination of women, and irrational violence combined with extreme licentiousness.’” This quote is telling in light of Hamas’s 1988 Covenant and the overwhelming evidence of its Oct. 7 atrocities.

Revolutions “eat their own”

Said’s writings, some of the most referenced in modern academia, explain the difficulty of Western progressives, especially college students, to grapple with reality. The growing popularity of Critical Theory in college curriculums, including Critical Race Theory, postcolonial studies and Marxist-influenced Diversity Equity and Inclusion policies, has led some Western students to set an overly critical eye on their own culture while justifying extremism and terrorism.

The Marxist theories filling university curricula find their “praxis”— politically motivated action—in student protests and encampments. Can Western progressives learn from the history of the Iranian Revolution, that “ate its own” liberals and radicals, or will they continue the nihilist path of destroying the foundations of Western culture and encouraging the destabilization and radicalization of the Middle East? Since indoctrination is difficult to unlearn, it is up to students of history to stop those who disregard the lessons of modern Middle Eastern history.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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