The aim of this essay is to examine the factors that significantly contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, which culminated in the revolutionary overthrow of the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi on January 16th, 1979, and the creation of the world’s first modern Islamic nation-state, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The overthrow of the Pahlavi monarch shocked many in the Western world because from the end on World War II until the late 1970’s Iran appeared to be a rock of stability in the turbulent Middle East, as it was a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, political radicalism and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as modernizing and adopting some Western institutions (such as a parliament and a constitution, which did not however, limit the absolute power of the Shah) and cultural values (such as Western dress and the banning of the veiling of women). Many leaders in the Western world simply ignored, or seemed totally unaware of, the civil unrest that was fermenting within Iran, which is adequately demonstrated by a remark made by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1978, only a year before the Islamic revolution, in which he states that Iran was an ‘island of stability and tranquility’ in the Middle East.
When discussing the topic of Islamic fundamentalism (or any kind of fundamentalism for that matter, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism etc.) it must be noted how cultural perceptions and stereotypes influence the way in which people think in relation to the topic. When the words ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ are used in the Western media, the images that are conjured up in our minds are of militant, retrogressive, women oppressing, terrorist extremists who are dedicated to the destruction of the West, and in particular to the destruction of the ‘Great Satan’ - the United States. Thus, when Western people think of fundamentalist movements, our cultural perceptions (usually formed as a result of the selective and sensational nature of the world’s main, Western
dominated, media corporations) results in a view of these movements as being unrepresentative of the greater population, backward, and inherently dangerous to domestic, regional and international security. However, upon closer examination it can be seen that many Islamic fundamentalist groups enjoy broad political support from all socio-economic groups (but usually draw most of their support from the poorer rural and urban classes), and are often the only effect voices of opposition to the repressive regimes that rule most of the Muslim world. Islamic movements can thus be very diverse and have various, and often conflicting, ideologies (as demonstrated by the current civil war in Afghanistan between Taliban extremists and the more secular and socialist Mujahideen), which results in some Islamic groups being more extreme, radical and anti-Western whereas others are more secular, accommodating and less anti-Western (few, if any, Islamic groups could be classed as pro-Western). However, all are grouped under the label of ‘fundamentalist’ in the common view of the West, despite the variety and depth in their different ideological interpretations of Islam and its relations to real life issues. A more unbiased look at a religious fundamentalist movement reveals that it is primarily a call for the return to the basic foundations (fundamentals) of a faith. Hence for Muslims, Islamic fundamentalism refers to a return to the underlying principles of Islam. These fundamentals are that the Quaran is the literal word of God, and that God’s will is to be observed by strict adherence to the Sharia (the Islamic laws that govern most aspects of a Muslim’s life) and by following the Sunnah (which means ‘example’) of the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
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