UPDATED: (Washington, D.C.) — Today marks the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians turned out on the streets to mark the occasion. Many denounced America as the “Great Satan.” Many also shouted, “Death to Israel,” which they believe is the “Little Satan.”
The fall of the Shah in 1979 and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini was a game-changing moment in the modern history of the Middle East. Iran suddenly shifted from a friend and ally of the United States (and even quietly allied with Israel), to a serious enemy. It started with the seizure of our Embassy and taking our diplomats hostage for 444 days. But it has gone much worse over time. Iran has been implicated in killing Americans in the Beirut bombing of our Marine barracks, and at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. They have funded, trained and armed terror groups around the world. Now they are actively developing a nuclear weapons program even as the world refuses to take decisive action to stop them.
But for all the attention the Islamic Revolution in Iran has received over the years, it is important to understand it in its fuller context.
As I noted in my 2009 non-fiction book, Inside The Revolution: Why the followers of Jihad, Jefferson and Jesus are battling to dominate the Middle East and take over the world, there is not simply one revolution underway in the Islamic world — today there are three revolutions competing for the hearts and minds of some 1.5 billion people.
Here’s a snapshot of who they are and what they want:
The Radicals are extremist Muslims. They want to overthrow every regime from North Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia. They want to replace them with Islamist dictatorships who believe that “Islam is the answer and jihad is the way.”
- The Ayatollah Khomeini was one of the first leading Radicals in 1979.
- Today, Iran under the Ayatollah Khamenei is far and away the Shia leader of the Radicals. Khamenei is repressing his people, oversees the leading state-sponsor of terrorism, is actively advancing a nuclear weapons program, yet is trying to beguile world leaders into thinking his regime is not really so dangerous after all.
- Osama bin Laden was the leader of the Sunni Radicals for many years, replaced by Ayman al-Zawahiri after bin Laden’s death.
- Other Radicals include a mix of Sunni and Shia groups such as al Qaeda, Iranian Twelvers, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the like.
- At the moment, some 30,000 Radical jihadists are operating in Syria, trying to destroy the Assad regime and create an Islamist state.
- Radical groups like al Qaeda and the Brotherhood are also actively trying to bring down moderate Arab regimes. A prime target for the Radicals is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
It is interesting to me that Jesus Christ once warned His followers that there would be Radicals in this world, killing in the name of religion. “[A]n hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.” (John 16:2)
The Reformers are moderate Muslims who say, “Islam is the answer, but jihad is not the way.'”They want more freedom, more openness, more protection of human rights and civil rights, free elections, and free markets. Some even support the creation of full-blown Jeffersonian democracies, if at all possible. In this group historically have been:
- Kemal Mustafa Ataturk (the founder of modern Turkey as a democratic, pro-Western state, a NATO ally and even friendly to Israel, though sadly Turkey is now moving away from his model)
- Egypt’s late-President Anwar Sadat (he did not advance democracy in his day, but he did make peace with Israel and try to move Egypt away from war and extremism, though sadly he was then assassinated by Radicals)
- Jordan’s late-King Hussein (he made peace with Israel and initiated a democratically elected parliament while retaining his authority as monarch)
- Jordan’s current King Abdullah II (the son and current monarch, who has been waging a fierce and focused battle against Radical Islamic extremists, and has been advancing his father’s political and economic reforms impressively, if incrementally — I would describe him far and away as the leader of the Reformers in the Arab world today)
- Morocco’s King Mohammed VI (who also has been waging a fierce and focused battle against Radical Islamic extremists, and has been incrementally advancing a series of political and social reforms)
The Revivalists are former Muslims who say, “Islam is not the answer, jihad is not the way, Jesus is the way — and the only way for our part of the world to move forward and make real and lasting social, economic and spiritual progress is to skip back in our history before Islam and revive what we once had: first century, New Testament, Biblical Christianity.” These followers of Jesus Christ in the Islamic world tend to be apolitical. They don’t want to engage in political activity. They are focused on evangelism, discipleship, church planting, pastor training and spiritual renewal. By using dual strategies of an air war (satellite TV, radio and the Internet) and a ground war (especially the house church movement), their numbers have swelled into the millions since 1979, despite widespread (and recently intensifying) persecution. I profile a number of their leaders in the book, though few of them are known by name in the West.
The Revivalists passionately believe that the Lord God of the Bible loves all Muslims, and wants them to repent and be “born again” through faith in Jesus Christ. This is why they are willing to risk their lives to tell Muslims the good news of salvation through Christ.
These first three are the revolutionary forces in the region, people and movements who advocate and push for dramatic, sweeping change.
Then there is another set of important players:
The Resisters tend to be secular Arab nationalist leaders who oppose significant change of almost any kind. They may be Muslims but they certainly aren’t revolutionaries. They don’t want to build an Islamic empire. They want to build their own empires. They want to hold onto the power, wealth and prestige that they currently have, and gain more if they can. They strongly oppose revolutionary movements of all kinds. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a classic Resister. So were Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Ghadaffi. Other Resisters include the besieged Syrian President Bashar Assad, , the leaders of Saudi Arabia, and so forth.
The Reticent tend to be weak-willed Arab leaders who seem constantly pulled in opposite directions. They don’t have strong convictions. At times they seem to want peace with Israel, for example, and even a modicum of political or social reform, but then other forces push back at them and they waffle or change their tune. At the moment, Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is the best example of a Reticent leader. He has been offered historic deals by recent Israeli Prime Ministers to make peace and create a Palestinian state and have dramatic economic change and growth. He has occassionally shown real interest in positive change, but has never had the courage to say “yes.”
Finally, and most importantly, are the Rank-and-File — these are the billion-plus everyday Muslims citizens who work hard, play by the rules, are trying to find decent jobs to feed and educate their families. They aren’t revolutionaries. They long for more freedom and opportunity, but mainly they keep their heads down and try not to be noticed and not be interfered with. They are the audience to which the revolutionaries are playing. They are watching the battle between the Radicals and the Reformers, and they are increasingly curious about the message of the Revivalists. And some of them are making their move and joining one of the revolutionary movements.
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