Review: Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and its Consequences
In his book, “Days of God,” James Buchan shows the predicament the Iranians have gone through in the in the thirty four years. “Those who make great revolutions forget that prisons and torture chambers survive into the new era, but good manners, good food, small pleasures of family life, and literary excellence all go to hell. What Iranians wished for most they never gained, and what they most sought to preserve they lost” (Buchan 329).
The author, Mr. Buchan is both a journalist and a novelist. He is British by nationality. In 1974, he left Britain for Iran. It was the period when the Shah, a monarch in Iran, was at the peak of power. He worked for many years as a correspondent of the Financial Times in the Middle East. His excellent grasp of the Persian language and Persian literature seems to have contributed very much in how he presents the narrative account of the 1979 Islamic revolution that took place in Iran. The author seems to be well placed to cover the events. A lot of insight and compassion can be seen and felt in his book, ‘Days of God.’
Days of God recounts how the Pahlavi kings rose to power in Iran, and how they came to loose the power later on. The book marks the Pahlavi kings’ loss of power as the beginning of the end of the tradition of monarchy in Iran. (Iran’s monarchy, according to the book, had been two thousand five hundred years old till its collapse).
Mr. Buchan attributes the social and political unrests that were witnessed in Iran, in the 20th century, to the attempts to modernize the Pahlavi and the Shiite clergy, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had always seen secular rulers as not being worthy of ruling the Devine Sovereignty. He portrays Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a person who believed that only the leadership of the clerics is fit for the Muslim Community. It does not appear to anyone that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the clergy are up to something.
Between 1978 and 1979, a series of the book recounts a series of politically motivated violence like the protests in the squares and the burning of the Rex Cunema. Its account of them is vivid and graphic, and helps accentuate the ‘seriousness’ of the situation in the country.
The opening of “Days of God” is marked with a solemn moment in the modern history of Iran: the coronation in 1926 of Reza Khan, who had been a military officer (Buchan 2). The book accounts for Reza Khan’s rise to power as being a result of a British-backed coup against Qatar. Mr. Buchan marks Reza Khan’s takeover of power in his crowning of himself as the Shah-an Iranian title for emperor or king- as the founding of the Pahlavi Dynasty. The book’s description of the development and modernization efforts by Reza Shah Pahlavi from a certain angle shows the author’s approval of the Western way of doing things. Mr. Buchan describes him as a king-in-waiting with unrivaled influence in the country and the ambition of modernizing Iran. ‘Days of God’ outlines Khan’s efforts to westernize the country as including: enforcing a shift from nomad way of life to sedentary; thwarting rebellion of ethnic minorities through disciplining; building transport infrastructure; and updating the army and bureaucracy. However, his pursuit to introduce western form of civilization into the country, and in particular his attack on the veil created the perception in the eyes of the clerical opposition that he was a stooge of the British (Buchan 34). His declaration of neutrality of Iran in the Second World War led to his dislodgement from power by the British allies, substituting him with his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
Buchan writes that Mohammed did not have so much fondness for the westerners as his father. Instead, he says, he was a real nationalist who did not realize that popular support could not be bought without national independence. Mohammed’s post-coup signing of a deal with British petroleum led to profits, which were channeled to the construction of dams and hydroelectric plants. The soviets financed and built a steel mill. It would be thought that the Iranians would be pleased by the development but the book points in the other direction. The Iranian’s anti-modernization stand and their perception of the development as imperialism and erosion of traditions, according to the book, made them perceive Khan as a traitor. The place of religion and tradition in the country is well spelt. The western nation applauded the progress though. As in the introduction, it appears like what the West thinks is good for a nation is not necessarily what they need. To eradicate threats his throne Khan is seen to offer the opposers of his policies a choice of either exile in Berlin or Paris; or imprisonment.
Mr. Buchan accounts for the cause of the Islamic revolution that took the stage and ended up removing Mohammed from power as having originated from the collusion of the Shah in the overthrow of Mossadegh, a situation that created a room for the clergy to occupy. The result, he writes, is that alcohol was forbidden, women had to cover up, and the clergy was empowered. Mr. Buchan does not, however, clarify how the clergy changed from ‘political cleanliness’ to the thirst for and consequent seizure of power. His suspicion, as he writes, is that the Shia faith has state-power engraved on it; another is that there was an allure for material wealth.
In his account of the half a century leadership of the Pahlavis, both the father and the son, Mr. Buchan turns away from the anti-Pahlavi narrative that is ‘popular’ with Westerners. The core of the narrative is that the US-Iran tensions originate from the CIA and MI6 coup de tat against Mohammad Mossadegh, the Shah’s populist Prime Minister. On the contrary, the instigators of the coup were those who despised Mossadegh’s secularism: the Islamist clergy and the merchants of bazaar, as he puts it.
From the clerics’ point of view, the removal of Mossadegh from power was just a scene in the 100 year long pursuit of power that piled into the 1979 takeover by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr. Buchan describes the Muslim clergy as having skillfully and persistently pursued their ambition for their longstanding political power, rather than focus on spirituality. If appears that the book had not taken into account the concept of political Islam, in its expression of surprise at the adoption of politics.
Among the religious leaders who saw to the ousting from power of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini who became the Supreme leader through radicalism, perhaps asserting the pivotal role of religion and tradition in the Iranian society, and crisis-creation.
On its recounting of events since 1974, the book adopts an objective present-day reporting style. It recounts the taking into hostage of American diplomats by pro-revolution of Iranian students. The role and significance of the crisis in Iranian politics, however, is only mentioned aside. Khomeinists use the appearance of the hostage taking crisis as hatred and hostility to Americans to tighten their grip on power. This crucial insight reveals in Mohammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha’s quote that they had reaped the fruits of their undertaking and defeated attempts by the Iranian liberals to take control of the machinery of government.
Between the time of hostage taking and their return to America, tremendous shifts took place in the country. The book’s account of these changes happens too swiftly. In the end of the 14 months, Mr. Buchan writes that the Islamic Republic set free the hostages, put in place a legal code, rooted out the enemies of Iran, and ‘covered up its women.’
A mark that is usually missed by those considered the most insightful of western analysts, Mr. Buchan being among them, is that Khomeini relied on crises, both homemade and outside the country-like the war hostage taking in Iraq. Western trained writers are programmed to look for the underlying rationales for the conduct of the unprincipled and revolutionary regimes. While the author seems to have captured the events vividly, it is questionable if its western upbringing and education have played a role in his narration.
Buchan, James. Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences. Simon and Schuster, 2012.