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The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran [Paperback]

Charles Kurzman

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Book Description

13 Sep 2005
The shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, would remain on the throne for the foreseeable future: This was the firm conclusion of a top-secret CIA analysis issued in October 1978. One hundred days later the shah--despite his massive military, fearsome security police, and superpower support was overthrown by a popular and largely peaceful revolution. But the CIA was not alone in its myopia, as Charles Kurzman reveals in this penetrating work; Iranians themselves, except for a tiny minority, considered a revolution inconceivable until it actually occurred. Revisiting the circumstances surrounding the fall of the shah, Kurzman offers rare insight into the nature and evolution of the Iranian revolution and into the ultimate unpredictability of protest movements in general. As one Iranian recalls, "The future was up in the air." Through interviews and eyewitness accounts, declassified security documents and underground pamphlets, Kurzman documents the overwhelming sense of confusion that gripped pre-revolutionary Iran, and that characterizes major protest movements. His book provides a striking picture of the chaotic conditions under which Iranians acted, participating in protest only when they expected others to do so too, the process approaching critical mass in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. Only when large numbers of Iranians began to "think the unthinkable," in the words of the U.S. ambassador, did revolutionary expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A corrective to 20-20 hindsight, this book reveals shortcomings of analyses that make the Iranian revolution or any major protest movement seem inevitable in retrospect.

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Sociologist Kurzman addresses five familiar sets of explanations about why the Iranian revolution took place--political, organizational, cultural, economic, and military arguments--and finds each valuable but flawed, offering instead an 'anti-explanation' that foregrounds anomaly and characterizes the revolutionary moment as confusing, unstable, and as unpredictable for participants as it is for outside observers. Despite this, optimism is in order; there is, after all, exciting potential in moments in which the unthinkable suddenly becomes thinkable. -- Brendan Driscoll Booklist 20040215 When Elias Canetti, the Nobel-prize winning theorist, spoke of a people's 'propensity to incendiarism,' he had in mind one of the most dangerous traits of mass gatherings: their potential for unpredictable combustibility. Iran's Islamic revolution, like many other uprisings, was a consummate instance of this, Kurzman argues, and he continues in Canetti's tradition by using the Shah's overthrow to engage in his own meditation on crowds and power. Kurzman's investigation propelled him to the Islamic republic, where he conducted countless interviews, in an attempt to chart the eddies and undercurrents of one of the world's most complex and sudden social upheavals...The result is a thought-provoking combination of journalism and analysis that offers an atypical juxtaposition of voices: shopkeepers, lawyers and high school students share their views on what happened, as do academics and policymakers. Publishers Weekly 20040419 [Kurzman's] book examines the Islamic revolution in the light of social sciences. It is a valuable insight into what he considers one of the most far-reaching events of the 20th century. -- Shusha Guppy Times Higher Education Supplement 20041105 Charles Kurzman has presented a meticulous anatomy of the Iranian revolution and has dexterously treated the anomalies usually inherent in revolutions...The author shifts through revolution theories and shows with pages and pages of documentation and references how they related to the Iranian revolution or missed it. Kurzman's opus is certainly a valuable contribution to the historiography and sociological analysis of an important revolution of our age that led to a large scale politicization of Islam in those parts of the world where this religion prevailed. -- Syfi Tashan Journal of Third Word Studies Charles Kurzman has produced the definitive account of the Islamic Revolution. No serious historian can write about these events without consulting his 10-page essay on available source material in The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Middle East Quarterly 20070401

About the Author

Charles Kurzman is Associate Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sociology Gives Up explaining the Iranian Revolution? 9 Jun 2004
By Tron Honto - Published on
Working within a relatively small timeframe (1977-1979), Kurzman methodically examines five explanatory paradigms which have hitherto been mobilized to explain the success of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Emplotting each paradigm on a brisk narrative of the revolution itself, he begins with the political explanations (attributing the revolution to increased liberalization), organizational explanations (focusing on mosque and university networks), cultural explanations (pointing to the utilization of 40 day martyrdom mourning cycle as a means of sustaining protest), economic explanations (citing the gridlock caused by the nation-wide strikes in key industries), and military explanations (pointing to the feeble attempts of the Shah's forces to restore state control). Each of these he finds inadequate and only some completely false. At best, an explanation remains partial but not compelling for the whole. Moreover, they demonstrate a consistent occurrence of the `inversion of cause and effect', e.g., student mobilization created the utility of the mosque networks, mobilization led to the state's economic crisis, not vice versa.
Kurzman attempts to cut the Gordian knot by offering his own `anti-explanation'-namely, the revolution succeeded when it become viable in the minds of its core constituents. This `anti-explanation', he asserts, is non-predictive because it depends on the anomalous nature of the agency of social actors. What is left for the sociologist is to strive for an understanding of a peculiar, unique event.
This deconstructive enterprise is essentially a treatise against retroactive prediction that argues rather for sociological reconstructions of historical events rather an attempt to derive patterns for the sake of being able to predict when future, nascent revolutions are about to occur. Kurzman unconsciously it seems has merely constructed an argument for the values of social-history over sociology as such. Where his novel, so-called `anti-explanation' differs from what we call `history' eludes me.
Overall, the writing in the book is fluid, lucid and accompanied by a nice balance of anecdote and analysis. His usage of jargon is sparse and rare-limited mostly to a few quotes from famous sociologists such as Bourdieu and Parsons. He demonstrates a familiarity with Persian culture and language that manifests itself in many subtle ways through the work. General readers, historians and sociologists will find this book an immensely rewarding study.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A dispassionate voice that Iranians will ignore at their peril 30 Aug 2005
By Ak Atri - Published on
Kurzman's research is thorough, systematic and dispassionate. He demolishes the Economic arguments many of the leftists have marshalled in explaining the root causes of Revolution. He does so by recourse to Macroeconomic data and comparative analysis of similar economies.

He is equally convincing when he argues against the supposed inefficiency of State suppression under the Shah; the armed forces were not so much ineffective in the act of suppression as 'being overwhelmed' by the magnitude of the insurrection. The proponents of this discourse have according to Kurzman not seen the logic of the Shahs carrot and stick approach.

On cultural issues too he takes to task the discourse of the `Mosque network' as the activists godsend for mobilising a largely religious and devout people. He argues convincingly that even by as late as summer of 1978 many of the Mullahs were either non-committal or at least cowed by the potential wrath of the system

The conclusion that Kurzman draws and- one that I still do not share so readily- is that there is no explanation for this Revolution. At least there is no explanation that can withstand the critical scrutiny of dispassionate academic inquiry. Adequate explanations may not exist, not by virtue of their non-existence, but by the non-transparent information asymmetry that has pervaded Iranian political landscape

I would have also liked Kurzman to dedicate a chapter to the discourse that argues that the Shah had by 1953 lost all legitimacy to rule. It would have been interesting to see how a rational, academic and cerebral mind such as Kurzman's would have countered this argument.

Nevertheless I very much salute this as a sober inquiry that Iranians must take on board. Kurzman may not have convinced me of the Anti-Explanation discourse but he will most definitely have shifted the analytical paradigm. His book is extremely well written and easy to read and should appeal to Researcher and layman alike.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read for the story and its lessons - not what you'd expect. 19 May 2004
By L. F Sherman - Published on
The Iranian Revolution was totally unexpected before it happened. It is difficult to fathom this essential truth after the fact. The Shah had the military and secret service as well as wealth to put down any revolution it was assumed. In any case material progress and modernization were moving ahead to provide benefits and quell discontent. The Revolution didn't care! It came anyway. But it could not be predicted by any of the social sciences: economics, political science, sociology, etc. Nor by religion.
Kurzman, himself a Sociologist, uses each chapter to apply these disciplinary viewpoints and show their limitations in explaining events. Circumstances, and personal decisions, became crucial when enough people changed their own expectations to believe that revolution might really be possible - to think the unthinkable.. Khomeini was critical for this but as a catalyst for various grievances both liberal and revolutionary to seem to have a chance of success.
Close examination in each chapter show anomalies, confusion, lack of central control. Culture contributed but was remade in the process. Shi'a religious organization gave it some coordination and direction lacking for many other elements but can not be said to be solely responsible for the revolution.
Two important corollaries follow from this, although Kurzman makes little of either.
First the Fundamentalist Iranian Revolution is not the Bogeyman that many see. It inspired enthusiasm among some Muslims in various parts of the world but was not a model to be copied. It was not "typical" of Islam (among other things Iran was Shi'a with a somewhat unique religious elite unlike Ulema or Sufis elsewhere). There were many motives and supporters that were practical and not `religious'. US antipathy is more a knee jerk reaction than based on understanding of Iran or of Islam.
Also it is clear that the various social sciences and traditional approaches to explaining revolution need History - each situation is unique and "unthinkable" before it happens; there exist not sufficient "laws" to predict revolution. None of the disciplinary approaches hold together without history too.
Kurzman's book is interesting therefore in numerous ways: the description of the Revolution; the acts and thoughts of individual participants; the anomalies and limitations of causation theory of various social sciences. The policy implications are consequential and should not be ignored.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good book 23 Jun 2009
By mark mchugh - Published on
First class, possibly classic, study of the revolution. Incisive, thought-provoking and a host of other complementary adjectives, it's even a bit of a page turner - at least for the Iran history-buff. Academics may find themselves lonesome for jargon and convoluted prose but they can take heart in the footnotes, which are unparalleled in their thoroughness, making the book a veritable bibliography for students of the revolution. The text is only 172 pages but has another 100+ devoted to sources, bibliography and index.

One caveat: This is a book about the overthrow of the monarchy. If you want dissection of the important events in the years after the shah's ouster that transformed Iran into an Islamic Republic under the principle of clerical rule, you'll have to look elsewhere.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Join the Crowd 9 Jan 2013
By R. L. Huff - Published on
All revolutions are "unthinkable" until they happen: in this way, Iran's literally joined the crowd. One recalls Louis XVI of France, befuddled at the noise of the Bastille drifting into the Palace, asking the Duke of Rochefoucald: "Is this a revolt?" And receiving the reply, "No, sire, it's a revolution." Charles Kurzman seeks to explore this confusion, reiterating the old charge that revolutions amount to kicking down a rotten door.

Kurzman wields an easy expertise on both Iran of the period and the literature on collective action. Like Michael Melancon's study of the February 1917 revolution in Russia, and Lawrence Goodwyn's study of Polish Solidarity in 1980, Kurzman looks at Iran's "breakthrough moment" in 1978 and rediscovers the role of spontaneity in making that moment happen. "Making the scene" becomes a rational motive force. This is substantiated in my own limited experience with Iranians. I personally recall an Iranian student in the US, just off the phone with his brother who was part of the mass demonstrations outside the US Embassy, describing it as a "big party" where "everyone was coming out against imperialism." Within 48 hours, swept by their own momentum, the party got down to business and the Embassy's occupants had become more than symbolic targets.

Yet in recreating spontaneity as a motive - "everybody's doing it" - Kurzman comes to rather opposite conclusions than Melancon. It took grass roots socialist anti-war activists in Russia more than a year of hard organizing and underground agitation - even with the regime floundering in war - to push the right button. This history of dedicated minority activism by a few was necesary before the movement could catch on, while regime repression was an equally requisite catalyst. We see this also in Kurzman's description of Iranian events, as well as the necessary spade work by the mosque activists prior to the mass demonstrations. A consensus is created that things can't go on like this, we're not going to take it anymore, this is the time, and pent-up grievances are released in a special moment: a spark, perhaps dramatically symbolized by one man setting himself on fire as in Tunisia, or a longtime agitator like Lech Walesa jumping the gates at the Gdansk shipyards. All of which shows that revolutionary movements do not *originate* in spontaneity and confusion, but in the grunt work of a committed few and a long list of social resentments whose accumulated pressure finally springs a leak in the dikes of state. Afterward, as in France, "the deluge."

So I must agree that Kurzman's "anti-explanation" is somewhat of a backflip: things happened because they happened. But - as we've recently seen in the Arab Spring - they don't *just* happen, and don't have to succeed. When they do it's not only from a crowd looking for action - a "big party" - but a dedicated core animated by a vision of who they are and what they want, an opposing regime that's lost its way, and a sense of grievance that has at last found its voice. Lenin said that "history is made only where there are millions." Yet history would have been quite different without he or Khomeini on the scene. Such leaders and their core followers become embedded in horizontal relationships with "the crowd," thus making their assumptions of power much more than mere coups or "hijacking."

That most people usually jump into these "springtimes" when the weather's fine is a constant of human nature. They're the field of flowers. But it's a dedicated few who are the true seeds of change. It's up to these to plant themselves so deeply in their native soil that no regime can eradicate them, to sprout in just the right season.
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