Staging A Revolution: the Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran by Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi (C&D) has a very unique and original approach in discussing the Islamic Republic (I.R.) of Iran. Topics such as: the 1979 revolution; a comparison between the Pahlavi regime and Khomeinism; post revolution rhetoric towards the Pahlavi dynasty, Israel, and the West (mainly America); Shi’ism inside Iran; and the Iran-Iraq war are all portrayed in this book through the arts. More specifically, posters, paintings, graffiti, murals, pictures, theatrical plays, movies, and artwork on stamps, money, and school books are all presented in order to provide the reader an insight into Iran through a uniquely different lens. At the onset of the book Chelkowski and Dabashi state their purpose as an “ […examination of] the massive orchestration of public myths and collective symbols in the making of the Islamic Revolution of 1978-9 in Iran and the war with Iraq that followed in between 1980 and 1988”. Thus, this book review will highlight some of the interesting and thought provoking images that C&D provide.
With the luxury and ability to examine Iran during the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s in hindsight, it is easy to conceptualize certain symbolic and mythical visual objectives that this regime had during its infancy. Of all the visuals that C&D present in this book, there appears to be three subtle nuances that the I.R. of Iran methodically sculpted into propaganda machines in order to help increase their footing and reassure their longevity. The first was their banknote, replacing the Shah’s face with Khomeini’s, adding Islamic phrases and images, including pictures of men praying and protesting allowed this new regime to constantly remind its people that their new found freedom and liberation was made possible by the leadership of Khomeini, the people’s faith, as well as their struggles. This simple, yet critical, change must have had an impact on the individual psyche of all Iranians for the sheer fact of its daily use and constant reminder.
The second subtle nuance can be seen with the I.R. of Iran stamps. A plethora of stamps is provided by C&D that capture a wide range of messages, from solidarity, to heroic individuals, to war messages, and many more. With the use of stamps as a tool to relay specific messages, the I.R. of Iran was able to tap into another source of daily life. With many dangerous and stressful events occurring as a result of the revolution and the war, and many loved ones dying, one of the best ways family and friends within Iran and abroad could stay in contact was through letters. Therefore, by the regime producing new stamps with messages of war, soldiers, Islam, and the like, they ensured that not only were their citizens constantly reminded of these current events but also the thousands of people around the world. Since Khomeini’s camp was active in spreading their revolutionary message outside of Iran, the use of stamps proved to be one method of propagation.
The third nuance and arguably the most controversial was the targeting of youth through art work, public school education, and military education. Chelkowski and Dabashi present an interesting juxtaposition between school textbooks during the Shah and during Khomeini. The authors do a great job in illustrating how important it was for the regime to educate their youth on the morals and beliefs that they (the I.R. of Iran) wanted their youth to know. This of course can be seen as an ideological factory, producing mass quantities of young revolutionaries – engraving key concepts and ideas so much that it becomes second nature – in order to guarantee that when this young generation grows up they will still support and defend their government. Furthermore, with the Iran-Iraq war, recruitment of the youth was almost the last option in order to keep the military equipped with soldiers. Therefore, many forms of art and photos can be seen depicting the young men in military attire or preparing/eager to join the fight.
Chelkowski and Dabashi’s also present an interesting view of how Ruhollah Khomeini was glorified through the visual arts during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. As it is widely known, Ayatollah Khomeini was the face of the 1979 Iranian Revolution with his anti-Shah rhetoric and his inspirational speeches that moved the masses in revolt against the Persian Monarchy. Although there are many literary works on Khomeini, there has been little iconographical research done on how much of an influence Khomeini had through the visual arts. One important fact to keep in mind is that during the 1970’s, illiteracy was very high in Iran and the best way individuals like Khomeini could reach their audience on a mass scale was through the visual arts. Therefore, understanding Khomeini through such a lens is very important and C&D provide the best known iconographical work on Khomeini. The images they provide truly captures the essence of how Khomeini was presented during and after the ’79 revolution and during the Iran-Iraq War.
Perhaps the most interesting image of Khomeini is the painting of him standing atop a rock with a serpent under his feet and a dove above his head; a painting very reminiscent of Mother Mary, which is juxtaposed to Khomeini in C&D’s book. It can be interpreted that Khomeini is portrayed to have qualities similar to Mother Mary: peaceful, kind, pious, and so on. However, among many Iranians within and outside of Iran, there are a multitude of stories that depict Khomeini as a ruthless individual against his competitors and enemies. Some of the domestic issues that were brought about against the Shah – human rights for example – Khomeini was also criticized for. Nevertheless, there were a number of paintings representing Khomeini as a protector of the people. For example standing above a crowd like a savior, or positioned as a firm figure holding the Quran (or a legal document) in triumph, while the Shah is portrayed as a defeated weak man who depended too much on the West (and especially America). In these images, Khomeini is always shown as the victor and the Shah as the loser. Although there is no arguing this, it is questionable as to why Khomeini would be portrayed as a protecting father figure when for example six out of the eight years of war against Iraq he was on the offensive and thousands upon thousands of teenage boys lost their lives for what appeared to be an empty cause. On the other hand, given the fragile state of the Islamic Republic, the regime did not want their citizens to lose confidence in their new government. If Khomeini was depicted in a negative light that could have weakened the regimes strong-hold on the nation, placed doubt within the Iranian people, and lead to further unrest and instability within the country.
That is why Khomeini was synonymous with the military, in order to present him as a man of power and unwavering leadership. For example, soldiers carried his photos and there was art work of Khomeini hovering over their baracks. In any case, the propaganda of a strong, confident, beloved and obeyed leader was needed in order to keep the movement strong, build Khomeini to an iconic level to where his successes overshadowed his shortcomings, and provide enough time to strengthen the new regime. Simultaneously, images of the West and the Shah were also propagated as being the enemy and the root cause of all the problems within Iran. C&D provide art work that depicts the Shah walking over dead Iranian bodies or being the puppet of the West (particularly America, England and Israel), and Khomeini is coming to rid their country of such a man and bring back dignity to the Iranian people.
In closing, C&D present a very telling tale of how the I.R. of Iran was able to propagate its message through the visual arts. What is more interesting is that they exercised every avenue in spreading their message. They took full advantage of any opportunity they had to further their cause and communicate their ideology. This can be seen through the examples provided above, as what I like to call the Khomeinization of the Iranian people. The aforementioned examples can be seen as a culminating message of “us against them” and perhaps more importantly a unity among all Iranians. Messages of solidarity, support, faith, and sacrifice were presented through paintings, drawings, photos, and the like – many of which showed Khomeini as the patriarchal figure. And ultimately what set Khomeini apart from his competitors, and one of the reasons why he was victorious, was his portrayal through the visual arts on a much larger scale.