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The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran [Paperback]

Charles Kurzman
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 6, 2005 0674018435 978-0674018433

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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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. Along the way, he takes a critical tour of canonical political and sociological theory. 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. Perhaps the most intriguing voice is Kurzman’s. His interviews and reading lead him to conclude that any historical approach that seeks to restore "20-20 hindsight" to Iran’s revolutionary movement is mistaken; "explanations in general," he decides, are problematic. Instead, he says, one should embrace history in all its specificity, and accept that anomalous behavior and confusion are norms that cannot be neatly decoded. "I propose anti-explanation," he says, coining a term that "means abandoning the project of retroactive prediction in favor of reconstructing the lived experience of the moment." Unquestionably, some readers may feel cheated by this intellectual back flip, especially since this is, unavoidably, an explanation in its own right.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

When the shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, it was something of a surprise to the CIA and the Carter administration, who as recently as October 1978 saw only a strong ruler and inconsequential protests; legacy of this intelligence failure has plagued the state department ever since. What if, however, revolutions like that which put the Ayatollah Khomeini in power were unpredictable? What if even the best intelligence misses the scent of possible uprising because even the people uprising don't know uprising is possible until they start doing it? 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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 6, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674018435
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674018433
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #735,573 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
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.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
By Ak Atri
Format:Hardcover
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.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
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'.
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