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Bazargan, Mehdi

By:
H. E. Chehabi, Manochehr Dorraj
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Bazargan, Mehdi

Mehdi Bazargan (1907–1995) was an Iranian Muslim modernist and reformer, one of the major voices of the Islamic opposition both before and after the Islamic revolution. He was born into a religious family of bazaar merchants. His elementary and secondary education in Tehran combined the secular state curriculum with traditional Qurʿānic learning. In 1928 he went to France on a state scholarship, graduating in 1934 from the École Centrale in Paris. He returned to Iran in 1935, and after a year of military service worked at the National Bank and joined the engineering faculty of Tehran University. In the early 1940s he began collaborating with Sayyid Maḥmūd Tālqānī, a critical cleric who tried to counter the hegemonic secularism among educated Iranians by offering a progressive reading of Islam. A strong believer in associational life and group endeavors, beginning in 1941 Bazargan was instrumental in establishing various Islamic organizations, including Muslim student associations and the Islamic Association of Engineers.

An ardent patriot, Bazargan was drawn to Mohammad Mossadegh 's nationalist cause and collaborated with the National Front government. After briefly holding the post of deputy minister of education, he was appointed head of the committee that supervised the nationalization of Iranian oil and subsequently became the first chairman of the board of directors of the National Iranian Oil Company. That task accomplished, he was named director of the Tehran Water Authority, overseeing the provision of drinking water to the capital 's inhabitants.

After the downfall of Mossadegh in the coup d ’état of 1953, Bazargan joined the National Resistance Movement (Nahzat-i Muqāvamat-i Millī, NRM), a clandestine organization of lower-ranking Mossadeghists who tried to keep his movement alive while its top leaders were in jail. For this he was arrested in the spring of 1955 and jailed for a few months. Bazargan went back to teaching, but when the NRM was crushed in 1957, he went to jail for another eight months. Between 1960 and 1962 repression lessened somewhat in Iran, and Mossadeghists became active again. Bazargan and a few friends, most importantly Ayatollah Ṭāleqāni and Yad Allāh Saḥābī, used the opportunity to found the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI) (now called Freedom Movement of Iran) in 1961, hoping to join the reconstituted National Front as its Islamic component. But in January 1963 all oppositionist activity was ended by the shah, and the entire LMI leadership was imprisoned. Between 1963 and 1977, Bazargan was sentenced to several short prison terms for his political activities.

When the shah again undertook to liberalize his regime in 1977, Bazargan and other leading oppositionists founded the Iranian Committee for the Defense of Freedom and Human Rights to defend the democratic rights of the opposition, and Bazargan became its chairman. Throughout 1978 Bazargan played an active role in the revolutionary movement that would topple the shah. In an attempt to persuade Ayatollah Khomeini to be more conciliatory, he traveled to Paris in October to meet him, but achieved little. In spite of their disagreements, Khomeini in December named him head of a delegation to negotiate with striking oil workers so as to persuade them to pump enough oil to heat Iranian homes. This task accomplished, he was named prime minister of the provisional government on February 4, 1979. Throughout his tenure he complained of powerlessness and the interference of revolutionary organizations, and he resigned in protest against the seizure of the American embassy on November 4, 1979. Bazargan was also a member of the Council of the Islamic Revolution and was elected to the first parliament in 1980 as a deputy for Tehran. In the early 1980s, when the Islamic Republic launched a major assault on the opposition, Bazargan 's LMI was the only political group that escaped suppression. Although tolerated as a loyal opposition, LMI members were often imprisoned and harassed. He remained general secretary of the LMI until his death in 1995.

Throughout his political career Bazargan attempted to prove that Islam was compatible with the modern world and his own democratic aspirations, and his politics represented a synthesis of nationalism, gradualism, liberalism, and Islam. These attributes distinguished him from most of the clergy, including Khomeini, but also from radical Islamists such as ʿAlī Sharīʿatī, who tended to emphasize social justice rather than freedom. Whereas Sharīʿatī 's firebrand rhetoric galvanized the youth and Khomeini articulated the resentment of the underprivileged and the traditional social groups, Bazargan 's appeal was confined to more enlightened members of the traditional middle class. By the time the revolutionary mass movement erupted, Bazargan 's political reformism was out of step with the revolutionary fervor of the masses. Bazargan 's liberalism and gradualism had a wider appeal in the 1950s, when Mossadegh 's liberalism and his parliamentary method of political struggle captured the imagination of the postwar generation. But by the mid-1960s and early 1970s, because of the radicalizing impact of such global events as the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban revolutions on Iranian youth, Bazargan 's reformist political program and his liberal rendition of Islam seemed increasingly irrelevant to them.

During the shah 's rule, Bazargan 's attempt to modernize and politicize Islam was intended to create an Islamic alternative to monarchy, but the monopolization of power by the clergy since 1981 and the restrictions on democratic rights that began thereafter put him in the opposition camp once again. This time his pluralist interpretation of Islam opposed the totalitarian tendencies of the Islamic Republic. Prior to the 1979 revolution, in his attempt to politicize Muslims, Bazargan emphasized the unity of politics and religion; in the postrevolutionary era, however, his interpretation increasingly depicted Islam as a private faith whose primary purpose was salvation. Calling for separation of religious institutions from the state, he asserted that interference of the state in matters of personal faith would lead to theocratic despotism. Bazargan opposed any monolithic interpretation of Islam and advocated popular participation and public sovereignty. These ideological attributes establish him as one of the major voices of Islamic liberalism in post–World War II Iran.

See also IRANIAN REVOLUTION OF 1979; FREEDOM MOVEMENT OF IRAN; MUṭAHHARī, MURTAZ̤ā; and ṬāLEQāNI, MAḥMUD.

Bibliography

  • Barzin, Saeed. “Constitutionalism and Democracy in the Religious Ideology of Mehdi Bazargan.”British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies21, no. 1 (1994): 85–101.
  • Bazargan, Mehdi. Bāzyābī-i arzishhā. Tehran, Iran, 1983. Provides an interesting perspective on the evolution of Bazargan 's Islamic modernism.
  • Bazargan, Mehdi. Inqilāb-i īrān dar dū ḥarakat. Tehran, Iran, 1984. Analysis of the Iranian Revolution and the postrevolutionary situation, from the political perspective of the Liberation Movement of Iran.
  • Bazargan, Mehdi. Mudāfaʿāt dar dādgāh-i ghayr-i ṣāliḥ-i tajdīd-i naz̤ar-i niz̤āmī. Tehran, Iran, 1971. Good biographical source on Bazargan 's personal life and political career.
  • Chehabi, H. E.Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism: The Liberation Movement of Iran under the Shah and Khomeini. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990.
  • Chehabi, H. E.“The Provisional Government and the Transition from Monarchy to Islamic Republic in Iran.” In Between States: Interim Governments and Democratic Transitions, edited by Yossi Shain and Juan J. Linz, pp. 127–143, 278–281. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.
  • Jahanbakhsh, Forough. Islam, Democracy, and Religious Modernism in Iran: From Bazargan to Sorush, 1953–2000. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston, 2001.
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