Cover image for The unthinkable revolution in Iran
The unthinkable revolution in Iran
Kurzman, Charles.
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Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
ix, 287 pages ; 22 cm
Introduction -- The emergence of protest: political explanations, 1977 -- Mobilization of the mosque network: organizational explanations, Early 1978 -- Shi'i appeals: cultural explanations, Mid-1978 -- General strike: economic explanations, Fall 1978 -- Failure of the fist: military explanations, Winter 1978-1979 -- A viable movement: anti-explanation, Winter 1978-1979 -- Conclusion.
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DS318.8 .K87 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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.

Author Notes

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

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

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 Ayatollahhomeini 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? Sociologisturzman 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 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Review

The Iranian revolution not only transformed the country's sociopolitical structures; it rewrote the geopolitical map of the Middle East. In many respects, the trajectory of events that culminated in the mass uprising against the Iranian monarchy was difficult to predict. In this well-researched and informative study, sociologist Kurzman (Univ. of North Carolina) revisits the events that led to the Iranian revolution, explaining how the mosque networks were organized and how the various forces opposing the monarchical regime interacted with each other. After analyzing the prevailing political, cultural, organizational, and military explanations for the Iranian revolution, he finds major gaps in most of them and proposes an "anti-explanation," which means to abandon "the project of retroactive prediction in favor of recognizing and reconstructing the lived experiences of the moment." Appealing to both specialists and informed readers, this engaging study is highly recommended for academic and large public libraries.-Nader Entessar, Spring Hill Coll., Mobile, AL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Sociologist Kurzman (Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) explains that in less than one generation, Western scholars have offered a variety of political, organizational, cultural, economic, and military causes for the 1979 Iranian revolution. He carefully examines each one of these and concludes that they are only partially valid. As a social scientist, Kurzman believes that revolutions cannot be predicted; in the chaos surrounding a revolution, "revolutionaries themselves don't know what is going to happen, and their behaviors are responses to this confusion." Consequently, he proposes an "anti-explanation" that puts anomaly in the foreground. "Anti-explanation," he writes, "means abandoning the project of retroactive prediction in favor of reconstructing the lived experience of the moment." Kurzman maintains that in Iran, "so long as revolution remained 'unthinkable,' it remained undoable. It could come to pass only when large numbers of people began to 'think the unthinkable.'" The author's research is solid and his thesis provides an intellectual challenge both for social scientists and historians that will continue to fascinate and engage both disciplines for many years to come (and this predication too is questionable). The book provides a fresh and new dimension on a subject that despite having been examined thoroughly, still has many unexplored areas. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. N. Rassekh Lewis and Clark College

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
1 Introductionp. 1
2 The Emergence of Protest: Political Explanations, 1977p. 12
3 Mobilization of the Mosque Network: Organizational Explanations, Early 1978p. 33
4 Shi'i Appeals: Cultural Explanations, Mid-1978p. 50
5 General Strike: Economic Explanations, Fall 1978p. 77
6 Failure of the Fist: Military Explanations, Winter 1978-1979p. 105
7 A Viable Movement: Anti-Explanation, Winter 1978-1979p. 125
8 Conclusionp. 163
About the Sourcesp. 175
Notesp. 187
Referencesp. 239
Acknowledgmentsp. 281
Indexp. 283