October 6, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 417

The Ongoing Battle Between Modernity And Tradition In Iran

October 6, 2022 | By Anna Mahjar-Barducci*
Iran | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 417


An ideological battle is taking place in Iran. The main challenge that Iran has been facing since the 1979 Islamic Revolution is the confrontation between tradition and modernity.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran from the Revolution until his death in 1989, understood the challenge and tried to find a compromise between the two.[1] However, he believed that when modernity becomes a synonym for liberalism and for Western civilization then it should be simply rejected. Khomeini stated:"If by 'the manifestations of civilization and innovations' they mean inventions and new products and advanced technology that contribute to the progress of man and his civilization, the idea has never been, nor it will ever be opposed by Islam or any other divine religion. On the contrary, Islam and the Holy Qur'an stress the value of science, learning and technology. But if 'civilization and modernity' is to be interpreted according to the terminology of some professional intellectuals who define it as liberty to engage in religiously prohibited acts, including prostitution and even homosexual relations and the like, then I can only say that this idea is going to be invariably opposed by all divine religions and people, however, the West and East may advocate the idea and propagate these same practices in their blindfold adherence to conventionalism."[2]

Ayatollah Khomeini (Source:

Khomeini And Dugin's Rehabilitation Of Tradition

In this sense, Khomeini's ideas of modernity have affinity to those of anti-liberal Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, whose views have been hailed in the Islamic Republic. Dugin classified three political theories in order of appearance that characterized the 20th century: liberalism (the first theory), communism (the second theory), and fascism (the third theory). Fascism emerged as the last of the other major political theories and disappeared before them, and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the victory of liberalism over communism. Thus, by the end of the 20th century, liberalism remained the only theory standing. Nevertheless, Dugin believes that liberalism itself has become increasingly decadent.

Hence, according to the Russian philosopher, a "Fourth Political Theory" is needed. "If we reject the laws of modernity such as progress, development, equality, justice, freedom, nationalism, and all of this legacy of the three centuries of philosophy and political history, then there is a choice," Dugin explains about the shaping of the fourth political theory. [3]

According to Dugin, the option to be taken is "the global rehabilitation of Tradition, the sacred, the religious... The hierarchy, rather than equality, justice, or freedom." He explains that modernity and progress have turned into a totalitarian ideology, in which there is no longer room for tradition. "The idea that we only need to move forward – this idea came together with modernity... imposed on us for 300 years, and told us that... Development is everything, and everything that came before was bad whereas now everything is good. We are programmed by this totalitarian ideology of progress, development, liberating, or improving humanity's material criteria which, although true, becomes only a restricting factor when we reject the spirit and when everything for us must be here and now," Dugin says.[4]

In the case of the Islamic Republic, the regime does not need to look for a "fourth political theory," as political Islam is already an ideology based on tradition that is able to confront the "three political theories." "We are fighting against international communism to the same degree that we are fighting against the Western world," Khomeini had said.[5] Furthermore, for the Ayatollah, if modernity means following the Western values obsessed with the idea that "everything for us must be here and now," then, as it happened with the "Pahlavi regime," the society ends up pursuing corruption and prostitution, as a form of moral corruption. "This is what they want from civilization. They want this kind of freedom! They want Western freedom. And that means to have men and women naked together... This is the civilization that men want! This is a civilization that was imposed on our country under the former [Pahlavi] regime... That's the freedom they want. That kind of freedom! To gamble and get naked together," Khomeini stressed.[6]

End Of History

Explaining Dugin's ideas on tradition and on Russia's role in protecting it, Canadian scholar Michael Millerman wrote that Russia "positions itself as a defender of traditional morality against the West's postmodern opposition to Christian values. And it declaims the excesses of Western political correctness in such areas as gender politics, concluding that liberalism is 'obsolete.' This ideological orientation reflects a conservative, traditionalist stance, as distinct from postmodern, progressive liberal individualism."[7] In the same way, the Islamic Republic also positions itself as a defender of traditional morality, which it considers to be meeting the needs of human society. "I believe in traditional fiqh [i.e., Islamic jurisprudence]... [and] do not permit any violation of it," Khomeini said.[8]

Despite Khomeini's plans and successful regional efforts, Iran has not managed to fully export the Islamic revolution to the world and to defy liberalism. To the contrary, as Dugin stresses, in 1991, liberalism won over all the other ideologies. After the fall of the Soviet Union, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote the book "The End of History and the Last Man," predicting that liberal democracy will prevail as a permanent order. Fukuyama translated the "end of history" as the "end of the ideological evolution of mankind and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."[9] Yet, Dugin opines that the "end of history" has not yet materialized, since the competition with the West is not over.

Nevertheless, the protests taking place in Tehran have reopened the debate about the end of history. Recently, Iranian human rights activist Masih Alinejad compared the compulsory hijab to the Berlin wall. "If we tear this wall down, the Islamic republic will not exist," Alinejad stated.[10] Commenting on her statement, the current Supreme Leader Khamenei seemed nervous and irritated about the analogy with the Berlin wall, which symbolizes the collapse of the Soviet Union (therefore of communism, defined by Dugin as the second political theory) and the "victory" of liberalism. "The truth came out when the hijab was compared to the Berlin Wall. You should be aware of the reason why of this comparison was made. This is beyond just the solidarity of a young girl. You should have known! If you did not realize, you must realize it now! And if you already know you must take a stance now!"[11]

Hence, if the Islamic Republic is going to collapse as the Soviet Union did, would this be a confirmation that the end of history is indeed going to materialize, and that liberal democracy will prevail as a permanent order? The Iranian protests are much bigger than mere demonstrations against the headscarf or against autocracy. This is an ideological battle. If the Iranians succeeds in toppling down the Islamic republic, then political Islam is going to collapse, and liberalism will take a step forward toward its final victory.


However, many intellectuals in the West believe that the values of liberalism (which have become increasingly progressive) and the moral aspects of the modern world (which moved already to the post-modern one) have been exhausted, showing its limits and contradictions.

In his book, The Demon In Democracy, Polish philosopher and politician Ryszard Legutko even compared communism to today's "liberal democracy." "It goes without saying that everything – in both communism and liberal democracy – should be modern [i.e., against tradition]: thinking, family, school, literature, and philosophy. If a thing, a quality, an attitude, an idea is not modern, it should be modernized or will end up in the dustbin of history... Both systems generate – at least in their official ideological interpretations – a sense of liberation from the old bonds [i.e., history]... Both want the past eradicated altogether or at least made powerless as an object of relativizing or derision... In my country [Poland] at the very moment when communism fell and the liberal-democratic order was emerging, memory again became one of the main enemies. The apostles of the new order lost no time in denouncing it as a harmful burden hampering striving for modernity."[12]

The ideological war between modernity and tradition is a global one, and an important battle is taking place in Iran. Yet, if the Islamic regime collapses, this may not be the materialization of the end of history as Fukuyama described it. The recent electoral victory of Giorgia Meloni, leader of Italy's Fratelli d'Italia has shown that "traditional values" won't end up in "the dustbin of history" any time soon.

Hence, if the Iranian people will adopt (or be imposed upon by the West to adopt) progressive liberal ideals, believing that tradition can be put aside while placing on the forefront of the country's political agenda ideologies against family, spirituality/religion, and national identity, the Islamic Republic (or a lighter form of it) may come back.

The Iranian people should be aware that after the defeat of the Islamic Republic, another battle is inevitably coming: the one over the question of what ideology and political system they want to live under, and over the respective roles of tradition and modernity. History will not end with the victory over the regime.

*Anna Mahjar-Barducci is a MEMRI Senior Research Fellow.


[1], June 9, 2020.


[3], January 17, 2017.

[4], January 17, 2017.

[5], June 1980.

[6], June 9, 2020.


[9], January 17, 2017

[10], October 3, 2022.

[11], October 3, 2022.

[12] Ryszard Legutko, The Demon In Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations In Free Societies, Encounter Books New York, 2016, pp. 8-9.

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