Volume 21: The Impact of Religious Ideology on the Behavior of the Armed Forces toward Popular Demonstrations: The Case of Iran16 May 2016
by Hamoon Khelghat-Doost
The reaction of authoritarian statesÔÇÖ armed forces towards popular demonstrations against the state has been an issue of argument among many scholars. Conventionally, it was expected that armed forces remain loyal to an authoritarian state during a crisis. However, this expectation has been widely challenged in a series of domestic crises in several countries around the world where armed forces have backed down from supporting the authoritarian states in the face of popular demonstrations. Lee (2009) highlights the issue of ÔÇ£intra-military conflictÔÇØ which ultimately leads to ÔÇ£marginalized officers (losers) either entering into a pact with the domestic opposition or acquiring foreign support to act against the regime.ÔÇØ This argument was well illustrated in the crises of the Philippines (1986) and Indonesia (1998).
In parallel with this argument, there have been a number of cases in which the armed forces remained cohesive in defending the authoritarian states against popular demonstrations. The uprisings in China (1989), South Korea (1980) and Iran (2009) were successfully repressed by the authoritarian stateÔÇÖs armed forces. In these scenarios, for various reasons, the intra-military conflict was avoided at all levels of the armed forces and the pact between marginalized officers and the opposition was prevented.
This paper seeks to answer the question of what the possible positive impacts of religious ideology are on the cohesiveness of armed forces in confronting popular demonstrations. To answer this question, it is hypothesized that more religiously-bound armed forces remain more cohesive against popular demonstrations than those less religiously-bound.
The plausibility of this theory will be built upon examining the impacts of ShiÔÇÖa religious ideology on the cohesiveness of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its paramilitary wing of Basij in Iran in confronting popular demonstrations of 2009 in comparison to the reaction of the secular Imperial Iranian Army to the popular demonstrations of 1979 which led to the collapse of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
Military doctrine plays a vital role in the structure and function of any armed force. Military doctrine is defined by NATO (2008) as ÔÇ£a formal expression of military knowledge and thought, that the army accepts as being relevant at a given time, which covers the nature of conflict, the preparation of the army for conflict, and the method of engaging in conflict to achieve success.ÔÇØ Choosing between the conventional offensive or defensive doctrines can fundamentally change the strategies, tactics and function of an armed force on a holistic level. An extensive body of literature is available on the elements which shape and affect a certain military doctrine. One of the most important of these, which will also be a focal point in this paper, is the role of culture and ideology on military doctrines. In her book, Imagining War (1997), Elizabeth Kier expresses the importance of culture in a ÔÇ£totalÔÇØ institution (e.g. army) in defining ÔÇ£its membersÔÇÖ status, identity and interactions with others.ÔÇØ Through a long period of training, the ÔÇ£civilian identity,ÔÇØ functions and vocabulary of the armed force personnel will be altered to pursue a specific ÔÇ£organizational culture.ÔÇØ The importance of culture (including religious ideologies as important components of culture) in the behavior of the armed forces is emphasized in the works of several scholars including Katzenstein (1996) and Legro (1994). ÔÇ£Instead of individuals changing cultures, the reverse is usually the case: people are socialized by the beliefs that dominate the organizations of which they are partÔÇØ (Legro, 1994).
In line with this argument, ÔÇÿconvictionÔÇÖ plays an important role in achieving and institutionalizing this change of culture among army personnel. This is even more important for armed forces which are built upon certain ideologies. In one of his speeches in 1972, General Andrei Grechko, the Soviet Union Minister of Defense, indicated that ÔÇ£the first and foremost requirement of officers is to be ideologically convinced.ÔÇØ This ideological conviction as Gabriel (1978) explains ÔÇ£is also the core element which produces cohesion within the military unit.ÔÇØ It is also essential to realize that these ideologies are not isolated sets of thoughts and beliefs made only for army personnel. Indeed, these ideologies are extensions of the dominating ideologies and social norms in the societies where these armed forces function. The types of ideologies utilized in securing the cohesiveness of the armed forces vary as well. While the Soviet army was implementing Marxist ideologies within the Red Army, there were/are several countries and organizations which use religion as the ideological backbone of their armed forces. The power of religious ideology in increasing the cohesiveness of the armed forces in confronting domestic and foreign threats is an interesting phenomenon that is worthy of discussion. This is especially important in parts of the world where religion plays a central role at all levels of social norms and orders such as the Middle East.
Cohesion is defined by the National Defense Research Institute (2010) as ÔÇ£shared commitment among members to achieve a goal that requires the collective efforts of the group.ÔÇØ Several elements can positively affect cohesion within an armed force such as trust, care, concern, equal treatment of the personnel, pride or foreign threats (Henderson, 1985). However, the role of religious ideology in maintaining the cohesiveness of armed forces is less discussed in the current literature. Hewstone and Cairns (2001) argue that ÔÇ£ideological indoctrination proves to be an efficient tool in fostering the creation of militias, as it helps leaders to develop mechanisms of coercion and domination, to push people toward violent action, and to establish an ally-enemy mentality.ÔÇØ This is particularly relevant in cases where the armed force is developed from an initial militia group. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij of Iran are such armed forces with asymmetric defense as their main military doctrine. Asymmetric defense is defined by the US Department of Defense as a ÔÇ£broad and unpredictable spectrum of military, paramilitary, and information operations, conducted by nations, organizations, or individuals or by indigenous or surrogate forces under their control, specifically targeting weaknesses and vulnerabilities within an enemy government or armed forceÔÇØ (Kolodzie, 2001; 16).
In line with this argument, Parsa (2001) emphasizes the role of ideology to ÔÇ£provide concrete tactical and strategic advantagesÔÇØ for armed forces. These advantages can be manipulated by ideologically bound armed forces such as the IRGC and Basij to confront popular demonstrations through ÔÇ£strategic use of symbols and other cultural references as a way of mobilizing groups and masses to commit violence and undertake military actionÔÇØ (Ugarriza and Craig, 2013). The devotion of the IRGC and Basij personnel to Islamic ShiÔÇÖa ideologies instead of any social or political class has created a strong sense of cohesion among them to confront any form of domestic social unrest.
The idea of establishing cohesively loyal armed forces is not a new phenomenon in the Middle East. Horowitz (1985) argues that Middle Eastern rulers mostly pursue this idea by ÔÇ£the exploitation of family, ethnic, and religious loyaltiesÔÇØ and ÔÇ£the creation of parallel militaries that counterbalance regular military forces.ÔÇØ Distributing material incentives (Makara, 2013) among the armed force members was also among one of the other common coup-proofing strategies adopted by these regimes. At the same time Hertog (2011) describes the overall approach of the Arab states of the Middle East towards armed forces with the following: ÔÇ£military budgets are huge, the security forces often fragmented and shot through with informal patronage, and senior ranks include many members of the ruling families.ÔÇØ Meanwhile, a majority of the Middle Eastern states (especially those of the Persian Gulf) such as Iran, Iraq, UAE or Saudi Arabia are ÔÇ£rentier states with oil incomes being the predominant contributor to government funds. The capacity to exploit oil revenues ensures that the state is not compelled to acquire revenue internallyÔÇØ (Alexander, 2011). This has provided these states with massive revenues that are invested in military equipment and training. Being financially independent from external aid, their armed forcesÔÇÖ level of compliance to international pressures and regulations are significantly less than countries such as Egypt, Yemen or Bangladesh.
The main objective behind adopting various strategies for having a loyal, cohesive armed force in the Middle East was traditionally to reduce the chance of a military coup against the ruling regime. The significant reduction of coups in the Middle East since the 1970s (Algeria being an exception) (Kamrava, 2000) proves the success of the current rulers of the Middle East in defusing coups through their coup-proofing strategies. Nevertheless, the authoritarian states of the Middle East are now facing a much stronger threat than military coups – popular uprisings. The Arab Spring clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of most Middle Eastern authoritarian states in confronting popular demonstrations in comparison with military coups. Although scholars such as Makara (2013) and Bellin (2004) expand the scope of coup- proofing concepts to both preventing coups and defending the state against popular demonstrations, the latter part is relatively less debated and discussed in the current literature.
The relatively rapid collapse of authoritarian states in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, and the passive role of the armed forces in supporting the regimes suggest the opening of a new chapter of threats for the authoritarian states in the Middle East. ÔÇ£Military behavior during the Arab Spring thus suggests that not all coup-proofing strategies are equally effective at maintaining civilian control over a regimeÔÇÖs security apparatusÔÇØ (Maraka, 2013). At the same time, the rapid collapse of these states are in stark contrast with the triumph of the Iran in confronting the popular demonstrations of 2009, as well as the relative success of AssadÔÇÖs regime in remaining in office despite several years of intense civil war. It clearly demonstrates that the armed forces of these two regimes are relatively better prepared and capable of confronting popular demonstrations. IranÔÇÖs situation in the Middle East is particularly important as this country is not only an ethnic minority (consisting mostly of Persians) in the region but also a religious minority (ShiÔÇÖism). What makes IranÔÇÖs military doctrine different from other Middle Eastern countries is its ability to successfully incorporate ShiÔÇÖa ideologies at all levels of its parallel armed forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij. A similar approach can be traced in the current military doctrine of AssadÔÇÖs regime (which consists of the religious and ethnic minority Alawites) of Syria as well.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as Taheri (2007) explains ÔÇ£is a unique beast. It is an army answerable to no one but Wali-Faghih (Guardian of the Islamic Jurist) and the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.ÔÇØ Their cohesiveness, the responsibility of restoring order in the main cities of Iran in the event of an uprising rests on the IRGC and Basij. This was seen during the uprising of 2009 when the IRGC and Basij repressed millions of demonstrators on the streets of Tehran and several other major Iranian cities. The religious/ideological background of the IRGC and their loyalty to the religious doctrine of the regime and the Wali-Faghih (Guardian of the Islamic Jurist) have turned them into a cohesive armed force against any anti-state movement. The rise of Iran as an influential regional military power and the cohesiveness of its armed forces in repressing popular uprisings might be better understood through the study of the religious ideology of IranÔÇÖs armed forces during the two important periods before and after the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Iran before the Revolution: The Iranian Imperial Army
Traditionally, the army was one of the fundamental social institutions in Iran -especially during the Pahlavi dynasty (the last monarch dynasty of Iran). Reza Shah – the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, was the army officer who led a successful coup against the government of the Qajar dynasty in 1921, thus becoming the strongest man in Iran until 1925 when he dissolved the Qajar dynasty and anointed himself as the new Shah of Iran by establishing the Pahlavi dynasty. His strong belief in the effectiveness of a central government through forceful means is assumed to be the main drive behind the establishment of IranÔÇÖs modern army during his rule.
As Richards and Waterbury (1990) argue, the Pahlavi dynasty ÔÇ£came to power by way of military coup, thus the Shah’s main pillar of support was the armed forces.ÔÇØ For this reason, the tradition of developing and modernizing the Iranian Imperial Army (IIA) was also strongly followed by Reza ShahÔÇÖs successor (his son) Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi until the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The boost in petroleum revenues in the 1970s enabled Iran to increase its military purchases significantly and created the most sophisticated army in the Middle East (after Israel). Furthermore, the flow of military equipment to Iran was only stopped by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. As Ward (2009) argues, ÔÇ£Should the orders have been completed Iran would have been the undisputed great-power in the region and would have had the world’s third most powerful military.ÔÇØ
However, the sophisticated Iranian Imperial Army declared its neutrality upon facing the popular uprisings of Iranians against the Pahlavi regime in 1979. This is considered to be the primary factor facilitating the collapse of the Shah in the same year. The ShahÔÇÖs main strategy in commanding the army was to restrict army involvement in the political process while using them as an effective tool to protect his regime against both domestic and foreign threats. For this matter, loyalty to the Shah was inserted in the military oath of the army personnel in any rank. At the same time, the slogan of ÔÇ£Khoda, Shah, MihanÔÇØ (God, Shah and Motherland) became the most commonly used phrase within the Iranian army. As Hashim (2012) explains, ÔÇ£the Shah wanted to spend lavishly on the military; he saw threats everywhere, and arms imports ensured the loyalty of the officer corps.ÔÇØ For that reason, the Shah of Iran adopted a Weberian patrimonial approach by ÔÇ£dispensing offices and benefits to subordinates in return for loyalty, support and servicesÔÇØ (Weber, 1978) through placing ÔÇ£family members in key commands and lavished patronage upon senior officers to buy their loyalty in the armyÔÇØ (Rubin, 2008).
Simultaneously, as Migdal (2001) explains, ÔÇ£Agencies of the state, such as the army, may themselves pose threats to state leaders,ÔÇØ and therefore, like many other authoritarian states, the Shah of Iran was also in favor of divide-and-rule strategies to control the army. As Arjomand (1988) argues, the ShahÔÇÖs fear of coups was the main reason for his appointing “personal enemies alternately in the chain of commandÔÇØ to prevent them from acting against him. Although this strategy was effective in preventing the coups, it failed in sustaining his regime against the revolution of 1979.
The ShahÔÇÖs patrimonial approach together with the secularization of the army eventually marginalized the more religious low/mid ranked officers of the army and created an avenue for pro-Ayatollah Khomeini groups to form a pact with such marginalized officers. To better understand the role of the Iranian army personnelÔÇÖs religious beliefs in abandoning the Shah and joining Ayatollah Khomeini, it is important to first understand that the organizational texture of the Iranian army has always been disintegrated and non-uniform. The Iranian Imperial Army consisted of the two main groups of fulltime professional personnel and those who were attending their compulsory two years military service (conscripts). The latter group made up 70% of the Iranian armyÔÇÖs personnel. The financial benefits of serving the army were mostly for fulltime, highly- ranked personnel while the majority of the army benefited poorly from these incentives. While professional army personnel were enjoying incentives such as adequate salaries, free healthcare, free education and free accommodation, the conscripts were paid almost nothing for their entire two years of service in the army (Sullivan, 1981).
Apart from that, a majority of the conscripts belonged to the lower social classes of Iranian society and joined the army from remote villages or small cities from around the country. In 1970s Iran, ShiÔÇÖa religious institutions and networks were extremely strong in villages and smaller cities. Although the Shah had repressed all other civil institutions such as political parties and social movements, the institution of ShiÔÇÖa Islam was the only institution untouched by the regime as the Shah treasured his status of being the only ShiÔÇÖa monarch in the world. While he was running intense secularization and economic reforms throughout the country, many smaller cities and villages were marginalized from this process. This created a suitable platform for religious clergies, leaders and institutions to have greater impact on these marginalized Iranians.
As Skocpol (1979) explains, ÔÇ£The repressive state organizations of the prerevolutionary regime have to be weakened before mass revolutionary action can succeed, or even emerge.ÔÇØ This strategy was successfully adopted by the religious pro-revolutionary forces to target the Iranian Imperial Army as many of the army conscripts were young men from remote villages and smaller cities with strong ShiÔÇÖa religious beliefs.
In contrast with Sunnism, ShiÔÇÖas are bound to choosing a Grand Ayatollah as their lifetime MarjaÔÇÖ (Source to Imitate or Religious Reference) to follow. A MarjaÔÇÖ is a person who is an expert in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh); he is also called a faqih (Rizvi, 2012). The act of following a MarjaÔÇÖ is referred to as imitation or taqlid. Each ShiÔÇÖa person should therefore follow his/her MarjaÔÇÖ and obey his fatwas in a wide range of issues ranging from religious rituals to social and political matters. Disobeying a MarjaÔÇÖ is considered a haram (prohibited) act according to ShiÔÇÖism.
The depth of ShiÔÇÖa religious beliefs among lower ranking army officers (the majority of conscripts) in contrast with the secular views of their superior commanders created a huge divide within the Iranian Imperial Army on how to face popular demonstrations against the ShahÔÇÖs regime. The main body of the army that consisted of conscripts was absolutely hesitant in repressing the religiously inspired demonstrators. The disparity between the religious setting of Iranian society and the secular patrimonial setting of the Iranian Imperial Army left army personnel at a crossroads in confronting popular demonstrations. Giustozzi (2011) describes this situation as a condition in which the ÔÇ£popular supportÔÇØ of the state is severely damaged and that ÔÇ£exposing armies to society can be very dangerous and have the opposite effect of compromising the loyalty of the army.ÔÇØ
Exploiting this ever-growing fraction among the army personnel, Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1978 (while in exile in Paris) used his status as a Grand Ayatollah and therefore a Grand ShiÔÇÖa MarjaÔÇÖ to deliver one of his most famous speeches to the army, asking them ÔÇ£to throw off the Shah’s yoke of slavery and humiliation, and join their brothers in demonstrationsÔÇØ (Algar, 1981). Following this incident, Ayatollah Khomeini in December 1978 addressed the army personnel once again with strong words asking them to ÔÇ£unite with the peopleÔÇØ and to desert the army by calling the Shah a traitor who should be overthrown.
Ayatollah KhomeiniÔÇÖs main strategy in confronting the army was to leave a majority of the religious army personnel at the crossroads to choose between their duty as a soldier to serve the Shah or their duty as a practicing ShiÔÇÖa to follow him as their religious MarjaÔÇÖ. In his speeches throughout 1978 and 1979, he repeatedly emphasized the idea of unity between army personnel and the nation in a truly Islamic society. Therefore, he was indirectly introducing the Shah as an enemy of Islam.
The choice of vocabulary by Ayatollah Khomeini in convincing religious personnel in the army to desert service was religiously inspired as well. His stress on the powerful word ÔÇ£brothersÔÇØ to address army personnel was deeply rooted in the concept of the global equality of the human being (ummah) in Islamic philosophy. This was also well portrayed in the main slogans of protesters such as ÔÇÿThe army is our brother and Khomeini is our leaderÔÇÖ or ÔÇÿMy brother army officer, why do you kill your brothers?ÔÇÖ The effectiveness of this approach was such that in several instances commanders kept soldiers in their military centers for fear of them joining the revolutionary forces and demonstrators (Apple, 1978). In January 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini addressed army personnel with his strongest religiously inspired words ever; ÔÇ£If you obey these congenital traitors, you will be accountable to God, Exalted and Almighty, condemned by all humanitarians, and cursed by future generationsÔÇØ (The New York Times, 1979). Many soldiers and officers – especially those from the lower ranks, deserted the army and joined the protesters in the aftermath of these events.
The gap between the army and the social texture of Iranian society was fully utilized by pro-revolutionary religious groups to organize religiously based cells among army members and convince them to disobey orders in confronting popular demonstrations. Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters successfully convinced the military personnel that confronting protesters and shooting them was a capital religious sin. The conflict between the high ranking pro-Shah commanders and the religiously inspired body of the army ultimately resulted in the declaration of neutrality by the army in 1979. This broke the backbone of the regime and led directly to the fall of the Shah.
Post-Revolution Iran: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij
The collapse of the ShahÔÇÖs regime in 1979 and the neutral position of the Iranian Army toward this incident made the newly established Islamic revolutionary state extremely distrustful of the army. As BeÔÇÖeri (1983) argues, ÔÇ£those who had seized power through coups [or revolutions] learned to take preventative measures to forestall their recurrence.ÔÇØ The fear of military-led coups and their neutrality in upcoming crises, directed the revolutionary state to establish a new, independent full-fledged armed force in parallel with the existing army. The new armed force was called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC was needed not only to protect the newly established Islamic state from anti-revolutionary forces but also to confront smaller non-religious revolutionary groups who assisted the dominating religious revolutionary groups in overthrowing the Shah, such as the leftists and nationalists.
As Article 150 of IranÔÇÖs constitution explains, the IRGC is, at its core, ÔÇ£an ideological organization charged with safeguarding Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision for an Islamic Republic,ÔÇØ therefore its members are religiously and ideologically trained to protect and defend the state, mostly against domestic threats. Many of the core founders of the IRGC were militarily trained in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan prior to the victory of the revolution in Iran. This was to create a form of peopleÔÇÖs army to start a guerrilla confrontation against the ShahÔÇÖs regime that was inspired by guerrilla warfare in the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) and the Vietnam War. However, the declaration of neutrality by the army and the collapse of the Shah did not allow them to use their military trainings in that manner.
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, the IRGC was the binding point between the new ShiÔÇÖa clergy rulers of Iran and a wide range of religious young men and women who participated in the revolution against the Shah. This strong hegemony of ShiÔÇÖa clergies over the IRGC points out the importance of ShiÔÇÖa religious ideology as the chief principle in holding the IRGC together in times of crises. It is important to note that the existence of the IRGC is tied to the existence of the Islamic state in Iran. This concept is repeatedly emphasized in different parts of the Statute of the Guards (1982). Article 11 of this Statute describes the education and training philosophy of the guards as; ” in accordance with Islamic values and . . . ideological, political and military fields in order to obtain the necessary capability to execute the missions it is tasked with.” Therefore, since its establishment, ShiÔÇÖa clergies have occupied key positions within the IRGC. To incorporate ShiÔÇÖism principles into all levels of the IRGC, the Ideological-Political Bureaus headed by ShiaÔÇÖa clergies play a vital role. As Alfoneh (2009) describes, the main objective of these bureaus are ÔÇ£to remake members of the Guards . . . into true believers with regard to their spiritual, ethical, behavioral adherence to divine values, and even in physical appearance and inner being.ÔÇØ
The IRGC is by nature a religiously (ShiÔÇÖa ideology) bound armed force. The foundation of the IRGC as reflected in its logo is based upon the Quranic verse of ÔÇ£And prepare against them [enemies of Allah] whatever you are able of power and of steeds of warÔÇØ (Quran, 8:60). This forbids Muslims who fight for the cause of Allah from surrendering and encourages them to resist the enemies of Allah. Based upon this approach, concepts such as Jihad (the holy war) and resistance against enemies are highly- praised and considered indicators of faithfulness in Islam. For the IRGC, jihad is referred to as the military struggle against the enemies of Allah and not the ÔÇ£spiritual strive as is commonly understood by mainstream Muslims todayÔÇØ (Lahoud, 2014; 19). ÔÇ£The true believers are those who believe in God and His messenger, then attain the status of having no doubt whatsoever, and strive (Jihad) with their money and their lives in the cause of Allah. These are the truthful onesÔÇØ (Quran, 49:15). There are several other verses in the Quran and Hadith (prophetic tradition), which praise those who fight for the cause of Allah, and these same verses are often used by the IRGC in training its personnel and keeping them loyal to the Islamic state in times of domestic and foreign crises.
The ShiÔÇÖa Islamic state of Iran has successfully manipulated Quranic verses in line with its political ideologies. The supreme leader of Iran, who is both the leader of faith and revolution, is at the same time the chief commander of the Iranian armed forces (both the army and paramilitary). Therefore, the IRGC soldiers are indoctrinated to obey the commander of the Iranian armed forces as they would obey the commands of Allah.. Disobedience of the supreme leader is therefore considered as disobedience of Allah and is punished severely as mentioned in the Quran. ÔÇ£As for those who disobey Allah and His Messenger and overstep His limits, We will admit them into a Fire, remaining in it timelessly, forever. They will have a humiliating punishmentÔÇØ (Quran, 4:14). The religious principles of ShiÔÇÖism play an important role in making obedience possible with a higher degree of success. For this reason, obeying commands in the IRGC is indoctrinated as not only an organizational duty but also a Taklif-SharÔÇÖi (religious obligation) to avoid AllahÔÇÖs punishment
Shahadat (martyrdom) is another highly respected concept in the ShiÔÇÖa theology which plays a fundamental role in the IRGCÔÇÖs ideology. ShiÔÇÖism divides the world into the two categories of Haq (Rightness) and Batel (Wrongness); both have been in a state of persistent war against each other throughout history. As ShiÔÇÖism views itself to be on the side of the Haq, the concept of Jihad as a constant holy war against Batel is one of the most important elements of ShiÔÇÖa existence. Therefore, the concept of losing life (shahadat) in AllahÔÇÖs cause against Batel is also a highly respected value in ShiÔÇÖism. ÔÇ£And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allah as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provisionÔÇØ (Quran, 3:169). For this reason, confronting the enemies of the Islamic state and to be killed for AllahÔÇÖs cause is highly celebrated among the IRGC and Basij personnel.
Another unique phenomenon in ShiÔÇÖism which has heavily influenced the IRGCÔÇÖs ideology is the epic of Ashura. Ashura means ÔÇ£the tenthÔÇØ and it refers to the tenth of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar (October 10, 680 CE) in which Hussein, the third Imam of the ShiÔÇÖas, was killed in the Battle of Karbala. Ashura is viewed by ShiÔÇÖism as the materialization of concepts such as Shahadat (martyrdom), Welayat (Authority of the leader), justice-seeking, fighting corruption and taslim (obedience of the divine rule and righteous leader). On that day, Imam Hussein and 72 of his followers rebelled against the Sunni Caliph of the time (who was an illegitimate ruler according to ShiÔÇÖa theology) and were killed in Karbala (in current Iraq) by the army of the Caliph. The socio-political impact of Ashura on ShiÔÇÖism as a minority faith within the Islamic world is indisputable.
The epic of Ashura is used as a practical tool for many contemporary ShiÔÇÖa political movements such as the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979 or the formation of the ShiÔÇÖa militia of Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel. The idea of rebellion and resistance against a religiously and politically illegitimate ruler is the political backbone of Ashura. Therefore, now that a legitimate (according to ShiÔÇÖism) ShiÔÇÖa state is established in Iran, the mission of Ashura has finally been accomplished and ShiÔÇÖas have a religiously-run state of their own in Iran. For this reason, defending the state that was established upon the blood of Ashura martyrs is the immediate religious duty of any IRGC personnel. Ayatollah Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader (Wali-Faghih) of Iran, repeatedly uses the rhetoric of Ashura in most of his speeches including the one in April 2000 where he directly warned foreign powers to stop pressuring Iran lest ÔÇ£Ashura shall occur again.ÔÇØ
Having the Wali-Faghih whose position is divinely recognized by Allah as the commander in chief of the armed forces and incorporating ShiÔÇÖa ideas such as martyrdom, Ashura and taslim (obedience of the divine rule and righteous leader) into all levels of the IRGC reduces the chances of disobedience among its personnel when confronting popular demonstrations. Disobeying orders in such moments is not only disobeying the commands of a military superior, but also disobeying the commands of Allah which very few IRGC religious members would even think of doing. Martyrdom for the cause of Allah by defending his representative on Earth (Wali-Faghih) would be the ultimate desire of any religiously devoted ShiÔÇÖa Muslim. The commands by the Wali-Faghih are not only militarily accurate but also morally and religiously justified. The act of shooting protesters against the Islamic state in a popular demonstration is not the act of killing an innocent person but the act of killing an enemy of Allah. In a culture where Jihad and Shahadat (martyrdom) in the cause of Allah are the highest of values, the command of Wali-Faghih is the ultimate reference and justification for any devoted ShiÔÇÖa.
This religious devotion gradually turned the IRGC into a non-tolerant ideological armed force in service of the ruling Wali-Faghih to repress the revolutionary rivals and oppositions within the country. The IRGC was heavily involved in containing the Iranian womenÔÇÖs social movement against compulsory hijab (Islamic dress code) in 1980-81. This was one of the first confrontations between the IRGC and the Iranian civil society. As Roberts (1996) explains, ÔÇ£Initially, the Guards functioned to ensure internal security only, but Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran pushed the organization into national defense.ÔÇØ This urged the IRGC to develop different divisions including navy, ground and air forces, intelligence services and also an additional civilian paramilitary wing called Basij. Currently, Basij plays the most important role in restoring order in major cities of Iran in time of any domestic crisis.
The power of the IRGC personnelÔÇÖs religious devotion to the Islamic state was proven in several instances throughout the history of the Islamic Republic. During the eight years of war with Iraq, the Islamic state used all its capacities to turn the war into a religious confrontation of Haq (rightness) and Batel (wrongness). By calling the war Defa-Moqadas (the Holy Resistance), the Iraqi Muslim soldiers were demonized as the enemies of Islam and on the side of the Batel trying to destroy the only Haq Islamic state in existence. A systematic culture of martyrdom-seeking (shahadat-talabi) based on full obedience of the Wali-Faghih was developed through mosques, the media, the education system, civil service and the civil society organizations. This extremely strong power of religious devotion to protect the ShiÔÇÖa Islamic state was well practiced during the war with Iraq, Anderson (2009) describes; ÔÇ£very young Basijis were encouraged to offer themselves for martyrdom by clearing minefields with their bodies in what became known as human wavesÔÇöliterally walking to their deaths en masse so that more experienced soldiers could advance against the enemy.ÔÇØ
By the end of the war in August 1988 and in the absence of any immediate foreign threat, the role of the IRGC and Basij in confronting domestic opposition was emphasized and intensified. In an interview with Fars News Agency in 2007, Major General Jaffari – the commander-in-chief of the IRGC emphasized that ÔÇ£for the time being the main responsibility of the IRGC is to counter internal threats, and [only] aid the Army in case of external military threat.ÔÇØ The pro-democracy uprising of Iranians in 2009-2010 (known as the Green Movement) in the aftermath of the countryÔÇÖs disputed presidential election was the most severe domestic unrest Iran ever experienced since 1979. In June 2009, ÔÇ£millions of IraniansÔÇØ (BBC, 2009) in different cities of Iran hit the streets to protest against the disputed results of the presidential election in which President Ahmadinejad (himself a former member of Basij) took office for the second term. For the first time since 1979, the very existence of the Iranian religious state came under direct domestic threat.
One of the strategies extensively used by the Iranian state since 1979 was to create equivalence between IranÔÇÖs current situation and historic Islamic events. For this purpose, religious vocabulary and words are broadly used in everyday political and social discourses. Ayatollah Khamenei (Wali-Faghih) is often called by his first name Ali in state made slogans which resemble Ali, the first Imam of the ShiÔÇÖas. By doing so, he creates a religiously legitimate image among his hard-core supporters in the IRGC and Basij. The same vocabulary was used by the state in confronting the Green Movement in 2009-2010. The word fitnah was introduced by the state into the daily social discourse of the Iranian society in addressing the Green Movement. Fitnah can be defined in several ways, and the stateÔÇÖs definition of fitnah translates to ÔÇÿsecession.ÔÇÖ This refers to people who seek separation from the legitimate stream of Islam which in ShiÔÇÖa ideology is the path of Prophet Mohammad and the Imams. The concept is derived from the Quran and the duty of true believers in confronting fitnah is to ÔÇ£kill them until there is no fitnah and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah. And if they cease – then indeed, Allah is Seeing of what they doÔÇØ (8:39). Picturing the Green Movement protesters as members of fitnah and emphasizing the direct command of Allah in the Quran to fight them were among the main drivers behind the cohesive response of the IRGC and Basij to the popular demonstrations of 2009 and 2010. Unlike the Iranian revolution of 1979 where protesters used religion as a tool to neutralize the Iranian Imperial Army, in the post-election crisis of 2009, the IRGC and Basij took control in repressing popular demonstrations by forceful means.
The joint operation of the IRGC and Basij in confronting the popular protests of 2009 started prior to the closing of the polls at 9.00 pm on Friday, June 12, 2009. The SMS and internet services of the entire country had been cut since June 11 and making calls by mobile phones was impossible in the countryÔÇÖs major cities – including Tehran. Access to foreign satellite TV channels such as the BBC, CNN or other opposition TV and radio channels was hardly possible due to signal jamming by the Iranian regime. Although the polls were closed only at 9.00 pm, in a surprising act, the official Iranian news agency (IRNA) broadcasted the news of President AhmadinejadÔÇÖs victory in the election at 11.30 pm the same night. In the aftermath of this news, the first clashes between the supporters of AhmadinejadÔÇÖs rival candidates (Mousavi and Karroubi) and the police and Basij forces were reported. On June 13, 2009, Ayatollah Khamenei congratulated President AhmadinejadÔÇÖs victory and urged the nation to obey the results of the election; however, both Mousavi and Karroubi condemned and rejected the results of the election. In response, the IRGC and Basij forces started a massive wave of arresting key figures of the Iranian reformist movement who were the main supporters of the opposition candidates during the electoral campaigns. More than 100 people were arrested in the first wave of confrontation between Basijis and protesters on June 13, 2009. The dormitory of Tehran University was also attacked by the same Basij forces while shouting religious slogans and several students were arrested or severely wounded.
June 15, 2009 marked the first massive popular demonstrations against the state since 1979. According to official statistics, more than 10 demonstrators were killed in Tehran while seven more were killed by Basij and IRGC forces in Shiraz (a major city in the southern part of Iran). The unrest continued until Friday June 19, 2009 where Ayatollah Khamenei in his Friday sermon warned protesters and the opposition candidates against any further demonstrations. He delivered his sermon while shedding tears which created an intense emotional response among his devoted followers in the IRGC and Basij. Ayatollah Khamenei concluded his sermon with ÔÇ£We will fulfill our duty. We have said what has to be done and we will continue. All I have is my life. I will sacrifice all I have for Islam and the revolution. Our master [referring to Mahdi, the Hidden Imam of ShiÔÇÖas, who is believed to return as a Messiah in future]! Please do pray for us. You are the real owner of this country and the revolution. You are our true backer. We will continue this path strongly. Please do support usÔÇØ (Cole, 2009). The next day, more than ten people were shot dead by the IRGC and Basij forces in Tehran including Neda Agha-Soltan. Her moment of death was caught by a mobile phone camera and as Mahr (2009) claims, it became ÔÇ£the most widely witnessed death in human history.ÔÇØ This made Neda the face of the Iranian uprisings of 2009 (the Green Movement). The waves of repression continued in the coming days where thousands of protesters were severely injured and arrested. Lieutenant-General Araqi of the IRGC admitted the involvement of IRGC and Basij forces in repressing the fitnah of 2009 in one of his speeches on July 5, 2009 (BBC, 2009). He also admitted that more than two thousand protesters were arrested during the so called ÔÇ£fitnah.ÔÇØ More than 72 protestors were shot dead by the IRGC and Basij forces on streets throughout the uprising.
In parallel with that, in July 2009, Major-General Firouzabadi, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces and also a Basiji, in a letter to Mahdi the Hidden Imam of the ShiÔÇÖas expressed the full commitment of the IRGC and Basij to protect the Islamic state against the fitnah till their last drop of blood. He concluded his letter with ÔÇ£Dearest Mahdi, we have taught our children and our grandchildren to await your arrival, and to raise the banner of this holy state until you do… O Lord, please beseech God, as we do, that the Islamic Revolution take root alongside the worldwide revolution that you [will bring]ÔÇØ (Memri, 2009). ShiÔÇÖa religious rhetoric was widely used among IRGC and Basij members while demonstrations were repressed. A great number of efforts were made in simulating the early stages of Islam in Iran in 2009. Many founding events of the early stages of ShiÔÇÖism were revitalized and simulated by the state to religiously justify its actions against the popular uprising of the Iranians. As Tambiah (1990) argues, ÔÇ£those founding myths and prophecies are prospectively projected on to the present as slaves for present woes, guides to action, and blueprints for the future.ÔÇØ To keep the religiously motivated members of the IRGC and Basij cohesive, repressing the protesters was demonstrated as an act of protecting the worldÔÇÖs only ShiÔÇÖa state till the return of Imam Mahdi at the end of time. They have been eventually successful in containing the uprising and protecting the state from its first most dangerous domestic treat since 1979.
What makes a significant difference between the ShahÔÇÖs patrimonial approach towards the army and the approach taken by the Islamic Republic towards the IRGC is the element of ShiÔÇÖa religious ideology. In the religious setting of Iranian society where both political and religious authority is united in the hands of the Wali-Faghih (Guardian of the Islamic Jurist) as the chief commander of armed forces (and in ShiÔÇÖa terminology, the successor of Allah and prophet on earth), disobeying commands would be considered as an offence against Allah and indeed a capital sin.
The power of religious ideology as a source of cohesiveness among armed forces can be also explored in the religiously based para-military groups in the Middle East such as Hezbollah of Lebanon, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Taliban of Afghanistan. The recent quick victories of ISIS over the well-equipped Iraqi national army can be also explored from this point of view. This issue is addressed in several scholarly works including Hassner (2013), Gunning (2008), Fitzkee and Letendre (2007), Burdette (2009) and Shuja (2007) as well.
This Singapore Middle East Paper investigated the use of ShiÔÇÖa religious ideology as a strong element to secure the cohesion of armed forces against popular demonstration. For that, the cases of pre and post-revolutionary Iran were studied in further detail. In line with LeeÔÇÖs (2009) argument, the religiously conservative texture of the Iranian society prior to the revolution of 1979 enabled the opposition members to successfully establish pacts with the religious officers in the secular Iranian Imperial Army. This pact (along common ShiÔÇÖa beliefs) later resulted in creating fractions within the Iranian Imperial Army. For that reason, the army declared its neutrality in 1979 and facilitated the collapse of the Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers effectively used ShiÔÇÖa religious rhetoric and discourses in demonizing the Shah and his loyalist faction in the army. It left the religious soldiers and officers with the choice of following their military duties or religious obligations as ShiÔÇÖas. Realizing the power of ShiÔÇÖa ideology in mobilizing and uniting masses, the Iranian revolutionary state established the paramilitary force of IRGC in 1979 as an ideological organization charged with safeguarding Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision for an Islamic Republic. In the IRGC, the principles of ShiÔÇÖism play an important role in making military obedience possible with a higher degree of success. The effectiveness of incorporating ShiÔÇÖa principles in the IRGC was tested successfully during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 where many the IRGC soldiers and officers devoted their lives to protecting the ShiÔÇÖa regime of Iran against Sunni Iraq.
By the end of the War in 1988, and in the absence of an immediate foreign threat, the IRGC and its militia wing of Basij turned their attention towards domestic threats. The uprising of 2009 (the Green Movement) was the toughest experience for the state in confronting popular demonstrations since 1979. In contrast with the Iranian Imperial Army, the IRGC and Basij cohesively repressed millions of demonstrators in 2009. To keep the religiously motivated members of the IRGC and Basij cohesive, repressing the protesters was demonstrated as the religious act of protecting the worldÔÇÖs only ShiÔÇÖa state till the return of Imam Mahdi (the ShiÔÇÖa Messiah who is in Occultation) at the end of time. ShiÔÇÖa religious rhetoric and simulations were extensively used by the IRGC and Basij throughout the process of repressing the demonstrators.
These two cases demonstrate the power of ShiÔÇÖa religious ideology to keep the armed forces cohesive against popular demonstrations. The idea of looking at army personnel as firstly, a ShiÔÇÖa Muslim and then as a soldier plays an important role in this argument. These cases have shown that the constructed religious identity of the armed forces can play a crucial role in justifying their reaction to popular demonstrations. Religion has also shown its capability in keeping the armed forces cohesive against those who are portrayed by the religious leaders as the enemies of the faith. The implication of this phenomena can be also explored in the behavior of religiously based para-military groups in the Middle East such as Hezbollah of Lebanon, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Taliban of Afghanistan.
The author would like to sincerely thank Assistant Professor Subhasish Ray, Associate Professor Terence Lee, and Assistant Professor Nancy W. Gleason in the Department of Political Science at National University of Singapore and Dr. Govindran Jegatesen at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology for their highly helpful inputs and comments
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Hamoon Khelghat-Doost is a PhD scholar at the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore. He is also a recipient of the NUS Research Scholarship. His field of research is primarily focused on the role of gender in the political violence of the Middle East, terrorism studies, and domestic and foreign policies of Middle Eastern states.