Radical Repression

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

Whatever popular support they may have enjoyed before coming to power or just afterward, radical Islamic revolutionaries have quickly proven themselves to be harsh authoritarian rulers wherever they have had the chance: in Iran (1979), in Sudan (1989), in most of Afghanistan (1996 – 2001), in parts of Somalia (1999), and in parts of Iraq (mid-2000s).

The imposition of authoritarian rule is not, of course, unique to Islamic revolutionaries, but is common to non-democratic revolutionaries in general. Despite all their utopian promises both before and after coming to power, Marxist-Leninist and Arab-nationalist revolutionaries also ruled in an oppressive, authoritarian manner. Sometimes this led to armed internal opposition against the revolutionary regime. But where it did not (or where this failed), its authoritarian rule resulted in a corrosive disillusionment with the revolutionary regime and its ideology.

An odd dichotomy then arose: a particular brand of revolutionary ideology could become more popular in countries where it had not come to power — and thus its promises of a better life after ousting the incumbent regime were believed — than in countries where it had come to power and its performance had proven increasingly disappointing over time.

Is this a problem that radical Islamic revolutionaries could overcome in the future? In order to do so, they would have to acknowledge that their own authoritarian behavior generated opposition, whether active or passive, against them. Even if they acknowledged this, however, it would be very difficult to prevent disillusionment with the regime and its ideology from growing in the societies they rule. There are two reasons for this.

First, non-democratic revolutionary regimes, when they first come to power and for many years afterward, usually do not succeed at promoting prosperity. Instead, they usually oversee increasing poverty — even in countries that are rich in petroleum. There have, of course, been exceptions. China is a case in which a communist regime successfully oversaw capitalist economic development. However, it took decades and the death of the first revolutionary leader, Mao Tse-tung, before Beijing recognized the need for integration into the world market. Then it took further decades for China to fully achieve this. None of the Islamic radicals — whether already long in power or still seeking it — yet appears to regard following China’s path to economic prosperity as even desirable.

Second, while transnational revolutionary ideologies promise to overcome the ethnic and sectarian divisions existing in countries they come to rule, they usually reinforce them instead. The revolutionary leadership either starts out being dominated by one particular sect or ethnic group, or becomes so as power struggles emerge and the winners increasingly rely upon those they trust most: people from the same groups as themselves. Shia Persians, for example, dominate the Islamic Republic of Iran as well as the non-Persians and (most especially) non-Shias within it. The Arab minority has dominated the Islamic regime in Sudan. Pushtuns were the dominant group when the Talilban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and would be the dominant force once again if the Taliban returned to power there. Just as the ethnic and sectarian divisions that are the legacy of history in so many predominantly Muslim countries pose a significant obstacle to democratization in them (as discussed earlier, in the sixth article in this series), this same legacy of history poses an obstacle to the acceptance of Islamic revolutionary rule that claims to overcome these divisions — but in reality does not.

Of course, non-democratic revolutionary regimes usually do not acknowledge — even to themselves — that their actions may be the cause of their own problems. They tend to blame others for these instead and to view all who disagree with them as enemies who must be defeated, eliminated or marginalized. Their doing so, however, only serves to make their rule less popular, thus necessitating further authoritarian measures to keep the revolutionary regime in power. This, in turn, can foster more opposition — and on and on in a vicious circle.

The United States and many other governments do not want to see Islamic revolution spread to any more countries. But if it does, the intolerant nature of the regime it is likely to result in is also likely to spawn various forms of domestic opposition over time — as has occurred with the Islamic revolutionary regimes that have already come to power. And, just as the unpopularity of the authoritarian governments in the Muslim world that are allied to the United States is a vulnerability that Islamic revolutionaries have exploited (and will continue to exploit), the unpopular nature of authoritarian Islamic revolutionary regimes is a vulnerability that the United States and its allies can also exploit.


Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website: www.marknkatz.com

To read more articles in this series, click here.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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