Before 1979, Iran was ruled by a monarch, the Shah. He was supported by the West and used western companies to help his programme of modernisation. He blamed Islamic culture for poverty, banned Islamic dress and established a secular education system. Young people wore western clothes and attended western-style universities. However, the Shah also used a well-equipped army and secret police to maintain power over the majority of poor Iranians. Only a minority benefited from the Shah’s changes. The ayatollahs (religious leaders) saw westernisation as the cause of the people’s suffering.
These criticisms of the regime were taken up by the middle classes, who used Islam to back a revolt against the Shah, hoping for more independence and freedom. The revolution of 1979 resulted in the departure of the Shah to exile and the establishment of an Islamic Republic dominated by the clergy. Islamic principles now governed all aspects of life – everyone now had to observe Islamic laws and customs, and religious observance became obligatory.
In small groups, discuss how the example of the Iranian revolution shows that religion can assist social change but also prevent it.