Why weren’t they grateful?

Pankaj Mishra reviews Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue: In 1890, an itinerant Muslim activist called Jamal al-din al-Afghani was in Iran when its then ruler, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, granted a tobacco concession to a British businessman called G.F. Talbot, effectively granting him a monopoly on its purchase, sale and export. Al-Afghani pointed out, to a chorus of approval from secular-minded intellectuals as well as conservative merchants, that tobacco growers would now be at the mercy of infidels, and the livelihoods of small dealers destroyed. He set up pressure groups in Tehran – a political innovation in the country – which sent anonymous letters to officials and distributed leaflets and placards calling on Iranians to revolt. Angry protests erupted in major cities the following spring. Helped by the recently introduced telegraph, the mass demonstrations of the Tobacco Protest, as it came to be called, were as carefully co-ordinated as they would be in Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution a hundred years later, when cassette-tapes played a similar role and women participated in large numbers.

Al-Afghani also wrote to Ayatollah Mirza Hassan Shirazi in Najaf, giving the greatly influential but apolitical Shiite cleric an early lesson in the ‘structural adjustments’ that Western financiers would come to enforce in poor countries: ‘What shall cause thee to understand what is the Bank?’ he asked. ‘It means the complete handing over of the reins of government to the enemy of Islam, the enslaving of the people to that enemy, the surrendering of them and of all dominion and authority into the hands of the foreign foe.’ Al-Afghani may have been exaggerating. But he knew from his experiences in India and Egypt how quickly the West’s seemingly innocuous traders and bankers could turn into diplomats and soldiers. The feckless shah had already compromised Iran’s relative immunity to Europe’s informal imperialists. In 1872, with the country starved of capital and suffering from a massive budget deficit, he had granted a monopoly in the construction of railways, roads, factories, dams and mines to another British citizen, Baron Reuter (founder of the news agency). Even Lord Curzon was appalled twenty years later when he was told the terms, describing it as ‘the most complete surrender of the entire resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamed of much less accomplished in history’. Protests by Russia, Iran’s neighbour and Britain’s great rival in the region, sank this particular arrangement; Reuter anyway had other irons in the fire.

Coming only eight years after the British occupation of Egypt, the award of the tobacco concession struck al-Afghani as ominous. Expelled from Iran by the shah, he kept up a barrage of letters to leading Shiite clerics in the shrine cities of Mesopotamia, asking them to rouse themselves out of their apathy and move against the shah. A few months later, Shirazi wrote his first ever letter to the shah on a political subject, denouncing foreign banks and their growing power over the Muslim population as well as the commercial concessions given to Europeans. The shah, desperate to keep the ulema on his side, sent intermediaries to plead with Shirazi. Far from relenting, the cleric issued a fatwa effectively making it un-Islamic to smoke until the monopoly was withdrawn. He was astonishingly successful – even the shah’s palace became a smoke-free zone. Finally, the shah capitulated to an alliance between intellectuals, clergy and native merchants and, in January 1892, cancelled the tobacco concession.

Muhammad Mossadegh was at the time the precocious nine-year-old son of a high official working for the shah. Homa Katouzian, his previous biographer in English, ascribes his consistent opposition to ‘any concession to any foreign power’ to this early impression of popular anger at European encroachments on Iran’s sovereignty. Mossadegh, whose family belonged to the nobility and who was honoured as a child with the title, mussadiq al-saltaneh, ‘certifier of the monarchy’, was an unlikely leader of Iran’s transition from dynastic monarchy to mass politics. But then he grew up during a period of unprecedented political ferment across Asia.

Asian intellectuals and activists had begun to challenge the arbitrary power of Western imperialists and their native allies in the late 19th century. The first generation contained polemicists like al-Afghani, who gathered energetic but disorganised young anti-imperialists around him in Kabul, Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran. The next generation produced men like Mossadegh, who had been exposed to Western ways or trained in Western-style institutions and were better equipped to provide their increasingly restless compatriots with a coherent ideology and politics of anticolonial nationalism. [Continue reading…]

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