LEADER: Seyyed Mojtaba Navvab-I Safavi
YEAR ESTABLISHED OR BECAME ACTIVE: 1945
USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Iran
Fadaeeyan-i Islam (Society of Devotees of Islam) was an Iranian Islamic group, notorious for its high-profile assassinations. It was primarily active in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but briefly re-emerged as part of the coalition of groups that helped overthrow Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1978. Fadaeeyan-i Islam is sometimes credited with responsibility for the Iranian hostage crisis (1979–1981) and, more recently, groups carrying its name have carried out attacks on Westerners in Iran and Afghanistan.
The establishment of the Society of Fadaeeyan-i Islam was announced in 1945 by a young cleric, Seyyed Mojtaba Navvab-I Safavi, in a statement he had written entitled "Religion and Revenge." In it, Navvab contended that Islam had come under attack, and he promised to "avenge" such attacks.
The young cleric quickly attracted a band of followers, and his group allied themselves with Ayatollah Kashani, the most prominent member of the Iranian clergy to preach about the unity of religion and politics and to make a visible challenge to British colonial rule. Kashani had been exiled in 1946, a decision which Fadaeeyan-i Islam loudly protested. The group's activities, however, quickly assumed a more overt political complexion and they campaigned against women not wearing the hijab; attacked shops selling alcohol; and enrolled volunteers to fight Zionist forces in Palestine.
Fadaeeyan-i Islam also began to carry out a series of assassinations against those they believed imperilled Islam within Iran. Its first victim, in March 1946, was the historian Ahmed Kassravai, who had publicly scorned Iran's Shi'ites and intended to revive Iran's pre-Islamic customs. They also challenged Iran's post-colonial government, which was still dominated by the British, and which threatened to make a number of disadvantageous oil concessions to Britain. In 1949, after a parliamentary election marred by irregularity and fraud had resulted in the re-election of a pro-British government, Fadaeeyan-i Islam assassinated Prime Minister Abd-ol-Hossein Hajir, in an attempt to curtail the proposed concessions. The following year, Fadaeeyan-i Islam was responsible for the assassination of another pro-Western prime minister, General Ali Razm-Ara.
In the wake of this latest killing, Mohammed Mossaddeq of the Iranian National Front, was appointed prime minister. Fadaeeyan initially supported Mossaddeq, who was more circumspect in his relations with the West, but soon came to the conclusion that this distance did not go far enough, nor did his eagerness to implement Islamic laws. He also refused to relent to their demands to release Navvab from jail for his part in the killing of Razm-Ara. In the wake of this falling out, Fadaeeyan apparently plotted to kill Mossaddeq, and failed in an attempt to assassinate his foreign minister, Hossein Fatami.
A U.S.-backed coup in 1953 finally removed Mossaddeq from power, but the inevitable pro-American stance of his successors was not to Fadaeeyan's liking. In 1955, the group attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Hossein Ali, but succeeded only in wounding him. Following this attempt on his life, there followed a huge crack-down on the group's activities, and the majority of its leaders were arrested and executed, including Navvab.
Thereafter, Fadaeeyan-i Islam went into an inexorable decline. Many of its members joined Heyat-ha-I Moetalefe-h Islami (Coalition of Islamic Groups), the loose alliance of opponents to the Shahist regime, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that teetered between exile or suppression by Iran's brutal secret police.
SEYYED MOJTABA NAVVAB-I SAFAVI
Seyyed Mojtaba Navvab-I Safavi was born to a lower-middle class family in South Tehran in 1924. His father, a cleric-turned lawyer, had been imprisoned by Reza Shah's government for his opposition. But Navvab's own rebelliousness apparently dated to British occupation during World War II. Navvab had been working in Abadan in the petroleum industry when a British worker beat up an Iranian employee. In the wake of the assault, Navvab arranged a strike and demonstration, leading to a confrontation with police. Fearing the consequences, he fled to the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, where he took up religious instruction.
Three and a half years later, in 1945, he returned to Iran and declared his statement of "Religion and Revenge." An attempt on the life of the historian Ahmed Kassravai that same year (his followers would finish off the job a year later) earned him minor fame, and although he was arrested, he was released after pressure from the Ulama (Islamic clergy). The nascent Fadaeeyan-i Islam soon earned a reputation as a group of fearless militants, but for the majority of its existence Navvab was in and out of prison. Finally, in January 1955, following an attempt on the life of Prime Minister Hossein Ali, Navvab was arrested and hanged.
As the Shah's regime neared collapse in the late 1970s, Fadaeeyan's old followers reemerged, although their input as an organized group on Iran's 1978 revolution was negligible. The following year, in 1979, Iranian students, calling themselves the Sons of Imam, seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and would hold its occupants hostage for 444 days. The hostage crisis has sometimes been blamed on Fadaeeyan-i Islam, but such an attack was almost certainly beyond the means of the Fadaeeyan at the time, and such suggestions are possibly the result of confused translation (Fadaeeyan can be translated as "one who is prepared to die," as well as referring to a group of radicals, typically guerrillas).
In November 1998, a bus carrying American businessmen and their wives was attacked near Tehran by a mob shouting anti-U.S. slogans and attacking their vehicle with metal bars. A group claiming to be Fadaeeyan-i Islam said it carried out the attack, but whether it had any relation to its forerunner is unclear. Certainly, this seemed to be an isolated incident. In more recent years, groups carrying Fadaeeyan's names have claimed attacks in Afghanistan against so-called U.S. collaborators.
PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS
The contemporary resonance of Fadaeeyan-i Islam is carried by what it believed, as opposed to what it actually achieved. Its founder, Seyyed Mojtaba Navvab-I Safavi, called on Muslims to "Rethink about their religion and their surrounding world in order to salvage their thought from the valley of ignorance … and to try to uncover the shining truth of Islam which is covered by sinister political clouds." In other words, Navvab was making an intrinsic link between politics and Islam: engaging in political action was a way of defending the faith and strengthening the position of Muslims in the face of colonial rule. Muslims were traditionally weak, believed Navvab, because they were politically complacent. Politicians and businessmen also abused Islam for their own benefit by engaging in activities such as the alcohol trade or—worse still—selling out to Western governments.
At the root of this was the perceived indifference of the Ulama (Islamic clergy) to political vice and Iran's social problems. Navvab called for reforms in teaching, the radicalization of religious schools, and even for the purge of non-political Ulama. He believed that Ulama should increase emphasis on the Islamic instruction of "promoting virtue and preventing vice." He believed that this push towards conservatism could be accelerated by political power.
This manifested itself most notably through Fadaeeyan's assassination of top-ranking politicians. There were two intentions: to remove from power men who were allying Iran too closely with Western (and by definition, heretical) interests, and to serve as a warning to others who refused to take their calls for Islamic conservatism seriously. They were also involved in numerous small-scale attacks against proprietors of alcohol stores.
Fadaeeyan-i Islam never set out to be a mass movement, and was inherently undemocratic. It believed that the masses should follow power rather than reason, but also that law, which is against Islam, is illegitimate. Parliament, it believed, should be a body to interpret Islamic principles under the supervision of Ulama.
- Establishment of the Society of Fadaeeyan-i Islam announced by a young cleric in a statement entitled "Religion and Revenge".
- Fadaeeyan assassinate the historian, Ahmed Kassravai.
- Fadaeeyan assassinate Iranian Prime Minister Abd-ol-Hossein Hajir.
- Fadaeeyan responsible for the assassination of another pro-Western prime minister, General Ali Razm-Ara.
- An attempt on the life of Prime Minister Hossein Ali leads to a huge crackdown on the group. Many leading members, including Navvab, executed.
Seyed Mohammad Ali Taghavi is one of the few contemporary academics to take a closer look at the activities of Fadaeeyan-i Islam. He believes that they are "The Prototype of Islamic hardliners in Iran." Writing in Middle Eastern Studies, he stated that what set them apart was: "They viewed Islam primarily from a political angle. Their political approach to Islam, together with their courage and sincerity, were the source of Fadaeeyan's achievements on the political scene. The Iranian nationalist movement of the early 1950s owed as much to Fadaeeyan as to other nationalist political and religious leaders of that era. Because of lack of political support, Fadaeeyan could not enjoy the benefits of their actions; and lack of a relatively coherent theoretical approach prevented their having constructive impacts on society. Nevertheless, they provided the next generation of Iranian Muslim devotees with a pattern, which is now followed in a somewhat more articulated form by hardliners in Iran."
In December 2004, the Economist reported that the Ulama-dominated political system—as originally envisaged by Fadaeeyan-i Islam—had left Iran in a kind of torpor of "stagnation and depression," from which there was only one escape. "According to some reports, disaffection with the regime even among the clergy is spreading," it was written. "A cleric from an influential religious family, also out of favour with the supreme leader, derides the Council of Guardians for mostly taking 'orders and hints from the powers that be'—a euphemism for Mr Khamenei [the then president]. Most striking of all, sociologists and educators report that religious belief and observance, especially among the young, have slumped since the mullahs took power a quarter of a century ago. Instead of fortifying the people's devotion, the system seems to have switched many people off the spiritual side of life, inspiring a shallow materialism instead …"
The Economist continued: "Is there a Gorbachev elsewhere among the mullahs? It is an unlikely prospect, but the inner workings of Iran's clerical establishment are mysterious and supremely opaque … [However,] the opposition, at present, is numb. Only if the price of oil, say, halved, and the economy really dived would the anger and frustration well up again and bring people out on the street. And so long as that does not happen, the Iranians are miserably stuck with what they've got."
Fadaeeyan-i Islam were a small group of Islamic fundamentalists whose political power passed half a century ago, but whose influence lives on today. The ideas articulated by its founder Seyyed Mojtaba Navvab-I Safavi are imprinted on Iran's existing political system, but more widely on Islamic militant groups across the globe. In many ways—by making the link between politics and religion—Fadaeeyan can be seen as forerunners of an array of Islamist insurgents who propagate political violence in defense of their faith.
Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.
Taghavi, Seyed Mohammad Ali. "Fadaeeyan-i Islam: The Prototype of Islamic Hard-liners in Iran." Middle Eastern Studies. January 2004.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. "Navab Safavi's Martyrdom." 〈http://www.irib.ir/occasions/Navab-e-Safavi/Navab-e-Safavi-En.htm〉 (accessed October 7, 2005).