The purpose of this study is to test Olivier Roy’s thesis on ’the failure of political Islam’, by considering its relevance in explaining religio-political developments in post-revolutionary Iran. The task is undertaken by a theoretical assessment of Roy’s thesis, and an analysis of institutional arrangements and historical events in post-revolutionary Iran.
In The Failure of Political Islam (1994), Roy argues that political Islam has failed, and that Islamism will never pass the test of power because of the inherent inconsistencies in the Islamist agenda. The aim is political power and the establishment of an Islamic state to fight secularization and strengthen the standing of religion in the society. However, political action is necessarily followed by the emergence of an autonomous secular political space, and the religious state will inevitably be secularized if religion and politics are integrated. Further, Roy argues that intermixing of religious and political spheres will lead to a contamination of religion and a delegitimation of religious leaders.
The theoretical debate on the trajectories of Islamism is invoked to account for relevant critique directed at Roy’s thesis, and show the productivity of his approach. The relevance of conceptual frameworks in this field is also discussed and related to divergent conceptions of the phenomenon.
Based on an assessment of Roy’s key theoretical claims, an analytical framework centered on the Islamist paradox is established, and subsequently applied to the case of Iran. Fundamentally, I argue that Iran is not an Islamic state, that politics repeatedly prevail of religion in the Islamic Republic, and that the effort to fulfill the Islamist agenda has generated a dysfunctional regime. The Islamist paradox is illustrated by the fate of the Islamic Republic, because the Islamist experiment in the country instigated religio-political dynamics leading to a secularization of society, delegitimation of religion, and a dysfunctional state.
According to Roy, the failure of political Islam in Iran was inevitable once the Islamists reached power. I argue that Roy’s theoretical framework provide useful references for understanding the developments in Iran, and that my findings support Roy’s central theoretical claims. The distinctive features of the ‘case of Iran’ are emphasized to stress that the findings to not verify the general nature of Roy’s thesis, even if it is plausible that similar dynamics have been at work in other countries. Finally, I suggest that the current move towards democracy in Iran is related to the Islamist experience in the country, and that the case of Iran is unique – and central – for understanding the dynamic relations of religion and politics in the Middle East.