Minor Tyranny and Civil War

  August 24, 2021   Read time 4 min
Minor Tyranny and Civil War
Once it had grown into a national movement, the civil war consolidated Iran’s national community perhaps more than any other single event in the twentieth century before the oil nationalization movement of the 1950s.

Even though the Tehran parliamentary experiment had collapsed, there was still a flicker of hope in the provinces. In the following months a prolonged, and at times bloody, urban war was waged between the revolutionary fighters and a combination of local royalists, mostly of the Anjoman-e Islamiyeh (Islamic anjoman), belonging to the Usuli neighborhoods of Tabriz, who collaborated with the government troops. During the latter half of 1908 and early 1909, even before the fall of the Majles, the Tabriz militia put up an armed struggle that shifted the fortunes of the Constitutional Revolution, making it even more populist, nationalist, and secular. Once it had grown into a national movement, the civil war consolidated Iran’s national community perhaps more than any other single event in the twentieth century before the oil nationalization movement of the 1950s.

Tabriz was the predictable stage for such a struggle. Like any former capital, there existed a sense of pride and power there, reinforced by the strength of the Tabriz economy, the growth of its population, and its relative openness to the Western presence and practices. As Iran’s largest and most prosperous city, with a population of more than two hundred thousand, it was the hub of northern trade connecting the Anatolian and Caucasian overland routes to the Black Sea and to the Russian Railway across the Caucasian border, and thus the Russian, Ottoman, and European markets. Importing manufactured goods, fabrics, and consumer commodities, the Tabriz merchants competed with the European commercial agents in the city despite unequal customs duties and other disadvantages. The export market of Tabriz, including various cash crops and a magnificent handmade carpet industry that by the turn of the century had surpassed those of Kashan and Isfahan, brought significant income to the city. The Tabriz merchant class financed the constitutional movement and the eventual civil revolt, while the poor and disadvantaged local labor, mostly peasants who intended to benefit from the urban economy, provided the manpower.

Foreign connections brought modern schools and hospitals, including those established by American Presbyterian missionaries. By the turn of the century, city and provincial telephone lines were established. Road and railroad connections to the Caucasian cities and beyond carried Azarbaijani migrant workers to the Baku oil fields, where they constituted the largest ethnic group, and to other Russian cities in search of work. They came back from Baku and Tiflis, then hotbeds of revolutionary socialism, with new radical ideas. Azarbaijani merchant capitalists who made their fortunes in Baku, Tiflis, and Istanbul also viewed with pride and sympathy the growth of the constitutional movement in their homeland. The city’s large and industrious Armenian community also served as an important conduit for technology and business, as well as for revolutionary ideas.

Yet despite tokens of modernity, Tabriz was a traditional city with strong loyalties to religion and geography. Still tied to Shi‘i rituals and shrines, the political maneuvering of influential mojtaheds and old sectarian conflicts divided the city. While some of the largest of the twelve city wards (mahalleh) were identified as Shaykhi, for following mojtaheds from that school, since the early decades of the nineteenth century (possibly replacing the older sectarian loyalties), other important wards were identified as Motesharre‘ (shari‘a-orientated), for their loyalty to the Usuli mojtaheds. As in most other Iranian cities, urban wards served not only as units of municipal administration and a source of communal loyalty but also as bases of operation for the neighborhood vigilantes—generally identified as lutis, with their often precarious life of extortion, violence, and acting as hired daggers for the city notables. As much as there were “bad” lutis known for their dangerous conduct, there were also “good” lutis credited with protecting the neighborhood and extending charity to the poor. With their own code of honor, demeanor, lingo, hierarchy, and appearance, the lutis were feared but also admired.

The two most prominent popular leaders of the Tabriz resistance—Sattar Khan and Baqer Khan, who later were elevated to the status of national heroes—were luti leaders, as were many of their fellow fighters. They were associated with the Shaykhi wards of Amirkhiz and Khayaban, respectively, both of which played a pivotal role in the success of the Tabriz resistance (fig. 6.7). It was primarily the two leaders’ sectarian rivalry with lutis of the opposite league that shaped the conflict and ensured its resilience. But contrary to earlier instances of urban strife, the two leaders were operating largely as free agents. This gave the resistance a popular character somewhat distinct from the politics of the elites that had so far characterized the Constitutional Revolution. Over the course of the fighting in 1908 and 1909, neighborhood loyalties transcended their immediate surroundings to include Tabriz and eventually the whole of the country. The accelerating revolutionary process clearly set “supporters of the constitution” (mashruteh-khvahan) against the royalist camp, who invariably labeled them “supporters of the tyranny” (mostabeddin).