I am not the Reformists’ Godfather

• Aug 20th, 2006 • Category: Interviews

Interview with Dr. Abdulkarim Soroush

By Reza Khojasteh Rahimi

 Published in ‘Shargh’ newspaper on 20 August 2006.

Q.  If I may, I’d like to begin by asking you about the talk that you didn’t give at the Ershad religious centre.  For some reason you were absent from the seminar that was held last Thursday [17 August] at the Ershad religious centre.  Could you tell us in your own words why you decided not to attend despite the fact that the seminar and your talk were arranged in advance.

 A.  It wasn’t a new and unprecedented occurrence.  I’m used to this sort of thing and I believe that you’ve directly witnessed incidents of this kind yourself.  Over the past 12 years, I’ve experienced many such incidents.  The first time was in Isfahan and the second was in October 1995.  At the time, I was due to have delivered a series of lectures on Shams-e Tabrizi and Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi’s school of thought.  On the day when I was to have given the first lecture, I was confronted by the Ansar-e Hezbollah vigilante group for the first time.  I emerged in one piece from the incident, albeit with some injuries, and I escaped from the University of Tehran and went home with the assistance of Intelligence Ministry personnel.  But I was attacked repeatedly thereafter in Tehran and the provinces.  One of the worst incidents was in Mashhad, which was a truly bitter experience for me and the vigilante group’s attack almost led to serious injuries.  But, thanks be to God, I escaped from the fray with the assistance of some friends. Another one of the worst incidents occurred in Khorramabad.  Mr. Kadivar and I had been invited to a seminar organized by students.  We’d barely arrived at the airport when the attacks started.  We were trapped for about seven hours at Khorramabad Airport, which consists of just a few rooms.  And stones and bricks were being hurled from all sides at the building as if the attackers were trying to capture an enemy fortress.  Even the police chief who was on the spot told us that he couldn’t guarantee our security and he insisted quite frankly that it wasn’t his business to protect us.  He asked us to change our clothes and to put on soldiers uniforms to leave the airport. We resisted.  Finally, we managed to leave the airport and to go to a garrison and they brought us back to Tehran from there.  We arrived home at night time.

The next incident was in Mashhad again.  I was in Germany when I received an invitation to attend a seminar in Mashhad.  Iranian and non-Iranian professors had been invited, but the moment it became known that I was to attend, some groups issued statements, declaring that they were opposed to my presence at the seminar. Ultimately, the seminar didn’t go ahead, despite the presence of some of the guests, and some disjointed sessions were held instead in Mashhad and Tehran.  Then, there was the incident in Qom in 2004, when I was beaten again in an attack by vigilante groups.  My offence then was to have attended a private meeting at a friend’s house.  And, then, this year – this year, I was in Berlin when I received an invitation to the seminar on religion and modernity.  The seminar’s organizer was the Institute for Dialogue between Religions, headed by Mr. Abtahi.  I even suggested that a number of non-Iranian professors should also take part and the suggestion was accepted, but, unfortunately, they weren’t able to obtain visas.  At any rate, when I arrived in Iran, I learnt that the venue was the Ershad religious centre.  There didn’t seem to be any problem until the day before the seminar.  On Wednesday night, Mr. Abtahi telephoned me. He said that he’d been contacted from a ministry and that he’d been warned and cautioned.  And when Mr. Abtahi told them, You’re responsible for protecting people, they’d said, We can’t guarantee anything and we strongly warn you against Soroush’s presence at the seminar and very unpleasant events may occur.  And it hadn’t been just one telephone call.  Mr. Abtahi conveyed this information to me and he was very anxious and apprehensive himself.  At one point he more or less openly asked me not to attend.  Despite my own enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of the many eager people who went to the Ershad religious centre – and I heard that there were more than 1,500 people there – and despite the insistence of some of my friends, I decided that I would prefer not to attend, so that, God forbid, the occasion would not be tarnished with a fracas and also so that it would serve as a signal that I was not interested in a fight and wanted to see things proceed calmly and peacefully.  I thought to myself that, after the seminar was over, I’d begin a dialogue with some of the country’s senior figures.

Q.  What will the aim of this dialogue be?

A.  First of all, I expect the government, parliament and the judiciary to spare a thought and show some concern for the security of this country’s citizens.  Secondly, it shouldn’t be so easy to strip a citizen of his rights.  I don’t see any difference between this and, for example, being told that I’m not allowed to vote.  These are our rights, after all, and ministries, such as the Intelligence Ministry, the police and others should create an atmosphere in which we can exercise these rights.  They mustn’t allow decent, academic gatherings, like the one at the Ershad religious centre, to be scorched by the fire of a group of unlearned people to the dismay of lovers of learning.  Can judicious steps be taken to put people like these in their place, ensure citizens’ security, make justice prevail and allow us to carry out our research, teaching and lecturing?  Even if I’m to be stripped of my rights, this has to be done through competent courts.  If I’ve committed an offence and must pay the price for my offence, it’s up to competent judges to decide and to inform me of their decision, so that everyone can see for themselves how things stand and so that there’s no ambiguity.

Q.  Who are your interlocutors going to be in this dialogue or exchange of letters?

A.  The people who are responsible in this country: the president, the relevant ministers, Majlis deputies and so on.  I want to familiarize them with the inauspicious, anti-learning incidents that take place here.  I also intend to take things beyond the personal level and not only to ask for lawful freedom for myself but to ask for this freedom for everyone.  I hope that there are still some listening ears and justice-seeking hearts that are prepared to accept well-intentioned words and to reconsider things.  Let me say again that, if anyone deserves to be stripped of a right, this must be entrusted to competent courts, not to irresponsible people.  This is my aim and I hope that I’ll receive a suitable response.

Q.  But one question still arises here:  what sort of problem is this as to have remained impervious to a solution before the era of reforms, during the era of reforms and, now, after the era of reforms?  And this is in circumstances in which many secular intellectuals do not run into any problems in terms of giving public lectures.  How are we to analyse this uncontrollable urge to prevent public lectures by Abdulkarim Soroush, who, moreover, considers himself to be a religious intellectual?

A.  I’m baffled by this phenomenon myself. I think it would be better if you put your question to the organizers and perpetrators of these ugly incidents.  For some years now, I’ve recognized and seen that some people disagree with and are opposed to me, but some people have gone beyond opposition and are acting as my enemies.  No matter how numerous the people who disagree with me are, they need not be feared, but enemies are not concerned with ideas and learning, they only think about physical confrontations.

Q.  But these people also mention the idea of a debate in their physical confrontations and dealings with you.

A.  Yes, this is a source of surprise and wonder to me.  While they’ve opted for the path of physical confrontation, they also keep harping on the idea of a debate as if they fail to see any contradiction between their words and deeds;  they don’t seem to see the contradiction between beating people up and holding debates with them.  But our society is full of contradictions.

Let me also say in response to your previous question that I sometimes think that some people are not at all afraid of our secular intellectuals and believe that, regardless of what they say and do, they will not have a lasting impact on our religious society.  Although they, too, are sometimes harassed and tormented.  But they are not confronted much theoretically.  But, if they think that someone’s words can have an impact on society, their opposition grows.

Q.  Is this why, instead of going abroad now and then, you’re now in a situation where you only visit Iran now and then?

A.  Of course, there were many reasons why I went abroad.  One of them was that, as we’ve been discussing, I felt that I couldn’t be of any benefit in Iran. Every living human being wants to be of some benefit, to pass their days in a productive way, to formulate ideas and to bring them to fruition.  But if this isn’t possible and if someone feels that they can serve no purpose, then they’ll go elsewhere, where they can lead a more useful and satisfactory life.  For some years now, I wasn’t being allowed to teach or to speak in public; I was unable to establish a direct link with my students and my audience.  Added to which my own personal security was also seriously at risk.  So, when I received invitations from Harvard and other universities, I didn’t hesitate to accept.  Of course, throughout my time abroad, I followed the news about what was happening in Iran and, especially, the news about cultural activities and developments here.  But I also knew that some people were happy that I was absent from the country.  At any rate, I didn’t leave on anyone’s orders or on anyone’s encouragement.

Q.  But why weren’t you able to solve this problem during the eight years when the reformists were in power?  They controlled both the parliament and the government.  Did your dialogue not bear fruit during those reformist years either?

A.  Maybe it was my fault.  Maybe there were things I could have done.  Of course, I wasn’t in Iran for five of those eight reformist years, so I had very little contact with them.  I know that some of my reformist friends did try to solve my problems here and even achieved a measure of success, but, it would seem, not to the point of changing the situation completely whereby I could fully enjoy my rights.  For nearly 12 years now, I’ve felt deeply that I lead a peculiar life in this country and that what I’m allowed to do is a very small fraction of what might otherwise be possible.  But I’m grateful for even this small fraction and I’m constantly worried that even this will be taken away from me.  So, I try to use this small bit, which is my allotted portion.

Q.  The reason I asked was because, according to many analyses, you’re considered to be the ‘godfather of Iran’s reformists’.  This is why I was wondering why, if you were their godfather, things transpired as they did and you were absent from the scene and the circumstances were not brought about for you to work in Iran.  But, first, you must tell us whether you accept this role, because some people have said that the reformists’ failure was also the failure of religious intellectuals and of Soroush’s project.

A.  No, first of all, I don’t by any means accept that I was their father or their godfather.  Of course, they, too, don’t accept that they were my children or my godchildren.  Neither side accepts this or has this sense, and it truly wasn’t the case.  I was doing my own work in this country, disseminating some ideas, and there were people who liked these ideas and were interested in them.  When the reformists came to power, there were quite a few of the people who liked my ideas amongst them.  But it was not as if my ideas served as the model for their actions or that they were conscious of such a link or acknowledged it.  No, not at all.  And I absolutely didn’t expect anything from them, for my own part.  I didn’t expect to be given any post, nor did I expect them to solve my problems.  And I truly wanted the reformists to be successful in the overall running of the country.  As to how much they did succeed and, if they had little success, why this was the case, this is something that needs to be discussed on some other occasion.

Q.  So, what were you and the reformists’ modelling yourselves on?  Was it not based on anything?

A.   I was a passenger on the ship of reform (laughs).  I was neither the captain, nor the helmsman, nor the assistant helmsman.

Q.  But it seemed as if you separated your way from the ship’s masters and sailors.  There was the letter that you wrote to Khatami in which you spoke of an end and, then, there was the fact that you remained silent in the last presidential elections; or, if you did support anyone, it was Mehdi Karrubi and, of course, even that support was based on your own particular analyses.  All these things suggested that you’d disembarked from the ship.

A.  It’s a long story and it has some painful parts.  It may be that I don’t wish to repeat things that I said in the past in this respect.  Mr. Khatami was and is a close friend of mine.  But this did not mean that I was wholly pleased with everything that he did.  I totally agreed with Mr. Sa’id Hajjarian, who said that Mr. Khatami squandered some opportunities. In the end, I noticed that Mr. Khatami, too, said that he’d wasted some opportunities.  The reformists around Mr. Khatami, too, each had their own analyses of their conduct and the big excuse they gave for their failures was that the opposite camp had completely tied their hands and was not allowing them to do anything.  Of course, I don’t see this as an unacceptable excuse and I think that there’s a measure of truth in it.  Be that as it may, the reformists’ mistakes can’t be forgotten, especially the theoretical weaknesses, which were noticeable in their work and which continue to exist.  But, again, I don’t blame anyone for this and I hope that, with the passage of time, we will achieve greater clarity.

Q.  What kind of clarity?

A.  At a recent meeting with a number of reformists, there was talk of political secularism.  I explained to them that religious intellectuals have absolutely spelt out the position of political secularism and, although they haven’t used this name, they’ve correctly set out and justified its contents.

Of course, I’m talking about political secularism, not philosophical and social secularism.

Political secularism has two major pillars.  One pillar consists of the question of legitimacy and the other consists of the political system’s neutrality towards religious and theoretical schools.  I believe that religious intellectuals have so far argued well that the system’s legitimacy hinges on justice, not on any particular type of religion, and the acceptance of the system comes from the people.  As to the state’s neutrality towards different religions and creeds, when Mr. Khatami used to speak of ‘an Iran for all Iranians’, I’m not really sure what he meant, but it can be interpreted to mean that all Iranians have equal rights to their religion.  So, we can more or less say that the reformists have reached the same point now, even if they don’t use this expression.  I’m confident that if, at some future date, the reformists come to power again, they’ll proceed on the basis of much greater clarity, at least theoretically, than before and they’ll act with greater transparency.  You’re familiar with the phrase that I use and that I’ve mentioned repeatedly in my writings: courage in action is the offspring of theoretical vision.  When someone’s theories contain ambiguities, then they’ll vacillate in their actions too.  I considered this to be one of the reformists’ biggest problems, but I don’t believe that this weakness is irresolvable or that anyone is to blame.  The components of these political theories have to be clarified over time and, then, they have to be put into practice.

Q.  In saying this, have you gone one step beyond the things you’ve said in the past about ‘a religious democratic state’?  In the past, you’ve said that, if believers are in the majority in a society, then the state will take on a religious hue, but now you’re speaking about the state’s neutrality towards different religions.

A.  It’s for you to judge.  But I don’t see any contradiction between these views and the things that I’ve said in the past.  The second is a continuation of the first.  I explained this at length in one of my interviews with ‘Jameah’ newspaper. I’ve always maintained that ‘a religious democratic state’ means that the first differentiation that is made between states is the differentiation between democratic and non-democratic states.  This is a fundamental and essential division.  Then, states, whether democratic or non-democratic, can – as a secondary and incidental qualification – be described as religious or non-religious.  Religiosity is not an essential characteristic of a state and it plays no part in the preliminary differentiation of states.  The reason why they become religious is because the society is religious.  If you’ve read my discussion of a religious democratic state, which I’m sure you have, you’ll see that I’ve absolutely not suggested there that a religious democratic state derives its legitimacy from religion.

Q.  But you have said that, if the majority of the people are religious, then the state will take on a religious hue; whereas, now, you’re speaking about the state’s neutrality.

A.  I’ll repeat the point here, too, that, in a religious society, the state has to respect the values of the people and, especially, the majority of the people;  in this sense, the state takes on a religious hue.  Sociologists, too, have spoken about the separation of religion, as an institution, from the state, not the separation of religion from politics.  Religion doesn’t become separated from politics and, in some instances, religion can serve as a source of inspiration to policy-makers.  But the state is a different matter.  I believe that legitimacy is based on justice.  It makes no sense whatsoever for a group of people to grant themselves a special right to rule simply because they are Shi’is or Sunnis or Wahhabis.  If they are just, their state will be just – and they will thereby have a right to rule – otherwise not.  This is why the Prophet said that an infidel state can last but an unjust state cannot last.

Q.  At a talk that you gave in Paris last year, you spoke about religion and democracy again.  You said, there, that, at one stage, religious intellectuals had sought to extract democracy from religion and that, at a later stage, they’d tried to reconcile religion and democracy and to establish that there was no conflict between the two.  You said that religious intellectuals had now put these two stages behind them and no longer felt a need to harmonize religion and democracy, and considered them independent of one another instead.  I had the impression that, in saying this, you were entering new theoretical terrain and had gone beyond some of your previous views.  But your own judgment in this respect seems to be different.

A.  I’m still of the view and have always been of the view that it is impossible to extract many modern concepts, including democracy, from religion or at least from Islam, the religion with which I’m most familiar.  I believe that the people who have struggled to this end have struggled in vain.  I arrived at this view quite some time ago on the basis of various arguments and I’ve also explained my view to others.  Be that as it may, I respect their unsuccessful struggle and can understand its cause.  The cause of it is that Muslims and Muslim thinkers all favour justice.  They recognize that justice is one of the most important religious ideas and that there must, therefore, be a bridge between Islam and justice and democracy, because democracy is the best way of bringing about justice in our times.  So, as far as I’m concerned, all the discussions that take place on the subject of religion and democracy are rooted in and originate from the concept of justice.  Justice is a top concern in both politics and ethics.  Hence, I believe that there is a definite, logical link between ethics and politics.  Muslims have a duty to try to achieve justice.  But this having a duty is different from having a theory of justice.  They have a duty to try to achieve justice, so they also have a duty to seek a modern-day theory of justice;  that is to say, they must seek a form of justice that can be realized in modern societies.  In this sense and to this extent – and no more than this – I establish a relationship between religion, justice and democracy.

Q.  You spoke of political secularism and associated it with the reformists’ future.  Let me ask you a more specific question.  When Mr. Khatami became president in 1997, some people said that the reformists’ coming to power and their theories were a product of the discussions that had taken place in the Kiyan circle.  They spoke of an influence and a theoretical link of this kind between Kiyan and the reformists. After the reformists’ departure from power, some people are saying that there is a need for a new theory.  Do you think that we’re in need of a new theoretical front and a new theory in the post-reformist setting or do you think that it’s enough to pursue the idea of political secularism?

A.  This is one of the notions that the reformists’ need.  But there are many other issues on which we must achieve clarity.  Of course, ideas neither arrive nor depart on anyone’s orders; social conditions generate problems and thinkers and people who care about things try to solve the problems.  Now, too, after the reform era and after Mr. Khatami, there are many problems to consider in our country’s political sphere.  For example, in the new era, religious myths have come onto the stage and, as I would put it, interests-oriented (utilitarian) religiosity has gained the absolute upper hand over knowledge-oriented (gnostic) religiosity.  This will create new social, political and religious problems for us.  Religious intellectuals, who always strive to perform their epistemic duty, have a duty to combat superstitions in the realm of religiosity.  In this sense, religious intellectuals have a redoubled duty today.

Q.  In relation to this same idea of strengthening gnostic religiosity, you have on occasion brought Ahmad Fardid into the discussion and spoken of the position of Fardid’s ideas and his followers in today’s setting.  In this context, you’ve also spoken about Heidegger’s ideas and the Iranian interpretation of Heidegger.  This argument of yours has met with much comment, criticism and approval.  But now I’d like to know what you think of the criticisms.  For example, you referred to a film by an Iranian director in which there was a shot showing a photograph of Heidegger in the house of a violent vigilante.  You said that, in showing that photograph, the director had put his finger on the button.  But some people were saying that Dr. Soroush shouldn’t blame Heidegger for the problems that stem from an Iranian interpretation of Heidegger.  Now, I’d like to hear what you think of these criticisms.

A.  The truth of the matter is that what I said about Heidegger and Fardid, and Fardid’s interpretation of Heidegger was not an emotional outpouring;  it was the product of much reflection on my part since the revolution.  From the beginning of the revolution, I could see Fardid and his students.  Of course, his ideas were not very influential at that time but their influence grew as they infiltrated state bodies and cultural institutions and started disseminating their secret newsletters among officials.  Their ideas took hold in some people’s minds. The worst aspect of it all was the interpretation that they presented of the idea of religious guardianship [velayat / wilayat].  To my mind, it was at this point that their ideas took on a dangerous form.  In my view, Fardid wasn’t a person who cared about things.  His heart never beat for Islam or for Iranian society; nor did he make any effort to tackle theoretical, social and political problems. He didn’t suffer for the sake of anything and he never had to pay a price for anything.  After the revolution, he went to some powerful figures in the hope that he’d at least be given a seat in the Majlis.  But he didn’t even succeed in this.  But, unfortunately, he did succeed in putting poisonous viruses into the minds of some of his students.

Of course I distinguish between Fardid and the Iranian interpretation of Heidegger and Heidegger himself.  But this distinction doesn’t mean that Heidegger is fully absolved of the taint of fascism.  Heidegger’s European and American critics have written a great deal about his philosophy.  Heidegger never expressed regret about joining the Nazi party.  He betrayed a number of his Jewish students, thus helping the fascist government in Germany to arrest them.  His anti-Semitism has been confirmed by some of the students who were close to him.  Even some philosophers, like Adorno, have described Heidegger’s philosophy as fascist through and through.  This is a story that has very deep roots.  So, the story of the fascism in Heidegger’s ideas is not just a fairy tale;  it is at least a possibility and a view that has been put forward by some opinion holders.

Q.  Is it not possible, then, to be a Heideggerian and not to be a fascist?

A.  You can say this about any thinker.  There may be people today who knowingly avoid Heideggerian fascism.  That is to say, people who try not to fall into this trap.  But no one today doubts that Heidegger himself didn’t view his philosophy like this; his view of it was, rather, in line with Nazism and fascism.  But, despite all of this, I believe that Heidegger’s philosophy should be discussed with exactitude and criticized like any other philosophy, and that the sacred tint its been given should be examined.  Some staunch devotees and enthusiasts have gathered round him and they suggest and insist that Heidegger’s philosophy is the highest and most important philosophy since Plato.  And that it was Heidegger who introduced a new conception and made it incumbent on all thinkers to follow him. These kinds of suggestions are lethal poison to thought and produce nothing but unthinking devotees and a kind of theoretical fundamentalism.  This is why we witnessed a kind of verbal violence in Fardid and some of his students. To my mind, this violence is not unconnected to the truth of this philosophy. But, as you say, this is an Iranian interpretation of Heidegger’s ideas and there are other interpretations, in which we see a kind of fair-mindedness and moderation;  they don’t by any means try to hide the fascist aspect of Heidegger’s thinking or refuse to criticize him.

            In his book What is Philosophy?, Mr. Davari has described Heidegger as the wise man of the age and said that, since Heidegger hasn’t said anything about his link to fascism and Nazism, we shouldn’t say anything about it either.  This is to put a ‘lid’ on criticism and to call for unquestioning devotion to a philosopher.  But the one thing that we don’t have in the realm of philosophy is unquestioning devotion.  This sort of thing must be left to Sufi retreats and the world of mystics and dervishes.  Here, there must be criticism.  Hence, a different reading of Heidegger in Iran – accompanied by criticism of his philosophy – would be welcomed by everyone. In the realm of philosophy, we believe in neither enmity nor unquestioning devotion;  instead, we opt for reviews and criticism and we respect all great philosophers.

Q.  So, what you object to is the interpretation of Heidegger that replaces criticism with unquestioning devotion; not just any interpretation of Heidegger.

A.  Yes.  But Fardid also left his students the legacy of a very inappropriate and defective method, which consists of punching holes in words in order to understand the truths of being.  In fact, it’s hard to think of a more injudicious method than this.  In order to understand being, you must seek out being.  Moreover, the semantic method that Fardid adopted was erroneous from top to bottom, a complete ‘hotchpotch’ and lacking in any criteria. I personally witnessed the way he used to apply his unholy method.  He’d manufacture links between totally unrelated Arabic and Persian words in the most absurd fashion.  He used to cook up the most meaningless and implausible stew, serve it up to a bunch of bewitched devotees and completely waste the mental energy of this land’s young people.

Q.  I’ll also ask a peripheral question here if I may.  I’ve heard that you went to Fardid’s house to see him once after the revolution.  There are various stories about the meeting, but you’re the best narrator yourself.  Could you tell us what actually happened?

A.  It was soon after the revolution.  A friend came to me and said, Let’s go to see Mr. Fardid.  We went to his house, which has now been turned into the ‘Fardid Institute’. My visit was very brief of course; maybe half an hour at most.  We spoke about the current affairs of the day, about Mr. Bazargan, the tale of Bakhtiar’s flight from Iran, matters concerning the running of a state and the relevant ideology, and so on.  Our conversation ended and we left.  Two, three days later, one of Fardid’s students came to me and said, Did you go to his house?  I confirmed that I had.  He said, Mr. Fardid is telling everyone that Soroush is a Bakhtiar supporter.  I’d really not realized before then that he could be such a liar.  I was very surprised.  At first, I tried to deny that Fardid could be saying such a thing. But his student insisted that he’d heard him say repeatedly: I brought that fellow over and tested him and discovered that he supports social democracy;  so, Soroush is a disciple of Bakhtiar.  This is when I recognized the sort of person he was.  And then he’d gone on to say that I was a Freemason and made many other remarks of this kind.  Once, when it became evident that he was saying these things repeatedly, I got the message to him that I intended to take him to court for all his slanderous remarks.  He became very anxious and fretful, to the point where Dr. Davari telephoned me at the Philosophy Society and told the officials there:  Please tell Soroush to reconsider his decision to go to court.  And then he’d used the following expression:  ‘I’ll sort him out myself.’  And it seems that he did sort Fardid out himself; I never heard him repeat those remarks again.

Q.  And you never took him to court, did you?

A.  No,  I didn’t.  But I knew him well enough to know that merely suggesting it would be enough to frighten him.

Q.  Another question:  I’ve noticed that, while accusing some of your critics of being followers of Heidegger and fascism, you’ve also spoken of them having links to the Tudeh Party;  whereas fascists and communists are in opposite camps.  What’s the story on this?

A.  I don’t want to delve too deeply into this can of worms but, since you mentioned it, I’ll speak about it briefly.  I didn’t mean to suggest that Tudeh Party members were followers of Heidegger’s ideas; I meant that some of the people who’ve attacked Popper and others from the position of Heidegger’s philosophy, first, had associations with the Tudeh Party when they were young and, secondly, have learnt the Tudeh Party’s methods, which consisted of insulting thinkers instead of criticizing their thinking;  that is to say, ad hominem attacks.  Don’t forget that the first person who raised the battle cry of opposition to Popper in Iran was not this or that university lecturer but Mr. Ehsan Tabari.  I read what he wrote in one of the Tudeh Party’s journals and, once this signal had been given, I saw that a former member of the Tudeh Party followed it up and managed to attract a circle of people around himself.  The communists’ opposition to Popper was nothing new.  I’d noticed it already when I’d been in Britain and was familiar with it.  I’d read some of the very harsh and bitter things that had been written against Popper.  So, that attack on Popper after the revolution did not seem strange or extraordinary to me.  In fact, there were similarities between the individuals who did this sort of thing.   They were all Stalinist left-wingers who used similar methods.  I noticed that in their criticisms, both in Iran and in Britain, they ridiculed Popper for having been given the title of ‘Sir’ by the British Queen.  However, a Muslim should be a little more sensitive and intelligent over this issue because Sir Iqbal, too, was awarded this title by the British King. 

In fact, it’s good that you asked this question because it gives me the chance to explain another point.  In the writings of some sympathetic people, like Mr. Babak Ahmadi, and in their kind criticisms or their critical kindnesses, I’ve noticed that they suggest that there was a kind of war between the supporters of Popper and the supporters of Heidegger after the revolution.

Q.  I’ve also heard Mr. Ashouri say this.

A.  Yes, I want to correct this historical mistake and to say that there was no such occurrence.  What it was was that a group of Heidegger devotees made some venomous attacks on Popper.  There was no one on the other side who took up Popper’s banner and responded to the attacks.  So, there was no war between Popper and Heidegger’s supporters.  Rather, one individual, who was well-known for his unquestioning devotion to Heidegger, said some things against Popper and the relevant remarks were so unphilosophical and so unacademic that the person who said them is still writing articles and books to this day, trying to explain why he said the things he said at that time.  But he’s still not been able to rid himself of the opprobrium.  And the best indication of this is that the relevant critical articles that he published soon after the revolution have never been republished by him or by anyone else.

Q.  You said that some of Heidegger’s Iranian supporters say that Heidegger is the top philosopher and so on.  But I noticed in a book by Dr. Davari-Ardakani that, alongside saying this, he’d said that Popper was not an important or great philosopher at all and he expressed surprise about the propagation of his ideas in Iran.  Don’t you accept this remark about Popper being a second or third rate philosopher?

A.  It would be difficult to find a weaker and more unsuccessful way than this of covering up one’s own lack of success.  Who’s ever said anything in this country about Popper being a first rate philosopher?  Secondly, supposing that Popper is not a first rate philosopher, that critic still had no right to utter this remark because he knows absolutely nothing about Popper’s philosophy.  Popper is, in the first instance, a philosopher of science and, in order for someone to know Popper, they must be familiar with the philosophy of science.  Let me tell you that these gentlemen who’ve written these criticisms of Popper hadn’t even heard the term ‘philosophy of science’ until a few years ago, let alone know anything about any philosophers of science.  Even today, when they’ve written their criticisms of Popper, they haven’t studied the philosophy of science properly.  All that they know about the subject has been gleaned from a book that was used in secondary schools in France 80 years ago and was taught to philosophy students here. The book had turned into the holy bible of their philosophy department.  Thirdly, is Popper the only philosopher who isn’t first rate?  All the philosophers who are discussed and studied here in Iran are philosophers who aren’t first rate.  Are the views of Mirdamad, Jalal Davani and Sabzevari the views of first rate philosophers?  Have Bertrand Russell, Carnap and Sartre not been studied here?  Were they first rate philosophers?  And the fourth point is that, when you look at the initial criticisms of these gentlemen, you’ll see that they weren’t saying this sort of thing then.  Instead, they claimed that they were attacking Popper on behalf of Islam and that Popper’s philosophy was anti-Islamic.  Mr. Fardid himself used to say that he was presenting an Islamic interpretation of Heidegger.

Q.  But nowadays I don’t find Popper’s critics suggesting that there is a clash between his ideas and Islam and criticizing Popper from this angle.

A.  Of course, because such remarks have no takers now and bring no rewards.

Q.  Let’s move on from this subject.  I noticed that you’re still using the term ‘religious intellectuals’ in this interview.  This is in circumstances in which, in your talk in Paris, you said that it was useless and pointless to link religion and democracy and so on. So why speak of ‘religious intellectuals’?  Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to use terms like ‘religious reformists’ instead?

A.  I didn’t say that religion and democracy can’t be linked;  I said that you can’t extract one from the other.  However, believers can link the two by practical means.

Q.  But you don’t find the term ‘religious democracy’ very compelling.

A.  From the start, I’ve always spoken of a believers’ democracy;  a democracy for believers who want to breathe a democratic air.  As to ‘religious intellectuals’, following Popper, I’m not very finicky about words.  People don’t have to use this term if they don’t like it.  But, to my mind, there’s no reason at present for not using this term.  A term is used to point to a fact and religious intellectuals actually exist in our society today.  So, you can use the term to point to the fact and no one has the right to ban us from using it. Apart from this, if we accept that there’s no conflict or contradiction between thinking and religiosity, why do we have to avoid speaking of religious intellectuals?  Haven’t we had pious philosophers and pious poets and scholars?  So, it’s perfectly possible to combine thought with religiosity and there’s nothing wrong with this.  And intellectual work is a kind of thinking;  so, it’s also possible to combine being an intellectual with being religious.  Unless someone claims from the start that thinking and religion basically don’t go together, like the gentleman in Germany who keeps beating the drum of this mistaken idea.  I really think it’s difficult to find a more misguided idea than this.  Both historical experience and rational reflection testify to the fact that this term or notion is perfectly valid and plausible.  These people have made a mistake and the Iranian followers of this idea have made the same mistake.  They’ve read about ‘the refusal to think’ in some books on modern epistemology, especially in the works of a number of French thinkers, but they’ve mistakenly assumed that this ‘refusal to think’ only applies to religion and religiosity.  They haven’t understood that any theoretical system considers some things unthinkable and unchallengeable.  Even the freest theoretical paradigm – because it is a system – generates some questions and pushes some questions to the back of the mind and makes them un-askable.  This isn’t confined to religious thought.  Today, no physicist either thinks about or asks about the movement of a pendulum in Aristotelian terms;  nor do questions of this kind form in modern physicists’ minds.

In a magazine I read years ago, I noticed that a reader had written to the magazine’s doctor to say:  I’ve eaten this or that food or fruit and it’s given me cold dyspepsia;  what’s the treatment for cold dyspepsia?  The doctor’s difficulty in comprehending the question was palpable.  He’d replied:  I absolutely don’t understand your question because cold dyspepsia is an expression that was used in ancient medical science. It is the same with these people who’ve heard the expression ‘refusal to think’ without realizing that it wasn’t invented for the rejection of religious knowledge systems;  any epistemic, philosophical or theoretical system automatically makes some questions un-askable.  Then, they’ve cried out that the basis of religious thought is ‘the refusal to think’ and thoroughly muddied the water in this way.  But let me tell you that this is absolutely not true.  Hence, intellectual work and religiosity can be combined.  In other words, religious thought creates no barrier to stepping into the realm of thinking.

Q.  But, setting aside these criticisms by non-religious intellectuals, some of your erstwhile colleagues and some erstwhile fellow religious intellectuals have abandoned you on this issue.  Mr. Malekian and even Mr. Mojtahed-Shabestari have started criticizing the concept of religious intellectuals. Some of your students, too, have made similar criticisms of the use of the term ‘religious intellectuals’.  Aren’t you worried about being more alone on this issue?

A.  The realm of thought is the realm of ebbs and flows; not the realm of sameness. Thought is a fluid, collective business and no theoretical system is the product of one single individual.  Everyone presents their products and the market of knowledge flourishes.  The fact that some distinguished people are opting for a different course or preferring to give themselves some other label is their right and their decision and choice.  But, in my opinion, you shouldn’t base your judgment on any particular individual, because they won’t be the one who determines the course of knowledge;  allow history to be the judge.

Q.  But isn’t it difficult for a religious intellectual – following your remarks – to want to oppose social and epistemic secularism, while promoting political secularism?  Won’t it be problematic to pursue such a dual role?

A.  If these two tasks were contradictory, pursuing them jointly would be very difficult, but they aren’t by any means contradictory.  To my mind, political secularism has clear pillars and is totally defensible.  And it also has weaknesses that have surfaced in other countries and people in those countries are trying to tackle them.  But let me also say that epistemic secularism is very prevalent in Islamic philosophy.  I’ve made this point repeatedly and defended it.  I believe that our philosophers have been totally secular in philosophy, in the sense that they haven’t based their explanations of natural phenomena on God’s will and on particularly religious thinking;  they resorted to the law of causality, the nature/essence of things and the like.  So, although Islamic philosophy is styled ‘Islamic’, it is based on a totally secular epistemic system.  In fact, this was the cause of our mystics and theologians’ quarrels with our philosophers.  Even the Mu’tazilities, about whom I often speak, formulated their judgments independently of religion when it came to morality and understanding nature, as well as when it came to proving the existence of God.  Hence, there’s no conflict between epistemic secularism and political secularism either.  Of course, in one sense, we’re not philosophical secularists or metaphysical secularists;  in the sense that we don’t see the world as being outside God’s will.  This differentiates us from materialists.

Q.  But what about social secularism?  A secular system may well generate products that make motives non-religious.  You once spoke of the harmful effects of technology on this same basis.  Wouldn’t it be problematic if a religious intellectual harped on political secularism only to bring about a situation in which, as you put it, a monster emerges that gobbles up religion?

A.  If religion is strong internally, it will survive and, if it isn’t, it won’t survive of course;  they may forcibly keep it standing but it will ultimately collapse.  Social secularism means that religion is weak and its strength is declining in the social sphere.  It’s really the responsibility of religious guides, teachers and preachers to prevent this.  And if it does occur, it inevitably means that there’s a weakness in the institution of religion and its propagators.  Of course, our ulema think that, if the people act on religious precepts, religion is present in society.  But I’m of the opinion that this is neither a necessary condition nor a sufficient condition.  The necessary and sufficient condition for religion’s survival in society is religious faith, which must be present in hearts and minds;  otherwise, the mere performance of rites doesn’t prove anything to my mind.

At any rate, individuals carry out their religious and epistemic duties; what the overall outcome of these actions will be is something that we cannot predict.  But let me also say that, as far as I’m concerned, far from harming religion, political secularism will – as sociologists of religion have said – actually help religion by distilling its kernel, because political secularism will deprive religion of political support.  Political secularism says to religion:  Demonstrate your capability, if capable you are, and face up to the rivalries and prove that you can win.  I’ve said repeatedly that people mustn’t try to darn holes in their reasoning with the needle of power because this kind of darning is not very lasting and it will be spotted by vigilant observers. 

As long as religion is supported by political power and darns its epistemic holes with the needle of power, it isn’t possible to be certain of religion’s true capabilities.  But, as soon as this support is removed and a champion by the name of religion is asked to step into the ring by itself, its destiny will hinge on its own essential capabilities.  It is in these circumstances that religion will appear in its true guise and will either capture or repel hearts;  will either expand or contract.  I’m not saying the Islam will necessarily follow the same course as Christianity, but I always have Christianity’s experience before my eyes and my guess is that Islam will follow the same course.

Q.  Like in Turkey –

A.  Yes, in Turkey, too, I’ve seen that Muslims there – because they live in a secular setting – never used political power to push their ideas.  So they always tried to be strong in terms of theory and to demonstrate their theoretical superiority over their rivals.

Q.  By way of a final question:  where do you think the ship of politics is headed?  How do you picture the future?

A.  We are Third Worlders and politicians have said that the Third World goes through pendulum swings;  sometimes it swings to the left and sometimes it swings to the right.  I think that we’re now experiencing the reaction to Mr. Khatami’s era and are going too far to the right.  After this, we might return to the previous situation or something like it.  But this doesn’t detract anything from our duties and we must persist with our own work.

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


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