Interview with Dr. Soroush Broadcast on Homa TV

• Mar 9th, 2006 • Category: Interviews

by Dariush Sajjadi

Broadcast on Homa TV on 9 March 2006

 Q. I’d like to devote my first question to the crisis stemming from the publication of offensive cartoons of the Prophet of Islam.

I remember that, more than six years ago, I saw you and Dr. Samuel Huntington, ‘the clash of civilizations’ theoretician, at a gathering of thinkers in Nicosia, Cyprus. At the conference, you criticized the theory of the clash of civilizations. Now, several years later, can we see the crisis arising from the publication of offensive cartoons of the holy Prophet as the beginning of the coming to fruition of Huntington’s theory or can we hope that there can be understanding and dialogue between Western civilization and the world of Islam?

A.  As you said, a few years ago, in the early days of Mr. Khatami’s presidency, there was a conference in Cyprus attended by a number of Iranian scholars and politicians, as well as by Mr. Huntington, in which I, too, participated. As it happened, a subject of heated debate there was Mr. Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations, towards which I had and still have a critical view.

I might add that, five years ago, i.e. when the attack on the Twin Towers took place, numerous seminars were held across the USA, including at Harvard University, where Mr. Huntington happens to teach.  And Mr. Huntington took part in some of the seminars. But I noticed that he was not keen to talk about the theory of the clash of civilizations at any of the seminars or to view that terrible incident as corroboration of his theory.  I think that if you put the question that you put to me to Mr. Huntington, he would still not answer you with any certainty about whether the insult against the noble Prophet and the reaction to it in the world of Islam was a corroboration of his theory or not.

But I think that Huntington’s theory is, in the first instance, a theory that has two components. One component is demographic and relates to the study of populations. And the second component is cultural-conceptual. The demographic part of the theory states that the population growth in the world of Islam – whether the minorities who live in European countries or in the US or Muslims who live in Islamic countries – is very high.  Huntington believes that this very high growth rate will one day turn into a political, security and cultural problem for European countries and the West in general, and that Muslims will outnumber Westerners.

But the second point in Huntington’s theory, which is a more important point, is the emphasis that he places on the West’s cultural characteristics. Huntington believes that some concepts, such as freedom and human rights and the separation of religion and the state – are Western cultural concepts and that they have no place in Islamic culture. And that it is impossible to sow the seeds of these concepts in the realm of Islamic thought. That these concepts are and will continue to be fundamentally alien to Islamic culture.  Hence, he believes that these civilizations will try to settle scores with each other one day.

Apart from the truth or falsehood of the two components of Huntington’s theory (and I think there is a great deal to be said about the second component), in the context of political science and sociology, his theory is such that it can work simultaneously to prove and to disprove itself.

What I said at the Cyprus conference was that Huntington’s theory can both disprove itself, in the sense that, once it has been expressed, others can act to prevent it – as was the case with Marx’s prediction about the emergence of socialism and, then, communism in Europe – and prove itself, in the sense that some people might try to expedite it and bring it to fruition. In fact, after the cartoons affair, I saw that some writers had made some efforts to this end and had tried to show that the war of civilizations (between Islam and the West) had started and that these were its signs.  But what we saw in the world of Islam – especially in those reactions to this affair that were carried out in a civilized way – showed that this is preventable and that it is not by any means possible to talk of an inexorable clash of civilizations.  Moreover, you and your learned viewers know that nothing in history is inexorable and that we can only ever speak of possibilities.  And these possibilities can become stronger or weaker. And this strength or weakness depends on how well the actors and responsible parties deal with things, the historical and social status that they attach to an event, and the destiny that they forge for a theory or prediction.

Q.  Setting aside the fact that the publication of these cartoons was indefensible, you’re aware that the effect that it had on some Muslims was to inflame their wrath and hysterical hatred towards the perpetrators and supporters of this reprehensible deed. Now, bearing in mind that you have, for many years, been a critic of the perpetrators and theoreticians of violence, can this reaction by Muslims also be viewed as reprehensible violence?  And, here, I’d like to add the following explanation:  I noticed that, after you wrote a piece in castigation of the publication of the cartoons, some people objected to your stance by saying that Dr. Soroush has portrayed this row as the fire of freedom versus the fire of zeal, whereas a confrontation between the fire of freedom and the fire of zeal is a contrived idea, and it is confrontations between religious zeal and religious zeal that has bloodied the arena of history, and history is full of religious wars, especially intra-religious wars, and Muslims have mostly been felled by Muslims.

A.  Yes, I read the retort to which you are referring and I found it surprising and regrettable.

I said in a short piece that I wrote about the cartoons incident that we were witnessing a confrontation between two fundamentalisms in this affair; secular fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism.  And that it was these two fundamentalisms that had produced this untoward event.  In other words, on one side, some people had turned secularism into a stick with which to beat others and were using its contents, i.e. human rights and freedom, as a pretext for attacking other people’s sanctities, insulting them and tormenting the faithful Muslims who are devoted to their Prophet – and viewed this as their right!  And, on the other side, when Muslims are angered, sometimes they know no bounds and they recklessly launch into inappropriate reactions, such as setting embassies alight, which is not acceptable. The author of that critical piece, for his part, cavilled at this and said that secularism is not a religion.  I didn’t say that secularism was a religion and, even if I had, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing since it would have amounted to a sanctification of secularism!  What I was saying was that some people use secularism in exactly the same way that some religious fundamentalists and fanatics use religion; i.e. they use secularism as a stick with which to beat others and wield it with fanaticism, without consideration for moral criteria. And, when I referred to ‘by the fire of freedom’ or ‘by the fire of zeal’, if my critic had looked at the text carefully, he would have seen that I’d placed quote marks around the words ‘freedom’ and ‘zeal’;  i.e. ‘so-called freedom’ and ‘so-called zeal’.  Hence, just as pretentious religious zeal is not real zeal, this secular exploitation of freedom is not a real commitment to freedom either.  My intention was to say that some people have exploited ‘freedom of expression’ to inflame others.  Today, if someone insults your father, you’ll take offence and you won’t see it as something proper and a corollary of freedom of expression.  So, how can it be appropriate for some people – wittingly or unwittingly – to insult a vast community’s spiritual father?

This secular critic of mine also used the opportunity to take a swipe at religion by saying that history is filled with religious wars. I won’t deny this, but let me ask this:  were the first and second world wars, which put all other wars in history to shame and left 50 million dead, religious or secular wars?

Speaking in this way amounts to the secular fundamentalism to which I referred.  The interesting point is that, if we’d raised this question a generation ago, Marxists would have said that there’s no such thing as religious wars in history and that all wars were class wars!

All this going to one extreme or the other stems from obsessions that rob people of their sense of balance.

Now, let me broaden the scope of our discussion a bit beyond this criticism of me.  As I’ve said in some of my writings, I’m of the view that one of the problems of liberal civilization today is that they haven’t delved fully into the rights-morality relationship. And even if they have, the subject has not been taught well and remains unknown to the public.  It’s true that we have some rights but, in some instances, morality places some boundaries and limitations on our rights.  That is to say, although I have a right to freedom of expression, I don’t have the right, morally, to offend or insult someone or to assist the propagation of pornography.  I’m of the view that this conflict between right and morality has not been resolved in the West.  What we are witnessing today is that right has advanced like floodwater and washed away some of the territory belonging to morality. This is what offends some people and it leads some beneficiaries of rights to invade the territory of morality and to arouse other people’s wrath and protests. I believe that one of the great imperatives of our day is to respect the boundaries of these two things and to keep them in their own place.

My criticism of the West is not that they are liberal; it is that they aren’t liberal enough.  My criticism is not that they are democratic; it is that they aren’t democratic enough.  My criticism of and my stance on this affair is distinct from those people in Iran who use the publication of these cartoons to attack Western liberalism and democracy. But I also have no doubt that Western civilization merits criticism and should be criticized.  We mustn’t imagine that these offensive cartoons are the achievement of democracy or freedom of expression in the West.  In fact, these are instances of abusive exploitation, which must be recognized and prevented.

Q. But, following on from the subject of criticizing violence, I’d like to turn to domestic Iranians issues for my next question.   In a recent interview about criticizing violence and the proponents of violence in Iran, you turned Ahmad Fardid into the focal point of theoretical work promoting violence in Iran since the revolution. Don’t you think that this is a slight exaggeration?  After all, regardless of who Fardid was and regardless of what he said, his deeds and thoughts cannot be considered so far-reaching as to allow the linking to his ideas of all the violent activities and stances undertaken by some layers of the state.  So, don’t you think you’ve exaggerated Fardid’s position and stature?

A.  As you know, I said these things about Fardid and his cronies for the first time in an interview about two months ago.  Although they were in the back of my mind, I’d never spoken or written about these things during the 27 years that have passed since Iran’s Islamic Revolution.  And this is simply because I see now that some of these ideas are gradually taking up the seats of power officially and are reaching out from the sleeve of power to instigate violence. This is why I tried to reveal some of the founts of violence in society and, if you look carefully, you’ll see that what I said about Fardid is a tiny fraction of what there is to be said.  It wasn’t my intention to exaggerate the importance of Fardid’s ideas.  As I said in the interview, his ideas are not important.  I really saw and see Fardid as someone who had a confused mind and an even more confused mode of expression.  But there it is;  he gained importance and authority within a limited circle of people and gradually this limited circle reproduced, and not only among pseudo-intellectuals but among some seminarians and clerics and publications, such as ‘Kayhan’ newspaper and the journals ‘Soureh’, ‘Howzeh-ye Andisheh’ and ‘Honar-e Eslami’.

We are now living in times in which, over the past few months, many of these people have attained power and scaled the walls of power.

I deliberately spoke about this subject because I saw that some people were, wittingly or unwittingly, pointing in the wrong direction and linking everything to the Hojjatieh Society.  Of course, I’m not a defender of the Hojjatieh.  It was a clan that has really become extinct now. And the individuals whom I know about and am acquainted with had no wish to enter the political arena and basically didn’t have a political theory.  The fact that the current president harps on the Hidden Imam [12th Shi’i Imam] and considers his return to be imminent and bases some of his political stances on this must not deceive us into imagining that Hojjatieh members have infiltrated politics and are speaking through the president and through others.  I wanted to reveal the real founts of these words, theories and stances.  Whatever and whoever the Hojjatieh consisted of, they were not proponents of violence, but the Fardid circle is a different matter.

Just yesterday, I noticed that a group of students who belong to the Basij [volunteer force affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards] had said at one of their meetings that democracy is the materialization of carnality.  These aren’t the Hojjatieh’s words; they are Ahmad Fardid’s words.  They have used phrases of this kind to disparage and impair all the good achievements of the West which we could really do with a bit of today when our country is in the grip of this exaltation of violence.

They’ve used terms like carnality, global arrogance, Westoxication, Freemasonry and decadence to invalidate all the West’s good ideas with ease and without any supporting argumentation and to deprive us of them.  And the only thing they have offered in return is violence.  This is why I placed such emphasis on this issue and tried to show exactly where the problem lies.  You remember what his students, like Reza Davari, said and did a few years ago in the programme called ‘Hoviyat’ which was broadcast on Iranian TV, and whose purposes the programme served.  [‘Hoviyat’ (Identity) was a TV programme – broadcast in a few dozen instalments in 1996 – which castigated some named writers and intellectuals, and portrayed them as ‘Westoxicated Iranians who have lost or betrayed their cultural identity’ and as virtual fifth columnists for the West.]

You also remember how, a few years ago, one of the Tehran Friday prayer leaders, who remains in this post to this day and who has done nothing in the long, fruitless life that God has given him other than to attack others, attacked Popper’s Open Society in one of his sermons without ever having read a single page of it.  I believe that this is the product of the link that those same gentlemen had with this Friday prayer leader.  And they gradually extended their links to other clerics through him and this is how they were able to spread their ideas.  On the whole, what passes for opposition to and hatred of the West and Western civilization and democracy and human rights in our country – which is presented in rather subtle and ornate packaging – is the product of the factory of the same gentlemen, who are all linked to Mr. Ahmad Fardid in some way.  Interestingly, after my interview, about two months ago, about Fardid and his approval of Ayatollah Khalkhali, I received an angrily-worded letter from Mr. Khalkhali’s son in which it was said that Mr. Khalkhali had numerous meetings with Fardid.  This is another confirmation of what I said earlier about the fact that not all the pro-violence stances of faqihs [experts in Islamic jurisprudence] arise from fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence]; the philosophy of these fascistic philosophers has also played its part.

Of course, criticizing the West is another matter and I’m not opposed to it by any means.  As I said earlier, there are philosophers in the West itself who criticize the West.  We, too, shouldn’t accept anything unquestioningly.  But a violent anti-Western stance and spreading hatred of the West was and is the inauspicious legacy of the proponents of Fardid’s thinking who are still busy recruiting foot soldiers for their camp.

I believe that it is a duty to recognize and to help others recognize this sickness and these sick people, especially so in view of the fact that we are now witnessing that some of them have gained positions of power.

I know that these people have infiltrated not just segments of the press but also layers of the Revolutionary Guards; they have spread their ideas there too and have created a situation in which a disturbed and unbalanced mentality towards the outside world has emerged among us.  Worst of all is the anti-Semitism.  This is really a strange phenomenon in our country’s history.  Anti-Semitism has never been our problem.  We’ve never had problems with the Jews.  There are occasions when I’m talking to Western professors and colleagues abroad and they ask me about the Jews. When I tell them that the Jewish community in our country has a representative in parliament, they’re all amazed, because they think that we’re all standing there with clenched fists, ready to attack Jews and throw them out of the country.  I explain to them that this is not the case.  Neither religion nor humanity permits us to do such a thing.  Fortunately, the Jews who still remain in Iran enjoy the same benefits as everyone else.  Now, in a country like this – which has never had problems with Jews and Judaism, which even has a laudable record and boasts a Cyrus in its history who rescued the Jews from captivity and registered this honour for Iran – some people teach enmity towards Jews to the children and philosophy students of this land and make them assess philosophers on the basis of whether they were Jews or not, all because of a bunch of false ideas that they’ve learnt from this or that German thinker or because they lived in a particular, poisoned environment in Germany at some point in time.

This is one of the most ill-advised things that has been done and is being done in our land. I’m even of the view that the President’s unfortunate, extremist remarks about the destruction of Israel arise from these ideas to some extent.

Hence, I believe that, now that this thinking has taken on these dimensions, it is not at all an exaggeration for us to point out the founts of these ideas and to work hard to fill a well, which contains nothing but snakes and scorpions, so that we can have a more healthy environment.

Some time ago, Cyrus Alvandi’s film ‘Rastegari’ [Salvation] was shown in Iran.  In the film, a young man with a thick beard and a pleasing, philosopher-like demeanour wanted to cleanse society of uncleanliness.  And his method was to abduct and kill people.  In the young man’s study, a picture of Heidegger was hanging on the wall and he also had a book on Heidegger’s philosophy in his hands.  I realized that the clever filmmaker had put his finger on the sensitive point and on the source of the virus.  I said, ‘Bravo’.

‘A fascist reading of religion’ is the best designation for Fardid’s sickness-inducing school of thought, which has, unfortunately, also claimed victims among the clergy.

Q.  But, after your recent stances, criticizing the violence stemming from Fardid’s views, an Iranian website claimed that ‘this person, who has now become a critic of radicalism and violence, did not lack an affinity to this approach himself in the early years of the revolution’.  And they mainly pointed the finger of blame at your presence in the Cultural Revolution Headquarters during the years when universities were closed, during the cultural revolution, which led to the extensive purging and expulsion of many professors and students.

A.  This is an old tale.  They’ve said this again and again, and I’ve answered them again and again.  And the strange thing about it is that not only my opponents or the opponents of the Islamic Republic say this and accuse me in this way, but the accusation is also repeated inside the country by some state officials and by people who are students of the same philosopher whose name was mentioned; of course, each side does this from their own particular perspective and on the basis of their own a particular motives and aims.  For my own part, I thank God that I’m not and never was a proponent of violence.  My writings, too, contain nothing that could be interpreted as the propagation of violence.  The sum total of my offence and sin, which made me liable to some chastisements and imposed some costs on me in Iran, was precisely the fact that I always advocated tolerance and opposed violence.

But I’ll explain the tale of the cultural revolution once again and I’m grateful to you for having given me this opportunity with your question.

We need to distinguish between two completely separate things: the cultural revolution and the Cultural Revolution HQ.  The cultural revolution consisted of the occasionally bloody incidents that took place throughout the country and at some universities.  There were attacks on universities and relatively fierce clashes occurred which led to the closure of universities. The question of what the motivation was behind these clashes, who was supporting them and which political factions were strengthening the attackers still remains largely unanswered.  I don’t know myself and there may be hardly anyone who knows, until a day when light is shed on things and truths revealed. However, two months later, the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, decided to hand over universities to some trusted individuals so that they could draw up new programmes for universities and, then, reopen them.  This is how it came about that he designated seven people and issued a decree, asking them to establish the Cultural Revolution HQ and to strive to reopen universities.  Hence, we have two completely distinct events: one is the violent cultural revolution and the blood-strewn closure of universities; and the second event is the reopening of universities which, far from being violent, quelled the violence.

In the judgments that are made, these two issues are mixed together, knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately or accidentally.  What we were doing at the Cultural Revolution HQ (which I think merits gratitude from anyone who is aware of what we did and all the students who are now studying at universities) is to try to establish a safe teaching environment at universities and to halt the radicalism.  Anyone who has witnessed the early days of a revolution will know that all revolutions are similar at that stage.  If they’re not all identical throughout the course of their development, they’re at least identical during their first few years; notably, radicalism is at its height and reason is at a very low ebb.


This is the situation that we faced in the country.  At the time, anyone who was more radical, anyone who shouted out the most radical and violent – and, as they put it then, the most revolutionary and the most hezbollahi – slogans was the most victorious and had the greatest number of followers.  And how difficult it was for people who advocated tolerance and reason to work in such circumstances.

Most of our energy at the Cultural Revolution HQ was spent on thwarting and tackling this tide of radicalism and violence at universities, so that we could gradually create a secure teaching environment at universities.  We succeeded to the extent that that atmosphere and that framework allowed, and we reopened universities.  Hence, the inaccurate and topsy-turvy judgment that has been made in this respect is based on the confusion of events before the establishment of the HQ and after the establishment of the HQ, describing them both as ‘the cultural revolution’ and judging them on the same basis. This judgment is not correct.  I’ve spoken about this many times. 

But most amazing and bizarre of all is the remarks made by some of the right-wingers and the security people and hezbollahis.  In order to drive out one of their opponents and critics, they’ve put their finger on the tale of the cultural revolution and muddied the water.  The fact of the matter is that, even if there had been violence at that juncture, I was not the only member of the Cultural Revolution HQ; the HQ had six other members.  If officials are going to level this accusation, they must level it at all those individuals; quite apart from the fact that, to do this, is to attack one of the – as they would put it – achievements of the revolution.  But these calculations aren’t important to them at the moment; the important thing is to suppress a specific individual.

This was the truth of the matter.  Fortunately, the Cultural Revolution HQ was relatively successful in quelling that tide of violence and we even persuaded those students who really wanted the closure of universities to last longer to abandon this notion, because the land needs universities and knowledgeable people and it should be run by knowledgeable, not ignorant, people.  Of course, explaining these things was accompanied by its own particular difficulties at the time and it was after a year and a half that we were able to reopen universities and to return to universities a huge army of young people, who passed the time aimlessly in the streets or who were trying to leave the country, and to re-establish the normal course of higher education.

This covers the story over the time when I was at the HQ.  Then, the Cultural Revolution Council was established and I left in the early days of the council and I haven’t had any links with it for more than 20 years now.

Of course, I have a complaint against the council myself. My complaint is that all these violent groups, which sometimes go under the name of Ansar-e Hezbollah or under the name of plainclothesmen, emerged during the 20 years since the establishment of the Cultural Revolution Council and I was one of the first victims of these violent people, at the University of Esfahan, the University of Tehran, the University of Mashhad, and in Qom and Khorramabad.  In all these places, I was one of the victims. And the Cultural Revolution Council saw these acts of violence and said nothing and it still continues in this same way.  Now, things have reached a point where even Islamic students unions inside universities face a thousand obstacles before they can hold a meeting at which they can speak about Islam; an Islam which may be slightly different from the state’s Islam.  Of course, today, this is a valid criticism of the Cultural Revolution Council; a Cultural Revolution Council in which (I return again to your earlier question) several students of that same Mr. Philosopher are regular and influential participants, and they turn a blind eye to these acts of violence, if not to say they add fuel to the flames.

From the moment when I entered the Cultural Revolution HQ, I knew what I had to do and where I had to lead the convoy, to the best of my ability.  My method was one that later earned me two designations, given to me by two people.  One of them was Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi and, the other, a friend of Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi, i.e. Hojjat-ol-Eslam Ahmad Ahmadi, who is now a member of the Cultural Revolution Council and a Majlis deputy.  He also teaches at the University of Tehran’s Department of Philosophy.  Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi used a milder word and said that there were infiltrators at the Cultural Revolution HQ, meaning me and the fact that I was against violence. But Mr. Ahmadi – in view of his charming disposition – used a stronger word and said that there were hypocrites at the Cultural Revolution HQ. Of course, I take both these terms, which they used to condemn me, as praise.  In fact, they both refer to the fact that I wouldn’t allow the approval of some radical measures at the Cultural Revolution HQ.  This is a source of pride to me and I’m thankful to God for it.

Q.  Since you mentioned Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, I’d like to link my next question to him in a way.  In your recent stances, you placed people like Fardid alongside Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.  Subsequently, an Iranian website asked you in this connection: how can he place Mesbah-Yazdi, who is a follower of Mulla Sadra and Ibn Sina [Avicenna] alongside Fardid and the likes of Davari?  Since when have clerics like Mesbah-Yazdi been needful of Plato and Heidegger for the likes of Davari and Fardid to be of any use to them?  And how can Fardid be considered a true follower of Plato and Heidegger anyway? And most importantly, how can this person, as a well-known expert in theology, have so lost his grip on philosophy as to think that nothing can come out of Heidegger’s teachings but fascism?

A.  First, let me say that I don’t at all believe that nothing can come out of Heidegger’s teachings but fascism.  Of course, there can be no doubt that Heidegger had some dealings with Nazism.  As it happens, just a few days ago, I was speaking to a philosophy professor in France and he told me that a much-talked-about book about the links between Heidegger and Nazism was due to be published at the end of March 2006.  There are many books and articles to this effect in the West.  But my contention was not at all that Heidegger teaches Nazism or that he only teaches Nazism and nothing else. In fact, the treachery committed by that anti-Semitic group in our country is that they brought Heidegger into disrepute.

Alongside some improper political stances, for which he was rightly discredited, Heidegger has a creditable philosophy, which can be assessed.  He can be studied and evaluated like any other philosopher.  Again, another of the treacheries that Heidegger suffered in our country was that his philosophy was never evaluated.  Heidegger wasn’t a god or a prophet after all.  He was a human being, with human ideas, which can be evaluated and criticized.  What happened in our land was that Heidegger’s devotees and followers tried to teach and spread unquestioning devotion and submission to Heidegger.  They never said or wrote anything by way of an evaluation of Heidegger.  Of course, there were two reasons for this:  one was their own intellectual weakness, which made them incapable of evaluating anything, and, second, they basically didn’t believe in evaluation; what they taught was unquestioning devotion, because Heidegger was more suited to their pro-violence political stances.  At any rate, my contention about Heidegger was that, like any other philosopher, we should read him, understand him, evaluate him and then move on; we mustn’t become fixated.

But the tale of Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi and his link with Fardid and his ilk is not confined to a philosophical link.  It wasn’t my intention to portray the geography of philosophy in our country in that interview.  If that had been my intention, I’d have had to speak about many other issues; there’s so much to be said.  Hopefully, I’ll find the time to do this one day.

Yes, it’s true that Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi knows little about Heidegger’s philosophy and has no particular interest in it.  I’m well aware of this. But the fact of the matter is that, although Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi is not at all shy about criticizing people he doesn’t like and attacks them without any consideration for anything, I’ve never heard him criticize this group of people.

Let me begin by saying that I have no personal quarrel with Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi or those other individuals.  It’s a question of thought and society, and their negative effect on our young people and on society that has made me speak candidly about them on occasion.

I’ve said in many of my writings that Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi is a leading scholar on the subject of Islamic philosophy.  I’ve even ranked him higher than Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli in this respect.  That is to say, as far as I’m aware and based on my understanding of his writings, Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi is a more competent evaluator of Islamic philosophy than his peers.  When I was one of the judges of the book of the year, it was on my insistence that one of Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi philosophy books, i.e. the late Ayatollah Tabataba’i’s Nahayat-al-Hakameh which has been annotated by Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi and which is a valuable and creditable book, was declared the book of the year.  Hence, I hope no one imagines that I have a personal problem with him.

I think that, as far as Islamic philosophy and thought are concerned, Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi deserves high marks.  But, unfortunately, when you step out of this arena, the jagged edges and the ugliness manifest themselves.  I’ve really never met anyone with such poor taste as Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi when it comes to religion and politics.

Judge for yourself: in times when people like the late Ayatollah Motahhari was trying to resolve the tale of slavery somehow and to explain to Muslims why slavery was imposed on the Prophet of Islam and how the social circumstances forced him to give official recognition to slavery and create laws for it – and, at the same time, to create laws for the liberation of slaves – in a situation like this, Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi, with the utmost poor taste, endorses slavery in his public speeches and says: ‘Today, too, if there’s a war between us and the infidels, we’ll take slaves.  The ruling on slavery hasn’t expired and is eternal.  We’ll take slaves and we’ll bring them to the world of Islam and have them stay with Muslims. We’ll guide them, make them Muslims and then return them to their countries.’

Such poor taste is really extraordinary.  When there was a debate between Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi and Mohammad Javad Hojjati (I’m telling you about these instances off the top of my head; otherwise, if it was a question of an exhaustive study, there’d be many more examples) – I witnessed the debate myself: Mr. Hojjati was telling Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi that being disrespectful towards the audience when making public speeches is not a seemly thing to do and, instead of amending his way of speaking, Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi retorted by saying: ‘No, you’re wrong; we have sermons in the Nahj-al-Bilaghah which show that Imam Ali also used to insult his audience when he delivered sermons.’

When terrorism was a topical subject, Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi said explicitly in one of his pre-Friday prayer speeches: ‘We must wipe away the shameful stain whereby some people imagine that violence has no place in Islam.  We’ve decided and are determined to argue and prove that violence is in the heart of Islam.’

Such poor taste really makes freedom-loving people cry out in horror; a cry that arises from both the depths of humanity and the depths of Islam.  I never and by no means believe that Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi cares about Islam more than our reformist friends.  My stances towards Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi simply result from the fact that I believe that, these days, he plays the biggest role in presenting an ugly image of Islam;  an Islam which I, too, care about.  I, too, like many of God’s other creatures on the face of the earth, am attached to it and believe in it.  This Islam mustn’t be disfigured. 

Islam is too great and too dear to us for us to abandon its interpretation to a handful of violence-loving clerics with poor taste.  This huge asset and this sacred legacy of the venerated Prophet of Islam must be taken out of their hands.  They’re not trustworthy keepers of this precious legacy.  If I expend my energy and struggle, it is to this end.  Worst of all is that we should witness an inauspicious and unholy alliance between some of these clerics with poor taste and those violence-loving pseudo-philosophers.  This causes one the greatest pain.  You can see that their words, their analyses, their arguments, the concepts that they use are exactly the same as what the pseudo-philosophers express in the name of opposition to the West, opposition to democracy and opposition to human rights.

Once, in one of his pronouncements, Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi said that not everyone who places a few metres of cloth on his head is a cleric and an expert on religion.  I don’t know how many metres of cloth he has on his head, but I basically agree with his statement.

Not once have our clerics held a seminar to discuss religious tyranny.  We’ve had hundreds of seminars on the velayat-e faqih [system of rule by a cleric], but we haven’t had a single seminar to discuss the tale of religious tyranny.  This is simply because the spirit of violence has seeped into them.

One of the amazing developments is that we find that this same Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi, who used to foam at the mouth with rage against Dr. Shariati at one time and used to say that Shariati was burning in the fires of hell now, is gradually starting to use Shariati’s revolutionary and pseudo-revolutionary analyses in his speeches in order to sell his pro-violence wares.  In the midst of all this, the most innocent and wronged victim is tolerant religiosity and gnostic religiosity, which is not being given its due.

Once, the late Shariati strove to reconcile Islam with revolution.  Today, some clerics, in alliance with some violence-loving pseudo-philosophers, are trying to reconcile Islam with violence, and they even want to present Shariati as a member of this convoy and this camp.

But there is a third camp, which wants to reconcile Islam with love of freedom and tolerance and gentleness and kindness, and to prevent the violence-lovers from holding sway.  I’ve seen some opponents of religious intellectuals who put their finger precisely on this point. They say to me and to people like me that the Islam that you speak about isn’t the real Islam;  the real Islam is the one that Mesbah-Yazdi, Khaz’ali, Hassani, Jannati and the like present.  This is no small problem.  We have to explain and show and – sometimes at great risk to ourselves – declare that it isn’t so; that Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi and violence-lovers like him are absolutely not the spokesmen of the beloved creed to which Iranians and other Muslims are devoted.

Q.  I’d like to close the discussion of violent Islam at this point and to ask you a question about the reformist movement.

In a talk you gave in Germany a few months ago, by way of criticism of the reformist movement, you voiced some complaints about Mr. Khatami’s performance and said something to the effect that his practical vacillation was a product of his theoretical vacillation.

At the same session, in response to a question about Akbar Ganji’s contention that religious thought cannot lead to democracy, you said that Ganji was basing his contention on rigid readings of religion, such as that of Messrs. Mesbah-Yazdi and Khaz’ali, whereas it is possible to attain that aim on the basis of other readings.

But, in a recent exchange of letters that you had with one of your critics, you said something similar to Ganji’s contention; you said that the extension of prophets’ infallibility to the Imams in Shi’i thinking is an impediment to the attainment of democracy in Shi’ism. And we saw that this view upset some reformists to a certain extent and Dr. Kadivar took a swipe at you by saying: People who advocate the theory of multiple readings of religion are expected to exercise some self-restraint.

Now, can we see this shift as a sign of vacillation in you?  And is theoretical fluidity or lack of rigidity essentially reprehensible or laudable?  And should the end of Mr. Khatami’s presidency be seen as the end of the reformist project in Iran?

A.  I won’t deny that I’ve said some candid and possibly cutting things about Mr. Khatami.  But it has all been out of friendship.  It was because it is possible to converse with Mr. Khatami.  At the present time and with the current president, this door has unfortunately been closed.  Mr. Khatami was, moreover, holding an office and in a position whereby my remarks were not personal; what I was saying was addressed to his position.  This is why we had to speak candidly, for the sake of enlightening present and future generations.

I’d noticed this problem in Mr. Khatami, a problem which I’d previously spoken about in more general terms: lack of vision theoretically leads to lack of courage in action.  If you are committed to a line of thinking clearly and decisively, you’ll also find the courage to act.  But if the thinking is unclear and lacking in theoretical vision, you’ll obviously also vacillate when it comes to action.  I believe that, in addition to the external impediments which prevented the implementation of his and his allies’ ideas and programmes – and I have no doubts about the reality of these impediments – Mr. Khatami also suffered from some internal impediments.  In other words, when he spoke about concepts such as freedom, human rights and civil society, which was his primary slogan, apparently these concepts’ scope and reach were not entirely clear to him.

He’d sometimes go one way and sometimes the other way.  He’d raise an idea and others would follow him and then he’d suddenly slam on the brakes.  He’d pull back and come to a grinding halt and startle everyone.  This was most evident on the subject of civil society.  He raised the idea of civil society.  I remember that many, many articles were written, analysing and explaining civil society.  Very good light was shed on the subject and a concept that had been relatively unfamiliar till then became familiar.  And our academic community, our educated people gained a good command of it.  I remember that I delivered several talks on this subject and several pieces by me were published in this connection.  And others, too, wrote and spoke to this end.  But suddenly we found Mr. Khatami saying: what I meant by civil society was the Prophet’s Medina.  This poured cold water on everyone.  Either this was the understanding that he had of civil society from the start or he later changed his mind for particular political and theoretical reasons and replaced civil society with the Prophet’s Medina.  This was clear vacillation in his thinking.

We witnessed this same vacillation when he spoke about freedom.  Of course, if I were to compare Mr. Khatami with our other statesmen or politicians, I’d say that there’s no comparison. 

At any rate, I noticed this problem in Mr. Khatami which can be called vacillation and I considered it to be the source of some of his practical problems.  I believe that this caused some failures, which are now blamed on the ideas of religious intellectuals or on Islamic democracy and so on.

In response to the second part of your question, I have to say that Mr. Khatami was neither a representative of religious intellectuals nor the founder of the theory of religious democracy;  he was a product of religious intellectuals’ ideas.  So, it cannot be concluded on the basis of his failure or vacillation that the work of religious intellectuals or religious democracy has come to an end and has failed absolutely. This is not the case.  I believe that religious democracy has both a clear meaning and clear methods of implementation.  Its opponents and the lovers of violence permitting, it can be put into practice and can serve as a good model for the entire world of Islam; especially so because democratic discourse has become the dominant discourse in our society now.  That is to say, democracy has become its own justification.  It is self-justifying; it needs no supporting argumentation. Exactly like the word ‘revolution’ in the early days after the victory of the revolution when ‘revolutionary action’ carried its own justification and proof because it contained the term ‘revolution’.  Now, if you attach ‘democratic’ as an adjective to anything, you give it the same kind of justification and proof. And, this is a very auspicious development, of course, which we have to value. Islamic democracy and religious intellectuals’ work are still justified and defensible.

As to the point that we can have different readings of religion, I’m in no doubt about this.  And, as you said and in keeping with the words of a dear and esteemed friend to which you referred, I was the one who began spreading this notion. But I have to mention the following cautionary point:  subscribing to the notion of a multiplicity of readings does not mean that chaos rules in the realm of religious readings and that any reading is possible and justified.  I’ve made this point in my writings too.  If it was possible to extract any meaning from any text, it could only mean that the text has no meaning.  But if there’s a limit to a text’s meaning, we must strive to find that limit. Of course, I don’t believe that a text has a single meaning or that meaning equals the speaker’s intention.  However, I can declare and underline one point:  a text does not lend itself to just any meaning.  I believe that no one can claim one day that it is also possible to extract polytheism from the Koran.  The Koran is so abundantly explicit on this and places such emphasis on it and repeats it so many times that disregarding all of this and discounting it is tantamount to blindness. 

I believe that the contention that Islam can be reconciled with a just, democratic state is a justified contention and many reasons can be given in support of it.  Of course, there’s a long distance to cover before arriving at this reconciliation.  I’m not at all of the view – as are Fadhl-al-Rahman and many other Arab writers – that some elements within religion, such as pledges of allegiance and consultative councils and the like, can be used to extract a kind of modern democracy.  This isn’t possible to my mind and all the efforts that have been made to this end in the past have proved unsuccessful.  We must have theories about revelation, about the relationship between God and the world, about the position of religion within history, about the position of fiqh within religion, and basically about the meaning of religion and the meaning of God’s discourse and so on and so forth.  If we leave all these things untouched and only look within fiqh and try – with some simple additions and subtractions – to push back some rulings and pull forward some other rulings; if, without any justification, we deal selectively with religion’s teachings and contents, we won’t achieve a good result.  And whatever result we do achieve, it will be a suspect result. We need a comprehensive theory of religion. It is at the heart of this theory of religion that we can read some modern ideas or demonstrate a religious way of using them.  And if this proves impossible, we can decide where we stand.

Our problem is not to make democracy compatible with the teachings within religion or to pull it out of the teachings within religion.  We have to show how one can be religious in the present age and live in a just society and polity.  And I mean a modern-day justice, one side of which is adjacent to democracy and human rights; another side of which is related to freedom of expression; and, another, is cheek by jowl with an accountable, responsible, criticizable state.  We have to struggle to this end and, if we manage it, we can then speak of religious democracy.  At any rate, all of us, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, want justice and we haven’t abandoned this.  And when this justice is translated into modern forms and in today’s complex society, it cannot merely be confined to the ruler’s justness; it must be a structural, social and economic justice.

Hence, I repeat: not just any reading is possible.  I believe that some of the understandings that exist in our society today of the Imams or of the Mahdaviyat [Shi’i belief in the 12th Imam’s return] or even of the concept of God are not particularly compatible with an accountable state and do not allow society to grow and develop in the modern-day sense.  These understandings do not give pride of place to the concept of right and do not give people sufficient freedom.  These are things that have to be looked at.  As to the question of whether there has been vacillation in my views or not, I’ll let others be the judge of that.

Q.  Following on from this, we’ve seen that, with the ending of Mr. Khatami’s presidency, some secular intellectuals have presented the reformists’ defeat in the recent presidential election [in June 2005] as the defeat of religious intellectuals. They’re basically declaring that religious intellectualism is an irrelevant project which is essentially meaningless and immaterial.

A.  The truth of the matter is that these people are politically motivated, but they pursue their political motives by improper means.  Why should being a religious intellectual be a contradiction in terms?  Intellectual work is a branch of thinking.  Unless we believe that thinking and being a thinker is incompatible with being religious.  Now, if anyone makes such a claim (and, on the face of it, this seems to be the crux of what these claimants and critics are saying; i.e. they believe that a religious person cannot be a true thinker), then, we can argue with them both on the basis of the meaning of these concepts and on the basis of experience. 

On the basis of experience, at least, it can be shown that the top thinkers in the history of the world – not just the history of the world of Islam – have hailed from the ranks of believers.  No one can deny that Farabi was a thinker, or Ibn Sina or great masters like Hafez.  Or, in the West, Hegel, who struggled hard to harmonize philosophy and thinking with Protestantism. These were all thinkers who, as it happens, were drawn to faith and religion.  And, of course, if anyone denies that these were true thinkers, then we’ll start having doubts about this person’s own thinking.

There are also people who’ve said that, when we think, we don’t bring our religious interests into play.  This, too, is not something that can be used as an argument; it is a dull blade.  First of all, one must not bring any of one’s interests into play in the context of justification.  It has been narrated that the Prophet of Islam said that three things lead to a person’s salvation; one of them is setting aside one’s likes and dislikes when making judgments.  Any attachment – whether to religion or to other things – which blinds you when you’re making judgments, must be set aside.  This is not confined to religion.  When love for someone or something or likes and dislikes come into play, judgments are obviously clouded.  Besides, when something is not relevant, it must, of course, not be brought into play. When I’m making a philosophical judgment, I must, of course, not bring my knowledge of chemistry into play; just as, when someone speaks about the earth’s motion or about existence and essence, they must not bring their religious attachments or any other attachment into play.

I’d also like to add a third point: thinking is fundamentally not an individual matter but a collective matter; just as knowledge is a collective and ongoing matter.  You cannot forbid someone from thinking or speaking because they’re religious.  A religious person is like a non-religious person; they say what they have to say within the community of thinkers and the community responds and assesses it.  The outcome of this collective process is called knowledge. 

A thought that sits in a corner by itself is not called thinking and knowledge.  Modern epistemology tells us that knowledge is a collective and ongoing matter.  And this is what is meant by evaluation or criticism. You say what you have to say and others evaluate it.  This presence of others is a proviso for the production of knowledge.  Hence, the question of whether you’re religious or not religious, whether you belong to this sect or to that sect is basically irrelevant.  You have to look at the end result of a contention and in a collective context at that, where the contention has been subjected to the evaluation and the counter-contentions of other thinkers.

Religious intellectuals present their contentions, along with their religious faith and belief and reasoning, to the community of thinkers.  And they welcome criticism.  And the outcome of all this turns into knowledge.  We cannot by any means prevent someone who is religious from thinking and speaking.  This eliminatory approach, which some secular people have opted for, is an extremely undemocratic, unscholarly and anti-scholarly approach and it is very harmful.  Far from being useful in our present circumstances, it will be very deleterious for our culture and our knowledge.

What great hardship religious intellectuals have undergone to bring about a situation in which everyone can speak; now, when others have started to speak, the first thing that they do is to call for the elimination of religious intellectuals.

Q. For my last question, I’d like to get away from the realm of thought and to ask you something about topical politics affairs.

In the final days before the presidential elections, contrary to the expectations of some reformist political parties, you pointed to Hojjat-ol-Eslam Karrubi as the more suitable presidential candidate.  Was this choice a token of your realistic acquaintance with the hierarchy of power in Iran, a hierarchy in which people like Mr. Karrubi can play a more effective role than others?

A.  If I wanted to speak frankly, I’d say that I still consider Mr. Karrubi to be Iran’s president, because the votes were for him.  As to why I named Mr. Karrubi, it was because of my knowledge of Iranian society and I’m glad that my understanding was not wrong;  the number of votes that were cast for him testifies to this.

I’ve previously explained why I think Mr. Karrubi is more suited to the presidency in the current circumstances – without questioning other people’s merits.  As you know, suitability is always defined and established within a totality of conditions.  I’m a close friend of Mr. Mo’in.  I respect his thinking and, if it was a question of defining our camps, Mr. Mo’in and I have close stances.  But based on what I’d seen of Mr. Karrubi’s conduct, especially when he was the Majlis Speaker, and his clerical associations, his occasional behind-the-scenes efforts as an elder statesman, the relatively free atmosphere that he brings about for thinkers and scholars – the totality of these things told me that Mr. Karrubi is more suited to the presidency than others in the present circumstances;  suited in the sense that, during his presidency, we’ll have the chance to test or implement some of our theories without having executive responsibilities.

Later on, too, I was glad to see that I hadn’t been too off the mark and our society went in that direction based on their own reasons and apparently without any prompting or encouragement from me (in view of the last-minute dissemination of my remarks).

For the time being, we have another president and we’ll hold him to account within the framework of the law.  And our advice to him is that he should speak more judiciously.  He mustn’t add new problems to the nation’s problems with his remarks. If I were in his place, instead of [speaking about] sending the Jews to Alaska, I’d invite them to Iran and I’d say that those of them who aren’t pleased with Israel’s policies can be the guests of Iranians.  This is more Cyrus-like.  And if it is at the level of words only, it is more amiable.  And if expresses the truth, it is a more beautiful truth.

I respect everyone who serves our land and nation and listens to criticism and I hope that God will assist them in the difficult task that they’ve taken on.

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


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