It’s Best Just to Speak of an Unqualified Republic

• Mar 1st, 2010 • Category: Interviews

Interview with Abdulkarim Soroush

By Mojgan Modarres-Olum  for

Q. Over the past five decades, all the broad political movements in Iran have been religious in nature. It seems that the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s movement, which is seen as a turning point among these political-religious movements, transformed the conditions of political struggle in Iran and brought political Islam onto the scene as the superior ideology—as against left-wing and nationalist ideologies.


During the reformist period and exactly at a time when many observers and analysts imagined that the Islamic Revolution was finished and that political Islam, too, had reached a dead-end and lost its capabilities, the political ideas of Muslim thinkers once again turned into the axis around which theoretical and social debates revolved, generating a huge volume of ideas and reflections on religious and political issues.


In the events since the June 2009 presidential election and in the course of the Green protest movement, too, we’ve seen the pervasive hold that religious ideas and symbols—and, especially, religious intellectuals’ reading of Islam—have had in the realm of political activity. We can see this everywhere, whether among the movement’s political leaders, the political prisoners, or the movement’s key slogans and symbols.


Now, based on these assumptions, the question that arises is this: As one of the most prominent contemporary advocates of new religious thinking, how do you see this movement’s short-, medium- and long-term prospects? And what role do you think religious intellectuals have in leading this movement and proposing political and social guidelines and programmes?


A. It’s really not easy for me to make long-term predictions. But I can say that, in the long-term, the ideas of the Green Movement will become more entrenched, will rob more hearts and will produce great effects in Iran. It will subject the idea of political Islam to a more critical assessment and delineate religion’s role in society in a clearer way.


At present, I believe that the Green Movement has many undeniable achievements to its credit. I’m living outside Iran and, in addition to the news that I hear from Iran itself, I see many young people who have become attached to this movement and who are active without anyone prompting them. And I really see something in this movement that has robbed young people’s hearts. And this something consists of ‘right’ and ‘freedom’. I can see the selflessness with which young people are working around this axis, and the way in which they’re giving their time, energy and even money to keep this lamp alight. This is why I’m of the view that the Green Movement has a great achievement to its credit so far and it will undoubtedly play a role in the future too because these cries are emanating from the heart of society.


Q. In your view, how influential a role do religious intellectuals and Muslim thinkers have in this process?


A. If it’s not boasting, I have to say that I gave two talks in London ten years ago under the heading “The Discourses of the Islamic Revolution”. I said there that we have had a red discourse and that we will have a green discourse too. And I’m glad that I associated the expression ‘green discourse’ with attributes such as democracy, pluralism, civil society, respect for rights and the like. We can see all of these things clearly in the Green Movement. And, of course, this is not by any means to say that this has been the work of a single individual; many people have worked to this end and their views and works have been noted and recognized, and they have borne fruit.


As I said, the Green Movement has two major axes: respect for rights and rejection of despotism. Today, we can see that the rejection of religious despotism is the point around which people’s slogans revolve. This is very timely and appropriate. Religious intellectuals had underlined this point more than anything else and it has become clear now that their message was emphatically noted and received.


Both before and after the revolution, the late Mehdi Bazargan always used to say that this country and this society’s eternal ailment is ‘despotism’. He even attached more importance to despotism than colonialism. Fortunately, after the revolution, the country achieved independence to a great extent. So, despotism has become more important and more noticeable. And the Green Movement wants to rid the country of despotism, root and branch, regardless of the name it operates under. And, fortunately, forward-looking Muslim thinkers and intellectuals have played a big role in all this.


Q. Do you think that—as some people believe and suggest—this movement is a transitional stage from religious reformism to a complete break with the religious system, in such a way as to sideline the ideas and actions of religious forces and push them away from the centre-stage of society and political struggle?


A. I think we’re heading towards a rejection of the despotic reading of religion. And this is a very auspicious direction to take. It has now become an accepted notion among Iranians that there can be different readings of religion. The current, ruling reading is the despotic reading of religion, but this is not to say that if we do away with religious tyranny, no reading of religion will remain; on the contrary, we can have a democratic reading of religion. And in this respect, the green discourse is very rich and fertile. That is to say, the notions of pluralism, rights, freedom and justice, which are the Green Movement’s top priorities, all show that a different reading of religion is being taken on board and that the despotic reading is being driven to the periphery.


The theory of the velayat-e faqih [underpinning the Islamic Republic of Iran’s system of rule by a cleric] is recognized to be the despotic reading of religion. So, there will be no place for it in the future state. But the idea that the people are turning away from religion and want to divest themselves of their beliefs—I don’t think this is the case and there’s no evidence for it.


But, at present, the ruling reading of Islam has two defining features: first, it is despotic and, secondly, it is riddled with superstition. By combating superstition and despotism, we will move towards ‘a green reading’ of Islam, which will not have these two defining features; instead, they will be replaced with justice, freedom and an orientation towards rights.


Q. In the years after the 1979 revolution and especially over the past two decades, Muslim intellectuals, including you, have done a great deal of academic and theoretical work to establish the terrain and the boundaries of religion and politics—or, more precisely, religion and political power; so much so that the speakers and the media that support the state or are supported by the state have accused them of overstepping religion. What’s your assessment of the role that this group of religious thinkers—compared to non-religious thinkers—has to play in clarifying the relationship between religion and power and other related notions?


A. Both religious and non-religious intellectuals have served the country. I believe that religious intellectuals have taken on a more grave and more difficult mission, because, in a religious society, it is more difficult to speak about religion; especially if there are official guardians and interpreters of religion. You have to pay a big price for every step you take. Fortunately, religious modernizers and intellectuals have made good progress in this endeavour. Work on a new delineation of the boundary between religion and politics has been under way for some time now. One of the important causes of this was the new role that religion took on in society when it took up the seat of power and began interfering in people’s personal affairs from that position, which aroused many protests. By bringing fiqh centre-stage, as a finished, celestial given that cannot be subjected to ijtihad [reasoned formulation of new rulings based on the circumstances of time and place], and by implementing the rulings of fiqh in a partisan and occasionally arbitrary and selective way, the power holders both brought Iran into disrepute internationally and stirred up discontent within the country.


In the light of all this, religious intellectuals, who—unlike non-religious intellectuals—truly care about religion, have been faced with much graver responsibilities. On the one hand, they have to reject and proscribe the inappropriate behaviour of the state, and, on the other hand, they have to wrest religion out of the clutches of these incompetent officials whilst, at the same time, ensuring that it was not harmed in the process. They have to convince religious people that their religiosity is still worthy of adoration and that it can bring them felicity in this world and the next.


A line was therefore drawn between religion and power. This delineation means that, in keeping with their religious duties, religious people can take part in power and politics, but they cannot commit acts of violence in the name of religion or use it as a pretext to exercise intolerance. They cannot view anyone who belongs to another religious creed as deserving of unequal rights. They cannot claim exclusive rights in the name of religion or claim that religion has only one single interpretation, which is the official one. These are all things that nowadays fall under the banner of political secularism.


I believe that, in our society, among religious modernizers and intellectuals, and among most educated people, it is now an accepted notion that secularism is the most sanitary mode for the state and for the relationship between religion and power. And, of course, it is very different from philosophical secularism and it is absolutely distinct from unbelief or irreligiosity.


Some newspapers in Iran deliberately confuse political secularism with philosophical secularism in order to make people despise secularism. But, based on the above explanation and based on the clarification of the relationship between power and religion, political secularism will herald a brighter future for both power and religion.


Q. In view of the fact that discussion, dialogue and even criticism help clear the air, what subjects and issues do you think need to be discussed, as a matter of priority, by Muslim thinkers—whether traditionalists or modernists—on the one hand, and by religious and non-religious thinkers, on the other hand. What chapter headings would you propose for such rational discussions?


A. Criticism and peer reviews are a sign of a society’s maturity. Many philosophers argue that criticism is a second-order activity. In other words, once you can step beyond a first-order perspective and achieve self-awareness, then you can criticize (repentance is an example of this). And this is a sign of maturity.


In a religious society, criticism of religion is of the utmost importance. This must be done from the perspective of morality. Hence, morality must be given pride of place. What we lack today is a moral perspective of religion and a moral perspective of politics. We must breathe new life into both these things. Hence, in my view, we must, first, bring morality centre-stage and, then, discuss the topics of a moral religion and a moral politics. These are priority issues.


Q. Setting aside your theoretical views, given Iranian society’s current circumstances, would you consider it better and more realistic to seek to reform Iran’s current political system by forcing the rulers to accept the people’s sovereignty and to abide by the law, or to strive to change the constitution and even to change the political system? In other words, which of the following two slogans do you prefer: ‘independence, freedom, Islamic republic’ or ‘independence, freedom, Iranian republic’?


A. Let me say briefly that names are not particularly important; the important thing is what the names point to. Regardless of what we call it, we want a state that is rights-oriented and respects people’s rights; a state that does not see religion or anything else as a barrier to respecting people’s rights.


I think that the idea of respect for rights must be given pride of place in the constitution; in other words, it must be given the position that the velayat-e faqih enjoys in the current constitution. And anything that violates this rights-orientation must be discarded. This is the kind of thing we want to see in the future and we hope that it will be achieved.


Q. Specifically, do you think that an Islamic republic minus the velayat-e faqih is conceivable (in theory and in practice)? Or does an Islamic republic hinge on the theory of the velayat-e faqih and the position of the ruling cleric?


A. We can conceive of an Islamic republic that is ‘a republic of Muslims’. And a republic of Muslims can exist without it hinging on the theory of the velayat-e faqih and without it being governed by many of the other ideas that emerge from a fiqh that has not been subjected to ijtihad. But if it’s going to be called ‘a republic of Muslims’, it’s best just to speak of an unqualified republic.


Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


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