Khatami’s Election Victory was Detrimental to Kiyan

• Dec 1st, 2007 • Category: Interviews

An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush

 By: Reza Khojasteh-Rahimi

Q. I’d like to begin by asking you about the background to the materialization of Kiyan as a journal and as a circle of people. How did you become associated with this circle and even become its nucleus?

A. It’s really nice to have religious intellectuals’ background judged on the basis of what they produced. The good friends who laid the foundations for Kiyan began their work with another journal called Kayhan Farhangi (Cultural Universe). Kayhan Farhangi was Kiyan’s mother and father, and Kiyan was born out of it. Kayhan Farhangi was one of the most auspicious intellectual journals to be born after the revolution; at a time when, otherwise, emotions had the upper hand. It was in these circumstances that the people who ran Kayhan Farhangi opened an avenue to rationality, and religious rationality at that. The gentlemen who established Kayhan Farhangi were Messrs Rokhsefat, Tehrani and Shamsolvaezin. I became acquainted with all three of them after the revolution; I didn’t know them before. And this was because I was absent from Iran’s cultural scene before the revolution, because I was in Britain. After I returned to Iran, after the revolution, I began working at the Cultural Revolution Institute and I delivered some talks on radio and TV. My acquaintance with many of these friends dates from this time. They were people who were active in the religious sphere and three of them began publishing Kayhan Farhangi based on new, well thought out ideas. One of their innovations at Kayhan Farhangi consisted of the interviews that they published in each issue with one of the country’s intellectual-academic figures, presenting a correct, first-hand exposition of their works and views. Many of these figures have now passed away but their interviews are available in Kayhan Farhangi as a valuable and authoritative source. The second thing that Kayhan Farhangi did was to introduce the cultural and literary works that were being published in the country. Bear in mind that this was not a calm period. Iran was at war and the effects of the recent revolution were still being felt. So, it was not all that easy to open a way forward. Be that as it may, Kayhan Farhangi succeeded in being innovative and initiating new debates, and, at times, this even stirred up controversy.

Q. Can you give an example of these controversies?

A. Controversial works were published in Kayhan Farhangi which might not have been published at any other time; nor stirred up such controversy. One example was a series of articles on religious theory in which I had a hand. Another consisted of some arguments over Popper which engaged many minds. On Popper, I think Kayhan Farhangi opted for a very journalistic approach. It raised some aspects, which had little intrinsic value, in a sensational way and attracted a great deal of attention. On the whole, it was very positive and illuminating. Our other friends at Kayhan Farhangi have no doubt spoken about their own problems and why they were not prepared to continue working with Kayhan Farhangi and broke away from it. At any rate, they decided not to work with Kayhan Farhangi and to establish another journal instead.

Q. How did you become acquainted with the people at Kayhan Farhangi and begin working with them? What was the background to it?

A. I didn’t go looking for them; they came looking for me. Mr Rokhsefat was a cultural figure and showed a great deal of interest in new ideas. He also used to attend some of my classes and was interested in some of my ideas. So, after a while, he invited me to appear in Kayhan Farhangi as one of the figures they were interviewing and to have my picture on the cover. I wasn’t keen and didn’t consider myself to have the appropriate stature. But I did began working with them in the form of writing articles. On another occasion, Mr Rokhsefat and Mr Tehrani asked me to be the interviewer when they decided to publish an interview with Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli, who is a very well-known figure. I went to Qom with Mr Rokhsefat and I conducted a long interview with Mr Javadi-Amoli, which was subsequently published in Kayhan Farhangi. My cooperation with them began as simply as this. Of course, during the time when I was teaching at the Teacher Training University, Messrs Rokhsefat and Tehrani attended my classes. But I hadn’t met Mr Shamsolvaezin yet; I became acquainted with him later, through Kiyan.

Q. Your “Contraction and Expansion” articles in Kayhan Farhangi had also become controversial.

A. Yes, that’s true. When those articles were published, they stirred up heated debates. It was quite costly for the journal too. I subsequently expressed my gratitude to them in my writings and I’d like to thank them again now, because they stood up to a great deal of pressure. And the pressure didn’t always come from enemies and opponents; I remember that Mr Khatami was culture minister at the time or he was the head of the Kayhan Institute. He criticized some of Kayhan Farhangi’s methods; quite fierce criticism. I know that Mr Rokhsefat and Mr Khatami had some heated arguments. Nevertheless, our friends at Kayhan Farhangi persisted in their mission and, when the time came for them to break away, they didn’t hesitate and they closed the file on Kayhan Farhangi. Of course, Kayhan Farhangi continued to be published thereafter, but, as everyone can see for themselves, it doesn’t resemble the former Kayhan Farhangi at all now.

Q. The intention was for Kiyan to continue Kayhan Farhangi’s way?

A. Yes, when these friends left Kayhan Farhangi and decided to start a new journal, there was a great deal of discussion about what the new journal should be called. They consulted me too. At one point, they considered calling it Kiyan Farhangi, but, ultimately, they settled for Kiyan and the journal came into being. Kiyan was more or less like Kayhan Farhangi had been earlier and I continued working with them.

Q. When was the Kiyan circle, consisting of individuals who attended Kiyan meetings regularly, formed and with what aim?

A. We never used the term ‘the Kiyan circle’ in those days and I don’t have any recollection of it ever being used by the people who ran Kiyan. I always used the expression ‘the people who run Kiyan’ myself. ‘The Kiyan circle’ didn’t occur to me and wasn’t uttered by me; just as it didn’t occur to the others and wasn’t uttered by them. It was only after Kiyan was banned that the term ‘the Kiyan circle’ was coined and used. Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi says that you only become aware of your heart when you lose it. Similarly, it was only after Kiyan disappeared that some people realized that there was something known as ‘the Kiyan circle’ which was an influential circle in the country’s culture. Of course, I welcome this term and I don’t have any problem with it. But it was coined and circulated by people outside the circle.

Q. Is it possible to offer a clear definition of the Kiyan circle?

A. No and this is why I’ve noticed that the expression is exploited in Iran and abroad; some people associate themselves with ‘the Kiyan circle’ in order to forge an identity for themselves. ‘The Kiyan circle’ has two meanings; one, general and, the other, specific. The general meaning of ‘the Kiyan circle’ comprises all of Kiyan’s readers and those who were interested in the ideas that were raised in the journal; people who shared Kiyan’s joys and sorrows. Don’t forget that Kiyan was subjected to many blows. I remember how there were times when my friends there used to hide the fax and lithography machine so that they wouldn’t be destroyed if Kiyan was attacked. It was a time when they anticipated that some people might come at any moment to attack them. The commotion over the journal had reached a new peak, especially so because the people who ran Kiyan had stepped into terrain that others didn’t dare enter. The general Kiyan circle consisted of a 100,000-strong readership. In it last issues, Kiyan carried a questionnaire which made it clear that each copy of the journal was being read by an average of five people. And Kiyan’s circulation figure was 20,000. But the specific Kiyan circle consisted of the people who worked directly in the Kiyan institute, including the editor in chief and the editorial board and some of the journal’s writers. Of course, I have to add that, shortly before Mr Khatami’s election, when I returned to Iran after an 11-month forced stay abroad, a circle of friends was established at Kiyan and they held weekly meetings, which I also attended.

Q. What sort of things were discussed at these meetings?

A. I remember that, when I returned to Iran, I initiated a debate in that circle entitled “Is fiqh possible?” The discussion lasted for quite some time and everyone participated. My conclusions – and I hope they can be published one day – were that fiqh either has to be totally this-worldly or totally other-worldly, but that it is impossible to have a fiqh that embraces both this-worldly and other-worldly interests. In order for us to work our way to this conclusion, some people from the religious sciences, specifically Messrs Kadivar and Mojtaba Shobeiri, participated in those weekly meetings.

Q. Who else belonged to the circle?

A. In addition to Messrs Tehrani and Shamsolvaezin, Messrs Hajjarian, Armin, Morteza Mardiha, Akbar Ganji, Arash Naraghi, Ebrahim Soltani, Mohsen Sazegara, Javad Kashi, Hossein Ghazian, Nasser Hadian, Mostafa Tajzadeh and, occasionally, my son, Soroush Dabbagh, used to attend the meetings. I may have missed out a few people, but these were the individuals who worked regularly with Kiyan and their works were generally published in Kiyan. Maybe nothing by Shobeiri or Hadian was published in Kiyan, but the others were Kiyan writers. Mr Hajjarian, too, worked closely with Kiyan and it’s an open secret that he used to write articles for Kiyan under the name “Jahangir Salehpour”. It would be quite appropriate to call this circle of people ‘the Kiyan circle’. But there were other people who used to drop by – dropping by is the best way of putting it – and who later described themselves as belonging to the Kiyan circle, creating fraudulent identities for themselves. I don’t want to mention their names. But they are fraudsters.
The Kiyan circle delineated itself and made itself felt over time. Later, they even suggested that it had a political hue. In 1995, I was attacked in Esfahan. Some of Kiyan’s close and not-so-close friends published a letter with 107 signatures which may have been the first open letter in that oppressive period. The letter criticized that kind of thuggish behaviour and one of the signatories was a man called Mehdi Tabeshian. He was not a member of the Kiyan circle, nor did he ever make such a claim, but he was favourably disposed towards the whole Kiyan enterprise. Mr Tabeshian was deputy head of the state broadcasting organization. And his signature on the letter earned him some criticism from his boss. I’m saying this in order to explain that not all of that letter’s signatories, for example, were members of the Kiyan circle.

Q. Did the Kiyan circle have clearly-defined lines and boundaries? I’m asking because there were different viewpoints among that group of people. For example, some of the more political figures were closer to political parties, such as the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, and they were critics of some of your views. Did you not have a specific, defined relationship with the members of the Kiyan circle?

A. It is exactly as you said. The Kiyan circle was not a clearly-defined circle by any means. It was not like a political party. There were no student-teacher or disciple-master relationships. It was a door that was open to all those who were interested in its line of thinking, even though their own ideas may have been at a tangent to its line of thinking. We deliberately didn’t have political discussions at our meetings; it was more a question of dialogue and an exchange of ideas. There was no specific line or track. And my friendship with many of those people dates from those meetings. For example, I think I first met Mr Kadivar at one of those meetings. In fact, he was a critic of some of my views on religious pluralism and our exchanges were subsequently published. Mr Mardiha or Mr Kashi, too, for example, had their own particular political views. The people who were closest to me in those meetings were Messrs Naraghi, Soltani and Tehrani. I had differences with the others, but, fortunately, there were no problems between us. We all recognized that a new avenue needed to be opened up in religious intellectualism and that this new avenue passed through modern rationality; an avenue which I dubbed “renewing the Mu’tazilite experience” a while back.

Q. You mentioned Mr Hajjarian’s alias, Jahangir Salehpour. Mr Ganji, for his part, wrote some critiques of your views using the name “Hamid Paydar”. Why did Mr Ganji choose an alias?

A. I really don’t know. You have to ask him; just as I don’t know why Mr Hajjarian used an alias. I remember that, at the time, Mr Aghajari asked me who Mr Salehpour was and I explained to him that he was Mr Hajjarian. It was his own choice. I didn’t interfere in that sort of thing at all and it was up to the journal’s editorial board and writers. You mentioned some critiques. Let me say here and now that perhaps one of the most luminous aspects of Kiyan and, later, Madreseh, was that they were never shy about publishing criticism and, specifically, criticism of my views; they blazed a trail that, unfortunately, not many people followed. As you’ve seen, there are many publications that are headed by a single individual and, throughout the publication’s lifetime, not a single critique of that individual is published. Kiyan was openhanded in this respect and, of course, Madreseh was even more generous and openhanded; in order to avoid the charge of bias in my favour and with the aim of encouraging open criticism of course. And criticism by friends such as Majid Mohammadi, Jahangir Salehpour, Hamid Paydar and Arash Naraghi not only helped others, but also helped me. I view those critiques as the journals’ lasting legacy to me.

Q. Did you like Madreseh’s added generosity in publishing critiques?

A. I think that the people who were running Madreseh took the sneers of the sneering too seriously, for fear of being accused of bias towards me. They were very cautious; this was the approach they’d opted for. For my own part, I thank them for running the journal.

Q. One of the points you mentioned was the politicization of the Kiyan circle, especially after Mr Khatami’s election as president in May 1997. Things were such that Mr Ganji conducted an interview with you on the subject of politics and intellectualism, but it wasn’t published in Kiyan. It was published later in one of your books. What did you think of the political activities of the people who ran Kiyan? Did you feel closer to one group of people in that circle? Since, in the Kiyan circle, too, some people were politically inclined to the left and some to the right.

A. As long as Kiyan was being published and the Kiyan circle was meeting, I didn’t have political problems with anyone; we all felt a sense of fellowship. As you can tell from the names, there were different individuals in that circle and, consequently, different viewpoints. Unfortunately, on the threshold of the election of Mr Khatami and afterwards, a kind of openness came about in the atmosphere which aggravated some slight, erstwhile disagreements. Some of the disagreements were exaggerated and, in the Kiyan circle, too, these kinds of disagreements flared up between some of our friends. I tried not to become embroiled in the disputes and my efforts to solve the disputes also proved unsuccessful. The disagreement became particularly heated between two of those friends. One of them conducted a conversation with me on the subject of intellectuals. The other one read it and made some suggestions, which I added to the text of the interview. In this form, the interview didn’t find favour and, so, I didn’t publish it in Kiyan. Later, I included it in my book.

Q. What was the cause of the disagreements?

A. Kiyan lost out from the political openness. I’m mentioning this as a social ill. We have an unfortunate problem that we need to solve. All of us, who do not favour the country’s prevailing policies and sometimes write things or do things to express our opposition – when we find ourselves faced with a period of political openness, instead of becoming more united, we start attacking each other. It’s as if we think that our mission is to prove our superiority over the others. This problem caused some turbulence in the Kiyan circle for a while and, in my view, this wasn’t a desirable development. But calm was rapidly restored and all our friends came to an unwritten agreement and the turbulence was happily put behind us. We suffered some bruising, but it healed. I’ve seen similar occurrences elsewhere. For example, some members of the national-religious forces unfortunately substantially sharpened their criticism of me after the political opening. I don’t know why. When the atmosphere opens up, people should do more positive things, rather than attack each other and try to prove their superiority. Here, I’d like to say by way of a friendly criticism that we mustn’t allow this to happen again. People mustn’t start quarrelling and clawing at each other instead of clawing at the country’s problems.

Q. So, you believe that the disagreements in that circle had no serious basis and were groundless?

A. Yes, they were groundless. Maybe there were differences of opinion on political matters, but there was no disagreement in the Kiyan circle on religious modernism.

Q. The banning of Kiyan also put an end, in a way, to the companionship of culture figures within the Kiyan circle.

A. Yes, that’s right.

Q. You made no comment after the recent banning of Madreseh. What’s your assessment of Madreseh as a journal?

A. Madreseh began publishing at a time when I was abroad and, when it was banned, I was still abroad. I would give Madreseh very good marks. In just these two years, it won a great deal of favour. Both the managing director and the editor in chief acted very wisely, and they succeeded in opening a new window for our society to ideas and intellectualism. They used new names and faces and they displayed true pluralism. They tried not to give anyone any pretexts, but the people who look for pretexts can usually fabricate their own. They fabricated pretexts and boarded up Madreseh’s door. They deprived a readership of a window and of the resulting air and light. I want to tell our country’s cultural officials in all earnest that they ought to reconsider these methods. Banning a paper or a publication amounts to murder. We read in the Qur’an that, if an innocent person is killed, it is as if a countless number of people have been killed. Banning a journal is like banning a school; it is like killing a countless number of people. It’s not something that should be done lightly. Deciding in haste in this respect and acting on the decision is not prudent or wise. I hope that experiences of this kind will not be repeated. I remember a time when a ministry forbade me from writing articles for Kiyan. I hope we can entrust this sort of thing to history. I hope that I’ll not be forced to experience again the despair that I felt then.

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


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