Never in Iran’s History has Philosophy been so Political

• Jan 30th, 2006 • Category: Interviews

An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush

 by Maryam Kashani

Q. What are the characteristics of the phenomenon that has taken shape in the Islamic Republic under Mr Mesbah-Yazdi’s name and why has it materialized?

A. Whenever I read and hear that Mr Mesbah-Yazdi is up to some new trick and is making his presence felt and is being a mover and shaker in politics, it really makes me both anxious and ashamed, because I know Mesbah-Yazdi well and I know that, academically and theoretically, he’s not up to it. He’s not a faqih [expert in Islamic jurisprudence], nor does he know anything about the history of Islam, nor about the history of Iran. He’s neither knowledgeable in this respect, nor does he have a good memory for it. He doesn’t know about literature, nor art, nor modern science, nor modern politics. And he hasn’t been studying anything for quite some time now because the state of his nerves doesn’t allow it. The only thing he knows is classical Islamic philosophy; i.e. debates about the potential and the actual; the essential and the accidental; primary intelligibles, secondary intelligibles and the like. Now, when someone with this level of learning wants to board the ship of politics and play the captain, it’s embarrassing; may God help us. I’m worried because if someone with these defects takes charge, he’ll inflict a misfortune of such gargantuan proportions on the people that it will take centuries to remedy and undo.

Q. But some people compare him to Ayatollah Motahhari.

A. I swear to God the comparison is inappropriate. It’s like comparing a snuffed out candle to the sun. Of course, Motahhari had clerical fixations too, but when it came to fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence], philosophy, history, literature, etc., he was hundreds of heads and shoulders above Mesbah-Yazdi. In the early days of the revolution, this same Mr Mesbah-Yazdi said to me that Motahhari had been bitten by the Marxist bug. Apart from lacking learning, Mr Mesbah-Yazdi is psychologically very intolerant, irritable and ill-tempered. The people around him know him by these traits. When, in 1981, the Cultural Revolution Committee was given the task, by Mr Khomeini, to contact Qom, Mr Mesbah-Yazdi’s name came up. Dr Ahmad Ahmadi, who was a member of the committee, was designated to be the committee’s contact with Mesbah-Yazdi’s establishment. After a few weeks, he reported to the committee that he couldn’t work with Mesbah-Yazdi, because, as he put it, You can only exchange a few sentences with Mesbah-Yazdi before things come to blows. This remark was being made by someone who’d been Mesbah-Yazdi’s friend for 20 years. Everyone knows about Mesbah-Yazdi’s harsh treatment of Shariati, about how he went so far as to call Shariati an infidel which made Ayatollah Beheshti react and denounce Mesbah-Yazdi’s judgment.

Hojjat-ol-Eslam Parvazi, who left the Ansar-e Hezbollah vigilante group years go, spoke about Mesbah-Yazdi’s links with them. More recently, the judge in the case of the terrible murders in Kerman revealed that the killers had Mesbah-Yazdi’s religious sanction to kill. It was this ill-tempered disposition and his profligacy in denouncing people as infidels and issuing radical fatwas that made some political groupings choose him as just the right person to serve their aims and do their bidding. I never imagine that he is the leader and the standard-bearer himself. On the contrary, he’s a henchman and he’ll be forced into retirement at the appropriate time.

Q. Whose henchman is he?

A. For the time being, he’s organizing things with the Basij and?, and then he attributes his achievements to the Hidden Imam and to God. Just like Mr Khaz’ali, who, when Khatami and Nateq-Nuri were competing in the presidential race, said from the pulpit in a mosque in Yazd that they had asked a young man who’d memorized the Koran to say what God thought about the [right-wing] association of Qom seminary lecturers and that the young man had recited a verse to this effect: ‘God has guided them; follow their guidance.’ In other words, vote for Nateq-Nuri, not Khatami. Khaz’ali then added (and I heard this myself): It’s not me who is saying this; God says you should do as the association of Qom seminary lecturers tells you to do. Now, this same Mr Khaz’ali whose remark on that occasion must either be described as idiocy or cheating has become the firm supporter of Mr Mesbah-Yazdi.

During his presidency, Mr Khatami, for his part, spoke on a number of occasions about people who theorize violence and he meant Mr Mesbah-Yazdi of course. Mesbah-Yazdi, in turn, replied in a pre-sermon speech and said: ‘Is there no room for my voice in your pluralistic society?’ As if his propagation of violence leaves any room for other people’s voices. On another occasion, speaking before the Tehran Friday prayer sermons, he cited a verse from the Koran which uses the word ‘irhab’ and exploited it to endorse terrorism. (In modern-day Arabic, irhab means terrorism but this is not what it meant before.)

But someone with a record of ideas of this kind was, of course, useful to radical groups who could exploit him for their own ends. At any rate, this amounts to inflammatory troublemaking at home and is a source of embarrassment abroad. Although I’m not feeling very fond of the clergy (because of their silence in the face of injustice), they should at least try, for they sake of their own self-respect, not to allow people of this kind to come into the limelight and to turn into the symbol of what seminaries produce.

Q. They say that the Hojjatieh Society lies at the bottom of this business.

A. I don’t think it’s particularly correct to see a link between Ahmadinejad or Mesbah-Yazdi and their ilk and the Hojjatieh Society. Yes, people who belong to the Hojjatieh are devoted to the Hidden Imam, but this devotion is not unique to them and you can find it in any Shi’i believer. Moreover, the Hojjatieh people were and are non-political. I want to point here to people who are taken less notice of: the Fardid circle of people. I think that the bigger share in all this belongs to someone called Ahmad Fardid, who was a philosophy professor at the University of Tehran for many years. And, even after he retired, he worked actively to spread his ideas.

Fardid was someone who loved to have disciples. Before the revolution, some individuals who are well-known now, such as Mr Ashuri and Mr Shayegan, were close to him and even promoted his ideas. But, after the revolution, some of these individuals changed their stances and Mr Ashuri wrote a devastating critique of Fardid and was true to the intellectual tradition.

After the revolution, Fardid’s demeanour changed overnight. That is to say, before the revolution, religiosity and a sense of religious mission did not figure in the slightest in his utterances. Far from mentioning these things, students who were close to him used to say that he didn’t believe in anything. And he didn’t abide by or respect any religious injunctions in practice. I even heard Mr Haddad-Adel, the current Majlis Speaker, likening Fardid to… Dr Ahmad Ahmadi, who is now a Majlis deputy, used to call him a monster. I heard Dr Karim Mojtahedi, a university professor at the University of Tehran, describe him as malevolent. But, after the revolution, he suddenly overtook even Mr Bazargan and Shariati in piety, to the point where he used to condemn them for not being true servants of God. In other words, a Fardid, who, following Heidegger, believed that the era of metaphysics had come to an end, went back to one of the most commonplace forms of metaphysics and, in doing so, he was solely motivated by jealousy and love of power. God only knows if there was anything more to it. This person, with these characteristics, had to all appearances become a fervent – no rabid – revolutionary. If I were to sum up his creed for you, I’d say it consisted of exactly the sort of thing that you’re hearing these days from Mr Ahmadinejad and the people affiliated to Mesbah-Yazdi.

Q. What were the distinguishing features of Fardid’s thought?

A. Fardid was a firm proponent of violence. I remember a time when one of Fardid’s students, who also used to attend my philosophy of science classes, stood up and told me in so many words, You can’t always reason with opponents, sometimes you have to use a sword. And this is exactly what the Ansar-e Hezbollah did, par excellence, later.

Fardid was also an absolute supporter of Mr Khalkhali. He approved of all the executions that Khalkhali carried out and used to describe him as Imam Ali’s sword and the banner of Islam. Khalkhali’s son, too, was a Fardid devotee and he used to convey Fardid’s words of approval to his father. He also worked for a time as an attaché abroad. Basically, one of the things that they did – and I don’t know who organized this – was that the people around Fardid infiltrated some cultural institutions. An infiltration that endures to this day. Some of these people infiltrated, in particular, the production of the confidential bulletins that are sent to the country’s top leaders. In this way, they transmitted their violence-prone ideas to the country’s leaders. I’m certain that some of the analyses against Bazargan and the people they described as liberals – and later against the reformists – which were produced and conveyed to senior officials were the malevolent handiwork of these same people.

Fardid was also anti-Jewish. Anti-Jewish in the true sense of the word. That is to say, anti-Semitic, something that we’ve never had in Iran’s cultural history. I made this point explicitly in an interview at the time: in a country – i.e. Iran – that has never had problems with Jews, saying anti-Semitic things is nothing but grist to the mill of enemies, as well as being pointless, inappropriate and divisive.

As far as Mr Fardid was concerned, philosophers fell into two groups. Jewish philosophers and non-Jewish philosophers. Whatever Jewish philosophers may have said and whatever they may have done, they were out of the running and there was no need to think about them or consider their ideas. And he’d learned this anti-Semitism from his master, Heidegger, who was a supporter of Nazism and fascism and no-one doubts this today. Books have been written on this subject; although his Iranian supporters try to cover it up. If these people attack liberalism, it’s from the position of fascism, not Islam or socialism or anything else. Their attacks on freemasonry, too, is from the same position. Let us remind ourselves: Mussolini, too, used to say that the freemasons were Nazism’s most hostile enemy. In other words, it’s the negative and reviled part of Heidegger’s philosophy that has become the lot of us Iranians. When I speak of the negative and reviled part, it’s because I want to highlight the fact that almost none of the people who harp on Heidegger in Iran understand any German. Fardid himself did not have very good German although he stayed in Germany for a while. Neither he nor his student, Reza Davari, ever went over a single paragraph of Heidegger’s books in their classes and they always spoke about Heidegger’s philosophy without any textual references; they were ultimately theorizing dictatorship.

Fardid was also opposed to human rights. Years after Fardid had died, one of his students – i.e. Mr Reza Davari – wrote an article in ‘Bayan’ newspaper – Mr Mohtashamipour was the paper’s licence holder – explicitly opposing human rights. Davari said that human rights was a dirty trick used by the bourgeoisie against workers and the underprivileged. In this way, in the heat of the time when Ansar-e Hezbollah had just begun to rear its head and make things difficult for thinkers and for cultural work, Davari conceded this point to them, paid them this ransom so that he could climb the ladder of power. He now heads the Islamic Republic’s Academy of Science and has reaped his reward.

Earlier, Reza Davari had, in the clear light of day, attached this same false label – i.e. antagonism towards the underprivileged and workers – to Popper. And when critics asked him to give the page number for the relevant quote from The Open Society – which is, of course, not to be found in the book at all – he prevaricated and replied instead: I’m not a Popper to be accused of lying.

Another of Mr Fardid’s teachings to his students was that he used to tell them that all the things that are said in the world about justice, human rights, democracy, tolerance and freedom are lies. And that all the world’s cultural and political organizations are conspirators. And that the whole world revolves around insincerity, duplicity and satanic power. And that, therefore, you, in Iran, should not concern yourself at all with these pretty words and ideas either; you should advance your aims with violence. He was of the opinion that the world has one grand master – i.e. freemasons and Zionists – and that all international organizations are their tools and everything is a game and just for show. You recall how the people involved in ‘Kayhan’ newspaper kept repeating these phrases, simplemindedly and parrot fashion, in an interview with Ehsan Naraghi nearly 20 years ago. And Naraghi answered them by saying, Why don’t you just go and blow up four bombs in the four corners of the world and be done with it.

We could see the propagation of violence and the love of violence very clearly in Fardid. And this also applied to his students. I’ve even heard that Sa’id Emami was a student of Fardid from afar [Sa’id Emami was the prime suspect in the ‘serial killings’ of Iranian writers and political activists in the autumn of 1998.] The propagation of violence and the love of violence were the kernel of Fardid’s school of thought.

The funny thing is that, after the revolution, Mr Fardid became a full-blown devotee of the Hidden Imam. He expressed such a duplicitous devotion towards the Hidden Imam as to far outpace any member of the Hojjatieh Society. This is why, when I hear a lot of the things that are being said today about devotion to the Hidden Imam, I don’t attribute it to the Hojjatieh; I feel instead that what Fardid and his students wanted has come about in practice, and all his words are now coming out of the mouths of Mesbah-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad and others.

Q. Where’s this thinking headed?

A. This whole thing bears signs of a calamitous degeneration in the course of the revolution, especially so because Fardid’s students and acquaintances are occupying senior positions and have occupied some places covertly and overtly; cultural offices abroad, cultural bodies at home, confidential bulletins, newspapers, the Cultural Ministry, ‘Kayhan’ newspaper in particular, and so on. His anti-Semitism is now voiced by Ahmadinejad in an extreme (and ignorant) form. The same thing holds true on the subject of the Hidden Imam. They’ve infiltrated everything. About a year ago, I heard the leader say something that was very disturbing . Mr Khamene’i was addressing a group of young people in Hamadan. He told the young people there – as reported in newspapers: ‘Look for lofty and new ideas, not outdated ones. For example, a philosopher by the name of Popper has become outdated, but some people still follow his path.’ This remark was important to me not because it was incorrect (there’s no shortage of incorrect remarks in the world) but because it was spoken by Mr Khamene’i. Everyone knows that Mr Khamene’i neither reads philosophy nor knows philosophy (unlike Mr Khomeini). And it may well be that, having studied at a religious school in Mashhad, he does not believe in philosophy at all. More to the point, he knows nothing about modern European philosophy and I’m sure he doesn’t know what Popper’s philosophy consists of. But why do these words against Popper come out of Mr Khamene’i’s mouth? I have no answer, apart from the influence of Fardid’s school of thought at senior levels. One of the things that Fardid did – and that his student, Davari, continued – was to engage in a kind of hysterical anti-Popperism in Iran. They attacked Popper so that, through him, they could attack democracy and the pursuit of freedom. The position from which they were speaking was fascism, as I said. Fardid’s argument against Popper was not a philosophical argument; his argument was that Helmut Schmidt, the German chancellor, had written an introduction to Popper’s book! And Davari’s argument was that Popper had no sense of the authority of a guardian-leader [wilayat]. This is the kind of stuff that students were fed by way of philosophy in the Philosophy Department.

Q. Maybe they were trying to convey a message to you in this way.

A. Yes, of course, that’s true. But why was the message conveyed in a Fardid mould? This is the point I’m trying to make. If it was a question of opposing philosophy and Western philosophy, there are dozens of atheistic and non-atheistic philosophers that one can name and condemn. Was the philosophy of Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Carnap and the like sound and Islamic? Do they not have readers? Or how about Heidegger himself and his opposition to metaphysics? Is it in keeping with Islam? Mr Davari has said something in the midst of all this that shines like a flash of lightening in the history of philosophy. In order to defend the notion of a guardian-leader, he suggested that Plato was a proponent of this idea and Mr Popper opposed it. And he was granted the reward he was seeking in saying this.

Q. What a concoction. Fardid and Mesbah-Yazdi and –

A. Yes. This idea that the people amount to nothing and their vote is worthless, which is the heartfelt view of Mesbah-Yazdi and his ilk, is exactly the sort of thing that Fardid used to say. In line with the Nazis and Hitler, he used to ridicule democracy and voting at all levels and only believed in the cult of the leader.

Q. A hidden government. The economic interests of various gangs. Taliban-like groups. What a complicated phenomenon we face.

A. Yes. You might as well say a hidden fascism. A very complicated, ugly, offensive and repulsive phenomenon has come into being. I really think Fardid is to the current government what Strauss is to the Bush Administration.

Q. Leo Strauss?

A. Yes, it’s well known that the neocons base themselves on him and are indebted to and inspired by him. Fardid is more or less playing the same role, with this exception: Strauss was a regular philosopher with coherent and weighty works. What did Fardid have apart from a befuddled mind, hallucinatory ideas and a foul mouth? The least of his insults against his opponents was to call them freemasons.

Q. And Mesbah-Yazdi is following his path?

A. Yes. Mesbah-Yazdi does not, of course, serve as the theoretician of the propagators of violence but as their henchman. The one who propagated the main ideas, theorized violence, spread anti-Semitism in society or at least among some people, taught an extremist and incorrect use of belief in the return of the Hidden Imam and, basically, exploited religion for his own purposes, disparaged the people and their views, presented all the world’s organizations as conspirators against the Islamic Republic, ridiculed Western democracy, denigrated and scorned human rights, condemned and rejected all of humanity’s good achievements under the banner of the meaningless term ‘Westoxication’ and dismissed tolerance as effeminate was this same Fardid and his tribe. Everyone who knew Fardid and his circle knows that they absolutely do not believe in religion and God. The only thing that matters to them is to be in the limelight and to win power. And some of them have achieved their aim. Now that this evil phenomenon has occurred before our eyes in society, we must understand its roots.

Q. And the discussions about Islamism versus republicanism –

A. It’s all a hollow brawl. Mr Khomeini wooed the people, he did not involve the people. You can find things in Khomeini’s utterances both in support of Mesbah-Yazdi’s arguments and against them. Hence, quoting Khomeini won’t get anyone anywhere. The time has come for the wise ones in society to reassess things and to examine the pathology of this phenomenon in order to restore things to their rightful place. Of course, if such a thing is possible. Bearing in mind the collective’s interests, they must base things on reason and scientific management and desist from all this reliance on emotions, ignorance and, at times, even religious trickery. They must use humanity’s good achievements with confidence and courage.

Q. I’m sure you know what Mr Khatami has been saying, expressing concern about obscurantism and the danger of merging with the ranks that Bin-Ladin heads. But what I find interesting is: where were these people?

A. The ones that I spoke about were always there but they were scattered individuals and weak.

They couldn’t find the water to swim in, so to speak. After the revolution, they gradually found the water to swim in. Revolutions usually lift up pathological and abnormal people. It also happens to be the case that, when a democratic and reformist movement fails, it opens the way to violent tendencies. In other words, radical people come forward to take their turn and views that were in the margins before can move centre stage. There are also those who opt for silence because they’re intimidated by these people. It would be unfair, at the same time, to suggest that the bulk of our society favours these ideas or supports these people. Without a doubt, they don’t. The educated sections of society, in particular, are not well disposed towards these radical tendencies. But, unfortunately, they have no power and their views are going unheard for the time being, until there’s a suitable opportunity.

Mr Khatami is kind to call them obscurantists. They don’t deserve any name other than fascists. They have all the signs and characteristics. This is not something that I’m saying only now. In 1986, I delivered two lectures at the University of Tehran on the subject of the theoretical foundations of fascism and I gave adequate warning then. But did anyone listen?! At the time, Mr Khatami did not like what I said and sent me a harshly-worded message. But he fell victim to them himself later and now the entire country has fallen victim to them. The interesting thing is that Mr Ahmadinejad’s Municipality has promised a venue and funds to the Fardid Foundation so that it can pitch up its tent and dish out more Fardid stew. You see the web of links?

Q. Where is all this going to take our Iran?

A. Believe me these people are going to take us even further back than the Taliban. The Taliban that we saw and knew were at least sincere in their Islamism. They thought that they were performing their religious duty. But I see no religious sincerity in many of the people who are involved in the Fardid circle. There’s only love of gain and love of power. And this is far more calamitous. At a sensitive moment, they’ll neither defend the homeland, nor defend religion. The Taliban were, at any rate, really radical and even when the US asked them to hand over Bin-Ladin, they didn’t and they submitted to war and ruin. But you won’t find this steadfastness in these people. If the going gets the least bit tough, they’ll be the first to abandon everything and to turn their backs on the nation. Would that they had brilliant revolutionary records. Would that their religious sincerity had been proved. Would that they loved their homeland. None of these things holds true and this makes us very pessimistic about the future.

Q. So, it’s not surprising that they’re in cahoots with economic mafias, people with no love for their homeland

A. Exactly. A host of interests lie latent therein; whether interests relating to power or interests relating to wealth. This is why the tale of the battle against corruption will never get anywhere either. They’ll only expose and disgrace some individuals who belong to the opposite political camp. That’s all. I know that these interests have so hardened hearts that the words of the likes of me won’t have any impact. But let me say to the religious believers: for the sake of your religion, if for nothing else, be wary of these unbelieving, religion-peddling crooks. Now, if your questions are finished, I’d like to add a final point.

Q. Please do.

A. My main worry and concern is this: not everything that our country is experiencing under the name of tyranny should be blamed on believers and faqihs. And ‘the religious personality-type’ mustn’t be considered the main offender. In the midst of all this, there were and are also some unbelieving pseudo-philosophers who theorized tyranny for the sake of their passing, material interests and in order to move closer to power. They used Plato and Heidegger and so on and fed these things to some clerics, who, glad to have philosophical and intellectual backing, sat back in comfort on the seat of tyranny and ravaged freedom. And they were assured that freedom, tolerance and human rights were all manifestations of Western decadence and were therefore to be shunned. This is the tragic tale of philosophy in our country. Never in Iran’s history has philosophy been so political. And in a negative and reprehensible sense at that. Look at the names: Mesbah-Yazdi, Haddad-Adel, Ahmad Ahmadi, Ahmad Fardid, Reza Davari, Ali Larijani and? They all have weak foundations in philosophy and strong foundations in political tyranny.

During the hajj period, I was thinking about Islam’s rites and about its founder Muhammad Bin-Abdallah who was the most merciful person in the world. And how mercilessly and cruelly they treat people in his name! It occurred to me that it’s not fair. We face philosophy-spouters from whose evil we must take refuge in faqihs. May God protect us from Satan the Rejected One.

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


Comments are closed.