Some of our Clerics are no Better than the Taliban

• Apr 1st, 2009 • Category: Interviews

Interview with Abdulkarim Soroush

By Nooshabeh Amiri

Paris, April 2009

Q.  It seems that, these days, the West is very interested in the movement that you call “religious modernism”.  Is that right?  And why?

A.  Yes, that’s right.  But, unfortunately, the West’s interest in the question of Islam and religious modernism doesn’t have a very good origin.  Its starting place is one that we don’t like: the Taliban’s movement.  What I mean to say is that the West’s identity came up against a new identity, which consists of the Taliban’s militant identity.

Today, the world of Islam is going through a strange period.  And, any way you look at it, the Iranian revolution played a role and is still playing a role in the situation that has come about.  I’m not saying that we should blame the revolution for everything that’s bad and ruinous;  what I’m saying is that, without a doubt, the Iranian revolution gave Muslims a sense of identity and the courage to express their identity.  In fact, any revolution is a revolution in identity.  That is to say, a people discards its former identity and acquires a new one.  But the regrettable part is that the expression of identity is done via militancy.  It is like someone who wants to display his personality to others, but he doesn’t display his erudition, because he has no erudition.  He doesn’t display his wealth, because he has no wealth.  He doesn’t display his virtue, because he has none.  He just shows his brute force, because that’s all he has.  I’m not saying that the world of Islam has no erudition;  that it has no virtue.  But what the world saw in the Taliban movement was just this brute force; i.e., what we call violence.  Unfortunately, this brute force has drawn attention to the world of Islam today.  Be that as it may, we have to use this opportunity to show the Western world that Islam is not just an identity; it is also erudition.  Islam doesn’t just have violence, it has a history, a history in which virtue, too, has been cultivated.


Q.  You mean it has both sides –

A.  Yes, it has both sides.  All religions have had both these sides.  You read in the Qur’an that when water descends from the skies and flows in rivers, a great deal of froth sits on the surface.  All civilizations have pure water flowing underneath, with a great deal of froth on the surface.  Seeing the froth alone is not wisdom;  you have to see the water too.  And the froth has to be removed as much as possible so that people can swim in translucent water.


Q.  Your situation is complicated and difficult.  On the one hand, you have to tell Westerners that Islam is not just froth;  it is water too.  On the other hand, you have to speak about water to people who are “froth” themselves. And there’s quite a few of them.

A.  It is exactly as you say.  That is to say, it is more difficult explaining this point to Muslims who disagree with me, because they think that they know everything.  The think that this is their own terrain and that others are trying to rob them of this terrain.  So they show more resistance.  Be that as it may, we have to do something.  And I believe that religious intellectualism can be a new voice in the midst of all this.  This new voice has become strong now and is attracting the world’s attention.  And fair-minded people have accepted that there’s another kind of Muslim too.  This is enough to spread an atmosphere of understanding and engagement, and, in Mr Khatami’s words, a dialogue of civilizations.


Q.  What do people like you want to achieve by presenting this kind of thinking?  What’s your aim in depicting this image of religion?

A.  Look, we can’t take religion away from our society;  nor do we wish to do so.  It is our identity.  It is our culture.  It is our belief, our aspiration.  Of course, when the majority of people in a society come to the conclusion that they want to set religion aside, that’s another matter.  But we’re not talking in that kind of environment now.  We’re talking in an environment in which a revolution has occurred in the name of religion.  And people have shown that, despite their differences, they are deeply attached to this creed.  But this creed is that same frothy water that must be purified.  And this purification is a difficult task, which we must undertake.  And there’s a great deal of froth sitting on the water.  It’s not something that one can hope to sweep away in one day or in one year.  This is froth that is, on occasion, considered to be the same as water.   Some people say that the truth is nothing but this froth.  Separating the two things and distinguishing between them is very difficult.  We want to do this.  So, religious modernism or religious intellectualism is trying to explain that peoples, in each historical era, have constructed forms or depictions of religion.  Religion is never standing nearby for people to go and discover it.  In fact, we’ve been constantly reconstructing it.  Today, too, we have to reconstruct it.  Just as we constructed philosophy.  Just as we constructed mysticism. Religion, too, has to be reconstructed.


Q.  Why?

A.  Because it has blessings and benefits.  If it didn’t have blessings and benefits, we wouldn’t do this.  At least that’s how it seems to a religious person like myself.  If I didn’t believe that the good aspects of religion outweigh the bad aspects, I wouldn’t be a follower.  I’m not saying that religion is blight-free;  it isn’t.  There’s nothing in this world that’s blight-free.  Not science.  Not philosophy.  Not art.  And not human beings.  Have human beings not caused untold misery and misfortune in the world?  But we still haven’t lost hope in humanity.  We still believe that, on the whole, what’s good about human beings outweighs what’s bad about them.  But, if we’ve really lost hope, then, we have to hope that a couple of atom bombs will sort everything and everyone out.

A good phrase by Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet, comes to mind here.  He said:  So long as a child is born, it shows that God hasn’t lost hope in humanity.  Now, if I were to view the world from God’s perspective, I’d say that we still haven’t lost hope in humanity.  Nor have we lost hope in religiosity.  I still believe that religious people are behind many endearing manifestations of humanity.  If you look at all the charity work that is done in the name of religion, you’ll see that there’s still no shortage of this kind of thing.  I’m living in the United States where there are very many religious people who do good works.  The women who work as nurses in leper colonies are still Christian nuns and they do what they do because of their religious beliefs.  There are still good and pious souls in the world.  You can find hundreds of examples of this kind of moral conduct.  Of course very dangerous things have also been done and are being done in the name of religion.


Q.  I have a friend who says that religion is like a personal psychiatrist for her.  Others go to see a psychiatrist, I seek refuge in my religion, she says.  In fact, it’s impossible to live without believing in something.  But there’s a difference between religion as blessings and good deeds, which form the bases of an individual’s life, and religion as a political term which some people exploit –

A.  Look, I’m totally aware of the fact that religion isn’t blight-free.  But I believe that all the potential and actual dangers that exist in religion also exist in all other political systems, but in their own way.  What I mean to say is that secularism has caused its own share of ruin.  See for yourself: World War I and World War II were instigated by secular, not religious, people.  And the number of people killed in these two wars equalled the number of people killed in all the other wars throughout history.  Many of the world’s dictatorships have been non-religious.


Q.  The difference is that when people speak from the position of God it is very dangerous.  Here, they say:  You’re a communist, you’re subversive.  But they don’t incite the masses against you by saying that God has authorized the shedding of your blood.  Speaking from a secular position is not frightening.  But when they say,  You’ve acted against God, then, you really tremble in your boots because they’re setting both the masses and the state against you.

A.  No.  In Stalinist Russia, too, if they said that you were anti-communist or anti-the people, then, you’d be given a one-way ticket to Siberia.  What I’m saying is that the human beings come first in all these situations.  Unamuno, the famous Spanish philosopher, said in his very tender and profound book entitled The Tragic Sense of Life:  “God doesn’t seek out virtuous human beings; virtuous human beings seek out God.”  In other words, the goodness starts on this side.  But, since they see God as the epitome and creator of all goodness, they are drawn to Him.  What I’m trying to say is that virtue in human beings precedes religiosity.  Wickedness, too, precedes religiosity.  But religion increases a good human being’s goodness and it increases a bad human being’s badness.   This is an important point.  It is like wine.  I have sometimes used this analogy.  Religion is like wine.  Rumi said that wine makes wise people wiser and ignorant people, more ignorant.  In other words, wine strips a human being bare.  If he’s wise, his wisdom becomes more visible.  And if he’s wicked, his wickedness becomes more visible.  This is an important idea that is corroborated by science too.  Nowadays, we know more or less what alcohol does to the brain.  It tears away the cover that we draw over our nakedness in society and it reveals our true self.


Q.  In vino veritas?

A.  Exactly.  The arts do this too to some extent.  Now, let me also tell you this: Some sages are of the view that a woman does this to a man.  She strips him bare; makes him be himself.


Q.  Power seems to do this too.

A.  Power does this too, but I think that power tends to expose vices more than virtues.  Now, what I’m saying is that religion is the same.  It makes a good person better and a bad person worse.  A bad person finds the most vicious weapon in religion in order to commit the worst vices in the name of religion; to kill, to torture, to tyrannize, in the name of God.  And a good person does all that’s good and beautiful for the sake of God.  The most beautiful works of art over the course of history have appeared in places of worship.  That is to say, an unending love has been bestowed on God.  Every brick that they’ve laid, they’ve laid with love.  They’ve built the places of worship to the tune of religious music and songs.  The same goes for Indian temples.  The same goes for mosques.  In other words, human beings love to bestow their best on their object of worship.  So, religion, too, strips us bare;  like wine, like a woman.  Of course, I’m using these analogies in the hope that believers won’t be offended.  There’s wine in heaven after all.  That is to say, in the appropriate place, wine plays a good role.  I explained this point once.  Someone asked me why there’s wine in heaven, whereas it’s forbidden here.  I said, the answer lies in what you said.  It is because there are only good people in heaven (by definition), so, wine will expose their goodness.  But since this world contains both good and bad people, wine has been forbidden by God.


Q.  So the good ones have to suffer because of a handful of bad ones!

A.  Yes, the good have always suffered because of the bad.  You’ll never find an instance of a good person torturing a bad person.  It is always bad people who torture good people.  At any rate, the point is that, in the hands of good people, religiosity can be the best means for bringing to fruition all the goodness that they know.

We wash ourselves with water, but water has to be kept clean too.  We wash ourselves with religion, but we have to keep religion clean too.  Religion can become soiled and, once it does, it can soil an entire world.


Q.  Even if good people come to power, in view of power’s effects and exigencies, they, too, can become bad people after a while.  They can turn into power-hungry people who can – in the name of religion – rob society of the possibility of cleansing religion.  So, the question is this:  Can the arena of power be a place for truly religious people?

A.  Look, the point you’re making raises the following question:  Can we deprive religious people of the right to enter the arena of power and politics?  Take me, as a religious person.  Does anyone have the right to tell me that I don’t have the right to come power in a democratic system or in a struggle against a dictatorial system?  The important thing is to judge me by my actions.   Believing in any creed or religion shouldn’t bar anyone from coming to power.


Q.  No, but you’re talking about a democratic system.

A.  That’s right, power shouldn’t be dictatorial.  No one should derive the legitimacy of their power from their creed.


Q.  What should they derive it from?

A.  From the people and from policies that are based on justice.  But no one should be deprived of a right simply because they believe in something.  At any rate, people’s power should be delimited by the law.


Q.  Should this law be intertwined with religion, as it is in Iran?

A.  The law must be a law that fulfils two conditions:  First, it must be acceptable to and respected by the people.  Secondly, it must not violate human rights.  Of course, we don’t say that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is cast in stone.  It is a human construct, after all, and it can be amended.  Some things may be subtracted from it or added to it.  But I believe that if, on the whole, these two conditions are fulfilled, whoever comes to power can have a humane and people-pleasing government.


Q.  But then it would just be a democratic government.

A.  It would be scientific and moral management.


Q.  How do you feel today when you hear the expression “Islamic state”?

A.  If what is meant by an Islamic state is that faqihs [Islamic jurists/clerics] should rule, then I think that it would be the most immoral form of government in the world, because a government of faqihs would consider it not only a right to be dictatorial, but a duty.  And this is the most dangerous and brutal form of dictatorship.  Ibn Khaldun, too, was opposed to a government of faqihs.  But if what is meant by an Islamic state is a government of people who respect Islamic values, I think there’s nothing wrong with this. I would call it management.

Unfortunately, we’ve put things the wrong way round in Iran.  The misfortune in our country was that they viewed Islam through the porthole of fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] and they viewed fiqh through the porthole of penal laws.  In other words, two upside down notions came to rule over us.  Whereas, first, Islam isn’t limited to fiqh.  And, secondly, fiqh isn’t limited to penal laws.  You can’t find a better example of putting things the wrong way round than this:  We say we want to have an Islamic state; then, we make fiqh rule over us; and, then, we start cutting off people’s hands and legs, stoning people and so on.  This is what happened in Iran.  This is how the Taliban interpreted an Islamic state too.  And this is the impression that the world has been left with.

But if what we mean by a religious state is that people should be left free to have their religious experiences, i.e., that there should be a pleasing environment in which I can have religious experiences and establish a free and pleasing link with God and lead an autonomous, moral life, I consider this to be the best environment.  And I believe that a religious state must, in the first instance, bring about an environment of this kind for believers, not to cut off hands and legs and gouge people’s eyes out and to view this as the state’s purpose.


Q.  Now, there are some people who say that, as it happens, the Taliban were more sincere in what they did.  They believed in something and they tried to implement it.  Whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran has not insisted on what it professes to believe in.  What sort of belief in an Islamic state is it that goes up and down with various political waves?  And how is it that some things that are prohibited to enemies are not-prohibited to insiders?  Is it possible to have conflicting rulings on a single issue relating to faith?  Can faqihs who are themselves embroiled in economic and political wheeling and dealing, speak of a state run by faqihs?

A.  Look, let me say very frankly that some of our faqihs are no better than the Taliban.  But the service that religious modernism or religious intellectualism rendered to Iran was that it made these faqihs ashamed of expressing and implementing their views openly.  In other words, it didn’t allow them to practise their harsh, Taliban-like version of fiqh.  I think that what is absent among the Taliban is religious intellectualism.  That is to say, they don’t have religious intellectuals in their society.  Hence, the Taliban distribute and impose the only ideology that exists there.  But, in Iran, it wasn’t that the faqihs – of course, I don’t mean all the faqihs – didn’t want to impose a similar situation on our society; but they couldn’t.  A big segment of society rose up against them and robbed them of the courage to do so.  They didn’t manage to impose their narrow-minded thinking.  Otherwise, you can be certain that we would see more examples of Talibanism in Iran.  You saw how, in his Friday prayer sermons, a faqih, who was the Speaker of the Assembly of Experts, issued a death sentence on Mr Aghajari because of what he’d said at the University of Hamadan.  Even if the sentence had been issued by a court, we would have found it lamentable; so much the more so when it occurs in Friday prayer sermons. What else can you call this but Talibanism?  But this Talibanism didn’t succeed because there were people who stood up against it.


Q.  For the Taliban, it makes no different whether you’re one of them or not.  If you do something that’s forbidden by religion, they’ll sentence you to death or to having your hand cut off.  But in the Islamic Republic of Iran, if you say something, you get the death sentence, but if Mr Hossein Shariatmadari says the exact same thing, no one can look askance at him.  Is this what a government of faqihs means?

A.  Look, here we have to go back to the identity of clerics as a profession.  When I wrote my article entitled “Liberty and the Clergy”, one of the senior clerics in Qom, whom I will not name now, told me very openly and frankly:  Don’t say things like that in public; come and tell us in private.  He told me this just as clearly as I’m telling you.  So, let’s now analyse what this statement means.  It means that a profession (the clergy) wants to remain closed and mysterious.  The people must not be privy to its secrets.  The people must not begin to feel that they can criticize them.  Let me tell you a very revealing story.  There was a woman, in the time of Mu’awiya, who boldly stood up to him and said what she wanted to say.  Mu’awiya, who was a clever man, realized that there was nothing to be gained from punishing the woman and killing her.  So, he let her speak, but he was seething inside.  Then, he said in an insulting way:  Curses upon Ali for making people like you feel that you can criticize the state.

Now, our rulers don’t want the people to feel that they can criticize clerics.  Of course, despite their efforts, the people have started criticizing them.  This is what they don’t want.  They ban newspapers.  They ban public talks.  They can’t tolerate the slightest criticism.  This is the politics of Mu’awiya and we must recognize this.  Now, let me return to what I was saying, which is that, one of the things that religious intellectuals did was to make the people feel that they can criticize the state.  And this is a cardinal sin that cannot be forgiven.  But, in Rumi’s words, “this is a fault that’s better than a thousand good deeds”.


Q.  And it seems that only religious modernists, i.e., people who are rooted in religion themselves and know the state’s language, could have made the people feel that they can criticize the Islamic state.

A.  Yes.  The state knows this too.  If there is a group of people who can make the people feel that they can criticize the state, it is religious modernists, and they also paid they price for it.  Of course, it’s a matter of religious pride too.  When I see that some people have set up an unjust state in the name of religion, I can’t help but speak out.


Q.  Now, let’s turn to the election, which can be an instance of Alis standing up to Mu’awiyas.  What’s your view on the forthcoming presidential election?

A.  Look, in Iran, I was faced with friends who believe that people shouldn’t take part in the election.  I really wasn’t convinced by their arguments.  I know what they’re saying and from what perspective they’re looking at things.  Their perspective is that elections are, at any rate, something that’s organized by the state and taking part in the game ultimately benefits the ruling system.


Q.  It legitimizes the ruling system.

A.  Yes, but when I asked them, what should we do instead, they had no answer.   I guess there would have to be a revolution. What other option would there be? Subversive activities. At this point, I told them the story of the man who had dug a well and didn’t know where to put the dug-up soil.  The village headman told him:  Dig another well and put this soil into it.  Well, the rest of the story is obvious.  He would be digging wells for the rest of his life; throwing the soil from the first into the second, throwing the soil from the second into the third, etc.  I told my friends:  We already had a revolution and we dug up a lot of soil from society’s well.  Now, we’re wondering where to put the soil.  You’re saying:  Dig another well.  But, then, the same question would come up again.   Where would we throw the soil from the second well?  We can’t spend our lives digging wells.


Q.  Of course they say that this business of digging wells may not quench the people’s thirst, but it may line some individuals’ pockets.

A.  But there is a worse scenario too.  It may happen that no one’s thirst is quenched and no one’s pocket is lined, but everyone is destroyed in the well.  We can’t keep digging wells.  The fact of the matter is that we must enter the existing game and we must keep strengthening it until it produces real results.  At first, it may produce mediocre results, but, God willing, it will gradually improve.  That is to say, the results will eventually become relatively satisfactory.  Ideal results don’t exist anywhere.  The ideal form of democracy doesn’t exist anywhere.  We mustn’t look for totally pure and unadulterated things in this world.  This is why, while I was in Iran and also among Iranians abroad, I noticed that calls for a boycott have become less frequent or have disappeared altogether.  Even many of the individuals who were the biggest proponents of a boycott were beginning to say that they wouldn’t be voting themselves but that they would be calling on other people not to vote.  This is one step forward at any rate.  Be that as it may, people are free to vote for whoever they like.  But I believe that the election game is the game of democracy.  And democracy is always weak at first and gradually becomes stronger.  And people mustn’t expect full democracy from the word go.  This is why I respect the people who are active in this arena now and I believe that what they’re doing is laudable;  whether the candidates themselves or the people who are campaigning for them and are hoping that their candidate will win.

Of course I’m not suggesting that all candidates are equal.  No, they’re not.  I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that Mr Ahmadinejad will not be president for another term.  A year and a half ago, when I was taking part in a seminar at George Washington University, I answered a question by saying:  Mr Ahmadinejad cannot be and must not be president again.  Many other people have come to this conclusion too.  And I hope that this is how things turn out.  He has shamed Iran enough.  He has told the people enough lies.  He has fostered enough superstitious and inane ideas.  He has dug up enough money from the oil wells and thrown it into the wells of Jamkaran.  He has caused enough grief.


Q.  In order to bring this about, tell us which candidate you favour.

A.  I told you something in the last presidential election;  I’m more or less of the same view now.


Q.  You mean Mr Karrubi?

A.  Yes, especially so because I don’t find anything new in the things that Mr Musavi is saying.  And I don’t find anything attractive in his record either.  I believe that he hasn’t bid farewell to his former ideas.  And although he sometimes raises some new points in his speeches, his views are fundamentally what they were before.  And there are worrying intimations in his speeches.  In practice, too, he sat back over the past 20 years, watched the injustice and didn’t say anything.


Q.  So, why did Mr Khatami back him?

A.  This is what’s baffling about Mr Khatami’s stance in my view.  And I really don’t understand why some of my friends are backing Musavi.  I mean, when I look at it from the perspective of politics, I find it really inexplicable.  Let me put it frankly, I really don’t like to see someone claim, for a second time, from a political position, that he has an intellectual mission.  We need a man of action.


Q.  But the problem is that some people believe that it won’t make any difference even if it is Mr Karrubi who wins.

A.  It depends on what you expect from the president in Iran.  What I expect is that we should have a somewhat freer atmosphere so that thinkers and reformers can do some work at the level of civil society.  Somewhat more press freedom.  Somewhat more freedom for the people, so that the shadow of fear isn’t hanging over them.  A cleaner judiciary.  For example, I haven’t heard Mr Musavi display any sensitivity in his slogans on the question of the judiciary.  Whereas the beating heart of democracy and justice – even if we don’t mention democracy, we can speak of justice – is the judiciary. We have a judiciary which, as we all know, is tainted with various types of corruption.  If the courage and the will to bring about a cleaner judiciary doesn’t exist, the other bodies can’t do anything.


Q.  But appointing the head of the judiciary is not in the president’s powers.

A.  But the president must have the courage to talk about it.  I want to use this opportunity to say to Mr Karrubi – or even Mr Musavi, it makes no difference: If you come to power, bear this suggestion in mind.  We have three branches of power in the Constitution.  The legislature, the executive and the judiciary.  The executive is elected by the people.  The people elect the president.  And the members of parliament are elected by the people too.  But the head of the judiciary is appointed.  My suggestion is that [the head of] this branch of power too should be elected.  I believe that this would solve many of the problems of our judiciary and it would break absolutist rule in our country.

The judiciary must be truly independent of the other powers.  If the top, ruling cleric appoints the president, if he appoints parliament, it won’t be a major problem. But if the judiciary isn’t independent, we will truly not have justice and everything will be destroyed.

Mr Karrubi has said that he wants to bring about changes in the Constitution.  I am suggesting to him that he should have this change in mind.  Mr Musavi has said that he wants to bring about some reforms.  My suggestion to him is that he should carry out this particular reform.  This is also my proposal to all intellectuals.  I hope that in this way, we will have a Constitution that’s different from all the other Constitutions in the world.  And, in a way, we’ll show the world what justice means.

I’m certain that, by reforming the judiciary, we’ll be able to have a true democracy or true rule by the people.  I really hope that whoever comes to power fosters justice; whether it is Mr Musavi or Mr Karrubi or Mr Ahmadinejad.  And I advise Mr Ahmadinejad to implement the promise of justice that he made at the start of his presidency.  And he should consult others too so that he can learn what justice means in the modern world.  Let him also bear in mind the words attributed to the Prophet:  A single day of governing over Muslims equals 60 years of worship, but only if it is a government of justice.


Q.  And, finally, let me ask you a question about something that you’d said to me before.  You said that the form of government that you favour is a liberal democracy.  Are you still of the same view?  And, if so, what would religion’s place be within it?

A.  Look, liberalism means a system in which rights take precedence over duties.  Liberalism mustn’t be interpreted as libertinism.  Liberalism means the paradigm of rights as opposed to the paradigm of duties.  Liberal democracy means a system that is based on people’s rights, and democracy has been chosen as the method of governing.  One of the people’s rights is religiosity.  So, in a liberal democracy, the right to religiosity is fully respected.  I’m opposed to militant secularism, which extends secularism to the point where it makes life difficult for religiosity and religious people.  Two years ago, I gave a talk here, in Paris, in which I said that secularism has become intolerant and it is starting to develop the fault that it attributes to religion.  This has to be amended.  Religiosity as a right is totally respected in a liberal system.  Religious people have to be able to practise their values.


Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


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