The Story of the Cultural Revolution

• Oct 1st, 1999 • Category: Interviews

The Story of the Cultural Revolution

Right to the End They Didn’t Know Where They Were Meant to Be Going

A Conversation with Dr Soroush About the Cultural Revolution and Things that Were Supposed to Happen and to Be

Publicatished in Lowh, Mehr 1378/October 1999

Q. All that’s been said about seminary-university unity has taken on a mainly party-political meaning. But the things that were being said before were scholarly in nature. How can scholarly unity be defined and where does party-political unity lead us?

A. One of the main clarion calls raised within the geography of events known as « the Cultural Revolution » was the call for seminary-university unity. I don’t know who raised this cry or who first formulated the slogan. But it was heard frequently in the early days and years of the revolution. I can recall that many speeches and conferences were devoted to defining and explaining seminary-university unity or a seminary-university alliance. My assessment now is that the definition was not clear to begin with, nor did it become any clearer after all the discussions.

It was much the same with the Islamization of universities. It wasn’t clear what this meant to begin with, nor did it ever become any clearer. Both of them remained short-hand for something, aroused a great deal of debate and yielded little result. I believe that the idea of seminary-university unity arose out of a historical battle, rooted in all religious cultures and extending to our own religious culture: the battle between science and religion. Before the Renaissance, there was one source of knowledge: religion. After the Renaissance, there was at least one other source: science. To put it more precisely, the human mind took its own independent course and this is exactly what secularism meant and means. The non-religious mind opted to take the course of discovering things without reliance on religion and without asking for permission from religion, and human beings became multi-sourced.

When there was more than one source, it was inevitable that the relationship between these sources would come under scrutiny. Did these sources clash or concur? This is how the battle between science and religion became a serious concern for believers and religious people. Universities are the embodiment, source and creator of science in the modern sense of the word. Seminaries are the embodiment and fountain-head of religious thought and religious learning in the traditional sense. Hence, one of the manifestations of reconciliation between science and religion would be reconciliation between universities and seminaries. I believe that most of the events that have occurred in our country, especially since the revolution, have been manifestations of ancient battles and ideas in our land: the battle between tyranny and opposition to tyranny; the battle between science and religion; etc. Maybe what the people who formulated the slogan of seminary-university unity had in mind was a reconciliation between science and religion, and they tried to put their finger on the most tangible and notable manifestations of science and religion.

Hence, the first and simplest meaning of seminary-university unity is a resolution of the battle between science and religion. Resolving this battle is a scholarly endeavour, not a political and practical one. Science has its own logic, world outlook and achievements. Religion, too, has its logic, world outlook and achievements. Reconciling these and demonstrating that they can co-exist and are not in conflict is an act that is wholly technical, logical and rational.

Seminary-university unity must, therefore, be seen as a scholarly endeavour. Put simply, people steeped in modern learning and people steeped in religious learning or clerics should not be enemies and should not create problems for one another or undermine each other. Hence, the idea of seminary-university unity conveyed this minimal meaning: Lowering a profound historical notion to a more tangible and much more limited level and placing it within specific political boundaries.

After the revolution, since clerics came to rule over the country, the idea of seminary-university unity, which meant understanding between seminary teachers and academics, gradually turned into submission by academics to clerics and seminary teachers, because, as I said, it lost its logical and scholarly meaning and took on a political and practical sense. And, in view of the fact that clerics were ruling, the practical sense, in turn, came to mean, submission and surrender by universities to seminaries. That was the outcome of the idea of seminary-university unity. People later put forward various theories on the subject and said various things. I remember that someone had said jokingly that one meaning of seminary-university unity was that seminarians and academics should inter-marry and form family relationships. When the meaning of something is unclear, interpretations of this kind are inevitable.

Q. What did you think it meant?

A. For a person like me, who saw the idea of seminary-university unity as primarily and essentially non-political and as something that had to be taken seriously and removed from the realm and reach of political slogans, a seminary-university alliance meant a unified approach to learning and research. I said repeatedly in my writings and lectures that seminaries had to be seen as institutions of learning, just as universities should be seen in this way. Two institutions of learning may teach different subjects but, if their approach and methods are the same, they can co-exist and maintain a lasting alliance. I’m of the opinion that seminaries must not use the fact that they are speaking about religion to speak domineeringly. This judgement goes back to the theory I put forward in my book Contraction and Expansion, where I said that there is a difference between religion and religious knowledge. Religion consists of what God has really said or the Prophet has really said. But religious knowledge cons ists of our understanding and perception of what God or the Prophet has said. And none of us are God or the Prophet. Hence, anything we say and any perception we have are human and fallible. This is why, although the clerics who are sitting in seminaries are studying religion and thinking about the words of God and the Prophet, what they ultimately present to the people is neither the words of God, nor the words of the Prophet, but their own words. That is to say, religion cannot speak and we speak on its behalf. Hence, what we say is our understanding and our interpretation of religion. This being the case, we must not present our words in a domineering and sanctified fashion or claim that what we’re saying is sacred. Yes, what God has said is sacred, but we do not utter God’s words, we utter our own words in God’s name and on the basis of what He has said. The main point I was trying to make was that seminaries should make it clear – and even if they don’t make it clear, it is a recognised fact – that what they are saying is not sacred or indisputable. In other words, they are in the same boat as universities. No-one claims in universities that any principle, theory or law is sacred or indisputable. Everything can be passed under the blade of criticism, reconsidered, amended, completed or annulled and invalidated. The same applies to everything that is said in seminaries. Many seminary teachers did not approve of my remarks. Their criticism and the objections they raised were very interesting. Some of them said, not only are sacred and indisputable things said in seminaries, but this holds true of universities as well. Some said the exact opposite. They said, not only is such a claim not made in universities, no-one makes such a claim in seminaries either and I had been wrong to attribute it to them. To the best of my knowledge – and any fair-minded person can see for themselves that this is the case – many statements are described as sacred in seminaries and it is this description that differentiates seminarie s from universities. I’m of the opinion that, as long as one side is producing sacred knowledge, while the other side is producing non-sacred knowledge, that unity or alliance will never come about.

Q. Isn’t it possible to suggest a political definition of seminary-university unity?

A. Let us assume that seminary-university unity is a political slogan. And, as I said, this is what it originally meant and the people who first raised the idea did not have any sophisticated technical or philosophical definitions in mind. They hoped that political fellowship would be created between seminaries and universities and that everyone would fall under the banner of the revolution and pursue the aims of the revolution. But the realisation of this slogan is also open to doubt. Bear in mind, for example, that seminaries are in a position of power. If two people want to achieve unity, they must be on an equal footing. Otherwise, there can be no unity or alliance between them; it will simply be a question of one of them submitting to the other. In the words of the poet: « How lovely is the banquet of the sentiments/there, beggar and king may dine at the same table ». At the banquet of the sentiments, the king and the beggar are on a par; otherwise, speaking of unity between a king and a beg gar is little more than a joke or a polite turn of phrase.

Today, seminary teachers have a great sense of power. Any why ever not? They have a direct link and connection to the ruling powers. This is why seminaries have ceased to be institutions of learning in the natural and conventional sense of the word and become attached to places that will gradually alter their nature. The views that are expressed by some of the prominent figures in our seminaries today are both uttered with political considerations in mind and endorsed and approved by the ruling powers. Hence, the logical and rational bases of their remarks are not examined and challenged in the way they ought to be. This situation undermines seminary-university unity even as a political slogan and makes it impossible in practice. I see the prospects of the relationship between seminaries and universities as follows: if seminaries become non-political, cease to rely on political power and reconsider their teaching methods, then a natural unity will be established between seminaries and universities as two i nstitutions of learning. Otherwise, the distance between them will become even greater. Seminary teachers, especially since the revolution, have shown by their political stances that they are not prepared to stand by the side of universities. This is another point I’ve raised in my writings. And we’ve seen that the violent groups have not attacked seminaries even once and the newspapers that have directed so much criticism at universities have not said a word against seminaries. Not only have the violent groups refrained from attacking seminaries, but on those occasions when they’ve attacked universities and lecturers, not once have the people running our seminaries criticised them or said a word in protest. This kind of behaviour will create a rift between seminaries and universities and it will demonstrate that seminaries constitute an institution that does not identify itself with universities and does not consider them to be on a par with or in the same category as itself. There are even signs and evidenc e indicating that some of these violent groups are actually in the possession of fatwas issued by some of the prominent seminary figures or have their tacit approval to attack some university lecturers and universities. All this suggests that we have moved increasingly away from seminary-university unity and that there are no bright prospects in sight for the realisation of this slogan. The things that have been said so far or are being said now are little more than empty words and there are serious practical difficulties impeding their realisation. In order to move towards seminary-university unity, seminaries must condemn the people who attack universities and take an active stance in this connection. I can see very clearly that our university students – and this trend began several years ago – have separated their way from the clerics in power and no longer see them as their guardians. There is thus a kind of rupture between the two institutions. In these circumstances, the institution that has to take som e remedial action, win back university students and instigate some changes within itself is the seminary. Unfortunately, it has done nothing so far and no serious steps have been taken. Of course, there has been one auspicious development: some young seminarians have developed a serious interest in modern subjects, especially the philosophy of religion and modern theology. And, although some of the prominent seminary figures have not officially acknowledged this, nonetheless, great enthusiasm has been shown on the fringes. These kinds of developments are like budding shoots. If they grow and do not shrivel up and die, and if they don’t encounter hostility from certain opposing forces, they can lead to a kind of cooperation or co-existence and fellowship between seminaries and universities – or at least a part of seminaries and universities.

Q. Can modern subjects really penetrate into seminaries? If so, in what form? Has the modern outlook really penetrated into seminaries or is it just a question of interest in its tools, such as computers and the Internet?

A. The modern outlook will inevitably penetrate into seminaries. Different areas of knowledge are like linked vessels. When new areas of knowledge develop in one part of the country or new tools are used, this will inevitably affect the rest of the country and be applied everywhere. Just as the use of computers is now increasing and flourishing in seminaries, the application of modern theoretical tools is also gaining currency to some extent. The use of mechanical tools always precedes and is easier than the use of theoretical criteria and standards. You can find examples of this among the younger seminarians. I used to teach in Qom for a number of years and my course was followed with great enthusiasm by many of the young seminarians. They would make audio-tapes of the lectures and listen to them. They would come to the classes. Apart from this, the fact that many books in the fields of the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of ethics are being translated into Persian from English and French – alth ough some of the translations have been weak – is a sign of a new vitality and determination in seminaries. Some of the journals being published in seminaries also demonstrate that there are seminarians who are seriously interested in new ideas. The most important thing is that our young seminarians should not see modern ideas as harmful or say that the new ideas being raised in the world today are new seeds of doubt sown with the intention of undermining Islam and religious thought. They should instead see these ideas as subjects worthy of study and investigation in their own right. And this has more or less been the case.

Our seminaries are, like any other teaching institution, consumers as well as producers. Their products are traditional theories on religious jurisprudence and the principles of jurisprudence, theology and exegesis. But, in their capacity as consumers, they read and consider new philosophical and theological ideas. If the minority that is now engaged in studying modern ideas turns into a majority, a long stride will have been taken towards the realisation of seminary-university unity. I know that this minority is being treated unkindly and is occasionally branded with political labels. I see part of these types of reactions as normal. That is to say, they could happen anywhere in the world. But I hope that the seminarians who are interested in new ideas will persevere and refuse to be discouraged. New scientific thought, in the sense of the experimental sciences, has not found its way into seminary studies and there is no reason, in terms of the subject matter, why it should have done so. But new philosoph ical, jurisprudential-theological and ethical thought has seeped into seminaries to some extent and I hope that this is a growing trend.

Q. It seems as if the Cultural Revolution was an attempt to impose the viewpoints and methods of seminaries on universities in some way. In your opinion, as someone who was involved in the Cultural Revolution from the start, what did the Cultural Revolution Institute wish to do to universities?

A. The story of the creation and genesis of the Cultural Revolution Institute is a long one. First, I’d like to correct one mistake. The Cultural Revolution Institute began by having seven members (not four) and the decree issued by Imam Khomeini named seven people: Messrs Jalaleddin Farsi, Shams Al-e Ahmad, Rabbani-Amlashi, the late Dr Bahonar, Dr Hassan Habibi, Dr Shariatmadari and myself. In May 1980, when the universities were shut and with the aim of reopening them, a body by the name of the Cultural Revolution Institute was created by Imam Khomeini, who issued a decree appointing seven people as members given the task of taking universities to the point where they could reopen with a new structure and new programmes. From this group of people, Dr Habibi and Dr Shariatmadari were academics. Dr Bahonar, for his part, had a Ph.D. from Tehran University’s College of Divinities. Mr Farsi had had a disrupted education at the Law College at B.A. level. And, if I’m not mistaken, Mr Al-e Ahmad had studied Per sian literature at university. The only person in that group of seven who had not had a modern university education and had only studied in seminaries, was the late Rabbani-Amlashi. On this basis, I have to say that the group had a good working knowledge of universities. From this group, Dr Habibi, Dr Shariatmadari and myself had also studied at universities abroad. I was the youngest member and the only member who had studied the experimental sciences as well as the human sciences. Otherwise, Dr Shariatmadari had studied teaching and education; Dr Habibi, sociology and law; the late Dr Bahonar, divinities; Mr Farsi, law; and Mr Al-e Ahmad, literature. The late Mr Rabbani-Amlashi was there to serve as a link between us and the seminaries. As a matter of fact, he told me himself that Ahmad Khomeini – the Imam’s son – had telephoned him and said that they wanted someone from the seminaries to be a member of the group. That was why he joined us. Since he knew little about universities, Mr Rabbani-Amlashi did not play a prominent role in our discussions and debates at the Cultural Revolution Institute. I should add that a number of people outside the institute were hovering around him and influencing his views. One of these people was Dr Mehdi Golshani, who is now the head of the Human Sciences Research Institute. Mr Esrafilian was another and there were a few others who, it later transpired, were from Dr Ayat’s circle of acquaintances. As for the late Bahonar, because of his extensive political responsibilities, he was often only half awake at the institute’s meetings. On many occasions, I noticed that his eyes were falling shut because he was so tired. So he didn’t play an active part in the discussions. Mr Jalal Farsi was not very interested in the task he’d been given and was more involved in political activities. And, part of the time and on some days, he would leave the city to go hunting. He didn’t attend the meetings regularly and, when he did, he would be in charge of some of the more radical or what you mig ht describe as the more revolutionary tasks.

Mr Shams Al-e Ahmad was very ill and it was basically very difficult for him to move and to leave his house. He rarely came to the institute. He was also quite pessimistic about the whole thing in view of the institute’s membership and aims. He respected Imam Khomeini but, beneath Khomeini, he used to see everything in political terms and in the light of the different political groups and alliances. I remember him saying to me once that only he and I were alone at the institute, the others were all linked in some way or another to the Islamic Republic Party or elsewhere. In view of this outlook, he didn’t stay at the institute long and respectfully left.

Dr Hassan Habibi, who had recently vacated the post of higher education minister, had a legalistic mind and had no wish whatsoever to join in the discussions about the educational system as a whole or general cultural concerns. He was more than anything interested in writing the legal regulations and criteria. Many of the regulations concerning our universities have been written by Dr Habibi. And he usually didn’t attend the institute’s meetings and tended to spend most of his time with the educational committees and groups the institute had established. The institute’s members just gradually drifted away.

Mr Habibi gradually left. It was much the same with Mr Shams Al-e Ahmad. Dr Bahonar was assassinated in 1981. Mr Amlashi fell ill and left. For a while, there were only three members: Messrs Farsi and Shariatmadari, and myself. We always used to invite the higher education minister to attend our meetings. Mr Hassan Arefi used to attend at first and, when Mr Najafi took over as minister, he used to take part in our meetings, as did others later. On the recommendation of university students, Mr Najafi – who was on very good terms with them then, but later fell out with them – became higher education minister. I should add here that, when the number of members fell, the Imam appointed a few others. Let me also say that, about this same time, I wanted to leave the institute for various reasons and offered my resignation to the Imam, but he did not accept it. Later on, I resigned again and this time he did accept and I left the institute in 1983.

One of the members who subsequently joined us was Mr Mahdavi-Kani. He only stayed for a short time. He behaved in a fairly domineering manner and considered himself to be in a special position at the institute. One story sticks in my mind from that time. A group of naval commanders came to the Cultural Revolution Institute and said they wanted to create something called the Naval Sciences Academy. They were very adamant that it should not be called a university, but an academy. Rear-Admiral Afzali, who was later executed, was one of them. They came several times. We didn’t think their request was appropriate at the time. We felt that allowing the establishment of a new university under the auspices of the navy, without having the required resources and academic staff – and under the name of an academy at that – was something that needed to be debated and discussed. So, we didn’t give them any immediate, specific answer. We explained to them that we would need to look into their request and let them know wh en we’d come to a decision. This was at the time when Mr Mahdavi-Kani had joined us at the institute. He said openly at one or two of our meetings, you’re giving the navy the run around; I’m going to tell the Imam on you; I’m going to tell him what you’re up to. One or two sessions later, he left the institute and he asked Mr Azizollah Khoshvaqt, who had been a friend of his since they were seminary students together, to take his place. Mr Khoshvaqt was a cleric and he knew nothing about universities. At the institute’s meetings, which usually lasted from nine in the morning until twelve noon or one o’clock, he tended not to say a single word. He’d only listen and then leave. Later on, when the institute turned into the Cultural Revolution Council, the first person who was left out was Mr Khoshvaqt (Mr Khamenei told me himself that Khoshvaqt was not the right person for the job). As far as I can remember, none of us received a salary from the institute. Mr Khoshvaqt was possibly the first in that group to dec ide to allocate himself a salary there. Then, Dr Ahmad Ahmadi, lecturer in philosophy at Tehran University, was appointed to the institute. After a while, the then cultural minister, Mr Khatami, also joined us. The prime minister, Mr Mir Hossein Musavi, was another addition and, for a while, we used to hold our meetings at the Prime Minister’s Office, with him attending. This was the time when the institute was achieving very little and there were growing differences between us and the higher education minister, Mr Najafi. We even went to see the Imam a number of times in order to ask for his arbitration. He referred us to the country’s top officials, that is, Messrs Rafsanjani and Khamenei. We also held several meetings in the presence of these gentlemen. I can recall that Mr Farsi never attended these arbitration sessions. I had the impression that he thought himself above such things. He had other things on his mind.

Q. Is this when the Cultural Revolution Council came into being?

A. The problems made the officials – that is, Messrs Rafsanjani and Khamenei – decide that there should be some fundamental changes. To this end, they made some recommendations to the Imam and the recommendations led to the enlargement of the institute, with the entry of new members, and its transformation into the Cultural Revolution Council. In a way the institute dissolved into the much larger council, but the slow pace of work continued as before or became even slower. The Cultural Revolution Council began work with 16 or 17 members and it now has more than twenty. It includes many of the clerics, even the head of radio and television, and a number of other people. I took part in the council’s first meeting in 1983 and then resigned. My activities at the Cultural Revolution Institute thus came to an end. As I said, I’d been thinking of leaving the institute for some time. I had even offered my resignation verbally to the Imam on one occasion, but he hadn’t accepted it. When the council was established, I realised that there had been a natural-logical-historical rupture and it was best for me to leave. I had been feeling for some time that the Cultural Revolution Institute’s work had come to an end, that the Ministry of Higher Education was now active and that the institute no longer had very much to do. The methods that were being used in universities and in the country’s political sphere as a whole were also not to my liking. I told Mr Khamenei frankly once that things had taken a different turn and I was no longer able to go along with it. That was a very brief history of the Cultural Revolution Institute.

Q. What was the institute’s main task?

A. Throughout the course of its existence, our task was, first and foremost, to review university teaching programmes. The universities had been shut. It was therefore not within our purview to run universities. That was never the intention. We established numerous committees made up of lecturers and set about revising academic programmes. We established a university publishing centre so that it could publish lecturers’ works and translations while the universities were shut. We created the Teacher Training School that was later renamed the Teacher Training University. Of course, in those days – in keeping with the country’s revolutionary conditions and the chaotic situation – many incidents were taking place at universities, in which the institute had to intervene in order to try to resolve them. One problem, for example, was the expulsion of lecturers from universities. The purges and the expulsion of lecturers had nothing to do with the institute. It was a trend that had been set in motion in many gover nment bodies, including universities. We didn’t even know the members of university purge committees. We would occasionally learn about the expulsions. In some instances, we would intervene, in others, not. The revolutionary students who demanded the closure of universities were a very strong force and standing up to them was extremely difficult. If anyone can recall the early days of the revolution, they’ll know that the bulk of our task consisted of mitigating the extremism of students and trying to adopt more mature ways of dealing with problems. I myself suggested that the members of the institute should hold meetings at universities. We were always being accused of sitting behind closed doors and making decisions for universities. I said to the other members of the institute that it would be good to hold weekly meetings at universities and to announce that we would receive anyone who wished to attend, so that we could have face-to-face discussions with lecturers and students. This is what I always wanted to do and have done. And we did hold several such sessions. I remember that we went to the College of Literature, the Law College, the College of Sciences, the College of Pharmacology and possibly several others. And the results weren’t bad. But the other members gradually left, so that only Dr Shariatmadari and I attended the last session. So, the process wasn’t followed up. If it had been, it would have yielded many benefits.

The lecturers were very angry with the students then and wanted to be given a chance to speak. They used to have the best opportunity to do this when they were on campus in our presence. This is something I still believe our officials should do; I mean allowing themselves to be exposed to people who can speak freely. They have deprived themselves of such conditions for a long time. Sometimes they receive a letter or hear something, but they never have the experience of appearing in a group of people and being exposed to their natural sentiments. I have experienced this myself, not just in universities inside the country, but abroad as well. (When the country’s political officials go abroad, they have no contact with natural groups of university students or normal gatherings. They meet a group of other officials in closed environments, people who have been briefed in advance. Hence, they don’t learn about how people are really feeling or what they’re thinking.) I have personally been the target of attacks a nd accusations by Iranian living abroad because I was a member of the Cultural Revolution Institute for a while and because I’m seen as being hand in glove with the regime and involved in some of its wrongdoings. They attack and criticise me because they are free to do so. But I learn a great deal from their attacks and criticism since they occur in a totally free environment and this is a situation that none of our statesmen ever experiences. They may see it on video, but they never experience it for themselves. I have on rare occasions seen what happens when our statesmen are confronted by a few foreign correspondents who ask them questions without any inhibitions. The officials become distraught and nervous, and they completely lose the domineering manner they maintain when they speak to domestic correspondents. It’s at such moments that you can see what they’re really made of.

Let me say by way of a parenthesis that living in natural circumstances is the first pre-condition for success in the natural and social world. If our statesmen and our clerics are deprived of this kind of natural existence or deprive themselves of it, they should know that they won’t succeed. For quite some time now, our clerics have not been exposed to natural questions from people in natural circumstances. I have described in my writings how people used to just go up to the late Motahhari in universities, at gatherings and in mosques and put to him the real questions they had on their minds without fear or anxiety. So Motahhari had to be prepared to deal with such encounters. Nowadays, this or that gentleman can say whatever he pleases from the Friday prayer pulpit, without anyone daring to ask any questions. Even if they did dare, they’d have no way of contacting him as he sits in his ivory tower, dispensing wisdom with his airs and graces. This type of deprivation will lead to utter failure.

My intention at the Cultural Revolution Institute was that we should not be cut off from universities. I used to go to university campuses myself and I’d take other members of the institute to gatherings of academics and university students. But, as I said, when the natural life of the institute came to an end and it took on a relatively artificial demeanour, and when political appointees came into the institute, I withdrew.

One of the important arenas of combat at the institute was the question of the human sciences. This is a long story in itself and it must be told in its own place.

Q. What was your definition of cultural revolution? What were your aims? What means and tools did you intend to use and to what end? Especially in the human sciences, which differ from the experimental sciences.

A. There was no common understanding of the cultural revolution. We seven members had not known each other before and had not sat down together to discuss things. I had only heard of Dr Shariatmadari by name. I had met Dr Habibi once in France. I only knew Mr Shams Al-e Ahmad by association with his brother. We didn’t know each other. Not only had we never sat down together before to reach a consensus, we didn’t do so after the formation of the institute either. They day-to-day problems and the expectations people had of the institute were so great that they left us with no time to sit and engage in theoretical discussions. We never held any meetings to talk about what cultural revolution was supposed to mean or what the precise aims of the institute were or what transformation needed to be wrought in the country’s universities. I remember when Mr Mahdavi-Kani joined the institute, he always used to say, the cultural revolution is not something that should take several years; the cultural revolution is a o ne-hour-long speech: someone comes and delivers a speech and says, this is what it means and then goes away. He said this repeatedly; once in Mr Khamenei’s presence. He said that the cultural revolution meant nothing more than this to him and there was no need for a bunch of people to discuss it for years; it consisted of one or two points, one or two things that could be said in one or two speeches, and that was that; then they could wrap things up, close up shop and go home. There was no need for all this soul searching.

In fact, many speeches were made about the cultural revolution. Even the members of the institute themselves delivered such speeches. But, the truth of the matter is, the only thing that was said was basically that scientific learning is a very good thing and has many virtues; that Islam approves of learning and is the religion of learning; that there is no conflict between religion and science; and so on. As to the question of what exactly was supposed to occur in the course of the cultural revolution and what were the crucial issues that needed to be tackled, these points were rarely addressed. There was no talk whatsoever, especially at the beginning, of the Islamization of universities. We did not discuss any such thing. The Islamization of universities was put on the agenda later on. I can say that the Islamization of universities was put on the agenda when the Cultural Revolution Council came into being. But, predictably enough, nothing came of that either.

Q. So, would it be fair to say that the cultural revolution was propelled by urgent political aims?

A. Let me complete your observation by saying that, from the start, cultural revolution was a misnomer. Later, I tried to replace the expression cultural revolution with educational revolution, and this was a point I used to make at the institute’s meetings. I’d say that, first, it is not possible to carry out a revolution in culture. A revolution may occur (in the passive) but a revolution cannot be carried out intentionally. A seven-member or seventy-member committee would never be able to undertake such an enormous task. Secondly, we’re not sitting here with the aim of carrying out a revolution in the country’s culture, quite apart from the question of whether we can or cannot. We only want to bring about a change in universities in terms of their educational programmes. Hence, the expression cultural revolution was a huge garment that was very loose and ill fitting on the scrawny body of educational reform in our universities. I later used the expression « bearers of culture » and Mr Khatami used to use this term. We would say that the country’s culture had many bearers: primary and secondary schools; families; magazines and newspapers; radio and television; the general public; and universities. These are the bearers of culture. In our capacity as the Cultural Revolution Institute, we were only dealing with one of these bearers of culture, universities, and only with a view to its educational affairs. The country’s culture is produced by all those entities. It is produced by our historical past. It is produced by society’s thinkers who create theoretical products. It is not produced by a seven-member group; we ourselves can neither produce nor order to be produced. We are only reorganising a small section of it known as university education. We are not even concerned with schools. Hence, the expression cultural revolution was inappropriate from the start; in other words, it was, as I said, a very loose fitting garment on a scrawny body.

Thirdly, the coming into existence of a phenomenon by the name of cultural revolution was entirely political in origin. In the early days of the revolution, universities were not universities in the normal sense of the word. In keeping with the general climate of the country, they were the scene of political and even military clashes. It has always been the case – and remains so today – that, when a certain climate prevails over the country, universities cannot remain immune or untouched by it. The climate at the beginning of the revolution was one of political and military conflict throughout the country and between all the different sections of the population. There was fighting in Kurdistan, Gonbad and elsewhere. In the centre, confrontation between the different political groupings had intensified dramatically. The Islamic Republic Party had been formed and was being fiercely criticised and attacked by the Mojahedin-e Khalq. The Mojahedin-e Khalq were busy reinforcing militias and paramilitary groups f or their own ends, and left-wing groups such as the Pishgam and the Fada’iyan-e Khalq guerrillas were extremely active. The Tudeh Party was very active and claimed to be working on the basis of the Velayat and supporting the Velayat-e Faqih. This atmosphere was reproduced in its entirety in our universities. That is to say, all the political and armed groups had members and representatives there. From May 1979, when I returned to Iran, until June 1980 – in the course of the one year that I was on the academic staff of the Teacher Training University – clashes and disturbances intensified, if anything. The Muslim students weren’t prepared to tolerate this situation and they decided to put an end to it.

This was a political decision. I should say at this point that, before such a decision was made and actions were taken that led to the closure of universities, Imam Khomeini issued a declaration on the occasion of the Iranian New Year in March 1980, containing guidelines and injunctions about the revolution. One of the points in the declaration was that universities had to be transformed fundamentally. The students took this to be their instruction from the Imam. The Imam’s words preceded the actions taken at universities. This was how the actions began. This is before there was a Cultural Revolution Institute or a Cultural Revolution Council, and before there was even any mention of a cultural revolution. At first, the action was entirely factional and partisan, and military in nature. Weapons were fired. Things got to the point where Mr Bani-Sadr, the president, intervened and the universities were shut.

Yes, the movement that became known as the cultural revolution began with political and revolutionary motives, in line with the general climate of the country. However, after the formation of the Cultural Revolution Institute, we could say that two factions came into existence. One faction consisted of the students, who claimed to have breathed life into the cultural revolution. They said that they had purged universities of enemy and opposition groups. They, therefore, considered it their right to have the final say about where the cultural revolution was headed. They were of the opinion that the process could take as long as 20 years. The other faction consisted of the Cultural Revolution Institute and the country’s senior officials (Rafsanjani and Khamenei), who wanted to see universities reopened as soon as possible. I can recall that, at one meeting in the presence of senior officials, Mr Rafsanjani told us: Yes, we agreed to the closure of universities, but not indefinitely; it was meant to be for ab out six months or so. But the first faction didn’t want to hear any of this.

I remember very well that Dr Mo’in, the current higher education minister, who has also held this post on a previous occasion, was then the head of Shiraz University. The members of the Cultural Revolution Institute who were visiting the country’s universities were on a visit to Shiraz University. It was Dr Shariatmadari and I and perhaps one other person. At the time, we had opened universities for students who had 25 credits to complete before the end of their degree course. I remember Dr Mo’in telling us that our decision amounted to treachery or, at the very least, gross negligence. The university students were telling us that universities had to remain shut for 20 years so that [the fundamental changes demanded by the Imam could be brought about?]. Of course, the Imam himself was entirely on our side and I remember, on one occasion when we had gone to pay our respects, he said, I don’t want to have the country’s university students wandering around idly in the streets; the universities must be reopene d. We told him that this is what we thought too, but the students weren’t prepared to take it from us and called us compromisers and unrevolutionary. It would be best if he told them himself. And the Imam raised this point in one of his speeches and said that the universities had to be reopened. He thus paved the way for us and we reopened universities a year and a half after they’d been shut. The reopening of universities was not only in keeping with the Imam’s wishes, it was in keeping with the country’s needs too. The institute was under pressure from every side. For example, the Foreign Ministry needed translators for many different languages. Where were they going to be trained? So it became clear that universities were not purely decorative, useful for boasting about and little else; on the contrary, if they functioned well, they could resolve many of the country’s problems. All this meant that things moved towards the reopening of universities and we put our seal of approval on a relative change to edu cational programmes and called on lecturers to resume work.

The reopening of universities more or less coincided with my departure from the Cultural Revolution Institute. The purge committees were still active. The Higher Education Ministry’s report to the Cultural Revolution Institute at the time, 1982-83, stated that nearly 700 members of universities’ academic staff had been purged.

Q. From a total of how many?

A. From a total of about 12,000. The figures we had at the beginning of the revolution were about 200,000 students in higher education and 12,000 lecturers, assistant lecturers and tutors. Some of this 700-plus total had been purged by university purge committees and some of them had gone themselves before things could get to the committees. As to what happened later and what the final figure was and how many of them eventually returned to university and had their honour and position restored, I don’t have any further information on this.

Q. [Some people mention the figure 6,000 and there are some statistics on this?] But figures in themselves do not give the true picture in that the prevailing climate was such that a lecturer may have chosen to keep their mouth shut and cultivate a low profile in order to safeguard their position and remain in their post.

A. It’s the same today. Having been a member of the Cultural Revolution Institute, the Academy of Sciences , the Philosophy Society, the Human Sciences Research Institute, and the University Publications Council, I have no right to speak today, no right to teach, no right to give public lectures, and the same could and can be said of other people. The climate in our universities today is still one of repression and tyranny, and there is no sign of the ideal freedom that ought to exist in an academic environment. It has been like this from the start and, unfortunately, it is more or less the same today.

Q. What was it like when it came to the human sciences? Were the differences of opinion more pronounced?

A. When it came to the human sciences, we stepped onto a new battlefield. The students showed extreme sensitivity on this subject. They, along with some of the people behind them, considered these sciences to be fundamentally foul and untouchable. Here and there, in newspapers and speeches, it was being said that the human sciences had to be Islamized. It must have been 1981 or 82 when I said in a speech or an article that science is wild and has no homeland. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether scientific knowledge has been produced in the United States or China or the Soviet Union or Iran: it belongs to everyone everywhere. My words were subjected to endless analysis by the extremist students. There was a journal at that time by the name of University of Revolution which used to include some material written by these extremists. They wrote many articles to prove that science is not wild and without a homeland, that it is not the case that it recognises no geography, and that it is therefore p ossible for us to create Islamic sciences. They took my article and my phrases to the Majlis and to some deputies and the Higher Education Committee, and raised many objections and complaints. They even confronted Dr Habibi who was a member of the Majlis Higher Education Committee then. I saw in your journal, Lowh [Tablet], that one of the gentlemen had said, if you’d spoken to Soroush in 1981 about non-Islamic human sciences, he’d have sliced you in two. He’s not very well informed. He also made other mistakes in the interview. For example, he said the institute had four members to begin with; in fact it was seven.

His other mistake was about me. My writings and the text of my speeches are available from that time. Back then, they already saw me as someone who had hooves and horns and considered me to be an unreliable alien. And they welcomed my departure. Later on, too, some current members of the Cultural Revolution Council said that there were infiltrators in the initial Cultural Revolution Institute – meaning me. I have never bargained over the issue of scientific knowledge and learning. I have always said what I think and continue to do so. And if my opinion changes, it changes. The late Dr Beheshti and I had a conversation in the presence of the Imam once about whether there is such a thing as an Islamic human science or not. I remember very well that when we went to see the Imam, Mr Beheshti was also there. The discussion turned to the human sciences and the debates in this connection. What I said then was that the sciences should be left in peace. They have their own logic and must be proved or disproved usin g their own relevant methods. The late Beheshti insisted that this did not hold true of the human sciences and that they have an underlying philosophy; that they can, therefore, be Islamic or non-Islamic. The Imam just listened carefully and didn’t say anything. I only told you this to make it clear how I was thinking. Then, I gave a detailed talk on this subject at university. It was subsequently published in my book Contemplating Industry. I explained there that, if there is to be such a thing as Islamic human sciences, the way to achieve it is not to say this bit here violates Islamic principles and has to be removed or that religious narrative needs to be added here. If such a thing is feasible and if it is to be brought about, a group of people who hold Islamic beliefs must set about producing human sciences (not just repeating other people’s theories). Their views will automatically affect their theoretical ideas and, after a number of generations, human sciences may come into existence that are Islamic in nature. At the institute’s meetings, too, I used to say, the fact that you keep harping on about how these sciences are western means that people of western culture produced these sciences. If you want your human sciences to be Islamic, don’t tamper with other people’s human sciences. Let a group of people of Islamic culture create human sciences if they can. Perhaps these sciences will take on an Islamic hue and colour. That’s all there is to it. End of story. Don’t tamper with scientific learning! Every science has its own methods and criteria. Seminars were held on this subject and, ultimately, the Imam advised the members of the Cultural Revolution Institute to seek refuge in Qom for the reform of the human sciences.

We went to see the Association of Qom Seminary Teachers. They were saying rather strange things. Present at our meeting were Messrs Karimi, Kharrazi, Shar’i, Makkarem, Javadi, Meshkini, Azari, Hosseini, Amini and Yazdi. Mr Amini asked us, how are you going to teach academics piety? I said, as Socrates put it, piety can’t be taught. Then Mr Mohammad Yazdi, who later became the head of the judiciary, said, let us speak frankly. Word has it that there are people whose heads are filled with western ideas and these are the people who are writing the books on the human sciences. These things must be remedied. His and other clerics’ understanding of the human sciences was based on the ideas of Amir Hossein Aryanpour and they said that the human sciences might lead to atheism and be infiltrated by Marxism and so on. One of the members of the Association of Qom Seminary Teachers, who was not a very learned man, told us, we don’t want to know about all this; just go and write the relevant books – especially concerni ng religious teachings for universities – and we’ll amend them. We resisted and said, you should write the books on religious teachings yourself; it doesn’t make sense for us to write something to give to you to amend. Mr Makkarem was there and he came to our assistance. He said, they’re right, you know; a medical book is written by a doctor, it’s not written by others and then given to doctors to amend.

In this way, at least the book on Islamic teachings was written by them. That is to say, it wasn’t really written, it was a compilation of things that had already been written, including essays by myself on transfiguration, the rationale of order, and so on. This became the book on Islamic teachings and it has its own story, the story of what religious teachings used to consist of, what they went through and where it all ended up. Were its bad points outnumbered by its good points or vice versa? This is something that remains to be discussed. The Association of Qom Seminary Teachers turned to Mr Mesbah and his organisation, the Baqer al-Ulum seminary. Mr Mesbah proposed a programme to the institute and said, let the lecturers come to Qom and we’ll discuss things with them. The institute approved the proposal and this set in train a process that was supposed to take nine months but continued for more than a year. Lecturers in the human sciences of various subjects, fiqh, psychology, sociology, would go to Qom, having prepared articles on their subjects. They would read it there and it would be discussed. Five volumes emerged from all these sessions and discussions: Islamic Psychology, Islamic Sociology, and so on. They were not well received at universities and did not prove a success. Qom’s entire contribution to the Islamization of the human sciences was and is summed up in these five volumes. Nothing more was done in this connection. And a vast sum was spent on this project. Once the institute objected to the large sums being spent and received a very strongly-worded, angry letter from Mr Mesbah in return. Notwithstanding all these discussions, the human sciences went their own way, since universities could not hang around, killing time, waiting for Qom to issue fatwas or for the Baqer al-Ulum seminary to amend the human sciences with a bunch of seminarians who were still wet behind the ears.

Our contact with Qom on the human sciences was Dr Ahmadi. He attended a few sessions and then resigned from his position as our contact. He said, it’s impossible to talks to Mr Mesbah-Yazdi; after a few sentences, it comes down to fisticuffs (those were his exact words). Of course, we’d experienced Mr Mesbah’s short temper ourselves on other occasions.

Yes, the universities didn’t think much of the subsequent measures either. The universities reopened and the human sciences began to be taught. What I was saying at the institute was that the human sciences must take their own course in universities based on their own methods. No-one claims that the human sciences are indisputable truths and that, for example, all sociological theories are correct. But the idea that a group of people unacquainted with the human sciences can form a committee outside universities, purify the human sciences and then inject them into universities is an absurdity. Experience has proved this to be the case. If there is a need for amendments and purification, universities themselves must undertake the task. Since they reopened, universities have faced so many problems that they’ve never seriously tackled this issue.

Q. After all these trials and tribulations, what’s your assessment of academic standards in our universities?

A. On the whole, I have to say that our universities are in a deplorable state. Whenever I visit universities abroad and return, my grief is renewed and compounded. Some Iranian scholars who are working abroad are much more pessimistic than me and believe that there is now such a wide gap and such a deep trench between us and modern learning that we can only hope to bridge the gap in our dreams. I don’t go that far and I don’t want to sit here and reproach people. And I certainly don’t want to undervalue or belittle the great efforts made by some of our country’s serious academics. But I can’t help but be realistic. Unfortunately, our universities don’t have a good record, either in the human sciences or in the experimental sciences. And, if I’m not to say they’ve gotten worse, they certainly haven’t gotten better since the revolution. There are many reasons for this which I’ll go into at the appropriate time.

One of the main reasons is that our universities have become ideological, with a distinction being made between insiders and outsiders. This evil and satanic distinction – which has been formulated by some of our politicians and political manipulators – has unfortunately had extremely dangerous and harmful effects. At universities, like everywhere else, they’ve drawn lines dividing people into insiders and outsiders; this includes both the students and the lecturers. And they’ve gotten rid of the lecturers they deemed to be outsiders. See for yourself, the distinction between insiders and outsiders has been taken to the point where people like Mr Bazargan and Mr Ezzatollah Sahabi, whose integrity is beyond reproach, are considered to be outsiders; whereas gentlemen like Allah Karam, Mehdi Nasiri and Hossein Shariatmadari – about which little needs to be said since everyone knows what they’ve done and what they represent in this country – are said to be insiders. This issue of insiders and outsiders was dra gged into the universities as well. So, learning and research were not as highly valued as being an insider. The special advantages granted to insiders were withheld from the outsiders. This distinction has afflicted universities with an ill which they will suffer from for a long time to come. An educational system does not flourish or decline in a day. Decline results from long term illness and recovery requires long term remedies.

In the fields I’m acquainted with and in which I’ve been professionally involved, I’ve seen for myself how people have been encouraged and rewarded as first rate lecturers simply because they were insiders and not because of any academic excellence. Many of these insider lecturers have countless other jobs and teaching at university is the least of their concerns. Universities aren’t going to flourish with lecturers of this kind. I studied at universities abroad for six, seven years. I’ve seen for myself the lecturers’ level of involvement, their presence in the libraries and their constant contact with the students. If you manage to spot one of these insider lecturers in a university library one day, I’ll give you a prize: that you should spot them sitting for one hour in the same place as the students, with a book open in front of them that they’re actually reading. After their profound failure in the field of the human sciences, they’ve assigned someone who …- to repurge the books on the human science s. They have stacked three thousand books in front of him so that he can drop them in the acid of Islamism to ensure that all the copper dissolves and the gold remains. Then they’ll allow the books into universities. You’re unlikely to find anything more absurd and senseless than this.

Translated by Nilou Mobasser



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