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CNN Interview with Dr. Soroush

CNN - June 1997 - following the surprise election of Mohammad Khatami in presidential elections

CNN Presenter: Abdolkarim Soroush is a religious philosopher and a dissident. He has been fired from his job as a professor, his writings are restricted, and he is often harassed. A few years ago he advanced a religious theory for Iran that some call new thinking, rejecting the self proclaimed infallibility of the clergy. Soroush says that the establishment is totally out of touch with its people, and that this dissatisfaction was the real lesson of the last week election. He spoke to Christian Amanpour in a rare interview:

 Mr Soroush, thank you very much for joining us. Are you surprised by the magnitude of what happened in the polls?

Well, I was surprised, but I was not shocked. I mean some might have been shocked, but not me because I think I was aware to some extent with what was going deep down in our society.... In a nutshell, actually our educated have theoretical problems with the government and our people at large have economical problems with the government. So this kind of dissatisfactions were going on everywhere in the society and that was for a long period.

Some people have suggested that this is a referendum on the future of Iran; unprecedented numbers of people turned out to vote and many say they are tired of revolution. Do you think that is the case what they are saying?

Perhaps they are not tired of the revolution, but they are not satisfied with the course of the revolution. We have got a very young generation and most of this young generation are educated and they understand the world and they want a new atmosphere in order to live in and in order to breath in. Because of that their vote yesterday was a vote of No, and a big No to what was going in the society, especially in terms of liberties. That is what I would emphasise on.  

A lot of people looking from outside thought that this would just be another election and nothing much would change.

Yes, first of all, not even the outsiders but the authorities here, inside, didn't know that this is going to happen and they did not know the people very well.... Actually you see the leadership in our country is above criticism and I think this vote yesterday was a condensed and long overdue criticism against the leadership himself. Yes, that is what I understand.  

Would you like to call it a giant leap or a small step?

A very giant step forward. They did it peacefully and the most amazing thing about it was that it was a very peaceful movement. This is good for the future of this society because we cannot accommodate any more great upheaval, so smoothly and peacefully opening our way towards the future is much, much better.

There are a lot of expectations now and responsibilities on Mr Khatami's shoulder but many say he has a hard time pushing through his policies, and forming the government he wants because of the conservative's majority in the parliament.

Well, he has got 20 million people behind him. He is a very powerful man now on the political scene and he has to appreciate this power in order to exercise it, to push, to hammer home his own policies. But of course the opposition in not that weak. I know that this term is a term of tensions.

Term of tension?

Yes, that is what I would predict. 

What realistically can he do and should do immediately for the people? I mean we are not looking for the suddenly massively open westernised society here? What are we looking at?

I think the main and the best thing he should do is to reinforce the institution of civil society. That is the main thing that is in front of him and he can do and he should do it. The reinforcement and perhaps creating the institutions of a civil society, i.e., political parties, free press, free media, things like that. This is very important.  

Can he do that within the context of this Islamic Republic?

Yes, he has got people behind him. If he cannot do it, nobody can do it.

Revolution itself is not under threat, is it?

No, I think our people are deeply religious.

Is this a turning point?

First of all, this shows that people do not trust the clergy and this is very important. You see the clergy in this election, they came in, they stepped in with all their rank and file, but they were not successful. Actually their man was not elected. So, this is very important. I think the clergy should take the lesson from this election. They have to change their orientation towards people, because so far the authorities thought that on the part of them it is just to order and it is on the part of people to obey the orders. But this will no longer be the case, and there will be at least a co-operation on an equal basis between the government and the people.

You, yourself are a very sharp thorn in the side of Iran's religious authorities. Your publishing has been restricted. You have been sacked from your job as a teacher at the university. Why?

Actually I endorse a plurality of interpretations of religion. I mean, there is no one single interpretation and because of that, and by way of implication, there is no formal or official interpretation of religion, and even by implication there is no class of official interpreters.

Critics have said that you were an ideologue of the Islamic Revolution and now you are dissatisfied and so you simply turning against it?

You see, I am deeply a religious man and because of that I saw that there were things with religion which were going in a wrong direction and because of that I have started reform and my reformistic ideas have actually attracted so many enemies towards me.

Now do you believe that history is on your side?

Not my side, on the side of people and I am myself with the people. Yes, the course of events is going in a very good direction. I am very optimistic about the future, more than before.

Thank you very much.


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