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 May 2009





A Congregation of Bees, not a Congregation of Parrots



Interview with Abdulkarim Soroush*

By Bizhan Mumivand and Hossein Sokhanvar

Tehran, April 2009

Q.  To begin with, could you please tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing in terms of research and academic activities while you’ve been away from Iran?


A.  I’ve been away from Iran for two and a half years.  During the first year, I was working at an institute in the Netherlands by the name of ISIM (International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World).  The ISIM was operating in the Netherlands for a number of years.  Unfortunately, in January 2009, it was closed for financial reasons.  In the course of the ISIM’s 10- or 12-year lifetime, it was engaged both in research and in higher education.  And I heard that, after I left, Ms Fatemeh Sadeqi, Ayatollah Khalkhali’s daughter, was working there.  There were students there from throughout the world of Islam and they used to carry out research and write their theses there.  In view of the historical-colonial relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia, there were many Indonesian students at the ISIM.  But there were also Turkish students, Arab students and, occasionally, Iranian students.  In addition to the students, the ISIM used to invite Muslim researchers to carry out their research work there or, on occasion, to present public lectures or lectures at universities.  I was at the ISIM for 10 months.  In fact, I was both at the ISIM, which was in Leiden, and at the University of Amsterdam.  At the University of Amsterdam, I was teaching Islamic political philosophy and, at the ISIM, in Leiden, I was engaged in research for my own books.  I was also in touch with a group of Afghan intellectuals and a group of Iranian students, and I was doing a regular series of talks for them.  There were also a number of conferences and I also had the pleasure of the company of Mr Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd on a regular basis.  Abu Zayd is the well-known Egyptian expert on the Qur’an. Because of political pressures, he had to leave Egypt and he took up residence in the Netherlands. 

Fortunately, the head of the ISIM was an Iranian, by the name of Dr Asef Bayat.  He, too, was interested in the question of democracy in Islamic countries and, while I was at the ISIM, an important book by him on this subject was published.  While I was there, I signed the contract with Brill - which is one of the oldest publishers in the Netherlands and possibly in the world - for the publication of the English-language version of The Expansion of Prophetic Experience.  I’m happy to say that the book was published in January 2009.  After the Netherlands, I went to the United States.  I had invitations from two universities.  One was Columbia University in New York.  I spent a few months there. I was not lecturing there;  I was doing research work.  Then, I went to Georgetown University in Washington, where I was lecturing.  And I’m still based in the United States.


Q.  What was the upshot of your meetings and discussions with Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd?  What affinities and/or differences are there between your research project and Abu Zayd’s research project?


A.  The affinities are many, but the difference is that I’m much more familiar with Mr Abu Zayd’s views than he is with mine.  And the reason for this is simple:  his writings are in Arabic, which I can easily read.  But my writings are mainly in Persian - except the bits that have been published in English - and he doesn’t read Persian.  But many points can and did become clear in the course of our discussions.  For example, in Germany, in the discussions between Messrs Abu Zayd and Muhammad Arkoun and I, Mr Abu Zayd vehemently rejected the idea that the Arabic language is an accidental aspect of the Qur’an;  he believes that it is essential and he’d said as much in one of his interviews.  But, based on the definition that I’ve set out in an article entitled “Essentials and Accidentals in Religions”, I’m of the view that Arabic is one of Islam’s accidentals, like many of its other accidentals. 

Both Mr Abu Zayd and I are pluralists.  So, from this perspective, there isn’t a great deal of difference between the way we approach religion.  But there are also differences between us.  In any case, he is a Sunni and I was raised as a Shi’i.  Inevitably, there are differences between the way we view religion. 

Both Mr Abu Zayd and I believe that, at least in the first century after the Prophet, there was no clear-cut delineation between Shi’is and Sunnis.  In 2004, when I’d gone to Amsterdam to receive the Erasmus prize, a seminar was held at which Messrs Abu Zayd and Sadiq al-Azam and I were in the panel.  Mr Sadiq al-Azam concluded his talk with a strange point.  He said:  “I’d like to put forward a proposal aimed at establishing peace in the world of Islam and resolving the Sunni-Shi’i dispute.  I propose that Sunnis apologize to Shi’is for killing Imam Hussein.”  Abu Zayd was sitting next to me.  He turned towards me and, half jokingly, half seriously, said to me:  “I didn’t kill Imam Hussein and Sunnis didn’t kill him either;  so no there’s no call for an apology.”  Then, in the comments he made on Mr Sadiq al-Azam’s talk, he said that, when the events of Ashura unfolded, the clear-cut distinction that we have today between Shi’is and Sunnis did not exist.  In much the same way, it has become clearer now  than it was in the past that the Mu’tazilites fell somewhere halfway between Shi’is and Sunnis.  The Mu’tazilites had some of the rationalist views of Shi’is or the Shi’is had some of the rationalist views of the Mu’tazilites.  And on the question of the caliphate, they believed that Ali was the most righteous, although, in practice and in terms of the historical sequence of events, he was not the first caliph.  They also had a great respect for the Ahl al-Bayt [reference to the Prophet’s descendents, the Shi’i Imams].  All this to say that we must avoid anachronisms.  We mustn’t view historical events out of context. 

By way of a footnote, let me say that, in April, when I’m back in the US, I will attend a conference that has the general title “The Qur’an in its Historical Context”.  Abu Zayd and I are the conference’s first two speakers.  And I have to sum things up at the end of the conference.  Then, the articles presented there will be published in the form of a book.  I should also add that Mr Abu Zayd has drawn up plans for a Qur’anic studies institute, of which I am a member of the academic advisory board.  All of this shows that there is a great deal of like-mindedness between Abu Zayd and I, and that this drives us to work together.


Q.  In circumstances in which you are experiencing problems in working in Iran and having your books published here, it seems as if you’re directing your efforts towards gaining an international audience and the translation of The Expansion of Prophetic Experience has to be seen in this light.  Could you tell us a bit more in this connection.


A.  Fortunately, The Expansion of Prophetic Experience was published in Iran 10 years ago.  And, at the time, they didn’t impede its publication.  They did criticize some aspects of it but they didn’t prevent its publication or distribution in any way.  An interview that I gave to a Dutch newspaper in 2008 - and its translation by one of the foreign-based Persian radios - elicited extensive reaction in Iran.  A number of senior clerics, especially Ayatollah Sobhani and Ayatollah Montazeri, stepped into the debate; a debate that caused quite a stir among Iranians at home and abroad.  There was also an article in The New York Times that gave a rundown of the debate and this article, too, drew a great deal of attention.  In Iran, my recent articles ran into some impediments and they were not disseminated in the way that they should have been.  What I did in the English version of The Expansion of Prophetic Experience was to include parts of another book, Straight Paths, as well as my exchange of letters with Mr Sobhani.  I’d signed the contract for it some time ago, but Brill had some problems that delayed the publication of the book.  The additional material included in the book was the blessing that resulted from the delay.  The English version of The Expansion of Prophetic Experience includes the letters that were exchanged between Mr Sobhani and I, whereas the Persian version does not.  The Culture Ministry has now compounded its unkindness towards us and raised some new obstacles.  For example, it sent us a message recently, saying that The Expansion of Prophetic Experience can no longer be published in Iran even in the original form of 10 years ago. I don’t know what information their new decision is based on.  Has someone told them something to make them tremble with redoubled zeal, so that they feel compelled to prevent the republication of the book?  Of course, this isn’t the only act of unkindness directed at us by the Culture Ministry’s current officials.  Another one of my books entitled Tales and Plaints has been at the ministry for more than a year and they’ve yet to tell us whether they will authorize its publication or not. There’s no answer from them one way or the other.  Their silence is effectively their answer.  The book is a compilation of my political letters and some interviews.  It is, in effect, the third volume of my political works.  I’m currently preparing a new book entitled God as Love, which will be sent to the ministry soon.  May God induce the officials at the ministry not to impede its publication and to peddle honey instead of vinegar this time.


Q.  Although your recent theory about revelation can be seen as a logical extension of The Expansion of Prophetic Experience, does the fact that you’ve expressed the theory so plainly now result from your association and discussions with Mr Abu Zayd or is it because you just decided that the time was right?


A.  As you said yourself, my recent theory is the natural and logical extension of my theories and statements in The Expansion of Prophetic Experience.  In a sense, I’d already expressed my recent views in the book, but in a very condensed way.  I’ve now fleshed them out.  As you may remember, I’d said briefly in the book, in a few sentences, that the Prophet was the bearer of revelation and prophetic experience as an active agent;  so, revelation was subject to the Prophet, not the other way around.  I also said that the best way of explaining how God speaks is to say that the Prophet speaks for Him.  This is the nub of the views that I subsequently fleshed out, and I also provided the philosophical and mystical corroboration for it.  So, in fact, I can say that, in my recent interviews and writings, I haven’t added much to The Expansion of Prophetic Experience.  As to why some people reacted in such a strong, occasionally, unscholarly way to it now - it was just political and nothing else.  I’m not talking about the senior clerics in Qom;  I’m talking about people lower down who would have best refrained from making weak and disjointed comments once learned people had entered the debate.  When I look at all the reactions, I scold neither myself nor the others.  Social action evokes social reaction, and the reaction cannot be meticulously controlled and recorded.  There are different reasons and causes for people’s reactions.  Sometimes, it is just their religious zeal that makes them speak out. And sometimes there are political considerations or personal motives involved.  I could see all these factors in the responses, taken as a whole, that my views elicited.  For my own part, I did my best not to react sharply or fiercely to the responses.  And, so far, I think that the debate has flowed down a good course.  If we remove the specks and scraps that are floating on the surface, there’s clean water underneath.  It can be cleansed even further to produce a refreshing drink for anyone who is interested.


Q.  During your years abroad, how have you followed Iran’s social and theoretical developments, and how have you participated in them so as not to be a mere spectator?


A.  Whether in Iran or abroad, my position is somewhere between an actor and a spectator.  I’m neither an absolute spectator, nor an absolute actor.  I try to do what I can under the banner of justice, which is the fountainhead of both morality and politics.  This has also been the case in my years abroad.  I’ve watched developments from afar and fretted about the country and the people.  I’ve tried to follow the news and to keep myself informed about what people have been living through in Iran.  And if ever there’s been something that I could say to help in some way, I haven’t hesitated from doing so.  But, since I want to be sure that I’m aware of all the different aspects of an issue before I speak and, God forbid, don’t make an ill-informed comment, it may be that I’m silent more often than not.   And I don’t consider this reprehensible in any way.


Q.  Over the past decade, there have been various debates about the relationship between religious intellectuals and the reform movement.  Various views have been expressed in this connection.  As the most prominent religious intellectual, you’ve so far preferred not to express a clear-cut view on this subject.   If you consider it appropriate now, could you tell us your view on the relationship between the reform movement and religious intellectuals?  Do you think that the reform movement was the offspring of religious intellectualism or do you have a different view of the relationship between the two?


A.  First, let me say that the argument among Iranians about whether religious intellectualism is a coherent term or not is futile.  It makes no difference - at least as far as I’m concerned - whether we say “religious intellectuals” or “modern religious thinkers”.


Q.  Why do you think it’s a futile argument?


A.  Because it deflects attention from the real debate and the real issues to a futile argument about terminology.  It makes no different whether you call it “religious intellectualism” or “modern religious thinking” or whatever else.  There is a group of people in Iran who view religion in a scholarly and thoughtful way.  I call this religious intellectualism or religious modernism.  When you look at the arguments of those who oppose religious intellectuals, you’ll see that they’re of the view that thinking and reasoning cannot be combined with religion at all.  So, from this perspective, it makes no difference whether you use the term “intellectuals” or “neo-thinkers” or “modern thinkers”.  What I find amazing is that our distinguished friend, Mr Mostafa Malekian, is of the opinion that reasoning and worship - hence, thinking and religion - cannot be combined.  If, today, he is a critic of religious intellectualism, it won’t make any difference to his argument if we change its name to “neo-religious thinkers” or “modern religious thinkers”.


Q.  But Mr Malekian considers himself to be a religious neo-thinker and is of the opinion that you can combine rationality with spirituality, which isn’t that different from your project.


A.  I was talking about where the logic of his argument leads to.  In his recent interview, he said that reasoning and worship cannot be combined.  He means that thinking and religion cannot be combined.  If religion is set aside and replaced with spirituality, then that’s a different matter.  Mr Malekian himself is of the view that spirituality is a different matter and is not bound by religion’s perimeters.  At any rate, he is not a religious intellectual because he is not a critic of politics and the state, and criticism is one of the main elements of intellectualism.  I don’t want to discuss this issue at length.  I’m of the view that we mustn’t spend a lot of time on debates about terminology.  There is a group of people in our country who have a project.  For example, they want to rid religion of the superstitious beliefs that people have attached to it.  They want to make religion minimal.  They want to harmonize religion with justice.  They want to view religion historically.  And so on.  All of this, taken as a whole, becomes the project of religious intellectuals (religious modernists).  People like this, with this project and these ideas, actually exist in society and they have had an impact.  The project has followers. Many people have gathered around it and are nourished by it.  It predates the revolution.  But it has undergone changes.  There have been new insights.  Some of its shortcomings have been redressed and some new elements and components have been added to it.  It is like a flowing river and it gradually rids itself of any grime or specks and scraps. 

If we agree to set the starting point of religious intellectualism at Mehdi Bazargan and Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani’s movement, then, it has had a relationship with politics from the start.  This is because there is an undeniable relationship between politics and religion in Iran;  sometimes politics is allied with religion and sometimes it’s opposed to it.  And everyone who has entered this current has highlighted this relationship.  As it happens, religious intellectualism (religious modernism) has always highlighted the need for freedom, and this has been and continues to be the notable difference between the supporters of religious intellectualism and the supporters of traditional religion.  I don’t know when this issue will be resolved.  Of course, freedom is one of the components of human rights; today, the tale of human rights is broader and deeper than this.  So, religious intellectuals’ project also includes human rights.   

Since religious intellectualism has some kind of relationship with politics, it inevitably comes up against power holders.  And the project of religious intellectualism on occasion generates political consequences and corollaries.  These political consequences and corollaries are extremely important.  One of them is that it officially takes stances on some issues that relate to the state and it criticizes - from a religious perspective - some of the state’s actions.  Secondly, it gives religious people the courage to put behind them some of traditional religion’s stances without any harm to their faith.  So, those who formulate reasoned opinions on religious matters [ijtihad] have an open hand within the project of religious intellectualism.  And when it teaches believers that they do not have a duty to be obedient emulators in politics and so on and so forth, these stances give learned believers the courage to criticize religion and undertake political actions from a position of religiosity and faith.   

Criticism is something that has sadly been neglected in our society.  Both from the perspective of religion and from the perspective of intellectualism, religious intellectualism firmly highlights the importance of criticism.  In a talk entitled “Minimal Democracy” that I delivered once at the University of Tehran, I said that it is the duty and the right of all Muslims to enjoin the good and proscribe the bad.  And enjoining the good and proscribing the bad in modern-day parlance means criticizing.  And the highest criticism is criticism of rulers, because rulers have more power and are, therefore, more likely to err.  On this basis, they need to be criticized more firmly and this firmer criticism is both the right and the duty of believers.  And this right and duty emerges both from the heart of intellectualism and from the heart of religion.  All this drives religious intellectualism to grapple with the state and power and politics now and then;  sometimes in a positive way and sometimes negatively.  On this basis, if you’re suggesting that the reform movement emerged out of religious intellectualism, I would phrase it in the following way:  religious intellectualism gave some believers the courage to criticize and this courage to criticize gradually led to a serious development in society whereby, far from believing that criticism of the state conflicts with their religiosity, religious people felt that it was demanded by their religiosity and tantamount to worship.  Heidegger has been quoted as saying:  “Questioning is the piety of thought.”  What I'm saying is:  "Criticizing is the piety of politics.”  In other words, if politicians want to be pious and observe piety in their capacity as politicians, they must allow criticism and open themselves up to criticism.  One way of opening up to criticism is to have a free press.  In modern society, criticism is not whispered, it is public, because governing is public too.  Even the theoretical bases of the state have to be publicly criticized because everyone is exposed to the harms and benefits of power.  

So, the reform movement fed off religious intellectualism and it did so in an auspicious way.  But the reform movement was just one of the products of religious intellectualism.  So, we can’t say that, if the reform movement ran into problems along its way, then, religious intellectualism has come to a halt.  We also can’t say that the reform movement was a test for religious intellectualism and that, in the light of this test, religious intellectualism has failed.   

Religious intellectualism is fundamentally a theoretical current but, like any other theoretical current, it can have social and political consequences, especially in our society, where we claim that religiosity is politics and politics is religiosity.  In other words, these two things are inextricably intertwined, like the body and the soul.  So, if one of them is gladdened or saddened by something, the other one will be too.  Hence, religious intellectualism will drive on and modern religious thinking will not come to a halt - as you can see.  And more blessings will result from it.   

The people who are unkind to religious intellectualism, first, do not know religious intellectualism well and haven’t defined it well for themselves.  Secondly, they have inappropriate expectations.  Thirdly, they have failed to take a good look at our country’s recent history and they assume that they can determine how things are in the external world with a series of conceptual additions and subtractions in their minds.


Q.  As you said, the reform movement fed off religious intellectualism and its theoretical foundations were based on the teachings of religious intellectualism.  So, the expectation was that, after its victory, religious intellectualism would try to do even more to strengthen the foundations of the reform movement and that the movement would, in turn, be further nourished by religious intellectualism.  But, in practice, the relationship became more distant.  Religious intellectuals were even treated unkindly in a way.  Why did this happen and why did the reform movement forget religious intellectualism?


A.  No, the reform movement can’t ignore religious intellectualism and treat it unkindly and forget about it. The reform movement has no other foundation and it will undoubtedly return to its mother (religious intellectualism).  We don’t expect everyone to have a uniform view of religious intellectuals.  The intellectual current can’t be cohesive, uniform and homogeneous anyway.  By its very nature, intellectual work is varied and heterogeneous, because intellectuals don’t take orders from anyone and don’t adjust their thinking to any uniform criterion.  They follow reasons and argumentation.  So, they can think differently and come to different conclusions, which is not to say that all the different conclusions are necessarily right. In other words, religious intellectualism is not a party, with a leader whom everyone obeys.  Religious intellectuals are not a congregation of parrots;  they’re a congregation of bees, in both senses:  they produce honey and they sting.  And they don’t have a queen.  So, you hear and see a variety of views from religious intellectuals.  But this congregation of bees constitutes society’s honey peddlers and they will rein in the vinegar peddlers.


Q.  You said earlier that one of the most important achievements of religious intellectualism has been to give religious people the courage to criticize.  But religious people had the courage to criticize even before the emergence of religious intellectuals.  In other words, the traditional reading of religion, too, has had the ability to criticize; especially, to criticize the state.  Both in the past, before the birth of religious intellectualism, and at present, there are traditionalists who are very brave in criticizing the government and the state.


A.  It depends on what the criticism is based on;  religious intellectualism’s criticism is based on modernity.  We can have reactionary criticism too.  As one of our clerics put it, some people criticize the current state for not beheading offenders.


Q.  What we mean to say is, apart from the courage to criticize, has religious intellectualism had other functions?


A.  Of course it has.  I’ve enumerated them before.  They include combating superstitions and harmonizing religiosity with modern life.


Q.  Let’s go back to our previous topic.  Why was it that, during the reform period, religious intellectuals didn’t become more active and dynamic?  And why did the reformists take little advantage of religious intellectuals’ ideas?  Was it political pragmatism that reduced the link between the two groups or were there other reasons?


A. Religious intellectualism doesn’t wait for anyone’s endorsement.  Others may come and pick a fruit from its tree or they may not.  Religious intellectualism does not produce anything to order.  So, it's not as if it was waiting to see whether the reformists would be pleased with it or not.  Not at all.  Sometimes others may sit in the shade under its branches and sometimes they may not.  Reformism isn’t a homogeneous current either.  It isn’t as if they think alike from start to finish.  The reformists, too, have experienced and will experience upheavals.  Change and development is imperative for them too.  This is why these two lines (religious intellectualism and the reform movement) sometimes run parallel and sometimes perpendicular, and sometimes they may head in two opposite directions.  All these things may happen in our society.  But one thing is clear to me:  reform in our society will come about through religious reform.  In other words, the thinking of our religious people must change and develop.  I think that, if we look at religious intellectualism closely, we’ll see that it has really had important effects.  Once, people used to speak about the need for ijtihad in fiqh [formulating reasoned opinions on matters relating to Islamic jurisprudence], but, today, you hear it being said in the Qom seminary itself that, unless developments come about in the fields that precede fiqh (i.e., theology, philosophy, exegesis, etc.), there will be no development in fiqh either.  And this idea has trickled down to young seminary students too.  They believe that if a faqih [Islamic jurist] is not skilled in the field of theology, he cannot be a good faqih.  I believe that these are very important points and they are gradually becoming axiomatic.  Our seminaries had been functioning for years but these ideas had no takers.  But, today, they are gradually taking these ideas on board. 

I believe that religious intellectualism before the revolution - and, especially, its two prominent figures, i.e., Mehdi Bazargan and Ali Shariati - tried to acquaint believers with their political duties.  You might say that these issues were always discussed and politics was always mentioned and believers had written about it in their books.  But, first, these issues had been neglected in the realm of practice.  And, secondly, in the realm of theory, too, the criticism was non-modern.  Bazargan and Shariati tried to explain to believers that religiosity and revolution are not two conflicting things;  on the contrary, they may coincide.  They said that political action is part of a believer’s duties.  Mr Bazargan used to work very hard to drive this point home to believers:  even if you leave politics alone, politics won’t leave you alone.  So, opting for seclusion doesn’t solve anything.  Of course, Bazargan and Shariati succeeded in their aim.  After the revolution, the situation was reversed.  In other words, a series of religious intellectualism’s ideas materialized in practice and Shariati achieved his dream.  Revolution and religion coincided and were reconciled, and revolutionary Islam came to power.   

The only thing that revolutionary Islam had in its rucksack was traditional fiqh and it believed that its duty was to implement fiqh throughout society.  Criticizing this fiqh was one of religious intellectualism’s visible accomplishments.  And not just negative criticism in the sense of criticizing what it is, but also positive criticism in the sense of saying what it ought to become.  It not only spoke of its shortcomings, but also pointed out the way forward. 

In this way, after the revolution, religious intellectualism tried to bring about serious reforms and it will continue to do so.  Religious intellectualism will drive on and its work will gradually bear fruit.


Q.  Let’s speak in more concrete terms if you don’t mind.  Were you consulted by the reformists?  For example, did Mr Khatami hold specific meetings and consultations with you while he was president?


A.  Absolutely not.  The first time I saw Mr Khatami after his election in 1997 was in Germany.  And it was after the end of his second term as president.  During his presidency, there were no meetings whatsoever between us.   

As for any of my friends who were in power, I only had a distant link with them, because I was abroad most of that time, apart from some short visits to Iran.   

My situation did not improve in any way during the reform years;  I was still unable to work, teach or give public talks in Iran, and insecurity continued to hang over me.  Nor did I expect anyone to do anything for my benefit.  I was hoping, instead, that the general climate would improve.  On the whole, I have to underline that the way that religious intellectualism helps the state does not consist of intellectuals coming to power or having close links to power holders.  Religious intellectuals’ main task is to generate and distribute ideas.  And others can use these ideas or not, as they wish.  Moreover, political decisions do not arise directly out of the views of religious intellectuals and there isn’t any logical or deductive link between the two.  Religious intellectualism produces the general climate, which assists dialogue between civilizations and the concepts of magnanimity and tolerance.  It can raise a series of general slogans and ideas in society which may gradually attract people’s attention.  Once, a friend spoke to me about the possibility of Mr Khatami entering the presidential race.  I said that it would be a good idea for him to adopt the following verse by Hafez as one of his slogans: “With friends, magnanimity; with enemies, tolerance.”  In fact, this is the crux of justice.  Whoever adopts this slogan is to be lauded, whether it is Mr Khatami or Mr Musavi or Mr Karrubi or even Mr Ahmadinejad.  The important thing is to act on the slogan afterwards.  This proposition, put forward by religious intellectuals, is more sincere and more agreeable than the actions of those who have always shown that they care neither for magnanimity or tolerance.


Q.  In your book, entitled Knowledge, Intellectualism and Religiosity, you said that intellectuals have power without position.  But, after Mr Khatami’s victory, the expectation was that intellectuals would move a bit closer to power and take more care of their offspring (the reform movement).  Did religious intellectuals strive to resolve the obstacles that the reformists encountered during that period?


A. Everyone acted on their own judgement.  For example, I wrote several letters to Mr Khatami.  Apart from this, I expressed my views about things now and then, in the hope that things might improve.  I don’t know whether it had any impact or not.  I’m sure other individuals did this too;  it was no more than this.  If this is what you mean by taking care of and protecting, we did this much.  But if you mean direct intervention in affairs of state, then, that wasn’t the case; nor should it be.  I continue to believe that intellectuals have power without position.  Their power consists of their intellectual work and it is from this position that they can have a powerful impact on things.  Intellectuals address people’s minds and advise them on how to think and how not to think.  Politicians address people’s limbs and tell them what to do and what not to do. 

Of course, thinking ultimately translates into action, because people’s limbs are at the disposal of their minds.  What intellectuals say can have an impact on legislation and legislators’ thinking.  And in this way, they can guide society in a particular direction.


Q.  If the reform movement was the offspring of intellectualism, religious intellectualism should have rushed to its assistance at sensitive and difficult junctures, because it was following a course that religious intellectuals had set out.


A.  What difficulties do you mean?


Q.  For example, on the subject of religious democracy, which ran into problems in practice. The expectation was that religious intellectuals would try to resolve these problems.


A.  As it happens, this is a subject that I have spoken about a great deal in recent years - even to the point of tedium.  Actually, the other side - whether traditional believers or people who fall outside the framework of religious thought - directed most of their fire at the tale of democracy and religion.  So, I think that religious intellectualism did its utmost to speak about this subject and to do what it could.  Many of the broad brush strokes of the relationship between democracy and religion have now become clear, and we’ve moved on a great deal from what we were saying about the relationship between democracy and Islam in the early days after the revolution.  First, the term “religious democracy” should not lead people astray.  It doesn’t mean deriving democracy from religion.  No one has suggested such a thing.  This is another one of the mistakes in Mr Malekian’s interview.  As an initial categorization, governments are divided into the democratic and the non-democratic.  Then, democratic governments can be religious or non-religious.  In other words, they may find favour with and appeal to religious people or not.  In other words, it means a democratic government that is established in a society of believers.  It doesn’t mean that the bases of democracy are derived from religion.  Governance needs to be made compatible with religion and, in order to do this, we must have theories about fiqh, parliament, law-making, voting and so on.  And, in fact, these are issues that religious intellectualism has focused on.  It has not tried, naively, to derive democracy from the Qur’an or from our religious narratives.  Of course, a few people have suggested that the pledge of allegiance to the ruler roughly corresponds to a consultative assembly, i.e.,  to parliament.  But, first, they are a minority.  And, secondly, they are traditionalists.  I have explicitly explained this point.  Pledging allegiance is based on duty, whereas elections are based on right.  And there is a difference between these two things.  Moreover, parliament plays the role of legislator and legislation must be binding.  If, in a Muslim society, parliament only acts as the ruler’s helper or adviser, the meaning of legislation will not really have been fulfilled.  So, all these concepts need to undergo change and development, so that impediments can be removed.  

A religious government or a democratic government in a religious society is a thesis which I still stand by.  Bringing it about needs theoretical and practical work.  We haven’t reduced our commitment to this idea.  Things have moved on to the point where even the government that doesn’t accept us raises the slogan of religious rule by the people.  This is no mean achievement.  As to whether they act on this slogan or not, that’s a different issue.  But at least they show some respect for this concept and tend to buy it.  We hope that they will one day start selling it too.  When that happens, we hope that they won’t short-change people and that real rule by the people will materialize.  Setting all this aside, the relationship between religion and the state has been reassessed in modern political literature and the thick barrier that liberalism used to erect between the two has crumbled.


Q.  Some time ago, you gave a talk in London about the relationship between Shi’ism and democracy.  Some critics interpreted it to mean that you think Shi’ism is essentially incompatible with democracy.  It seems that those critics misunderstood what you were saying and you’re still of the view that Shi’ism can be interpreted in a way that is compatible with democracy.  Could you elaborate?


A.  Yes, it is as you say.  In the response that I wrote at the time, I underlined the point that the one who maintains that religion and democracy are not compatible is Mr Mesbah-Yazdi, not I.  All the same, I believe that Shi’ism or one interpretation of it can be incompatible with democracy, but that there can be an alternative reading, which is both cohesive and compatible with the history of Shi’ism and compatible with democracy.  In fact, we can replace the term “governance” with “management” because governance means managing the country as a whole.  And this management can be both democratic and compatible with the people’s beliefs.  And people can welcome it not only as fair and just management, but also as a matter of religious duty.  This is what Muslims did after the Prophet. They did not expect their rulers to act as prophets.  After the 12th Imam disappeared, Shi’is, too, should live as if they don’t expect another Imam and, so, they can organize their worldly affairs in a democratic way.   

I view as harmful to our country the kind of traditionalist thinking that has emerged in the form of Mr Ahmadinejad’s government.  That money should be extracted from oil wells and poured into wells of Jamkaran - I consider this kind of superstitious behaviour to be incompatible with civil society and a just government.

 At least religious intellectualism criticizes religious superstitions.  Religious superstitions are amazingly current in our society and even the top clerics do not speak out against this.  Even if they say a word or two here and there, it is very weak;  it doesn’t stop believers in their tracks.  It is the responsibility of the top clerics, more than anyone else, to react against these deviations;  whereas, in fact, religious intellectuals are having to shoulder this responsibility too.   

Now, if a government comes to power which has half an eye on religious intellectualism - not in the sense that it brings religious intellectuals to power and gives them more rights, but in the sense that it pays attention to and acts on their ideas - people will benefit from its blessings.  It will make our country’s future brighter.  It will save young people from going astray and not knowing what to do.  And it will return morality to our society.  I believe that religious rule by the people is the guarantor of morality in our country and that tyranny is the guarantor of immorality and duplicity.  Even if religious intellectualism had no virtue other than this - that it underlines religious democracy with the aim of establishing morality and virtue -, it would deserve praise and respect for this one reason alone.


Q.  Some critics of religious intellectualism try to equate the failure of the reform movement with the end of the religious intellectualism project.  And they are of the view that the ineffectiveness of the theory of “religious democracy” became clear with the failure of the reform movement.  So, they consider the era of religious intellectualism to have come to an end.  As a defender of religious intellectualism, how would you rebut this argument?


A.  Why do you say that the reform movement failed?  Mr Khatami was president for eight years.  He did many positive things.  There were also things that he failed to do.  And he made some management mistakes.  Can we describe this as the failure of the reform movement?  For example, if they arrest a group of strugglers and jail them, does this mean the struggle has failed?


Q.  Can we describe it as a setback?


A.  A setback is very different from failure.  Setback is like having a two-litre bottle and expecting it to carry four litres.  But failure means the bottle is totally broken.  Both you and I agree that the reform movement had some shortcomings and did not achieve all its aims.  But where will you find a government that has no shortcomings and achieves all its aims?  But we must not overlook the fact that the reform movement indigenized some ideas in this country and made them take root.  It opened windows for the people that - now that they’ve been closed - people still hope will be reopened one day.  Reforms have become a lasting tradition in our society and the people want democracy;  a democracy that they no longer see as alien to their religiosity.  This is why I believe that the reform movement rendered us many services.  And it also made mistakes, which should be spoken about and criticized.  But describing it as failure is an exaggeration.   

Let me return to your question and ask you in turn, was religious democracy established in our country during Mr Khatami’s reformist presidency for us to be able to blame it for the setback to the reforms?


Q.  Wasn’t religious democracy the theoretical basis of the reform movement?


A.  The assumptions you’re making are incorrect.  Religious democracy was not established and it is very strange to suggest that we had religious democracy during the reformist period.  Mr Khatami came to power within the existing system.  All the state bodies functioned as before.  Newspapers were banned.  And so on so forth. 

The minimal prerequisite for democracy (whether religious or non-religious) is the circulation of free criticism and the bearer of this criticism has to be a free press.  Newspapers are society’s lungs and society can only breathe through them.  We had press freedom only at the start of Mr Khatami’s first term as president.  Immediately thereafter, newspapers were banned one after the other. The reform movement’s lungs were blocked and it was pushed to the point of asphyxiation.  In view of the fact that the prerequisites didn’t exist, how can it be said that we had religious democracy during that period?  There was no religious democracy, so it isn’t possible to say whether it succeeded or not.


Q.  Some people who have a more cultural interpretation of intellectualism are of the view that, during the reform period, religious intellectualism tended to focus on its political functions rather than its cultural functions.  People like Mostafa Malekian maintain that, in the political interpretation of intellectualism, the three concepts of failure, victory and pragmatism are recurring themes.  But that, in the cultural interpretation, it is more a question of truth and falsehood and striving for truth, and there is a preference for cultural judgements rather than political judgements.  In your view, over the past decade, has religious intellectualism been addressing the people and or power?


A.  I think it’s been a combination of the two.  And even if it has only done one of these things, it is still no mean feat.  Intellectualism is not a movement that has come about only for the sake of uttering truths.  If it were just a question of uttering truths, then, philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, traditional ulema, etc., too, utter truths.  Everyone, in every field, is trying to utter truths.  But not everyone is considered to be an intellectual.  This is by no means an adequate definition of intellectualism and intellectuals’ duties.  Everyone knows this and we mustn’t spend time on it again.  Uttering truths is a necessary condition of intellectualism; it is, by no means, a sufficient condition.  Intellectuals are interested in truths that help advance and improve society.  One of these truths, for example, is the presence or absence of freedoms in society.  The responsible intellectual considers himself committed to this issue.  And it is this presence or absence of freedoms that brings the intellectual directly up against power or the state.


Q.  Dealing with power is more a politician’s duty, not an intellectuals.


A.  No, a politician is an executor, not a thinker.  Always remember the example that Popper gave:  “Lenin is Marx’s executor.”  I think that this statement is very correct. Marx was a thinker. He was never a power holder.  But when Lenin came to power, it was Marx’s brain that dictated his actions.  Democracy in the West was the product of philosophers, not politicians.  First, they made society liberal; then, a liberal state came into being.  So, you mustn’t overlook the indirect role that thinkers play in society and in politics.  This is what defines intellectuals.  Intellectuals tackle these issues and these issues are very sensitive; so, intellectuals pay the cost and, inevitably, grapple with the state.   

As to whether intellectuals have addressed the people as much as they’ve addressed the state, it depends on the society that you’re talking about.  In a society where the state is all-pervasive and casts its shadow over everything, you’ll see its shadow wherever you go.  And even if you want to address the people, you’ll come up against the state.  But if you’re in a relatively democratic society, where the state has handed over many affairs to the people, then, sometimes you’ll address the state and sometimes you’ll address the people.  First, we have to see how pervasive the state has made itself.  In fact, this is one of the demands of intellectuals:  that the state should become less pervasive and that it should become minimal, not maximal.


Q.  Why do you think the reform movement suffered a setback?


A.  I don’t really want to go into this now, because the concepts of democracy and human rights themselves have shortcomings that need to be redressed.  These are issues that are being discussed by philosophers of law, ethicists and so on.  But let me begin by reminding you that not every fault can be attributed to the state;  this is not at all the case.  We, the people, have shortcomings that we must acknowledge.  For example, the disregard for rules and laws that drivers display on our streets cannot be blamed on our rulers.  There are problems in our conduct for which we are to blame and we only attribute them to others to exonerate ourselves.  Unfortunately, a kind of selfishness has become pervasive among us which is the source of many ills.  One of the causes for the setback that the reform movement suffered consisted of the big obstacles that they placed in its way.  Another cause consisted of a series of factors that exist among the people, making it difficult for them to act upon some ideas.  Another cause was the reformists’ practical and theoretical weaknesses.


Q.  What kind of reassessment do you think is needed in order to revive the political reform movement and how must the reformists use the eight years that they had in power and the four years that they have spent on the sidelines?  Another question is:  how can religious intellectuals help revive the reform movement?


A.  I’d still prefer it, for now, if the reformists turn towards civil society under a relatively moderate government, adopt the patience of gardeners and sow seeds for the future.


Q.  In the last few days before the last presidential election, you said that you thought Mr Karrubi was the best choice for president.  Who do you think is the best choice now and what do you think the consensus is among the reformists?


A.  I really haven’t come to a particular conclusion in this respect yet.  So, I’ll opt for silence now.  If I come to a decision, I’ll make it known.




**Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser

* Published in E’temad newspaper on 16 April 2009.




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