We asked Dr Abdulkarim
Soroush about Iran’s current
developments, the statement issued by the group of five, and the
amalgamation of religion and politics. Dr Soroush stressed that
a referendum must take place in
and that the ruling cleric’s position and powers must be
questioned. He also underlined the following point: “In order
for religion to survive and in order for believers to have faith
freely and not by force, it seems to me that political
secularism is a very commendable idea.”
Q. A while ago, you and
four other well-known political-cultural figures issued a
statement in which you listed the Green Movement’s minimum
demands. This raised the suspicion among some people that the
statement was a way of imposing the leadership of religious
intellectuals on the other groups within the Green Movement. In
effect, the secularists took it to mean that religious
intellectuals wanted to claim sole control. My question is this:
What are the key differences and disagreements between the
secularists and religious intellectuals?
A. Generally speaking, we
have two types of secularism: political secularism and
philosophical secularism. Political secularism means we separate
religion, as an institution, from the state. And that the state
regards all creeds and religions as equals, recognizes their
plurality and treats them in an impartial way. In this sense,
many religious people are political secularists too and they
recognize and approve of this kind of political impartiality in
the face of a variety of beliefs.
But we have another
secularism which is known as philosophical secularism. This is
synonymous with atheism and lack of belief in religion. It is a
kind of materialism. This type of secularism can’t be combined
with religious thinking. One hangs on the affirmation of
religion and the other hangs on the negation of religion, and
combining affirmation and negation is impossible.
If we take political
secularism, then possibly all or most of the five individuals
who signed that statement are political secularists; especially
after the deep, bitter experience of the Islamic Republic, which
has taught us what ills can arise from combining power and
religion and having someone rule over society on behalf of God.
In fact, in order for religion to survive and in order for
believers to have faith freely and not by force, it seems to me
that political secularism is a very commendable idea; but not
philosophical secularism, because it cannot be combined with
religiosity. In a system that’s based on political secularism,
people who are not religious, too, can live freely and enjoy the
same rights as everyone else.
Q. Was the statement issued
by you five religious intellectuals an indication that you were
claiming leadership or did it lead to discord among the
different groups that support the Green Movement?
A. I don’t think the
statement caused any discord. That fact of the matter is that
the Green Movement includes both religious people and
non-religious people; it includes left-wing people and
philosophical secularists; it even includes people who belong to
the Hojjatieh Society. This fact can neither be denied, nor
concealed. When a group of people issue a statement and say
something about the Green Movement, this does not mean that they
are negating other groups or ideas. As it happens, we are
testimony to the actually existing pluralism; some of us are
religious intellectuals, some of us are philosophical
secularists. And all of these trends exist within the Green
Movement, and the place and role of each one of them will become
clear in Iran’s future.
Q. The terms “republic” and
democracy” are used to describe a political system involving
rule by the people over the people. Is the amalgamation of
religion with politics and the state, and the construction of
composite terms such as “Islamic republic” or “religious
democracy” not a repetition of the experience of religious
A. We all believe that what
we have in Iran
now is religious tyranny. And before religious tyranny and
before the 1979 revolution, we had monarchical tyranny. Now, if
we can speak about religious tyranny, we can also speak of
religious democracy. Religious tyranny means that some people
are tyrannical under the banner of religion and that they even
extract some points from religion in order to fortify their
tyranny over the people. Of course, tyranny is tyranny, but some
people can use religion to bring about tyranny; this is not just
a possibility, it is the actual reality in our country.
Religious democracy is just
as much of a possibility. A group of people can use religion and
act on their religious duty to establish a democratic system in
their country. A democratic system that gives all citizens equal
rights, the right to political participation and all the rights
that people must have in a democratic system. And most important
of all, to establish an independent judiciary, which is a basic
pillar of any democratic system, and, of course, it doesn’t
contravene Islam in any way.
Q. What is the relationship
between this hypothetical future state in
and religion and fiqh?
A. The relationship between
the future state and religion can be summed up as follows:
1. Religious people, too,
are free to act and enjoy freedom within it.
2. On the basis of their
religious duty, religious people will combat inequality and
3. On the basis of their
religious duty, they will establish an independent judiciary.
4. On the basis of their
religious duty, they will ensure that every member of society
benefits from justice.
5. On the basis of their
religious duty, they will regard others as human beings, with
And all of this can take
place on the basis of a sense of religious responsibility.
Democracy is democracy, religious or otherwise. At most, in a
religious democracy, every effort will be made not to approve
laws that contravene incontrovertible religious laws. And Islam
contains few such laws that are incontrovertible and imperative.
There may be many religious fatwas, but we can confine ourselves
to the most important ones and even, where necessary, exercise
ijtihad. This ensures that laws are Islamic. As for the
rest of religion, it depends on religious people’s commitment to
it in their own hearts and in their actions.
Q. Will Islamic fiqh
and Ja’fari fiqh still form the basis of legislation?
A. Islamic fiqh and,
consequently, Ja’fari fiqh will be too limited for us to
be able to extract all our laws from them. It is enough for us
to draw up laws that don’t contravene Islam’s incontrovertible
and imperative principles. Moreover, the door to ijtihad
is always open. A religious society is shaped according to the
wishes of the majority of believers and its religious culture
distinguishes it from other societies.
Q. If a referendum is to be
held in Iran and you are
one of the people involved in drafting it, what issue and law
will you ask the people to vote on and how will you formulate
A. The position and the
powers of the velayat-e faqih [Islamic Republic of Iran’s
system of rule by a cleric] must be questioned. In a referendum,
we must formulate very clear and tangible questions, because if
we focus on abstract notions, we will not get anywhere and the
system will run into new problems.
Q. The theory of velayat-e
faqih was proposed by Ayatollah Khomeini before the
revolution. Regardless of its actual form now, did his theory
necessarily entail religious tyranny or was it the Islamic
Republic's conduct that produced this result?
A. The velayat-e faqih
theory is religious tyranny. A democratic system can't be
brought about with this theory. And no one can exercise justice
under the theory of velayat-e faqih because, just as
philosophers have said in the past, absolute power corrupts
absolutely. If even the most virtuous person is placed in charge
of a society, without being accountable to anyone, he will stray
a long way away from justice after a few years. Hence, Ayatollah
Khomeini's theory of velayat-e faqih was an unethical
theory from the start, but, fortunately, it has demonstrated its
nature in practice too. And now, more than ever, the bitter
experience of the Islamic Republic has made it clear that the
velayat-e faqih theory was not and is not a theory that
produces justice. If something has to be sacrificed, it is that
absolute power and the absolute prerogatives of the faqih.
If this evil shadow is lifted and the sun of justice allowed to
shine, the Iranian people will be able to see the colour of
freedom and justice.
Q. It seems that Shi'i
fundamentalism, in the guise of Ahmadinejadism, has gained such
power in Iran as to boast
the same violent ideas and instruments of repression as Sunni
fundamentalism (Taliban and Al-Qaeda). In your view, to what
extent is the belief in millenarianism to blame for this
extremist behaviour and how can it be countered and halted?
A. Fundamentalism can't be
done away with completely. Islamic fundamentalism emerged after
the Prophet's demise in the form of the Kharijites and it has
continued to this day. It cannot be uprooted and it has always
existed over the course of history; but sometimes fundamentalism
has had the upper hand and sometimes it hasn't. And the cause of
it has to be sought in some people's mentality and psychology.
These are people who are drawn towards fascism under the banner
of religious thinking. They harbour the great delusion that they
can reform both religion and the world, quickly and violently.
From the start, when the
Kharijites came into being, they opted for violence as their
method. They would easily kill people over the smallest thing.
They wanted to establish a pure and unsullied community of
believers. And if anyone disagreed with their views in the
slightest, they would eliminate them physically. Today, Shi'i
fundamentalism is rooted in this same way of thinking. The only
solution is that we should not allow them to gain power; they
should just be left to enjoy their crude ideas in a corner. We
can consent to this much, but no more.
Ahmadinejadism and very
superstitious sects and the millenarian expectation of the
return of the saviour have always existed in
Iran. There have even been more
extremist versions in the past. But today they've gained power
and this has magnified their ugly aspects. If we have a free
society, in which people's ideas are weighed on the scale of
public opinion, then these types of groups and individuals won't
gain any prominence and will remain on the fringes.
Our problem in Iran today is that power and
extremist millenarianism have become conjoined. This kind of
extremist millenarianism has always existed in a small corner of
society and it will continue to do so. But it is the backdrop,
which has allowed them to take power and gain control over the
state, that is the source of all these ills. If a democratic
system is established, then these people will remain on the
fringes, without the occurrence of any conflict or violence, and
without a big cost being imposed on Iranian society.
Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser