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February 2010





We Must have a Referendum in Iran 



Interview with Abdulkarim Soroush

By Farzaneh Bazrpour for Roozonline.com

February 2010 



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 Iran 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 tyranny?


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 Iran 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 tyranny.

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 equal rights. 


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 it?


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






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