Maybe this, too, is one of the problems of being famous. Among the
many people who, wittingly or unwittingly, became involved in the
cultural revolution 28 years ago, one was Dr. Soroush. But whenever
the cultural revolution is mentioned, his name appears at the top of
the list. As he puts it, it’s as if the committee had only one
member: Abdulkarim Soroush.
The cultural revolution, as a wide-ranging policy, one of the first
consequences of which was the closing down of universities, cannot –
it would stand to reason – have come about around the axis of a
single person or just a few people. When he’s asked about his role
in the cultural revolution, Dr. Soroush’s answer is clear: “The
Cultural Revolution Committee was established with the aim of
reopening universities, not closing them.”
Although Dr. Soroush, too, may have made mistakes in the thick of
the cultural revolution, I think that the bigger mistake is
committed by those who – in order to ease the burden of their own
past records – associate the name of only one person with all the
wrongdoings. Reducing all shortcomings to a single incident and
reducing all names to a single name is to forget a part of history.
Is this not a big mistake in it’s own right?
Let us also not forget that references to Dr. Soroush’s record in
the cultural revolution, more than being aimed at discovering the
truth of the events of the early years of the revolution, has been a
response to his intellectual work. Both people among the power
holders who cannot bear his views and others, within the ranks of
intellectuals, who cannot bear the hegemony of religious
intellectuals have had a hand in this ploy.
When I contacted him to ask his views about the policies of the
current government on universities, it was very plain that he was
irritated about having his name tied to the cultural revolution. Dr.
Soroush, who had previously spoken about his role in the Cultural
Revolution Committee, asked this time that the role of others be
There were also other reasons for an interview with Dr. Soroush. His
participation in the one-day seminar on “Islam and Democracy”, the
publication of his new book The Etiquette of Power, the Etiquette of
Justice and recent criticism of his new approach were some of these
reasons. Dr. Soroush’s answers to these sets of questions will
appear in subsequent instalments.
Q. Dr. Soroush, as you know, the current government has adopted
strict policies on universities and university professors,
especially professors who don’t think like the government. For
example, President Ahmadinejad asked students to shout at the
government and demand the expulsion of secular and liberal
professors. In the latest stage of these policies, there are
murmurings about a second cultural revolution. What’s your analysis
of this new trend and what results and consequences do you think it
A. In the name of God. I have no choice but to speak in rather harsh
terms. First, about the President, I hadn’t made any comments so
far, but now I have to say that I don’t take these kinds of comments
seriously on any subject, especially when it comes to the tale of
universities. I’ve heard several of his speeches on nuclear energy.
I’m surprised that someone who taught at university – and in
engineering-related fields at that, which means that he must have
studied a good deal of mathematics and so on – can speak in these
kinds of terms about nuclear energy.
These remarks show that, if there’s to be a revolution in our
universities – and I, too, believe that there ought to be – it has
to be an educational revolution from the bottom up so that better
graduates come out of our universities. But a cultural revolution –
in the sense that we understand it in Iran today – occurred once and
once was enough; just as a revolution occurred once and once was
Revolutions, whether cultural or political, are not something that’s
repeated twice or several times in one generation. And what took
place in 1979 was, in truth, neither a revolution nor cultural. It
was a feud between different factions at universities, each of which
wanted to commandeer universities to their own ends. Ultimately, the
faction that was close to power and the State won, and universities
were closed down as a result of that feud. And I have to add that
the victorious faction also used unlawful means to bring about its
victory. The Cultural Revolution Committee was established not to
close universities but to reopen them or to reopen them well.
The committee was trying to reopen universities as soon as possible
and it achieved this goal in a year and a half. What’s happening in
our universities today is a period that I hope will end as soon as
possible so that our students can experience freedom and be able to
chase after truth freely. When, during Mr Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s
Presidency, they made things difficult for me and ultimately
deprived me of teaching at university, I wrote a letter to him and,
in that letter, I told him of my own and other academics’ grievances
and warned him that universities were under sever pressure and that
he shouldn’t expect universities to produce great scholars in such
conditions. At the end of the letter, I cited a poem by Houshang
Ebtehaj: “Look and see what you’re casting to the wind / thousands
of hopes, hopes that belong to humanity / Once again a cloud casts
its shadow / Over the entire world, not just over me”
Today, I can see with my own eyes that conditions are even more
autumnal than they were then. No, worse; it’s more like winter now
and, most regrettably, the gardeners are asleep.
Q. As you said, this is not the first time our universities have
been under pressure. Why do you think it is that, despite all these
pressures, some people are still not satisfied?
A. They want to bring universities under their own mastery. They
don’t favour any kind of freedom. They like to have everything in
their own clutches and under their thumbs. If they find a place
that’s defying them in any way, they bear down on it with all their
might. They want controlled and subservient universities, which even
obey them in the quest for knowledge; universities that say what
they want them to say. Universities that behave in this way are, in
truth, not universities. We still don’t have a correct conception of
universities. Universities should be in step both with industry and
development and with freedom. Such a notion is still not recognized
I’ve said this before: when they barged into universities and beat
some professors in the name of religiosity, the country’s seminaries
did absolutely nothing and this fact remains engraved on academics’
memories. I hope that seminaries and prominent clerics will redress
their previous inaction, express sympathy and fellowship with
academics, and remove the ceiling that they’ve placed on freedom in
Q. These days – both because of the anniversary of the cultural
revolution and because of the murmurings about a second cultural
revolution – references are being made to the original cultural
revolution. Things are occasionally said about your role; most
recently in the memoirs of Dr. Katouzian - which have been published
- in which he mentions the arguments he had with you. Tell us about
A. First of all, the Cultural Revolution Council still exists and,
if there’s going to be a second revolution, it will presumably be
carried out by this same Cultural Revolution Council.
Secondly, the original Cultural Revolution Council – as you put it –
was established when the universities were shut. A seven-member
committee was formed, on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini, to reopen
universities. It was not the committee’s duty to shut universities.
This is a mistake that’s made in some writings.
Thirdly, the committee had seven members. In most of the discussions
that are taking place today, people speak as if the Cultural
Revolution Committee had just one member: Abdulkarim Soroush. And he
had just one duty: expelling academics. Both these claims are very
unjust and untrue. This historical lie has to be exposed. The
Cultural Revolution Committee included Messrs. Jalal Farsi – who was
very radical – Dr. Ali Shariatmadari, Dr. Hassan Habibi, Dr.
Bahonar, Rabbani-Amlashi and Shams Al-e Ahmad. Shams Al-e Ahmad
withdrew fairly soon and Mr. Bahonar was martyred.
Mr. Rabbani-Amlashi was the clerical person in charge of purging
professors and he died. Later, there were new people, including Mr.
Ahmad Ahmadi, who continues to be a member of the Cultural
Revolution Council to this day, Dr. Davari, Dr. Purjavadi and so on.
I also want to remind people that the higher education minister was
also a member of the Cultural Revolution Council then. First, Dr.
Arefi and, then, for a long time, Dr. Najafi and, as it happens, he
was in charge of the purges at the Higher Education Ministry. The
last time I asked the Higher Education Ministry, they informed me in
a confidential report that 700 professors had been purged. These
reports and figures were absolutely not at our disposal.
Q. You mean the council was not involved in the purges?
A. No at all. Mr. Amlashi initially had a supervisory role but he,
too, stepped down.
Q. In what capacity did he supervise the purges. Was he involved
personally or as a member of the council?
A. Yes, he was a member of the council.
Q. Did he report to you in the council?
A. No, he didn’t. Of course, he, too, was unhappy about his own
position. He even told us that the Association of Seminary Lecturers
had protested to him because it would bring seminaries into
disrepute. In other words, the gentlemen were aware of these
considerations even then.
Q. Did Mr. Amlashi himself favour the purges?
A. He was reluctant in view of the comments that had been made to
him. But some people were buzzing around him. One of these people
was Mehdi Golshani, who is now a member of the Cultural Revolution
It’s not my intention to speak at length about it. I just want to
make the point that, if there were purges or wrongdoings in the
council, they were all there. Mr. Shariatmadari was there. Mr. Farsi
was there and he backed the purges and was also in direct contact
with Mr. Asadollah Lajevardi. There are some factions in the country
who, first, want to reduce the Cultural Revolution Council to the
purging of professors and, secondly, to reduce its members to just
me. No one ever mentions Mr. Shariatmadari or Mr. Ahmadi, who, as it
happens, was also very much in favour of the purges.
But the Cultural Revolution Council exists now and all its members
are known. These are the people who’re responsible for the events
that have taken place in universities over the past 20 years. But no
one ever mentions their role or interviews them. If it is a question
of responsibility, it falls on everyone’s shoulders. One thing that
surprises me is that the only person who was one of the original
members of the Cultural Revolution Committee and remains a member of
the Cultural Revolution Council to this day is Mr. Shariatmadari; no
one ever mentions him, even Mr. Sadeq Ziba-Kalam, who’s spoken on
numerous occasions about the cultural revolution.
On a number of occasions he’s spoken about the cultural revolution
as if he was one of the main people involved. Let me tell you that
this was absolutely not the case. And he always makes it seem as if
he was sitting and arguing with me in the committee and that he was
in favour of freedom for professors and I was opposed. These are
total lies. I never ever saw him in the Cultural Revolution
Committee. He’s said things of this kind several times to ‘Iran’
newspaper and to Radio Farda, and has acquired a fake prestige.
There was also a time when he claimed that he’d been the
representative of the provisional government in Kurdistan. When
doubts were cast on the claim, he was again unable to prove it. He
constantly says that he’s repented. He says this in front of people
so that they forgive him and praise him. He doesn’t name anyone
else. He just says: these purges were taking place in front of
Abdulkarim Soroush’s eyes and he didn’t say anything.
I have said repeatedly that what we did had nothing to do with
purges, but let’s imagine that these improper purges took place with
our knowledge. They also took place in front of Mr. Shariatmadari’s
eyes. They also took place in front of Mr. Jalaleddin Farsi’s eyes.
The events that unfolded in later years in universities took place
in front of the eyes of Messrs. Ahmadi, Davari and Golshani. Why are
they never mentioned?
Mr. Shariatmadari expelled me from the Academy of Sciences and Mr
Golshani expelled me from the Philosophy Society. No one mentions
Far from having a problem with the examination of historical facts,
I hope that, one day, all the ambiguous points in our contemporary
history will be laid bare and everyone’s proper or improper role
fully clarified. But the current way of dealing with this issue
suggests that some kind of guideline has been issued and some people
are repeating lies in the hope of reaping rewards. And,
unfortunately, the press publishes them.
The other point concerns what Dr. Katouzian has said: First, I never
used the metaphor “switching off a faulty machine to repair it”.
This was Dr. Hassan Habibi’s metaphor. Secondly, I never challenged
him to a debate. Thirdly, I don’t expect a jurist like him to
describe me – without any research - as the theorist and
standard-bearer of closing down universities. Fourthly, concerning
his expulsion, it may not be a bad idea for me to remind anyone
who’s forgotten that when I heard that he’d been dismissed, I spoke
in his defence. Maybe he’s said these things because of a faulty
memory or for other reasons.
Fifthly, contrary to what he’s said, I was not dismissed from the
Cultural Revolution Committee; I resigned after witnessing some
unseemly developments, as I’ve explained elsewhere. Sixthly, the
third person at the session that Mr. Katouzian has spoken about was
Jalaleddin Farsi and the reason why the professors were unhappy was
because the professors who were there were opposed to the seizure of
the American Embassy. And Mr. Jalaleddin Farsi told them in response
that anyone who opposes it is a Zionist. And the professors were
unhappy with this remark.
As to Mr. Mohammad Maleki, I have to say that I’m sorry that he’s
still defending the expulsion of Dr. Nasr from university. Setting
aside the question of who was responsible for it, I have to say
concerning him and myself that I saw him once. He came to the
Cultural Revolution Council once with a group of professors. As a
matter of fact, Mr. Shariatmadari was chairing the session. And I
was sitting next to him and not saying anything, because I’d only
recently returned to Iran and I didn’t know anything about the state
of universities. I didn’t know the professors and I usually didn’t
say anything at these sessions; I would listen so that I could get a
sense of the situation from the different things that were said.
Mr. Maleki more or less dominated the whole session and delivered a
long speech about the truth of revolutions in learning and
revolutions in culture, and from a radical left-wing stance at that.
There wasn’t a shred of sympathy towards university professors in
his remarks. Nothing is ever said about the truth of the discussions
that took place. It’s as if whoever came to the Cultural Revolution
Committee used to only see me and would only receive answers from
I don’t by any means want to say that I wasn’t on the committee or
that I was nobody there and the blame falls on others. What I object
to is the way in which these people are reporting the events. As if
I’m responsible for every bad thing and as if nothing good was done.
Here, I want to speak about the good things too. One service that
the Cultural Revolution Committee did deliver - and which I carried
out – was the establishment of University Publications. You can ask
Mr. Purjavadi - who was in charge of University Publications for 20
years – to tell you who invited him, who proposed the idea to him
and who supported his work to the end. I even allowed him, in
contravention of the country’s laws, not to return his foreign
exchange earnings to the country so that he could have a free hand
in making the purchases he needed for the publishing centre.
We prevented the establishment of an Islamic association at the
publishing centre because, at that time and in that atmosphere,
wherever Islamic associations were established, they only played a
destructive role. We provided a great deal of support to the centre
until it could stand on its own feet. And it stood on its own feet
for 20 years. And I’d like to take this opportunity to praise Mr.
Purjavadi for his services. The stable management there allowed that
institution to take root.
That was one of the blessings and good things, and some people don’t
wish to see these achievements. I won’t say anything about the
purges because I’ve said a great deal on this subject. If anyone is
after the truth, why don’t they interview other people? Why are the
other members of the committee not interviewed so that any
contradictions in the things that they say can come to light and the
I advise any friends who wish to discover the truth to speak to all
the members of the committee, to the people who were expelled and to
the members of the opposition groups of those years, so that the
truth is laid bare. This would be far more useful than just
interviewing me and writing things about me. Interview Mr. Najafi,
Ahmad Ahmadi and Jalal Farsi.
Mr. Ahmadi and Mr. Farsi were two of the firm proponents of
university purges. They must have had their own reasons. Mr. Farsi
seemed to feel particularly strongly about it. I remember that, in
those days, I used to make the members of the Cultural Revolution
Committee visit a different university each week or each month. They
were reluctant. But I believed that we should go to the universities
and speak to the professors, so that people wouldn’t say that the
committee was making decisions behind closed doors.
Mr. Habibi came with us once and then he stopped. Mr. Shariatmadari
and I went with others several times. Once, we’d gone to Martyr
Beheshti University to speak to the professors. There, one of the
professors – I remember his name, Mr. Khoda’i, who was a chemistry
professor – stood up and complained, and said: We’re being treated
in this or that way while the universities are shut. He said, among
other things, that you’re harassing us. When he sat down, Mr. Farsi
began speaking and said: We don’t need to harass anyone. If
necessary […]. Just like that. That’s the kind of temperament he
Q. I wanted to ask you what you thought about the state of
universities before they were shut.
A. The truth of the matter is that our universities weren’t
universities before they were shut. It was a time of revolution.
Nothing was the way it’s supposed to be. I was teaching at
university at the time. There weren’t any proper classes. There were
demonstrations every day. Different political and guerrilla groups
had come to the university and spread their wares.
Each day the students would be beckoned away by somebody or other.
Most of the classes did not convene. Students would be sitting in
the classrooms but their minds would be elsewhere. This was
inevitable in a revolution. Everything was half-formed and only
beginning to take shape. Be that as it may, I was neither involved
in the closing down of universities nor – despite the state they
were in – did I agree with it.
Q. What was your own analysis and solution to these problems? Did
you make a speech or any recommendations anywhere?
A. No, I didn’t. In all honesty, the cultural revolution occurred
very suddenly and I had no idea it was going to happen. And in the
Cultural Revolution Committee, some members, such as Mr. Habibi and
Mr. Shams Al-e Ahmad, suggested that political parties were playing
a role behind-the-scenes of the cultural revolution. Later on, we
had a meeting with Mr. Hashemi[-Rafsanjani] of course. Sometimes we
would run into problems in our work in the committee that would make
us turn to Mr. Hashemi and Mr. Khamenei and we held some meetings
Once, Mr. Hashemi said at one of these meetings: “Yes, we agreed
that universities should be closed down, but only for a few months,
not a few years.” In other words, he made it clear that universities
should reopen quickly. The imam [Khomeini] was of this view and we
were too. It was obvious that the closing down of universities had
been discussed with these senior figures but, apparently, there were
Once universities had been closed, some professors and students were
saying that they should remain shut for two years to allow total
reforms. We discussed this with the imam and he was not in
agreement; he said that universities should reopen as soon as
possible. We asked him to express this view in one of his public
speeches, because radical figures and students did not accept it
coming from us. When he expressed this view in a public speech, the
way was opened to some extent and we guided universities towards
Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser