Back to Main Page

 June 2007


One Cultural Revolution was Enough


An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush


By Matin Ghaffarian




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 explained.

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 will have?

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 enough.

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 or respected.

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 universities.

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 this.

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 Council.

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 them.

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 me.

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 truth clarified?

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 had.

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 with them.

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 different views.

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 reopening.

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser




Back to Interviews with Dr. Soroush