Miserable Plight of a brilliant scholar









Muslim News - 31 May 1996

One would have expected that Islamic scholars would have support from an Islamic government. However, this is not the case, not for Dr Hosein Dabbagh more popularly known as Abdolkarim Soroush, who has, for the past two years, been prevented from delivering lectures even at his own university. He has been physically assaulted many times. The government denies its involvement. However, nothing is done to protect him or to apprehend the perpetrators.

Dr Soroush, 50, an unassuming figure, soft-spoken, and a deep thinker, normally calm and relaxed, now sits in his office at the Research Institute for Human Sciences, Tehran, extremely tense, under a cloud of intense pressure. He is a unique scholar, being at home both in the University in Tehran and the Hawza (Islamic Seminary) in Qom.

Professor Soroush is a popular Islamic thinker with a wide following amongst Islamic intellectuals, not only in lran but in other parts of the world as well, lectures Philosophy of Social Sciences at Tehran University. He has authored many books on various philosophical topics and poetry.

Many of his ideas have led to his persecution. Professor Soroush believes that religious texts should be understood in the context of the age one lives in and their interpretations are not the monopoly of any one group of people, meaning the 'ulama. Such views and others, like his views on religion and state, which he says have been misunderstood - he believes deliberately by his enemies - have led to claims that he has attacked the concept of the rule of Wali al-Faqih (The Governance of the Jurisprudent), which is the core foundation of the current state of Iran. The Wilayat al-Faqih is the supreme head of the state, currently held by Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.

Dr Soroush is against, what he terms as 'ideologisation of religion', which he believes leads to totalitarianism. He says religion is not an ideology (like Marxism). This radical view puts him at odds with sociologists like the late Dr Ali Shariati who maintained that Islam was an ideology. Dr Soroush says that the concept of "religious ideology makes it totalitarian" as "ideology needs an official class of interpreters" and religion "does not need official interpreters" as "interpretation of religion has to be pluralistic". Just after he had presented his paper on this topic, Ayatollah Khamenei rebutted his thesis by announcing that religion does need official interpretation.

His other article on 'Religious Democratic State' also elicited criticism. He suggested that "no one has a priori the right to rule in Islam" - implying the 'ulama do not have the automatic right to rule. Soroush argues that "the state is a function of society, a product of it". A government should not impose its will on the people. "If a society is religious, the government will inevitably be religious if a society is secular, the government will be secular." In the West, thinkers first created a secular society and then the government became secular. A government consists of two pillars - methods and values. The method of ruling a government needs a rational approach and not religious. However, the values are derived form religious texts. But there is a relationship between values and methods. "The method you choose over a society affects the values; for example, under a despotic regime people are not allowed to criticise. This method then affects the values and therefore the respect of the rights of people are affected and therefore you are undermining values." In a religious democratic society, a person should be free to express his/her opinion. Dr Soroush however, is not allowed to express his opinions and this has led to clashes during his public speeches and lectures at Tehran University.

Dr Soroush denies that he is part of any political opposition group. "I am a thinker expressing my ideas." It is the ideas that has put him in danger from certain sections of the society. The day before I met him for the interview, he was given a threatening letter warning him not to continue with his lectureship at Tehran University. He describes how they came to the university (on April 28) just as he was going to give his lecture. "They came with knives, clubs on their motorbikes intimidating me." This is not the first time that unknown opponents of his ideas have harassed him at the university. And this intimidation does not just affect Dr Soroush, it also has an effects on his post graduate students who feel threatened and uneasy in his classes. The Dean of the University has, because of the threats, reduced the number of Dr Soroush's classes from four (with upto 250 students) to only one class (with only 20 students).

The attacks against Dr Soroush began eleven months ago when he gave a public talk to mark the anniversary of Dr Ali Shariati in Isfahan. He was invited by students at Isfahan University but the university officials refused to allow them the use of the premises. So the meeting was held in a hired hall outside . However as he began his lecture, he was attacked and he escaped into a dungeon thinking they would not be able to find him in the dark. But they managed to get hold of him and attacked him tearing his shirt. However, he managed to escape after a few hours and he wrote a private letter to the President complaining about the intimidation. One hundred and seven people - lecturers, writers, artists - from Tehran and other universities also wrote to the president expressing their dismay at the treatment meted out to Dr Soroush and requested him to ensure such incidents do not occur in future. But on October 11, 1995, he was again attacked by a group of about 150 people, now calling themselves Ansare Hizbullah, at Tehran University's technical college under the eyes of the security guards. His glasses were broken. He was attacked also as he reached the podium to speak. He managed to escape with some of his supporters. Soroush had been invited by Islamic Society of Tehran University to speak on mysticism, Rumi's Mathnavi (written in 13th century). "If my friends had not protected me I would have been killed", said Dr Soroush. Many students were injured in this incident.

After this incident, students at Tehran University held a protest. This was a first demonstration of its kind at the university by Islamists. After that Dr Soroush was interrogated by the Information Ministry and warned not to give any public lectures and not to write any articles on Wilayat ul- Faqih, religious government and the 'ulama.

Three weeks ago, Dr Soroush was invited to give a lecture on the anniversary of Ayatullah Mutahhari, who was martyred just after the revolution, by the Islamic Society at Amir Kabir University. Ansare Hizbullah again threatened to disrupt the meeting but the students vowed to defend Dr Soroush and the atmosphere became tense as both sides said they would fight and become martyrs. The Dean requested Dr Soroush not to attend. Dr Soroush agreed. However, on the day, May 10, he was arrested by the security officers and taken to the Information Ministry for interrogation. He was warned not to attend the programme, not to give lectures at Tehran University and not to go abroad. The gathering went ahead. But only students of Amir Kabir University were allowed to attend the meeting. Minor skirmishes took place outside and many were arrested. "The Ansare Hizbullah brought with them gallows in their van", said Dr Soroush.

Professor Abdolkarim Soroush believes the problem began four years ago in Isfahan. He talked about bringing the unity between Hawza and University. . In a university, there is, in theory. no limit to criticism whilst there is no intellectual freedom in Hawza and those who question and criticise the foundations are boycotted."

Another reason for the problems he is facing, he believes is because before his speech in Isfahan, Dr Soroush said at a public meeting at the University of Rasht, that Ayatullah Mutahhari and Sayyid Tabatabai (author of the l9-volume Tafsir al-Mizan) were the exceptions in Hawza and encouraged the students to go to Hawza and continue the tradition of these 'ulama of questioning.

Dr Soroush, after the latest incident of Amir Kabir University, wrote an open letter to President Hashemi Rafsanjani recounting various intimidative acts by Ministry of Information and the Ansare Hizbullah. "Has this country gone so far so that a teacher takes his life into his own hands when attending class or an academic meeting? Does this country need the likes of Galileo, Giordano and Bruno?", he asked.


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