عبدالکريم سروش


April 2008



Iranian lectures on democracy in Middle East


Sarah Flanagan


Abdolkarim Soroush spoke to a packed Hindle auditorium about his philosophy on democracy's place in the Islamic world on Monday April 7. Wheaton joins institutions such as Harvard and Princeton and Georgetown in inviting Soroush to share his intellectual insight on the compatibility between democracy and Islamic society.

"I haven't seen that many people for an event this year," observed Georgina Cannan '09, one of the four students who put the event together, about the large turnout for the lecture. "It was really a huge honor to bring Dr. Soroush to the campus because he's so well known and well respected."

The lecture took place in conjunction with Modern Islamic World Week, which also included a Middle Eastern Dinner in Emerson, and the performance of comedy troup Axis of Evil, who use comedy to assert their perspectives on being Islamic in the western world.

Cannan said of the events: "We had a pretty good turnout for the showing of Axis of Evil and a lot of people seemed to really enjoy the dinner. There was really good food."

Students Cannan, Angelina Gennis '10,
Arielle Burstein '10, and Claire Anderson '09 organized Modern Islamic World Week events to "increase discussion of Islam on campus and to show that there is a very large interest at Wheaton." Political science Professors Shomali and Murphy got the word out to faculty who encouraged students to come, and the Office of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility contributed to organization. The event was sponsored by the Student Government Association, the President's Fund, the Office of the Provost, the Modern Arab League, the Education Council, and the Philosophy Club.

In his studies, Shoroush aims to reconcile Islam with modernity, as he believes Islamic society has been stagnating since its peak 700 years ago and that "now is the age of reawakening."

Soroush aims to debunk preconceived notions that Islam and democracy don't mesh, asserting that Islam is in fact inclined to challenge, debate and interpret laws. He states that, "Islam makes revolution mandatory. It is a religious duty to rise up against regimes."

He cited the Iranian revolution of the 1960s, as an example of Muslims' understanding of revolution as a "duty" and "religious ritual." According to Soroush, the fervor behind the revolution lay in its religious underpinnings. The word "jihad" is familiar in this day and age, but the negative connotations due to the violent images projected by the U.S. media often leads to misunderstandings of the definition.

Soroush reminded his listeners that jihad is in fact Muhammad's call to each man to think for himself and stand up for his vision of proper society. "Islam is nothing but a series of interpretations," Soroush stated.

The Tehran-born speaker added that Islam's tradition of a separate judiciary only adds to its potential for democracy. He further explained during the lecture that the separate power of justice is the "beating heart of democracy," and that it has "a sure foot in Islamic teachings and civilization." He asserted "Islamic civilization is a civilization of law."

According to Soroush, the friction between east and west, and the real problem democracy faces in the Islamic world, lies in the disparity between duties and individual rights. He said that "Islamic law is about duties and obligations as opposed to rights, which are not absent, but secondary in Islam."

The west appreciates the inverse, "a society in which a number of rights are first and foremost and duties are secondary." Soroush emphasizes that this gap can be breached but "here lies the exact problem. Consultation alone does not beget democratic order. Islam needs a culture of rights in addition to a culture of duty."

He also alluded to the fact that the United States could use more emphasis on personal duty instead of rights.

"Everyone takes it as a self evident truth when debating law that rights are the question," said Soroush. He implored those who attended the lecture to put themselves in the shoes of a person from five centuries ago, and ask "what are my obligations."

Soroush asserted that The Human Declaration of Rights has received no feedback in ten years because Western countries believed "human duties" sounded like totalitarianism.

Students and teachers posed with questions to Soroush for an additional forty-five minutes after he was done speaking.

One student was doubtful of Soroush's optimism towards the feasibility of democracy. "Maybe I'm not a good prophet," Soroush joked, but held firm in his confidence that it is possible.

Overall, student response was positive: Shane Thurston '10 found the lecture "very informative. The different point of view made you stand back and see the beautiful grey area, an important area you don't see in the news and media."

Zaheer Faizi '10 said the event was "very intellectual. It had good broad points. As for specificity and application, it wasn't very reasonable. His point would take hundreds of years to take deep root. People in that part of the world are very loyal, they are not liberal and not easy to change. It was appealing to western idealistic sense."

Modern Islamic World Week will hopefully continue next year. "It's something that I'd like to see happen each year. We haven't started planning one for next year but I think that it's really important to bring these sort of issues up on campus and to have this sort of discussion," said Cannan. "I think it's really important for the administration to realize that there's a lot of interest on campus on this topic. We don't have nearly enough classes on Islam or the Middle East."






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