11 July 2007

Sense and Nonsense
(About the Cultural Revolution Again)


 Abdolkarim Soroush



The fact of the matter is that I still don’t know what the quarrel is about. Hasn’t it become clear yet that “the Cultural Revolution” was one thing and “the Cultural Revolution Institute” another thing? Has it still not become clear that Abdulkarim Soroush, Habibi, Bahonar, etc. played a part in the Cultural Revolution Institute, not the Cultural Revolution? Has it still not been definitively established that the Cultural Revolution was for shutting universities and the Cultural Revolution Institute was for reopening them in a more streamlined and Islamic form?

So when a law professor at the University of Tehran says, “Soroush was the standard-bearer of the closure of universities,” is this not a blatant distortion of history? And if we assume that the honourable professor said this because he was not aware of all the facts or because of a lapse in memory, does correcting this error, explaining what really happened and divulging the distortion not amount to virtue? Do the people who keep harping on “criticizing the past” mean that this standard should be placed on my shoulder and that I shouldn’t say anything?

The tale of the purges

Here, too, spidery webs have been woven in the hope of ensnaring the flies of delusion. Fine. If you don’t believe me, listen to Mr Sadeq Ziba-Kalam: “Let me say here for the record that the Revolution Council had not in any way issued an instruction for professors to be expelled. Even the Cultural Revolution Institute hadn’t issued such an order. It was the people in charge of the universities and university faculties who made the decisions and did as they pleased.” (Interview with Sadeq Ziba-Kalam published in the journal Lowh [Scroll], No. 5, 1999)

Yes, that’s right. The Cultural Revolution Institute had no committee for carrying out purges, nor had it written any instructions for a purge, nor had it issued any order to this effect to universities (which were never under its orders anyway; they operated under the orders of the executive branch, i.e., the Higher Education Ministry). Why is it that, now, all the purges are being attributed to the Cultural Revolution Institute; the Cultural Revolution Institute is being equated with Abdulkarim Soroush; and his responsibility is being defined as purging universities? The cause must be sought in the ignorance of the writers or the dishonesty of politicians. Or in all of these things.

Be that as it may and for the record, only half of what Mr Ziba-Kalam said is true. The fact of the matter is that, as Mr Mohammad Maleki, the former chancellor of the University of Tehran, explained, “The Revolution Council issued a directive to the university, stating that the professors who held key posts in the Shah’s state are no longer allowed to teach at universities. We drew up a list and we sent about 100 names to the prime minister’s office; individuals who, even if they’d turned up, would have been rejected by the students and it would have led to unrest.” (Lowh, No. 7, 1999)

The people who are looking for the origin of the purge and its perpetrators should heed these explanations and see whose hands are sullied with the purges. Let them search and discover who those 100 people were: Dr Nasr? Dr Zarrinkub? Zaryab-Khoei? Mehdi Mohaqqeq? Dr Katuzian?

Let the dear, innocent students who want to criticize the past and guilelessly ask, Where were you “in those days when many of the people whose crime was that they understood things and whose ambition was to fight back were driven out of universities,” look again and re-examine history. Have they phrased the question correctly? Have they addressed the right question to the right person? Was understanding things the crime of all the people who were expelled? And were they all expelled by the Cultural Revolution Institute?

The cited comments and remarks by the two above-mentioned men (who later changed their statements a bit) may please those of the critics who are fair-minded and allow them to see that the tale is not quite as they’d thought.

The purges did not start in universities at any rate, nor were they initiated or continued in universities by the Cultural Revolution Institute. In actual fact, one of the first things that happened on the morrow of the victory of the revolution was that there were purges. And, as far as I can remember, most of the political groups supported them and it was only the prime minister of the provisional government who objected now and then. And he managed, within the limits of his powers, to reduce the number of purges, although, of course, this earned him some curses from those clerics and political activists who didn’t like him and who called him a colluder. As to the expulsion of academics, if the Revolution Council asked the University of Tehran’s chancellor to participate in the purges and to expel professors - and he assented - it never put such a request, even implicitly, to the Cultural Revolution Institute and there was no suggestion of it in Imam Khomeini’s letter to the institute either.

Perhaps most astounding of all is former Higher Education Minister Najafi’s remark when he writes in his article entitled, “Truths about the Cultural Revolution”: “The purging of professors… was carried out on the basis of regulations approved by the Cultural Revolution Institute and by teams that operated under the institute.” This is truly one of the strangest of claims and I don’t know what evidence Mr Najafi can provide for it. Let me say quite plainly that the Cultural Revolution Institute had no such teams and no such regulations. The committees that carried out the purges never reported to it, nor asked its permission for anything. We didn’t appoint the committees’ members, nor did we know who they were. Yes, some people tried to drag Mr Amlashi into it, but he didn’t oblige; nor did any other member of the institute play any official role in this respect. Mr Maleki has so far confessed to the expulsion of 100 professors, without any sense of remorse. You can deduce the rest of the tale by extension.

Yes, I agree with Mr Najafi when he says that many of “the expelled”, whether before or after the establishment of the institute, “departed”; they were not actually expelled. That is to say, they recognized that the post-revolution universities were no place for them and they either left the country or became house-bound.

Now, see how someone, who agreed to expel 100 professors, voiced no objection and feels no remorse, has taken on the role of the angry interrogator and is shouting at someone else: “Confess to your crime, recognize your failing and, then, we may be kind to you and not judge you harshly.” In all fairness, is this the right way to behave or to speak if you’re seeking the truth, or is this just a case of playing the indignant interrogator? What kind of mentality and background lies behind this approach whereby you assume that someone is guilty instead of assuming that they’re innocent, shift your crime onto their shoulders, demand that they confess and beg forgiveness, and derive great pleasure from sentencing them? What qualities and characteristics does such an approach reveal? Whatever they may be they are certainly not kindness or sincerity or decency or steadfastness or good manners or a love of truth.

See, for example, how - when I try to defend myself - Mr Mohammad Ali Najafi distastefully accuses me of trying to invent an accomplice for my “crime” and to put the blame on someone else. What crime, my good friend, and what blame? Why are you trying to lead people astray?

It is as if everyone has the right to defend themselves except the person who has chosen to withdraw and who, as it happens, is afflicted with the plague of fame and must therefore be targeted with the arrows of pestilence. Why, instead of accusing the people who forged this cultural “holocaust” and who are now trying to invent a “Hitler” to blame it on, do you spin yarns, huff and puff, and make the sparks fly from the blazing furnace?

Untrue and uncharming

As Kant said, lying is like violence; nay, it’s the worst form of violence. This is what I find so excruciating.

I admire Mr Ziba-Kalam’s cleverness (although it doesn’t take much cleverness). He’s realized that there’s nothing more undefended in Iran today than the Cultural Revolution Institute; the institute itself no longer exists and neither its founders nor its members pay any attention to it. Everyone has forsaken it; nay, they’ve turned their backs on it. It’s like an abandoned mosque, with no prayer leader and no caretaker. And, now, he’s taken it into his head to become the imam of this abandoned ruin. In this capacity, he preaches “wave-making” sermons, which are neither true nor charming. (I’d gladly hand over the whole mosque, lock, stock and barrel, to him, but, alas, history doesn’t allow it.) At one point, he says, “Imam Khomeini issued a decree to four people: Soroush, Shams, Rabbani and Jalal Farsi,” which is untrue, of course. What, then, were Dr Habibi, Bahonar and Shariatmadari doing at the institute and who issued their decrees? And what does he hope to gain from the fact that, in his capacity as one of the “wave-making founders of the cultural revolution” - as he styles himself - he fails to mention these three other names? Elsewhere, he says, “In 1981, if you’d said there’s no such thing as an Islamic sociology, Dr Soroush himself would have sliced you in half,” which is both untrue and uncharming. First, I’m not given to slicing people in half and, secondly, I don’t believe in an Islamic sociology. My views on these subjects are all extant, dating back to the early 1980s. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to this imam’s sermons. And Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and his cronies subsequently described me as the infiltrator in the Cultural Revolution Institute because of these very same views.

Even stranger than all this is the fact that he says that “Shams Al-e Ahmad was the great pioneer of the Cultural Revolution”!! I pray to God that Shams Al-e Ahmad doesn’t hear this phrase. Otherwise, at his age, it could seriously endanger his health. The phrase continues as follows: “The articles by Dr Soroush and I were all about… how we ought to create a different kind of university.”

God’s angels will know that, far from having devoted whole articles to the subject of closing down universities and redesigning them, I hadn’t even devoted a subordinate clause to it. Contrary to the imaginings of these gentlemen, the closing down of universities was neither based on my ideas nor carried out with my knowledge; I was neither its standard-bearer nor its assessor; I neither took part in it nor approved of it.

Mr Ziba-Kalam’s words gradually become more rarefied as he raises himself ever higher: “It is true that Soroush, Al-e Ahmad, Shariatmadari and I did not hold state posts….” It goes without saying what this lining up of names suggests and where it leads the reader. (The citations are from Mahmoud Farjami’s conversation with Sadeq Ziba-Kalam, published in Lowh, No. 5, 1999 and posted on Gooya news website on 20 January 2004.) It has since been suggested to me that, in modern Persian, people who say this sort of thing are known as “con artists” and that, in classical Persian, they are known as “liars”. It sounds a bit harsh, but perhaps it’s not far off the mark. There is merit, after all, in distinguishing between sense and nonsense.

I spoke of my admiration for Mr Ziba-Kalam’s cleverness. His fairness is also admirable. At least he doesn’t accuse me of having closed down universities or of purging professors. (Unlike some sensation-peddlers and uninformed people.) This, in itself, represents great progress in the historiography of the revolution. Any instance in which history is not turned on its head and the truth is spoken and written is a precious gain.

The thing that was tormenting me was that I could see that some people, deliberately and maliciously, wanted to construct the edifice of history on a foundation of falsification and distortion; to hide behind a wall of lies; and to air their rancour against religious intellectuals in the hope of winning fame or complying with an order or gaining recompense.

As to the moral whys and wherefores: Why did you accept Khomeini’s decree? Where were you in those dark days of purges and injustice, and why did you remain silent? And so on and so forth.

I have clear answers to these questions and I’ve uttered and written them many times. My answers have proved useful to truth-seekers but they’ve fallen on deaf ears among the self-proclaimed interrogators and prosecutors, the fairy-tale weavers, the rancorous and those who have orders from above.

I accepted Khomeini’s decree because I was eager to serve and because Khomeini was the best-loved popular leader in Iran’s history. He was the leader of a revolution that had freedom and independence as its slogans, and he’d stolen the hearts of all the strugglers and freedom-lovers. Responding to his call, which, at the time, was the crystallization of years of struggle for freedom by the Iranian nation, was a source of pride and I complied. I did my utmost to reform universities, to strengthen their academic foundations, to reduce emotions and increase reason, to prevent the ruinous and inevitable radicalism of the early days of the revolution, to reopen universities - nay, to reopen better universities - as quickly as possible, to pave the way for young Iranians to acquire learning, to listen to the views of academics and treat them kindly, to heed Khomeini’s call to “treat the professors as you would your friends” and to be patient with the excitable and impatient students, to resist the inappropriate heavy-handedness of some clerics, not to succumb to calls to Islamise the sciences, to defend academic freedoms, etc., without expecting a penny in recompense. And, today, I thank my good fortune and providence for having been able to serve as I did.

I have also said elsewhere that performing one’s duty in those turbulent and impetuous days was like wading through treacle: slow, difficult, sticky and sweet. And when I realized which way things were going, I left and I didn’t accept any other official posts. And when I was prevented from teaching, I contented myself with research, which was my secret pleasure. I ignored the commotion and sensationalism of ignorant people, although, even so, they never left me in peace.

As to the second question

The innocent students who’ve criticized my past have said plaintively: They kept you on since they trusted you and they purged those professors “whose crime was that they understood things”.

Really? If that’s their impression, let them put their question to all the 11,300 academic staff who were kept on. (At the start of the Cultural Revolution, Iranian universities had a total of 12,000 academic staff and, according to the Higher Education Ministry’s figures, 700 of them left or were expelled, which leaves 11,300. Some of the ones who were expelled later returned to work after successful appeals to the Court of Administrative Justice.) So, they, too, were trusted and it would appear that being trusted is an unpardonable sin!

I suppose they’ll say, Those other ones didn’t have official posts but you did. So, being trusted and being willing to serve, combined, are a sin. Very well, then, let them address their plaint to everyone who held official posts.

Their other question (Where were you in those dark days of purges and injustice?) is much the same. My answer is that I was doing the things that I mentioned earlier. Why should I have done more? To have done more would have been a virtue, but not to have done so is no vice. And where were you when you leafed through newspapers and read about the executions that were carried out by Khalkhali (and many other similar incidents such as all the other executions, the attacks by the Ansar-e Hezbollah on universities, the beating up of professors, etc.), and what did you do about them? What did other academics do? What did Majlis deputies do? What did clerics do? What did Iranians as a whole do? Were all the living not shamed by all the dead after the executions of that horrifying summer of 1988?

So, go and set up criminal files for everyone! The tale of the purges was reaching people’s ears here and there; the ears of all academics, Majlis deputies, clerics, doctors and so on. It also reached the ears of the ministers of higher education, the ears of university chancellors, the ears of the heads of university faculties. In fact, they used to hear about them and learn about them sooner than we (the members of the institute) did. Ask the head of the faculty of literature (Reza Davari) why he remained silent when Zarrinkub and Zaryab were purged.

They say: We don’t expect anything from them, but we expect things from someone who speaks about pluralism and human rights.

I don’t understand this argument. Could someone please explain it to me? Does this mean that anyone who didn’t and doesn’t believe in human rights is safe from you? They won’t be put on trial by you and they won’t be sentenced. But, woe betide anyone who talks about human rights, because you’ll teach them a lesson they won’t ever forget.

I suppose the solution is for them to stop speaking about pluralism and human rights. They should just enjoy themselves and be as carefree as can be, and prepare for the next round of purges with the utmost peace and calm!

Well done! Your logic is exemplary: Be charitable to enemies and have no mercy on friends. Of course, in Iran, this is not a surprising approach; it has a long-standing record. The members of the Tudeh (communist) Party used to save the bulk of their attacks for Mosaddeq and were much less zealous in attacking the Shah and his court.

A tax seems to have been imposed on pluralism and human rights. They don’t challenge the wicked and the unjust. But they wrack their brains and piece together any conceivable shred of evidence in order to condemn those who try to serve the people. These are all signs of insincerity and impiety. Otherwise, if you’re trying to discover and expose the truth, what’s the meaning of saying: “We expect something from you, but we don’t expect anything from them.” Open up everyone’s files!

Is the method that these people have adopted for eliminating this or that person not the same that others used to use for eliminating professors in the early days of the revolution? Did they not consider anyone who was at the slightest tangent to their own line of thinking to be deserving of casting out and reproach?

Alas, the opposition inside Iran and the opposition abroad come together at this one point: their love of exposing others, their vengefulness and their determination to play interrogator and prosecutor in order to eliminate, cast out and reproach.

Several years ago, when I was on a visit to Helsinki at the invitation of Finland’s PEN, I realized on arrival that some prattling propagandists had stirred up such anxiety in the minds of the people who’d invited me that they were loathe to receive me. Fortunately, the Finnish Foreign Ministry sagaciously understood what had happened and made amends to me for that act of disrespect. When I came back from Finland, I wrote an open letter addressed to the compatriots who’d been behind that incident. I said, Look how aggressively you’re behaving even before you’ve won power and achieved anything; what kind of raging bulls are you going to turn into if you ever seize power? This time, it’s the ones at home who are having a go at me. I don’t know what they hope to gain from all this. All the fuss seems to be aimed at asserting something that even if - assuming the impossible - it is proved true will not change anything.

In the heat of the discussion I said that during “those dark days of purges… I was doing the things that I mentioned earlier. Why should I have done more?” My response was adequate and complete. But, now, I’d like to complete it even further and say, No, that’s not all that I did. Although the problems did not have anything to do with us legally and technically, I tried to do whatever I could to help those who were being targeted. By way of one example, let me say that Khomeini asked the Cultural Revolution Institute to expel all the students who belonged to the Tudeh Party, regardless of what year they’d reached in their studies. Much as we tried to dissuade Khomeini, he remained adamant. Since we didn’t think his decision was a good idea, we turned to Mr Khamenei for help and, then, to Mr Hashemi-Rafsanjani. It was Mr Rafsanjani who managed to dissuade Khomeini, allowing the Tudeh members to finish their studies. I will not say any more on this subject, because I don’t accept the charges that are being levelled against me in the first place. When someone does this to help Tudeh members, how much more is he likely to do to help non-Tudeh members? At any rate, maybe it was because of this resistance to the expulsion of Tudeh Party members that made the expulsions, when they did take place, proceed through a route other than the Cultural Revolution Institute.

Of course, I have no doubt that, in those chaotic and lawless days, there were many instances of improper and unkind conduct. I don’t deny this. I also know that I’m human and that I may err in anything that I do. But accusing a man, who wished to serve and who was not to blame, of every crime in the book is a sign of insincerity and personal enmity. I also believe that it testifies to a pathetic conspiracy, whereby everyone is to be absolved except a single “persona non grata”, who is to be the focus of all the attacks.

Now that this article is nearing its end, I’d like to use the remaining words to offer some instruction in my capacity as a teacher, although I see no sign, in this whole commotion, of any wish to understand history, to discover the truth and to assess things fairly and comprehensively. Be that as it may and regardless of the quarrel and the defence (which is the right of anyone who is accused of anything), I’d like to make the following fine point: You have to begin by setting out the problem correctly.

A critical reassessment of the Islamic Revolution, which is nearly 30 years old, is a necessary oxygen for Iran’s future survival. But it has to be carried out in the manner of a doctor and a friend, not in the manner of a foe. Without opening the file of all the relevant events, such as the war, the Cultural Revolution, Ayatollah Montazeri’s departure from the position of Khomeini’s chosen successor, the repression of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, the dismissal of Bani-Sadr, etc., the Iranian nation’s history will not have bright prospects. The legal and moral condemnation of individuals must be the last step in this endeavour. You mustn’t put the cart before the horse. Appeasing your own minds and quelling rancour shouldn’t be the aim. Judging yesterday on the basis of today’s values and expecting people to have acted yesterday as they’d be expected to act today is unmethodical and unreasonable. Hence, collective events must be examined in a collective way; as if there were no actors, as if it emerged and developed spontaneously (the systemic and procedural approach).

Secondly, autonomous individuals should be praised and reproached in the light of the data that they had at their disposal. Thirdly, failing to do a good deed mustn’t be equated with committing a sin. Whatever anyone does, it is conceivable that they could have done something better. But this shouldn’t serve as a pretext for condemning people.

Fourthly, an individual’s conduct over a lifetime has to be kept in view; rather than just looking for pretexts by which they can be condemned. Quite the reverse. Precedence should be given to clemency and kindness, especially when it comes to someone who has quite clearly not sullied his thoughts and deeds for the sake of material gain or office.

Fifthly, be as charitable to others as you are to yourselves. And - in the words of Imam Ali - weigh others on the same scale as you weigh yourselves.

** Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser







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