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Secularism in Iran: a Hidden Agenda?
















Secularism in Iran:
A Hidden Agenda?


By an Iranian Scholar

[In the current climate of political oppression in
Iran the author has asked to remain anonymous]

In a country where honest responses to simple questions such as “Are you a Muslim? Do you believe in God? Is the Holy Koran the word of God? Do you pray and read the Holy Koran? When you were growing up did your father pray, fast, and read the Holy Koran?” led to the mass executions in late 1980s1, it is very difficult to know who is secular and to what extent. In this kind of situation, people do not trust each other easily and often deny their true identity. It gets far more complicated to conduct a survey that asks questions like “What is your religion, if any.”2 Therefore, my assessment of religious identification among the Iranians will have its own shortcomings in terms of a quantifiable evaluation.3

However, those living in Iran distinguish the extent of adherence to religion among themselves by other means. They also use other measures to find out who believes in a different interpretation of religion, even if people do not describe themselves. One way to make such distinctions is through one’s appearance, especially in the case of women.4 Another source of information on the issue is the various life styles people take up.5 Furthermore, membership in certain social organizations or affiliation with specific religious institutions separates believers and non-believers from each other and also indicates differences among the believers. A more direct way for knowing who is secular today in Iran, and in what terms, is to look at the literature published in recent years on secularism, in its broadest meaning, and follow the people who spoke up and expressed their ideas on the issue. This paper attempts to review only this literature and come up with clues for understanding the main attitudes and beliefs among seculars in Iran.

It is widely believed that the debates on issues such as secularism, Islamic government, and the role of clergymen in the government date back to years around the Constitutional Revolution in Iran in 1906. One of the controversial articles of the Supplement to the Constitution Acts asserted that five qualified clergymen would ensure the accordance of every new law with Sharia’h. Some like Ahmad Kasravi6 decided that the Constitutional Revolution had failed by offering the clerics the upper hand in supervising the newly constitutional government. It is interesting to note that the debate on secularism which emerged again in the mid-1990s focused on two of Kasravi’s premises and tried to justify them. However, there was no direct reference to him or to his ideas. In 1943, he wrote against the clerical establishment, saying:

Should this establishment remain, it will always be a shackle for the nation; it will prevent progressing (as it has done so far).7

This statement is reminiscent of the criticism of “religious intellectuals” against the Islamic government during the past decade which claimed that “Islam does not need clerics.”8 Kasrvai, in his attempt to cleanse Islam from all its faults, tries to reconcile it with science. He is against the clergymen who believe “God’s religion cannot be measured with the rational faculties.”9 Kasravi finds Islam, science, and civilization compatible. Again, this is echoed in the recent discussions that find a philosophical rational trend in Islam, and, therefore, assert that Islam does not hinder scientific and technological progress.

The Iranian society underwent changes after the domination of Islamists over the 1979 revolution. For the first time, the Shi’ite clerics got the opportunity to run a government. It was then time to see how a certain interpretation of Shi’ism was able to adjust itself to the requirements of the modern day Iran. Though it took some time for the Islamist leaders of the revolution to gain control over all their dissidents and wipe them out physically or silence them, it had to demand that the people acknowledge its legitimacy from the outset. The first and second articles of the new constitution explain explicitly that the basis of the government is a combination of Islamic values and republicanism. The very act of establishing an Islamic government was posed to people in a referendum to vote.10 The amazing endorsement of 98.2 percent of voters strengthened the position of the new government.

The disillusionment with the clerical authorities and criticism against their interference in every aspect of life occurred in the years followed by the end of war with Iraq in late 1980s. Now the dismay was not coming from the “outsiders,” apostates, and secularists who had struggled to undermine the clerics since the beginning of the Constitutional Revolution. The heart of Islamism was attacked by its own children, from within.

One of the prominent figures of the new trend, better known to the West than others, is Abdolkarim Soroush.11 Some of his basic views can be formulated as follows:

•  Religion due to its celestial nature is not condemned to historical and human decrees. However, our understanding of religion is time dependent and transforms as the human knowledge is transformed.

•  Islam (and any other religion) is modified by its essence, not its changeable formal components. Therefore, a true Muslim is the one that is devoted and committed to the essence of Islam.12

•  There is a distinction between political secularity and philosophical secularity. The tension between these two distinctions has always existed in Shi’ism in Iran though Shi’ism is alien to the secular politics.

•  The authorization for reinterpretation of Islam is devoted to the most highly learned man of the time. Such a person is not necessarily a clergyman that is, at most, educated in the Islamic theology. Men with high qualifications in the modern knowledge and education are in a better position to revise the Islamic thought and practice.

For the critics of Islamic government from a religious point of view, the problem of reconciling Islam and democracy, intellectualism and religiosity, rationality and faith, and similar issues is, nevertheless, to be worked on.13 Among themselves, they discuss whether rationalism is only a tool that an intellectual is equipped with.

In addition to these internal debates, certain attempts were made to bring in the “non-religious” seculars and the Iranian Diaspora to the discussion.  Of course, some people find the literature on secularism confusing. This might be true; particularly when one notes that no exact equivalent of these words exist in the Persian language. This situation creates frequent misinterpretations and misunderstandings but also forces writers and readers to explain themselves as clearly as possible. Therefore, there is a set of common questions; whether “secularism implies separation of religion from government or from politics,” if “laïcité is the same as secularism,” and in what ways “modernity, modernization, and modernism are different from each other.” Moreover, terms such as “Islamic democracy,” “Islamic civil society,” and “religious secularism” have been created, but the “religious intellectuals” have been repeatedly asked about the possibility of mixing these concepts.  They have also been asked to clarify in what ways their interpretation of Islam will guarantee freedom of expression and how women and non-believers will be treated. It is true that the debate on secularism has brought together some intellectuals, who have made revisions in their previous theories and practice, from both sides of the religious and non-religious spectrum. Their main agenda is to recreate secularism in an Islamic way and turn it into the ideology of the oppositional movement in Iran. The desire to benefit from Enlightenment values and remain a faithful Muslim and/or an Iranian patriot still permeates the intellectuals’ minds.

Organizing scholarly debates and raising social awareness on secular values require some minimum peaceful conditions. The road towards setting up a democratic society in Iran is already rough. It may be completely blocked if the existing dispute over the nuclear program of the Iranian government keeps on threatening and if no diplomatic resolution is found.

1For more details, see Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 

2American Religious Identification Survey, The Graduate Center of the City of New York, 2001, p.5.

3Actually, there exists a mechanism in Shi’ism that lets Muslims conceal their faith in anticipation of damage or injury. Taqiyyah becomes the norm of public behavior when ordinary people fear the danger of being persecuted for their belief. 

4Men are distinguished from their clothing, such as wearing a tie or letting their shirt fall loose over their pants, and the way they shave.

5There are certain public spaces that the fundamentalists avoid, especially if they are not segregated for men and women. The way one manages her/his leisure time is determined, to a large extent, by one’s religious beliefs.

6Ahmad Kasravi (1890-1946) has been a controversial figure for his direct attack on Shi’ite clergy. He was assassinated by the clandestine Devotees of Islam (Fedaiyan-Eslam).  Except for
his books on the history of Constitutional Revolution, his other works have been banned on and off since 1946.  There is a bibliography of Kasravi’s works in Kasravi, Ahmad,
On Islam and Shi’ism, trans. M.R. Ghanoonparvar, Costa Meza: Mazda Publishers, 1990, pp. 54-57.

7Ibid, p. 98.

8Quoted from an interview with Abdolkarim Soroush published in in August 22, 2004.

9On Islam and Shi’ism, p. 99.

10“If democracy is invalidating any rule that people have not voted for it, naturally this does not reconcile with religion. Nevertheless, asking for people’s consent and the approval of majority for realization the rules of sharia’h is acceptable in Islam. Actually, this is what religious democracy means.”  The quotation is from Mesbah Yazdi,  an orthodox conservative theoretician well known for his opposition with Abdolkarim Soroush.

11For more information, see Soroush, Abdolkarim, Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, trans. Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Moreover, many of his ideas can be searched for in his official website at the following address:

12Nikfar, Mohammadreza, “Zaat-e yek Pendar” {Essence of a Thought} Negah e-Nou, 13: pp. 16-27.

13It is worth mentioning that some clergymen have also joined the debate, but with more caution as to how far intellectualism and religion can go along together.  Mohsen Kadivar, Mojtahed Shabestari, and Yousef Eshkevari joined the debate as soon as it started in mid 1990s.




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