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Abdolkarim Soroush and Critical Discourse in Iran

Valla Vakili

Abdolkarim Soroush emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the foremost Iranian intellectual operating within the terms of religious discourse.1 This essay is a revised version of an earlier essay, Debating Religion and Politics in Iran: The Political Thought of Abdolkarim Soroush (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1996). From an initial articulation of a flexible, interpretive understanding of religious texts, Soroush moved on to overt political commentaries on the role of religion in state administration. His writings and speeches alike combine a deep knowledge of Islam with a subtle mastery of Persian poetry, creating an individual style that has appealed strongly to many religiously inclined Iranian university students2 A number of Soroush's student followers in England have established a website devoted to coverage of Soroush, including biographical information, news updates, press reports, translated articles, and commentaries. See www.seraj.org. His training in philosophy of science during the late 1970s in England lends his style an analytical bent that distinguishes him among his university audiences. While these students form Soroush's core following, his critics range across the political spectrum. Soroush's arguments have garnered substantial opposition from the Iranian clergy and from more militant-minded Islamic student groups3 For coverage of opposition to Soroush, see, among others, Robin Wright, “Iran's Greatest Political Challenge,” World Policy Journal 14, 2 (1997): 67–74; and the coverage on the Seraj website. Unlike secular critics of Iranian politics, Soroush speaks the dominant religious language of political discourse in Iran. His ability to move fluently and innovatively within a domain traditionally dominated by an exclusivist clerical establishment has rendered him a more dangerous critic than many of his contemporaries. Compounding this effect are his revolutionary credentials. Associated both with Ali Shariati and, at a deeper level, Murteza Mutaharri—two architects of the Iranian Revolution's Islamic ideology—Soroush boasts a powerful rhetorical, revolutionary lineage. His appointment by Ayatollah Khomeini to the Advisory Council of the Cultural Revolution in the early years of the Revolution grants him an additional domestic legitimacy.4 Soroush's tenure in this Council is a point of much controversy. During the Cultural Revolution in Iran the universities were closed and a number of professors and syllabi purged. Many of Soroush's critics contend that Soroush actively participated in this process and hence his current defense of free dialogue is hypocritical at best. Soroush has responded that his tenure began after the closure of the universities and that he consistently worked toward the rapid reopening of the universities. Soroush eventually parted with the Council, after a period of four years, due to differences which have yet to receive adequate articulation. For more on this topic, see Afshin Matin-asgari, “Abdolkarim Soroush and the Securalization of Islamic Thought in Iran,” Iranian Studies 30, 1–2 (1997): 97, and the coverage of Soroush's biography in Mahmaoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri, Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Matin-asgari also provides particularly good and concise coverage of Soroush's intellectual development, from a different angle than the one offered here. For many years following the advancement of his best known work, “The Theoretical Expansion and Contraction of the Sharia,” Soroush dominated the Iranian intellectual and critical scene. He occupied a position disproportionately larger than his contemporaries, dramatized by the wide audience for his lectures and tapes as well as his substantial readership.

In recent years—particularly since the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami in Iran—Soroush's position within the critical field has changed. The election dramatically rewrote the boundaries of public political debate in Iran, ushering in a host of powerful, critical concepts: for example, pluralism, democracy, popular will, rule of law, and civil society. President Khatami's vigorous advancement of many of these terms granted them a legitimacy in public discourse on which reformist forces quickly drew. A number of newly inaugurated newspapers and periodicals helped spread this new discourse, positioning it in opposition to a ruling dogma identified as monopolist, authoritarian, antidemocratic, arbitrary and violent. Soroush's role within this new discursive space proves quite different from his previous position within tighter borders of critical discourse.

Prior to the 1997 election the boundaries of critical discourse, although flexible and at times more open than others, were nevertheless a fraction of what they are now. Soroush proved more capable than other critics at negotiating the ambiguities, uncertainties, and restrictions of this space. His thorough knowledge of the terms of religious discourse, dominance over the language of poetic subtlety, and sensitivity to linguistic equivocation created an individual flair for criticism within restricted space unmatched by his contemporaries. Soroush could speak the unspeakable without ever actually saying it. In the new discursive space marked by President Khatami's ascension, the formerly unspeakable is suddenly common currency. The result is a new style of critique, in which explicitness, directness, and daring have replaced equivocation and subtlety. Whereas the previous limits on critical speech demanded considerable rhetorical talents for critics to distinguish themselves, the new freedom grants individuals distinction through their adoption of the new terms of discourse. Today, state critics increasingly speak the same language—of human rights, civil society, law—and Soroush is no exception. Concepts, not individuals, increasingly dominate, and hence the question of Soroush's future as a foremost critic remains an open one.

I begin here with a review of Soroush's biography, and then I will discuss the development of his political critiques during the pre-Khatami period of less stable, more restricted boundaries of public discourse. These arguments, which earned Soroush his considerable domestic and foreign audience, cover four main areas: the relationship between religion and the study of religion; the role of religion in politics; the Iranian clerical establishment; and relations between Iran and the West. Soroush argues for key reform in these fields. On the basis of the conviction that no understanding of Islam is ever complete or final, he dismisses any attempts to formulate an official Islamic political ideology. He rejects outright the possibility of administering a modern state by religious methods and calls instead for the establishment of a democratic state in Iran. He upholds the dissociation of the clerical establishment from organized political activity and proposes fundamental reforms for the clergy. And he strongly supports the need for continuous and open cultural dialogue between Iran and Western countries. After detailing these arguments, I close with an assessment of the impact of Khatami-era changes on the elaboration of Soroush's thought, and his role within the critical Iranian intellectual scene.

Notes:

1. This essay is a revised version of an earlier essay, Debating Religion and Politics in Iran: The Political Thought of Abdolkarim Soroush (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1996).

2. A number of Soroush's student followers in England have established a website devoted to coverage of Soroush, including biographical information, news updates, press reports, translated articles, and commentaries. See www.seraj.org.

3. For coverage of opposition to Soroush, see, among others, Robin Wright, “Iran's Greatest Political Challenge,” World Policy Journal 14, 2 (1997): 67–74; and the coverage on the Seraj website.

4. Soroush's tenure in this Council is a point of much controversy. During the Cultural Revolution in Iran the universities were closed and a number of professors and syllabi purged. Many of Soroush's critics contend that Soroush actively participated in this process and hence his current defense of free dialogue is hypocritical at best. Soroush has responded that his tenure began after the closure of the universities and that he consistently worked toward the rapid reopening of the universities. Soroush eventually parted with the Council, after a period of four years, due to differences which have yet to receive adequate articulation. For more on this topic, see Afshin Matin-asgari, “Abdolkarim Soroush and the Securalization of Islamic Thought in Iran,” Iranian Studies 30, 1–2 (1997): 97, and the coverage of Soroush's biography in Mahmaoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri, Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Matin-asgari also provides particularly good and concise coverage of Soroush's intellectual development, from a different angle than the one offered here.

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