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From revolution to dissent
Iranian intellectuals



July 5, 2006

From time to time history holds moments of great potential, when we can look forward with hope even as we experience doubt and despair. In the Iranian intellectual arena just such a moment may be there. Once again Iranian intellectuals are divided between their moral intellectual conscience and political pragmatism. Once again the answer to our problems is in the way of our questioning and our approach to issues. As a matter of fact, it seems more important today to question the Iranian politics in terms of ethics and responsibility which will enable us to se the Iranian political self under a new perspective.

During the past 25 years Iranian revolution has attracted a great deal of attention among scholars and intellectuals around the world, as well as interests among policymakers and journalists. Perceived by many as a revolt against the secular modernity of the West, Iranian revolution was welcomed by some Western thinkers as a triumph of spiritual values over the profane world of capitalist materialism. For others the Iranian revolution was a protest against the very political rationality of the modern era.

Strangely enough, for many despite the political violence into which it had escalated, the Iranian revolution could be seen as a sign of progress towards modern emancipation and freedom. Although the concept of freedom was the visible centre of gravity of the Iranian revolution, however, it remained invisible, since the idea itself was hardly ever institutionalized in the Iranian political system. On the contrary, the ideological system of the Islamic regime was intentionally designed to institutionalize the involvement and dominance of Islamic clergies on all aspects of the political process and government functioning.

It is a common place that every revolution destroys traditional value systems, for revolutions are interruptions of the social, political, economic and cultural evolution of a society. In the case of the Iranian revolution, we witnessed the e-establishment of a traditional value system, with religion as a source of authority. In other words, unlike many other revolutions, the Iranian revolution as a pure act of beginning included the very principle of tradition. The 1979 Iranian revolution was the ultimate victory of the traditional forces over the modernizers, as the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 was a major victory for the modernizers, who succeeded to install a system which recognized the rule of law.

When the revolutionary movement started in 1978 and the Shia clergy appeared as its central force, it was hard to find any intellectual who doubted the anti-intellectualism, anti-modern and anti-Western attitude of the Iranian revolution. Also, the Iranian revolution was not accompanied necessarily with an intrinsically critical nature among the Iranian intellectuals which would impel them to speak the truth to power. As a result of this, Iranian intellectuals entered the first period of the revolution as weak and subordinate allies of the Islamist forces.

The less radical and less political intellectuals who had adopted a much more democratic and tolerant discourse were among the first to be expelled from the political, social and cultural spheres. Most of them had to face a political and cultural persecution. They had to face a public sphere dominated by an anti-intellectual and ideological discourse. They also had to face the emergence of religious intellectuals as their cultural and political rivals.

Now, a key question is: why did most of the Iranian intellectuals align themselves with the forces of the Revolution while other remained silent? The answer resides certainly in the absence of “ethical responsibility” among those that we can name as the “revolutionary intellectuals” in Iran. These intellectuals supported the revolution for two reasons: firstly, because of the seduction of the concept of “revolution” and what surrounded it. This was accompanied by a sense of “utopian idealism” and deep attitude of “political romanticism”; secondly, because many among the revolutionary intellectuals strived to defend new strategic positions in the new Iranian society.

As a result of this, the struggle for freedom and equality was presented by the “revolutionary intellectuals” as a mixture of anti-Westernization, anti-dependency and a Third-Worldist rhetoric. The revolutionary intellectuals adopted also an instrumentalist view of Islam as a mobilizing political ideology and tried to bridge the gap created by the modern institutions between intellectuals and clergy.

This philosophical-political attitude, which could be called as the “Al-Ahmad syndrome” could be considered as the first modern Iranian anti-intellectual discourse elaborated by an intellectual. Al-Ahmad influenced Iran’s contemporary socio-cultural debates through this syndrome, by presenting the Iranian intellectuals of his time as traitors who wished to be the tool of the democratization process in Iran as did their Western intellectual role models, but since they lived in an undemocratic state (the Shah’s), they served the censorship system.

One can distinguish in 1979 two group of intellectuals in the revolutionary Iran: one the one side, those who supported the Iranian revolution, and on the other side, those who were against it. Most of those who were against the Iranian revolution left the country in 1979 and in the early 1980s. On the contrary, the first group, who had more of a leftist sense of belonging and could be considered as “utopian intellectuals”, found themselves, not only disenchanted and disillusioned by the political defeat of the Left in Iran but also betrayed by the fall of the Soviet Empire.

Therefore, we can say that the “utopian” and “revolutionary” quest of the leftist intellectuals in Iran was characterized by a series of political strategic and philosophical shortcomings. In other words, their ideological preoccupations with the cultural and political dimensions of the Iranian reality was accompanied by a lack of coherent and systematic analysis of the Iranian history and of the Western philosophical heritage.

Many of the ideological attitudes are reflected in the leftist intellectual literature of the late 1970s and early 1980s. These works written mainly to convey a revolutionary message based on a process of utopian thinking rather than to serve the cause of critical thinking as the paradigmatic element of intellectual modernity. Of course, this does not mean that other generations of Iranian intellectuals had well understood and absorbed the intellectual concepts of modernity and democracy.

While the revolutionary intellectuals had failed to present alternative narratives and alternative perspectives on politics to the dominant discourse of the Iranian revolution, because they failed to construct fields of social existence, the so- called “religious intellectuals” of the 1990s tried to reconsider and rethink under a new perspective the old clash between modernity and tradition. The religious intellectuals are divided into two diverse groups: on the one side, the reformists and on the other side the neo-conservatives.

The reformist group is represented by figures such as Abdolkarim Soroosh, Mohsen Kadivar, Alavi-Tabar and Mojtahed Shabastari. The unifying traits of these intellectuals include their recognition of reform in the Islamic thought, democracy, civil society and religious pluralism and their opposition to the absolute supremacy of the Faqih.

The rise of religious intellectuals can be followed through the writings of Soroosh. Soroosh’s main idea is that there are perennial unchanging religious truths, but our understanding of them remains contingent on our knowledge in the fields of science and philosophy. Unlike Ali Shariati, who turned to Marxism to bring a historicist perspective to the Shiite thought, Soroosh debates the relation between democracy and religion and discusses the possibility of what he calls “religious democracy”.

Unlike the reformist intellectuals, the neo- conservative intellectuals in Iran are in favor of the supremacy of the Leader and against concepts such as democracy, civil society and pluralism. This movement includes figures such as Reza Davari Ardakani, Javad Larijani and Mehdi Golshani. The famous personality among these is Reza Davari Ardakani, who as an anti- Western philosopher is very familiar with the works of Martin Heidegger. Davari, unlike Soroosh, takes some of the features of Heidegger’s thought, mainly the critic of modernity and puts it into an Islamic wording. He rejects the Western model of democracy, which is based on the separation of politics and religion.

This is to say that for the past 25 years the Iranian intellectual arena has been left in between two dominant intellectual trends: on the one hand, an intellectual wave critic of modernity and democracy and in favor of a pure return to the Iranian- Islamic traditions, and on the other hand a softer trend which emerged in the 1990s among the Islamic followers of the Revolution looking for an Islamic answer to the problems of modernity and democracy.

It is a fact, the reformist and neo-conservative intellectuals do not dominate the entire Iranian public sphere. Next to them, one can consider a new generation of Iranian intellectuals who do not attempt to promulgate any ideologies and yet they undermine the main concepts of the established order. This generation is mainly characterized by the secular post-revolutionary intellectuals who are in their thirties and forties and who can be referred to as the “dialogical intellectuals” (in contrast with the ideological intellectuals of the early 1980s). In other words, for this new generation of Iranian intellectuals, the concept and the practice of dialogue provides an ontological umbrella for all the political and cultural meanings and understandings.

The very objective of this “culture of dialogue” is no more to consider the other as an “enemy” (who needs to be terminated as an individual or as asocial c1ass), but to promote a full acknowledgement of the other as a subject. In this case different intellectual attitudes are asked to co-exist side by side to find an intersubjective basis for their search of modernity and democracy. This move away from master ideologies among this new generation of Iranian intellectuals is echoed by a distrust in any metaphysically valorized form of monist thinking.

Unlike the previous generations of Iranian intel1ectuals, what the critica1 thinking of modernity has taught the younger generation is to adopt a general attitude that consists of being at odds both with “fundamentalist politics” and with “utopian rationalities”. This philosophical wariness is not joined to any kind of dream of rearranging totally the Iranian society. The intervention here is not only a reflection upon the pluralistic mechanisms of politics, but also upon the political self. This issue of value-pluralism also raises the question of the West as the “other” in the context of modernizing projects.

As an antidote to the “monolithic” and “one-view” formulas of the previous generations, the political and intellectual urgency of Iran's encounter with the globalized modernity acquires a “dialogical and cross-cultural exchange”. This dialogue is an exposure of the “Iranian self' to the “otherness” of the modern West. It requires from the “Iranian self' a willingness to risk its political and cultural values and intellectual attitudes to plunge headlong into a transformative process instead of being in full position of imitation or ideological rejection of modernity.

In this cross-cultural, dialogue, modernity is no more reduced to a status of a simple technical and instrumental object or rejected as a dangerous enemy of the Iranian identity. Maybe for the first time, since Iran's encounter with the West, modernity is finally considered as a process which could provide us lessons for the affirmation of our own identity without having fears of recognizing the heritage of modern times as ours. In helping to maintain this dialogical exchange with modernity, the new generation of Iranian intellectuals frees itself from the intellectual blackmail of “being for or against the West”.

At a close look, things become more complex and modernity is no more considered as a “package deal”, but as a destiny that invites us to face up the questions of our time. The question of globalized modernity and its debate with the concept of Iranian traditions has become the central question of Iranian intellectuals 25 years after the Iranian revolution. For the new generation of Iranian intellectuals the revolution of yesterday has become the dissent of today.

Philisopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has been under detention since May 3, 2006. Intelligence officials have accused him of being involved in efforts to "overthrow" the Islamic Republic -- a frequent accusation leveled against the regime's critics.


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Ramin Jahanbegloo




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