It's hard to believe that less than three decades ago, religion had no meaningful part in Iran's political life. Nor was religion perceived as a serious political force in any other country with a Muslim population. From monarchs to socialists, secularism reigned supreme. So what happened?
Read Khalil Maleki's letter  to his mentor Mohammad Mossadegh in March of 1963. Maleki, a leading opposition figure and well-respected social-democrat, does not discuss the emergence of religious politics, but in describing the hopelessness and chaos within the secular opposition, he draws a sad picture of the dying days of secular, non-violent political thought and action.
While Maleki offers solutions to revive the fortunes of the battered nationalist movement, political Islam had already exploded onto the scene with Ayatollah Khomeini's fiery public speeches against the Shah — a radical, confrontational tactic alien to Maleki and other moderate, secular politicians.
We all know the rest of the story. It's the same story that has been repeating in many countries where the majority of the population are Muslim. Autocratic secular governments — many backed by the US — refuse to introduce or expand democratic institutions. They prevent efforts by the secular opposition to bring about peaceful change, leaving the disenfranchised and frustrated masses no choice but to gravitate towards religious extremism as the only means of political expression.
But reading Naamehaaye Khalil Maleki (“Khalil Maleki's Letters”, Tehran, Nashr-e Markaz, 2002) edited by Amir Pishdad and Homa Katouzian, is not as depressing as one might think. It has lessons and ideas more relevant to our current problems.
Maleki's letters remind us of the lost art of liberal, non-violent, party politics. He criticizes some and praises others, but he does not promote physical elimination, not even of his worst enemy, the Shah. He calls on his colleagues to be flexible, move forward a step at a time, form alliances, put aside petty differences, refrain from posturing and sloganeering, and formulate sensible strategies.
A lot has changed since 1963. Today religion and secularism have traded places. Back then, secular politics was a spent force and Mossadegh was virtually forgotten ten years after an American-led coup stripped him from power and ended Iran's short experiment with democracy.
Today, on this 50th anniversary of the coup, secularism is rising from the ashes of a self-destructive theocracy and Mossadegh is more revered than ever. But this remarkable secular revival is not limited to the growing popularity of his and Maleki's moderate, liberal brand of politics.
All secular forces, even the Pahlavis, have gained ground against a religious establishment that has lost the hearts and minds of every sector of society, including the great majority of the faithful who believe God really is compassionate and merciful, and not the perpetual vengeful tyrant the Islamic Republic wants us to worship.
Yes we're sending God back where he belongs, enshallah. But godless is not goodness. Will we be merciful, or vengeful; democratic, or autocratic; guardians of freedom and human rights, or just turbanless thugs?
We have always, always ended up being cruel to each other. Let's give ourselves a break, for good >>>
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