"We need to use reason"
By Haleh Nazeri
One of the more interesting things about Dr. Soroush'slectures in New York was the different atmosphere at each venue. The lecture in Persian was standing room only, with the crowd consisting of a majority of men. There were women in attendance also, however, most were in hejab and seemed older.
It was a calm atmosphere, and Dr. Soroush looked very much at ease. Professor Peter Chelkowski from New York University introduced him in Persian and was the moderator. The question and answer period was lively with dissenting viewpoints and as well as confirmation on his thoughts.
The lecture in English, however, had a much more official feel surrounding it. Gary Sick from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia introduced Soroush. The talk was highly academic and rather pedantic, with intricate theoretical frameworks dealing with both traditions within Islam and the Western notion of Liberalism.
As a journalist and academic, I can attempt to step outside my identities and give an objective view of what I see, it does not always work but the attempt has to be made nonetheless. The following is my completely subjective opinion of the different essences I got from attending both lectures. Although I did not understand a majority of the Persian lecture, the overall feeling was very calm and intellectual. There was dissension with Soroush's views in the question and answer period, and of course there was the protestor at the beginning of the lecture, but overall it was relatively steady.
"For me religion is a text, that is that, a body of teachings with three dimensions: religious experience; articulation and conceptualization of the divine experience; and rituals and social practices," said Iran's most controversial professor Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush, an Islamic Philosopher, who came to New York in late March as part of his country wide tour of Universities lecturing on politics, religion and democratic government.
Soroush, a professor at Tehran University in the Research Institute for Human Sciences, has written over twenty books and numerous articles centering around the topics of mysticism and philosophy. On Saturday March 29, he spoke in Persian at New York University to a crowd of over 250 people. On March 31, Soroush delivered a lecture in English at the New School for Social Research, in conjunction with New York University and Columbia University, to about 60 people.
In his talk in English, Soroush propagated the idea of a reconciliation of reason and revelation in the Muslim world through a reinterpretation of the Koran.
"We need to reinterpret the text under a new and fresh light, this is badly needed in our case," he said. "We have to use reason as something to reinterpret the text and replace old interpretations with new ones."
Soroush feels that the "dream of reviving old traditional values" is over and that the Muslim world now needs to revive moralism and spiritualism in society. He added that political and epistemological theories are needed in these discussion.
"Philosophy has proven that modern scientific thinking and Islam are not contradictory and they can be reconciled, this hasn't happened yet in political theory," he said. "We have a conflict with reason and revelation [in political theory]."
Soroush also talked at length about Human Rights and how it is an "extra-religious" matter and a man made thing.
"It is a human concept that is redefinable," he said. "It is a very serious issue, it is one of the criterions of justice, and justice cannot be religious, we need a universalism in values and human rights."
Soroush wants to interpret Islamic texts to find the right solution to the dire problem of human rights. He said that human rights is an idea whose solution cannot be drawn from religious teachings but rather it is to be used as a precondition to understand religious texts.
"We cannot evade rational reasonings about human rights myopically," he said. "Religion needs to be a right, not logically, but ethically."
Overzealous journalists in England and North America have dubbed Soroush the Martin Luther of Islam. Whether this is the correct interpretation of this highly controversial thinker is debatable, what is clear is that his words have inspired and infuriated people all over the world.
In Iran, his classes regularly get disrupted by a group called Ansar-e Hizbullah, who he claims are supported by the Islamic Republic. Last fall the disruptions got so severe that he was physically assaulted by protesters and decided to abstain from teaching for a while and accepted invitations to deliver lectures in England and North America.
However, in his lecture in Persian here in New York, there was another form of protest, but this time it came from a group of Iranians in a Communist organization.
While people were still assembling in their seats, a man came in and started yelling about Soroush's involvement with the Islamic Republic in its early years, as a member of the Council for Cultural Revolutions. Pleading with the crowd to listen to him, half crying, half screaming, the man took off his shirt to show the scars he had from being imprisoned and tortured by the Islamic Republic. The crowd listened to his protests, some debate ensued, but people had come to hear Soroush and not the protesters. The man was escorted out by security guards shortly thereafter.
In his talk in English, Soroush described the model of a religious society as akin to taking the Haj and revolving around the house of god.
"You have a pivot, a center, an essence that is supposed to be protected and respected," he said. "Revolving around the house is life itself, it's respecting and being mindful. It is respecting a center: to live with it, around it and because of it."
"In a secular society, there is no center or essence that is supposed to be protected," he continued. "Everyone is a center for himself, everyone has his own Mecca, it's very individualistic."
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