Soroush speech in Oakland, California

Oakland, (THE IRANIAN) -- Abdolkarim Soroush spoke at the Islamic Center in Oakland, California, Tuesday night (March 4, 1997). There was a mixed audience of some 500 people; religious as well as secular; women with and without headscarves; men with and without beards; some wearing ties, some not.

Not everyone was sympathetic to his views. Outside the center, a statement was distributed from "A group of Iranians residing in northern California" condemning the center's invitation of Islamic speakers such as Soroush, Hossein Nasr and Hamed Algar.

The statement said Soroush, as a member of the Cultural Revolution Council in the early 1980s, had played a "primary and fundamental" role in closing universities and suppressing academics and students who opposed the Islamic Republic. It questioned Soroush's credibility because in his speeches and writing he had "time and again worked to strengthen the pillars of this suppressive regime."

No one clapped when Soroush was introduced. He walked toward the podium in total silence to begin his lecture on "Islam and freedom." But after his two-hour talk he received a long ovation from almost the entire audience.

As the question and answer session was about to begin, two men objected to the written-question format and demanded that Soroush respond to direct questions. When the director of the center refused to give in, one of the protesters left the hall voluntarily and called everyone an "ass" (khar) for staying.

The other protester sat down. But after the question and answer session, he and others went to Soroush and started to ask questions. A small crowd gathered round and listened to the discussion.

The meeting ended around midnight, peacefully.

Here are some of the ideas expressed by Soroush during his talk:

* Time and circumstances in our country make it necessary to constantly think about freedom.

* We can never talk enough about freedom. There is always room for discussion.

* There are two types of freedom, internal and external. Throughout history, we Iranians have always been concerned with internal, spiritual freedom. Thinkers and poets such as Molavi (Rumi) rarely discussed external, political freedom because they believed those who engaged in external struggles neglected the much more important struggle to contain their own selfish passions and desires and therefore they often went astray. This has been the difference between eastern and western thought. We have neglected external freedoms, until contemporary times.

* We have had a 2,500-year history of despotism, during which our freedoms have been curtailed.

* Our problem during the past three great upheavals in Iran (constitutional revolution, oil nationalization movement and the 1979 revolution) has been that we have always thought about and struggled for attaining liberation from something; liberation from dictators or foreign powers.

* But we have not thought about what do to after liberation. And the reason is that we have always had some dictator over our head and we had no other alternative but to focus on getting rid of him.

* The struggle for freedom has two stages. First is to attain liberation from something. The second stage is to know what to do after liberation.

* We have had a lot of problems with how to deal with political power, the accumulation of power and absolute power. There must be some mechanism to curb the misuse of power or else we would be digging our own grave.

* Other than freedom, we must be concerned with justice, truth and our cultural heritage. We must be mindful of all these issues or else our task would be incomplete.

* In religion, there are some forms of dependence that are just like liberation. It is like a drop joining the ocean. We can only be break down various barriers when we connect to the limitless creator. God is not a dictator.

* However, a certain group has appeared inviting people to worship them in the name of God and his prophet. They have become the hijab or curtain between God and his creatures. When a group claims all authority on behalf of God and his prophet, they become azadi setan or freedom takers.

* Religion is very sensitive to pollution. When it gets polluted, it gets very ugly. Religion is a blessing, a gem, which we must protect.

* Governments are governments, be they Islamic or not. Every government has certain tasks and responsibilities. It must provide and protect the basic needs of every citizen such as jobs, security, freedom, housing, health, etc.

* But the higher needs of every society, such as thoughts and ideas, religion, culture and science come from within society. They cannot be imposed by governments. A government can encourage certain things and create the grounds for individual prosperity and spiritual growth, but it cannot impose, or else it will be destructive. A religious government does not impose itself or take away true freedoms.

* Fiqh or religious jurisprudence is not the essence of religion. The problem in Iran is the emphasis on fiqh. Religion does not depend on fiqh, but on ethics. Fiqh is not worthless but it is not the core of religion.

* Instructions based on fiqh are not mandatory until they become law. And laws reflect social necessities that sometimes conflict with fiqh.

* Velayat Faqih, or the rule of the religious jurisprudent, is an idea held by a minority of religious leaders.

* Historically, Shi'ism has avoided the state because it awaited the reappearance of Imam Mahdi, the Hidden Imam. But when the Safavids came to power, things changed. They were the first Shi'ite rulers of Iran and the religious leaders decided that they should support them.

* But the Safavid kings were like all other kings. There was no concern for human rights or anything like that. Shah Abbas did a lot of good things for Iran and made a good effort in protecting Iran's sovereignty. But he had cannibals in his court. These were real cannibals who were instructed to eat the shah's enemies alive.

* Velayat Faqih is a recent idea that began in the works of people like Sheikh Ahmad Naraqi. But most religious leaders even today do not believe in it.

* Velayat Faqih is not necessarily the best form of government. At least not in my mind.

* There is nothing in Islam that says a woman's appearance in public should should be all black. I used to teach in Malaysia and there, Muslim women wore very colorful clothes and religious leaders there had no problem with that. What we have in Iran is the bad taste of a group of commoners.

* We Iranians have always believed that governments are the source of all things good or evil. That is not the case. Societies create governments not the other way around. People bring and take away governments. Change takes time.

* I have no political ambitions. I have no desire for political power. That's not my job.

* The responsibility of a religious intellectual is not to allow the misuse of religion.

* The difference between a clergyman and an intellectual is that clergymen, unlike intellectuals, depend on religion for their livelihood.

* No one is beyond criticism. Even Ali, our first Imam, did not consider himself beyond reproach.

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