Soroush in Portland

From: A. Goudarz Eghtedari

Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush gave a lecture in English at Portland State University last Monday (March 3, 1997). His talk was sponsored by Middle East Studies Center at Portalnd State University (PSU). Around 80 people were there from all groups - a surprising number of Iranian and Arab Islamists along with other Iranians. This is my PERSONAL view of the event.

He read from his paper to be published soon, titled "Democracy, Religion and the State". In this paper he mainly focused on Human Rights issues and necessity of accepting the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (UNDHR) as a base for measuring the level of democracy.

He analysed the relation between religion and the state in different ages and suggested that it is possible to compromise religious laws in favor of human rights requirements.

He defined religion as a personal attribute and talked extensively about independence of the relation between agent and god. He sounded very open in this but was carrying lots of contradictions.

He was not clear how he would model a religious secular system. He gave the example of Turkey and was saying a religious dominated society requires a religious government.

I think he was trying to suggest that religion should change to a democratic way of thinking and then a religious government would also be a democratic one. So he was not clear, or I did not understand it well, on how he was planning to have a secular state which is religious.

He also never said that religion should be out of power but said that there has never been a real religious government. Someone asked a question on how Mohammad governed 13 years in Medina and is it not how Imam khomeini was supposed to govern? He responded by saying that when Mohammad was in power there was no democracy anywhere and he was not expected to be a democrat. But he said there are new requirements now that should be followed by any government.

He also said that the reason we call Mohammad the last prophet "Khatam ol nabiin" is not only because we believe he is the last prophet but because after that there is no need for prophets and people should govern themselves, saying that the age of prophood and the regin of god's representatives is over, which was a new concept to me.

I asked him about Islamic governments' stand against UNDHR and his opinion on where there is a coflict between Islamic codes and UNDHR based on governments interpretations, especially regarding women's rights and people of other religions. He responded that there is no rigid interpretation of Islam and they all can and will change and it only needs time and asked me to be optimistic.

He had said in his paper that UNDHR, as accepted by all nations ,can serve as a base document. He then elaborated that there is no prosecution waranted in Iran's legal system for changing one's religion, which I doubt he was right.

Anyhow it was interesting to see him and feel his loneliness in society. Nobody asked him about his role in the cultural revolution, but he mentioned in response to a question that he has changed a lot and he was not thinking this way during the revolution.

I enjoyed the evening and strongly recommend reading his paper once it is published. It should apear in a journal of religion by Georgetown University.

He has a long way to go in structuring his thougths and to popularize them among the Islamic faction of our society. I felt that his audience in general are those with religious beliefs, otherwise the secular part of our population has accepted [the liberal portion of his ideas] for ages.

In the background:

A fan of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) attacked a local TV cameraman for recording the program and asked him to give up the tape. He was saying "we want to go back [to Iran]". However the Islamists were taping everything with their own videocamera and he did not have any problem with that.

The Islamists had a private meeting with him few hours before the program, and apparently had separated women and left them behind the wall, which was then protested at the end of the main program in Soroush's presence. I should say that the majority of Islamists there did not agree with his points of view.

I asked Mr. Rokhsefat ("Kian" magazine's editor in chief, who was traveling with Soroush) to give Soroush the letter in support of Sarkuhi so that he would sign it. He first said OK, but finally did not do it.

His tone and language changed dramatically after he switched to Farsi at the end. He took some questions at the end in Farsi, where one could really find the difference. He was more tough and religious then, no surprise.

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