Soroush in Seattle

From: Payman Arabshahi

Dr. Abdol Karim Soroush, the reformist Islamic scholar currently on a tour of North America spoke tonight on "Freedom, Pluralism, and Islamic Thought" at the University of Washington.

The lecture, which was very well received by the more than 100 people in attendance, started with a discussion of the concept of freedom and the environments under which it blossoms, and proceeded through ideas of diversity, and religious thought in general.

According to Soroush, freedom is a natural consequence of the accumulation of any type of wealth, spiritual, cultural, or even material. It is this abundance that then seeks to express and present itself, along the way producing and paving the road to freedom.

Diversity and pluralism in thought can be seen not only as characteristics of a democratic system, but are in fact necessary ingredients of a culture in which the ruled, and the rulers, gain an understanding of each other through open expression of possibly differing opinions in a society.

Such exchange of information, whether done freely, or implemented via state agencies such as a secret police that combs the population for ideas, is imperative for proper functioning of any governmental system. The issue however is that one gains an infinitely better understanding of a society and her aspirations and political/cultural fabric through open discussion, than through unreliable reports by agents wishing to pocket a day's salary under a repressive regime.

Soroush then proceeded to talk about religious thought in general, the mission of prophets and visionaries, and their supreme importance in the everyday life of people around the world. Comparisons between religious and scientific thought were made, and the importance of questioning and the concept of "doubt" in religious thought was stressed. He discussed how, in his opinion, religion should be seen as providing a least common denominator among people in the sense of providing a set of core beliefs, and not in the sense of maximizing its reach into every aspect of modern life.

A lively question and answer period followed in which Soroush expressed optimism about the current situation in Islamic seminaries in Iran and the trends among young scholars to study western philosophy and languages and sciences in addition to the traditional curriculum. The discussion period was moderated by Mr. Seyed Mostafa Rokhsefat, editor of the magazine Kian (Tehran) who is accompanying Dr. Soroush.

On the issue of separation of church and state Soroush stated that in his opinion a religious society naturally demands a religious system of government, just as a secular society will only function properly under secular rule. This issue of separation of church and state therefore cannot be forced. If this separation is bound to happen, it will happen naturally. It is not a "solution" to be imposed from the above on a society that still holds religion dear to her heart. At the very least such an imposition will be undemocratic.

Soroush also briefly discussed the issue of Velayat-e Faghih and mentioned how this idea is only accepted by a minority of Shi'a scholars, and how it could be seen as contrary to the principle of separation of powers embodied in the Iranian constitution.

Emotional questions by two members of the audience attacking Soroush and accusing him of being an apologist for the Islamic Republic and a pawn created to rescue Islam at a time when religion is on the way out in Iran were handled gently and rationally by Soroush. The audience members on their part did not act to disrupt the meeting and listened to his arguments, though no doubt, were not satisfied with the responses. Soroush expressed his opinion that religion is not on the way out in Iran and that there is a difference between the pure teachings of a religion, and what is being done in the name of God.

The meeting ended after three hours, and overall, it was a very successful event that let a leading scholar express his ideas, and let the audience elaborate on their views and questions and seek answers on them from him.

Soroush's next lecture will be tomorrow, Monday, in Portland, Oregon, on the campus of Portland State University. From there he will fly to San Francisco to give a talk at the Oakland Islamic Center.

The event in Seattle was made possible through the financial and organizational support of many people, both at the University of Washington through the Persian circle (Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Mr. Hadi Soltani, Mr. Mohammad Azadeh, and Ms. Niloufar Nouri), as well as many community members from whom I apologize for not knowing or mentioning their names.

We are deeply grateful to all for their tireless efforts and support.

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