Interrogating the Iranian religious-secular binary at Lake Forest College

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of being invited to chair a panel at a major conference on secularism and the future of Iran at Lake Forest College in Illinois. In February, as regular readers of the Ibishblog will recall, I spoke at a conference on Iran and the Arab world at Rutgers University organized by Prof. Golbarg Bashi and her outstanding students, and I found it to be a most inspiring and uplifting event. The Lake Forest College conference, organized by Prof. Ahmed Sadri who I have known and admired for many years, was a completely different but also extraordinary event. The Rutgers conference was raw, passionate, intense and deeply emotional. All of those qualities may have been present at some level at Lake Forest, but Sadri’s conference was much more cerebral, much more academic and much more focused, and its speakers were a veritable who’s who of Iranian intellectuals in the United States. Maybe the only obvious major missing figure was the brilliant Said Arjomand, who gave the most outstanding talk at the Rutgers conference.

After the Rutgers event, I blogged that I found the affair not only inspiring, but in a marked contrast to the kind of atmosphere I’m used to encountering on the Arab academic left in the United States. The Lake Forest College conference only brought home these increasingly striking distinctions. Because it was a conference on secularism and the future of Iran, and focused very strongly on the green movement and its challenge to the Iranian ruling clique, the Lake Forest affair focused very heavily on a single, unavoidable topic: the fault line running through the Iranian opposition between secular and religious orientations. Most speakers strongly critiqued the binary between secularism and devotion, holding that such distinctions are arbitrary and false, and extraneous to the question of civil liberties and political rights now at stake in Iran. However, at least one powerful voice, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, continuously reasserted the validity of secularism as a philosophical concept and the centrality of its principles as a political value.

In this conference, as usual, the term “secularism” was overdetermined and ambiguous, referring to many things and nothing at the same time. Many speakers attempted to define secularism’s meaning, or different meanings that have been applied to the term. For me, as with Boroujerdi I think, at its bottom line secularism really refers to the neutrality of the state on religious matters, not with imposing iconoclasm or anti-clericalism on a willing or unwilling society. However, in the Iranian and broader Middle Eastern context, secularism has unfortunately come to mean varying degrees of repudiation of religion at various levels, as brilliantly dissected by Prof. Sadri himself.

The reason the conference focused so strongly on this question is that one of the greatest vulnerabilities of the green movement, and the Iranian opposition in general, is that its most significant division is precisely between those who yearn for less religion in public life and who are essentially secular, whether they define themselves in those terms or not, and devout oppositionists who are opposed to either the present ruling clique and/or the system of villayat e-faqih or the constitution of the Islamic Republic. Indeed, it’s extremely significant that much of the clerical establishment feels sidelined by the new pasdaran and basij-dominated ruling elite and has been at the forefront of oppositional politics since the election fraud last summer because they feel that a system many of them do not object to in theory has in practice been hijacked by thugs and hoodlums. To these disgruntled reformist clerics add a great many other devout but enraged protesters who either do not object to the system but to what it has become or who may object to some aspects of the system but nonetheless can in no way be described as secularists. However, obviously, many of the protesters and much of the opposition is motivated by rejection of the Khomeinite system and a drive towards a return to genuine secularism and the abandonment of divine politics in Iran.

None of this is straightforward, of course, and there are always shades of gray and gradations perhaps as complex as each single individual with their particular mix of ideas, prejudices, orientations and sentiments. My own view, which I did not hesitate to express on a number of occasions both on and off the stage, is that whether you want to call it secularism or not, the neutrality of the state on religious matters in societies that are heterogeneous in religious opinion (as all are) is a sine qua non for social pluralism, which in turn is a sine qua non for having a decent society that respects people’s basic civil liberties and rights. At the same time, obviously Middle Eastern societies including Iran are not going to be inclined to adopt the American approach by mimicking the First Amendment and its broadly interpreted establishment clause. Arabs, Iranians, Turks and Israelis, among others, are going to have to find their own ways of achieving social pluralism and religious tolerance. And obviously it’s crucial not to have the green movement split along the religious/secular fault line.

The sharpest disagreement of the event was between AbdolKarim Soroush, Iran’s preeminent living philosopher and intellectual, and Prof. Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University. Soroush’s talk was a breathtaking virtuoso performance that had all the appearance of being a sudden extemporaneous diversion from his announced topic, and I think that’s exactly what it was. It’s the kind of feat that could only be accomplished by someone in almost total command of a vast array of material in Muslim intellectual history. On the other hand, while its erudition was spectacular, some of its claims and assumptions seemed somewhat dubious, and Dabashi was quick to pounce. In effect, Soroush was arguing that much of traditional Islamic thought, including all of Muslim philosophy, has to be regarded as “secular,” because it is “worldly” rather than strictly speaking theological. This struck me as an incredibly broad reading and application of the concept of secularism, far beyond what is normally attributed to the term and probably beyond what is theoretically defensible. Soroush has long advocated the narrowest application of the concept and the realm of authority of a “religious” social register and an exceedingly broad application of what properly belongs to a “secular” social register in Iran and other Muslim countries. This orientation seems to have evolved recently into this exceedingly broad application of the political category of “secular” to any concept or practice that is anything other than, strictly speaking, theological, or to anything that has any “worldly” facets or applications. It might be, in fact, a politically useful way of framing the issue, but nonetheless it’s difficult to accept on face value. Dabashi openly scoffed that next Soroush would be arguing that the Prophet Mohammed was himself a “secularist.” Hyperbole, no doubt, but the critique struck rather powerfully.

Listening to this conversation from an Arab point of view brings home clearly that the Iranians have managed to bring their society to the point where a serious discussion about how an aspirational, but very real, oppositional political trend, centered around a reformist, civil liberties movement, can stay united by bridging the divide between secular and religious tendencies. More to the point, by example it illustrates how far the Arabs have to go to get to that stage. Obviously, we don’t have anything like the green movement in the Arab world, or any serious opposition movement that demands serious reforms for the better in the name of people’s rights. The secular-religious divide in the Arab world unfortunately doesn’t have to be carefully navigated in this context because this kind of aspirational politics either doesn’t exist or is socially extremely marginal. Indeed, secular politics generally are on the decline and the defensive across the board. Unlike in the Shiite world, among Sunni Arabs there is little tradition of clerics as political leaders, and where there are religiously-oriented political structures (all of the main opposition movements in the Arab world are, essentially, Islamist) they are invariably reactionary rather than reformist, and obviously not in the least bit interested in ensuring people’s civil or other rights. They attack the undemocratic regimes from their religious right, but clearly without believing in any of the essential components of a pluralistic or even democratic society. Sunni Arab religious leadership therefore tends to be either hopelessly quietist or alarmingly radical and therefore even more threatening than governments that, on their own, have little to recommend them.

As I noted above, a very significant segment of the Iranian clergy is disenchanted with the way the “Islamic Republic” has turned out, and feel sidelined by the new ruling clique. Ayatollahs Sane’i, Bayat-Zanjani and Dastgheib obviously speak for a great many in Qom in their bitter critiques of government repression, and implicit condemnation of concentration of power in the hands of the security services and the supreme leader as an individual. So the participation of not only clerics but extremely devout Iranians is a crucial element of the green movement, indeed in many ways it’s the green part. Mousavi, Karroubi and the other reformist politicians appeal to “a return to the constitution” and represent those Iranians who want to fix rather than change the system altogether. None of these people can be described, I think, as “secular” unless by the kind of definition Soroush was proposing. But there are obviously lots of other people involved in what is a very disparate movement with no clear leadership or clear agenda, other than the promotion of civil liberties, would have to be defined in those terms, and who want no part of any “return” to the 1989 amended constitution of the Islamic Republic.

These are real problems, to be sure, that the green movement and any effective oppositional politics in Iran will have to navigate and negotiate, but from an Arab point of view they are problems I would really like to have. One can only imagine with envy a time when the Arab world has to seriously confront reconciling religious and secular tendencies within the same broad-based, uplifting and aspirational rights movement that is confronting dictatorship with dignity and sincerity. The closest thing we see to this in the Arab world today is the budding nonviolent protest movement in the occupied West Bank, but that is confronting Israeli occupation, and not Arab tyranny. I was delighted and honored to participate in the Lake Forest conference on secularism and the future of Iran, but in truth it was yet another stark reminder of how very far the Arab world really has to go to get anywhere remotely near where it needs to be.