An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush*
by Ali Asghar Seyyedabadi
Q. Let’s start the discussion with the [June 2005] presidential elections if you don’t mind. The outcome can be linked on two counts to issues of interest to you: one is the question of justice, since some people believe that the government that emerged from the elections is a product of the people’s thirst for justice, regardless of whether the elections were sound or not; the other relates to that reading of religion which is based on emotions. Of course, we don’t intend to focus the discussion on political debates.
A. I don’t wish to enter into purely political debates either. Your remarks had some good pointers. If I were to compare the current president with the former president I could say that Mr. Khatami’s election victory in 1997 was a victory for a type of religiosity which I have termed ‘gnostic religiosity’. Gnostic religiosity has particular characteristics. One of its important characteristics is that it seeks to identify truth and falsehood. It addresses people’s minds; it does not sense a great need for the clergy; and, instead of being imitative/emulative, it is research/investigation-oriented. It may be useful for me to add that this kind of religiosity is nourished by questions, criticism and doubt, and it places criticism above submission.
But the current era must be termed the era of the victory of ‘pragmatic religiosity’ or ‘utilitarian religiosity’. I believe that all its characteristics have manifested themselves clearly. It is a religiosity which mainly promises prosperity in this world, combined with well-being in the next. It concerns itself with rites and rituals, even at a very superstitious level; places the clergy centre-stage; moves away from research and investigation; emphasizes emulation; places submission above criticism; and has other characteristics to which I’ve referred in my writings. More importantly, this type of religiosity addresses people’s sentiments and emotions, not their minds and reason.
Q. But I think there are differences between this type of religiosity and traditionalist religiosity. Traditionalist religiosity is not gnostic religiosity, but its difference with the religiosity that emerged victorious from the elections has become clear. Some traditionalist clerics, who may even be political these days, support traditionalist religiosity, but even they are showing some resistance to the type of religiosity that has gained the upper hand and surfaced now.
A. If I understand you correctly, the ‘pragmatic religiosity’ and the ‘utilitarian religiosity’ that has now come to power uses religiosity as a means to its own ends, whereas traditionalist religiosity doesn’t do this; even if it served as a means to them, it was a means to other-worldly ends, not a means to this-worldly power. Unfortunately, utilitarian religiosity bears this latter characteristic within it and this disturbs its inner coherence. It leads to a situation in which some sacred matters are so robbed of their sanctity and turned into steeds used for pillage and conquest as to even upset traditionalist believers and make them cry out in protest.
At any rate, if we were to make a comparison of this kind, I could say that this is a problem that exists. Of course, I can express it in a different form. One of the characteristics of traditionalist religiosity in our society is that it easily comes to terms with some very general and ambiguous concepts, such as the concept of justice. Anyone can claim this concept, become its standard-bearer and express their dedication and devotion to it. But clear concepts are of no use to these people. Perhaps we can call Mr. Khatami’s era the era of the slogan of freedom and the current era, the era of the slogan of justice. As to which of these slogans has been fulfilled, that is a different matter altogether. But the difference lies in the fact that the slogan of freedom is, in my opinion, much clearer than justice. It means that there must be a free press. When you easily shut down newspapers, this means that you’ve destroyed freedom and limited it. But you can do anything with the slogan of justice. You can torture people and still say, We’re exercising justice. This was, as it happens, precisely the situation that we also witnessed in communist countries.
I’ve written an article entitled ‘Ethics of the Gods’ and there is a book by me that bears this title. In ‘Ethics of the Gods’, one of the important things that I’ve highlighted is precisely the point that justice doesn’t correspond to any verb; hence, any verb can be adorned with it. ‘Laughing’ is the name of a specific verb. You can’t call walking and writing ‘laughing’. Laughing is a clearly-defined activity. ‘Truth-telling’ is a clearly-defined activity. ‘Murdering’ is clearly defined. All these things are clearly defined. I’m not concerned with what’s good or bad. But it’s clear what people mean when they speak about ‘murdering’. But justice is not the name of any clearly-defined activity. This is why it can serve as an adjective for any activity.
Q. But it can be defined by what it isn’t. We know, at any rate, that justice is opposed to some things, such as discrimination.
A. That’s a tautology. Discrimination means injustice.
Q. At any rate, justice can be defined by what it isn’t.
A. Justice neither prevents anything, nor brings anything about. This is exactly the point that I make in that article: justice is such an abstract concept, such a loose garment that it can be used to dress anything. This is why justice is such a difficult subject in ethics. If you knew where you stood with it and if it were a resolved issue, there wouldn’t be so much commotion over it.
Justice is a very abstract and difficult subject. A powerful, mental effort is required if someone is to use it correctly. But we have smaller concepts, such as freedom.
I remember when Mr. Khatami began his election campaign, one of his rivals was Ezzatollah Sahabi. He wanted to stand in the elections but was later disqualified by the Guardian Council At the time, when he was thinking about launching his campaign, one of his friends came to see me and said: We’re looking for a campaign slogan. I suggested that he should use the following verse from Hafez as his slogan: ‘With friends, magnanimity; with enemies, tolerance.’ Things moved on and he was disqualified. But I want to say to you now that, if a president makes this their slogan, it is an excellent, humane and even Islamic slogan, and it is a very clear slogan. That is to say, enemies really have to be tolerated and friends obviously have to be treated especially well. We have to exercise the utmost integrity towards them and be grateful to them. And enemies must not be done away with; they must be tolerated and they must be afforded equal rights. I think that this slogan would have suited us. Very general slogans do not suit us, because they are open to interpretation. But in the realm of politics, we need clarity. If we leave clarity behind we must recognize that the sloganeer either, God forbid, has an impure motive and wants to cover up their impure motive with these pure words or is basically afflicted with bewilderment and is not familiar with the history of concepts, their genealogy and the way that they can be put to use or rendered useless.
Q. But justice is a long-standing concept in the Shi’i outlook. It has always been used and there have been many debates about it. It can’t be set aside so easily.
A. If you asked me to speak about justice right now, without any prior preparation, I might be able to speak about it for about three hours without stopping to catch my breath. You know that a great deal can be said about justice. It is the heftiest ethical and political concept. I gave a talk in London about the relationship between politics and ethics. As it happens, I made this exact same point there. Ethics and politics are closely related and their relatedness is via the key concept of ‘justice’, because justice both heads the list of ethical concepts and the list of political concepts. Hence, these two easily take each other by the hand and become intimately intertwined. This is why justice has been discussed so much from Plato’s time to the present day. As Imam Ali, peace be upon him, said in the Nahj al-Bilaqah: ‘One can speak about justice more than about any other term, but when it comes to practising it, the scope is very narrow indeed.’ So we can speak at great length about this justice to which you refer and of which I too am an absolute devotee of course. And how can anyone not be fond of it?
Of course, it all depends on what you think justice’s most important and prominent aspects are. I’ve made this point in some of my talks and writings: in order to cut justice down to size, to make it clearer and, as they say these days, to put it into operation, we should use a principle that exists in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and nearly all the world’s cultures, ‘Do unto others as you would be done by.’ I believe that this phrase definitely expresses one of the most important aspects of justice, not to say its essence and substance. This is something that doesn’t lend itself to absolutely any interpretation. It impedes many things. At least it has very few negative aspects. You don’t want to have your freedoms limited? Then, don’t limit the freedoms of others. You don’t want to be tortured? Then don’t torture others. You don’t want to have your shop shut down for no reason? Then, don’t shut down other people’s shops for no reason. You don’t want others to insult you for no reason? Then, don’t insult others. You see, it has clear practical connotations and it can’t be interpreted in just any old way.
I believe that we should put the following suggestion to Mr. Ahmadinejad: we should say, We agree with your slogan of exercising justice and affection. How could anyone not agree? But please tell us how you interpret justice. Or at least, if you like our suggested interpretation, declare that you intend to ‘Do unto others as you would be done by.’ This phrase also appears in Imam Ali’s letter to Imam Hussein. It exists in all the world’s cultures. A Christian scholastic theologian carried out a study and discovered that this ethical principle is shared by all cultures.
We say to the President: Tell us what you mean by justice. Or, if you like our interpretation, declare it openly and act on it. And allow people to criticize you and suggest ways of rectifying your work and your practices, as well as the people who work under you and the relevant institutions, on the basis of this principle. I think this would be a step forward for us.
It has been stated in Imam Ali’s missive to Imam Hussein: ‘Make yourself the measure. If something displeases you, do not condone it for others.’ Why is this principle so gratifying? I’ve thought about this. One reason is that it satisfies our selfishness to some extent. We can’t ask people to be totally selfless. There may be rare individuals who can practise this exalted form of selflessness. But we can’t expect this from everyone. Success will be yours whenever you make some concessions to legitimate instances of human selfishness. Some selfishness is legitimate. When I’m ill and I go to the doctor, I want to remain. I want to enjoy life. This is selfishness but it’s a legitimate and exalted selfishness. When I want to safeguard my good name, this is selfishness, but it is a proper selfishness. The above phrase allows some of our legitimate selfishness to be satisfied. Our likes and dislikes are given official recognition. We don’t rebuke you for wishing some things for yourself, but we want you to wish them for others too. If well-being is pleasing, if having a good name is pleasing, don’t just wish them for yourself, wish them for others too. If torture is bad, don’t wish it on others either. At one at the same time, it satisfies our legitimate, moderate selfishness and provides us with a fairly clear measure for weighing up our conduct.
In this sense, I agree with you and I think that the slogan of justice can be very beneficial and effective.
Q. It’s appropriate at this point to ask whether justice can be realized at all without democracy. After all, justice also has to be observed in the distribution of power. Justice doesn’t just apply to economic resources. We can’t say that justice should be observed in the distribution of economic resources but power should remain the monopoly of some people.
A. This is absolutely true. In fact, democracy is the political face of justice. Justice has several faces: an economic face; a judicial face; and at least one political face. Of course, it has an inner face too; i.e. moderation within one’s being. This was the justice that was most emphasized by our ulema in the past. Put more simply, we need both internal freedom and external freedom. This is the point Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi was making when he said: ‘O kings, we’ve killed the enemy without / but a more evil enemy resides within.’
In order to arrive at this inner justice, people in the past believed that if the ruler is just, he will extend this justice over society and over every single individual, and will bring them into the orbit of this justice. But the theories about justice that have emerged over the past two, three centuries, as well the political conduct or rulers, whether just or unjust, have shown that it does not suffice for the ruler to be just. We need to look for another method. And this method came to be known as ‘democracy’. They said, Let there be a separation of powers. Let there be a strong judiciary. Let the people’s votes play a part in choosing rulers. And, as I’ve said on occasion, democracy can be summarized in three steps: installing rulers, criticizing rulers and dismissing rulers. When the people can exercise these three steps, we can say that we have justice.
Q. And since these steps can’t be taken without freedom, then justice hinges on freedom.
A. This is what follows. In order for the people to be able to choose, they must be free. In order to criticize, they must be free. In order to be able to dismiss, they must be free. People who are captives cannot do this; nor would it have any value if they did. People who are autonomous can exercise their will and their reason to install a ruler and dismiss a ruler. And when we speak in this context of installing, criticizing and dismissing, it means hiring someone; i.e. not just making someone a delegate, but hiring them, paying them, giving them duties and saying, If you don’t perform your duties, we’ll send you packing.
In this sense, justice and freedom become interdependent. I’ve said this in my writings too: freedom is a subdivision of justice. If justice is to be realized, then freedom too must definitely be realized because freedom is a component of justice. Freedom is not a rival or an alternative to justice, contrary to what some people have suggested. This is really a false notion. Freedom is a component of justice. When there’s no freedom, justice hasn’t been realized and when justice is fully realized, then freedom will definitely be realized. One of the definitions of justice is that we should give all rights their due and freedom is a right. Hence if you want to respect all rights, you must unavoidably also attend to freedom and respect it too.
Freedom is one of the heftiest components of justice. In the past, when there were debates about inner, spiritual justice, freedom was considered an important part of inner justice. And, now, when we speak about social justice, freedom is one of its heftiest components. Rumi says: ‘Since the Prophet guided us freely / prophets bequeath us freedom.’ In truth, prophets came to give us freedom. Of course, we know that Rumi was not talking about political freedom in the modern sense. He was speaking about that inner freedom. But note that he uses the word ‘freedom’. Rumi is someone who believes that inner justice and equilibrium are the highest order of perfection for human beings. Yet, when he wants to speak about the various aspects of prophethood, he deems freedom and liberation to be its most important aspects. Hence, whether it is within the self or in the external world, in society, freedom is the heftiest component of justice and we must strive for it. And, as I said, freedom is not an abstract concept; it has clear consequences in society, and if you prevent them, you can easily be criticized and challenged to explain why you didn’t give freedom its due.
Q. If I may, I’d like to go back to an earlier question about the difference between the group of people who have come to power now and traditionalist believers, and the fact that they can’t be placed in the same category. The line of thinking that is now gaining strength in Iran can’t be described as traditionalist. They are using modern elements. They use modern planning and technology. But, in religion, their conduct is based on religious emotions. They are keen on religious mourning ceremonies. On the basis of the indications overall, we can categorize this group as ‘devout personality-types’, to use the expression coined by some intellectuals, who see it as one of the impediments to democracy in Iran. Of course, I noticed that in your London talk, you said that ‘devout personality-types’ don’t occur uniquely among religious people and that the denouncers of religion, too, are ‘devout personality-types’ of a sort. And I think this is an important point. Taking all this into account, are you of the opinion that what you call utilitarian religiosity, which is saturated with emotions, is an impediment to democracy and progress in Iran?
A. Yes, I’ve read about this notion but I don’t think it’s very correct. The people who raise this idea are unfamiliar with modern epistemology. Knowledge is a collective affair and it has nothing to do with whether I’m a religious person or not. The idea that a ‘devout personality-type’ will prevent someone from reaching truth and certainty is a very misguided idea. This is the point that Popper makes in Objective Knowledge. In ‘science without a subject’ the role of the scholar is reduced to zero. It is not a question of us attacking someone and saying, You have an open mind or you have a closed mind; you’re devoted to religion or you’re not. I believe that all these false notions are alien to modern epistemology. But I won’t pursue this.
You mentioned some points which I’d also noticed in Habermas’s writings. I’d like to say something in this connection. You said that they use computers and so on. Yes, we can divide modern-day people into four categories: one consists of people who use modern concepts and tools. That is to say, both their conceptual and their physical tools are modern. Another category consists of people who use traditional concepts but modern tools. The third category consists of people who use modern concepts and traditional tools. And the fourth category consists of people who use both traditional concepts and traditional physical tools.
Two of these four categories live in completely harmonious worlds. They’re not afflicted with internal contradictions and conflicts: the category that uses both modern conceptual tools and modern physical tools; and the category that uses both traditional conceptual tools and traditional physical tools.
Imagine going to a very remote village. They haven’t even heard of Copernicus. They still think that the earth is stationary and the sun moves. They till the land with a plough and they wait and pray for rain in the traditional way. They live a life in which both the conceptual and the physical tools are traditional.
Q. And they don’t feel in the least bit anxious!
A. Yes, because there’s no contradiction, so there’s no anxiety. The subjective and the objective dimensions are perfectly in tune. On the other side, those who use both modern physical tools and modern conceptual tools seek democracy and rights in social relations. They use modern theories of genetics. They’re familiar with the idea of the Big Bang. But we have two other categories, which have problems and create problems for others.
Q. Because of the anxiety-ridden world that they’ve constructed for themselves and the anxiety that they feel?
A. Yes, because of their own internal contradiction, the world that they create bears this contradiction. The category that has a modern mentality but uses old methods is relatively small in number. Then, there’s the category that has a traditionalist mentality but uses modern tools; the category to which you referred. Their mentality is very traditionalist. They don’t use modern concepts at all. They are totally traditionalist. But they work with modern tools. That is to say, they work with computers. They travel by plane and go as far as the USA These people don’t necessarily go to Jamkaran [a mosque near the Iranian city of Qom] when they’re ill. They go to London for medical treatment. They use modern tools. It is not as if, when they’re ill, they scribble a plea for good health on a scrap of paper and throw it in the well at Jamkaran. Of course they don’t. If you ever see one of them going to the well when they’re sick, let me know. I’ve seen plenty of them who’ve been in London for medical treatment. These are things that we see with our own eyes. It’s not an exaggeration and it’s not calumny.
At any rate, they have a traditionalist mentality. That is to say, the concepts with which they identify the world and politics, with which they identify human beings, with which they identify and interpret history are incredibly, old, rusted, crude and dusty concepts. These people create problems. These are the people we have to watch; otherwise, we can get along easily with traditionalists. We have no problem with them. They have a harmonious world. They’re not in a state of anxiety and they don’t cause others anxiety.
Habermas said the same thing. He said: ‘Violence has taken a new form in the modern world and the new form is that some people with traditionalist mentalities wield modern weapons.’ This is what has stunned the world. Otherwise, there was violence in the past too. Did the Mongols, the Chengizids, the Timurids not resort to violence? Did Shah Abbas not keep man-eaters in his palace so that he could throw some offenders in front of them and have them eaten alive? These things existed. But what we see today is that a group of people with totally traditionalist mentalities use modern tools. These two things do not sit easily together. In other words, one day, they will neutralize each other.
Q. Do you mean that your prediction about fundamentalism is that it will self-destruct one day?
A. Yes. This fundamentalism is afflicted with an internal contradiction, which will shatter it from within. But until it does, it will cause many problems and difficulties for others.
Let’s give a very simple example. A person who uses old methods, uses paper and traditional writing implements for writing. If the paper tears, he takes another piece of paper. If the tip of the pencil becomes blunt, he sharpens it. But I knew a theologian who had a wind-up pocket watch. Sometimes he would take his watch out and look at it. You may not believe it, but, sometimes when the watch stopped, he would rub dust from Imam Hussein’s shrine on it to make it work again; just like a sick person who is given consecrated dust to swallow to make them well. I was amazed that it could even occur to anyone to do such a thing. This is a traditionalist mentality working with modern tools. This person will either be obliterated himself or obliterate the watch. The two of them cannot coexist indefinitely.
It’s like resorting to prayer when your computer breaks down in the hope that it will start working again or like using a computer to build a sword or a dagger with which to wage war. Both these things are wrong. A mentality that considers swords and daggers still effective in wars has not come to terms with the world, but it may use modern tools to forge swords and daggers.
We have to strive for a world without contradictions. I put part of Mr. Khatami’s lack of success down to his contradictions. Of course, his contradictions were on a much smaller scale. The contradiction between his performance and his slogan and between his physical tools and conceptual tools led to some failures. I’m of the view that these contradictions are much greater in the current government. So there’s much more of a possibility that it will resort to transient remedies and repairs, but the result won’t be too splendid. The least harm that we’ll suffer is that we’ll run on the spot for years or, worse, we’ll forfeit important achievements.
Q. In your reference to modern thinking and modern tools, you seemed to focus more on the tools. There are some serious suggestions that fundamentalism is a product of the modern world. If there’d been no modernization, there wouldn’t be any fundamentalism either and the old traditionalism would have continued.
A. I’ve heard about this, but this idea too has been expressed in a vague and un-analytical way. Let me offer my own analysis. The suggestion that fundamentalism is the product of the modern world, if it has a proper sense, means that fundamentalism is composed of two things: a traditionalist component and a non-traditionalist component. The traditionalist component is that same mental part to which I referred and the non-traditionalist component is the objective part. Or to use my earlier terminology, its conceptual tools are traditionalist. That is to say, it wants to turn the world into a paradise, for example. It wants to make everyone pious followers of a single religion. This is a traditional definition of a human being. Doubt and pluralism are inseparable parts of the individual and social existence of the human being whom we know today. The idea that human beings can all be poured into a single mould and made to believe in the same thing is absurd and confused. To harbour this idea is to subscribe to an old notion. However, in order to bring this notion to fruition, the fundamentalist resorts to modern tools, modern bombs, planes, missiles, biological weapons and anything of this kind that he can get his hands on.
Fundamentalism has another meaning too: abiding by a totally literal sense of religious texts; not allowing any kind of interpretative pluralism; disregarding the historicity of texts. One of my definitions of fundamentalism is this: ‘A movement that has no understanding of historicity. It has no historical sense of human beings; nor of religion, nor of religious texts.’ I’m of the opinion that this approach, i.e. not seeing things historically, is an old notion. Human beings have been acquainted with the idea of historicity for at least two centuries now. People who have been steeped in modern thought and the spirit of modernity can feel in their skin and bones that everything is subject to the tempest of history and cannot escape it. When people with that kind of pre-historic mentality wield modern tools, they cause the calamities that we call fundamentalism.
As I said, we had violence in the past. We had destruction. There have been very bloody wars. But why don’t we describe them as fundamentalism? Because they used tools that were suited to the world of their times and their practical faculties were in keeping with their mental faculties. Today, the practical faculties are totally disproportionate to the mental faculties. In this way, you can cause enormous harm.
Q. If we go back to your talk in Paris and thesubsequentdebate that you’ve had with Mr. Bahmanpour, you said there that the concept of the saviour [mahdaviyat] conflicts with democracy. In view of the fact that belief in a saviour is a long-standing and abiding element of Iranian thought, the one thing that will always be lacking in Iran is democracy.
A. You mustn’t interpret it in this way. I didn’t say that the idea of a saviour conflicts with democracy in every aspect and on the basis of every possible interpretation. Of course, on the basis of some interpretations, there is definitely a conflict. As I’ve said in my writings, unfortunately, these kinds of interpretations have generally prevailed, instead of the more laudable readings. Whether we take the idea of political inaction or the approach adopted by the Safavids or the fiqhi theories that have been based on the concept of the existence of the saviour, it is very clear that they’re not on good terms with democracy.
Q. So you’re saying that when it comes to the notion of the saviour, too, we must bear in mind the argument about the possibility of different readings?
A. Yes, there can be different readings. As I said in a talk commemorating the late Mehdi Bazargan, he did not take a businessman’s [bazargan] view of the saviour [mahdi]. He believed in it, but he did not use his belief for political purposes.
I think that this is an important point that the Shi’is recognized gradually. I believe that, initially, the idea of the saviour really impeded Shi’is from establishing a government. They were biding their time, waiting for the saviour to return and imagining that he would soon appear to establish the reign of justice on earth. After a while, they realized that it may be quite some time and that they must think of establishing a government for themselves; to establish some kind of order and structure. I’m talking about the early days. And this was because Shi’is constituted a small group of people and they considered the mahdi to be their own personal saviour. Talk about a world government is something modern and new. The Shi’is were a small group of people who were trying to preserve themselves against the odds. They’d constantly grumble to God, saying: ‘God, we have a grievance to raise with you. They prophets are gone. Our guides have gone. The entire world is against us. There are plots everywhere. Send us a saviour.’ In fact, the mahdi was considered to be the Shi’is’ personal saviour and they assumed that he would appear sooner or later. This is exactly like the thinking of the early Christians. They too thought that Jesus would return soon. After a while, they realized that the return may not be all that imminent. So, Christianity changed its entire theoretical structure, as well as its reading of this world and this-worldly governance.
Q. So, you’re suggesting that democracy and the idea of the saviour can be reconciled as long as we assume that the mahdi’s return will occur so far in the future as to allow us to plan our own political life.
A. Bravo. If we think in this way, then we’ll have become secularized. In other words, you put such a distance between your religious thinking and the world around you that you plan your affairs without taking it into account. You don’t negate it, but, in this sense, it’s very close to negation. This is exactly what you see in today’s Judaism. I’ve had discussions with some Jewish theologians during my time away from Iran. We read in the Old Testament that God created the world in six days and, on the seventh day, he rested. Muslims – and I can recall instances of this in the writings of the late Ayatollah Motahhari and others – would say sneeringly that the Jews had created a very absurd idea: they had said, in their distorted book, that God rested, that God had gone into retirement. They’d say, What sort of talk is this? God is always in the process of creation, He is eternal and, if He looks away for an instant, everything will collapse. But you know what Jewish theologians say today? They say exactly this; that God has in effect distanced Himself from the world. He has handed over the business of the world to the world itself. What resting on the seventh day meant –
Q. Not that He was tired –
A. That’s right. He went into retirement, a deliberate retirement. He said, I won’t interfere in the world’s business anymore. I created for six days, you can continue from here. I’ve handed things over to you. This was the start of secularization. This is not to say that there’s no God; there is, but He leaves us to our own devices. He has handed the world over to us for us to manage.
The notion that the end of the world is so far away that we can leave it out of the reckoning in our day-to-day planning is very good. The problems arise when we do include it in our reckoning.
Q. Can we leave it out of the reckoning?
A. This is what I’m trying to say: when we do include it in our reckoning, we have to see what the consequences are. If we bring this issue into the political arena and construct political life on it, we have to see what happens. If a group of people really believe that the saviour is going to return any time now, in two years time or in five years time let’s say, just as Shi’is did in the early days, you can be sure that they’ll not bother with political planning; nor with economic planning; nor will they spend time formulating theories about freedom and other rights.
Q. A government that wants to pave the way for the return and has this as its programme has no need to formulate these kinds of theories.
A. At any rate, there’s only two ways of looking at it. Either the saviour’s return is imminent, in which case we just need to tide things over in a lackadaisical way until he returns or the return is such a distant prospect that we have to take care of things ourselves.
Q. Some intellectuals, although they’re in favour of religious intellectualism, see all the epistemological and philosophical debates in Iran – much of which are undertaken by religious intellectuals – as an obstacle to democracy. Under the influence of Rorty’s ideas, they hold the view that we should be institution building for democracy. Is democracy established via institution building or via philosophical debate? I wanted to ask your opinion about this.
A. Mr. Rorty’s argument has to be examined bearing in mind its underpinnings. I think we have to start from the following point: Mr. Rorty is a nominalist. He basically believe that things such as democracy and so on don’t have an essence, so there’s no point us spending time discussing their essences and then concluding that if these essences are realized then those things will have been realized. In fact, the historicity we were speaking about is very prominent here. We have to view historicity and nominalism together. This is where we need to start. If our thinkers are won over by nominalism, then the way will be paved for accepting Rorty’s recommendation.
I’m of the opinion that, yes, we’re too engrossed in philosophical debates; in essentialist philosophical debates. If our philosophical debates were nominalist, then I think we’d be more likely both to understand what Rorty is saying and to accept his recommendation. But, as long as that philosophical premise is lacking, the conclusion can’t be in the offing either.
Now, we have to say to Mr. Rorty: your argument sits in a nominalist context and you don’t take into account the fact that it took several centuries for nominalism to become established in the West. And one of the bases for the triumph of nominalism there was modern science and philosophy, which brings us back to nominalism’s theoretical underpinnings. This way we’re in a better position to understand both what Rorty is saying and the recommendation he’s making.
But we need theoretical debates just as much as we need institution building and political action. However, we really have to avoid Hegelian thinking. We have to avoid projects in which things are defined in general terms and which are more concerned with conceptual aspects than practical aspects. But if it’s a question of defining concepts, choosing the best feasible alternatives and constructing theoretical systems to suit our local conditions, this is very appropriate.
For example, when I place so much emphasis on the concept of ‘right’, it’s because I believe that this is a very, very appropriate and necessary conceptual tool; in order for us to have democracy, in order for an individual’s right to be recognized, in order to establish a balance between right and duty. In this sense and to this extent, we are in need of theoretical work.
Q. Experience has also shown that institution building isn’t possible without theoretical work.
A. As we’ve just seen in Iran.
Q. Institution building requires some knowledge, awareness and priorities.
A. There’s all of this. But we mustn’t expect to be able to construct a totally impeccable value system. This hasn’t been achieved anywhere. We mustn’t delay ourselves with these things. We should always bear in mind the action-theory dialectic.
Q. I think that the point that you made about historicity can also be used as a basis for criticizing religious intellectualism in Iran. I noticed, of course, that you referred to historicity in your London talks. Don’t you think our religious intellectuals have neglected this issue?
A. If you’re suggesting that they haven’t viewed religion historically, then, yes, I think this has been neglected. I accept that our contemporary scholastic theologians have not viewed religion historically at all. We can perhaps say that the late Ayatollah Motahhari was the most recent one of them. Towards the end, Motahhari had realized a bit that the principles of religion should be viewed historically.
Q. What about religious intellectuals after Motahhari?
A. As I said, religious intellectuals have not had this historical perspective. And this is because most of our religious intellectuals, until very recently, had a background in the natural and experimental sciences which are not concerned with this idea. What is surprising is that left-wing intellectuals didn’t do this either although Marxism is a school of thought that has been constructed upon historicity. That is to say, Marxism represents a crystallization of the spirit of the nineteenth century. I believe that this is one of the most useful and lasting elements within Marxism and it is the lesson we must learn from it. But some people didn’t understand the lesson as well as they should have.
At any rate, today, we are in great need of historicity, particularly in the arena of religious and political criticism. And this is a concept which is very labyrinthine and complicated. We mustn’t imagine that it has a simple meaning. But we must gradually benefit from it and use it in our theoretical expositions.
Source:Dr. Soroush Web Site. 2005-12-03.
Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser
* This interview took place at the request of the Participation Front’s newsletter. It was published in the newsletter and on Hanouz.com. Javad Ruh was also present at the interview. (The Participation Front is Iran’s main reformist party.)