سکولاریسمِ خزنده

این مقاله‌، که نسخه‌یِ عکسیِ آن را می‌بینید، در نشریه‌یِ زیر منتشر شده است

Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa an the Middle East, Duke University Press,Volume 31, Number 1, 2011.

و از جمله مقاله‌هایِ عرضه شده در کنفرانسی ست با عنوانِ «پس‌نشستِ سکولاریسم» ، که در ماهِ می 2009 در دانشگاهِ یورک، در شهرِ تورنتویِ کانادا، به همّتِ سعیدِ رهنما  و هایده‌یِ مغیثی، از استادانِ آن دانشگاه، برگزار شد. من نیز از دعوت شدگان بودم.

Creeping Secularism

Daryoush Ashouri

The Islamic revolution in Iran at the closing decades of the twentieth century was a shocking, unexpected phenomenon in the context of modern history. Its religious emblem, the presence of the Shiite clerics as it’s mobilizing motor for mass demonstrations and, eventually, the bizarre composition of Islam and revolution—an amalgam of two conceptually alien elements, with unprecedented ideological claims—created a new peculiar model of state and statecraft. The substitution of a fundamentalist regime for a semisecular monarchy replaced the crown with the turban as the paramount symbol of the Iranian national sovereignty, under the fundamentalist formulation of the "governance of the canonist" (velayat-e faqih). This new state manifesting itself through specific signs, symbols, slogans, discourses, and behaviors, as well as by appropriation of modern means of ideological propaganda, the use of revolutionary violence, and organized terror, embodied in the very structure of a state, addressed itself to the world as a new militant ideological and political power aiming, once again, to change the world. How could this extremely unexpected event happen? 

Explanations are various and they focus either on the dictatorial manners and erroneous actions of the shah, alongside the role played by the Western powers, specifically the United States, or on the presence and the political role of Shiism and its clergy in Iranian history. However, a few fundamental questions remain unanswered. How could a radically traditionalist religious establishment, which was normally marked by modern revolutionaries as reactionary, merge with the most radical revolutionary groups and views? What are the universal results of such a "chemical" composition for both the otherworldly religionism and secular revolutionism? How do they essentially differ in action and discourse from what they had been previously? What were the innermost historical forces that made possible this seemingly impossible phenomenon?

The question, "retreat of the secular?" as the main title of this conference, reflects a latent anxiety about what has been going on in our contemporary world in recent decades, that is, the assault of religious fundamentalism on worldly values. This unforeseen event, seemingly, has invaded and invalidated prospects of an entirely secularized world as imagined by modern intelligentsia everywhere. The Islamic revolution in Iran as forerunner of the revolutionary Islamism around the world, was one of the most unexpected events from a secular historical point of view. Because, in contrast to all other political revolutions in modern history—spearheaded around the world by intelligentsia—this one, the last historic revolution with universal echoes and claims, carried religious slogans and was led by clerics of a certain religious denomination from the Islamic world.

The "Islamic Revolution" as Contradiction in Terms

The blending of the concepts of Islam and revolution, astonishingly, produced an amalgam of two apparently incompatible terms. The revolution that overthrew a semisecular royal regime only officially got the attribution "Islamic" after its victory and under this descriptor created a peculiar model of a theocratic state. By copying the slogans of internationalist secular revolutionary movements, this new formulation of state power, under the unyielding leadership of a tough religious personality, addressed itself to the world as a new ideological challenge and state power, resolved not only to reshape Iranian society by its own supposed "Islamic" model of governance and Islamic social norms and values, but also to export its revolutionary model to other Islamic countries, and even to the whole world. However, there were many shared elements between this new revolutionary phenomenon and other similar movements with secular emblems in the modern world. Their most common characteristics were populist behaviors and slogans, and, in practice, the employment of confiscated state power and modern means of propaganda, alongside the violence and organized terror.

How could this entirely unexpected event happen? From the immediate perspective of political analysis, it can be explained by pointing out the dictatorial methods and political mistakes of the overthrown shah and the role played by the Western powers, specifically the United States, in this relationship. More in-depth research from a larger historical perspective includes, as another decisive factor, the political role of Shiism and its clergy in Iranian history. Undoubtedly, these factors had definite roles in preparing the ground for an event named Islamic revolution.

However, it seems to me that a fundamental problem remains unexplained in a mere sociopolitical approach to the matter: that is, how a radically traditionalist religious establishment, normally marked by its critics as extremely conservative, could absorb the most radical secular revolutionary views and practices of modern times. How could Islam become  revolutionary and the revolution "Islamic"? Is there a historical possibility for union between secularism and religionism? In other words, is the Islamic revolution, politically, socially, and culturally, a forceful return to a medieval way of life and thought or, on the contrary—under the pressure of the dominant economic, political, and social forces in both domestic and global scales—a painful, costly creeping toward the realization of a modern, secular form of state and society in Iran?

Alchemy of Ideas

From a purely logical point of view, ideas as abstract representations of the things, or reflections of their essences in the human mind, apparently stand eternally constant and self-identical. However, in real historical life, ideas, as constitutive elements of ideologies and discourses, tend to change and merge with each other, even with what normally are considered their opposites or, in Hegelian terms, their antitheses. Historically, there are innumerable examples of the mixture of ideas and ideologies of the same nature, such as religious or philosophical precepts, even when they are of different geographical and historical origins. The influence of Iranian pre-Islamic elements of faith on Judaism, of Judeo-Christian elements on Islam, or of Buddhism on Taoism, are classic examples worthy of note. Yet, as mentioned, at times the process of influence and mixture happens between elements of apparently incompatible or opposite natures. The influence of Greek philosophical outlook and its radical rationalistic way of thought on the submissive, god-fearing spirit of Judaism, and then on Christianity and Islam, is one of the most distinguished examples. This mixture greatly changed the primitive cultural atmosphere of these religions by contributing to the development of the theological, philosophical, and even mystical systems of each of them. Such processes generally happen unconsciously under the pressure of circumstantial historical forces.

Ironically, such convergences, under certain conditions, happen while opposing sides are ideologically and practically engaged in violent struggle for power. Ideological rhetoric, as a strong social catalyst, plays a great role in the process of merging apparently incompatible or opposing ideas. Rhetorical argumentation, according to the situation, uses different means of agitation, including quoting forgotten, marginalized, or depreciated verses of a sacred text or essential reference sources of a faith, or taking citations out of context, touting selected aphorisms from highly authoritative figures. Also dragging, arbitrarily, selected materials from marginal to central positions and reinterpreting them in the context of the new social and political atmosphere, and, finally, endorsing them as the main articles of a faith or its very essence are factors. All these ways of engaging people are devices used to transform old persuasions into something compatible with the spirit and demands of the time, or as efficient weapons in the arena of the struggle for power. The social position and image of the rhetorician and his or her strategic skills for winning power in political warfare—having by nature the combined characteristics of both fox and lion, as Machiavelli puts it—are other distinctive attributes of a great social catalyst for ideological transmutation.

Religionism normally is defined by viewing its metaphysical and eschatological tenets as the most central elements in its constitution, while theoretical secularism, in contrast, is defined by its antimetaphysical convictions and denial or disregard for all eschatological claims. Both of them, in their mild forms, show toleration toward each other and can coexist in common scenes of social life. But in its radical forms, religion, in certain social conditions, manifests its strong, aggressive sociopolitical dimensions, while radical secularism—as historical experiences have demonstrated—is capable of being transformed into a semireligious, historical eschatology. The case of Marxism-Leninism, the most radical form of philosophical secularism, and its fateful implementation with an eschatological historical approach in Soviet Russia, could be mentioned as the most manifest example. As Nicolas Berdyaev and other observers of Russian history have related abundantly, Bolshevism was an adaptation of Marxism to the Russian spirit, reared, historically, in the atmosphere of the native religion of orthodoxy.

The definition of human beings as "political animals," inherited from Aristotle, expounded itself in modern times as a basic concept of philosophical humanism. Therefore, final liberation of humanity from chains of servility by political action, highest of all by revolutionary uprising, has become a central ideological element since the eighteenth century. This very concept, which interprets the whole historical life of humanity as thoroughly political, has become a fundamental secular notion in modern times. In Western Europe, the eclipse of the medieval theocentric community and its eschatological prospects for human life witnessed its replacement by a secular, humanistic society with a vision of historical teleology. However, eschatological views never deserted the scene, but revived themselves in the form of historical teleology. Pure secularism, like pure religiosity, is something that doesn’t belong to this mundane world. Mixtures of the two always exist in varying degrees according to cultural and historical contexts. In their extremist forms, in many aspects, they correspond to each other more resolutely.

Keeping this point in mind, I would say that the unconscious mixture of the most radical secularist ideas in the Russian mind with the eschatological tenets of Orthodox Christianity, which led to a revolution with unexpected results, probably can shed a light on its contrasting example and make it historically more understandable. That contrasting example, which emerged in a certain favorable condition in Iranian history, is the unconscious convergence of Islamic creeds and eschatological mythical beliefs of Shiism, on one hand, and modern secular utopian convictions, on the other.

The monotheist religions, especially Islam, because of their belief in the sovereignty of the Almighty God as supreme universal power, contain a strong element of political theology in their makeup that by its impetus strives for total social and political dominance in certain historical circumstances. However, in their ancient and medieval historical contexts, with their basic otherworldly and eschatological attitudes, they never merged totally into ephemeral politics. In the case of Islam, until encountering the modern world and its secularism, the historically autonomous Islamic world showed considerable capability in developing a multidimensional culture with a vast spectrum of visions. Obviously, a certain essential element for such competence is the great innate hermeneutical potency at the core of every text, discourse, and tradition, especially religious ones, in the extended span of their historical life. Islamic culture, among other things, developed a great tradition of esoteric and mystical discourse preaching hermetic forms of nonpolitical life and, at least in its Persianate version, side by side of it, developed an individualistic and hedonistic manner of life and thought based on mystical views, labeled as mazhab-e rendi (the way of the libertine), for which Persian mystic poets, mainly Hafiz and Saadi, were its greatly influential propagators.

The total politicization of Islam, which could be interpreted as its semi secularization, is an event of recent times born out of the womb of the political theology contained in certain religious hermeneutics. By narrowing the horizon of religious vision to political life and political struggle through populist movements led by fanatics, in recent times a stubborn militant Islam was born that has challenged modern civilization’s form of social life in the name of their own original "Islamic" version. This militant Islamism condemns the modern way of life as a paganish threat to the so-called true Islamic way of life, while, paradoxically, employs every available means of terror and mass destruction created by modern civilization to make their own Islam dominant. It imposes its political presence by aggrandizing certain traditional norms of behavior and social values as original and eternal Islamic norms and values through demonstrating in public life certain "Islamic" signs and symbols, such as growing beards on men or putting on the chador by women.

However, fundamentalist Islam is basically a reactive phenomenon reared in the atmosphere of the dominance of modern secularism and universal prevalence of modernized forms of social life originating from Western Europe. Overall, the fundamentalist Islam is a revolutionary phenomenon of modern times that uses "tradition" selectively and instrumentally for conquering political power. A classic example of the development of the totally political hermeneutics of Islam is frankly expressed in Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s writings. In this discussion  I want briefly to review Khomeini’s discourse directed to the thorough politicization of Islam by total integration of Islamic creed into the corpus of the state. This is a manifest example of such a transformative action made possible, among other means, by rhetorical devices.

Khomeini’s Political Reading of Islam

Kashf-e asrar (Discovery of Mysteries) is a book written by Khomeini in the early 1940s. Originally, it was designed to respond to the anti-Shiite claims of an unnamed critic, apparently a follower of Ahmad Kasravi. However, far beyond that purpose, reading it in the light of the realization of its political dream by Islamic revolution reveals its fundamental significance from a retrospective historical point of view. From this perspective, the book could be considered a manifesto of political Islam, presumably, a Mein Kampf of its own genre. Pursuing this idea, the writer claims the existence of a complete design for a theocratic state in the Koran and Sharia and describes basic Islamic doctrines for organization and functions of such a state by extracting and interpreting related materials from the Koran and other authoritative sources. He was thinking and writing about this idea at a time when nobody, including the writer, could imagine the feasibility of such a dream. Here, with a fiery tongue, he not only refutes claims made by the critic, or critics, against Shiism and fallacies of its discourses, but also expounds his thorough political reading of Islam and the Koran with the utmost self-confidence of a religious authority.

Khomeini claims that Islam is the absolutely right religion, destined by divine will to establish its own government on the Earth for enforcing God’s decrees as revealed in the laws of Sharia. By his rhetorical method of argumentation based on Shiite theology, which tries to be entirely logical on that base, he attempts to demonstrate that "Islamic laws," as God’s eternal decrees, are comprehensive, flawless rules designed for the prosperity of humanity of all times. As such, he states, this government should be ruled, as a theocracy, by knowledgeable authorities, that is, high-ranking mullahs well versed in Islamic law. To this end, he makes abundant references to verses of the Koran, but the great emphasis is on the verses ordering jihad and the killing of heretics and infidels. For him, violence against infidels and heretics, as prescribed by the Koran, is one of the essential instruments for establishing an Islamic state on the basis of Islamic law.

He believes that Sharia, as a comprehensive body of laws issued, not by feeble human minds, but through divine omniscience, must replace the flawed secular legislation adopted from Europe. In the design of his ideal state, he also projects the total incorporation of religious institutions into the corps of the state. Although the idea of Islamic government and the existence of "Islamic laws" as a comprehensive system was not unprecedented among Shiite mullahs, never had it been expounded with such persistence and prospect of feasibility in the context of the modern world. But such a project, willy-nilly, overlooks the most fundamental element in the eschatological articles of faith in Twelve-Imamite Shiism, that is, expectation for the advent of the absent immaculate twelfth imam, which is believed to make eternal justice prevail on the Earth by thorough extermination of sinners and evildoers.

In this way, by disregarding the prevalent Shiite beliefs in predestination, Khomeini projects a view of radical, voluntary activism for realization of such a state by the communal will of courageous and sacrificing men of faith. He goes on to depict his concept of Islamic government by saying that, unlike contemporary pagan governments, it would be not a dictatorial government but a government ruled by the pious people and true believers under the supervision of the highest religious authority, responsible for implementation of the divine laws. Following his project, he goes so far into detail as to adopt an essential structural element of the modern state, that is, the triadic separation of powers.

In spite of the profound moralistic pessimism of the Koran and traditional Islam for this worldly life, Khomeini addresses the Koran, in Kashf-e asrar, to say that "it is regrettable that your laws never have been implemented. Otherwise this dark house [of worldly life] and haven of wild ferocious animals, which call themselves civilized people of the world, would become a  place enviable to paradise, and the bride of happiness would be embraced by all people even in this world."1 In another place he uses the traditional term for utopian state in Islamic philosophy, madina-ye fazela, to explain such a state of affairs achieved by the execution of "Islamic laws."

As a young mullah, Khomeini developed severe sympathy for the Islamic mysticism (‘erfan) through a fascination with Sufi literature, especially the speculative mysticism of Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra. The views and writings of these great figures of Islamic theosophy were the subjects of lectures in the seminary he attended at Qom. His mystical views are expressed in his other works through esoteric interpretations of the daily prayer and other religious matters. But in emerging directly in the arena of political struggle with the shah in the early 1960s, he never approached mystical topics publicly, but rather clung to his status as ayatollah in the religious establishment, trying to consolidate his position in the highest rank of ayatollahs as an "authority for imitation" (marja’-e taqlid) and attempting to achieve the highest position among them. In this stage, especially after a religious riot instigated by him in 1963, which led to his banishment, his rhetorical strategy was unhesitatingly directed toward propagating the idea of religious government by knowledgeable mullahs. His ideal political life for the nation, as described in Kashf-e asrar, was a Spartan type with austere norms for social life directed to the mobilization of military forces to make jihad for expanding the territory of Islam or defending Islamic land against encroachments by the pagans.

As mentioned before, when Khomeini was writing Kashf-e asrar in the atmosphere of the social and political turmoil caused by the downfall of Reza Shah Pahlavi, during the occupation of Iran by the Allies in the Second World War, the prospect of an Islamic revolution leading to the establishment of Islamic government was absolutely not in sight. However, the occupation, by releasing mullahs and intellectuals from the constraints of the dictatorship, gave them an opportunity for free speech. This situation brought Khomeini, still an obscure young mullah, to the arena of the ideological struggle with his version of the cause of Islam. Although there was apparently no organized bond at the time, there are signs of a probable secret relationship between him and the extremist group the Fedayeen of Islam. This group played a determining role in the political developments of that decade by political assassination.

A considerable feature of Khomeini’s discourse in his book is its linguistic style, which keeps a deliberate distance from the traditional vernacular of mullahs and madrassa. The traditional spoken and written language of the clergy was laden with strange Arabic wording and labyrinthine syntax, almost totally incomprehensible to laypeople, even educated ones coming out of the modern education system. Yet the heavy, obscure, traditional linguistic style of the madrassa lacked the qualities of expression needed for modern political rhetoric and polemic. Therefore he consciously adopted a more simplified style of writing, by using fewer Arabic-origin words and replacing some with Persian-origin words, which was current in the writings of ideological rivals among the intelligentsia. He also shows a talent for inventing a sensational, stimulating prose style. This point also could be taken as a meaningful sign for his crafty political talent and determination.

The courage and determination of Khomeini for his cause showed itself in his rise against the shah in 1963. Thereafter, he was the indisputable guiding figure at the top of a clandestine religious movement that in the stormy atmosphere of the Third World in the 1960s and 1970s accumulated its forces for an indefinite future action. In this historical period the appearance of an energetic rhetorician, Ali Shariati, was a great contribution to the process of using self-made hermeneutical devices for remolding Shiism and its holy figures and myths into a thoroughly new political and revolutionary configuration by combining traditional religious beliefs with modern liberal and leftist social and political ideals and values. Shariati represented a new phenomenon in the social and political atmosphere of Iran, which was  later referred to as "religious intellectuals." His attempts to interpret "ideology" as a dynamic revolutionary historical force for promoting spiritual life of humanity, depicting prophets as supreme ideologues, had a fundamental role in refashioning Shiite Islam as a revolutionary ideology after the model of extreme leftist ideologies. His skill in rhetorical speech and writing was a strong motivator for mobilizing younger educated generations of religious origin to rise up, under the leadership of Khomeini, against the discredited secular regime to realize the fantasy of an Islamic utopia.

A great factor in the maturing of this amalgam of Shiite beliefs, combined with eschatological expectations and modern revolutionary dreams, was the rise of revolutionary enthusiasm in the Third-Worldly political atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, which, like other parts of the world, had great appeal to the growing young population of Iran. The "Islamic" version of the Third-Worldly revolutionary ideas, as outlined by Shariati, in combination with Khomeini’s utopian vision of Islamic government, finally was successful in conquering total political power in the revolution of 1978.

Transmutation of the Utopian Dream into Political Realism

Khomeini was a knowledgeable man of scholastic Islamic sciences, but completely a layman in matters related to the highly complicated structure of the modern state and its political, economic, social, and cultural functions. However, in his dreams for reviving the political might of Islam, as mentioned before, he imagined Sharia as a comprehensive body of laws responding more than sufficiently not only to the material and spiritual needs of an Islamic community but also to the administration of a modern state. In practice, through the victory of the revolution, the establishment of the so-called Islamic state started with the annulment of a part of previous legislation adhering to modern European style, such as family laws and criminal laws, and their replacement with the so-called "laws"(qavanin) of Sharia, instead of ahkam, orders, as used traditionally for more than a thousand years.

By ratification of a constitutional law with a supposed "Islamic" framing, Islamization of the state and society started. But the experience in the context of a completely modernized structure of state and partly modernized society, very soon revealed the incompatibility and insufficiency of the canonical civil codes, the primitiveness and brutality of its penal codes, and, most important, the almost total absence of a system of public law responding to the needs of the administration of a modern society and state. However, the idea of the legalization of the "Islamic Republic" by a popular referendum, and later endeavors to mold it into constitutional law based on the separation of powers and universal suffrage, defined its organization as an adoption of the modern structure of a republic. Notwithstanding that characterization, the concept of velayat-e faqih (governance of the highest canonist) in a subsequent stage was introduced into the constitutional law, which later was reinforced by the principle of the absolute authority of the "supreme leader" for surveillance and exertion of the nearly total political power. This development planted the seed of severe tension at the heart of a willfully invented political entity—a tension, as is well known, between its outwardly republican framework and its inwardly autocratic system ruled by a mullah as a theocracy.

Khomeini’s dream of creating a utopia on the basis of the supposed existing divine system of laws, like all utopian dreams, proved to be illusory and impractical. But the great will to power behind this imagination was lucky enough to find its favorable historical circumstances to establish a theocratic state with a caste like system for distribution of the political power and economic privileges. The system, obviously, left the lion’s share in the hands of the clergy, their immediate relatives, and their military and security entourages. However, in the early years of his governance, Khomeini became aware of the impassable gaps between his utopian Islamic state, based on "divine laws," and the realities of administrating a modern apparatus of government with its complicated organization of internal functions and international relations. And so, with his Machiavellian instinctual dexterity for capturing and preserving power, he formulated a hardly imaginable principle to solve the problem. This principle, as the highest principle  for governance of the Islamic Republic, regards preservation of the "Islamic government" as an absolute necessity prior to the implementation of the laws of Sharia. The downright priority of staying in power frankly authorizes government to overlook, or suspend, even the primary commandments of the religion, whenever necessary, for that purpose.

This strategic formulation, in reality, negates the raison d’être of the Islamic government, which originally never had been supposed as a goal in itself, but essentially an instrument for the exertion of the laws of Sharia. In this formulation the Islamic Republic, as an apparatus of power, although nominally representing the sovereignty of Islam and its Sharia, is spontaneously justified by its very existence as a sovereign power, without being axiomatically an instrument at the service of Sharia. In other words, Sharia, by its partial, arbitrary, and almost theatrical implementation, is reduced to a mere instrument, among other means, for exertion of power, whenever deemed formally usable.

For putting this dictum into practice, the Council of Recognition of Expediency, the highest legislative body of the Islamic Republic, was invented. The council is the supreme authority governing the Council of the Guardians of the constitutional law. The second body is an authority that can nullify ratifications of the Islamic Parliament whenever discerning them to be incompatible with Sharia or constitutional law, while the first one is authorized to reestablish them, in spite of their incompatibility with Sharia, in the name of the "expedience of the system of power" (maslehat-e nezam).

Postrevolutionary realpolitik, at the service of the new ruling elite, commands the priority of political expediency and the preservation of power by all imaginable means and reduces all prerevolutionary idealistic and utopian aspirations and dreams to a mere means of propaganda. This old story, experienced in almost all modern political revolutions, was naturally repeated in the Islamic revolution of Iran. The Islamic Republic, by its ideological claims in the name of religion, from its early days severely restricted the circle of political and administrative nomination. Then, passing through its revolutionary stage of the reign of terror, it created a more strictly closed system of power dominated by certain high-ranking mullahs and administered by enclosed circles of civil, military, and security authorities. This monopolistic system of power, emerging out of a revolution with "Islamic" emblem, as we saw, has only an instrumental relationship with Sharia almost as a facade for ruling.

However, among educated Iranians, who try to evaluate the "positive" aspects of the Islamic revolution, there is a widespread saying that, in spite of all the showy religiosity dictated by the regime, the side effects of its actions and style of administration have involuntarily made a great contribution to the secularization of the Iranian mentality and social behavior, leading to strong demand for a secular state. The demythologization of Shiism for a considerable number of its followers, and the gradual downgrading and laicization of its clergy in the eyes of the majority of the Iranian people, attests to the process of creeping secularization in this country. 

1. Ruholla Khomeini, Kashf-e asrar (Qom: Azadi, n.d.), 220.

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