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Iran’s Freedom-Loving Clerics and the Issue of Modernity

On the Occasion of the Fortieth Day Commemoration of Ayatollah Montazeri’s Death

روحانیت آزادیخواه و مسئله تجدد خواهی در ایران

02 February 2010 Ata Hoodashtian
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Iran’s Freedom-Loving Clerics and the Issue of Modernity

Hard as it may be to believe, a number of clergymen joined fellow Iranians in the freedom movement in the wake of public protests after the disputed June 2009 election. These progressive and defiant Muslims welcomed oppression, discrimination and possible exile with open arms and defended free elections, freedom of parties, freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the name of Islam. Their names are forever inscribed in the on-going history of Iranian popular protest movements.


Hard as it may be to believe, a number of clergymen joined fellow Iranians in the freedom movement in the wake of public protests after the disputed June 2009 election. These progressive and defiant Muslims welcomed oppression, discrimination and possible exile with open arms and defended free elections, freedom of parties, freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the name of Islam. Their names are forever inscribed in the on-going history of Iranian popular protest movements.

For the history of the freedom struggle in Iran has time and time again, right from its earliest beginnings shone with the names of valiant Muslims whose progressive interpretations of Islam have made their mark in this struggle. It is here that the Ayatollah Montazeri takes his rightful place in that history.

While it is true that Montazeri was one of the founders of the Islamic Regime currently in power, he was among those who came to distinguish right from wrong and publicly announced he was parting ways with the religious dictatorship. When the time came to fight against wrong, this too, he did with great bravery. In this way, he followed his calling as progressive cleric, washing his hands of the impurities of the absolutist Islamic government. Following the first wave of prison executions, in his August 4, 1988 letter to Khomeini, he expressed his anger and opposition to the executions and spoke of “relinquishing of responsibility…” But Khomeini wrote in reply, “I have made a pact with my God to give priority to His satisfaction over that of the people” (Letter of March 26, 1989).

Modernist Islam – Secularism and Modernism in Iran

But what is there of importance in this progressive reading of Islam and what is the importance of figures like Ayatollah Montazeri for modern intellectuals and those with secular, democratic sympathies? What is there of interest for those like us who explain the world in a secular fashion and base political and theoretical principles on the separation of religion and state?

It has been asked why in this land which has been deceived at the hands of the ruling clerical establishment, why should this clergy be trusted yet again? Why should we set ourselves up only to be deceived by them again? What did the clergy offer the Twentieth Century other than regression, worship of traditions, dictatorship and a reactionary mindset? It has been asked: should we not free Iran once and for all from the vicious and evil clutches of the clergy?

In reply, we say that in the history of Iran, a group of this clergy has always walked, step-in-step with the travelers on the path of freedom. We have seen this both during the Constitutional Movement at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, in other freedom-seeking campaigns and most recently in the Green Movement. So, our defense of the clergy is always contingent upon the extent of the clerical willingness to seek freedom and progressiveness. Of course, this answer does not do justice to the question.

Therefore, in this article, let us pose the question as follows:

Is there a place for these Islamists and open-minded, criticism-welcoming clergy in the secular, modernist movement and in the development of Iranian modernity? Is Iranian modernity and the foundation of Iran’s future democracy in need of a critical counter-balance willing to participate in a dialog?

Our response to this question is “Yes!”

In the remainder of this article, we will furnish our reasons to this positive response. First, however, we should mention that we will not indulge here in defining Islam or Islamist or other such fine distinctions in our discussion of the clergy. Although in theory, there has long been a tendency among Islamists to separate the clergy from Islam, we have seen that, and as history testifies, this has not been realized so far and as it happens, the presence of clerics like Ayatollah Montazeri whose defense of the trampled rights of people demonstrates quite the opposite.

The Modernism and Modernity Project in Iran

Delineation of reasons:

1. Iran’s modernism and democracy project aligns itself with broadminded Islamists interested in dialogue in as much as the progressive ranks of the clergy, in word and in deed, have joined ranks with the civil movement of the Iranian people in recent years and months. The most valuable symbol of this project in our age has been Ayatollah Montazeri, who stood up and attacked religious dictatorship, objected vehemently to the executions of the 1980s, to the counterfeit election of June 2009 and to the wave of arrests and tortures, and thereby joined in the people’s cry for freedom.

The issue of legitimacy is one of the principal points of this issue. Whereas in contrast to the massed ranks of extremists in power who do not see the legitimacy of the Islamic establishment as granted by people but rather mandated by God, and this way consider the Ahmadinejad administration as legitimate, Ayatollah Montazeri, from his own, different religious viewpoint, had a vision of the established order as based only on people’s votes.

To the pluralists who advocate removing any influence of Islamists and clergy on society’s next stage of evolution, those who say that the people of Iran no longer need the clergy, we here emphasize that setting up a secular and democratic society in the Iranian context can be realized through a cultural and theoretical coming to terms with the stagnant religious mindset. Critical maneuvers on this path will be effective only when they are made both from without (by us) and in particular from within (by them). That is, the religious iconoclasts must themselves level criticism at religious dogmatism from the innermost active arenas of religion.

Therefore, to build a real democratic structure, the domain of the critical project should be expanded to incorporate the vast and complicated system of those who are inclined towards and involved in religion and traditionalism. That is why any effective step in the process of normalizing religion and of making its area of practice rational and of humanizing its interpretation of society should be backed. Any attempt to develop progressive and freedom-seeking ideas should be supported. Towards this end, Ayatollah Montazeri’s role has been pivotal and influential in showing the way.

The Constitutional Revolution witnessed just such cases among members of the progressive and freedom-seeking clergy and those working within the framework of religion. The push for modernization, in which modern-minded intellectuals have played a valuable role, has been accomplished in all of its dynamic stages with the help of that part of the freedom-seeking clergy and religious people. Of course, the story is complex and cannot be summarized by the contributions of just these few.

In our opinion, if the formation of modernity is to transcend a totally Western form and be shaped as an organic part of Iran's history, it will necessarily need the support of indigenous elements, that is the non-dogmatic and flexible sectors of tradition and religion. This is not because this support will stimulate future hope and enthusiasm on the part of advocates of modernity, but because the non-dogmatic and revisable part of tradition and religion stands a better chance of understanding and establishing a rapport with some of the old and traditional elements of our country. It will thus be able to warm up the frozen minds of traditionalists to the virtues of change and break the cycle of continuing resistance against an imported modernity.

If modernity wishes to move beyond the superficial realms of industrial trade, new economies and modern urbanization and is ready now to infiltrate the very foundations of the native mindset and culture, then it must first join in dialog with that native mindset and culture and quicken the impulse to normalize and modernize that mindset and culture through discussion and debate. Every step towards flexibility and openness to critique contributes to the development of modernism.

Interpretable Ideas

2. From the philosophical viewpoint, there is no doubt that a religious outlook and worldview limits the ability of humans to make informed judgments, reduces their independence of action and stunts the growth of their individual identity. So how is it possible that some of the religious-minded and some traditionalists have been able to remain independent in the realm of action and brave in the realm of judgment and, when it comes to identity, to bloom beyond the stage of mental immaturity and decide to love freedom and support progressiveness? Is it not true that the progressive section of the clergy, and in particular Ayatollah Montazeri, have been this way?

Perhaps it can be said that either these religious-minded people are not adequately aware of their own religious mannerisms, or what they do and say has no connection with principles of seeking freedom.

But we know this is not true.

Because, say, Ayatollah Montazeri was both aware of religion and its belief system – because he enjoyed the highest religious rank – and also he apparently had complete knowledge of what he said about freedom and rights and government and theocracy.

So wherein lies the problem?

The point is that ideas, beliefs and even ideologies are subject to change and reinterpretation. That is to say, the majority of them can be adapted to various historical eras and different societies.

Was the same interpretation of Marxism by the German Rosa Luxemburg used in Lenin's Russia in 1917? Were the same ideas that Lenin had realized in Mao's China? In any case, all those different interpretations were traced to one person named Karl Marx and on one ostensibly impervious theory called Marxism.

So interpretations are sometimes—perhaps always—different from the original ideas and principles. How is this so?

Because they pass through the filter of the human being’s (that is, the receiver of those ideas) mental structure, social position and consciousness and the human being is not a general entity but a specific phenomenon, and because that human is a specific case of the human story, he or she belongs to a particular historical age. And because he or she can belong to a certain historical period, he or she must be contingent upon the exigencies of that age, and be a part of the thoughts, consciousness and thought processes of that period. So religious and belief systems and ideas are subject to transformation and interpretation, and each and every interpretation belongs to a certain historical period.

However, this also means that two devout religious people who are experts in the fundamentals of religion, like Khomeini and Montazeri, can at the same time come up with two very different interpretations to one belief system, an idea or a religious principle. This is not determined by these two individuals’ intention or purpose but by their level of relation and involvement with their specific historical period and also their social position, emotional make-up and the roots by which they are nurtured and grounded. This set of variables makes an individual's reading of that principle or idea contingent upon itself.

The more a cleric or a religious person be involved in this world, and belong to his historical period, the more that individual will reflect its needs in his or her ideas and speech. Therefore, any interpretation of the principles of belief will be more in keeping with the needs of the day.

This tension between normalization and traditionalism and piety is an indication of the complicated reality of modernity's development in Iran. For modernity is neither sheer anti-religious rationalization nor a movement that in principle is standing in opposition to religosity. On the contrary, some aspects of modernity are born right out of religion.

Reformability and Religion

3. Modernism in Iran can and should benefit from a this-worldly interpretation of progressive Islam and shape it to the contours of an Iranian modernity.

Modern Europe too derived the same benefits from modern religionism. Hegel rightly wrote that the foundation for the modern mindset that prepared the grounds for subject (or agent) in modernity was realized in Luther’s new interpretations of Christianity and Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s reformation was carried out with great valor and the emergence of the first sprouting of individuality in modernity took place, in Hegel’s words, to a large part in Luther’s reforms and in the movement of Protestantism.

4. On the other hand, the emphasis on individuality, independent thought, inclination towards critical thinking and the necessity of civil liberties in Iran were all manifestations of the arrival in Iran of modernity and its flexible culture, which gradually started to emerge in the society and among modernist intellectuals in the late Qajar period. In other words, in Iran, Islam gave in to an internal and foundational reform as modernism and modernity manifested themselves. Yet the propensity for making a this-worldly interpretation of Islam and for theoretical broad-mindedness, progressiveness and welcoming of criticism on the part of the greatest representatives of Islamism developed more in the political sphere. Let's not forget that religion is a belief, a concept and also a value.

There may be people who are able, by dint of sheer effort, to cleanse their thoughts and beliefs of religion (whose success on this path should be reassessed) however, one cannot easily free oneself from those values simply by publishing a couple of books and theoretical critiques. We have at times gone about our critique of religion without leaving the confines of our religious point of view. We have used religion to look through the lens of “belief” and “mental viewpoint”, not through the lens of values. And we did not realize that the same sword some of us have raised against religion has been tempered to a large extent with the trappings of religion. However, one would do well to refrain from harsh criticism of the opponents of religion as well as of those who cling to religion. It should only be said that if those two groups are both thinking about the freedom and future of their country—as they undoubtedly are, they should be able to sit down at the table together and see about find a way to foster cooperation and solidarity for the future benefit and success of Iran and not with their biggest demands but with their smallest one.

So intellectuals and secular democrats should support Islamists and that part of the progressive clergy who, for the freedom of this land, have waged a full-scale battle against dictatorship. Their courage should be admired and considered a step on the path of social justice and establishing a civil society as opposed to the inflexibility of religious conservatism.


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About author

Ata Hoodashtian

Ata Hoodashtian

Ata Hoodashtian is an Associate professor in Philosophy and Political Science, and director of the “Management Institute of Canada”, based in Montreal, Canada.He received his Ph.D. from the University of Paris (8) in 1998. He has taught in France for a period of 10 years at Institutes, Grandes Ecoles and the University of Paris 8, and worked in Asia (Central Asia and China) for 3 years, as Assistant Professor and Director of the Research Center. He has collaborated with Yale University, European Universities, NGOs, and has been Chair of the Editorial Board of the “Central Asian Journal" for two... Full bio