Challenging the Government of God
The Iranian reform and its permutations: How fundamentalism gave birth
to its opposite
By Ahmad Sadri
December 14, 2002
Understanding the reform movement in Iran is predicated upon understanding the
particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism which it aims to modify. There is a lot
that is unique about Iranian fundamentalism but it nonetheless must be seen as one
of the Abrahamic revivalisms of the twentieth century.
As ideologies of marginal groups spurned by modernity, Jewish, Christian and Islamic
fundamentalisms oppose the intellectual legacy of modernity and any attempt to arrive
at religious compromises with it. They also share agendas of political domination
based on a shared temptation for theocracies. Having pointed out the general areas
of overlap let us examine the unique aspects of the Iranian fundamentalism and its
1- Although all modern Abrahamic fundamentalisms are political, the politics of Islamic
fundamentalism is eminently innovative. Christian and Jewish fundamentalisms are
parasitic to the democracies under which they have been allowed to flourish. In other
words, they have used modern democracies without sharing their secular underpinnings.
By contrast, Islamic and especially Iranian fundamentalists have synthesized a
variety of Western and non-Western ideas in their attempts to adumbrate and defend
the revival of a political ummah. They have expropriated aspects of such Western
and yet anti-liberal ideas as Marxism, fascism, syndicalism, national-socialism (and
more recently, post-modernism) for concocting their own nativist syntheses.
When Marxism was hot, the forerunners of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran did not
hesitate to ransack its Culture of Critical Discourse. They even attempted to beat
the Marxists at their own game. In a treatise entitled "The Allure of Materialism"
(Elal-e Gerayesh be Maddigari) the late Ayatollah Morteza Motahari identified
the revolutionary rage as part of the attraction of Materialism and charged Muslim
activists with the task of recapturing "the bunkers of aggressiveness"
(Sangar-haye Parkhash-gari). Subsequently, the People's Mujahedeen Organization
proposed to wage a designer Jihad against the Shah, cloning the Marxist Fedaeen's
vanguard "Guevarist" ideology.
Iran's post-Revolutionary anti-Americanism that led to such epoch making events
as the hostage crisis of 1979 was also born of the same ideological promiscuity.
In short, the Iranian fundamentalism has been innovative and wildly eclectic. By
contrast, the Iranian reform movement equates eclecticism with obscurantism. It declares
the concocted syntheses of Islam and Western systems defunct and calls for a transparent
system based on unhyphenated modern concepts (e.g., democracy, personal liberties
and human rights).
2- It is true that all Western fundamentalisms originate in parochial and resentful
reactions of marginalized social groups to modernity. But the Islamic, and especially
Iranian, fundamentalists pack a much stronger punch (compared to their Christian
and Jewish counterparts) exactly because they have been able to transcend their marginality
by invoking the anti-colonial sentiments that are shared by the majorities in the
third world. Once modernity is labeled a deracinating tool of imperialism it would
be rejected out of hand before it could pose a challenge.
The deliberate confusion of the legacy of modernity with that of Western hegemony
has served and still serves the interests of Islamic fundamentalists. Iranian reformists
are at pains to decouple modernity from its imperialist carriers. While defending
national and cultural autonomy of Muslims, they call for facing the challenge of
3- A third difference that brings us to the topic of this essay is reform itself.
Since it has succeeded in establishing a state, Iran's Islamic fundamentalism has
generated its own opposite (the reform movement) in proper Hegelian fashion. No such
movement exists in Christianity or Judaism at present time.
The intellectual reform movement recognizes that Islam remains a pre-enlightenment
religion. It asks: what would it take for Islam to come to terms with the paradigm
shift in political arrangements of modernity that posits a rights-based, social-contracterian,
secular framework for private and public life?
Of course, dozens of Islamic reformers from Mohammd Iqbal Lahouri to Fazl ur-Rahman
have approached the task. But enlightened thinkers a reform movement do not make.
It took events such as the thirty-year wars to gradually crystallize the Christian
accommodation to secularism and tolerance. Nor did Reform Judaism spring forth from
the philosophies of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).
It took the ferment of the German and American social conditions of the 19th century
(e. g. , emancipation from medieval ghettos and the unprecedented liberties of the
new world) as well as the prodigious intellectual and organizational abilities of
leaders like Abraham Geiger (1810-74) and Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) to reconstitute
a post-enlightenment Judaism.
The reform movement in Iran is unique in the Islamic world because it is not driven
by the genius of a few intellectuals. On the contrary; it is the disenchantment of
the Iranian masses with the government of God that is "channeled" by the
reform intellectuals. The demands of the reform movement in Iran go beyond political
reform, democracy and human rights. It aims for nothing less than a redefinition
of religion in the context of a secular social, cultural and political system >>>
How a Gradualist Reform Was Radicalized
The critical appraisal of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran was effective because
it was a self-critique by ex-members, rather than an attack by non-members. The Iranian
reform resulted from disaffections of successive segments of the formerly committed
elites of the Islamic Republic during such episodes as the taking of the American
hostages, the Cultural Revolution, the pursuit of the aggressive phase of the Iraqi
campaign and the execution of the imprisoned Mojahedeen at the end of the war. Each
of these events produced a liminal wave of disenchantment whose butterfly effects
later appeared as the intellectual and political storms that brought Mohammad Khatami
to power in 1997.
Aghajari, the professor of history at a university founded by the revolutionaries
and the prominent reformer whose recent death sentence has made him a household name
in Iran, is a war amputee. Akbar Ganji the imprisoned reform journalist was an intelligence
officer in the Revolutionary Guards at the northern theatre of the Iraqi front. Abbas
Abdi, whose recent arrest on the anniversary of the taking of American hostages was
meant to be somehow poignant, was a leader of the Student Followers of the Line of
Imam who took the Americans hostage in 1979.
Abdolkarim Soroush and Sadegh Ziba Kalam the renowned intellectuals of the reform
movement were involved at the highest levels of the Cultural Revolution. Some of
the reformers, including the dissident Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri witnessed
the summary executions of thousands of imprisoned Mojahedeen. As ex-radicals, the
leaders of the reform movement in Iran are naturally averse to quick and radical
change. And yet, the pitch of the reformist censure of the Islamic Republic has dramatically
increased during Khatami's second presidency.
No one doubts that a further radicalization of the reform is afoot, despite the gradualist
inclinations of its ex-radial leaders. The recent open letter of Dr.
Ghassem Sholeh-Sadi marks only the latest step in this process. The prime mover
of this radicalization is the right wing's intransigence and its unwillingness to
abide by the will of the majority of Iranians who have voted in four land slide elections
The right wing backlash to Khatami's election started as soon as it recovered
from a one year period of confused hibernation, with the arrest and trial of Gholam-Hossein
Karbaschi, (the reformist mayor of Tehran) and the assassination of Said Hajjarian
(the main architect of the reform politics.) In the words of Morteza Mardiha, the
right wing thus eradicated the twin symbols of modernization and modernity.
Then came the summer of 1999 when the right-wing went on a rampage and shut down
three quarters of the reformist media in one fell swoop and brutalized the students
who had demonstrated against the closures. In the next three years the right-wing
counterattack continued with the arrest and imprisonment of reformists on trumped-up
charges of treason and the systematic emasculation of the reform parliament by the
veto power of the Council of Guardians as well as the "executive decree"
of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
All this brought the reform movement to a standstill.
What did the leader of the reform do? In the words of one of his assistants, Khatami
spent his presidency forging shields instead of swords. He complained that the right
wing created an average of one crisis for every nine days that he was in office.
But he never handled these crises with anything bordering on competence. Khatami's
only firm stance at the outset of his presidency led to the arrest of the so-called
rouge elements of the ministry of Intelligence that were behind the serial murders
of the dissidents. But even these
trials ground to a halt in the partisan sands of the right wing Judiciary.
The increasing alienation of the constituencies of the reform and the prospect of
a bankrupt post-Khatami reform movement finally compelled the President to take a
proactive step late last August. He introduced two bills to define and expand the
powers of the elected president and to limit the vetting powers of the right-wing
body known as the Council of Guardians. Khatami's characteristically anemic pursuit
of this recent bid did not bode well for the success of these measures.
Of course, even if the twin measures would become law; this modest achievement
would not counterbalance Khatami's above mentioned sins of omission and his sins
of commission -- e. g., his preemptive surrender at the outset of his second term
evident in his shocking choice of a non-reformist cabinet.
The irony is that public opinion polls show that Khatami is still regarded as
a paragon of morality. One wishes that his familiarity with Western thinkers had
extended to the realist political philosophers from Machiavelli to Weber who teach
that the exercise of political power calls for a different sort of morality. Private
virtues, (like meekness) could turn into public vices. Running to the moral high-ground
from the consequences of one's political failures is to climb the heights of political
Khatami's twin bills were a relatively minor undertaking.
That the right wing was threatened by Khatami's proposed laws (and over-reacted by
unleashing a fresh wave of crises), speaks volumes about its own insecurity. This
second right wing backlash started by arresting government supported public opinion
researchers. The polls had revealed that three quarters of Iranians favored negotiating
(and that 64. 5% of them supported resuming political relations) with the United
States. Abbas Abdi, Hossein-Ali Ghazian and Behrooz Geranpayeh were arrested in this
It is indeed an ominous development that the tenor of the voluminous indictment
delivered by the prosecutor Ali Asghar Tashakkori against Ghazian has all the earmarks
of the secret bulletins put out by the late Saeed Emami and his assistants at the
Ministry of Intelligence (who were later arrested as the government's "rouge
elements" and found guilty as murderers of dissident intellectuals.)
The propaganda arm of the same team had simultaneously launched a campaign of
defamation against a number of academics and intellectuals in a series of programs
broadcast on the National Iranian Television entitled Hoviyat (Identity).
By including the names of a number of academics and intellectuals (including that
of the author) as Ghazian's co-conspirators it is not far fetched to assume that
a new campaign is being launched in order to intimidate dissidents. The death sentence
handed down to the prominent reformer Dr. Aghajari was integral to the new wave of
the right-wing backlash.
If the new right-wing backlash was meant to turn the screws on Khatami
and induce him to take back his twin reform bills, it did not work. The protests
against the death sentence of Aghajari unified the reformers and revived the student
demonstrations that had been in eclipse since the crack down in the summer of 1999.
Both wings of the most important reform organization of the university students,
(Office for Fostering Unity) denounced the sentence against Aghajari. Even a branch
of the right-wing "Mobilization" (Baseej) at the Amir Kabir University
condemned the death sentence. The widespread protests finally succeeded to force
the Supreme Leader Khamenei to order an appeals court to reconsider Aghajari's death
sentence in the light of the religious axiom of the sanctity of life.
Reform is Dead, Long Live Reform
Political reformers appeared deadlocked, soundly beaten and greatly rankled by
the prospect of losing both face and power at the end of Khatami's second term. Just
then, the protests against the death sentence of Dr. Aghajari brought the reformers
both new hope and the possibility of a respectable exit in the form of mass resignations.
They have been given one more chance to prove that they have not been complicit in
the right-wing's brutalization of Iranians, and that they live "for politics"
rather than "off" it.
An interesting manifestation of the radicalization of reform is the political boldness
evident in a number of open letters to Supreme Leader Khamenei -- the most recent
of these were written by Mohsen Sazgara and Ghassem Sholeh-Sadi. This marks a radical
departure from the prudence of the political reformers in the first period of Khatami's
Other freelance reform intellectuals who are not involved in the government or
parliament have been pushing the envelope in other directions. Akbar
Ganji's Manifest of Republicanism is the case in point. This manifesto (and,
to a lesser extent, Hashem Aghajari's strident, anti-clerical lecture on Islamic
Protestantism) must be studied not only for their content but also in social psychological
terms as exemplifying Iran's new antinomian spirit.
Both Ganji and Aghajari have been likened to Salman Rushdie by right wing clergy.
This comparison is sound in ways unforeseen by its authors. Rushdie's alleged heresy
is prefigured in his Satanic Verses in the behavior of his main character
Gabreel Farishtah. Farishta's first act of rebellion is garish and spectacular. He
gorges himself with a variety of forbidden pork to celebrate his liberation from
the strictures of his faith. He screams: "spewing sausage fragments from the
corners of his mouth. "No thunderbolt!" There is no punishment!
willful denial of what has been held and severely sanctioned as sacred is more than
a cathartic release. It could be the harbinger of new social movements. Karen Armstrong
has recognized the heretic antinomianism of Shabbtai Zevi, the 17th century Jewish
mystic and millenarian as an expression of the psychological readiness for liberation
from the strictures of the Jewish law that was later crystallized in Reform Judaism.
The Iranian reform movement is about to molt out of the hardened, prudent and gradualist
skin of the Khatami years. The discarded old casing already belongs to the historians.
The young generations of Iranians are taking bets on the wing span and bright colors
of the new, post-Khatami Reform. >>> Photos
Ahmad Sadri is currently chairperson of the Department of Sociology at
Lake Forest College, Illinois. See Features
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