Mehdi Khalaji: The Clerical Establishment Will Not Promote Democracy


Note: During the past two centuries establishing a connection between Islam and democracy has been, and continues to be, the main desire of many intellectuals in Islamic countries such as Iran.

The path to achieving this dream and the obstacles that stand in its way, have been the topic of many political, historical, and scholarly discussions and writings during the recent years. The following interview is the result of my conversation with Mehdi Khalaji, visiting scholar at Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was born in 1973 in the city of Qom. He spent time studying religion at the Qom Theological School. Khalaji has written for many Iranian publications such as Kyan and Naghd-o-Nazar and he has been a contributor to many Farsi language western media sources. His specialty is on issues of the clerical establishment and the reformist movement in Iran as well as other Islamic nations. In this interview we discussed, among other things, issues relating to the absence of Islamic democracy or the possibility of its existence, the experience of the Islamic Republic in this area, political impediments associated with the “Islamic democracy” project in Iran, the views of the Iranian religious intellectuals after the breakdown of the reformist period, the interests and concerns of religious authorities, ideals and achievements of the Iranian religious intellectual movement, the relationship between religious and secular intellectuals, and the position and condition of democratic reformist thought within traditional religious institutions such as the clerical and lay religious circles.



Gozaar: In Iran it appears that there has been reconciliation or dialogue between religion and democracy or the notion of an Islamic government based on democratic principles which, while seemingly possible cannot be viable, and seems too simple a concept to be realistically feasible. Can one see a merging between religion and democracy in Iran’s future? Is this connection feasible and realistic? In other words, which belief does the experience of the Islamic Republic and its institutions lend itself to: the possibility, or not, of an Islamic democracy?

Mehdi Khalaji: The “merging of religion and democracy” is a meaningless construction. I also don’t understand the definition of a “religious democracy.” In Jewish societies such as Israel, or Christian societies such as those in Europe and the United States, democracies have emerged. The U.S. society is, in some ways, more religious than its counterpart in Iran. This is partly because, contrary to Iran, religious freedom is actively practiced and officially recognized in the U.S. Because of this, we can testify to the possibility of establishing a democracy in a religious society.

It is clear that the establishment of democracy necessitates a certain amount of theoretical and functional groundwork. Some of this is related to religion. The current state of religion in Iran, from religious principles to its institutions and practices, serves more to reinforce autocracy than freedom and democracy. This reality must not lead us to the assumption that the democratization of religious principles will necessarily lead to a democratic political environment or society. It is likely that the democratization of non-religious systems and ideas will be more important in the foundation of a democratic society than the democratization of religious ones. For example, the persistence of an oil-based economy and the lack of a free market economy are noteworthy causes for the consolidation and survival of autocracy in Iran.

The Islamic Republic’s experience is based on the theory of velayat –e faqih (the rule of the jurisprudent). This theory is steadfastly repressive. This is the most important lesson we can learn from the past thirty years.

The traditional argument of the religious powers in Iran is that because Iran is a religious nation, new ideas must be presented within a religious framework in order to gain acceptance. Has this argument been successful in practice?

This statement is also meaningless and can be used in a fallacious manner. The religious nature of a people does not affirm the notion that all new explanations need to take upon a religious tone; just as in modern Europe and the U.S., where such an outcome has not occurred. The real question is the precise knowledge of these new principles and their implementation in the national context. On an epistemological level, it is impossible to merely imitate modernity, but learning from it is absolutely necessary. Just like writing a novel, the modern European theory of the novel cannot be imitated by the Iranian writer who wants to write a Persian novel in Farsi. He must be familiar with the modern novel, but he must also create the Iranian novel on his own.

Does the current political impasse in Iran leave any room for a fresh look at the topic of religious democracy?

The term “religious democracy” is not equivalent to the definition for democracy. In Iran, the government specifically strives for a populist form of democracy. Democracy, rather than being based on populist demand, is founded on non-governmental civil and legal institutions. The desire for freedom and democracy is omnipresent and will always be legitimate, especially during times of political impasse. If political deadlock is an excuse to consolidate the power of an autocratic system, it calls for the immediate action of democratic pressure.

After the breakdown of the reformist movement, what points of view are currently being presented by religious intellectuals?

Those religious intellectuals who are followers of Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohammad Shabastari, have nothing original to say in the field of political thought. The main achievement of religious intellectuals in the last two decades relates to the interpretation of religious text. Someone like Abdolkarim Soroush admits that he is more interested in discussions of moral society than political society. Others who call themselves religious intellectuals are arctually political activists or journalists.

Without the presence of a personality such as Dr. Soroush—who is the axis of this movement and its ideological leader—what state is the status of the religious intellectual movement? Do religious intellectuals in Iran have any receptive audience at all to whom they can present their projects and ideas? For example in the 1990’s, many students were drawn to these discussions. What do you think is happening now?

Abdolkarim Soroush has been the symbol of the religious intellectual movement for the past two decades. He still retains a large group of followers among students and the educated urban middle class. However, it goes without saying that society—this generation in particular—has seen a transformation. The discourse of religious intellectuals does not enjoy the same popularity as it has in the past. When Abdolkarim Soroush was writing and speaking, the internet and satellite were not as readily available and the wave of student and academic immigration to the West had not begun in earnest. There were not as many European language books and libraries available in Iran. Seekers of knowledge in Iran currently have access to numerous resources which, in effect, impedes the formation of authoritative ideologies of the type that was prevalent in the last two decades. No one, not even Abdolkarim Soroush, will experience the same windfall in the future. Our time is one defined by an anti-authoritarian current and the new generation is following this path. On the other hand, it’s been almost a decade since Abdolkarim Soroush has written anything new or proposed novel ideas. Of course, what he has achieved so far has forever solidified his reputation among the list of this country’s most influential intellectuals.

It is important that an ideological current, when it is focused on a specific issue, have some effect on society, such that we will be confronted with a new social and/or political purpose. Did the religious intellectual movement in Iran or the reformist movement within the Iranian government ever have such characteristics?

The sway of society on the part of religious intellectuals is undeniable. The social experience of the years between 1980 and 2000 was highly influenced by this movement. I am not sure about Abdolkarim Soroush, but those who linked themselves to this movement were in search of a means to influence society. The group that embraced Mohammad Khatami and supported him in his bid for presidency during the 1997 elections, also shared this goal. However it may not be that simple to establish a systematic and orderly connection between the ideas of Mr. Soroush and the reformist movement. Specifically, Mr. Khatami, for whom politics was a career that also included intellectual expression, views himself as independent from the religious intellectual movement and holds a separate outlook. For example, the theoretical and functional loyalty of Khatami to the essence of velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudence) is hard to connect to the views of Abdolkarim Soroush.

Did the religious intellectual movement ever pursue a set of ideals or specifically defined ideas? If so, what were they? For example, were they in search of a means to transform the political system to one which is more responsive or were they attempting to push the people to become more involved or socially responsible.

The religious intellectual movement must not be confused with the reformist movement. While personalities like Abdolkarim Soroush may have had political and social concerns, they do not seem to have had a specific plan for political activism or political aspirations. After cooperating with the Islamic Republic, they probably realized that this political system does not aspire to freedom and democracy and that a large section of our crisis is apolitical and has historical roots. They attempted to have an informed approach toward the crisis. Of course, these theoretical attempts have had political consequences. The reformists, of course had political motives, but as many have already mentioned, there never was a specific plan at work. Supporters of the religious intellectual movement were the educated urban middle class, and supporters for the reformist movement have been the masses.

What role did this intellectual movement play in the structure of power and why does this structure become stronger and more closed? What is the relationship between these two variables?

The most important effect of religious intellectualism on the structure of power may be its ability to delegitimize it. Those religious principles which lend legitimacy to the Islamic government, and more generally the principles of Islamic law and jurisprudence, have become the main point of criticism on the part of the religious intellectuals. The increased authoritarianism and clampdown within Iran’s political system have political and economic roots, not intellectual ones. If you have noticed, in the first two decades, most clerical and lay religious writers attempted to justify velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent). Now, no one is inclined to do this. Much less is being published in defense of velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), as its clerical and religious justification has been rendered meaningless. Moreover, the Islamic Republic no longer needs to profess it legitimacy. Instead, the faqih (jurisprudent) carries a weapon in one hand and a prison key in the other. This is enough for him. This is the very same thing that gave legitimacy to rulers throughout Islamic history: the right to rule belongs to the one who is the most powerful. Mr. Khamenei is the ruler, not because of the legal justification of the velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), but because he is currently more powerful than anyone else.

Has the religious intellectual movement, with its goal to reform religion while fostering a religious society, been influenced by any other lines of thought, like secularism, etc.? For example, has Hossein Bashiriyeh’s influence on a group within this movement been noteworthy or was Doctor Soroush alone in guiding this movement? Has anyone else played a role in this movement, scholars or intellectuals?

The religious intellectuals are entirely indebted to European and American secular and religious thinkers. The intellectual training of Abdolkarim Soroush himself, stems from the philosophy of science and the theories outlined in his book, The Theoretical Contraction and Expansion of the Sharia, derives from this philosophy of science, which has no connection to religion or religiosity. While religious intellectuals may subscribe to religious stipulations and its rites and rituals, they are secular in one aspect: their call for the separation of religion and government, the end of religious rule, and the establishment of democracy. Religious intellectuals have also been largely influenced by Iranian secular thinkers, and vice versa. Religious intellectualism has made its mark within the general intellectual discourse. Many of the reforms and explanations seen in the language and writings of secular intellectuals are derived from religious intellectualism. Regardless, in Iran we live in a very small space and few people can ignore trends.

On the other hand, many reformists such as Said Hajjarian and Mostafa Taj-zadeh, more than being the students and disciples of Abdolkarim Soroush, are followers of Hossein Bashiriyeh and Javad Tabatabaii and have been largely influenced by this group of scholars. Thus, we must not exaggerate the intellectual authority of Abdolkarim Soroush on reformist thought.

What position and stature do reformist and democratic ideas currently enjoy among the traditional religious institutions such as the seminaries and the clergy?

Religious seminaries are currently serving as representatives and ambassadors of the Islamic Republic and hence do not support reform or democracy. In an article published in the current issue of Iran Nameh, and entitled “The Islamic Republic and New Clerical System,” I have attempted to briefly explain this issue. The clerical establishment has been intellectually stagnant during the three decades after the revolution, despite the fact that economically it exists in one the wealthiest periods in Shia history. In general, it is contradictory and mistaken to expect the clerical establishment to become promoters of democracy. The clerics aspire to consolidate their own authority. The establishment of democracy entails putting the clerics in their place, and in a democracy, this would be a restricted space. In a democracy, the clergy and devout are not privileged simply on the basis of their religiosity. Meanwhile, the religious system which is promoted by the clerical establishment, fundamentally, rests on the religious discrimination against non-clerics and non-devouts.


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14 years ago

Mehdi Khalaji: The Clerical Establishment Will Not Promote Democracy
The right to rule has always belonged to the powerful in every society that we know of not only Islamic. However a blacksmith’s son was able to become the President of Iran, a considerable achievement in its 30 yr young history. It has taken the USA, over 200 years to elect a black man to the post of presidency in the world’s foremost ‘democracy’.
How about that for achievement for the Islamic Republic?

15 years ago

Mehdi Khalaji: The Clerical Establishment Will Not Promote Democracy
Thank you mehdi.

Mohamed Hammar
15 years ago

Mehdi Khalaji: The Clerical Establishment Will Not Promote Democracy
Thank you Gozaar for this highly informative interview.As a North -African “underground intellectual”( the designer of this embryonic thought called “Infrajtihad”..), what’s happening in Iran can be noteworthy, all the more as I happened to read some of Dr Soroush’s works..
Very original trend.It seems to be as clockwise as “Infrajtihad”.Long live a democratic Moslem world!


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