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Public Theology: The Unrest is Growing: Habermas in Iran
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The Unrest is Growing: Habermas in Iran
Interview with Juergen Habermas on his visit to Iran.

By Jurgen Habermas

German philosophy has for many years had a wide audience in Iran, and the works of Jurgen Habermas have counted among some of the most widely read. Germany's most renowned contemporary philosopher recently spent a week in Iran at the invitation of the Center for Dialogue Between Civilizations created by President Mohammad Khatami. On his return, Habermas spoke with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about his trip.

He expressed his surprise at the "informal" manner in which philosophers, sociologists, journalists and artists conducted numerous official and unofficial discussions about the country's theocratic system. While in the Islamic Republic, Habermas appeared at the University of Tehran, a symbolic location where the official Friday prayer ceremony takes place, to speak on "Secularization in the Post--Secular Societies of the West."

The event drew such a large crowd that the students surrounded the lecture hall, engaged in lively debate. The Iranian press, in turn, made the connection between Habermas's ideas and the country's current political situation. The only criticism came from anti-reform factions of the press, which used earlier statements from Habermas concerning Salman Rushdie to attack his hosts in Iran, above all former Culture Minister Ayatollah Mohajerani, who was dismissed a year and a half ago as a result of his liberalization policies.

FAZ: What was behind the timing of this trip to Iran?

Juergen Habermas: The first contact was made seven years ago. Last fall, after talking to my Iranian colleagues, I was convinced that Ayatollah Mohajerani, former culture minister and ally of President Mohammad Khatami, was the right person to host such a visit. Mohajerani fought hard to liberalize the press while in office. "The West is only interested in our heads when they roll," Egyptian Nobel prize winner Nagib Machfus once said.

What were your expectations, and your reservations?

Nobody likes to be used by the wrong people to promote a wrong cause. One of my Iranian students sent me a concerned e-mail from Chicago. The list of names of political prisoners was growing continually. I received a letter from the wife of imprisoned journalist Khalil Rostamkhani. The German branch of P.E.N., the writers' organization, informed me that 70-year-old journalist Siamak Pourzand had just been given an eight-year sentence.

Were these fears confirmed?

The legal discrimination against women, the political persecution of dissidents and, if the State Department is to be believed, the support for Hezbollah cannot be ignored. I was also immediately disturbed by the larger-than-life posters with the heads and mottos of the religious leaders of the revolution, which were somehow reminiscent of communist East Germany. They play a different role than do the posters in the streets of Tehran and across the countryside depicting the bearded faces of the "martyrs" meant to preserve the memory of those that fell in the long and bloody war against Iraq. The cultural center we visited unannounced was performing an unsubtle scene from the life of the prophet -- Mohammed at the gates of Mecca. This is what I have always imagined the Oberammergau passion play to be like.

Such first impressions are bound to make you wonder. But the preconceptions you take with you are not just differentiated by the normality of the mundane, which stubbornly persists in any regime. The picture of a centrally administered, silent society in the grip of the secret police just doesn't fit -- at least not from the impressions I received from my encounters with intellectuals and citizens of an uninhibited, spontaneous and self-confident urban population. The fragmented power structure is more likely to itself be drawn into the momentum of a lively, multi-factioned society than to have it under control.

The unrest is clearly growing among a population disappointed by the hesitancy of the reformers. A young political scientist whom I met in a secularistic and resolutely pro-American group admitted that he likes to return home from Chicago, where he occasionally teaches, despite all the difficulties that await him. In Iran, he says, there is at least a political public realm with passionate debates.

Where did you run into taboos, barriers or limits during your discussions?

The forthcoming and well-informed people I talked to had no major inhibitions about drawing me into substantial and exciting discussions. Nor did I notice any obvious restraint in terms of politics. Our talks often concerned Israel's right to exist or the names of jailed dissidents. You don't see your own limits.

Only once did I experience what you could call a barrier among the people I was talking to. A young mullah who graduated in Montreal had traveled from Qom, the old pilgrimage center where the central university for the Shiite clergy is based. He turned up for our meeting with a young son, three fellow-believers -- including one American -- and an interesting question. The latter related to my proposal to translate the semantic content of religious language into a philosophical, also secular language. He said this was all well and good, but would this not cast the world itself in a religious light?

The mild tone of our discussion took a turn when I asked him a question of my own. Why does Islam not rely solely on its own medium of the Word, why doesn't it abandon political means of coercion? The mild, ascetic guest opposite me replied quite brusquely to my request for a religious explanation. It was a moment when the veil appeared to lift for a second, revealing a dogmatic rock of granite. At the end of the discussion, after listening in silence to his pupil, the old ayatollah made an attempt at appeasement by giving me a book -- a textbook he had written that was translated into English by a Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts in the United States. I later discovered that it really does read like a medieval text.

During the subsequent discussions, one of the philosophically-minded guests made a late attempt to offer the reasoning not provided by the mullah. He turned Max Weber's concept of occidental rationalism from its head, as he said, to its feet. It was evident today, he said, that the development of European modernity appeared to be the real exception, when compared to the other major cultures, and its pathological convolutions demanded more urgent reflection than those of Islam. Edward Said in reverse? Just as we have a distorted perception of the Orient, they have their counterpart -- "Occidentalism." This attitude, however, is rather untypical for the receptive academic situation that I otherwise encountered in Tehran.

How are the philosophical and sociological debates in the West adapted for the religious and philosophical debates in Iran?

When you travel from the West to the East with light intellectual baggage, you encounter the usual asymmetry of underlying perceptions that maintain our role as the barbarians. They know more about us than we do about them. Most of the sociologists I met were educated in France, but now follow developments in the United States. Regarding philosophy, there seems to be growing interest in Kant and the Anglo-Saxon analysts, as is the case with contemporary principles of political philosophy.

But the stimuli for the publicly influential intellectual debates have a different background. During the 1990s, Martin Heidegger and Karl Popper provided the key terminology for a debate between Reza Davari Ardakani on the one side and Abdolkarim Sorush on the other. Davari is now president of the Academy of Sciences and classed with the "postmodernists." The latter were particularly drawn to the analysis of the "nature of technology" in Heidegger's later writings and linked it to the Iranian critique of Western modernity.

Sorush, meanwhile, who is currently spending a semester as guest lecturer at Harvard, personally tends toward a mystical branch of Islam, but, as a Popperian, is a resolute adherent of a cognitive division of labor between religion and science. If I understood it correctly, during this dispute Davari rose to the status of philosophical spokesman of the Shiite orthodoxy, while Sorush continues, albeit with dwindling influence, to favor an institutional division of political and religious realms.

At the first official meeting, I was glad when a familiar name emerged from the fog of strange sounds: Davari wanted to comment. He saw the reason, as developed in Western metaphysics, as too narrow to do justice to intuitive insights that go beyond the mere rational, which throws open the argument of whether "reason" can be automatically equated with "instrumental reason." The discussion took a turn into current affairs when somebody familiar with John Rawls brought up human rights; should the latter enjoy universal application despite their Western origins? The question came from the Popper translator, who forced me into a Kantian response. Suddenly, an old constellation of the debate sparked by Popper and Heidegger seemed to have been reestablished.

Have the problems being discussed today in Iran -- the relationship between state, society and religion -- not been resolved in Europe through the Enlightenment and secularism, through constitutions that guarantee religious freedom?

The point of my two public lectures was to address this question. I was then surprised at the informal manner in which the foundations of the theocratic regime were debated by a broad academic audience.

What was the debate about?

The Iranian authorities only grant the small Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian minorities, in other words the "predecessors" of Islam, the right to openly practice their religion -- but not, for example, the Bahais. At the same time, they impose a way of life prescribed by Islamic law on everybody, including non-Muslims. This provokes the question of whether religion is unable to preserve its life-determining force when it relinquishes political power -- when it makes direct appeals to the conscience of the individual, voluntarily-associated member of the community and only exerts indirect political influence, via the diverse mass of opinions of a liberalist public. The discussion was primarily concerned with the contextual dependencies -- the feasibility of applying the European model. Is fundamentally secured religious pluralism not in fact a Western phenomenon? Is it bound to the historical circumstances of its emergence, or does it provide a plausible solution to what is becoming an increasing problem for all societies? Do other cultures not have to find at least an equivalent solution?

Discussions in Iran sometimes give the impression that participants have returned to the Reformation. Or do these problems still apply to Europe?

The reflexive development of a religious consciousness that survives within the complex framework of modernity is a process that must take place from within. The way that Islam adapts in this cognitive manner concerns us in Europe because we need to find more than a just a weak compromise with our Muslim communities. All citizens should, after all, be able to accept the principles of the constitution from their own understanding.

I think it is impossible to overestimate the political significance of theological debate within Islam. Today, a cleric like Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari has assumed the role of the prominent critic played in the 1990s by a secular philosopher like Sorush. Shabestari in fact spent a few years in Hamburg and speaks fluent German. He is of the hermeneutic tradition, sees the individual believer as an interpreter of the revelation and challenges the ruling orthodoxy with Protestant-sounding arguments. In any event, he stresses modern subjectivity as a place of religious inwardness. His perception of the dialectical relationship between belief and knowledge is intended to open Islamic theology to the humanities and contemporary philosophy. Above all, his hermeneutically-enlightened concept of religious tradition enables him to provide a more abstract definition of the essential content of prophetic theory and distinguish it from the conventional traits of what has become a historical way of life.

While in Iran you also met prominent intellectual reformists associated with President Khatami. Do you believe that the reformers are prepared, where necessary, to overcome the conflict emanating from the Iranian Constitution between democracy and theocracy in favor of democracy?

Mohsen Kadivar is a younger mullah who went to jail after publishing a Shiite critique of the legal foundations of Khomeini's regime in 1998. Through him I met the group that you are referring to: both Shabestari and Said Hasjarian, whose body still bears the marks of an assassination attempt from almost two years ago. As a group, we discussed this issue. How far should the reforms go? How serious are the reformers about withdrawing religious theory and the religious community from its fusion with state authority? Ultimately, however, I never got more than a pragmatic answer: The objective is to progress step by step and in doing so learn from the process. Even during this, by far the most important discussion, I was unable to see how the reformers envisage the "third way" of a synthesis of East and West.

Other discussions did give me a minor insight into the political mentality of these disappointed figures from the birth of the revolution. Under the Pahlavi regime -- perceived as corrupt, technocratic and completely estranged from the population -- religious tradition had by 1978 already become the only remaining morally sound force. Marxism, too, was still bound to the mentality and culture of the West. Young people back then wanted a liberating alternative, and what they got was religious despotism in the form of an undemocratic dual-system regime. The association of the initial feeling of emancipation with the name Khomeini may sound obscene to us, but for the former revolutionaries it is probably a defining biographical moment.

My impression is that the reformers do not want to become renegades. Many of them are simultaneously critics and representatives of the regime. They wish to see their reforms -- the establishment of the rule of law and democracy, the creation of an effective administrative authority, an endogenous boost of economic growth through a controlled opening to the global market -- as a revised continuation of the course of the revolution itself. To this extent, the reformers are also loyal to the constitution. This was what Ayatollah Beheshti's son, who went to school Germany, wanted to express when he said: There will be no revolution within the revolution.

Can Iranian society solve these contradictions?

Nobody knows that, of course. You would, for example, have to have a greater insight into the thoughts of young women, above all those with an academic background. Women already comprise over half the student population. How many of them would take off their headscarf in public if they could? Do these heads contain a powder keg that the regime of the old ayatollahs has to fear more than anything else?

As an example, the mostly apolitical tourist guide who accompanied me to Persepolis just finished her studies. She speaks English, is interested in Freud and Jung and reads translations of contemporary American and Portuguese novels. She is appalled by the situation of a friend whose spouse is quite nasty and who will not agree to a divorce. All the court did, my guide said, was to encourage her to give it another try. No, she doesn't mind the separation of genders at the mosque. But she rejects a purely conventional religious practice. If a deeply-felt religious belief is present, a Christian or a Jew count just as much as a Muslim. She is sure: "Cultural relations," meaning the amount of freedom in her own private life, have changed since Khatami first came into office. She points to her headscarf to illustrate her point: It now sits a little further back, revealing a few inches of hair.

The interview was conducted by Christiane Hoffmann. Jun. 18, 2002, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2002. (This translation made available through an email list on June 20, 2002.)

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Date Added: 6/22/2002 Date Revised: 6/22/2002

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