Coming to Terms with Modernity:
Iranian intellectuals and the emerging public sphere
By: Mahmoud Alinejad, 2001
The assertion of Islam in Iran as a compelling discourse of power in recent decades has motivated new socio-political movements which have in turn given new dimensions to this religious and cultural tradition. What emerged in Iran in the 1970s, as a new Islamic political discourse became the source of both a revolutionary ideology and a blueprint for an Islamic state. The victory of the Islamic revolution of 1979, and the process of its relentless institutionalization, provided a basis for a profound politicization of the traditional concerns with spirituality, metaphysics and the meaning, origin and destiny of human existence. Or, if we agree with the charismatic leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, Islam was inherently political, and the revolution only revived this political essence (see Khomeini 1981).
Almost two decades after the Islamic revolution of 1979, the quest of Iranians for a distinct religious identity produced a new socio-political movement, which incorporated a pluralistic rhetoric in the name of reform. Since the presidential elections of May 1997, an intensifying fascination has emerged with exposing the internal diversities of the Islamic nation via a language of critique. The June 2001 elections confirmed the popular desire for reform. This reform movement has given voice to the needs and desires of so-far peripheral groups (youth, women, intellectuals, artists and ethnic minorities, etc.), who tend to appropriate Islam in order to come into public life as active protagonists. Recent discursive developments in Iran demonstrate the real possibility of the public expression of dissent within the constraints of Islamic politics. This paper is meant to offer an overview of how new intellectual interpretations of Islamic tradition in Iran since 1997 are contributing to cultural, social and political critique, within a public sphere defined by Islam.
The Islamic revolution was defined from the outset as a 'cultural revolution' bent on fomenting a collective identity based on religious faith and tradition. Its language was one of religious revivalism in both national and trans-national dimensions. The revolutionary discourse was based on a radical critique of 'Western modernity', as a reminder of the Western 'imperial arrogance' and as an imminent cultural and political 'threat' to Islamic Iran (and the Muslim nations alike). However, the traditionalist appeal to the power of identity, and its apparent anti-modern rhetoric, concealed two important underlying facts: the very modern nature of the Islamic revolution (see Abrahamian 1993), and the real diversity and differentiation that it initially tended to undermine, overcome or at least conceal in a bid for homogeneity.
Almost two decades after the revolution, the quest of Iranians for a distinct cultural identity produced a new socio-political movement, which although retaining the critical language of the revolution, incorporated a democratic rhetoric, and directed the critique inward. Since the presidential elections of May 1997, an intensifying fascination has emerged, bent on exposing the internal diversities of the Islamic nation via a critical language. There is an increasing acknowledgement of the need of smaller identity groups and sub-cultures to seek expression and be tolerated within the constraints of the dominant religious (Shia) culture.
This movement, which came to the scene in the name of reform (eslahat), has given voice to the needs and desires of the so-far peripheral groups (youth, women, intellectuals, artists and ethnic minorities, etc.). These groups tend to appropriate Islam in order to come to public life as active political protagonists, while pledging loyalty to the widely shared and 'highly endeared' Shia faith and culture as the cornerstone of national identity. Their contention is, rather, over the social, economic and political privileges, which are increasingly seen as 'national resources' monopolized by certain individuals, families and social groups (the Shia clergy) through claims to exclusive authority over the dominant faith and culture.
This asymmetry in access to resources has meant that the Islamic identity, so far as it has been promoted in Iran since the revolution as a distinct and extremely valued cultural construct, has all but lost the ideological 'unity of the word' forged in the years of the revolution. The growing critical, and inevitably modern, discourses of civil liberty, political pluralism and individual rights in Islamic Iran indicate that this collective identity structure has ceased to be expressed solely in the uniform symbolic language of traditions. It is rather being increasingly articulated in terms of a discursive field of public expression where new identities are constructed and seek recognition, at both symbolic and political levels.
The deep-seated connection between religion and politics in Iran, and the ongoing dependence of the post-revolutionary state on mass mobilization, have made the polity a site of serious competition over allocation of the political, economic, social and cultural resources of the state (which rest heavily on the revenues coming from the oil-based economy). In recent years, this competition has been increasingly drawn to the public domain in the name of 'Islamic democracy' and 'civil society'. Iran's Islamic politics increasingly 'involves competition and contest over both the interpretation of symbols and the control of the institutions, formal or informal, that produce and sustain them' (Eickleman & Piscatori 1996, 5).
Recent discursive developments in the political philosophy of Iranian Islam (Shiism) demonstrate the real possibility of the public expression of political dissent and social discontent within the constraints of this presumably traditional politics. Political dissent is expressed in terms of struggles against the constraints on entitlement to citizenship rights-freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, etc.-as well as in the form of a contest for power. Social discontent, on the other hand, is manifested in terms of demands for a fairer allocation of the economic, social and cultural resources. These developments confirm that the modern desire for liberty, which is distinct from the traditional desire for divine emancipation because of its association with identity politics and its fascination with prestige and prosperity, has thrived in peculiar and curious ways even within the context of Iran's Muslim politics.
This paper is meant to offer an overview of how new intellectual interpretations of Islamic tradition in Iran are allowing for cultural, social and political critique within a public sphere defined by Islam. The paper emphasizes both the capacities of Islamic tradition for reinterpretation and innovation contributing to social and political critique, and the constraints that the same tradition places on public debate and criticism. I am particularly interested to highlight the role of a new intellectual movement that has become vocal since the presidential elections of May 1997, trying to expand the domain of the public sphere by encouraging a public practice of negotiating Islamic symbolism under the rubric of democratic reform. But I will also note the resistance of the defenders of the entrenched official interpretation of this symbolism to the 'unholy' implications of this movement of reform.
I would argue that notwithstanding its limited gains in institutional power since 1997, the movement for reform has created a public desire for 'civil society', as a political expression of the actual social and cultural pluralities. The real merit of the idea of 'civil society' in Iran (with all its theoretical and practical ambiguities) may lie less in the idealistic aspiration that it created than in its role in invoking such critical questions as: 'How may people peacefully organize outside of government control? How is citizenship engendered and strengthened? What role should the state play as a referee or rule-setter? How should people's needs be met in the wake of the retreating state?' (Norton in Eickleman & Anderson 1999, 25).
While I want to highlight the achievements of the reform movement (the emergence of a public sphere that involves challenges to entrenched authorities via alternative interpretations), I would also like to note the sum contribution of the reforms to the consolidation of a new sense of religiously inspired nationhood within the structural framework of the Islamic republic, through a gradual shift in the Islamic political and cultural discourse from 'the boundary-minded forms it assumed after the advent of European imperial expansion into Muslim lands to a more confident and differentiated internal and external dialogue' (Eickleman & Anderson 1999, 13).
The Project of Reform and the Emergence of the Public Sphere
Since the May 1997 presidential elections, with the landslide victory of the middle ranking cleric, Mohammad Khatami, over his 'conservative' rival, Iran has appeared to be experiencing a period of relative political and social openness. Backed by an overwhelming electoral win, this 'reform-minded' cleric introduced an idea of 'reform' into the religious-political vocabulary of the Islamic state, which had no precedent in post-revolutionary Iran. The huge electoral support for Khatami's 'reformist' agenda was interpreted both as an indication of public dismay with the status quo, and as continued public trust in the possibility of correcting the ruling Islamic system from within. In both cases, 'reformism' appeared almost instantly as a challenge against the overwhelming 'conservative' power, which represented the status quo. And voices of dissent found some expression in the language of democracy in a burgeoning, but fledgling, market of a 'reformist' press, as voices of 'civil society'.
During Khatami's first term as president, there was increasing evidence of the emergence of multiple and competing religious and political forces offering authoritative, and yet alternative, definitions of religion and politics. More importantly, new and old media technologies in many ways reduced the possibility of control of the freedom of expression. 'Although efforts to shape, if not control, the dissemination of political communications persist, censorship is less effective than in the recent past' (ibid., 21). Khatami's first term in office was certainly marked by the emergence of a public space where the diverse voices that represented Iran's new social, demographic, technological, cultural and communicational developments found some expression.
From these expressions, it also became clear how disconnected many sectors of the population had become from traditional forms of authority, ways of thinking and lifestyles. And it was perhaps the awareness of these changes that convinced Khatami to break with the past militant and restrictive views of religion and politics. His project of reform had to be undertaken not through confrontation with the powerful others, but through engagement with them via 'dialogue between civilizations', not through 'cultural closure', but through healthy 'cultural adaptation'; not through repression of diversity, but through encouragement of free expression of marginal and even critical voices of the 'civil society'. It was, therefore, not accidental that Khatami's victory and his continued popularity should rely so heavily on an expanding public sphere in which the printed press championed the cause of freedom of expression. (For a discussion of the role of the printed press in civil society, see Anderson (1983).
Khatami's victory in 1997 relied heavily on the support of the so-called 'reformist' groups and intellectuals who used the small media of printed publications, and the limited cultural resources available to them at the time, to campaign on his behalf on a religious-modernist platform. After this electoral victory, the printed press proliferated rapidly, in both numbers of titles and circulation. The press, in effect, became the main driving force of the 'reform movement', which demanded accountability and transparency of government, pushing the existing political apparatuses to their limit. The press helped Khatami in introducing new ideas and programs for reincorporating religious traditions into the public domain in a compassionate and civil way, significantly contributing to the popularization of his ambiguous ideas of 'civil society' and 'Islamic democracy'. It was instrumental in opening up the public domain to debates on matters of public interest, no matter how sensitive to the power-holders.
Beside printed publications (i.e. newspapers, magazines and books, etc.), other media (e.g. cinema, theatre and music), which had already made headway in previous years, also developed a language of political and social critique, while maintaining their artistic and entertainment appeal for the public. Also, the drastically expanded and heavily populated universities became the scenes of heated debates on tough political and social questions, as well as protests and demonstrations (which turned violent, particularly in 1999 student riots), giving rise to a restive Islamic student movement. Meanwhile, a stream of critical literature on the nature and practice of Islamic government ? owed from academic and student circles into the public arena. Even the closely controlled radio and television could not ignore burning issues of social and political debate, and the increasing desire for entertainment.
The motivations, goals, resources and potentials of the reform movement were defined in various, and at times contradictory, ways. This led some to load the reforms with too much expectation, sometimes bordering on expectations of a 'new revolution', while others saw them as a mere change of power from one hand to another within the dominant 'theocratic' establishment. For some time, the new media-driven public sphere provided a space for a rather open expression of conflicting views about what reforms should mean.
In the political sphere, those individuals and groups who championed the cause of the reforms (notwithstanding their divisions) were represented by a broad and informal coalition, known as the Khordad 2 Front (highlighting the day in the Iranian calendar of Khatami's victory in the 1997 elections). The elections of 1997 were made in the vocabulary of this broad alliance into a popular legend ('the legend of Khordad 2'). The members of this 'reformist' coalition were mostly the young and highly educated (male and female) Muslim intellectuals (clerics, journalists, academics, authors, poets, filmmakers and students, etc.) who defined, developed and popularized the idea of 'civil society' in their calls for more social and political freedoms, and in their efforts to form new 'civil institutions' (political parties and professional associations, etc.) as structured manifestations of this civil society.
Indeed, the idea of 'civil society,' despite its theoretical ambiguities and practical complications, has become the focal point of public and intellectual debates in the last four years. Under the rubric of 'civil society,' Muslim intellectuals have advanced demands for democracy, civil liberties, rule of law and freedom of expression, while trying to build institutional support for these demands. In the 'reformist' literature, the defence of civil society became the main cause of much-needed reforms in how power was exercised by the 'conservative' clerical elite. For the intellectual protagonists of the reforms the natural medium of expression was the printed press because of its traditional status as an intellectual medium, which went back to the constitutional revolution of the early twentieth century. (For a discussion of the constitutional revolution, see Keddie 1981.) The press came to play a central role, not only as a means of information provision, but also as an intellectual voice and a 'civil institution' (representing millions of highly educated young men and women), which seemed determined to make power 'transparent' and 'accountable'.
Yet it was inevitable that the contest against the dominant relations of power had to face stiff opposition from those already in power, who claimed to be defending an ancient, sacred, sophisticated and presumably 'endangered' religious-cultural tradition. In many ways, the state of political competition in Iran in recent years could be characterized in terms of the complex and ambiguous relationship of the so-called 'religious intellectuals' with both this sacred traditional heritage, and the conceptual and practical challenges of modernity. The religious-intellectual challenge against the established religious-political authority involved critical debate, as well as open conflict and confrontation, over doctrinal, political, cultural and social issues. It led to a measure of cultural and political openness, as well as to complications, limitations and setbacks.
In Khatami's first term of presidency, the majority of the 'reformist' press was shut down and many journalists and activists were put on trial and sent to jail. The 'vigilant' judiciary thus hunted down the 'demons' which (in the scare-mongering anti-reformist campaign) had set out to 'corrupt' Islam and the revolution. The 'conservative' defenders of 'pure' traditions supported the crackdown on the press as the means to combat 'mischief', 'corruption', 'permissiveness' and 'deviance' caused by 'demonic' tendencies. Yet the situation in the late 1990s was drastically different from that of the early 1980s. Although some anxious defenders of 'traditional purity' tried to return to former restrictions, the emerging public sphere made this return increasingly problematic.
As a result, the political contest turned increasingly into a competition for the control and mobilization of the cultural resources of the nation, and particularly the means of communication, which were now recognized by all sides to be playing a fundamental role in providing opportunities to connect with the public. Meanwhile, the language of politics also shifted in a significant way from one based on issuing authoritative opinions about the correct moral conduct of individuals to one addressing the new social, political, economic, educational and entertainment needs of the 'young nation'. With the increasing significance of electoral politics in determining political legitimacy, the media were turned into a major arena for political competition, as well as social and cultural representation. What was beyond the scope of the media fell into inevitable marginality. (For a discussion of the role of the media in electoral politics, see Castells 1997.) In fact, the reform movement was less realized in the sphere of institutional power than in a public domain where common social, economic and cultural concerns could be negotiated, contested, and even fought for, by competing understandings of a common religious tradition.
It would be easy to see the 'conservatives' simply as traditionalists and the 'reformers' simply as modernists, because the traditionalist turbaned religious scholars (ulama) had a traditional seminary education, while the modernist intellectuals had a modern education. But this would be too simplistic, given the fact that, historically, many socially transforming modernist tendencies were driven by forces within the traditionalist camp, and many modernists turned to traditions in order to develop a modern native authentic discourse. The cases of Dr Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini are exemplary here. Ayatollah Khomeini, although from a traditional background of learning, adopted the language of modern social and political literature, which Shariati introduced through a revolutionary interpretation of Shia symbolism, and incorporated into the traditional language of jurisprudence (fiqh) to formulate an ideology of Islamic revolution and a theory of Islamic state. Hence, in practice, significant political and social changes were led by elements within the traditionalist camp, often through the agency of the religious modernists.
So when we talk about 'conservatives' and 'reformists' we must be appreciative of the fact that the main junctures of social and political action have often been marked by some doctrinal and intellectual shift in the established tradition from within, which indicates the preparedness of the institution of the clergy not only to adapt itself to outside changes and influences, but also to master and appropriate the outside influences in such a way as to maintain its position as a leading authority. What has come to be known as 'reformist' and 'conservative' in Iran over recent years signifies more than a factional political competition, although its most salient expressions are political. In the real life of Iranians, these terms also represent a main cultural divide that has engulfed the nation in a bitter conflict over finding a shared idea of community, identity and authority.
A Quest for Religious-National Identity
The political rivalry and conflict between the 'reformist' and 'conservative' factions should not conceal the main issue at the heart of the idea of 'reform', namely the issue of the legitimacy of a sovereign religious-political authority to which both factions pledged loyalty. What inspired the idea of 'reform' was the continuing project of sustaining a religious nation-state in an increasingly 'hostile' global environment. The centrality of the continued challenge of nation building to Khatami's project of 'reform' cannot be overemphasized. After all, the political legitimacy of the Islamic state in Iran (not unlike other modern states) could not be maintained over the long haul without a sense of nation that it would represent. The challenge of upholding an Islamic nation-state in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution followed a continuous pattern of defining religion as a political culture, and making cultural policy serve the political aspirations and developmental needs of a modern nation-state.
The main impetus to reforms almost two decades from the establishment of the Islamic republic was not an attempt at a new revolution, even less a mere shift of power from one hand to another. Rather, it was predominantly a need to resolve the surging tension between religious and national loyalty, which was threatening the continued political power of religion in the Iran of the late 1990s and beyond. Khatami's rhetoric during his election campaign in 1997 was a prelude to his project of nation building:
We had an Islamic revolution, which produced a concrete outcome: an Islamic political order. We therefore are no longer engaged in a struggle to establish an Islamic political state. The main task now is to preserve, reform and strengthen this (already established) political system. This [Islamic political] order is a popular state, which means that it is an outcome of an interpretation of Islam whereby a significant role has been conferred upon the nation.
Surely, from a legal perspective, the constitution of the Islamic republic had resolved the tension between religious and national loyalty in the early 1980s by recognizing both the sovereignty of God and the right of the people to govern. It had recognized a place for the popular vote, which was reflected in the allocation of executive and legislative power to elected officials. Yet it had also given superior authority to the Shia jurists (foqaha), as the representatives of God, over the affairs of the community of believers. But the insistence of some religious and political tendencies on interpreting the privileged position that the constitution accorded the jurists so as to limit political participation, and even the right of citizenship, to the dedicated followers of the juridical authority came to serve, from very early on, as a source of dormant political, religious and legal divisions and conflicts over the interpretation of the constitution (although at the same time, this provided an opening for new possibilities).
The divisions and conflicts over the constitution remained dormant in the 1980s because the state had little difficulty in creating religious-national solidarity around a solid social constituency, namely millions of revolutionary youth with unequivocal loyalty to the ascetic-revolutionary views of religion propounded by Ayatollah Khomeini (the founder of the Islamic republic)-a loyalty strong enough to engage them devotedly in a 'heroic' war with the external enemy (Iraq) which was 'raping the sacred Islamic territory'. The incessant efforts to use legislation, education, communication, mass mobilization and even coercion to build religious faith and culture into both a moral and a legal element in the legitimacy of the post-revolutionary Islamic state also played a major part in making religious cultural values the cornerstone of nationhood. The problem was that the domain of enfranchisement of this religious sense of nation had become too limiting. Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the war ended and the father of the Islamic republic gone from this world, tension surged not only at legal and social levels, but also in the political and cultural spheres. There were increasing signs that the earlier social solidarity was not to last.
Khatami's proposal for reform ensured a logical continuation of the earlier form of political legitimacy; but it also entailed a necessary departure from it. For Iran of the late 1990s was much too populous, young, diverse, vocal, technically advanced and socially complex to remain loyal to political authority based solely on a juridical understanding of religion. Hence, Khatami appealed to a reading of the constitution of the Islamic republic that would rest the legitimacy of the state on the will of the nation, without violating the ultimate sovereignty of God. Indeed, his political platform (in his election campaign in 1997) was based largely on a religious-nationalist reading of the Iranian constitution, which emphasized the 'republican virtues' of the Islamic state by incorporating the idea of 'civil society' into the religious traditions, thus differentiating his idea from the 'secular' concept of civil society. Khatami's idea of 'Islamic civil society' was thus conceived as a religious public domain, which would be a proper site for cultivating a democratic sense of citizenship. (For a critical discussion of the idea of civil society, see Habermas (1989) and Taylor (1993).) Here, a compassionate and civil religious tradition would become the basis for extending the right to be a citizen of the nation to all those who expressed commitment to the constitution of the Islamic republic. In Khatami's words:
Whereas in the West, civil society took shape on the conceptual basis of the separation of state from religion, in Iran, religion actually created the conceptual means necessary for construction of a nation … And hence … [it became] a point of departure for the creation of a civil society; exactly the reverse of what had happened in the West … In this part of the world, it was the religion that recognized the right of the people to self-determination; it was the religion that legitimized the establishment of a state by the nation; it was the religion that said that the state was the servant of the people and not their master.
Khatami's project of 'reform' would be better understood in light of the enduring aspiration for building a strong religious state based on the 'awakening' of the Islamic nation, going back at least to the Islamic revolution, and maybe even further to the constitutional revolution of the early twentieth century. Khatami himself acknowledged his debt to the pioneering efforts of Ayatollah Naini in the early twentieth century:
In Iran, the idea of the establishment of a House of Justice [edalat-khaneh], a Consultative Assembly [Majlis] and a constitution, notwithstanding the influences of the Western thought, was rooted in our religion … It is our great honor that the first figure who tried to explicate civil society on the basis of the Shia figh was the honorable jurist Sheikh Muhammad-Hassan Naini. In other words, he tried to explain that constitutionality meant the creation of a government that emerged from the people and was responsible before the people, and that the involvement of the people in running the society in the absence of the Concealed Imam was in harmony with the Shia figh.
Islam, as a universal faith, is not territorially bound, as Ayatollah Khomeini had noted from very early on. But the imperatives of political geography since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had already established Iran as a territorial nation-state. What was still lacking was a collective imagination of a unique identity that would inspire dignity and pride, make the national territory sacred, enlist the loyalty of the nation and demand recognition from other powers. Since the early twentieth century some religious and political leaders had harboured aspirations for such a religious national identity. The efforts of the Pahlavi monarchy (1920-78) to build a modern state (although they transformed Iran socially, economically and structurally) failed to provide this sense of identity. The facts of religious demography (Shiism is the faith into which more than 90 per cent of Iranians are born) made the Shia faith and culture a factor much more inclusive than the Aryan race or even the Persian language in creating a collective identity, so essential for the sense of loyalty to the Iranian Shia territory. The Islamic revolution of 1979 provided precisely that sense of religious nationality.
The main motivating elements of this sense of religious nationalism were the religious notions of historical victimization, divine mission to restore justice and the culture of sacrifice (martyrdom) (see van der Veer & Lehmann 1999). These elements were the pillars of the cultural-revolutionary reading of the Shia faith, a reading that claimed to provide the Iranian-Islamic nation with a common cultural self-understanding. Shiism was thus presented as both a revolutionary faith, and a collective culture: a powerful faith that would inspire a militant spirit only to create a culture of hope. The age-old mass rituals of Ashura-a grass-roots religious ceremony that commemorates the sufferings and ordeals of the third Shia Innocent Imam on a national scale (preparing the believers for martyrdom)-combined with the nation-wide hope for a monji (saviour), the Concealed Imam, who would return from concealment to restore the government of absolute justice-gave a proper religious-cultural basis for national identity.
The notion of culture, and particularly Iranian Shia culture, remained central to Khatami's sense of nationality. This was evident in the persistence in his rhetoric of the early contention that the Islamic revolution was a 'cultural revolution' based on the revival of the true essence of Islam in the Iranian Shia territory. Khatami was already known as a cultural man when he was nominated for the presidency by the 'reformist' clerical association, the Assembly of Militant Clergy (Majmae´ Rohaniyyun-e Mobarez). He had served as Minister for Culture for almost ten years (1983-92) under the two previous presidents before he resigned in the early 1990s under pressure from conservative forces against his policies of cultural openness. In his resignation letter to President Rafsanjani, he had said:
The challenge of our revolution, which claims to save humanity by creating a new superior culture, is heaviest in the domain of culture… I have always believed that preparing the ground for a healthy development of culture is the precondition for the intellectual growth of the nation, and could immunize the younger generation against the devastating effects of atheism, deviance, backwardness and corruption.
Thus since May 1997 the revolutionary quest to create a religiously based national identity and political sovereignty took the form of a reformist struggle to find a resolution to the question of compatibility between democracy and Islam in order to expand the domain of national enfranchisement. This quest, which was pronounced in Khatami's idea of 'civil society,' seemed to be more vigorous among a new generation of 'religious intellectuals', which appeared, not only as social critics, but also as enthusiastic political ideologues of this new sense of religious nationalism.
The New Religious Intellectuals and the Constitution of the Republic
The new 'religious intellectuals' (roshanfekran-e deeni) who championed the cause of the 'reforms' were determined to revive the original emancipatory and egalitarian aspirations of the Islamic revolution of 1979 by promoting and driving forward Khatami's reformist agenda. These aspirations were emphatically articulated in the revolutionary slogans 'freedom' and 'independence', and conspicuously enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic republic. As already noted, the constitution had recognized the right of the people to govern their own affairs under the sovereign power of God. According to article 56:
Absolute sovereignty over the world and mankind belongs to God. And it is He who has made man sovereign in his social destiny. No one can take away this God-given right, or put it at the service of specific individuals or groups. And the nation applies her right in ways and means that are stipulated in other articles [of this law].
Moreover, the state was held responsible for providing for the social and cultural welfare of the nation. Khatami had already proclaimed that 'the main framework' of the Islamic republic was the 'constitution' and the 'civil society':
In my opinion, a significant task at present is to institutionalize the Islamic order and civil society … on the basis of the constitution… We must instil this important principle that our constitution, which is based on Islam, should be implemented. (Khatami 1997)
That such emphasis was placed on the constitution came from the fact that it had recognized the consent of the people as a main source of the legitimacy of the Islamic republic of Iran. The intellectual movement, notwithstanding its internal divisions and factional infighting, seemed determined to protect the constitution against the kinds of interpretation that would, in effect, undermine the constitutional recognition of the vote of the people (as the source of political legitimacy) in the name of defending the Sharia and the power that it invested in the Shia jurists.
Various intellectual voices from the religious camp offered alternative ways of thinking on the role of religion in polity and society. These so-called 'religious intellectuals' launched an intriguing critical debate on the form and content of a desired version of Islamic government. Yet notwithstanding their challenge to the political authority of the Shia jurists, the reformist religious intellectuals have remained unequivocally committed to Shia Islam as their faith, and to the Shia jurists as Islam's highest spiritual authorities. Shiism is to these intellectuals an identity structure in which to take national pride, but one that would enforce constitutional accommodation of democracy and political pluralism.
The reform-minded lay religious intellectuals argue that by defending the constitution against narrow interpretations of the Sharia, they are in fact trying to protect the true essence of the Shia faith and its huge public appeal in Iran. Their argument in support of the constitution is derived from the wide acknowledgement that the constitution of the Islamic republic is already inspired by the spirit of the Sharia while guaranteeing the right of the nation in determining their destiny. As Khatami had spelled out in his election campaign:
The Islamic revolution overthrew the monarchic dictatorship and placed this nation on the course of a new stage of its history. So that the people could participate in running their worldly affairs, create a state in the name of religion but under their own supervision, where all human beings-Muslim and non-Muslim-were entitled to their citizen's rights… The constitution of the Islamic republic is a law inspired by a Shia interpretation of government in which the right of citizenship is recognized. (Ibid.)
With the constitution in place as a common political and social framework, the intellectuals considered the religious rulings of the jurists as no more than personal opinions of learned religious scholars. Moreover, the revolutionary background of some religious intellectuals, their sensitive positions in the post-revolutionary polity, the moral influence of their ideas over student activists in the universities and the social weight of the vast population of university students and graduates as emerging reference groups created a relatively strong social standing for the intellectuals, which could be readily translated into electoral popularity. The increasing significance of elections, which extended from the 1997 presidential elections to the nation-wide council elections of 1999, the major parliamentary elections of 2000 and the presidential elections of 2001 drastically increased the public credibility of the 'religious intellectuals' as elected officials, while expanding the domain of public participation in politics. Yet questions remained about the translation of popular votes into real institutional power, which still largely rested with the conservatives.
The reform movement was thus conceived, at least in part, as an intellectual attempt to revive the republican virtues of the constitution vis-a`-vis the entrenched political power of an elite group of Shia jurists, whose rise to power, based on their superior religious authority over the affairs of the community of believers, was also recognized by the constitution. Yet, while the reform movement advanced the idea of 'civil society' as a site of broader political participation-a public space where citizens of the republic should be entitled to freedom of expression-the defenders of the established powers and privileges tried to deal with this challenge by redrawing the limits of the public sphere.
In this context, new critical trends have emerged (within and outside the government), as both an expression of a struggle for political power, and a reflection of serious religious disputes at broader cultural, doctrinal and intellectual levels. Of particular significance is the role of the vast population of youth and women in driving the new trends in the public debate. Youth and women are the most active agents in the construction of new identities and demands that challenge the elderly and male dominated religious and political institutions. This has been evident in their massive turnouts in election after election to vote for reformist candidates. They have taken heart from Khatami's assertion that:
We must decisively resist the tendencies that try to establish only one trend, or view, or taste, as equivalent to the whole [Islamic] order … We must try to bring various tendencies into the system, all the tendencies that respect the principles of the [Islamic] system … We must accept the principle of competition, and the principle of competition is based on exercising tolerance for the other. (Ibid.)
From the intellectual debates over the last four years it has also become clear that while the overwhelming majority of the religious intellectuals conceded to the sovereign power of an Islamic republic, there is a diversity of views as to how to define and run such a government in the modern world, particularly with respect to the demands of a modern nation-state. These are the views of a young nation coming of age in its search for an answer to the question of how to reconcile the traditional identity of Islam with the distant and yet imminent modernity, or even post-modernity, of the global age. This question is posed while a new generation is rising in the midst of significant economic, cultural and political problems.
This new generation (or the so-called 'third generation' of the revolution) is a product of the baby boom of the early 1980s. It has no personal memory of the revolution against the Shah, and little or no experience of the 'sacred defence' (the official term of reference for the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s). Yet nonetheless, the enfranchisement of this very generation is essential for the continued political existence of the Islamic republic as a national polity. In fact, it would be unthinkable for the Islamic republic to keep up the idea of a 'religious revolution' and maintain the legitimacy of a 'religious government' (in a situation totally different from the years of the revolution and the war) without a new sense of 'religious society' and a properly cultivated core recruited from the young generation that would be willing to respect and uphold the religious and cultural values of this society.
In their quest for solutions to urgent problems of the young nation, the religious intellectuals are thus trying to situate the ideas of democracy and civil society within the Islamic tradition; hence resisting what is seen as the attempt of certain juridical- political tendencies to transform the Islamic republic into an absolutist theocracy by undermining the 'democratic spirit' of the constitution of the republic. Here too Khatami has provided the guidelines:
My priority is to move within the framework of the law, because it is the law of an Islamic order … In other words, we want security, liberty, justice, participation and development for the nation, all within the framework of law and the Islamic values. (Ibid.)
The political significance of the religious intellectuals became increasingly evident in the attention they attracted from the ruling elite themselves. Since May 1997, the conservative political forces have been alerted to the serious political challenge of the reformist intellectuals to their authoritarian style of rule, which they took for granted for almost twenty years. The conservatives are particularly upset by the inclination of the new religious intellectuals to make alliances with forces outside the polity around such 'secular' objectives as 'civil society' and 'freedom of expression'. Yet the religious intellectuals, as the engine of the reform movement, need to expand their sphere of social influence by making these alliances. In this, they follow one of Khatami's most popular and frequently repeated slogans-'freedom for the critics'-particularly for those who do not conform to the dominant politico-religious ideology. Khatami's reform project is thus represented by an intellectual movement that is bent on broadening the domain of national enfranchisement via 'civil society' while keeping the religious symbolism of the state intact. 'We made a revolution in the name of religion, but it led us to create a civil society,' Khatami once asserted (ibid.).
- After a period of decline in public interest in elections, more than 80 per cent of eligible voters took part in the 1997 presidential elections. Khatami won these elections with more than 70 per cent of the votes.
- I use the labels 'reformist' and 'conservative' because of their significance in the current political language in Iran, but one should always be aware of their multiple and shifting meanings.
- A case in point is the recent use of fax and Internet technologies by one elderly jurist (Ayatollah Montazeri)-whose alternative ideas and views on the role of religion in politics have landed him under house-arrest as a political dissident-to propagate his views all over the world from his home in Qom, and the state's attempt firstly to block and then to limit the spread of such ideas and views.
- It was estimated that 'in a span of thirty months the number of newspaper titles rose more than four times, and the circulation figure reached 3 million (about four times what it was six months before May 1997' (see Rezaie 2000).
- Excerpts of Khatami's interview with the Iranian Daily Jomhuri Eslami (Islamic Republic) in February 1997, cited from A Collection of the Transcripts of the Interviews and Speeches of Seyyed Muhammad Khatami, Tehran, March 1997.
- Excerpts of Khatami's speech at the University of Shiraz quoted in Salam, 22 March, 1997: cited from A Collection of the Transcripts …, March 1997.
- Excerpts of Khatami's resignation letter of 1992, as printed in the Iranian newspaper Salam.