TEHRAN – Abdul Karim Soroush, a philosopher-theologian, is a leading thinker of post-Islamist Iran. But it’s impossible to meet him at his office near Tehran University. Soroush has been in jail for five months now, accused of talking and writing against the regime. His private secretary says that any communication has to pass through his lawyer. Before his arrest, the No 1 Iranian dissident had already been forbidden to teach at the university since 1997.
Soroush’s writings are required reading for any reformist-minded student: in fact, his secretary used to sell cassettes of his conferences abroad, with titles like “Islam and Freedom” and “Islam and Democracy.” From the point of view of the privileged classes who profit from the Islamic regime, the criticism is devastating. Soroush’s analysis ultimately judges the institutions of divine law – such as the function of the supreme leader, fatwas and inequality between men and women – as totally illegitimate.
For Soroush, religion is a private affair and social life is the responsibility of people, who should manage it as democratically as possible. What the Islamic revolution did in 1979 was to take over society by means of supposedly religious rules, which the system then uses to perpetuate itself in power. Soroush advocates total separation between religion and politics.
If one says and prints these things in Iran, even as the winds of reform are blowing, one is still guaranteed to land in jail.
The crisis of the Islamic republic is not only a political crisis. It is basically the crisis of a concept: the concept of an Islamic state. Soroush may be the most illustrious protagonist of a debate that has taken over the press, but it is also raging among the clergy. Islamism is discredited because it simply has not found concrete solutions for people’s problems. Iranians now talk about Islamists as they used to talk about the Shah: jokes – the Iranian term, in English, for political jokes – are the inevitable staple in the back seat of any shared taxi. This situation has generated an extraordinary paradox: for some religious circles, religion can only be saved by some sort of secularism.
Even before President Mohammad Khatami was elected for the first time in 1997, pro-clergy papers such as Salam were already very critical. Intellectuals started expressing themselves not through books but basically through magazines – like Soroush, long associated with the magazine Kian. Soon two currents of thought were visible. The first, represented among others by Soroush and Ayatollah Shabestari, was equating religion with spirituality; therefore social life should be managed democratically by the people. The second current of thought, represented among others by Ayatollah Montazeri, held that legislation didn’t have necessarily to be strictly Islamic: it would only have to be not anti-Islamic.
Soroush’s criticism, of course, is the most subversive: he always said that if the sacred is the domain of people’s inner life, the outside world simply cannot be the world of an Islamic absolute. He is saying that it is a total misunderstanding of Islam to try to exercise power in its name under a totalitarian conception where the religious is mixed with the social. For him, civil society and “religious civil society” are the same in the Iranian case.
One can say that Soroush is a religious minimalist: for him, if everything is done in the name of Islam, Islam dissolves itself: and so does its credibility, because political decisions are, by definition, subject to failure.
It still requires courage to say what you mean and mean what you say in Iran. A newspaper editor in Tehran, who must remain anonymous, says that in the past few years “we could not publish our opinions: if you published something considered to be insulting to the Islamic system, or deviation of public opinion, you could go to jail, and the treatment was harsh.” Now the situation is “more positive, and some journalists are being released.” But anything could – and still can – be considered as “deviation of public opinion.”
All newspapers and magazines in Iran are screened by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. They prefer to screen monthlies, rather than weeklies. The newspaper editor mentions the case of one magazine that applied for a license – even before it was published for the first time the ministry told the editor not even to bother. Another weekly magazine was closed down for a while. Then the ministry “suggested” that it could become a monthly.
Daily newspapers are not screened every day, but “controlled.” Some top figures of the regime are totally off-limits as far as criticism is concerned. Readers’ letters and open letters are also controlled. The newspaper editor says that before the reformists came to power in 1997, “autocracy groups” were attacking and closing down the offices of many publications. They remained active even after Khatami was elected president.
Since the beginning of 2000, Iran may have been living in a so-called “press spring” – “one of the most unique periods in the history of Iran,” according to the newspaper editor. Between the summer of 1997 and the spring of 2000 he was himself the head of domestic press at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, “Most reformist papers got their right of publication during this time.” Some had a circulation of as much as 700,000 a day. “We can say that reformist papers had a total readership of at least 10 million readers a day. People were even complaining about reading too much and having family problems … they accepted reformist papers as the truth. The papers became more important than the government.”
As some papers and journalists were elevated to iconic status, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was increasingly despised: “The conservatives saw that this was getting out of hand. There were two new big problems under Khatami: cultural expansion and political expansion. So Khatami himself came under attack by the conservatives.”
The newspaper editor decided to retire as an official of the ministry before it brushed him aside or condemned him as being too liberal. He says that the conservatives started closing one paper after another. “When one paper closed, another one opened, by the same group. As many as 19 papers were closed in two or three days. Almost all of the directors were arrested.” Since April 2000 – which the newspaper editor regards as the apex of freedom of the press – no fewer than 83 publications were closed down in Iran.
The newspaper editor was in charge of Bonyam – established in February 2001, and part of the “second-generation reformist papers,” as he puts it. “We are more careful on how to deal with the system – and more analytical.” But even this attitude did not prevent Bonyam from being shut down after publishing 55 issues – last May 5, “one day after May 4, which is celebrated worldwide as the day of freedom of the press.”
There are two kinds of publication closure in Iran. “Your case can go to court, and you can appeal. But most cases are like the 83 that were closed down. Seventy-nine of them are waiting to go to court one day so their crimes can be established. And this could never happen.”
The decisions on whom and what to close are made by the judiciary system – whose head is directly appointed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei. “Sometimes the head of the judiciary says he was not ‘aware’ of a closure, at least in the first few hours. The judges in Tehran usually say, ‘We had to follow the viewpoints of the supreme leader.'” Tired of dealing with these tricky situations, journalists wrote a widely reprinted letter to the supreme leader last March. In the letter, they accused the leader himself of ordering the closures. There was no official answer.
According to the newspaper editor, the conservatives even tried to close down the “coffee-nets” – the Iranian version of Internet cafes. Access to the Internet is relatively limited in Iran – a maximum of 2 million homes – but coffee-nets are ubiquitous. Satellite dishes are still banned – the Council of Guardians vetoed them – although everybody and his neighbor follows racy Turkish and Lebanese programs, as well as news from Al Jazeera and the British Broadcasting Corp through their illegal dishes.
The majlis – the Iranian parliament – tried to legislate against the closure of publications. The matter went to the powerful Expediency Council, controlled by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani – and there it remains, with no decision. The newspaper editor says that the majlis – with an almost two-thirds reformist majority – should try to submit a reform of the press law to a referendum. “Around 20 votes could be swinged. But not right now, it may be too early; maybe in 2003. There are not more than 30 independents in the majlis who do not follow the conservatives blindly. But it takes time to convince them.” The problem remains anyway: the supreme leader will have to accept these changes, but there is no indication that he ever will.