Afshin Matin-asgari

Afshin Matin-asgari
Department of History, California State University, Los Angeles

Authoritarian Modernity, Constitutional ism and Secularism in Iran

A political debate in Iran, on the necessity of secularism, recently has been enjoined by a growing academic literature probing more deeply the meaning of secularism and its history in Iran.  (Ajudnai, 2002; Gheissari & Nasr, 2006; Vahdat,  2002; Mirsepassi, 2010, 2011; Afary, 2005; Sorush,  2000; Ganji, 1998, 2001; Khatami, 2000; Shabestari,  Arjomand, 2008).  Briefly reviewing relevant scholarly literature, this paper will first distinguish between “Secularism,” i.e. a political and constitutional doctrine calling for the separation of religious and political authority, and the “Secularization Thesis,” i.e. the supposed universal demise of religion in the modern age.  Here, I will note the prevalent confusion of “Secularization,” a modernist ideological assumption, with “Secularism,” a normative prerequisite to democratic politics.  The paper will then trace the challenges currently faced by secularism in Iran to a comparably similar misunderstanding of what commitment to secularism entails.  Understood as the legal recognition of a plurality of belief systems, secularism requires the state’s constitutional independence from religious authority.   In Iran, however,  a fundamental confusion was introduced into modern political culture when late 19th century thinkers, like Malcolm and Kermani, insisted constitutional government was compatible with traditional ( clerical Shi’i) Islamic authority.  Originally and insincere ploy, this instrumentalist approach to religion soon became axiomatic in modern political discourse, enshrined in constitutional amendments, in EG Browne’s paradigmatic narration of the Constitutional Revolution, and adopted even by revolutionary Social Democrats who argued Islam’s compatibility with socialism.  Subsequently, critical intellectual engagement with Islam and clerical authority was largely circumvented during the Pahlavi era, whose semi-secular nationalism sought to harness clerical authority in a common anti-communist venture.   A similar instrumentalist use of religion, albeit for different purposes, was advocated by anti-clerical religious reformers, like Kasravi and Shariati, who rejected religious pluralism.  Finally, the Tudeh Party and its various offshoots continued to insist on the compatibility of Islam with Marxism, contributing to the rise in the 1970s of Islamic-Marxism, an ideological hybrid that arguably prepared the ground for the fateful convergence of Marxism and Khomeini’s revolutionary reinterpretation of Shi’i sm.  Ironically, it was two decades after the establishment of an Islamic Republic that Muslim reformers finally posed direct challenges to clerical authority, thus moving the debate on secularism onto the foreground of Iranian political discourse after a century- long hiatus.

Dr. Matin-asgari received his Ph.D. from University of California, Los Angles. His areas of specialization are: 20th-century Middle East, modern Iran, and modern Islamic political and intellectual movements. He has published articles in Iranian Studies, Critique, South Asia Bulletin and other academic journals. His book, Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah, was published late fall 2001. A Persian translation of this book’s manuscript has already been published in Iran. Dr. Matin-asgari teaches various courses in Middle East history, world history, Islam, and comparative religion.

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