Forming an Open Society in Iran


Religion should be a private matter as far as the state is concerned, but that does not mean the free thinkers of a society should shy away from criticizing specific religious or ideological dogma that cause harm to a society.  In other words, if there was a religion requiring its adherents to do human sacrifice, nobody would object to criticize or even outlaw that religious practice in the most tolerant democracies of the world.


Many Iranian free thinkers since the 1979 Revolution have been correctly engaging in the critic of Islam, and pointing out the obsoleteness of Islamic dogma in different areas of life in Iran, knowing that their critic will help the development of Civil Society in Iran, and some have even written novels that communicate, in very down-to-Earth words and imagery, how the Islamic dogma is the cause of many obsolete relations in the life of an individual in Iran.  Nonetheless, some observers have questioned the value of the critic of Islam, and have noted that a country like Mexico, which is not Islamic, has similar problems of backwardness as Iran. 


Of course the observers know that Catholicism has a strong hold on the Mexican society, like the hold of Shi'a Islam on the Iranian society, and they reckon its effect is not much different from Shi'a Islam.  However, they note that U.S. society is as religious as the Mexican society, again failing to realize that the development of civil society, which U.S. had mainly inherited from England, is in contrast to Mexico's lack of such inheritance from Spain-a major difference, and that the subsequent development of Mexico, was neither accompanied with a critic of Catholicism, nor did it have the flourishing of other aspects of civil society, in social and political institutions, and thus the absence of growth of an Open Society.


In fact, what the free thinkers are doing in Iran, in the current timely circumstances, is what many European free thinkers did during the Enlightenment Era, when a religious government was in power, and people were experiencing the impact of the dogma in their everyday life, and this is what Mexico has not had a chance to do, and neither has it inherited strong civil society institutions in its colonial past as noted above.  In other words, the critic of religion in the history of Iran or Mexico, in contrast to France or Germany of the Enlightenment era, is an important factor to note, and the current critical work about religion, in novels or poetry, which is done by many Iranian free thinkers, definitely helps the development of Open Society in Iran. 


A country like Mexico, not being in the Middle East or in the vicinity of the Arab world, and being next door to the United States, and not even being poor like Bangladesh, with vast natural resources like oil, showing the same backwardness, confirms the value of the work of those who focus on development of civil society in Iran, by engaging in the kind of discourse Thomas Paine did in his writings, reminding one of works like bisto-seh-saal of Ali Dashti.  I think cultural sites like Derafsh-Kaviyani and authors like Ibn Warraq are noteworthy in this respect.


Of course, some leftists refer to dependence and imperialism as the cause of backwardness in these countries, forgetting that dependence itself is the result of the absence of an Open Society, and not its cause, although they reinforce each other reciprocally.


Opposition to religious dogma by secular scientific and the religious reformist thought in Iran is what I have noted before:


Not all critics of the Shi'a hierarchy are necessarily secular or democratic.  For example, a radical Islamic group, mojAhedine khalgh that has been slaughtered by Islamic Republic of Iran,  is more like Munzer of the time of Luther, sharing most of the Islamic dogma with the rest of Shi'a Islamists.  Or Aghajari. who recently got a death sentence in Iran, was very similar to Luther of 15th Century Europe, in what he called for, with regards to the Catholic Church, and his words echoed Luther's questioning the need for Catholic clergy, as the intermediary of people and God, when calling for direct contact of the individuals with God, which basically would end up in equating the clergy with the layman.  But at the same time, Aghajari defended Ayatollah Khomeini's death fatwa (edict) for Salman Rushdie. 


Luther, just like Aghajari, was a dogmatic religious man himself, who attacked Copernicus, science, and rationalism even more than his Catholic counterparts.   I would have felt not much different to live under the rule of radical Munzer, or the fanatic Luther,  than the Pope himself.  In fact, when Luther heard of Copernicus’s Heliocentric Theory, he strongly opposed the Copernican Theory, on biblical basis, and in contrast to the Catholic Church, he was *always* against any rational discussions of religion, and demanded the acceptance of Christianity solely on the basis of faith, and not on the basis of rational thought.


What caused the huge Protestant movement was not Munzer or Luther being less dogmatic or them contradicting religion.  It was rather their putting a question mark on any need for the clergy, which gained them the wrath of the Catholic Church.  And all these discussions about religious beliefs, using reason to see who is right and who is wrong, despite their opposition to reason to decide on religion, opened the way for logical discourse, in a closed society that was based on conception of indisputable religious truth, and thus helped the development of civil society in Europe.


Today, we are witnessing something very similar in Iran with the rise of secular and scientific thinking, and Shi'a semi-Protestant reformation, both challenging the necessity of the clergy, although the ones like Aghajari,, are even more of a religious zealot than their counterpart.  When it comes to these so-called Islamic Protestants, their approach towards liberalism, science, and rational thought is as closed-minded and fanatic, as the Shi'a clergy they oppose.


Modern democracies and Open Society are not defined by the question of *what* (i.e. who rules), but rather it is the question of *how* the state rules that makes the difference:


Today the Western governments are called democracies.  The Greek meant rule of people when they talked of democracy.  But in reality it is not the rule of “who”, the benevolence of ruling individual, caste or class which has mattered, whenever there has been a democracy or its lack of.  For example, in the Modern Times, the Communists cared the most about the issue of rule of “who”, and in their search for the best to rule, they discovered the proletariat, and thus they talked of rule of the workers, the class which was the majority of the industrial society, and regardless of how Communist representation mechanism worked, even when that majority supported them, it was obvious that it did not usher in freedom.


One of the first people who theoretically explained this problem was Karl Popper in his book “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” around the time of WWII, where he showed that modern democracy was not about *who* rules, but it is about *how* a state rules.  In other words, the mechanism of checks and balances is the crux of what separates a modern democracy from a dictatorship.  More search for finding *who* is the best to rule, the attempt from Plato to Marx, is a futile endeavor to achieve an ideal government.  Whether the rule of Philosopher-kings of Plato and Khomeini, or Marx’s representatives of the proletariat, the result is the same tyranny, if the *how* of state control, lacks extensive checks and balances.


The above is an important issue to understand when one reviews modern democracies.  Even the rule of law, which is so central to modern democracies, because of protecting individuals from all other rules, is effective to the end of democracy, only when it is in the context of full checks and balances, instituted between the various branches of government.  The following  interesting point about the U.S. Supreme Court by Bertrand Russell exemplifies the above regarding checks and balances:

"The country where Locke's principle of the division of powers has found its fullest application is the United States, where the President and Congress are wholly independent of each other, and the Supreme Court is independent of both.  Inadvertently, the Constitution made the Supreme Court a branch of the legislature, since nothing is a law if the Supreme Court says it is not.  The fact that its powers are nominally only interpretative in reality increases those powers, since it makes it difficult to criticize what are supposed to be purely legal decisions.  It says a very great deal for the political sagacity of Americans that this Constitution has only once led to armed conflict.-Bertrand Russell-History of Western Philosophy"

Karl Popper in his later works on democracy emphasizes the issue of the government being able to be removed without bloodshed, reminding us of Communist and Nazi governments that could not be removed, even with bloodshed, in contrast to Nixon’s government in the U.S., that was removed by impeachment without bloodshed.  In short, regardless of the ones making the laws of the state in representational democracies, people are able to be the judge and even remove the government. 


And of course, focused on Western states, Popper does not refer as much to religious states that have been basically gone in the West for centuries.  So the authority of civil society over religious order is a given in the West at this time.  For countries like Iran, creating various modern institutions of civil society and their authority in the law of the land are currently live debates and action issues.


This is why democracy is so much emphasized by the popular movement, as the encounter of people’s rule versus God’s rule, in popular jargon, but one should go a step further and note that people's rule to be a modern democracy means that civil society should be developed in contrast to "God's rule" and for civil society to be an open society, it is about the *how* question, and that a secular state is a modern democracy depending on how far it goes in implementing checks and balances.


Baha'ullah in Iran and Marx in Europe lived in an era when the opposition to despotism cared a lot for liberal democracy and thus they both, especially in their early works, defended liberal parliamentary system.  But prophecy and starting another organized religion by the former, and supporting dictatorship of the proletariat by the latter, defeated their support of liberal democracy in the creeds they both left behind. 


Times have passed the world of  introducing a new religion (which spiritual leaders like Krishnamurti realized well, when he resisted those who wanted him to found a new religion) and times have passed the introduction of another ideological empire (which thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper realized well, and treated their own philosophies of logical atomism and objective knowledge, as reasonable discourse, rather than an ideological creed). 

So in a way icons like Baha'ullah and Marx share the fault of yet bringing *closed* societies to the world, in two different ways, to the point of defeating the *open* society.  It took over 100 years for the world  to discard most of the Communist *closed* societies and get back to a state where most of the Earth sides with Open Society again.


Ethics and whether closed societies fair any better than open societies is a good question to ask:


Does a sense of right and wrong need a creed to be achieved?  Does ethical judgment of evil and good need a religion or a closed ideology to defend it? In Zoroastrianism evil and good is discussed extensively.  Later on, Manichaeism views evil to have a separate identity and does not see it as the lack of good.  In contrast, Spinoza and most of the modern Western thought views evil as the lack of good. The dualism of evil and good was brought to the Gnostic traditions of Christianity by St. Augustine and passed on to some of the post-Islamic sects and religions like Yazdanis in Iran. 


The theory of evil has been passed on for ages, and the Christian author Scott Peck in his "People of the Lie" has extensively used this theory, a book which I highly recommend.  Although he is a Christian author, the book could have been written by a secular thinker and explains well, about issues of honesty and dishonesty.   It shows how one who lies and persists in dishonesty, can end up to justify the acts of a Nazi torturer.


I have written that there are honest and dishonest people in every religion and ideology; and no ideology can make people honest, and we have seen how some people use their ideology as a justification for their dishonesty, basically by end justifying the means.


True that for those who really need a religion, if they discard a religion like Islam in Iran, they can pick up a religion like Zoroastrianism, which is more of a cultural identity and very ethical and its current organization is not cultish.  But in open societies, the religion that people proclaim because of family lineage, is increasingly losing its import, in contrast to closed societies, and people are basically not that religious, and their decisions about good and evil, are increasingly based on utilitarian ethical and legal considerations, than due to any religious dogma.


Thus a religious person like Krishnamurti is as close to an open society, as a secular person like Kant (whose comprehensive system  did not give rise to despotism, as we can see better now, with John Rawls, even defining rights without the liberal comprehensive system of enlightenment of Kant and JS Mill).  In contrast, the irreligious system of Marx and Nazis proved to be as despotic as the religious systems of Medieval Christianity and Islam.  So again the distinction is in Open Society than in following a religion or an atheistic creed. 


The above is what Popper tries to show by arguing for *Open Society*.  He does not discard Communism because of its Utopianism, which many previous critics of Communism before him did.  He discards it because it replaced open society with a closed society.  In other words, the fault of Communism was not because it was Utopian,  and in fact the ethical views of Krishnamurti or the socio-political views of Kant and J.S. Mill could as well be considered as Utopian dreams, but they did not cause despotism.  The crucial difference being the support for an *open society*.  So the fault is not related to the particular Utopia of Communists or Nazis.  This is why Popper equally condemns Plato's Republic for being contrary to an Open Society.


What Popper writes about the Soviet Union's brainwash, reminds one a lot about the brainwash by the Islamists demonizing the Open Societies, and his discussion of Gorbachev's attempt of making people *normal* is a very interesting discussion.  This is what I noted before:


It is interesting that for Communism, the whole concept of depicting the West as an evil, and the perspective to destroy the West, became such an integral part of the Soviet brainwash of its population.  Gorbachev noted this phenomena when he saw the need to make the Soviet people *normal*.  Here is what Popper observes of this last episode of collapse of Soviet Communism:


“Only with Gorbachev do we find a man who realizes that he has to change the fundamental assumption of the whole of Russian politics, that they are the people whose mission it is to destroy capitalism- that is, America.  Gorbachev has actually been several times to America and seen the reality there; he wants to show his understanding of a free people which is not aggressive towards Russia but hopes that Russia will come to her senses.  And Gorbachev made an important statement when he said ‘I want to make the people of the Soviet Union a normal people’ …You see, Gorbachev’s merit was to have understood that his people was not ‘normal’ whereas the American people was.  The attitude is really quite different in America; they do not all the time have this horrible game in their mind. Karl Popper-Lessons of  this Century.”


I think this is a very important observation that Karl Popper has made about the Soviet Union.  The attempt of its Communist government, party, and leaders, for decades after decades, was to create an abnormal attitude, among the people, to have a mission in their mind all the time, to destroy America.  I think this is the same kind of phenomena we have been seeing among the Islamic fanatic governments, parties, and leaders.  They have been repeating “Death to America” for over 20 years, every week at their Friday sermons, the indoctrinations pointed at the whole population of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and many other Middle Eastern countries.  I think this is the perspective and attitude that is responsible for the tragedy of Sept 11, 2001. 


The people of the Middle East were on their path to secularism and civil law, as early as the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s, with movements like the Constitutional Movement in Iran.  The Middle Eastern people are mostly secular than religious, and have opposed the Islamic fundamentalism, apartheid, and fanaticism, more than any other peoples in the world.  The current rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in the Middle East is only comparable to the rise of Nazi Fascism  in Europe, and has more to do with pre-industrial flashback against the new epochal changes of the post-industrial society, than with any so-called “historical” necessity of Islamic religion.. 


Justice, social and economic, is another area to examine open societies and modern democracy and review the interplay of justice and freedom:


 Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the progressive thinkers were focused on freedom, whereas since the fall of the Soviet Union, more and more thinkers have been discussing responsibility alongside freedom.  In fact, Karl Popper in his interviews entitled "Lessons of This Century" emphasizes the issue of responsibility.


Popper in the later years, focused more on rule of law and even regulating Television, with regards to violence, and the critical importance of *children's rights.  Actually areas such as children's rights are hardly discussed fully in the past human rights literature.  Popper viewed the underdog of our era to be the children, in his interviews of 1990's.   Also as far as the economic justice, Karl Popper wrote the following interesting passage in his autobiography:


"I remained a socialist for several years after my rejection of Marxism; and if there could be such thing as socialism combined with individual liberty, I would be a socialist still. For nothing could be better than living a modest, simple, and free life in an egalitarian society.  It took some time before I recognized this is as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important than equality; that the attempt to realize equality endangers freedom; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree."


Theocracy's success in Iran had its reasons in the years preceding the Islamic regime when the Shah appeased the clergy while suppressing the secular democratic opposition and both regimes were against the development of an open society in Iran:


Let's look at Iran before the Islamic Republic. The reality is that because of lack of democracy, nobody was able to form any organization to run Iran, and the clergy which already had its traditional organization ,was unchallenged to take over Iran, when the Shah's regime fell apart.  Shah should have modernized the political structure of Iran if he wanted to save his government, and the cornerstone of that modernization was the protection of democracy and secularism. 


Secularism was opposed by the clergy and this is why they opposed even the partial secularism of enghelAbe sefid (White Revolution) of the Shah.  But Shah instead of moving forward with thorough secularism, and augmenting it with democracy, tried to appease the clergy, by giving them concessions here and there, while blocking all democratic secular forces, from forming their own organizations, thru arrests, torture, and executions. 


The clergy regained their status in the judicial branch of the state during the Shah's regime, and it is a fact that clergy's role in Iranian state is not something that happened in the Islamic Republic, and it is still not understood by many monarchists who support the 1906 Constitution, a document which requires the veto of 5 mojteheds for any law to become the law of the land, and considers Shi'a as the official religion of Iran.  I have written extensively why keeping the Shi'a clergy out of the three branches of government in Iran is a pivotal issue for any future constitution in Iran.


Progressive development is in tantamount with the struggle for forming an Open Society.   It is noteworthy that some of those who considered the 1979 Revolution as the result of Carter's human rights breeze, have since blamed Carter and the U.S. for not bringing in the necessary mechanisms to contain the subsequent outcome of the freedoms of that period, that ended up in Islamists using freedom to kill freedom to take over the country.  Of course, in the case of Iran, although Carter's policy in supporting the Islamists at the end, helped the Islamists, but Iran's movement was not the work of the U.S., to be able to control the unleashing of the forces, with proper policing, and the interim government and various political forces of the time are more to blame for giving in to the Islamists, and I have explained this elsewhere.


Retrogression of Iranian 1979 Revolution stopped Iran from moving towards an *open society*, despite the desire of some small political groups, who participated in that Revolution to achieve secularism and democracy:


In 1987, in my article "Progressiveness in the Present Epoch", I wrote that the 1979 Revolution of Iran was a reversal of a Modern Times' synonymy of Revolution and Progress, which was assumed as a given, since the American 1775 and the French 1789 Revolutions.  This synonymy was now reversed, and the world may need a new Immanuel Kant to formulate this reversal, when the retrogression has become the epitome of a major political revolution in Iran.  In fact, Kant never bothered writing about revolutions till the American and French Revolutions happened and when writing on topics of armed conflicts, his topics were war and peace between different states.  Kant's formulations of his ideal state and the topic of individual rights, were in reference to a state of affairs achieved thru reform and *not* revolution.  I will explain more below but let me first say my main point about Iran's 1979 Revolution.


Not all the forces in the revolution were seeking reactionary goals but the main forces of the revolution *were* seeking reactionary goals.  In contrast, the main forces of the American and French Revolutions were seeking the individual rights, civil society, fairness, and social freedom, and this is how a thinker like Kant, who basically did not advocate revolutions, became a supporter of those events.  In contrast to the French and American Revolutions, the main forces of Iranian 1979 Revolution, were *against* individual social rights and *social freedom*, and even the Shah believed in more social freedom than them, and this is why the Islamists started wiping out those rights, from the first days after the revolution with the slogan of "yA roosari, yA toosari", when suppressing the demonstration of women in Tehran, right after Bahman of 1357, and they spoke of Islamic principle of "amre beh maroof va nahi az monker", which became the rule, which was used to suppress the individual social rights of every citizen in Iran. 


If during the Shah's regime, only the political rights of the individual were suppressed, the new Islamic state did not even stop at political rights and decided on how people could eat or dress or have sex or even live inside their own house.  It was a total reactionary direction of the 1979 revolution which developed by the strong presence of Islamists, thanks to Shah's blocking of any democratic organization  in the three decades prior to the 1979 Revolution.  In the French and American Revolutions, the reverse was true, and although there were some reactionary forces present on the side of the revolution,  the main forces on the side of the revolution in both the American and French Revolutions, sought progressive goals, such as the *individual rights* and civil society. 


This  is how those revolutions became the epitome of the ideals which Kant had called for in his writings, the ideal social norms which he was trying to achieve through *reform* in Germany of the successor of Frederick the Great, Frederick William II, who contrary to Frederick the Great, had no respect for individual rights and even had banned Kant from writing on religious matters, after Kant's publication of his 1793 "Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone", and the fact that as long as King Frederick William II was alive, Kant did not write on religion. 


So Kant was a symbol of a democratic-minded individual who did his utmost to work by civil obedience and the only reason he supported the American and French Revolutions was because he saw them to usher in the ideals, which he saw as necessary for a modern state, and not because he liked to advocate revolutions, which he did not.  In contrast, many who supported the Iranian 1979 Revolution forgot about asking what ideals that revolution was seeking, and supported it just because it was a revolution to overthrow the dictatorial and corrupt system of the Shah, and not because the revolution was seeking progressive and democratic ideals, which it was not.


Iranian Revolution and the efforts of Iranian free thinkers and general public to develop an Open Society in the Middle East present new lessons for progressive movement in the world, and it is disappointing that Futurists in the West have hardly paid any attention to this epochal event, an event which shows the obstacles in front of the development of a post-industrial society, more than any other event in the modern history:


What is very disappointing is that the Futurists have mainly ignored the developments of Iran and the Middle East and have only seen the Iranian situation as the issue of US-Iran relations whether at the time of the Shah or at the time of IRI and hostage-taking.  If one looks at the publications of World Future Society  in the last 20 years, there is hardly any article about Iran.  Among the futurists, only Daniel Bell has made a reference to Iran and the Salman Rushdie issue and Alvin Toffler has made a few occasional references.


I think Iranians and those who understand the Iranian situation will be the ones who can bring that awareness to the world before the futurists can get a grasp of the magnitude of this upheaval and how important it is to understand it to see how the post-industrial development will be challenged by pre-industrial alternatives and retrogressive structures of the past, such as the Islamic fundamentalism and how the development of Open Society can be derailed in such a battle.   I think the Iranian people forming a futurist party and spearheading such an epochal event to lead Iran to a post-industrial society, can become an example for the world, in making this new paradigm shift from the industrial to the post-industrial world.   And there is not much more I can add to what I have written as to why the solution for Iran is a future_oriented Federal Secular Democratic Republic .


In short Iran and Iranians will have a leading role in formulating the proper solutions for building the post-industrial society, which can help others in other parts of the world by setting a new path.  I think for secular and democratic forces in Iran to provide proper leadership for this future development of Iran, they need to form a futurist party that can lead such a change, or else we may end up with another retrogression, and we all know how the 1979 retrogression cost us all so dearly in the last 23 years.


I think the task of the free thinkers of Iran is not just a political task, and although I consider the developments for uniting the Iranian political opposition very important, and I think the unity in parties with a focus to the future will end the Islamic Republic, and these forces taking power and forming a secular republic will start a new life for Iran and the rest of the world.  Nonetheless, I think the work of free thinkers who have always kept their focus on the civil society in Iran and their untiring cultural, literary, and other works will be detrimental in whether the result of the next changes in Iran will be an Open Society or not.  Open Society is not just an issue of politics.



Sam Ghandchi, Publisher/Editor
May 6, 2003





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