“The Future of Islam in Iran” is a book written by Reza Alijani in 2022 criticizing the theocracy and examining the social status of Islam in Iran.

From the mid or late Qajar era, Iranian society transformed from a traditional society to an “imbalanced society with a dominance of traditional aspects”. However, it seems that in the last three to four decades, this ratio has reversed, becoming an “imbalanced society but with a dominance of modern aspects”.

This change occurred in a context that allows us to divide Iranian society into before and after the 1979 revolution; a revolution after which the replacement government, contrary to its initial ideals and promises, increasingly became an authoritarian religious government rooted in jurisprudential rigidity belonging to a bygone historical period. It became more corrupt economically, more oppressive politically, and in foreign policy, ventured far from national interests into political and ideological adventures.

The fourteen-year experience of a religious government (Velayat-e Faqih) that, on one hand, has closed the path of reform from within and on the other hand, wants to impose the lifestyle of a reactionary and rigid-thinking minority on the entire society, especially the vast young demographics, has led Iranian society into a stage that can be termed “The Iranian Renaissance”.

In this context, the “philosophical subject” and the “political citizen” are being born; two auspicious events whose core is formed by the philosophical centrality of the individual and individual rights advocacy.

“Religious criticism” can be considered the foundation and context that opened the way for the Iranian Renaissance. This “individuality,” both philosophical and political, and the fall of the traditional curtain in its broad sense (anything passed down unquestioningly from ancestors to descendants) from in front of the eyes of the Iranian individual, is no longer a theoretical and intellectual debate confined to the elite circles of society but has become a widespread event across the broad spectrum of society and the existential depths of the majority of its inhabitants.

In this process, the homogeneity of the traditional society has collapsed dramatically, and we are faced with a highly diverse society. “Diversity” is the golden principle for understanding the current Iranian society. Any attempt to oversimplify and homogenize this picture is misleading.

Due to the closed social and political environment, there is currently no reliable and scientific data on “religion” that can be trusted. Some surveys are outdated or cover a limited statistical population, and some, due to the unscientific method of selecting the statistical population (snowball method) and being conducted online, cannot be considered accurate or reliable; though they may generally, not precisely, reflect some “trends”.

However, many people, through direct and intuitive observation in their surroundings and at the societal level, witness a kind of departure from religion (at least the official religion). Conversion to other religions (from Islam to Christianity or Zoroastrianism), the growth of individual selective and self-service religious orientations, the rise of spirituality and personal mysticism, the growth of theism without religion, as well as the increase in atheistic (disbelief in God) orientations, etc., represent various aspects of the “changing position of religion” in this diverse society. Although the available statistics, despite all their flaws, agree that the number of theists far exceeds atheists, this might be attributed to the deeply rooted nature of religion in Iranian society. As some analysts have suggested, Iran may be among the few ancient countries formed based on religion, with Zoroastrianism and later Islam playing a significant role.

Reza Alijani, born in 1962 in Qazvin, is a journalist, writer, political activist, member of the National Religious Activists Council, and editor-in-chief of the banned publication Iran-Farda. Alijani was born into a middle-class and religious family in Qazvin. While being an outstanding student during his school years, he began non-curricular studies from the third grade of elementary school by joining the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults and participating in religious meetings (Quran, book reading, etc.). In his early teens, he became acquainted with the works of Ali Shariati and was subsequently influenced by his ideas and thoughts. The cultural, religious, and political atmosphere of his family and acquaintances also drew him into political activities. These activities intensified with participation in intellectual-political meetings and the distribution of pamphlets and political declarations in connection with some political groups (local and national).

Religion and its future in Iran

But the fate and future of religion in current Iran are largely intertwined with the fate of the Islamic Republic.

If the Islamic Republic is overthrown by a general revolution and fails, religion and the clergy will suffer more severe damages. The polarization of issues that usually forms in the process of a revolution (which is also generally accompanied by violence) makes it not far from reality to imagine that some centers associated with the clergy might be set on fire and the anger of the people will be directed at them first and foremost.

Also, due to the religious government’s resistance until the last moment against the public will, it can, at least in the short term, heighten anger against the ideological core of this government. Of course, it should not be overlooked that a significant portion of the revolutionaries at that time will be individuals who may personally hold religious beliefs but have become angered against a government of oppression and deceit and demand its overthrow and the separation of religion and state.

At the same time, it is predictable that religion, due to its historical roots in this land and the functions it serves, will continue to exist in the new situation.

Throughout the Age of Enlightenment and afterwards, there were thinkers like Romain Rolland who thought at the beginning of every century that by the end of the century, they would drive the last nail into the coffin of religion, but they witnessed the resurgence of religion again. In their words, religion seems to have nine lives! Reflecting on this issue shows that religion is among the institutions that have responded to some of the human needs throughout history. Its durability has been due to its functions; needs such as giving meaning to the world and life, creating peace and personal satisfaction, providing a basis for ethics, and motivating for the common good and compassion towards others; although this is not the exclusive commodity of religion and the claim of religions is at most about the superiority of their commodity compared to others.

It is quite clear that this is not the entirety of the history of religion. A significant portion of the dogmatism, anger, violence, wars, and bloodshed in history has also been fed by religious sources; just as it is quite clear that many wars and human atrocities, like the World Wars and the anger and violence of the Eastern Bloc and various massacres across this globe, especially in the modern world, have had nothing to do with religion.

If we reflect more deeply, we might come to understand that the root of many oppressions, violences, wars, and crimes goes back to the inner nature of some humans and their greed; greeds that can manifest themselves in religious, racial, scientific, etc., forms (this, of course, does not overlook the religious justifications of some wars).

In addition to individual greed, one must also point to certain social relations and economic, political, etc., roots as factors in wars, violence, and conquests. Social relations can play both a promoting and a restraining role against individual tendencies and greed. For example, American democracy was able to restrain a greedy individual like Trump. Had he been in the Middle East, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he turned into another Saddam!

The Pendulum Society of Iran

From the long history of Iran, including its contemporary and recent history, it could be inferred that, as some sociologists describe, Iranian society is a pendulum society. However, the pivot of this pendulum is not fixed in one place; as the pendulum swings, the pivot also moves and changes its position.

Considering this characteristic, it can be said that Iranian society is currently not in a state of equilibrium and is at the height of anger and frustration with the government and the dominant religion. This pendulum might approach a state of equilibrium under different conditions in the future, but the base and the pivot of the pendulum will certainly not be in the same place as before. More clearly, the situation of religion (and the clergy) after the Islamic Republic will be drastically different – just as it was very different before the Islamic Republic.

We mentioned that if the Islamic Republic is overthrown by a revolution (all people against the entire government) and fails, a more difficult situation for religion (and the clergy) is imaginable. However, if the process of change and transformation in the Islamic Republic does not take a revolutionary form and happens through peaceful transition and evolution, similar to many countries around the world like South Africa, Poland, Chile, etc., then religion (and the clergy), while retreating and submitting to the government (not its defeat), could move to its new position and point in a more balanced and peaceful manner, possibly gradually.

Understanding Despite Differences

Despite all the diversity and plurality, it seems that a significant majority of Iranian society agrees on these principles: the separation of religion (and any ideology) from the state, respect for human rights, acceptance of diversity, elimination of discrimination, rejection of lifelong tenure, national sovereignty (instead of Velayat-e Faqih), and a foreign policy based on national interests (not ambitious aspirations), etc. These common principles have now become the collective conscience of the majority of Iranians.

It is noteworthy that currently, even a significant portion of the clergy also favors the separation of religion and state. It is also worth considering that a traditional “non-coercive” religion does not create problems for society; a religion that accepts religious commandments in their most traditional form and adheres to them but does not seek to impose them on another individual or, by extension, on the entire society.

Based on the points and commonalities mentioned above, individuals and movements with different beliefs and ideologies can campaign and compete in civil society, but they should only put their “programs” to a public vote, not their beliefs and ideologies. They should leave their beliefs outside the parliament and government doors. Of course, we understand that the beliefs of any approach or sect are reflected in their programs. However, it is only the programs that are implemented with the people’s vote at the helm of executive affairs and are replaced by other programs with a change in public opinion. Beliefs and ideologies always remain in civil society, engaging in dialogue and competition with each other. The solution to resolving differences is through these dialogues and ultimately through democracy and the ballot box.

Religious Reformers, Nature and Destiny

Religious reformers in Iran are themselves a social construct resulting from the political, social, and cultural conditions of their land. Despite their internal spectrum of beliefs, they have tried to harmonize and align religious teachings with the principles of the modern world. Their level of religious criticism varies; from demystification and revival of religion to considering religious decrees or even some religious teachings as outdated, to new interpretations of revelation and critical rereading of religious texts – which cannot be elaborated on in this brief overview. The experience of several decades of religious government has significantly expanded the scope and depth of their critiques. Now, the overwhelming majority of them oppose the religious government and advocate for the separation of religion and state, defending the rights of minorities (including the rights of Baha’is).

Among religious reformers, there are heated debates. They have engaged in discussions with themselves and society to address the problem of certain religious decrees that are incompatible with freedom, human rights, justice, and equality in our times. Some critics rightly believe that some religious reformers present the fruits of religion in a polished manner and hide the spoiled ones under the table! However, the government of clerics and jurisprudence has exposed these fruits not just to the scrutiny of the faithful and scholars but in the harshest and most inhumane form to the entire society. A significant portion of religious reformers, by differentiating between form and content, essence and accident, and the like, have lent fluidity to religious decrees, considering the commands contained in religious texts as belonging to their historical time. This has created a rift and challenge between them and the predominant traditionalists and official custodians of religion.

But religious reformers in Iran are a social construct arising from the political, social, and cultural circumstances of their country. Despite their internal diversity, they have attempted to synchronize and align religious teachings with the teachings of the modern world. Their level of religious criticism varies; from demystification and revival of religion to considering certain religious decrees or teachings as relics of the past, to new interpretations of revelation and critical rereading of religious texts – which is too extensive to detail here. The experience of several decades of religious governance has significantly broadened and deepened their critiques. Now, an overwhelming majority of them oppose the religious government, advocate for the separation of religion and state, and defend the rights of minorities (including Baha’is).

Among religious reformers, there are fervent debates. They have engaged in dialogues within their community and with society to address issues with religious decrees that conflict with freedom, human rights, justice, and equality today. Some critics argue correctly that some religious reformers present the palatable aspects of religion while hiding its flaws. However, the clerical regime and its jurisprudence have exposed these aspects not just to believers and scholars but in the most brutal and inhumane form to the entire society. A major portion of religious reformers, by distinguishing between form and substance, essence and accident, have granted flexibility to religious decrees, considering them relevant to their historical times. This has created a divide and challenge between them and the dominant traditionalists and the official custodians of religion.

Besides the realm of decrees, challenges have also arisen in other explanatory fields like cosmology, anthropology, etc. A significant part of religious reformers at least consider the expression of these teachings to be influenced by the science and reason of the time (just as they have attributed the justice of the time to the origin of historical decrees). Thus, they have drawn closer to the famous theory of Dr. Muhammad Iqbal that “the time has come to revise the entire Muslim system”.

In general, religious reformers, many of whom are educated in the West and familiar with the developments of modern human civilization (from the Renaissance and religious reform to various influential modern intellectual currents), thought they could accelerate and even bypass the Age of Enlightenment and religious reform in Iran. They hoped to pass this phase quicker and at a lower cost than Western examples through an intellectual “C-section”. However, the revolution and subsequent religious governance, the Velayat-e Faqih, and the dominance of clerics and their jurisprudence over the lives of Iranians, have troubled and disrupted their project. The myopia and simplification of many of them regarding the clerical institution and the optimism of some towards political clerics have caused damages to society and, most of all, to themselves. While bearing significant costs along this path, they have also transformed. Now, the vast majority of them can be called “Muslim secularists”.

Their assessment of the current and future state of religion and Islam in Iran (and the world), as seen in the forthcoming book, is not uniform; though all emphasize the separation of religion and state (and for some, the separation of religion from politics and civil society). Some see no link between the fate of religion and the Islamic Republic, while others believe the future of both is intertwined. Some have a uniform and continuous view on the role of religion, and some believe that, like Noah, religious reformers must now build their ark on dry land, so it may be used in a potential future. They think the current departure from religion might reverse under different circumstances, and society may return to religion. Therefore, religious reformers should strive to prepare for that time so that this return is towards religious modernism, not towards traditional and fundamentalist religion.

Most reformers believe that Iranian society is religious and a significant and dominant portion of it believes in God. Some also believe that religious modernism represents and nourishes a part of society and can positively influence this segment in shaping Iran’s future.

The diversity of approaches among non-religious intellectuals

Among the ranks of non-religious intellectuals, we also witness clear diversity; from those who are vehemently anti-religion and cannot envision a positive future for Iranian society until religiosity is eradicated; to those who are primarily opposed to Islamism and, while emphasizing the separation of religion and state, have no issue with the private domain of religion (and even the presence of religion in charitable and social welfare activities); to those who believe that secular intellectuals and innovators should interact, align, and cooperate with religious reformers and intellectuals to advance the secularization process of Iranian society with more support and less cost. From the perspective of some of these individuals, religious reformers have been more effective than secular intellectuals in introducing the discourse of secularism in Iran.

In any case, the diverse and multicolored Iranian society is before our eyes; from individuals and orientations that are deeply religious to those that are intensely anti-religion. The important issue is finding ways to coexist peacefully; methods such as accepting diversity, dialogue, tolerance, separation of religion and state, and resolving differences through democracy and voting, focusing on competing programs rather than beliefs.

The purpose of introducing this book (despite being written in Farsi) is solely to point out criticisms of the theocracy and the fight for secularism. Reza Alijani is among the most well-known national-religious figures in Iran, who, while maintaining and following certain religious principles, pursues the separation of religion from government along with many other religious reformers in Iran.

My journey in creating this space was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s powerful work, “The Fire Next Time”. Like Baldwin, who eloquently addressed themes of identity, race, and the human condition, this blog aims to be a beacon for open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable discussions on similar issues.

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