Apr 4, 2009


Dialogue and debate in the Islamic Republic
Iran's Intellectual Revolution by Mehran Kamrava 

Reviewed by Kaveh L Afrasiabi 

Few topics in Iran today are as contentious as the connection between Islam and 
modernity in light of an Islamic populist revolution that heralded the rise of 
a part-republican part-theocratic political system that, 30 years later, 
continues to defy neat categorization and thus baffle historians. 

Contrary to the Western stereotype of Iran as a hermetical and closed nation, 
post-revolutionary society, in addition to featuring a somewhat vibrant civil 
society, has also ushered in a tumultuous intellectual environment dominated by 
ongoing dialogue and debate on the virtues and nuances of various intellectual 
and political paradigms. 

In Iran's Intellectual Revolution, Mehran Kamrava furnishes a splendid overview 
of the burgeoning intellectual discourses in contemporary post-Ruhollah 
Khomeini Iran. He meticulously examines the works of various Iranian 
intellectuals and their connections to the diverse religious conservative, 
Islamic reformist and secular-modernist affiliations, tracing these strains of 
thought to the earlier, pre-revolutionary intellectual movements dating to the 
constitutional revolution of the early 20th century. Yet, he sheds light on the 
important mutations and novelties of the current trends in Iran's "discursive 
field" hothouse. 

 While mindful of the fair amount of diversity among Iranian intellectuals, 
Kamrava nevertheless sees fit to identify three main schools of thought, or 
rather worldviews, labeled as religious conservative, Islamic reformist and 
secular-modernist, devoting separate chapters to each after a superb 
introductory chapter that contextualizes the "quiet" and sometimes not so quiet 
"intellectual revolution" within the broader scope of post-revolutionary 
changes and transformations in Iran. 

Readers interested in the ideological underpinnings of today's Islamic Republic 
are apt to appreciate the chapter on traditional or conservative religious 
thought that delves into the religio-political perspective of such leading 
ayatollahs as the supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as 
ayatollahs Mesbah Yazdi, Jannati, Amoli, dissident Ayatollah Montazeri, etc, 
particularly as it pertains to their rather diverse interpretations of the key 
institution of religious leadership, velayat-e fagih. According to the author, 
on the whole conservative religious discourse counts as the official discourse 
of the regime, although he is careful to add that the political system "lacks 
ideological and often institutional cohesion". (pg 61) 

This is followed by an in-depth explication of the discourse of religious 
reformism which "seeks to fundamentally alter the interpretations on which most 
Islamic doctrines and notions are based" (pg 214) and which is sometimes 
benefited by "timid backing" from the theocratic political system (pg 6). Led 
by such figures as the former moderate president Mohammad Khatami, philosopher 
Abdul Karim Soroush, thinker Yusofi Eshkevari and reformist theologian Mojtahed 
Shabestari, this is, according to Kamrava, one of the most promising 
intellectual trends that has fueled a major political reformist movement from 
within the Islamic polity. It is distinguishable from its historical 
antecedents by its singular emphasis on Islamic democracy, thus drawing a close 
parallel between discourses and social movements. 

Next, Kamrava focuses on the secularist Iranian thinkers, such as Daryush 
Shayegan and Ramin Jahanbegloo, whose quests to rethink the modern Iranian 
identity leads them to a full embrace of the key secularization thesis of 
separation of church and state - the return of public religion to the private 
realm and, naturally, Western-style democracy unencumbered by religious norms, 
values and the like. 

Although lacking institutional support, this secularist trend has a sympathetic 
ear within the growing urban middle class and Kamrava is rather optimistic 
about its rising fortunes, wondering aloud that "time will tell" which of the 
last two, religious modernism or pure secularism, will gain the upper hand. 
Implicit in such a prognosis is the author's own intellectual predilections 
that veer between the religious reformist and secularist. 

One of this book's main contributions is its critical analysis of the recent 
setbacks for the reformist movement led by Khatami, identifying its weaknesses 
in terms of leadership and organization as the main culprits. However, 
Kamrava's repeated reference to the "demise" of this movement, simply because 
of some election setbacks, is questionable as is his taxonomic close 
identification of the fortunes of intellectual discourses with their political 
impacts or results. 

Kamrava's over-reliance on a dubious and restrictive notion of discourse by 
Robert Wuthnow, who overlooks the relative autonomy of intellectual phenomena 
from societal institutions and instead emphasizes the importance of the 
"institutionalization" of discourses, is responsible for these lacunae 
throughout the book. 

Another flaw is that the author ultimately does not do justice to the complex, 
perpetually self-reforming, intellectual dynamism of the Islamic Republic and 
pigeonholes the proponents of the system under the "conservative" rubric, even 
though such terminology is highly problematic, partly due to the revolutionary 
self-understanding of the system's leaders who envision a Edmund Husserlian 
mission for their movement on a global scale. This is with respect to 
challenging the global hierarchy and Western-centric status quo, as part and 
parcel of their weltanschauung. The fact is, the Islamic Republic is a 
historical work in progress and the tall wall drawn between the religious 
modernists and the supposedly conservative leaders of the regime is by and 
large untenable. 

Conspicuously missing in the book is a close examination of how contemporary 
Iranian Islamists have embraced, reworked or repelled the elements of Iranian 
nationalism. Case in point, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani's pre-revolutionary 
discourse on Iranian nationalist struggles is highly instructive on the Islamic 
regime's unique blending of nationalism and Islamism. Yet this somehow evades 
Kamrava's radar and, unfortunately, the author opts to endorse the views of 
certain expatriate Iranian intellectuals, such as Abbas Milani, who has decried 
Iran's founding of an Islamic Republic as symptomatic of an incomplete project 
of modernism, or rather "pseduo-modernism". 

Such dubious assumptions, operating from a binary tradition versus modernity 
dualism and assuming a universal model of modernism, when in fact reference to 
alternative modernity makes more sense, tend to obfuscate rather than 
illuminate the intellectual landscape in today's Iran, particularly when 
Kamrava accepts at face value the stinging criticisms of such towering past 
intellectuals as Ali Shariati and Jalal Al-e Ahmad by the likes of Shayegan. 

Relatively speaking, today's Iran is not blessed by a fair crop of intellectual 
heavyweights as it was in the past, hence talk of the "poverty of Iranian 
intellectualism", particularly as it pertains to the input of some third-rate 
intellectuals living abroad, is hardly an exaggeration. 

Another problem is that, as Kamrava's own discussion of the Heideggerian 
thinker Reza Davari clearly shows, sometimes there is a lack of cohesion 
between the political and philosophical stance of a particular intellectual, 
making it doubly difficult to assign them to this or that intellectual 
movement. Unfortunately, Kamrava papers over his own insight and lets his 
descriptive taxonomy chip away at his book's value. 

In addition to a missing discussion of nationalism, Kamrava is equally silent 
on the contribution of feminist discourses, both religious and secularist, and 
evinces a male-centered subjectivity that, as a result, omits the role and 
input of feminist authors, male and female. 

His claims that the Islamic reformist thinkers "tend to be eerily silent on the 
question of women" (pg 219) or that in this movement "discourse on women is not 
even implicitly apparent" are factually untenable. This is in light of 
Khatami's numerous references to the increased participation of women under his 
administration, Shabestari's critique of "male-centered subjectivities", and, 
prior to that, direct discourses by Ayatollah Muttahari, Shariati, Bazargan, 
etc which have as of late been subjected to certain Islamist feminist critique 
within Iran. 

Finally, Kamrava is simply not critical enough of the secularist thinkers and 
his narrative lacks a critical assessment of the applicability of their 
secularist paradigm to contemporary Iran, where political religion on the whole 
has catapulted Iran onto the world stage (for better or worse). 

In conclusion, despite its shortcomings mentioned, this is a highly informative 
book that sheds much light on the hot furnace of intellectual discursive 
debates in today's Islamic Republic, making it a must-read for those interested 
in the subject of modern Iran. 

Iran's Intellectual Revolution by Mehran Kamrava. Cambridge University Press; 1 
edition (October 27, 2008). ISBN-10: 0521725186. Price US$29.99, 288 pages. 

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in 
Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. 
His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge 
Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available. 

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please 
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