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June 27, 2005

Iranian secularism?

Free Inquiry1 has two articles online, The Next Secular Revolution? and A Secular Student in Tehran Committed to Change, highlighting the situation for secularism in Iran.2 The timing is a bit off, juxtaposed against the recent victory of the religious conservative in the Iranian elections, but to some extent this is probably the result of disengagement of much of the youth electorate from politics. Two points struck me about the first article, first, it refers to burnings of Korans3 during Tchahr Shanbe Souri, the traditional Persian fire festival, and second, one of the figures profiled offers that many Iranians are switching from their Muslim names (including Mohammed) to Persian ones. This heterodoxy jives with reports that I read in the mid-to-late 1990s that textbooks about "Eastern" religions sold very well in Iranian college bookstores, indicating that students were buying them for their personal edification as opposed to just for class requirements. A shift toward a more "Persian" (quotes because only 60% of Iranians speak Farsi as their native language) identity seems a common variation of a regular cross-cultural theme, that is, nationalists and dissidents emphasizing one aspect of their history and identity at the expensive of another.

This is not to suggest that Iran is going to be run by secularists anytime soon, only a small minority of Iranians will embrace secular humanism. But, a public and vigorous rationalist-secularist movement can be influential, even in an overwhelmingly religious society. India is a good model for this, it has an active rationalist society which challenges "God-men"4 and many prominent figures have been religiously skeptical (Nehru was an agnostic by profession). Though certainly I think there are legitimate qualms with secularism in terms of how it has been applied in India,5 I still hold that it has been a positive force when judged in light of the withering of secularism in next door Pakistan.6 In many Muslim nations there are many secular humanists in the private domain, but unlike India or Western nations, these individuals are not a public force because of strong social sanctions against espousal of beliefs which seem inimical to Islam in the public domain.7 I think the breaking of this taboo is an important sign of cultural maturity, or at least a move toward "modernity" (as is the freedom to convert to other religions). The West made this shift around 1800, as isolated mavericks like Frederick the Great were succeeded by mass anti-clerical movements.

[notes below]

1 - The house magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism.

2 - The print edition has an interview with Michael Ledeen by Ibn Warraq.

3 - I am normally amenable to pedantic spellings, but on the Koran vs. Qur'an controversy I go old school because the latter transliteration is meant to convey sounds that don't exist in English and is confusing. Not to be offensive, but it reminds me of some names you see in fantasy books for Elves, with apostrophes thrown in for exotic effect.

4 - The aims are ecumenically antogonistic, the rationalists disrupt and challenge Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Of course the overwhelming majority of Indians are credulous and superstitious peasants nonetheless, but the rationalists bear witness to modern sentiments and an ancient tradition of skepticism (the Carvakas).

5 - I tend to agree with the contention that it has not been evenhanded, being more antagonistic toward majoritarian religious sentiments but tolerant of minoritarian prejudices.

6 - Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was I believe as much a Muslim as Nehru was a Hindu. That is, both were personally disinclined toward any religious enthusiasm, but they were leaders of the Muslim and Hindu "nations" respectively.

7 - Heterodox and skeptical thinkers are not unknown in Islamic civilization. The blind poet of al Maari is one such example, but artists are different than public intellectuals in the amount of indulgence they might receive from the powers that be. Ibn Rushd, from what I know, did not publicize his most radical philosophical conclusions which challenged Islamic orthodoxy (here I go with the Arabic spelling because it seems reasonable in terms of the transliteration, and "Averroes" is greatly deviated from the native form. Additionally, unlike Confucius, Ibn Rushd is obscure enough to the lay audience that one can discard the Latinized form).

Posted by razib at 11:57 PM