Public intellectuals can be agents of democratisation linking academic scholarly discourses to the wider public sphere, mobilising civil society with the intellectual tools for political and social reform, which is perhaps why in the Muslim world the public intellectual has become an endangered species. Abdolkarim Soroush represents the reformist intellectual trend in Iran, calling for reform in various domains from theology to Islamic law with an impressive portfolio of intellectual projects ranging from the relationship between faith and reason, political philosophy and the philosophy of science. Being well-read in European and Islamic intellectual traditions, he presents a unique challenge to the regime in the domain of religious interpretation and legitimacy.
Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam is a short collection of 11 essays, each essay touching upon a theme which makes up the author’s vast intellectual project. There is also a critical introduction and an intellectual biography in the form an interview in which he talks about his intellectual influences, the Iranian Revolution and the effect it has had on his work.
The essays, translated from the Persian to English, may seem modest but are in fact incredibly diverse and expansive in their outlook covering ethics, episte-mology, the theoretical foundations of modernity and religious democracy. However, to understand any intellectual, the context and discourse which he or she is situated in has to be understood. The editors have done a brilliant job in locating Soroush’s product in a tradition of reformist thinking with the likes of Mohammad Iqbal, Ali Shariati and Mohammad Abduh. The first chapter is a unique interview with Soroush about his personal intellectual development and by including it the editors succeed in making the reader feel at ease with Soroush as a thinker and philosopher, alongwith becoming informed about his social and cultural significance in Iran. He focuses on the premises of religious reform: how to frame the questions and how to introduce the dynamism of the modern age into a quintessentially conservative religious tradition. Soroush reviews the positions of old and modern reformers from Al Ghazali’s fusion of mysticism, ethics and law to Muhammad Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought. He laments that although Muslim intellectuals have laboured hard, a coherent epistemic scheme is missing.
He writes that the distinction must be made, and in doing this he proposes his famous religious theory concerning the Contraction and Expansion of Religious Interpretation.
The crux of the theory is that ‘It is up to God to reveal a religion, but up to us to understand and realise it.’ By doing this Soroush makes key epistemic distinctions that other Muslim intellectuals have failed to do, by separating religion and religious knowledge, by separating the key repositories of truth and those of human interpretation and socially constructed traditions. This is perhaps the most insightful chapter because it reaches the heart of the matter in terms of addressing the nature and limits of Islamic reform. The essays discuss secularism, modernity and the philosophical premises underpinning them and their consequences in terms of the political and social dimensions of religious life.
The topics of development, socioeconomics and the effect they have on moral philosophy and ethics are refreshingly reasoned, with Soroush arguing that, ‘arresting development, attacking science and glorifying poverty is not the answer to the vices that attend prosperity.’ The author makes a useful distinction between philosophical and political secularism. The philosophical type threatens religiosity and is resisted by Muslims but the political type is needed to open up space for critical discussion. Hence he supports political democratic secularism and says that, ‘human beings can remain spiritual and religious while enjoying the benefits of rational administration of their affairs.’ Excursions into political philosophy are the most controversial part of Soroush’s work (especially in the Iranian context). He challenges the notion of a Shariah state, arguing that such a concept is modern and new and has no real pedigree in Islamic thought.
In Muslim history Islamic law was administered independent of the ruling classes. He argues that governance is an extra-religious matter; hence the Quran does not outline a specific system of government but overarching values. By locating political philosophy as a secular matter removed from religious traditions, he builds on his theory of a government made up of religious democratic believers. To understand Soroush’s work one needs to understand the Iranian context and why his theory of politics is so controversial, especially against the background of Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of Vilayat-i-Faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent).
In the final chapter the author argues for the cessation of distorted historiography for ideological ends and an end to hagiographic depictions of the Muslim past and urges for a critical look at Islamic history. For him this is crucial because, ‘a realistic view of humanity will stop the proliferation of impossible injunctions.’ This prevents the utopian ideals of Islamists from gaining support and refers us back to our fallible nature.
This slim book provokes great intellectual curiosity and stimulation because of the topics the author has covered. The prose is eloquent and the frequent interlacing of Sufi poetry is a delight to read. What is especially noticeable is the diversity of sources the author has used, from the Quran to Sufi poetry and European philosophers such as Gadamer, Kant and de Tocqueville. Soroush has woven them together seamlessly to present a series of coherent and cogent arguments.
Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam: Essential writings of Abdolkarim Soroush(essays) Translated and edited by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri
Oxford University Press, New York ISBN 978-0195158202 236pp.
Are Israel’s battles costing the country its soul?
“The Arabs, like every other indigenous people,“view their country as their national home…and will not willingly agree to new landlords.” Writes, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of Israel’s hardline revisionists, while effectively acknowledged the logic of Palestinian resistance to Zionismn in 1923 article. Sixty-three years later, in a similar vein, Ehud Barak admitted that; “if he’d been born a Palestinian, he would have joined “one of the terrorist organizations.”
Ehud Eiran, an Israeli writes: I am in love with Israel. Yet the events off the shores of Gaza last week, in which Israeli commandos stormed a blockade-busting aid ship and killed nine activists, were a painful reminder that I also belong to a class of Israelis that is deeply concerned about the direction of our country. Increasingly, our conflict with the Palestinians is separating us, not only from our moral faculties, but also from the rest of our senses.
The patterns are clear: more people are getting killed in shorter periods of time, and we care less and less. According to Israeli data, it took 22 days for the Palestinian death toll to hit 1,100 in the last big round of violence between “us” and “them,” the 2008-09 Gaza incursion. The same number of casualties accumulated over a full five years in the first Palestinian uprising (1987-93), which was then the largest Israeli-Palestinian clash since 1949. Over time, our hearts have grown harder. In the first intifada, Israeli military police launched internal investigations whenever Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. Yet there have only been a handful of such investigations during the last decade, and none is likely to take place over last week’s killings.
Israel’s almost complete lack of empathy for the “other” has not always been the case. In a noted 1923 article, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of Israel’s hardline revisionists, effectively acknowledged the logic of Palestinian resistance to Zionism. He wrote that the Arabs, like every other indigenous people, “view their country as their national home…and will not willingly agree to new landlords.” Sixty-three years later, in a similar vein, Ehud Barak admitted that if he’d been born a Palestinian, he would have joined “one of the terrorist organizations.” Yet no contemporary Israeli leader, Barak included, would dare to show similar understanding of the Palestinian plight today.
This hardening of the heart is not limited to our leaders. They, after all, merely reflect popular attitudes. In September 1982, after Christian militiamen slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, 10 percent of Israel’s total population took to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest Israel’s indirect responsibility. Only a few dozen Israelis demonstrated 26 years later, when the Israeli military was directly responsible for a similarly large number of Palestinian civilian casualties in the 2008-09 Gaza conflict.
It is not only the spread of moral insensitivity I fear. As Dean Acheson observed, there’s something worse than immoral policy: erroneous policy. The apparent inability of Israeli leaders to connect our goals and our means puts the country in long-term jeopardy. Our most profound problem is that 130 years after young Zionists began immigrating to Palestine with the hope of creating a safe place for Jews, we’re still relying on force to secure our existence. Ironically, more Jews have been killed since 1945 in this “safe haven” than in any other place. A future Iranian nuclear device, which may be hard to stop if Israel can’t muster international support more effectively, will take this Zionist failure to new lows.
Actions like the killings aboard the Gaza aid ship do nothing to ameliorate this situation; they only create new sources of resistance. The blockade that brought about the flotilla is dehumanizing, barely justified on security grounds. It is imposed against the same people who hold the key to our legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the millions of Arabs who surround us. The killing of several Turks deeply corrodes Israel’s relationship with Istanbul, the only capital in the region that did not wait for Palestinian approval to engage in a meaningful relationship with the Jewish state. Wide international condemnation has already slowed efforts at the United Nations to tighten sanctions on Iran. How long can our modern-day Sparta live by its sword, when the sword creates new difficulties?
The emotional burden of these and other contradictions is shared by many. “Most Israelis, myself included, love this country, are proud in its achievements, and want to live in it. Many are ready to risk their lives defending it,” Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amos Lapidot, former commanding officer of Israel’s venerated Air Force, wrote on April 19 in Haaretz newspaper. “And yet, recently there is a growing feeling that something basic went wrong…can the state of Israel as it looks today survive for years to come?” Others feel tension between tribal loyalty and notions of universal justice. Activist Udi Aloni wrote on June 1 for the online paper YNET that he almost boarded a “ship that brought food and hope to Gaza,” but decided against it in order to avoid “clashing with the servicemen from the military branch I served faithfully thirty years ago.”
I, too, have my loyalties. I have wonderful teenage memories with someone I’ll call H, who now commands a Special Forces unit. His unit was probably deployed in the Gaza operation, though it was not involved in the killings. But the unit was accused by human-rights groups of being involved in extrajudicial killings in the West Bank earlier this decade. With our joint history, I feel as if H and I were cut from the same cloth. The thought that some may perceive him and his men as war criminals is extremely hard to accept.
And so I have chosen, for now, the coward’s way. I drag out my studies far away from home in order to avoid adjudication between my heart and my mind. The only prescription I have, at least until I head back home, is a very personal one. I seek to change my approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. I think now that we must break through the language of strategic calculations and allow basic human decency to shape our positions. Some of my friends back home may think I’m regressing from our past understanding that we need to deal with the Mideast as it is-hard, brutish, and dangerous-to a more naive approach. But I do not think it’s naive. I think it’s the only way left.
[Ehud Eiran is a Major in the IDF reserves and worked for Israel’s attorney general and on Prime Minister Barak’s foreign-policy team. His book The Essence of Longing: General Erez Gerstein and the War in Lebanon was published in Israel in 2007. He is currently a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.]
[By Ehud Eiran, Courtesy The News, Tuesday, June 15, 2010; http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=245144 ]
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An obsession worth having: We are told to talk about issues instead of focusing on Zardari. But the issues that face the nation have either been created by his government or have been exacerbated by it. Caliph Umar is often quoted as having said that if a dog goes hungry at night, the ruler will have to answer for it on the Day of Judgment. Things in Pakistan have moved well beyond the plight of hungry stray dogs. Who else can we blame for the prevailing stench but the government and those who run it? Fighting a proxy war for the western powers and taking dictation from them, in continuation of Musharraf’s policy, may have secured power for the ruling clique with the blessings of their foreign overlords, but it has done no better for the nation than perching it on the precipice of ruin, with terrorists making us their target on the one hand, and, on the other, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton threatening a direct military strike on Pakistani soil in the event of a successful terrorist attack in America. Read more ……… http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=244982
The unmistakable mood: By Roedad Khan:
If you want to know how a country can survive despite its leadership, despite its government, well, visit Pakistan. Democracy is a splendid conception but it has the disadvantage, on occasion, of placing in the lead men whose hands are dirty, who are mired in corruption, who will sap the strength of their country, not in years but over a period of months. The idea that you can just hold election, fair or unfair, while everything remains colonial, feudal and medieval, means you won’t get democracy but some perversion of it as we have today in this country.
Elections are necessary but not sufficient. Elections alone do not make a democracy. Creating a democracy requires a free and independent country, an inviolable constitution, a sustained commitment to develop all the necessary elements: a transparent executive accountable to parliament, a powerful and competent legislature answerable to the electorate, a strong, independent judiciary, and a free and independent media. To assume that vote alone will automatically bring about a democratic metamorphosis would be to condemn Pakistan to a repeat of the cycle seen so often in our history: a short-lived period of corrupt, civilian rule, a descent into chaos and then army intervention. Read More.. http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=244985
For a different Israel:On May 31, an armed Israeli naval force boarded a vessel in the Mediterranean carrying civilians from over 30 countries. They were carrying aid to the stricken people of Gaza, who the very basic necessities of life and who are effectively imprisoned in that territory by the Israeli blockade. During the struggle that ensued, eight Turks and one American were killed by Israeli gunfire. One estimate puts the number of injured passengers at 26. Did the Israeli settlers think the dispossessed would then simply disappear? Ever since 1948, Israeli Zionists are intent upon trying to make the displaced Palestinians disappear (this is known as genocide), but without success. The only result is that Israel has become a despised nation worldwide. Zionist Israel has been a disaster for the Jews of the world, as well as for the Palestinians and for the rest of us. Something must be done to put a stop to this seemingly endless tragedy in Palestine. The changes should come from within Israel and from without, starting with a change in US foreign policy. More at: http://www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=244038