Saturday, October 24, 2009

Iran, Islam, and Secular Social Sciences

Iran, Islam, and Secular Social Sciences

Ali Asghar Kazemi
October 2009




In our previous commentary on the problem of Iran’s recent social turmoil after the presidential elections of June 12, 2009, we alluded to the issue of “Social Sciences” that  has caused widespread alarm among conservative hard-liners.

In that article  the emphasis was made essentially on the question of religion in general and Islam in particular as an ideological dynamic, influencing the function of  society in the domain of human actions and interactions. It was argued that religion has to do with human mind, ideas, the belief system, values, attitudes, and behavior. While politics as an interdisciplinary branch of social sciences, deals essentially with the pursuit of power and to some extent the distribution of values in society. Thus, the marriage of the two may inhibit man from his choice between the rational and the spiritual. This is indeed a major dilemma on the way of an ordinary citizen who wants to remain aloof of the impact of official creeds, unless he lets himself dragged by the formalistic rituals of  the dominant religion.


Secular Approach to Social Sciences

As we know, social sciences are not “science” as we understand in the field of hard or pure sciences, such as physics, chemistry, astronomy etc. They form a body of knowledge accumulated during times from the antiquity to the present that comprises everything that relate to the study of human beings in their individual and collective interaction. This even encompass the subject of religion in its entirety as well as philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, economics, politics and the likes, that in one way or the other entail man’s life in his natural and artificial environments.

Once our knowledge of the spiritual and material world was limited to a  range of dogma inherited from holly books as well as classical philosophers and scientists’ traditions. Some of these were later endorsed by the Christian church through sanctifying Aristotelian teachings which had to be accepted blindfolded and no one was permitted to pose question on their truth. Renaissance changed the methodical knowledge of the world by scientific inquiry and the domain of metaphysics became restricted to the inner-self in the Christian world. Amazing discoveries, inventions and innovations in all fields of sciences are the propitious outcomes of this period.

Of course, the Christian world had to pay dreadful price for this transition. Beside the horrifying experience of persecution and harassment of scientists and intellectuals, protracted wars among sects and nations ended up with some sort of balance between the Church and the State or the temporal and spiritual powers. The hundred years war of fifteenth century resulted continuous conflicts over the distribution of power between religious and temporal sectors, church and the state or popes and the kings. In the seventeenth century the same issues provoked the thirty years war. The resurgence of secularism replaced the medieval theocratic paradigm and ushered the age of enlightenment.


Religion and Secular Conception of Power

The secular consideration of power began its reappearance with Machiavelli’s doctrine of pragmatism in political theory. The basis of this doctrine was to answer the question of what needs to be done by a ruler to remain in power. That is to say that the necessity of political life often required the breaking of moral law. [1] Machiavelli’s princes, unlike Plato’s philosopher-kings, ruled because they were shrewd in manipulating power. Thus, power became devoid of virtue. For Machiavelli, good and evil were traits of all human beings and a successful ruler had to be “part lion and part fox.” [2]

Bertrand Russell wrote that faith, ideology and religion as a whole are undisputed elements in forming the power of a state.[3] Indeed ideas influence the development and use of command over power and violence. In cases were nations are not fully developed from a political-democratic standpoint and party politics as well as other social institutions lack the necessary appeal to unite people in the pursuit of their objectives , religion can fill the gaps. Translated into ideology when put into motion, religion may assume a determinant role in a society, provided it is properly used.[4] It can also weaken a state, and deteriorate its internal and external relations if its potential power is not directed toward constructive path and is used in the pursuit of evil objectives.


Secularism in the Christian World

In the turn of twentieth century it was the general feeling of most learned social scientists that everywhere in the world, religion was in the decline. The argument stemmed from the fact that religion was “opposed by powerful forces.”[5]Some even argued that religion was under the most serious threat that it had ever been in the past centuries.[6] The magnitude of the threat was even compared to the advent of Reformation in Europe but the change was characterized as an anti-religious trend rather than a crisis within the sphere of religion.

Humanism, which was commonly an alternative to theism, developed in Europe chiefly from a belief in the science and an exaggeration of human power and freedom. It was an intellectual movement that opposed the “religious institution.” In the nineteenth century the reaction to religious norms and institution was negative and the emerging idea antagonistic.

The main trend away from religion during the past centuries is considered as the growing sense of secularism[7]which Christianism had put in the doctrinal concept of church and state separation. This was probably an inevitable and necessary complement of the processes of social and political adjustment after the scientific discoveries and revolution in the field of industry and technology.

An immediate consequence of the industrial development was the emergence of a new social class called urban industrial proletariat, which led to the rise of socialism and Marxism as an ideological means for social adjustment. Among these latter ideologies, some did not negate religion and were ready to coexist and cooperate with it and others, which were antagonistic to any religious institutions. Marxism-Communism and its derivatives are examples of the latter type.

Secularism requires that all matters pertaining to man-to-man relationship be determined by representatives of the people, while relationship between men and God be determined by religion.[8]  This position, however, was not endorsed by those who believed that all aspects of life without exception be governed by religious principles formulated many centuries ago and whose interpretation is solely in the hands of the ruling clergies.

The issue of secular state as opposed to a state governed by religious principles has become a fundamental problem of many traditional countries with diverse ethnic and religious background. Religion, in fact, serves both as a divisive and uniting factor in various countries. Practice of secularism also is not easy in territories of multiple religions such as e.g. India. This country has been subject to territorial partition and numerous turmoil because of religion. The peculiar aspect of Indian secularism is that religion and politics get mixed up taking advantage of the democratic system, while the evolution of a common civil law is blocked in the name of minorities’ right in a secular state.[9]


Islam and Secularism

The Islamic conception of religion and its evolution rests upon principles different from Christianity as regards social, economic, legal, political and the way of life in general. Hence a comparative study on the impact and influence of religion in social and political affairs may be obscured by the fact that for example, Christianity and Islam are evolved from and founded upon different conception of religion. Thus a discussion on the subject of secularization of political power can naturally not be based on similar sets of assumption and elements contributing to it. The Islamic conception of religion is more or less what religion has been through most of the course of human history.[10] The secularization process in the Islamic world, thus, shall be viewed and judged against its own distinct evolution.

In this sense, secularization is defined as the process by which political and social activities, explicitly controlled by the religious institution, come under the power of non-religious or temporal body. The definition, however, does not explain the whole conception as interpreted in Christianism and Islam, two major monotheist religions of the world.

It has been suggested that, for example, secularization in the Middle East has had the effect of substituting the European conception of religion by the Islamic doctrine.[11] There may have been such understanding in times among Moslem scholars, but this does not seem to be representative of a general belief. This was the fact and apprehension of a minority fundamentalist Moslems who opposed to that conception and nowadays seems to reemerge throughout the region.


While secularism is considered as the main characteristic of Western conception of religion, in the world of Islam no elaborate and widely endorsed philosophical expression of the subject can be found. Thus, various attempts by rulers or intellectuals to establish a secular system of government, political institution and social tradition in predominantly Islamic nations have not proved to be fruitful and practically possible. Kamalism movement in Turkey, Nasserism in Egypt, Pahlavism in Iran and other cases are typical example of such failure, which in the long run worked even against the very viability of the political system. In most cases cited above, the trend was not merely a process of secularization but it was viewed by conservatives as an all-out offensive against the religious institutions which otherwise meant an anti-religion movement. This has given rise to some misunderstandings that still persist in our own country and elsewhere in the region. Islamic fundamentalism is a direct consequence of this misapprehension.

The contrast between the secularization attempts and processes, particularity in the Christian world and Islamic community will be further discussed in our future commentaries. [12]

Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. See:

* Students, researchers, academic institutions, media or any party interested in using all or parts of this article are welcomed to do so with the condition of giving full attribution to the author and Strategic Discourse. ©All Copy Rights Reserved.



[1] . See e.g. David E. Apter, Introduction to Political Analysis. (Prentice Hall of India, New Delhi, 1981, p.77.

[2] .see: Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellism. (New Haven: Yale University press. 1962), Quoted in David E Apter, Ibid.P.78.

[3].CF. Bertrand Russell, Power, A New Social Analysis, (New York: Norton, 1938), PP.145-156.

[4]. This is especially true in the case of the Third world states where political parties as key organizations for uniting people of different and rather immature opinion can not perform social and political results. A party, said, Edmund Burke, is a group of men united to promote, the common good in accordance with a principle upon which they are agreed. In the Third World the most widely accepted principles belong to religious teachings.

[5] .CF. Montgomery Watt, “Religion and Anti-Religion”, in: A.J.Arberry ed. Religion in the Middle East, (London: Cambridge University Press .1969), vol. 2. PP.605-639 at 605.

[6]. Idem.

[7].The process of secularization is sometimes distinguished from the idea of secularism, which is defined as an attitude of mind or set of beliefs with its focus in the assertion that there is nothing beyond this world. In this respect scientific materialism, humanism, naturalism and positivism are all considered forms of secularism. See Ibid. 609-610.

[8] .K. Subramanyam, “Norms and Interests,” in Strategic Analysis, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, February, 1985.p.1035.

[9] .Idem.

[10]. CF. Montgomery Watt, Religion and Anti -Religion. Op. cit. p. 609; see also: Hamilton A.R. Gibb. Religion and politics in Christianism and Islam. (Persian translation) passim; Modern Trend in Islam. (Chicago:1947)


[12].see my earlier writings on the subject in: Ali Asghar Kazemi, Religion and Politics...    Monograph, Tehran 1985.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Iran: Roots of the Post-Elections Crisis

Ali Asghar Kazemi

October 2009


“A new world society is gradually emerging.

It is growing quietly, imperceptibly in the minds

and hearts of men. The tumult and the excitement,

the anger and the violence, the perplexity of spirit

and the ambiguities of expressing are the pangs of

the birth of something new. We of this generation

are called upon to work for this new order with all

the strength and capacity for suffering we possess.

S. Radhakrishnan[1]



Thirty years after the advent of the revolution, that brought an Islamic regime in Iran, religious leaders are still looking for ways and means to transform the society into a rigid bloc of faithful and zealous citizens who fully submit to the official principles and precepts put forward by them. While during the past three decades every effort has been made to disseminate religious teachings at all levels of public education, from the kindergartens to the universities, seemingly the result has been frustrating.

The post-presidential elections public turmoil, that brought the country to the brink of a real social revolution, was another vivid indication that the whole scheme of “Islamization” of the society was an ineffective and futile social investment. Since, the effort merely counter-produced and youngsters who were brought up with Islamic rigorous teachings after the revolution simply did not show interest to them and much less to obey them blindfolded. Indeed, this phenomenon should not surprise anybody who has a little familiarity with the very rudimentary concepts of the philosophy of education and social sciences.

Misconception about Social Sciences

With a view to cure this incongruity, the Islamic system recently came to the conclusion that the problem emanate from the dominance of the Western “social sciences” books and materials taught by Western educated and/or oriented teachers and professors in the higher education structure. To that end, a new round of purge has been initiated at different levels of educational institutions and expert committees are being set up once again to remedy the problem once for all!

How far this conclusion about Western “social science” is logical? Can the Islamic regime succeed in its new effort to eradicate the roots of restlessness among students and educated people against the system by simply changing the contents of textbooks? Where should we look for proper answer to the problem?

Problem of Religion and Politics[2]

From the beginning of human history, man has been guided by two strands inextricably woven in his very nature, the rational and the spiritual. These forces have influenced human destiny in varied patterns and in different periods when one or the other may have been more prominent.[3] Religion has been the great force for the disciplining of man’s nature, though it has also worked against his fate by denying the domain of reason.[4]

Religion has to do with human mind, ideas, the belief system, values, attitudes and behavior. Politics as an interdisciplinary branch of social sciences, deals essentially with the pursuit of power through “the art of influencing, manipulating, or controlling [groups] so as to advance the purposes of some against the opposition of others”[5] The struggle over conflicting ideas, values and interests directed by religious beliefs have existed throughout history. Great religions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and last but not least Islam have at one time or other claimed to have answers for all problems of the society. But, history bears good witness that almost in all cases, religion married to temporal power, became imbued with a formalism which deprived it of its moral and spiritual values.[6]

Some religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have sought to base their beliefs on tangible elements and hold that the two sides of human nature, the rational and the spiritual, should work together.[7] Western religions have been long engaged in the struggle to come to term with the spirit of reason.[8] In later periods, scientific developments overshadowed faith in traditional beliefs. The process led to the intellectual questioning of the metaphysical view of the world and the revival of animistic science in the period of Renaissance.

Since the Renaissance two divergent lines of thought have prevailed in the philosophical perspective. One deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, and the other, that belonged to cultures which escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking retained the view that the real world is completely internal to the observer.[9]

Where to put the blame?

When Socrates was executed for religious heresy, it was not merely an act of religious fanaticism, such as later became common, but rather a serious response of society to subversion. The early Christianity was attacked by the Roman government not only out of religious exclusivism in modern sense but because it was seen as revolutionary and subversive, a threat to the organization of society. The Christians incurred the supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offense. They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education and violated the religious institution of their realm.[10]

Once it was believed that only religious and metaphysical limitations could restrain rulers and power-holders from committing acts of violence and suppression. This may still prove a valid argument, only if we can make a definite distinction between religious ideology and the actual process of politics. But when the frontiers between the two realms fades away and one identifies its very existence with the other, then, the moral and metaphysical constrains to power-holders become irrelevant. In such circumstances, religion fails to its duty. With the alienation of power-blinded men from moral restraints, aggressive behavior and suicidal tendencies occur.[11]

In today’s world, where hope and peril run side by side, among great and vital issues of our time are those which involved the suppression of the evil which drive societies toward wars, hostilities and terrorism. How then the whirlwind of revolutionary social forces can be directed towards a safe and constructive path?

Considering the fact that constitutional foundation of world order and international law have proven inefficacious for the maintenance of peace and assurance of democratic process, the problems remain to be tackled with in future are the minimum moral and spiritual requirements in order to preserve peace, security and human dignity in a tormented world.

In the absence of a superior authority over and above nation-states, claiming sovereignty and political independence, power with legitimacy is the necessary instrument of governments. Without these latter, political order could neither be established nor maintained and guard society against anarchy. Power without legitimacy spawns tyranny and violence, corrupts the mighty and crushes freedom.[12]

In a general sense, individual quest for power has the effect of leading a ruler to act against the will of the people.[13] But when religion becomes politicized and gets involved in the competition for power, it has the effect of encouraging its followers to act against the accepted norms of civilized nations. As a result, domestic power struggles spill over into the international system. The immediate implication of such behavior is to impose its will and ideology on another state(s).

Religion can help people to establish harmony in their souls, to illuminate human spirit, and to liberate nations from despotism and tyranny. But surely it cannot supplant politics, in the sense it is understood in our contemporary world system, dominated by sovereign nation- states, national interests and competition for power. Religion, says Radhakrishnan, “is the direct apprehension of the Supreme. It is in the attaining of a state of illumination. While the reality is omnipresent, human being is able to apprehend it directly in his own inmost being.”[14] When statesmen attempt to measure -or make semblance to do- political events and social phenomena of the real world by religious standards, they are merely submerged in their illusion.

Future of Religions

Religious belief and faith of any kind have always posed dilemma for humanity. Like a two-edged sword, religion has been hard for men to live without, and almost equally hard to coexist with. Just the same, when man is passionately submerged in his religious obsessions, he is tempted to preach it to others. If they prove deaf to his preaching, he is often tempted to impose it by fire and sword. [15]

Religious wars of the past are now over, but the legacy of intolerance, persecution and slaughtering of man by man on ideological and religious grounds is still with mankind. Religion has become scapegoat for obstipated “old leaders clinging too long to power in a world they no longer understand,”[16] and for power hungry younger generation deeply indoctrinated in myths and delusions. The world no longer represents the long cherished compassionate and fraternal ideals of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

Encountering realities of this tormented world is a difficult task of the new leaders of our time who are not trained to overcome the lust of power. Religion has the potential ability to free politicians from the evil forces that enslave their spirit. But politics cannot help an obstinate religious to straighten his conduct or to regain his purity. No institutional or legal patterns, no revolutionary theologies, and no chastisement of the other world can make a society to become a safe place to live, unless the people set out to rid of spiritual poverty. In this respect, it is rightly argued that “the quality of our life is the evidence of our religion.” [17] Indeed, religion in this context is not incompatible with politics, neither is it in competition with it in the pursuit of secular power, but it is its mentor.

Religions will lose their redemptive power, if societies are not prepared to accept their human and spiritual principles. People need not to adore saints and their illusions; they have to seek redemption through faith and reason which lead to the path of salvation.


From the dawn of human history to our present time, prophets, philosophers, thinkers, academics and social scientists, disregard of their native origins and beliefs, have helped men to understand their social environment and to overcome the evil of tyranny and despotism in their communities. They should be respected and be given credits for their achievements. Western social and political sciences are not in dissonance with the essence of religions and spiritual needs of human beings. On the contrary, they teach us how to comprehend and deal with evil propensity of political leaders who use religious principles to promote their power and greed despite the will of the people. /


Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. See:

* Students, researchers, academic institutions, media or any party interested in using all or parts of this article are welcomed to do so with the condition of giving full attribution to the author and Strategic Discourse. ©All Copy Rights Reserved.

[1] Religion in a Changing World, (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd, 1967) p. 15.

[2] Parts of this article are readapted here from my earlier writings in : Ali Asghar Kazemi, Religion and Politics …, Monograph , Tehran, 1985.

[3]. CF. S. Radhakrishnan, Religion in a Changing World (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1967), p. 18.

[4]. Ibid. p.9.

[5] Quincy Wright, The Study of International Relations, ( New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1965), p.130

[6]. CF. Jacques Pirenne, Tides of History, op. cit. p. 407.

[7]. Ibid. p. 34.

[8]. Ibid. p. 35.

[9]. Henry Kissinger, American Foreign Policy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Inc. 1974), p.48.

[10]. CF. Edward Gibbon, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I, (New York: Modern Library), p. 448.

[11]. CF. R. Strausz- Hupe and Stefan T. Possony, International Religions (New York, 1954) p. 11. Quoted in Robert L. Pfaltzgraff and James E. Dougherty, Contending Theories of International Relations ( New York : J. b. Lippincott Co. , 1971 ) p. 91..

[12]. Robert Strausz-Huoe, Power and Community (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1956), p.3.

[13]. This is for example the case of Iran in the pre-revolution period as well as during the past years when the essence of religion gradually changed in the pursuit of political power.

[14]. Religion in a Changing World, op. cit. p. 102.

[15].CF. Charles Yost, The Insecurity of Nations- International Relations of the Twentieth Century, op. cit., p. 212.

[16]. Idem.

[17]. Ibid. p. 110.