Islam and De-Islamisation
Interview with Negah publication, January 1999
Negah: The existence and conduct of Islamic groups and governments in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years have instigated disagreements over how to deal with religion and religious movements and governments. There are those who say that 'we must differentiate between Islamic groups/governments and Islam'. They also claim that: 'what takes place in these countries have nothing to do with Islam but are the result of a mis-interpretation of Islam' and that 'one mustn't speak out against religion because it insults people's beliefs and divides them'. What do you think about these statements?
Mansoor Hekmat: I realise that the interests of some require that they rescue Islam (as much as possible) from the wrath of those who have witnessed the indescribable atrocities of or been victimised by Islamists. I also realise that the extent of these atrocities and holocausts is such that even some Islamists themselves do not want to take responsibility for them. So it is natural that the debate on 'true Islam' vis-à-vis 'practical Islam' is broached over and over again. These justifications, however, are foolish from my point of view (that of a communist and atheist) and from the points of views of those of us who have seen or been the victims of Islam's crimes. They are foolish for those of us who are living through a colossal social, political and intellectual struggle with this beast. The doctrinal and Koranic foundations of Islam, the development of Islam's history, and the political identity and affiliation of Islam and Islamists in the battle between reaction and freedom in our era are too obvious to allow the debate on the various interpretations of Islam and the existence or likelihood of other interpretations to be taken seriously. Even if the debate were in the future and on other planets where the most basic rights and affections of humanity were not violated. In my opinion, it shows the utmost contempt for the science and social intelligence of our times if every excuse and justification that Islamists fling into society whilst retreating is scientifically analysed and dissected… In Islam, be it true or untrue, the individual has no rights or dignity. In Islam, the woman is a slave. In Islam, the child is on par with animals. In Islam, freethinking is a sin deserving of punishment. Music is corrupt. Sex without permission and religious certification, is the greatest of sins. This is the religion of death. In reality, all religions are such but most religions have been restrained by freethinking and freedom-loving humanity over hundreds of years. This one was never restrained or controlled. With every move, it brings abominations and misery.
Moreover, in my opinion, defending the existence of Islam under the guise of respect for people's beliefs is hypocritical and lacks credence. There are various beliefs amongst people. The question is not about respecting people's beliefs but about which are worthy of respect. In any case, no matter what anyone says, everyone is choosing beliefs that are to their liking. Those who reject a criticism of Islam under the guise of respecting people's beliefs are only expressing their own political and moral preferences, full stop. They choose Islam as a belief worthy of respect and package their own beliefs as the 'people's beliefs' only in order to provide 'populist' legitimisation for their own choices. I will not respect any superstition or the suppression of rights, even if all the people of the world do so. Of course I know it is the right of all to believe in whatever they want. But there is a fundamental difference between respecting the freedom of opinion of individuals and respecting the opinions they hold. We are not sitting in judgement of the world; we are players and participants in it. Each of us are party to this historical, worldwide struggle, which in my opinion, from the beginning of time until now has been over the freedom and equality of human beings. I will not respect the superstitions that I am fighting against and under the grip of which human beings are suffering.
Negah: Some political groups, orientalists and western mass media backed by a number of intellectuals of these countries say that 'the people of these countries are Muslim and thus what happens there, such as compulsory veiling and the status of women, is part and parcel of their culture and identity'. In your opinion, are the people of Iran Muslim? Is Iran an Islamic country? And are they justified in what they say?
Mansoor Hekmat: The very essence of categorising a complex reality like a society with a diminutive label such as religion, ethnicity or nationality is in itself testimony that we are not faced with a scientific attempt or truth-seeking explanation. The person calling Iran an Islamic society like the one who depicts it as Aryan, monarchist, Iranian, Shiite, and so on is propagandising. The question is who is describing Iran as an Islamic society, within what political and historical framework are they doing so and what outcome do they seek from such a description. For instance, it is obvious that the Islamic regime of Iran must describe Iran as an Islamic society so that it can legitimise the existence of an Islamic state there. It is also obvious that a western racist and anti-immigrant must describe Iran as an Islamic society so that s/he can maintain that the gap between those who have come from Iran and the local inhabitants is unbridgeable. It is obvious that the opportunistic journalist must use this terminology and propagate this belief because this is the preferred model and outlook of dominant political circles in contemporary western societies. Thus, university and academic circles obey this model; public opinion is steered in this way and so on.
In reality, this labelling and packaging is deceptive. Regardless of who is making the claim, its aim is to declare that the Islamic character of the laws and relations dominant in Iranian society is the result of the outlook and beliefs of the people themselves and not the result of political coercion and pressure. If the veiling of women was really the result of their own choices and originated from their Islamic outlook on the world, the consciences of many in the west would be at peace. If it were so, the wheeling and dealings of western democratic regimes, yuppie intellectuals and journalists with the Iranian government would be so much more permissible. If it were so, silencing the protest voices of freedom-seeking women and the Iranian revolutionary opposition by labelling them dissatisfied extremists 'separate from the people' would be so much simpler. The religious, cultural, ethnic and national categorisation of people is always the first step in denying their universal rights as human beings. If the genocide in Rwanda is the continuation of an African tradition, if stoning is the Iranian people's Islamic tradition, if veiling is part of the culture of women in 'Islamic societies', if marrying off a nine year old girl is a tradition of the people of those countries themselves, then they can really be forgotten, humiliated, bombed and left to the mercy of their own rules beyond the fortresses of western civilisation and democracy. But if it becomes clear that these people like all others live and produce in a capitalist society and global market, if it becomes apparent that these Islamic traditions and laws have been imposed on them by sheer force of imprisonment, torture chambers, street patrols, knives, executions, and stoning, if it becomes apparent that these people like all others are yearning for freedom, equality and an end to discrimination, if it becomes apparent that the strongest characteristic of these people, despite all the pressures, is their desire for a western type of culture and lifestyle, then all this hypocritical ideological monument will collapse and the damage will be beyond words.
Iranian society is not an Islamic society. The despotic ruling regime in Iran is an Islamic regime, which despite all its coercion has still not been able to force people to concede to an Islamic identity. I don't give a whit about the intellectual who refers to the official statistics of those who have an 'official religion' in order to justify this hypocritical labelling. Accepting this categorisation - and worse than that, publicising it -continues and maintains the catastrophe taking place in Iran and Islam-ridden societies.
Negah: What is your opinion about 'progressive religion' and 'Islamic Protestantism'? Many, including cultural personalities to political organisations, say that people like Shariati, Soroush and other Islamic dissidents must be defended vis-à-vis the 'fundamentalists'. They claim that by supporting them, society will benefit and people's lives will improve. What is your opinion on this?
Mansoor Hekmat: If Islamic Protestantism is to be Protestantism then it must create a religious split and a new religious hierarchy and call on all the masses of people to join this other type of Islam. Something perhaps like what the Baha'i religion was supposed to do. The grumblings of a religious university professor about a government, which has violated his rights, cannot be equated with the huge historical developments and turning points in the west. In the superstructure of the contemporary Middle East and Iran and in relation to the political economy of the current society, Islam does not have the same role that Christianity had in the era of the advent of capitalism in the west. The compatibility of Islam with the economic development of these countries is of no significance. This economic development, independent of the situation of Islam and its ability to be compatible with modern society, is taking place irrespective. Iranian society has no need for Martin Luther and John Calvin because the dominance of Islam is not an ideological, psychological or a structural hegemony, but rather it is a political and police rule which will be overthrown politically.
Negah: When you flip through the pages of the Iranian media, you come across numerous debates about the relation between religious rule and the people, religion and freedom, religion and reasoning, religion and civil society, and so on. What do you think of these? How do you see the relationship between religion and in particular Islam with people's rule, freedom, civil society, reasoning and so on?
Mansoor Hekmat: Religion is the official ideology of an extremely brutal government in Iran. Thus, for the intellectual section that lives in Iran, every issue must be analysed within the context of Islam and as an aspect of the Islamic worldview, or at least, the conflict between every opinion with the ruling Islam must be noted. Debates like human rights, civil freedoms, the political system, economic policies, science, culture, art and so on are all important and pressing issues that the intellectual elite in every society constantly addresses. In Iran, the phrase 'Islam' must be added to all these. This, however, does not mean that Islam has a scientific legitimisation in the problematics debated. This is political coercion and not epistemological or even historical. This period will soon pass and magazines in Iran will address these issues in a more serious way and without the need to make things compatible with Islam and or to show the contradiction between something with Islam. In my opinion, the debate of the authorised opposition and legal critics in a despotic regime must never be taken at face value and on the basis of definitions and categorisations they themselves put forward. The real debates in Iranian society will be brought to the fore and within the pages of publications inside Iran when the grip of suppression is loosened. Therefore, frankly, I don't see the content of the articles of intellectual publications inside Iran as important, serious and relevant. In my opinion, what is of more interest is the behind the scenes political conflict and the relationship between the government and these publications.
Negah: Finally, what is your opinion about the anti-religious movement in the past century in Iran? What characteristics and position does this movement have in the general population's struggle for a better life?
Mansoor Hekmat: For most of the 20th century, both the religious and anti-religious movements in Iran have been influenced by more important international trends, which have given them a different tint to that of the struggle between religion and the enlightenment in Europe in the past centuries. I am referring to the October revolution, the emergence of the Soviet Union and the cold war. Islam and the anti-Islamic enlightenment were framed in other historical capacities or perhaps one can say, were newly redefined in the context of more significant international crossroads. Enlightenment initially became part of the socialist advancement in Iranian society but very quickly, with the emergence of the Soviet Union as one camp of the international bourgeoisie, was effectively transformed into an empty and hollow movement and a means at the disposal of the abovementioned. In my opinion, the sharp and fearless critical edge of this movement disappeared as quickly. This was because it was discovered that the nationalist mullah, populist religion and liberation theology could now be an ally of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the USA and thus a tolerable Islam was founded. With the Stalinisation and tudeh-ism of the milieu of the intellectuals of Iran and the emergence of tactical considerations in dealing with religion, which was deemed useful as a means against the monarchy and the USA, the era of turning a blind eye to Islam and later on even justifying it begins. In the opposing camp, anti-communist Islam became a powerful western weapon in the fight against Iran's workers and communism. It was not people's religious beliefs and the power of Islam as a religion that built the Islamic Republic of Iran but the need of the former allies of the Shah's regime to continue with the policy of the suppression of the Left in Iran which dragged the declining Islam and Khomeini from isolation to the fore. All this briefly means that the struggle of enlightenment against Islam as a religion was rapidly influenced by developments in different segments of society as well as the international powers with political Islam and the Islamic movement. If 30 years ago someone from an atheist position would ridicule and criticise the foundations of Islam, s/he would be attacked not only by the machinery of Islam but by the populists and the anti-despots. So much so that today the same camps and people whose political outlook is the consequence of those camps attack us - the unequivocal critics of Islam and religion. From their point of view to be revolutionary and progressive means appeasing, coexisting and discovering a 'new' and 'contemporary' Islam and so on.
Today, it is our movement - worker-communism - and the deep-seated hatred of Islam by the vast population at large in Iran, particularly women and youth, which is building the foundations of a serious anti-religious and de-Islamised development in Iran. If the people in Iran are to experience prosperity, this movement must become victorious. I am sure that along the way and with the people's advancement, a section of freethinking intellectuals will join this front.
The above is an interview first published in Farsi by Negah publication, January 1999. It was first published in English in the Worker-communist Review 1, dated June 2004.
Translators: Maryam Namazie and Fariborz Pooya