The Relationship between Liberalism and Reformism

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The Relationship between Liberalism and Reformism

The Relationship between Liberalism and Reformism

According to Iran Gate, although Mohammad Khatami considered liberalism incompatible with Islam, most of his opponents and supporters saw his reformist projects as projects dedicated to political and social liberalization in Iran after the revolution. Conservatives saw Khatami as a liberal in clerical clothing, while reformists mostly expected him to bring about the realization of liberal freedoms.

Until the end of the reformist era, no one could solve the puzzle of Khatami’s denial of liberalism. If liberalism is incompatible with religiosity, then why do Khatami’s political slogans have all the colors, scents, and flavors of liberalism?

Liberalism emphasizes power distribution, tolerance, religious pluralism, equal rights, individual freedom, human natural rights, and political and religious pluralism. All of these were clearly evident in Khatami’s speech and actions.

If until the early 1990s, the monopoly of trade was in the hands of the traditional right-wing, the modern right emerged during the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani as the standard-bearer of the development agents to remove wealth from the monopoly of the traditional right-wingers. If the radical right was opposed to justice, equality of rights for citizens, and religious and political pluralism, the circles of Kian and Ayin were involved in theorizing and operationalizing these concepts.

The development agents, Kianis, and Ayinis were among the supporters of Khatami and were part of his government, but nevertheless, Khatami and his entourage were cautious about being called liberals. Most of the decisions of the sixth parliament had a liberal inclination, but not only Khatami, but also the representatives of the reformist parliament had reservations about being called liberals. In the first half of 2001, Mohsen Armin emphasized the democratic nature of the demands of the reformists and pointed out that the reformists are not seeking the realization of liberalism in Iranian society.

Armin Akbar Ganji’s statement serves as a reminder that the desired goods of the reformists are all found in the market of liberalism. So why don’t we explicitly and comfortably consider ourselves customers of this market? Were the reformists practicing taqiyya when they separated their expenses from the liberals, or was there another motive behind it, where the reformists took inspiration from liberalism but concealed its name?

If we examine the foundation of the reformists’ liberalism in their political propaganda, everything goes back to the forty-year effort of the Tudeh Party to defame liberalism in Iranian society. Undoubtedly, this played a fundamental role in the taqiyya and political propaganda of the reformists.

In the literature of the Tudeh Party, being liberal and being an imperialist mercenary were synonymous. Therefore, even after the revolution, liberalism in the writings and speeches of the revolutionary Muslim Iranians did not have a meaning beyond being a servant of America, an imperialist mercenary, and an enemy of the oppressed and self-centeredness.

During the 1361s, a significant portion of the Muslim leftists who were engaged in such literature in the furnace were reformists by the 1370s. It was obvious that they could not bear the same name and title that had been used as an insult and slander against their work for years. However, this was only part of the story. The main point should be sought in the ambiguity of the reformists towards liberalism.

For example, in the early 1370s, Abdolkarim Soroush, while on one hand stating that the elements of liberalism complement each other and that the existence or non-existence of certain elements will create a government and a society of camel-leopard, on the other hand emphasized that not going under the banner of any authority is an inherent and essential element of liberalism. He also gave fatwas, drawing on some elements of liberalism and rejecting others, in order to determine how liberalism could be realized in a religious society. He stated that if someone questions the principle of religious authority, they have stepped into the deepest realms of liberalism, but liberalizing the economy and government is a matter that can also be discussed within the religious community.

Although Soroush became more liberal over time and in the late 1990s, in the discussion of the relationship between religion and liberalism, he considered liberal societies to be more progressive than religious societies in terms of questioning spirit and experientialism (Soroush, p. 106). However, he still emphasized the point that a religious society cannot fully accept liberalism.

It should be noted that a religious society differs from societies where religious freedom exists. The liberal society is the latter. Reformists had the same concern in relation to liberalism, which ultimately led to the question of which form of liberalism the religious society of Iran, which is undergoing liberal reforms, should accept and choose.

In addition, although the reformists sought to liberalize the government and society of Iran, they were also concerned about the complete liberalization of all relations and social spaces in Iran. They had the concern that if liberalism were to fully enter the society, the realization of liberal freedoms in Iranian society after two decades of religious rule would lead the social space towards moral decadence and the political space towards the dominance and superiority of secularism.

In other words, they were concerned that in order to establish religious democracy, they would implement liberal reforms in Iran. However, the ultimate goal of these reforms was not a religious democracy, but rather a secular democracy. Therefore, they cautiously avoided embracing liberal moral liberalism and saw theorizing it as a catalyst for removing religion from Iranian society.

So it is not unreasonable to say that the liberal aspirations of the reformists were incomplete. They aimed to liberalize certain political, social, and cultural aspects of Iran, but they did not want to transform religious communities into liberal communities. As Soroush himself stated, liberalizing the economy and government within a religious society is also debatable and not directly related to the complete and philosophical concept of liberalism.

The reformists’ stance towards liberalism was ambiguous to the extent that Hossein Marashi described the Builders of Construction Party as a Muslim liberal democratic party. However, Khatami at the same time considered liberals as the main obstacle to reforms. According to Khatami, the philosophical foundations of Islam differ from liberalism. He questioned how a true Muslim could be a true liberal.

Khatami’s explanation about his liberal slogans was as follows:

Freedom means the right to determine one’s own destiny, based on the free will of the people and respect for freedom of thought, expression, and similar matters. As a Muslim, I take pride in adhering to these principles. If this is liberalism, then it is very good. Emphasizing fundamental freedoms in society and defending them, advocating for people’s sovereignty over their own destiny, is a fundamental principle. Accusing those who speak up for freedom and the rights of the people of being liberal and promoting liberalism is a major deviation.

Khatami was also proud that most of the scientific criticisms regarding the philosophical foundations of liberalism were made by many reformists, including myself. Consequently, the reformists throughout the period of reforms could not grasp their exact relationship with liberalism and, as a political sociologist put it, were confused between modern and traditional values.

They accepted certain aspects of liberalism and rejected others, but it seems that they themselves were undergoing a process of transformation and change. This is why they became more liberal from 1997 to 2005. However, liberalism was ultimately a weapon for them to fight against the right-wing faction. Their liberalism was much more pronounced when confronting this faction than when facing traditional intellectuals and politicians outside the Islamic Republic system.

In contrast to these individuals, the reformists would downplay their own thread of liberalism and emphasize the religious nature of Iranian society. This narrative still continues and its most recent manifestations can be seen in the criticisms of Abdul Karim Soroush towards the secular opposition abroad.


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