Sunday, November 01, 2009

Iran: Islamization vs. Secularization


Iran: Islamization vs. Secularization

Ali Asghar Kazemi
November 2009


The controversial presidential elections of June 2009, which ignited a social crisis in Iran, had a definite impact on the society and truly polarized the nation in two antagonistic camps: pro-government conservative hard-liners on one side and reformist opposition groups on the other. At first the quarrel was limited to the results of the elections which were alleged to be performed with widespread frauds. Ruthless reaction of the government to peaceful manifestations of the unconvinced people pushed the opposition to take a much more radical stand against the whole Islamic regime. This prompted the religious leader to find about the cause and origin of this prolonged crisis which is still threatening the very foundation of the system.

Radical conservatives, while claiming foreign involvement in this turmoil, believe that the Islamization process should continue with much stronger vigor until the nation has converted to zealous followers and supporters of the religious regime. Reformists on the other hand contest that the crisis is a natural response of the people to years of repressive rule, deception and injustice. They express the opinion that as long as the country is under a backward system of government, democratic changes are almost impossible. They believe that Islam has limited capacity for transformation and adaptation to the needs of our time. Therefore, they suggest that secularization is an inevitable and necessary trend of the future of Iran.

Despite earnest attempts of the ruling regime in Iran to impose the strict law of Shari’a, as interpreted by the Shiite doctrine, the result was frustrating. Thus seemingly, the process of Islamization of all vital sectors of the society during the past three decades was quite unsuccessful. We have said that some political elites have singled out Western “social Sciences” taught at the higher education, as the main cause for this failure. Some others are still trying to put the blame on “Western imperialism” and enemies of Islam, who are incessantly conspiring to topple the Islamic regime.

To what extent these arguments hold true in present Iran? What are the main causes of the young generation distancing from Islamic traditional principles and leaning towards secular values? Why those who were brought up in the Islamic environment are now rising up against the ruling system and reject the Islamization process under the guise of what we may label “national secularism”?

Islam as State Religion

Iran is a typical country which after its people accepted Islam in the first century of the Hegra,[1] replaced its former religion and followed the Shiite school. In this respect, some scholars believe that Persians extreme devotion to the Shiite doctrine and its symbol of faith and martyrdom stems from their spiritual and cultural background. They believe that Shiism is an outgrowth of dominant Persian social and political traditions, translated into a more bearable and tolerable doctrine associated with Islam.[2]

The state in its modern sense, is not one of the fundamental elements in the building of Islamic society, but emerges through the institution of Caliphate or Imamate for the protection of Moslem community (Ummat).[3] The word ‘Islam’, commonly used as synonymous to ‘religion’, is a misinterpretation that usually confuses the Western conception of – for example- Christian faith. Rather, Islam is an expression including in its total meaning: religion, politics, economics, society, etc.[4] Therefore, the notion of Church and state separation widely debated in Christianism seems not relevant to the relation between Islam and state. Since, according to the Islamic doctrine, Din (religion) and Dowlat (state) are both expression of Islam.[5]

One of the most important institutions in Islam is the mosque. The mosques in Islam are the focal point and the main place of gathering for both religious and political purposes. They usually supplant traditional forum for modern Western political parties. They are run and maintained ordinarily with private fund and endowment.[6] Before the advent of the Islamic regime in Iran, the power of secular government traditionally stopped at the doorstep of the mosque. Being literally self-sustained and politically independent, the mosques have played an influential role in the social and political business of Moslem countries. The mosques played an undeniable role in bringing down the monarchic regime in Iran. Many governments in the Middle East have always had to deal with the mosques and in order to limit their influence of religious institutions over political business of the states, by devising laws and regulations to control their activities.[7] In present Iran, the mosques are managed and to some extent funded by the state. In other words, the state has the absolute prerogative to appoint the religious authority of each mosque and supervise his activities. This means that they are no longer independent institutions and consequently cannot deviate from policies and guiding principles of the ruling system. This issue has been one of the major arguments of the opposition groups as well as independent clergies who believe that the state should not meddle in the business of local mosques.

Impact of Modernism on the Moslem World

The trend toward secularization in the Moslem world in the last hundred years has meant a decline in the overt influence of religious ideas and organization upon social and political life.[8] As we said earlier, unlike other religions, Islam is not merely a religion; it is a culture, a polity, a legal system and a whole range of social institutions. In consequence, the Islamic Shari’a is not only a constitutional system but also an ideal of conduct and behavior as well as legal code dealing with every-day life.[9]

Not until late nineteenth century the conservative Islam of the time realized its painful dislocation caused by the technological superiority of Western civilization, but also found itself invaded by Christian missionaries which paved the way for colonialism.[10]The once great civilizations of the Middle East, which under Islam had experienced a long period of conflict, hostility and socio-economic stagnation, suddenly realized that they were far behind European states. In fact, for centuries they had looked backward to nourish from the greatness of their civilization and their memory, while Europe had gone into various stages of industrial and social revolution. Progressive Moslems, in contact with the West, felt this backwardness deep in their minds and their souls. Thenceforth, religion was perceived the major stumbling block and thus the demand for change through secularization of states political system spread all over the Moslem world.

Moslems had to choose between two courses of action: either to go along with the strict dictate of religion (the medieval synthesis); or to face the realities of the modern world.[11]The choice proved to be a difficult one and no consensus to this time seems to be established. Practically, some Moslems tried to adopt an almost alien concept of faith, applying a little Protestant- style reformism to their creed. Others opted for secularism and still another group adhered to fundamentalism which preaches Islamic Shari’a’ as a political ideology.[12]

During the nineteenth century, modernist movements developed in the Moslem milieu of Egypt and Indian Subcontinent to interpret the Qur’an and Tradition so as to bring practice in Islam into general conformity with certain aspects of Western thinking of those days.[13]Despite some independent attempts by certain Moslem scholars to show the necessity of the separation of the spiritual and temporal powers in Islam, the reform did not go far before it was resisted by a fundamentalist group called Moslem Brotherhood. Neither the socialist movement of Jamal Abd-al-Naser nor the subsequent moves toward left and right, proved to be effective in establishing a secularized democratic state. Egyptian Islam today is characterized as apologetic and political and all reformers have reacted in these two directions.[14] In other Moslem countries such as Iran, the trend was somehow different in form and in substance.

Trend to Secularism in Modern Iran

Attempts at secularization of political power in the Moslem world of the twentieth century, begun with Kamalism movement in Turkey. Kamal Ataturk, the Turkish officer who overthrew the old Turkish monarchy after World War I, is the first to challenge the influence of religion (Islam) in Turkish politics. He deposed the religious elements in Turkish political instructions and substituted them by secularized ones.[15]He removed the veil from Turkish women, as a symbol of their emancipation in social life and instituted land reforms and social-bureaucratic reorganization.[16]

In Iran, Reza Shah the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty, made similar attempt around the same period .The ruler displayed implacable hostility to the tight grip of Moslem clergy over many aspects of public life, including education and justice, and took steps to break their power and prestige.[17]

As a consequence, the clergy lost direct control of much of its vast trust funds and religious laws gave way to civil and criminal codes. Licenses were required for the wearing of clerical garb. Traditional religious teaching gave way to state schools and a host of other changes, which restricted religious section to meddle in the political life, were instituted by the ruler. The object of these transformations was not religion per se, since Reza Shah was believed to be a faithful Moslem. Rather, it was perceived that for revitalizing Iran’s social structure, religious precepts hindering the development process had to give way to a secular system.

The secularization process in Iran somehow meant Westernization of all aspects of life including for example compulsory Western clothes, replacing many different tribal, regional and traditional costumes.[18]The attempt, which was later, pursued by his son Mohammad Reza Shah, failed to produce the desired effect. What it did, however, was the deepening of hatred and grudge of the clergy class and their followers. The hatred later mounted into what is now known as Islamic Revolution, which caused the fall of the Iranian monarchy in 1979.

Before the revolution, the secularist trends in Iran were growing in the sense that the political leadership of the Islamic clergy and their traditional influence on the educational system reduced. The secularization, however, did not mean “anti-religiousness but rather a-religiousness.”[19] Some groups and individuals have made attempts, though not on a systematic basis, to purify or “regenerate” Islam, but they have not gone too far.[20] During this period, religion was not so much frontally challenged as a system of beliefs by the political elites, as it was peripherally ignored. Where religion was accorded deference by the ruling system, it was often as a political force.[21]

The Islamic regime put all its efforts to reverse the secularization process in Iran by force and unprecedented vigor. However, it seems the more the state pushed for Islamization of the nation, the more people distanced from the official creeds and restrictive principles of the religious system. The post- presidential elections crisis was a symptom of people discontent about the political trend. Despite all the impediments on the way of the reformist movement, it seems to pursue with vigor its secular objectives and demands. The “Green Movement” is now in a face to face encounter with the Islamic regime and poses a real threat for the incumbent government. But, its success depends on a number of factors which seem very difficult to achieve in present time.


The process of secularization in the Islamic World in general and in Iran in particular, did not follow a unique and concrete identifiable pattern; rather it was disparate and in some cases blurred by other aspects of political life. However, from recent development, it is safe to say that the conflict between the “mosque” and the “palace” is gradually rising to a critical point. Some countries have already attempted to align their political apparatus and socio-economic system with the growing exigencies of Islamic doctrine, but the process has proved to be a difficult one and in some instances painful.

In Iran, while the Islamization process in post-revolution failed to generate the expected outcome for the Islamic regime and in some instances counter produced, the secularization was not quite successful either. The reason is believed to be the substance of traditional culture and mores in the society. Average Iranians are by nature spiritual and fatalistic. The new generation and educated people are very much eager and enthusiastic to adhere to many values and norms of democracy. Concepts such as independence, freedom, social justice, human rights and other attributes of Western style polity are much cherished by people, but they are not yet prepared to accept their rudiments. The shadow of deep-rooted of authoritarian culture is still present in today Iran. For example, tolerance as the most basic requisites of democratic process is almost absent in personal and collective interactions. The problem is more or less the same in Moslem countries of the Middle East.

In sum, the idea of secularism, though still very much cherished by liberal and intellectual Moslem, seems to have little appeal among traditional layers of developing Moslem societies. In some places, secularism is considered as the residue of Western influence and imperialism; thus, a return to religious ideas is perceived synonymous to anti-imperialistic movement. In other cases, religion is gaining momentum very dangerously as an ideological drive to face the ever growing danger of globalization.

Iranians seem now to be more and more leaning toward a “new nationalism” as an alternative expression of their secular objectives. This could be arbitrarily labeled as “National Secularism,” which is indeed a clever way to express opposition against the present religious system and to circumvent harsh reaction of conservative hardliners.

We shall further elaborate on this dimension in our future comments. /


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

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[1]. Hegra or Hegira is the year of migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in A. D. 622, according to most account on September 20. This is the milestone of Moslem calendar dates counted on lunar or solar system.

[2]. CF. Morteza Motahari, Mutual Services of Islam and Iran [in Persian] (Ghom, Iran: Sadra Publishers, 1980), p. 122.

[3].It is argued that the Prophet founded a religion and a state at the same time, but his main goal was that of religion and the founding of the state was only secondary. CF. Ibid. p. 8.

[4].CF.Richard p. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 243.

[5].Sayyed Qutb. Quoted in Idem.

[6].The main institution providing financial support to Mosque is wagf which confers the right to use the fruits and return of property without transferring ownership. The wagf is extended to all kinds of voluntary charitable purpose of the Moslem community.

[7].Government control over mosques activities has been mostly performed through financial and administrative regularizations regarding wagf institution and other assets of the mosques.

[8].CF. Morroe Berger. Islam in Egypt Today: Social and Political Aspects of Popular Religion, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 2-9.


[10].Cf. Religion in the Middle East, op. cit. pp. 26-7.

[11].CF. e.g. Daniel Pipes, In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power, (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), passim.

[12].Moslem Brotherhood founded by the Egyptian scholar Hassan Al-Banna was an outgrowth of the Islamic movement which insisted on a return to the Qur’an and the Tradition (Sunna) of the Prophet. Similar fundamentalist movements emerged in Iran Fadaiyan-e-Islam, Pakistan Jamaat-e –Islami. Though founded on different grounds, their objectives were more or less the same asserting political role of Islam in the daily business of state and social life.

[13].The initial inspiration of the Egyptian movement stemmed from the ideal of Pan-Islamism of Sayyed Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (Assad Abadi, the Iranian version) 1839-1897 who preached for the union of all Moslem states into a great empire. Interestingly this ideal was seized by the opportunist and reactionary Turkish Sultan Abdul-Hamid, who in fear of the overthrow of the Ottoman dynasty, laid emphasis on the Ottoman claim to legitimate succession of the early Caliphs of Islam. See: Religion in the Middle East, Ibid. p. 28.

[14]. CF. Jacques Jomier, “Islam in Egypt”, in Ibid. pp. 31-47 at 47.

[15].On 1 November 1922 the Turkish National Assembly stripped the last Ottoman Sultan of his power and proclaimed itself the sovereign authority. It permitted the existence of a Caliphate divorced from the Sultanate. But when Mustafa Kemal came to power eliminated the Ottoman Caliphate for good by a decree of 3 March 1924.

[16].See e.g. Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).

[17].See e.g. Donald N. Wilber, Iran: Past and Present, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 125-129.

[18].Ibid. p. 128.

[19].See. Marvin Zonis, The Political Elite of Iran, (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 148.

[20].Ahmad Kasravi, a controversial Iranian scholar, and his followers endeavored to render Islamic teaching meaningful for our times but he ended up giving his life on the matter. He was assassinated by a Moslem fanatic belonging to an underground group called Fadaiyan Islam (Devotees of Islam), CF. Ibid. pp. 148-149.

[21].CF. Ibid. p. 149.

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