Iran. Secularism appears as a cultural force that seeks to guarantee the freedom of republican action in relation to divine sovereignty.

This article was published in Oasis 18. Read the table of contents

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Iran. Secularism, which fills the Iranian society, appears as a cultural force that seeks to guarantee the freedom of republican action in relation to divine sovereignty. Despite this, or rather because of the thirty-five years of theocracy, today it pervades the ordinary lives of the Iranian people, who are disappointed by the revolution and searching for new pathways.

To present a mental mapping of the social changes and conceptual shifts that have taken place in Iran over the last thirty years means, amongst other things, showing how secularism can be seen, more than as an anti-religious vision, as a socio-cultural space large enough to house many forms of Iranian religious dissidence. It is, therefore, important to explore the multiple dimensions and configurations of the secular-religious divide at the level of the Iranian public sphere and the Iranian self. What is of interest is why and how secularism understood as the interiorization of ‘contemporaneity’ has become embedded, and with a particular political discourse and project, in today’s Iran. As such, even if secularism in Iran is not totally a shared value, nevertheless, it has become the principle of liberty for all Iranians. Thus, it would come to many non-Iranians as a surprise to affirm that despite nearly thirty five years of theocratic rule, secularism has penetrated into the everyday life practices of ordinary Iranians and underpins all their modes of social life such as leisure and sexuality. Strangely, the Iranian practice of secularism is neither driven by a state-oriented desire (à la Française) to protect citizens from religion, nor by a will to protect religion from the state, as in the Anglo-American experience. Far from being an ideological project, it is a cultural driving force which has for its goal protecting the republican gesture from the divine sovereignty. Therefore, the unfolding of Iranian theocracy has resulted not in the demise of the secular, but, on the contrary, to the increasing presence of the secular in the symbolic construction of the Iranian identity.


Divine Sovereignty and Popular Sovereignty

The process of secularization of the Iranian public sphere should not be seen necessarily in the mirror of an ideal Western model. Quite the opposite : in order to depict the ways secularism has been collectively imagined and practiced by Iranians we need to understand closely the clash that has existed since the foundation of the Islamic Republic between the two principles of sovereignty. Ever since the first days of the Islamic Republic of Iran there have been two sovereignties – the divine and the popular. The concept of popular sovereignty, which is derived from the indivisible will of the Iranian nation, is inscribed in Article I of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. And the divine concept of sovereignty, which is derived from God’s will through the medium of Shi’i institutions of an Imamate, is bestowed on the existing faqih as the rightful ruler of the Shi’ite community, a perception that forms the foundation of the doctrine of the velayat-e faqih. Increasingly, divine sovereignty has been less about religion than about political theology. As for the popular sovereignty, it has found its due place in the social networks and political action of Iranian civil society. The presence of these two incompatible and conflicting conceptions of sovereignty, authority and legitimacy have always been a bone of contention in Iranian politics, often defining the ideological contours of the political power struggle among contending forces. So, as long as the actual Constitution remains in force, Islamic republicanism will have practical paradoxes and the tension between the ‘republican’ and the ‘theocratic’ will continue.

Of the existing Islamic States, Iran is the most interesting case but also the most problematic to consider. For instance, ‘Iran is the only example of an Islamic state installed through a popular revolution’.[1] This is why there is a dualism in the structures of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The duality is not only indicated in the very title of the Islamic Republic which refers to an elected republican body with a president and a parliament functioning in the same political structure with the rule of a faqîh, but it also relates to the fact that the Islamic Republic declares the unity and brotherhood of all Muslims in one umma and yet reinforces Iranian nationalism. In this sense, the concept of the government of the jurist, whereby the state is largely an administrative arrangement to implement the sharia, was only one element in Khomeini’s understanding of the nature of the state. He also saw it as vested in the model of a philosopher ruler, with a wisdom and knowledge that is higher than the law. But Khomeini’s understanding of authority had to come to terms with modern understandings derived from the West.[2] The result was a Constitution which gives predominance to sharia and authority based on the divine will but also incorporates the will of the people and their sovereignty. This mixture has produced many contradictions, particularly in terms of parliamentary legislation conflicting with sharia and the authority of the jurist overriding legitimate constitutional structures. Thus the Revolution created a popular support for the state, but on the basis of two conflicting principles of sovereignty. Iran’s Constitution is, therefore, in reality two Constitutions: one which emphasizes people’s authority and rights and another that is a divine clerical-rights Constitution. Any debate about the power structure of the Islamic regime in Iran and the struggle among different institutions hinges upon how this dichotomy is perceived and practiced.


How Religious Governance is Challenged

Today, the equation of charismatic moral capital and institutional moral capital is widely absent in the Iranian political system. The second life of the Islamic Republic from the 1990s onwards opened up a credibility gap in the political life of the Islamic regime and initiated a long-term mistrust of the political institutions and the principle of theocratic sovereignty. The crisis of legitimacy that is often said to have afflicted the Iranian political system since the 1990s was a crisis of which Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad have been, in important ways, as much symptoms as causes. Also involved in this crisis was the entire government and its various agencies, Iranian society and the citizens themselves, and the founding myth of the Iranian Revolution, as upholding popular sovereignty, to which they had held for so long. The crisis was, to put it rather grandly, a crisis of the Iranian Revolution and a sharp divide between popular sovereignty and authoritarian rule at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s political framework. Iran had emerged from its revolution in 1979 with its faith in its own goodness reaffirmed by the defeat of the Shah and the war against Saddam. But the heroic stamp and the revolutionary fervor steadily gave way to disillusionment and cynicism.


Alternative Young People

Therefore, the story of secularism in theocratic Iran can hardly be told independently of the modes of challenge against the authoritarian and exclusionary religious governance of the Iranian public sphere. Far from being a mode of state governance, secularism in Iran has become a set of moral values for self-governance. It is an organizing principle of social life which has created a non-religious, though eventually spiritual, habitus in the Iranian public sphere and a series of changes in traditional political culture. These changes have been translated into a culture of dissent among three main social groups: women, young people and intellectuals. These three spheres of dissent have each embodied deliberate and conscious forms of resistance against absolute sovereignty within Iran. Iranian women have been struggling for more freedoms in both the public and private spheres. As for the Iranian intellectuals, they have been highlighting over the past twenty years democratic accountability and value-pluralism as foundations for empowering and enlarging Iranian civil society. One needs to add Iranian young people to the list of dissenting sociological actors. They belong to a new generation that did not experience the revolution of 1979 and wants another Iran. Most of them were not around or are too young to remember the revolution but they made up one-third of eligible voters in the presidential election. But due to a hegemonic political discourse and forced Islamization, an alternative and rebellious youth culture emerged that has been increasingly a part of a larger global cultural movement. Practices such as the social mixing of men and women, free-love, self-fashioning of the Islamic headscarf and the rise of secular ideals among the religious intellectuals are all different forms of secular visibility in the Iranian public sphere. More specifically, Iranian youth has challenged the established equation between the religious self and the Iranian self and elaborated an alternative performative politics of the Iranian self. As a result, the secular has become part of the interpretation and improvisation of the self-definition of Iranian Muslims who seek to restore their sense of national identity in today’s world.


Sophisticated Dissidence

Moreover, unlike the assertive  mode of secularism  in which the state excludes religion from the public sphere, in the present Iranian case we have  a secular social ethos which goes well hand in hand with  the religious particularities of young Iranian citizens. It is also in this context that we see appear not an ontological totality but an emerging reality that defines the modus vivendi and operandi of a secular imaginary. This process has led to an increasingly open and sophisticated contestation of the theocratic by the dissident voices of the Iranian society. As such, civic actors in Iran claim their secular visibility in the public sphere as they distance themselves from the national Islamism of the organized state power and imagine forms of horizontal solidarity.

Most of the demands for freedom from a theological mode of conduct and mode of thought are exemplified by the emergence of unprecedented gender solidarity between secular and modernist-Islamist women. Secular women played a significant role in the quest for a gender conscious movement. However, due to their limited powers as secular women in a highly religious state, they sought Islamist women as allies in their movement for social change. With the changes that the new generation of Islamist women brought, secular women, who had earlier been purged from the public sphere, found themselves gradually reappearing in the workplace. Active secular women created their own informal groups and started to organize debates on issues relevant to the condition of women. In order to make real change, secular and Islamist women needed an outlet for their discussion on social, economic and political issues affecting women. Together, these women were successful in bringing a more gender-conscious awareness and secular reforms in both the public and private sectors. This secular culture of dialogue was also promoted by the new generation of Iranian intellectuals echoed by distrust in any transcendentally valorized form of monist thinking. The secular intervention here is not only a reflection upon the pluralistic mechanisms of politics but also upon the political self. What is important in the work of these intellectuals in Iran is that they think neither of imitating the West nor of turning the clock back to Iranian religious traditions. For them, the philosophical goal is neither to inject modernity into religion nor to inject religion into modernity. What is in perspective here is to rescue the concept of the intellectual from that of ideologized religion by promoting the concept and the practice of dialogue as an ontological umbrella for all societal relations. The point is not here about the imitation of secular practices and institutions as they are framed in the West, but about the possibility of identifying a common set of goals and purposes best described by the Iranian intellectuals by the idea of secular accountability and secular responsibility. The two concepts of ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility’ can introduce a new complexity and sharpness to assessments of the difficulties facing the process of secular transition in Iran, both in establishing its intellectual preconditions and dealing with its formation.


An End, a New Beginning

Over the past thirty years, post-revolutionary Iran has seen two political projects at the heart of the 1979 Revolution fail in both practice and in theory: Marxist-Leninism and fundamentalist Islam. While these qualities once rallied the people and claimed a basis of legitimacy, they are increasingly falling out of favor with the broader citizenry. As we can see from their social and cultural practices, Iranian civic actors do not identify their role any more as that of engaging in an assertive and ideological secularism, but, rather, of expressing critical views concerning the antidemocratic and authoritarian aspects of Iranian theocratic politics and traditions. Today Iran is going through a cycle of erratic oscillations in which moments of the secular ideal alternate with times of great theocratic despair. Yet this erratic situation of uncertainty is accompanied by the absence of a romantic and dogmatic view of secularism as an avant-garde ideology.  The shock of the revolution and the reevaluation of political ideals have been part of a learning process that has generated a collective sense of responsibility among the post-revolutionary sociological actors and youth in Iran and led them to opt for secularism as a form of cultural dissent rather than as a political ideology. The experience of Iranian civil society shows us that it would be more constructive to respond to the challenges of ideologized Islam by ‘de-sanctifying’ secularism, that is, rethinking secular social relations in a new way that opens possibilities of dialogue with anti-theocratic religious voices in the public sphere.

Contrary to the general stereotype of the Iranian society as a hermetical and closed theocratic entity, post-revolutionary civil society in Iran has been dominated by an ongoing dialogue and debate on the virtues and nuances of secularism. Despite its Islamic character, the exact form of society that Iranian society should assume is still under construction, at least as far as Iranian civic actors are concerned. In this regard, two main features concerning the overall state of the secular discourse can be highlighted. First, as elsewhere and as already mentioned, there has been a direct correlation between the evolving political developments and the intensity and overall direction of the discourse on secularism. Related to this has been a second feature, namely the role that religious intellectuals have ascribed to devise a definition of secularism which would both capture the essence of the notion as they have come to understand it and, at the same time, find applicability to the local social, cultural, and political predicaments of contemporary Iran. Put simply, the first task of religious intellectuals in Iran has been to define what ‘secularism’ means for them and for Iran. A second axiom has been to apply this definition to and test it against the backdrop of Iranian history and politics. Is civil society an inherently non-religious or anti-religious society? Or does it have any bearing on a society's religious orientations at all? Defining secularism in a non-assertive way in Iran as ‘a non-theological sphere’ is important as it demonstrates a transparent and sophisticated understanding of the limits and subtleties of  a plural public sphere.

This contrasts sharply with the more populist and somewhat naive perception of secularism as the exclusion of the religious actors from the public space. Thus defined, it then becomes important to see whether the concept of ‘secular’ has any applicability to Iran given the country's political, historic, social, and cultural predicaments. Of the political obstacles that secularism faces in Iran, the history of its importation from the West appears to be least significant given the prevailing critical intellectual atmosphere in today’s Iran. Nevertheless, there is still an acute and defensive awareness that secularism was first theorized about and manifested in the West. Instead, especially in the Iranian context, an analysis of secularism and its intellectual origins has wider theoretical implications for the phenomenon of civil society. These arguments are well echoed by most of the Iranian intellectuals who have written on the subject of secularism in Iran. On the one hand, they argue, the theologization of politics has not been able to undermine the potential for secular civil society to emerge in Iran. On the other hand, if this secular civil society could succeed in its goals, it could potentially facilitate a general agreement among the civic actors that a non-authoritative secularized public space would solve many of the country's social and political problems. That is to say that the secular idea underway in Iran is more measured, more analytical, and far less state-oriented and ideological than at almost any other time.

In essence, the new secular discourse has restored to Iranian public sphere the social role to which it had long aspired but had forcibly been side-tracked from, namely that of educating the public. Looking ahead, Iranian civil society represents the Middle East’s greatest hope. Iranian dialogical secularism has a unique potential to lead Iranians Muslims out of the dark night of theocratic Islam toward a public and transparent dialogue between the religious and the secular. If this happens, as in 1979, this achievement will likely affect Muslims far and wide. It is evident that nonviolent action is the new paradigm that is attempting to define itself distinctly and overcome the intellectual and political weaknesses of its predecessors. There is common agreement among the members of Iranian civil society that the main contradiction in contemporary Iran is the one between authoritarian violence and democratic nonviolence. Though this nonviolent paradigm is still in the making, it can nonetheless be characterized as ‘post-ideological’.[3] This is due to the fact that the protest movement in Iran is nonviolent and civil in its methods of creating social change while also seeking an ethical dimension to Iranian politics. This judgment implies that Iranian civil society is ready to make a distinction between two approaches: searching for truth and solidarity versus lying and using violence.


Further Reading

Akbar Ganji, ‘The Struggle Against Sultanism’, Journal of Democracy 16 (2005), 4, pp. 38-51.

Asghar Schirazi, The Constitution of Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic Republic (I.B. Tauris, New York, 1997).

Ramin Jahanbegloo,  ‘The Two Sovereignties and the Legitimacy Crisis in Iran’ in Constellations 17 (March 2010), 1, pp. 22-30.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Sami Zubaida, ‘An Islamic State? The Case of Iran’, Middle East Report 153 (1988).

[2] See Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam and Revolution: Writing and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, (Mizan Press, Berkeley, 1981).

[3] See Ramin Jahanbegloo,  ‘The Two Sovereignties and the Legitimacy Crisis in Iran’ in Constellations 17 (March 2010) Issue 1,pp. 22-30.



To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Ramin Jahanbegloo, “The Dissident Alliance Against Theocracy”, Oasis, year IX, n. 18, December 2013, pp. 53-57.

Online version:
Text by Ramin Jahanbegloo, “The Dissident Alliance Against Theocracy”, Oasis [online], published 1st december 2013, URL: