The Changing Concept of the “intellectual” in Iran

Iranian intellectuals entered the modern era in an odd and paradoxical way. For more than four generations they had shared an epistemological confidence in Western rationality coupled with a general political mistrust toward Western societies. As such, the very unity of the West was not considered as a given.. For over 100 years they embraced and appropriated Western political and cultural values while at the same time keeping a critical distance from it. The initial romantic “fascination with the West” which took shape among the Iranian intellectuals in late 19th century was replaced after the Second World War with a broader romantic “revolt against the West”. Surprisingly, the Iranian traditional belief in the universal otherness of modernity became a common denominator in both right-wing, romantic nationalism and in Marxist, anti-imperialist nationalism in Iran.

More than 15 years after the creation of the Islamic Republic, the religious intellectuals became the architects of the reform movement in the Iranian presidential elections of 1997. The key question is: why did most of the Iranian intellectuals align themselves with the forces of the Revolution while others remained either indifferent or at least cautiously opposed to them? The reason may be found in the rejection of “ethical responsibility” by those that came to be known as the “revolutionary intellectuals” in Iran. They joined and supported the revolution simply on the basis of their fascination with the concept of “revolution” and what it implied. Their ideological preoccupation with the cultural and political dimensions of the Iranian reality had prevented them from attempting a coherent and systematic analysis of the Iranian history and of the Western philosophical heritage.

With the gradual disappearance of secular individuals from the scene, post-revolutionary Iran witnessed the emergence of «religious intellectuals» who were, in various degrees, supporters and at times ideologues of the Islamic revolution. The major difference between the so-called «religious intellectuals» or « post-Islamist intellectuals» and their predecessors, such as Ali Shariati, Mehdi Bazargan and Morteza Motahari, was their attachment to the idea of civil society. By refusing to legitimize the inseparable nature of religion and politics, some among the new generation of intellectuals, such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Mojtahed Shabestari, Yousefi Eshkevari and Mohsen Kadivar, formulated the ambiguous notion of «religious civil society» and underlined their opposition to the absolute supremacy of the Vali Faqih. The readiness of the new generation of Iranian intellectuals to move away from master ideologies is reflected in their mistrust of any metaphysically valorized form of monist thinking. Indeed, the critical thinking of modernity has taught the dialogical generation to be, unlike their older counterparts, conceptually skeptical about “fundamentalist politics” as well as “utopian rationalities.”

Ramin Jahanbegloo
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