Number 15 ● 30 Agust 2007



Meir Litvak*


The massive arrests of dissident intellectuals and wholesale closure of newspapers during the past year by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government reflect, in addition to short-term political interests, a certain conception of the ideas of liberty and freedom held by the hardline clerical faction in Iran. Iranian clerics have grappled with the modern notions of freedom and liberty since the 1906-1911 Constitutional Revolution. However, the clerical discourse on this issue acquired new momentum during the reformist presidency of Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005), as part of a broader political and ideological dispute over the compatibility between the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih (vicegerency of the jurisconsult) and democracy. Threatened by popular calls for democratization and greater liberties, the hardliners felt the need to set out clear boundaries for that potentially dangerous idea. Ahmadinejad's ascendancy to the presidency and his efforts to bring the Iranian Islamic Revolution back to its "original" purity, have transformed the hardliners' view, which often enjoys the support of Supreme Leader Sayyid ‘Ali Khamene'i, into a government policy.

All current Iranian leaders, from across the political spectrum, praised the Revolution as bringing "freedom" to Iran, but gave varying interpretations of the term's meaning and its desired scope. The liberties which the Iranian thinkers discuss are not identical with the way in which the term has been conceived in Western political thought, as "negative" and "positive" liberties, according to British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Almost all Iranian clerics reject the concept of "negative liberty," which is associated with the absence of coercion and restrictions, as fundamentally opposed to the very idea of religion. The very essence of Islam, in their view, is the voluntary acceptance of divine commands from God, including the proper way to manage society, rather than the concept of natural rights. The Revolution broke out, they claim, in order to fight the absence of moral restrictions on human beings, and enforce Islamic restrictions. Therefore, they regard the concept of negative liberty as tantamount to being religiously misguided and the equivalent of "cultural decadence and moral corruption."

Most clerics reject the liberal interpretation of freedom not only because they perceive it to be wrong, but also because of its association with the West, Islam's great political and ideological rival. As proof of the fallacy of the Western concept of freedom, Khamene'i pointed to the uproar in France against the writer Roger Garaudy, who denied the Jewish Holocaust, as evidence that only capitalists and Zionists enjoyed freedom of expression in the West. Hojjat ul-Islam Hossein Dashti, head of the Imam ‘Ali Research Institute, complained in the past that Iran was moving towards "corruption and prostitution," largely because of "the freedom and democracy" introduced by Iranian liberals.

Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the most outspoken representative of the hardline conservatives and Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, explained that the slogans of the Revolution were about "independence, freedom, Islamic republic," and were inspired by the Qur'an. The desire for an Islamic republic stemmed from the first two principles. Freedom meant liberation from the "claws of arrogance," i.e., the US, and not from "religion, God and common sense." Liberty in Islam was given based on the spiritual as well as the material interests of society, whereas in the West only material interests determine its boundaries. Thus the constitution granted freedom of the press -- provided that nothing should be printed which was against the principles of Islam.

Mesbah Yazdi denounced Western liberalism as an idea and culture promoted by Western agents and those enthralled by the West. Its foundations endangered society, he maintained, whereas religion said that whatever God has ordered must be done regardless of whether or not it is in accordance with the demands of the people. In addition, religion gave priority to societal over individual interests. Since the liberal school of thought preferred the demands of the people to those of God, and required that if the people so desire, then all religious edicts should be stopped, it could not be compatible with Islam. The most important cause of cultural and religious weakness, he concluded, was the influence of the liberals and the spread of the liberal school of thought in society.

Mesbah Yazdi's notion of liberty was part of his broader view on the incompatibility between Islam and democracy. In a democracy people can decide to change the rules of their life through elections and parliaments, he said, whereas in Islam "laws should be determined by the Almighty," and "no such change is possible because the rules are fixed for eternity." In Islam, he reportedly added, "man has no right to think in any way he wants about anything. Laws govern all human acts and deeds...." Moreover, "man's mind, heart, and imagination should also be controlled." Not surprisingly, he regards the Majlis, the manifestation of popular sovereignty as merely a "consultative body" whereas "the ultimate decision rests with the Supreme Leader."

While Mesbah Yazdi has failed so far in his bid for leadership, his spirit still looms behind the actions of his loyal disciple Ahmadinejad. The prospects for greater liberties for the Iranian people are dim as long as this dominant worldview prevails■


* Meir Litvak is a senior researcher at the Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University.

The Alliance Center for Iranian Studies (ACIS)

Tel Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 61390, Tel Aviv P.O.B. 39040, Israel

Email: Phone: +972-3-640-9510 Fax: +972-3-640-6665

Iran Pulse 15 ● August 30, 2007 © All rights reserved




Tel Aviv University makes every effort to respect copyright. If you own copyright to the content contained
here and / or the use of such content is in your opinion infringing, Contact us as soon as possible >>