Iran: Khamenei and Rouhani Face Off on Culture War

June 16, 2014 Topic: Domestic PoliticsDemocracySociety Region: Iran

Iran: Khamenei and Rouhani Face Off on Culture War

Does President Rouhani have enough power to implement important cultural reforms?

Political structures are the domains of scarce resources of power, wealth, knowledge and social class. Politicians and political groups fight over such resources. The fights are usually settled fairly in democratic societies. But, the fight over such resources in undemocratic nations is strongly limited to small groups of privileged people and senior officials, and does not include a broad cross section of the society.

This is particularly true about the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since its inception in February 1979, the political class has witnessed intense infightings over resources, and Hassan Rouhani’s presidency is no exception. His term began under the worst economic conditions over the past three decades. Deep recession and the economic sanctions that U.S. Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew has called “the most severe in history” have severely limited the government’s resources, and have forced Rouhani to not only cut the national budget, but have also made it possible to reduce the role of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) in the national economy.

Senior IRGC commanders have explicitly criticized the Rouhani administration for not granting large economic projects to the force’s engineering arm, the Khatam-olanbia. In turn, Rouhani accused the IRGC of “demanding its share [of the national resources]” as if it is entitled to it. In response, the IRGC high command declared that Rouhani is pursuing a policy of transforming the IRGC to a “nonrevolutionary and conservative” military force.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and his conservative supporters are angry about the political and cultural developments since the Rouhani administration took office. Thus, they are using the cultural arena to confront the government. The conservatives claim that Rouhani is “Westernized,” and is pursuing elimination of Islam from the public domain and staining the “pure” culture of the Islamic Republic with foreign thoughts and ideas. To see this, consider the following developments:

Founding of cultural command headquarters. In a meeting with the members of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution on December 10 of last year, Khamenei, emphasizing the government’s duty to lead and direct the nation in the cultural domain and “confront the destructive cultural issues,” likened the task to “a gardener protecting beautiful flowers” and said, “uprooting the weeds in a garden allows natural use of water, air and light [by flowers].” Criticizing the government in the same speech, Khamenei defended the founding of the cultural command headquarters by the hardliners.

In a meeting with Iranian artists on January 8, Rouhani responded to Khamenei, saying:

Dividing our artists into Arzeshi and gheir Arzeshi is meaningless [Arzeshi means value-laden, and is referred to someone who adheres to rigid interpretation of Islamic teachings and the supposed goals of the 1979 Revolution favored by the hardliners; gheir Arzeshi means those who oppose such interpretations]… Without freedom art is meaningless, and it is impossible to be creative without liberty… There is a direct link between freedom and art. True art will never be created in an unfree society. We cannot create arts by issuing decrees. In a national-security state art will not bloom, and as [Muhammad] Iqbal [the philosopher and poet in British India] said, ‘when a rigid brainless man takes control, art could not bloom.’ This administration does not intend to continue censorship in order to impede the work of artists. [Even] if we were to watch artists’ work, we must have a group of the elites, intellectuals, artists, and scholars, even religious scholars, to supervise and monitor the work. An artist can monitor another artist’s work, not a bureaucrat who can never do a good job of this. Why should we not ask the experts to monitor arts, books, and cinema? What would be the problem if civic organizations do part of the Ershad’s [Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that currently monitors such things] work? The government does not write books, make movies, compose music, and write poems. The government must simply be a facilitator for the artists and intellectuals. We must trust arts and artists, because viewing them in security terms is the gravest security mistake… If we look at them [and their work] as a security issue, we will forget about the real security issues, and will also deter a true artist that can make us aware of the real threats.

The concerns of the Supreme Leader. On March 6, Khamenei met with the members of the Assembly of Experts (a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and supposedly monitors his performance). They expressed to Khamenei their concerns about the cultural state of the country. Khamenei agreed with them, saying:

Another problem is the issue of culture. Now that you have expressed your concerns, [I must say that] I too am concerned…We should pay attention to the culture; the respected administration [of Rouhani] must do so, and others too must pay attention. I share your concerns about the state of culture, and hope that our officials in charge of cultural affairs know what they are doing. Cultural issues are no joke. They cannot be ignored. If there is a cultural invasion [by the West], it would not be like the economic problems [that they have created for us] that can be addressed by helping the people. It [the damage] will not be easy to repair; it will be replete with difficulties.

Two days later, Rouhani responded to Khamenei during the ceremony marking the end of the annual press festival:

Undoubtedly, if pens are broken in a society and mouths are shut, the people’s trust will be ruined, and they will turn to foreigners’ press and mass media [to get information]. Let us have an open space for pens and people’s thoughts, so that all the facts can be explained to them… If pressure and a police state could have solved the cultural problems, we should not still be concerned about our society’s culture [but, we still are]….A government’s task is creating moderation [in the society]. Right from the beginning, the government believed and it still does, that cultural issues must be addressed by cultural people [not the government]; that is, by scholars, experts, and professional societies, through transparent laws. The most important force that can confront corruption is the [free] press at the forefront [of anticorruption drive]. The list of the corrupt people’s names must not be in the pockets of the country’s chief executive, but be revealed by the press and our journalists. If the press does this, not only can we confront corrupt people, but also prevent corruption. The cost of corruption must be increased, so that no one would dare even thinking about it, and the way to achieve it is by your [the press’] presence [in this confrontation].

Talking about cultural “weaknesses”. On March 21, Khamenei effectively gave the orders for cultural attacks on the government. He likened culture to air, saying, “Culture is like the air we breathe. You have to breathe air, whether you like it or not. If this air is clean, it will have certain effects on your body,” and claimed that, to destroy the nation, the “enemy” has focused on the culture by “targeting people’s beliefs and faith.” Thus, he said, “The officials in charge of cultural affairs should take care of cultural rifts, which are very dangerous. They should be sensitive about such rifts and be vigilant.” He then added:

Cultural experts have a responsibility in this regard as well. Who are cultural experts? Cultural experts include the ulama [grand ayatollahs], professors, revolutionary intellectuals and committed artists. They should preserve their critical outlook towards the cultural conditions of the country and provide guidance. I believe that the revolutionary community of the country can enter the arena and make criticisms with compelling logic. They can point to the weak and negative aspects. Sometimes, an official does not know what is happening in the society, but the young critics are at the society’ center. They know what is happening. This is the national determination and the jihadi management that we have discussed in the area of culture.

Since that speech, the fundamentalists, some of the conservative ayatollahs, and several IRGC commanders have been criticizing the government continuously.

Equality of rights of men and women. In a speech on April 19, Khamenei spoke about women’s advancements in the Islamic Republic. He rejected the notion that Iranian women should emulate their Western counterparts, claiming that in the West, women are treated as sexual objects and dismissed equality of men and women at their jobs. He also declared that “we should set aside this notion from our thoughts.”

Rouhani responded to Khamenei the next day. In a speech on the occasion of Women’s Day in Iran, he declared, “Women must have equal opportunity, equal security and equal social rights” with men. Then, on the May Day—Workers’ Day—Rouhani said, “I reject gender-based discriminations in the world of workers and production. Our working men and women must have equal rights.”

Books. Khamenei also advocated tight control of the government over books. Censorship of books has always been part of his cultural policy, although he has failed. But, Rouhani has advocated nonintervention by the state in this issue, and has repeatedly said that writers and readers are the best judge of what is acceptable. During the opening ceremony of Tehran International Book Exhibition, Rouhani said:

We should provide the necessary space for [the people] writing books without any worries [for censorship], and let what is on the people’s hearts and minds find its way onto the paper. The government is not after state censorship and considers critique as belonging to all the groups. We must strive to provide an environment in which cultural activists can work, remove obstacles from book publishing, and help those who are working along this path. Public opinion and conscience is the best judge of the quality of books.

Social Sciences. Khamenei has always been a critic of the modern social sciences. He believes that such a view is a result of a view of the universe that eliminates God, soul and angels, and only pursues a materialistic explanation of existence of everything. More precisely, he shares the view of Max Weber, the German sociologist and philosopher, about society and sociology. Khamenei has also advocated “Islamization” of social sciences in Iranian universities. (See here, here, here and here.)

Speaking to a group of the academics on 4 May 2014, Rouhani responded to Khamenei by saying:

When it comes to the issue of Islamization of social sciences; we should preserve our principles and national interests, but be careful not to take the wrong path. The foundations of science are the same everywhere. They are universal and do not recognize geography and borders. We also have methodologies, such as research methodology. They also know no borders. But, the goals of each nation may differ. If we wish to use science in applications, we should try to make it indigenous. Even here we must decide what the best solutions are and recognize the obstacles [to achieving our goals].

Responding to Rouhani on behalf of Khamenei, cleric Reza Gholami, who is the head of the policy council of the international congress of Islamic social sciences, said, “He [Rouhani] is apparently not very familiar with the influence of the currently-accepted science philosophy and its key role on the formation of the methodology of human and social sciences.” Gholami, a cleric, does not know that science philosophers consider social sciences as part of natural sciences and believe that after the development of a theory in social sciences only observations and experiments, not religion, can confirm or reject it. Thus, Islamization of social sciences is impossible and impractical.

Internet and satellite television. On March 9, 2012, at Khamenei’s orders, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace was formed, which is headed by the president. Its members include the heads of the three branches of the government, the IRGC chief, the head of the state-run network of radio and television, several ministers, and the head of the cultural commission of the Majles. In his order, Khamenei emphasized that whatever the Council decides has the force and weight of law, although the Council’s charter has never been published. Khamenei has always supported limiting access to the internet and satellite dishes that broadcast foreign programs into Iran.

In a meeting with Rouhani’s cabinet on August 28 of last year, Khamenei emphasized that being “obedient” to the laws implies following the resolutions of the Cyberspace Council, saying:

The other day I spoke briefly to Dr. Rouhani about this, and will continue doing so. The Supreme Council of Cyberspace has had a few meetings in this room [with me] in which the heads of the three branches of the government have participated. This is a highly important council, which has had several directives. They must be acted upon.

Speaking as the head of the council on May 17, Rouhani took positions opposite of Khamenei’s, saying, “The world is moving towards [becoming] a global village, and given the cyberspace, the era of one-sided speeches and statements [by the rulers] is over. We are reaching the point in which there would be no room for such statements, which can no longer be issued by tribunes that are controlled by one side.” The communication technology and the cyberspace pose no threat to Islam, the Revolution and the Youth, Rouhani said, and “we recognize the right of our citizens to be connected to the worldwide web.” And, seemingly responding to Khamenei, he continued, “It is not appropriate, in the year of culture, to have a defensive shield and confront the technology defensively. If there is a cultural aggression [by the West], and there is one, it cannot be confronted by wooden sword, rather with courage and modern tools.” Rouhani also defended leaving the confrontation to the private sector, not the government.

The Islamic-Iranian model of economic development vs. the Western model. Khamenei has made it clear that he opposes a Western model for economic development. Thus, in May 2011, he ordered the formation of the “Center for Islamic-Iranian Model of Progress,” which has held several meetings prior to and after its formal formation (here, here, and here), attended by Khamenei. He has emphasized that he has intentionally chosen “progress” instead of “development,” because he wants to demonstrate that not everything about “development” is universal. He is pursuing an Iranian model, suited for Iran and developed by Iranian thinkers, which takes into account the Islamic teachings. If such a model is developed, Khamenei said, it will be used for the long-term economic progress of the country and must be implemented by the government. He emphasized that Iran will use the achievements of others, but will not be their follower, because the Western models are secular and materialistic, whereas what he has in mind is based on morality and fairness.

Members of the Center met with Khamenei on March 5 2013, during which Khamenei told them, “Given the influence of the West and the domination of its model of development and progress, as well as its culture, on all aspect of life [in the international arena], designing an Islamic-Iranian model of development of progress requires courage and strong motivation, and one must be daring.” He continued, “The Western civilization has been based on humanism, and taking into account the political power and the central role of capital. It has passed its height of influence and one can detect signs of corruption and decadence in it that include sexual perversion and the spread of immorality.” He added that the process of Western development has included destructive wars, and that the most important reason for the West losing its influence is lack of morality in Western societies. But, his rhetoric notwithstanding, Khamenei’s efforts in this area have been purely based on slogans and have not had any meaningful results.

In a meeting with distinguished scholars and artists of the nation on May 18, Rouhani said that the developed nations made progress by using their scholars and artists, but in Iran, the intellectual elite has been isolated and even eliminated [by the hardliners] based on its ethnic and religious background and political and moral views, or that they have left Iran en masse. Responding directly to Khamenei’s claims, Rouhani said, “Many principles for growth, development and progress are universal. The same path that Japan took to advance was also taken by Germany, South Korea, and many European nations. We must utilize such universal principles for our own advancement,” adding, “Iran can make progress based on planning and putting the plans to practice, and participating in large worldwide technological projects, not by just talking about them. The national culture needs creativity, and will not be preserved by being mummified. The opponents are opposed to any cultural development and act as if they believe that the culture must be mummified.”

Imposing religious doctrine on the people. Senior clerics, such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Khamenei, believe in a moral mission for the state. They do not, however, believe in moral pluralism and people’s right to choose their own way of life. They also try to impose the Islamic teachings on the people using the state power, believing that it is their duty to send people to paradise. Critics, on the other hand, say that it is not the government’s mission to do so, and that one cannot create hell on Earth for the people, so that they can go to paradise after they die.

Responding to the critics May 13, in a speech to a group of people visiting with him, Khamenei said:

Sometimes, when there is a debate about teaching the people about religion, we hear some people saying here and there, ‘your Excellency, is it our mission to send the people to paradise?’ Yes, it is. That is the difference between an Islamic ruler and a non-Islamic one. An Islamic ruler wishes to rule in a way that people go to paradise [after they die]. Thus, he has to pave the way. We are not talking about using force and imposition, but about helping [the people]. People’s nature tends to want to go to paradise and we should open the way [for them]. This is our duty, the duty that Imam Ali [Shiites’ first Imam, and the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin] considered his own also.

Responding to Khamenei, in a speech at a conference on public health on May 24 Rouhani said:

We should not futilely worry the people and make them concerned [about their divine fate]. Do not intervene so much in people’s [private] lives, even if it is with good intentions. We should let the people choose their own path [in life]. They cannot be sent to paradise through use of force and lashing. The Prophet did not have a lash in hand; he was a teacher and kind; we should emulate him.

Rouhani’s response angered the hardline and conservative clerics. Ahmad Alamolhoda, a leading conservative cleric and Friday-prayer Imam of Mashhad, the religious city in northeast Iran, angrily declared, “Not only will we use lashes, but also all of our power to stand up against those who block people from going to paradise.” Reactionary cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi asked sarcastically, “Where did you [Rouhani] learn about your religion? In Feyzieh [seminary in Qom] or in Britain?” Another leading conservative cleric, Ahmad Khatami, said, “You [Rouhani] should not pave the path to hell by your speeches.” Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi reacted by saying, “We should not open the hell’s gates to the people.” The country’s prosecutor, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, who has played a leading role in cracking down on the dissidents for years, said, “They say do not bother with people going to hell or paradise. Such statements are mocking the great work of senior clerics.”

Most recently, on June 12, the judiciary chief, conservative cleric Sadegh Larijani, said, “The root of the claim by those who say that we cannot force the people into paradise is in liberalism and [Western] modernity. Rouhani responded to Larijani almost immediately, “What have we said that has disturbed some people? We only said that culture belongs to the people and it is them that should [choose the] best path for their lives. Are we supposed to make pills of culture, write prescription for the people, and ask them to buy the pill at a pharmacy? It is as if some people are still living in the medieval age.”

Where is the confrontation heading?

In undemocratic societies, confrontations between senior officials restrict the breathing room of the common people. A smart opposition can take advantage of the opportunity and activate the people through social networks. Democracy is the result of a balance of power between the state and civil society.

The most important promise of Rouhani to the people is letting them decide for themselves and running their own affairs. If he delivers on this promise, civic and nongovernmental organizations will be formed that will strengthen the civil society. As the civil society advances and becomes more inclusive, the democratic forces can organize the people and use their power to negotiate with the state, in order to make the transition to democracy possible. But, if the people do not organize themselves through civic organizations, the state will make no concessions to them. When the people have no significant power, an authoritarian ruler, such as Khamenei, has no incentive to make concessions to the people.

Whether Hassan Rouhani is a good or bad president will be decided based on what he is doing. Even though he does not have Khamenei’s power, and the Majles [parliament] and unelected officials are not controlled by him, he still publicly repeats his promises and thoughts. It would be a mirage if Rouhani’s critics—the intellectuals, the reformists, and so on—wait with the hope that he will make Iran democratic. He does not have the power to do so on his own. Iran has all the prerequisites for a democratic state. What is missing are independent civic organizations and NGOs, formed by the opposition.  

Akbar Ganji is an Iranian investigative journalist and dissident. He was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006, and his writings are currently banned in Iran. This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.

Image: Iran President photo.