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?


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.