Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Revolution and its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi (ESB): The book is based on my doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford and brings together a number of threads crucial in my intellectual formation. These include an abiding interest in the history of political thought, which I studied throughout my undergraduate years and through graduate school, as well as a scholarly and emotional investment in modern Iranian history. I began my doctorate during the height of the Green Movement in 2009-2010, and while I cannot say it was the spark which provoked my interest in “reform” per se, it certainly cast a long shadow over it. What kind of reforms did the leaders of these historic protests and their supporters demand? How did they envision such reforms taking place? What political ideas and forms of mobilization did they valorize and regard as essential to their success? How and why have their politics and ideological outlook changed over time? How did they come to this political realization and what were the historical events and conditions which facilitated and made it possible?

But perhaps a question which I found more interesting than most was how a factional constellation within the Iranian political class made the shift from an Islamism informed by various shades of Third Worldism and leftist thought, to avowed religious liberals and/or republicans who sought to rationalize their ideological transformation through recourse to rhetorical figures and tropes institutionalized in the period of revolutionary state formation. In other words, what were the domestic and international conditions and histories which informed the ideological reconstitution of an influential cast of political figures, organizations, institutions, and publications comprising an important part of Iran’s post-revolutionary political class? This is at least the post-facto contrivance which I have come up with and which arguably provides the book with one of its chief axes.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ESB: Firstly, the book tries to understand the material conditions of reformist thought. It moves away from a tendency to see it through a historicist lens, namely, as yet another iteration of the Protestant Reformation, or the inevitable triumph of liberal capitalism—or simply as providing an exposition of a collection of intellectuals in accordance with the template of the man, the thinker, and his ideas. I argue instead that the reformist dispositif emerged out of both a material network traversing the state and political class, and a profound disillusionment with the utopian imaginary that had animated many of the decisive political forces and ideologies in the revolution. The bloody founding of the revolutionary state, the eight-year war with Iraq, and the political marginalization of the so-called “Islamic left”, gave rise to several novel ideological formations and tendencies. The one with which I was largely concerned was that involving intellectuals, clerics, journalists, politicians, and political organizations. This diverse group is generally thought of as the backbone of the reform movement—which came to prominence following the landslide victory of Hojjat al-Islam Mohammad Khatami in 1997—and a political platform whose contestation of power was itself made possible by the cultural and political capital they had accumulated due to their historic role in the Islamic Republic’s founding and defense, and often ongoing, relationship to state personnel and institutions.

More concretely, I delineate the political and ideological genealogies of the reform movement and the disparate groups which comprised it, from intellectuals, think tanks, and reading groups, to journal and newspaper editorial boards and political organizations.

Secondly, I trace how reformist thought was profoundly shaped (albeit by no means exclusively so) by Cold War liberalism. Reformist thought was deeply pessimistic about radical forms of social change, but also had a largely negative view of the state, which had to be restrained and limited, and in this respect, had much in common with Judith N. Shklar’s notion of a “liberalism of fear” (itself very much a child of the aftermath of WWII and the Cold War).

In this vein, I examine the impact of Euro-American thinkers such as Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Raymond Aron, and Arthur Koestler, as well as Eastern European critics of Soviet communism such as the Yugoslav Milovan Djilas. In particular, the book explores Cold War liberalism’s relationship to the theological and philosophical wrangling over the status of Islamic jurisprudence, political theology and sovereignty, constitutionalism, republicanism, rationalization and disenchantment, human and civil rights, and democracy and development—in a period roughly spanning 1989 to 2005. I thus try to situate the ideological Gestalt switch, which occurred in this period, in a larger global context at the end of the Cold War. I demonstrate how this informed political thought in Iran—a dynamic which hitherto had rarely been considered with much seriousness and yet is crucial if we wish to understand how a considerable swathe of the political class (who once saw itself as the vanguard of the mostazʿafin and placed social justice, exploitation, and anti-imperialism front and center) became leading defenders of limited government and the rule of law, the virtues of civil society, and technocratic expertise free of the scourge of “ideology”. Indeed, rather than seeing ideology and theory as antithetical, taking my leave from the work of Michael Freeden, I understand ideology as doing crucial work, both for good and for ill.

Finally, I try to contend with how reformism’s emergence from within the political class and the intellectual debt to Cold War liberalism have defined its constrained understanding of social and political change, its peculiar view of history, and its elevation of certain social forces at the expense of others—and why it has proven able to incorporate certain actors while spurning others. In this way, we can see how material conditions inform the core political ideas of the reform movement and how ideas and political ontologies impress themselves on its thinking about the political, as well as more quotidian political practices.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ESB: I hope this book will be read by those interested in the intellectual history and political thought of the reform movement in Iran, but also by scholars preoccupied with the ways in which theories, keywords, and paradigms travel and graft onto other styles of thought, finding themselves transformed in the process.

Even while the book is at times critical and quick to point out the real limits of the ideological and political horizons delineated by the reform movement, it also attends to the real nuances which characterize it as an ideological formation and constellation of political and social forces. A problem with much of the literature on the subject is that it either indulges in hagiography or presents a superficial and often polemical caricature. For instance, critics often paint the reformists and their ideas as little more than a cynical “safety valve” which perpetuates and sustains an authoritarian system; as if its leaders, intellectuals, and participants had no capacity for change and self-reflection; that they had no intellectual, personal, or political investment in the ideas they proposed, or their struggles to communicate and disseminate them amongst the general public; that they were somehow left untouched by shifting relations of power within state and society, or unaffected by global political and ideological transformations. In short, such depictions tend to be ahistorical, crudely instrumentalist, static, and informed by presentist political concerns. Such critics also similarly ignore the fact that the movement and the intellectual currents affiliated with it were animated by genuine disagreement and internal antagonisms—antagonisms which were evident from a perfunctory overview of its associated publications. In short, reform and reformism were always contested ideological fields, as well as an ideological apparatus for ascertaining political and cultural hegemony, furthering sectoral interests and perpetuating forms of symbolic violence. I therefore hope it is read by critics and supporters of Iran’s reform movement, both inside the country and out.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ESB: In recent years, I have published research on the subject of anti-colonial politics and decolonial thought, which reached its apogee inside Iran during the course of the 1960s and 1970s. This includes an article I published last year in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies on the radical Marxist-Leninist group, the Organization of Communist Unity, which was profoundly influenced by Tri-continentalism and possessed deep organizational and ideational ties to revolutionary forces inside the Arab world.

More recently, I have published an article in Modern Intellectual History on Iranian social democrats’ encounters with socialist Zionism and why some Iranian socialists became enamored by the Mapai and Histadrut, and yet remained oblivious to their integral roles as part of a settler-colonial project. Through an examination of the Israeli travelogues of Khalil Maleki and Dariush Ashuri, I endeavor to show how the article’s protagonist, Iranian intellectual and political dissident, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, blows apart the self-assured Eurocentric bromides of his Iranian socialist counterparts, which often fall into the trap of recycling many of Zionism’s founding myths and pretenses of a “civilizing mission” in Palestine. Al-e Ahmad, by contrast, exhibits a serious engagement with the category of coloniality, through which he strives to rethink crucial questions around sovereignty, difference, and sociality, while railing against colonial relations of exclusion and subjugation.

The latter forms part of my next book project, which grapples with the categories of coloniality and self-determination in modern Iranian political thought, and how they have been understood and encountered by various intellectuals and political movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Iran was never formally colonized and was often cast as a “semi-colony” or understood in terms of neocolonialism, first in relation to Britain and subsequently the United States. I have  increasingly come to the conclusion that it is essential to rethink these categories and questions beyond the all-enveloping shadow cast by the “Islamic Revolution”—which appears, at least in part, to have undermined and undone much of the cognitive mapping which previously allowed the critical intelligentsia and radical political movements’ to trace the manifold effects of coloniality, as well as the often co-constitutive nature of imperialism abroad and apparatuses of control and domination at home.


Excerpt from the book

Seyyed Hashem Aqajari (b. 1957) was not a cleric but a longstanding member of the Mojahedin Organisation of the Islamic Revolution of Iran (Sazman-e mojahedin-e enqelab-e eslami-ye Iran, SMEEI), a prominent reform oriented political organisation. He also happened to be a veteran of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Sepah-e pasdaran-e enqelab-e eslami, IRGC), and had served on the front of the Iran–Iraq War. His commitment to one of the twentieth century’s last great revolutions and his homeland were beyond reproach. As there was for thousands of others who had served in the war, there was a physical price to pay for such unwavering commitment. Aqajari lost a leg to a landmine in the course of the brutal eight-year conflict.

On 19 June 2002 in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of the Iranian intellectual and political activist ʿAli Shariʿati, Aqajari – now a respected history professor – delivered a lecture in the mid-western city of Hamedan entitled ‘Dr. Shariʿati and the Project of Islamic Protestantism’. In this pugnacious lecture he lamented that, despite some 100 years having elapsed since the publication of the Qajar-era diplomat and author Mirza Yusef Khan Mostashar al-Dowleh’s Yek kalameh (1870), and post-revolutionary reformist politicians’ regular demands calling for ‘the rule of law’, ‘law has still not come to rule’. Yek kalameh or One Word was an intellectual touchstone of late-nineteenth-century reformers and Iran’s Constitutional Revolution in the first decade of the twentieth century. Whatever its author’s original intention, it had come to signify the struggle for the rule of law and the constraint of arbitrary power. This was the least controversial of Aqajari’s comments, however. What would with great rapidity provoke enmity – not to mention a death sentence, later commuted to a five-year jail term – was his simple but acerbic attack on the clergy and their claims to act as intermediaries between God and the faithful. His opponents, and even some of his allies, thought he had a crossed a line.

Like many Islamic reformers before him, Aqajari distinguished between ‘historical Islam’ (Islam-e tarikhi) and ‘essential Islam’ (Islam-e zati).  The ‘Islamic Protestants’, he instructed his audience, are only concerned with the latter, while the former is little more than a human artifice manipulated to guarantee the prerogatives of a worldly caste. Just as Shariʿati had once authored searing criticisms of the much-revered Mohammad-Baqer Majlesi, the powerful Shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan during the latter stages of the Safavid dynasty, Aqajari decried Majlesi for injecting what he regarded as arbitrary beliefs, superstitions, and practices into the realm of unimpeachable sanctity – for example, wearing an agate ring on the left hand and ascribing to it salvific qualities.

For Aqajari, ‘Islamic Protestantism’ and ‘Islamic humanism’ went hand in hand and ultimately entailed the clergy’s obsolescence. He attributed to Luther the credo that every man can act as his own priest, and it is in the Lutheran tradition that he saw the relationship between individual conscience and scriptural understanding consummated. It was in collaboration with a class of like-minded intellectuals and their supporters that he hoped to provoke something akin to a ‘Puritan revolution’ in the Islamic Republic. The same republic he had fought to establish he would now seek to reform. The analogy was hardly new, but it proved effective, bestowing an almost historical ‘objectivity’ and vindication to the reformist project by proxy. Early Western observers of late nineteenth-century Islamic reformers had been quick to invoke the ‘Protestant Reformation’ as a key point of comparison and analogous meta-narrative, albeit without devolving much thought to the great many differences separating these distinct historical phenomena or the diverse circumstances which had provoked their arrival on the scene.

Aqajari caustically mocked the clerical hierarchy and its titles of Ayatollah, Hojjat al-Islam, and Thaqat al-Islam, remarking that ‘some of their titles are so new, their lifespan doesn’t exceed fifty to sixty years’. He fulminated against the clergy’s putative monopoly on the Qurʾan and its claim to mastery of ‘101 sciences and specialisations’, decrying them baseless; the office of Friday prayer leader was an innovation, without precedent at the inception of Islam. He stressed, ‘Shariʿati wanted to remove such false intermediaries (vaseteh-ha-ye kazeb). In Islam, we did not have any clerical class (tabaqeh-ye rowhani); the clerical class is a new class in our history.’ So as to make his endgame all the more unequivocal, he categorically declared that ‘in essential Islam there is no clergy at all’. Continuing his general line of argument and remarking upon a theme that repeatedly graced the pages of reformist intellectual periodicals, he lambasts the hierarchical relationship of master (morad) and disciple (morid) analogous to that of marjaʾ (source of emulation) and moqalled (one who emulates or partakes in taqlid), asking rhetorically, ‘are people monkeys to imitate (taqlid) him [i.e., the morad]?’ The teachers of religion (din-shenasan), he argues, are supposed to act as educators, whereby the student learns, understands, matures, and is thus capable of acting on the basis of his own reasoned conclusions. In principle, as the student progresses he will be able to dispense with the teacher and independently comprehend and reflect upon the sacred texts for himself. The moqalled, on Aqajari’s understanding of Osuli Shiʿi jurisprudence, is forever bound to unthinkingly imitate and thus is deprived of the ability to think and reason for himself, manacled and bound in a state of interminable infancy. ‘Ejtehad does not belong to a special group or class.’ These recognisable tropes of rational deliberation and respect for the individual’s moral autonomy are the core of Aqajari’s and fellow religious intellectuals’ call for ‘Islamic humanism’.

Aqajari’s political and intellectual trajectory were by no means unique and were shared by many of his generation. In this book I will look at a range of intellectuals and political actors who at one time had committed themselves with every fibre of their being to the last great revolution of the twentieth century, only to feel, by its second decade, that the state which subsequently emerged had lost its way and palpably failed to live up to the utopian aspirations which surfaced in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the Pahlavi regime’s demise. In this respect, Aqajari’s biography speaks to the broader subject of this book and how the project for political and religious reform in post-revolutionary Iran was born and historically articulated. By elaborating the complex genealogies of political and religious reform in post-revolutionary Iran, I will not only shed light on how ‘reform’ was theorised and thought about by the religious and loyalist intelligentsia and part of the political class but also analyse some of the specific limitations of the way in which ‘reform’ was conceived and framed by these elites.

Aqajari hailed from a religious-mercantile family in Abadan, in the south-western province of Khuzestan, and his father had been a fervent supporter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from at least the early 1960s, when the latter first came to national prominence with the uprising of June 1963 [15 Khordad 1342]. After his father’s draper’s business went bankrupt and his ‘petit-bourgeois’ existence was thrown into disarray, Aqajari the elder left Iran for the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Kuwait, leaving his eldest son, Hashem, who was only nine years old at the time, with little choice but to help support his five brothers and sisters. During his formative years and adolescence, he did everything from selling lottery tickets to manual labour and selling fruit and vegetables on the streets of Abadan. As a young teen he joined the Hojjatiyyeh Society, a religious organisation established following the 1953 coup d’état against the nationalist premier Mohammad Mosaddeq by the Mashhad-born Shaykh Mahmud Halabi. The chief objective of the society was to ideologically counter Bahaʿi religious activism and doctrine. Aqajari later left the society, unpersuaded by its ‘apolitical’ demeanour, and found himself spellbound by the revolutionary rhetoric and proclamations of ʿAli Shariʿati, Khomeini, and the pre-1975 People’s Mojahedin Organisation.

With the revolution, at the tender age of twenty one Aqajari headed an armed intelligence-security committee in Abadan and identified ‘repressive agents’ of the ancien régime for arrest. Moreover, as a committed Islamist revolutionary he joined an organisation, the Mojahedin Organisation of the Islamic Revolution (see Chapter 3), whose raison d’être was to act as a bulwark in defence of the newly established clerically-led order and to ensure under the threat of violence that Ayatollah Khomeini’s political and religious authority remained unchallenged by ideological adversaries, both real and imagined. His specific role was one of recruiting supporters and propagating against Marxist organisations and the People’s Mojahedin on Iran’s university campuses. Even though many of the leading lights of the Iranian left and People’s Mojahedin had been killed at the hands of the former regime’s security apparatus or had found themselves in exile for long stretches of time, it was believed that the ideological potency and revolutionary visions of such groups had to be forcefully countered amongst the impressionable youth. The university and the wider student movement, after all, had proven time and again to be a hotbed of discontent and rebellion against the political status quo.

After factional disagreements within the Mojahedin Organisation of the Islamic Revolution came to a head, Aqajari resigned in January 1983 along with thirty-six others, many of whom would become leading proponents of reform following the 1997 presidential election. As a member of the Revolutionary Guards, Aqajari participated and witnessed first-hand one of the most brutal inter-state conflicts of the twentieth century, the Iran–Iraq War (1980–8), only to see, in the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, rightist clerical rivals and their supporters seize the reins of high office to the exclusion of their erstwhile, albeit ambivalent, allies. Many of the ideals which had been championed at the outset of the revolution were perceived as having given way to despair and indifference, while the new leadership faced the unenviable task of rebuilding a ravaged nation in the absence of its inimitable founder and thus sought to redefine its mission and place in the world.

Like many others around this time, Aqajari gradually began to re-examine and critically appraise many of his most earnestly held ideological convictions. He began graduate work and research at the Presidential Strategic Research Centre as part of a quite different political trajectory to the one he formerly embodied as a young firebrand. Then came May 1997 and the emergence of the 2nd Khordad Front, as well as the surprise victory of the relatively unassuming former minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Hojjat al-Islam Mohammad Khatami, which marked the return of the Islamic left to the forefront of Iranian high politics and a historic watershed in terms of the advent of what is commonly referred to as the ‘epoch of reforms’ (dowran-e eslahat).

Despite the overwhelming popular mandate enjoyed by the new administration, its success was far from assured. On the one hand, Aqajari’s arrest and condemnation was one of many attempts at reversal and fierce opposition to the newly minted reformists’ attempts to realise their political programme and ambitions. On the other, expectations were high that reformists would respond to persistent pressure from the burgeoning middle and lower-middle classes, which, after a decade and a half of fear, instability, and exhaustion, had returned to the assiduously managed public sphere to make their demands heard once again. This monograph examines the origins and development of the intellectual and political networks which participated in, but above all theorised, the project to reform the Islamic Republic of Iran from the mid-1990s until 2005 and which continues to cast a long shadow over the political and ideological contestations enveloping Iranian state and society in the present.