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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.3 (2005) 650-664

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Religious Modernity in Iran:

Dilemmas of Islamic Democracy in the Discourse of Mohammad Khatami

During the first few years after the election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency of the Islamic Republic in 1997, pro-democracy groups and individuals experienced an episode of euphoria and enthusiasm that soon turned into despair and apathy. As early as the first term of his tenure, Khatami’s promises of freedom, civil society, and the rule of law were frustrated and blocked from being implemented by the conservative groups within Iran’s ruling establishment. Khatami himself proved not willing to take necessary risks to implement his project of civil society and his inactions and capitulations resulted in further frustration of many, but not all, of his promises. This essay attempts to analyze the failures, achievements, and some of the possible political ramifications of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami by focusing on his discourse in the context of the intellectual trajectory of Islamic thought from the revolutionary period to the postrevolutionary reformist phase.1

The Islamic discourse in Iran has been very much a response to the cultural aspects of the modern world, challenging certain facets of modernity, while at the same time, wittingly and unwittingly, engaging with some of the essential elements of the modern culture. For this reason, any in-depth study of the Islamic discourse in Iran, including the postrevolutionary discourse, would benefit from an interpretive understanding of the phenomenon we know as modernity. Very simply, the foundation of the modern world can be conceived in terms of a process of human empowerment that is in essence a nonlinear historical development. The historical process of human empowerment in the West has been achieved through the Judeo-Christian religion, Greek philosophy, the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the democratic revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution—culminating in the modern society with all its wonderful and simultaneously horrible consequences.2

The foundation and origin of this process of empowerment is a mental and intellectual phenomenon in essence that has removed humans from the natural and physical world. Thus modern humans possess consciousness and, in fact, self-consciousness; that is, they are aware [End Page 650] of their freedom and demand it if deprived of it. They also have free will and volition to a degree that was not possible in other historical periods. Modern people also act upon the world and are not passive; they are agents and actors. Of course these are the promises of the modern world, and much remains to be done to realize them even in the Euro-American or East Asian contexts. But even now some of these promises, at least partially, have been achieved. The empowerment of humans has resulted in democracy in some parts of the world, albeit far from being inclusive in the beginning and not perfect even now. Some people qua individuals, as a result of gaining power vis-à-vis the state and to some extent as a result of empowerment with respect to totalitarian aspects of society, have achieved political, cultural, social, and economic rights and freedoms, which constitute the foundation of democracy. Modern people have also gained power over nature and consequently have prolonged their lives, bringing some measure of relief from the tyrannical and unfriendly aspects of nature, such as disease, natural disasters, and the like. We often refer to this aspect of human empowerment as “technology.”

In philosophical and theoretical language, the notion of human empowerment is frequently referred to as “subjectivity” and modern empowered people as “subjects.” This terminology can be confusing for some people. We typically think of the subject in the English language as in the subject of a monarch, which actually implies lack of power. But for a historical accident, the explanation of which is beyond the scope of this essay,3 the term subject has been applied to the idea of human beings...


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