restricted access Religious Intellectuals and Western Critiques of Secular Modernity
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Religious Intellectuals and Western Critiques of Secular Modernity

In the following discussion I offer a presentation of several key Iranian intellectuals who helped to shape developments of the late twentieth century leading up to and following the Iranian revolution of 1979 and whose ideas continue to shape contemporary Iranian society and politics. I consider their ideas with a view to analyzing the different sources of their strongly anti-Western rhetoric. Ironically, by doing so, I demonstrate not only their intimacy with and borrowings from certain essential Western discourses of the twentieth century but also the loose yet coherent existence of a broader movement of authenticity that is global and historical in character—in both the East and the West. In this sense none of the thinkers in this essay are anti-Western at all. They instead participate in a broader global movement that has at least as much background in the West itself through—speaking in very broad strokes—a long fight between "cultural particularism" and "acultural universalism," which have adopted near-identical terms. To a considerable degree, modernity has been defined by this broad historical trend of opposition between Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment, which has been identified in some detail by, for example, Richard Wolin in his The Seduction of Unreason. The actual scope and power of counter-Enlightenment as a coherent political and intellectual discourse, however, very often goes unrecognized in its non-Western manifestations. Such expressions are routinely subsumed under familiar simplifying stereotypes that may to this day be called "orientalist" and that themselves constitute in some measure the panoply of a steadily disintegrating dominant discourse of modernity as a Eurocentric project. To attribute the flourishing of these discourses in non-Western societies to any innate hostility of the Orient to the West would be a mistake; their force is political rather than geographical in nature. This perhaps unself-conscious global movement boasts a coherent and high-standing intellectual pedigree and seductive and complex philosophical origins and exists above all as a long-standing and dispersed rebellion against the tradition of modern Enlightenment (particularly in its more totalizing theoretical and practical aspects) and its concomitant principle of secularism. In place of a universal and secular truth is an equally modern championing and politicization of the truth in cultural tradition, or a defense of a single overarching sociocultural meaning as both an ontology and a mode of political organization. In this way, and by extension, these discourses and movements, while potentially populist, are inherently hostile to even the very concept of formal democracy and pluralism. In the West, where democratic [End Page 416] institutions enjoy a strong and entrenched foundation, such discourses can circulate without posing a particularly serious danger. At worst, they may engender a sense of apathy or political alienation among the relatively narrow strata of individuals who are influenced by them. In the third world, however, this is not the case, and the ascendancy of such discourses in intellectual life can be disastrous in its political effects for the society as a whole.

I present here the core ideas of the following seminal Iranian intellectuals in order to emphasize the irony in how so-called anti-Western intellectuals can be open to Western ideas: the prerevolutionary thinkers Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Ahmad Fardid, Ali Shari'ati, and Daryush Shayegan and the postrevolutionary debates between Reza Davari and Abdolkarim Sorush. They not only are open to Western intellectuals but share with them a discourse to which they contribute significantly in their turn. These thinkers, all of them central to the evolution of modern political Islam for Iran and more indirectly for radical Islam globally, very directly breath the atmosphere of a Heideggerian universe and various other sources from the mainstream of twentieth-century Western intellectual culture and political thought.1

Initially I lay out here the principal concepts and key sources by which the movement exists as a living ideology independent of those individuals who adopt it for their own purposes within a specific sociohistorical conjuncture. The key points are as follows: there is the desire to reconfigure modernity in the national context (as nativism, according to Mehrzad Boroujerdi's analysis;2 as...