Dr. Hossein Ziai is the Jahangir and Eleanor Amuzegar chair at UCLA where he is also a tenured full professor of Islamic and Iranian studies and the director of Iranian studies. He received his bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics in 1967 from Yale University, and his doctorate in Islamic philosophy from Harvard University in 1976.
Prior to his position at UCLA, Ziai taught at Tehran University, Sharif University, Harvard University, Brown University, and Oberlin College. Dr. Ziai has published several volumes and numerous articles on Islamic philosophy, especially on the Iranian/Islamic Illuminationist tradition.
Starting last week, March 21st (or the previous/following day depending on where it is observed) and proceeding for 13 days, Iranian people will celebrate Nowrūz. Nowrūz ("New Day," originally "New Light"), which marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Iranian calendar, is a traditional ancient Iranian festival which celebrates the start of the Iranian New Year.
I thought what better time to publish my interview with Dr. Ziai regarding Iran than the mark of their New Year.
Kathleen Wells: Last summer, Iran held presidential elections. What should the international community -- what should they have learned or gotten from the demonstrations that were held subsequently?
Dr. Hossein Ziai: Well, a few things. Number one, we all now know that the election was fraudulent -- blatant fraud, I put it. Number two, what started in June as a widespread grassroots reaction to the election fraud by the government has now intensified into yet another grassroots, but much more widespread and much deeper, movement. I would call it a national movement against the tyranny, the despotism, of this Islamic Republic regime that has dominated everything for 30 years in that country.
Kathleen Wells: What are your thoughts about regime change in Iran?
Dr. Ziai: Well, I mean, the current grassroots movement, known as the Green Movement, does now -- it didn't in June but does now -- want a regime change. Does want to bring about genuine, democratic reform by way of establishing a democratic state with free elections, with due process, with justice for all, economic opportunity for all, and what we all take for granted here, which is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a meaningful way. Now, whether this is going to happen in the short run, I don't know. I am very optimistic, however, given the incredible depths and breadth of this movement, that change will come about -- when, I am not sure.
However, I will add that the movement now is seen and is manifest in every city -- large, small -- in Iran, including rural areas. Certainly all of the major urban centers are all united against this despotic regime.
Kathleen Wells: So how do we in the international community, we outside of Iran, know that we are getting reliable information about what's going on inside Iran?
Dr. Ziai: That's a tough question because, since the June election -- since the June fraudulent election -- the government that is the Islamic Republic has thrown out all of the Western journalists and are now controlling every aspect of the transmission of information.
However, there are various other means, such as emails, such as the social networks like Twitter, like Facebook -- common people sending out videos, sending out voice via the internet and people on this side -- that is, outside of the Islamic Republic - [to] gather all of this information and then feed them to various web pages, where large numbers of web pages now report what is going on in Iran as best as they can.
However, since there is no free press over there -- since the West does not have free access to events by having journalists on the ground whose movements are not absolutely monitored and curtailed, and so on, (lots of the activity is actually kicked out of the country) -- it is difficult to ascertain the truthfulness of what is coming out. However, and in my opinion, I'm carefully monitoring the whole bunch of this type of news that is coming out and then taking into account the breadth of all of this.
On the whole, there is viable information as to what is going on. There's viable information that several hundreds of people have been killed under torture, viable information that several hundred people have been shot at during demonstrations. Several hundred people have been raped in prisons, both men and women, and [reports of these] repressive measures by this draconian, this despotic, regime [are] true.
Nobody's making this up. I think we are now comfortable in ascertaining the incredible intensity of abuses of human rights.
Kathleen Wells: So I gather from what you're saying that the reports of possible regime change are not exaggerated.
Dr. Ziai: Oh no, they are not exaggerated at all.
Let me just reiterate. While no one has done a statistical survey, but basing our examination on what I call exemplum analysis, which is in itself telling -- a way of ascertaining truthful aspects of movements in our systems, etc.-- we know that a great majority of the entire population of the country [of] Iran is vehemently against the Islamic Republic. Now, that is obvious. It's a tall measure. That's an incredible statement I'm making. And given that, no matter how brutal the government is, it will lose at the end. People will triumph.
Kathleen Wells: Now, some have characterized the Ahmadinejad government as a military government because the Revolutionary Guard is basically in control of the government. What is your take on this characterization?
Dr. Ziai: I think that is a very good one. Secretary Clinton today [2/15/2010] made the statement to this effect that we are observing the militarization of the Islamic Republic in an intensified manner. This is true. I'll add that we now have the poster on these, as there are Revolutionary Guard companies and groups, etc., [which] are now gaining control [of] every aspect of commerce, of industry, of communication, and so on, in that country.
For, to give you an example, the Revolutionary Guard has recently taken over -- bought is sort of a funny term here -- taken over the communications networks, all of them, in Iran -- that is, access to cell phones, access to normal telecommunications, and so on. So that in itself informs us here in the West that there is massive control by the military groups. Ahmadinejad himself is part of the Revolutionary Guard system. He's -- I don't know -- a commander or whatever rank I don't know, but he comes from within that structure, and he has appointed a large number of the Guard core personnel to key positions in the government, mainly under secretaries, a few of the ministers and certainly in every aspect of the civil service. We are now increasingly seeing the core penetrated by these appointments.
And let me give an example. Even [in] the judiciary recently, we have seen that an under secretary of the minister of the judiciary -- something like the head of the judiciary, the second person in that system -- is a Revolutionary Guard commander. I mean, where else in the world do you have a military appointed to, let's say, the judiciary? This will be like having the under secretary of -- or the second person to our attorney general to be an army general, something like that. These are very informative tidbits of information that do come out and inform us, yes, that the military is taking over -- has taken over in the Islamic Republic.
Kathleen Wells: So if change were to come to Iran, what would that change look like and would the government be secular, non-religious?
Dr. Ziai: In the ideal sense, in my opinion and in the opinion of millions and millions of Iranians, we will have a secular, democratically-elected government that respects individual freedoms, that there is a genuine judicial system that respects due process, and so on. You know, the model of a genuinely democratic republic is readily seen, and this is what millions and millions of Iranians now aspire to.
Recently, people have called for an internationally-monitored referendum, but, of course, the government -- that is the military and the government and the thugs and the police and all of the paramilitary people who have been beating people in the streets, and so on -- are vehemently against any type of a referendum because they know better than anybody else that they're in a small minority and a genuine referendum will be their end. They're never going to allow for a genuine referendum to take place.
Kathleen Wells: It's been reported that some of the ayatollahs support the Green Movement and they're opposed to the Ahmadinejad government. But do the ayatollahs actually support the Iranian people?
Dr. Ziai: Well, this is a very good question. I think there are a fair number, I would say, maybe even a large number of some of the leading clerical figures that do support the Green Movement. Ayatollah Sanei, a high-ranking clergy is one of them. Another most important, most high ranking Ayatollah Montazeri, who has recently died, was also in support of the Green Movement. And within the ranks of the clergy, I have heard, and I have seen reports to this effect, that large numbers also support the people's movement and they also are aspiring for a secular government. Because they have seen 30 years of abuse [by] this Islamic Republic, and it has really put an incredible damper on all of religion. And religion is now seen as the instrument of despotism. And, obviously, large numbers of the clergy establishment figures don't want this. And in order for them to actually -- and I heard it stated this way -- to save the institution of Shi'ite jurisprudence in Iran is to have a secular democratic state and to end the meddling of Shi'ite clergy in the actual running of [the] state.
So, to have a genuine separation of church and state, in other words.
Kathleen Wells: But the Iranian constitution is Islamic. Is that correct?
Dr. Ziai: Yes. The current constitution that we have calls for an ayatollah as the guardian jurist who's at the very top of this system, who commands everything, who is the commander in chief of the armed forces. And he appoints the judges, and he appoints this and that, and so on. Yes, this is the current state of the constitution.
But the idea for the referendum that we're talking about is to have the constitution changed, to reform the constitution, to go and fight back. You see, the current constitution is known as the second one. Right after the '79 revolution, there was a first draft of a constitution drawn which was that of a real secular state. A few of the grandest of the ayatollahs, including the late Khomeini, got together and pushed that first draft aside and drew another one, which is the current one where the clergy plays an essential role in every aspect of government and, in fact, plays a controlling role in every aspect of governance. This is what people don't want. And I would say [a] majority, perhaps, of the clergy don't want it because they have seen how much this has affected the very legitimacy of religion in the eyes of the people. People are rejecting religion because of all of these abuses, because of the rapes in prison, because of the tortures, and so on. People are reacting.
Kathleen Wells: Now I know that you have written several volumes on Islamic philosophy, especially the Iranian/Islamic Illuminationist tradition. Speak to me about that tradition because, essentially, this is a reconciliation between the traditions of Iran, which are Islamic, and coming into modernity, coming into the modern world. How can these things be reconciled?
Dr. Ziai: Well, the way that these things can be reconciled is, number one, to have a secular government. A secular, democratic government where there's a clear separation of church and state. People who want to believe in religion in every shape and form and practice it in every shape and form are free to do so. Number one.
Number two, the Illumination system we talked about is really a fusion of ancient Iranian mythos plus a synthesis of Aristotelian and Platonist systematic philosophy. It started in the 12th century and became a dominant form of philosophical writing composition and analysis. Now, mind you, when we talk about philosophy in Iran, we're not talking about a dominant trend. We're talking about marginal individuals who wrote about philosophy, who have taught about philosophical problems, and so on. But never ever were they a dominant force in the day-to-day governing of society. This never happened in Iran.
Much less so than the Western model where, during the Reformation and during the Age of Enlightenment, we do have the impact of philosophical thinking on the idea of state and statehood as well. We don't have that, unfortunately, yet in Iran. Because philosophy is a rational endeavor and rationalists ultimately believe in the actual well-defined separation of church and state. And we have observed that, where religion becomes a dominant force in governance, we have despotism as a result, and this is manifesting in the eyes of many, many people.
Kathleen Wells: So, historically, when did religion become so intertwined with government in Iran?
Dr. Ziai: Well, I would say, to the extent we're observing today, the origins of which are to be seen in several periods in history. The most recent one commences during the 16th and early 17th centuries by the coming to power of the Safavid state, who, for political reasons, made Shi'ism the state religion and unified all of Iran under Shi'ism, at the time they were fighting against the Ottoman Empire and the Ottomans were Sunnis. So, Shi'ism and state Shi'ism became an instrument for combating Sunnis' Ottoman Empire.
And from then onwards, gradually, Shi'ite institutions found their way into state craft, and during the previous regime to the last one -- which was the Pahlavi Dynasty - known as Qajar Dynasty we begin to see the institution of high-ranking religious clergy play a dominant role in religion. Now, under the Pahlavi Dynasty, there was the attempt to bring about secular reform, but, of course, there were so many other problems vis-à-vis politics, where people were never allowed to participate in the political process to the extent that a truly democratic and secular state does allow that. Then also some tensions, and so on, grew, which led to the Islamic Republic, where now religion is the dominant entity in governance. And this is what people don't want. People want a real separation of church and state.
Kathleen Wells: What time frame are we talking about when you said the reform between not having...?
Dr. Ziai: In recent years, we're talking about what has become to be known as the Reformist Movement [which] starts in the early 1990s, when a leading and self clergy, Mohammad Khatami, was elected president. He brought about the idea of reform. However, it was reform within the confines and within the structures set by the present constitution -- the reform brought about or the idea of reform put forth by Khatami, by Mohammad Khatami, who became a "dear president" of sorts, and dear also to the West because of his demeanor. He was laughing as opposed to, sort of, frowning all the time and he tried to make some reform.
However, just look at this. Reform within a set, confine, within a structure that is presupposed, within a structure that is given, is really meaningless. It's like turning around within a circle, where the contours of the circle are set and you're not allowed to go beyond. So, obviously, that curtails freedom. You cannot say, "Okay, you're free to move, but you cannot move beyond this line." That's sort of an oxymoron.
And anyhow, even the little amount of reforms that Khatami was able to bring about met a reaction by the most conservative of the clergy, especially by the leader now, who is known as the leader Khamenei, Ayatollah Khamenei. And Khatami was, in fact, pushed aside, and he has been even threatened in many ways by a group of people, by some of the thug elements within the Islamic Republic, but he has managed to survive. And he's in some ways in support of the Green Movement, the extent of which is unknown to me. But reform is no longer what can be said to be the aspiration of the millions of people who were pouring onto the streets despite the draconian measures of the Islamic Republican thugs.
Reform is no longer what people want. Maybe six months ago. People now want to bring about drastic change. People now want a democratically-elected Islamic regime put aside and a secular republic. They've -- in fact in their slogan, they are saying, "We no longer want an Islamic Republic; we want an Iranian Republic".
The attribute, even Islamic, is going out. The slogan of the people in the demonstrations is, "We want an Iranian Republic."
Kathleen Wells: And this is asking for a revolution. Would you agree?
Dr. Ziai: Well, yes, in a way I guess it is. If the elements within the Guard, that is the Revolutionary Guard, never see that it is in their own benefit, never see that it is in the benefit of Iran, of the country as a collectivity in terms of history, never see that then, yes, this is call for a revolution. And I fear, because the Green Movement is not going to die out, the Green Movement is not going to go away. Millions of people, in fact, are gaining much more of a resolve every day as we go by. And there [are] going to be more and more clashes and maybe a revolution, maybe another revolution, thinking about the drastic change that they are aspiring for.
Kathleen Wells: Last week President Ahmadinejad said that Iran is a nuclear power. Speak to me about the relevance and significance of this statement.
Dr. Ziai: That's a very dangerous statement in my view. Now, I'm not a technical person, I don't know how far they are [from] getting their hands on nuclear devices, whether they have bought nuclear devices from the old Soviet empire, and so on. All of those things, I don't know.
However, for the president of a country who aims to destroy sovereign states and has said so and it is one of his main goals and aspirations to gain access to a nuclear device and thus call his country a nuclear country, I think is very dangerous, not just for the region, but for humanity. Very few times in history do we have this type of a radical fringe element have actual control of statehood.
Ahmadinejad and his group are a minority, very radical group who believe in these millenarian, messianic types of apocalyptic ideologies. And if they are going to have their fingers on an atomic bomb, I personally would fear this tremendously.
Kathleen Wells: Do you feel that Israel is a threat to Iran or Iran a threat to Israel? Is that a way you can look at this?
Dr. Ziai: I don't see how Israel is a threat to Iran at all. Israel, as far as I can ascertain, is a very small state who has been subject of a great deal of belligerence, in my view, all unnecessary, and so on. They want to live in peace. It is a very small state in a small corner of the world and millions upon millions -- ten times, tenfold the number of citizens -- want to throw it into the sea, and so on. It's not the threat to anybody. It is the other way around. It is Iran who is saying that [we're] going to throw Israel into the sea and will destroy it, that this is a cancerous element and we're going to cut it away and it is on the way to destruction, and so on. The Israelis never come out and say that they want to throw Iran into the sea.
Kathleen Wells: Okay. I have one last question and that is: What are the misunderstandings, do you feel, that Americans have about Muslims? And how can these misunderstandings be clarified or rectified?
Dr. Ziai: Now that's a tall order that requires another talk.
However, I think the people at fault here are Muslims themselves. Obviously, there's an element called radical Islam, which I would say that a majority of Muslims themselves are against it, a radical element that believes in the ideology of death to, and kill this, and maim that. No people in their right mind -- no parts of humanity in their right minds -- want this, including the majority of Muslims.
But when I say it is the fault of Muslims themselves, I do not see -- and I would really want to see this -- that the Muslim intellectuals, that the Muslim leaders come out and take a very strong stand against this pariah radical element in Islam, whose slogan is nothing but death and destruction and darkness. We don't want that. Humanity does not want that, but we must take a stand. Muslim intellectuals, Muslim statesmen, states people, [a] majority of Muslims must take a stand and state this in very strong terms.
This radical element, by the way, is something that the Iranian people will have reacted to vehemently. One of the possible beautiful outcomes of the Green Movement, in my very educated opinion, is that it would bring about the possibility of the emergence of the culture of love to your surrounding neighbors and the end of this radical dimension and this radical culture of death and destruction. I'll tell you this: the Iranian people are fed up with this darkness. They're fed up with this stupid slogan of kill this and kill that and death to this and death to that. They don't want this anymore. And if a proper, positive change is brought about, and which I think will come about, other people in the region will see this and will emulate this. And this will be the way to produce peace in the Middle East. Without the end of radical Islam that calls for destroying and destruction and for killing and for maiming and for torturing and for raping as an ideology, we cannot have peace. Enough!
Kathleen Wells: That's a wonderful sentiment and optimistic note to leave on. I hope you're absolutely right.
Dr. Ziai: I know I am.
Kathleen Wells: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Dr. Ziai: Thank you.
Kathleen Wells is on Facebook.
Crossposted from Race-Talk.