Islamic Renaissance and Iran's Green Movement

It is no accident that most Islamic countries are governed by dictatorship, and the blame cannot be placed solely on the dominant powers that support such regimes to secure their own national interest. Politics is the interplay of power and legitimacy, and requires some relative legitimacy in social and cultural institutions. As Islam plays a major role in political legitimation in Islamic countries, we must consider that it must also assume its share of responsibility for making despotism possible.

Reaction to foreign domination, initially expressed in leftist and nationalist discourse, has become increasingly articulated through Islamic ones. But it lacks critical edge, and embraces no critique of the calls from across the Islamic world for a return to the cultural self and a defense of threatened identity. Hence, the concept of "self", fluid and contested, has been captured in a dogmatic and rigid definition. We do not 'convert' now to Islam, for example, but 'revert'. This is partly a reaction to the presence of inferiority complex in Islamic countries which are dominated by arrogant western powers. Admittedly, this has made self-criticism difficult, and seems to have exacerbated two alternative responses: the fanatical imitation of the source of the complex itself, by way of compensation (called "westoxication" in Iran) or its fanatical rejection. The latter is one of the driving forces in the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, which fiercely resists both self-reflection and dialogue. In effect, most Islamic countries are thus caught between ruling masters who worship the west and fundamentalists who despise it, and lack any plausible alternatives.

The history of the 1979 Iranian revolution, however, does offer opportunities for breaking through this apparent determinism. In the movement leading to it, Muslim thinkers had recognized that actually existing Islam in Iran had become an obstacle to the development and progress of the society. In order to clarify whether this was an "essential" problem within Islamic belief, they returned to the source, the Koran, as archaeologists of Islamic knowledge. By excavating the text anew they initiated a critical dialogue within Islam itself. Their work heralded the rebirth of Islam as a discourse of liberty and freedom, an understanding of the faith that had enjoyed a fragile status in the field of Islamic erfan (mystic philosophy). This new interpretation proved so popular in Iran that during the revolution, Khomeini was forced to affirm it, both in over 120 interviews and in the first draft of the country's post-revolutionary constitution.

Khomeini quickly distanced himself from this reading of Islam, however, and thirty months after the revolution orchestrated a coup against the elected president who demanded that Khomeini fulfill his initial commitments. After this point the Iranian revolution became synonymous with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Despite this, however, and years of oppression and suppression, democratic Islamic discourses have not been permanently buried. Most Green movement leaders, including Abdol Karim Soroush, Mohammad Shabestari and the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri ,in fact, once opposed this democratic Islamic discourse. Still, despite their major contribution to the development of an understanding of Islam that is compatible with democratic norms and values, the most original and systematic freedom-based narrative of Islam can be found in the work of Abol Hassan Banisadr, the former president of Iran who has devoted much of his life in exile to developing and expanding this narrative.

His most important contribution was to challenge the meaning of Tawhid (understood as the oneness of God), the defining factor of Islam. The traditional interpretation of the concept perceives God as an omnipotent being who cultivates a master-slave relationship with believers; hence, fear and obedience are regarded as the defining factors of faith. However, according to Banisadr, the original meaning of the term as discernible in the Koran has been replaced by its opposite through a series of historical, theological and philosophical processes. In numerous works, particularly Free Intellect, Banisadr argues that Islam is a religion of liberation from power, and that Tawhid is the condition of the absence of power between God and humans, people with each other and people with the environment. According to him, the Koran explicitly states that God has given his/her guidance to all people irrespective of their status as believers or non-believers, hence all humans are born with innate talent of leadership. It also states that no one can guide anyone but oneself - a principle of leadership that is practiced neither in Islamic nor non-Islamic countries. Tawhid, a state of liberation from faith in determinism, is accomplished through the discovery of one's own inner freedom. In other words, it is that mode of existence that liberates us from all relationships that limit and confine. The concept thus provides people with a guiding principle which is compatible with independence and freedom, and through which they may become authors of their own words, thoughts and deeds. The political implications of such a discourse are clear: they point towards dynamic and participatory democracy.

The expression of Iran's Green movement through Islamic discourses, despite the existence of nationalist and leftist discourses as well, can be understood as the popular renaissance of this interpretation of Islam, which took form during the 1979 revolution. Its success would not only hasten in the first genuine democracy in Islamic countries, but could also provide new conditions for ending the era of historical despotism and developing a liberationist Islamic renaissance there and in Islamic communities across the world.